Moral Theories and Metaethics

A moral claim is a true judgment of the morality of an action i.e. whether or not an action ought to be taken. An ethical theory is a theory that explains how moral claims are true (i.e. justifications for moral claims). A meta ethical theory (or theory of morality) is a theory of which justifications for moral claims are valid (i.e. explanations for the basis of morality). For example, utilitarianism is an ethical theory — it gives a framework for calculating which actions are moral. But utilitarianism is not a metaethical theory since it does not explain why the calculations correctly map onto morality. Nihilism is a metaethical theory since it is about which justifications for moral claims are valid, in particular, that there are no valid justifications.

This essay focuses on the metaethical side of the topic of morality, and I will present a metaethical theory: Moral Empiricism.

To lead up to the metaethical questions, first consider what sorts of moral claims there are. At first glance, there are three kinds of moral claims to consider:

  1. moral claims that are justified by some moral claims
  2. moral claims that are justified by only non-moral claims
  3. moral claims that need no justification

Note that this classification is epistemic, not metaphysical (This is because it uses “justified because of” as opposed to “true because of”. I am avoiding the metaphysics of truthmakers). In this way, the classification of moral claims into type 1 or type 2 depends on which ethical theory is used as a premise, whereas a metaphysical classification would not. For example, the truth that murder is wrong is a type 1 moral claim under the premise of Judaism (via the 10 commandments), but it is a type 2 moral claim under a utilitarianism (via a utility calculation).

A type 1 moral claims are the most common in everyday life. It’s morally wrong to hurt people and steal things because, for example, hurting people causes people to experience suffering (which is morally wrong) and stealing things causes innocent people to be worse off (which is morally wrong). Most of the time, these sorts of justifications are plenty, because it’s obvious, for some reasons, that, for example, causing people to experience suffering is morally wrong.

A type 2 moral claim appeals to some non-moral domain of truth for justification. For example, the moral claim that murder is wrong could be justified by the fact that murder is against the 10 commandments. This justification appeals to premise that the 10 commandments accurately reflect morality, which is a non-moral premise.

Note that religious justifications aren’t the only ones that fall under type 2. As another example, utilitarianism is a moral framework where the morality of an action is judged by its expected utility yield. A utilitarian could justify the moral claim that murder is wrong by saying that murder reduces expected utility. This justification appeals to the premise that utilitarianism is true, which is a non-moral premise.

A type 3 moral claim does no make any appeal at all to a justification (moral or otherwise ) – it is an axiomatic truth. For example, a non-religious person could believe in all the same moral claims as a religious person, but the non-religious person could differ from the religious person by positing the moral claims that were justified by religion as axioms instead. Trivial moral claims (such as “A is moral because A is moral”) that are true in any ethical theory are all type 3 moral claims. But it seems that non-trivial type 3 moral claims are normal inaccessible, since if they have no justification then how could anyone be convinced of a type 3 moral claim if they did not already know it to be true?

In order to figure the foundations for moral claims, it is sufficient to consider only type 2 and 3 moral claims; a chain of type 1 moral claims must eventually appeal to a type 2 or 3 moral claim or else the moral framework is inconsistent because it contains justification cycles or infinite justification chains.

Next, how many type 2 and type 3 moral claims are there? There is of course the entire class of trivial moral claims that are true in any ethical theory. But, for any ethical theory that yields more than trivial moral claims, it must also yield some type 2 moral claims.

Type 2 truths are a good place to consider some curious metaethical aspects of ethical theories. For the example of murder being wrong in utilitarianism, the chain of justification usually goes something like this:

Murder is wrong because:

  1. A murder produces X net utility (by calculation)
  2. X is negative (by inspection)
  3. A murder is an action that produces negative net utility (by 1, 2)
  4. An action that produces negative net utility is morally wrong because:
    1. Utilitarianism is true (because of course)
  5. Murder is morally wrong (by 3, 4)

In this chain, 4 is a type 2 moral claim, and 4.1 is a metaethical claim.

The key maneuver here is the claim that utilitarianism is true. Since this is a metaethical claim, it must be justified become introducing moral grounds for justification — it would be a vicious regress to claim that utilitarianism is true by appealing to another ethical theory, since now that (second order) ethical theory would now need the same sort of justification. Regardless, this is usually how that point 4.1 would be justified:

Utilitarianism is true because:

  • What, you’d prefer if there was more suffering rather than less!? It’s utilitarianism is clearly the most moral system, and you would be immoral to appose it.

Or, replace “utilitarianism” with your most favored/hated ethical theory.

Metaethical Justifications for Ethical Theories

Moral Intuitionism

One popular way to approach metaethical justification is to rely heavily on type 3 moral claims. In particular, a particular ethical theory is justified by how exactly it includes a pre-determined set of type 3 moral claims that are just true. For example, if we all just know that murder is wrong, then any ethical theory that says murder is morally good is weekend and any ethical theory that says murder is morally bad is strengthened in terms of metaethical justification.

This style of metaethical justification is moral intuitionism which states that an ethical theory is justified by how exactly is complies with type 3 moral claims that we just know to be true (i.e. our moral intuitions).

As (implicitly) popular as it is, moral intuitionism has some steep drawbacks.

  • It appears that there are many moral intuitions that are not universally shared. So, a moral relativist must choose one:
    • Accept moral relativism: moral truths are subjective (as opposed to objective), so different people can correctly believe in contradictory moral truths.
    • Reject moral relativism, which requires an account for how and why there is something inferior about the intuitions of those that do not share the true moral intuitions.
  • The correspondence between moral intuitions and moral truths is not obvious. In fact, there are plenty of cases where the same person’s moral intuitions are internally inconsistent (especially over time). So, in order to disallow inconsistent ethical theories, a moral intuitionist must account for which intuitions do and don’t correspond to moral truths and why.

Accepting Moral Relativism

The simplest response to these drawbacks is to accept moral relativism, but this has two very steep drawbacks. To accept moral relativism is to claim that all moral claims are subjective i.e. are implicitly prefixed with “for me, …” The issue with this is that, when people actually do make moral claims, the claims are not very sensical with implicit subjectivity. For example, typically when a person claims “murder is wrong,” they are not claiming that it is wrong just for them to murder, but that it is wrong for anyone to murder. Additionally, they are not claiming murder is wrong from their own perspective (though that is also true), but that murder is wrong from any perspective. To figure (with these clarifications) that they still mean their claim subjectively seems to be some sort of misunderstanding. So the first steep drawback of moral relativism is to accept this, which implies that the vast majority of moral claims are either false (since objective moral claims are false) or fundamentally misunderstood by their speakers (they think they are making an objective claim, but they are actually making a subjective one). Under this, a moral relativist must reject basically everything currently established about morality, yielding just that each person has their own correct, personal, and entirely unique ethical theory judged by their intuitions.

The second steep drawback of moral relativism is that it contradicts the usual meaning of morality itself. It is generally accepted for people to have contradicting yet subjectively-true beliefs (e.g. opinions about subjective preferences). But it seems almost nonsensical to say that there can be contradictory yet true claims about what ought to be done. For example, suppose that person P1 believes that action A ought to be done and person P2 believes that action A ought to not be done. The subjective truths are that A ought to be done (from P1’s point of view) and A ought not to be done (from P2’s point of view). These are not contradictory, because of the different points of view. The moral relativist claims that the moral conversation stops here, as there is no way to settle this difference — there is no such thing as an objective point of view by which to view moral truths, even though (in an objective reality) only A or not A can actually be done.

// TODO: really get into why moral relativism is objectionable, and justify meta*ethical justifications here.

Hierarchies of Moral Intuitions

If a moral intuitionist rejects moral relativism (i.e. they maintain that there are objective moral truths) then they must account for how to decide which moral intuition are (most likely to be) correct and why. In this direction, presenting a decision process is easy, but justifying it is very difficult.

// TODO: use this? For example, a moral intuitionist could say that those intuitions that are had in calm, low-pressure circumstances with lots of time to deliberate with other people are the most likely to be correct. This seems reasonable enough, since we can all relate to the how panicked, high-pressure circumstances can often lead to regrettable choices on any topic.

Here a moral intuitionist can make a metaphysical distinction that hasn’t been specified yet:

  • Moral intuitions are the basis on which ethical theories are justified. In this case, there is something metaphysically special about moral intuitions. So there needs to be no justification for a choice of which moral intuitions are true, since the true moral intuitions simply are the definitional basis of metaethical justification. This an unpopular position, and devolves into arguing about the definitional foundations of morality and metaethical justification, so it seems like a dead end.
  • Moral intuitions are indicators of which ethical theories are justified. In this case, moral intuitions are playing a merely epistemic role, helping people have knowledge of moral truths (in some way). So, it is easy for the moral intuitionist to explain how the circumstances for intuitions that we trust the most in general about subjects that we can objectively verify (such as logical and many physical facts) can also be reasonably trusted the most also for moral intuitions for the same reasons. However, an account of how moral intuitions given any knowledge at all about moral truths is still difficult — how do we know that moral intuitions are such indicators? This also seems like a fairly dead end, with the only escape being a vicious regress of appealing to higher-level intuitions that lower-level intuitions are indicators of the truth.

So altogether, the variety of branches that moral intuitionism provides all seem to end in weak positions.

Moral Constructivism

A tac that is more successful and much more popular than moral intuitionism is moral constructivism, which is the claim that moral truths are socially constructed and so don’t have intrinsic truthfulness. In this way, moral truths are not facts about humans in general or the physical world, but merely facts about the social organizations of particular humans (and perhaps other things).

Moral constructivism solves a lot of metaethical problems, since it gives an entire account for how ethical theories are justified, and, even better, corresponds plausibly to how ethical theories actually are justified. A moral constructivist says that a society negotiates a ethical theory, through explicit exchanges, implicit norms, etc., and at any given point there is a fact of the matter about how that society has organized itself in order to specify a moral theory.

This sounds an awful lot like moral subjectivism, but it differs very importantly. Rather than moral truths being subjective to each person via on their personal moral takes, moral constructivism appeals to an entire society’s negotiated moral stance, which is something that can be and is agreed upon by many people (especially in that society).

However, some of the problems of moral subjectivism still do leak through to some extent, where an individual’s subjective ethical theory is replaced by an individual society’s ethical theory. There is still the problem of contradicting the usual meaning of morality itself: two different societies can have clashing ethical theories that are irreconcilable, and circumstances can arise where following both ethical theories is impossible. For many societal/cultural features, this is not a huge surprise or problem. Of course there are societal differences in how people do things which seem weird when viewed from another society. But when it comes to morality, the force of “ought” is impossible to escape. If a society morally condones doing something that another society finds morally wrong, then there can be a moral obligation for conflict, as each society views their ethical theory as of course developed within their own society but still applicable everywhere. A moral constructivist maintains that we can as a society make moral judgements, but admits that to check to see if the moral judgements are correct is to do nothing more than check if they follow morality according to the norms and customs accepted by the society.

And this does not just apply to co-existent societies with contradiction moral theories. Most people accept that there has been moral progress over at least the last couple thousand years: today more people have more freedom and better lives than the people did in earlier times. Yet, for the moral constructivist, this idea of moral progress is something that only applies to the present, since the societies of the past would probably not view present society as being more moral (and many would view it as being much less moral). Never along the arc of “moral progress” does a moral constructivist see a change from a “worse” ethical theory to a “better” ethical theory, except from the point of view of our modern constructed ethical theory by which we judge the past.

This appears to contradict what most people agree on about the claim of moral progress and what has happened over threat theme period. Usually the claim of moral progress also include the claim that people in the past we wrong about certain aspects of morality and right about others. But to the moral constructivist, those people were not wrong about morality at the time, since morality was just their socially constructed system of moral rules also at the time. E.g. There’s nothing morally wrong with slavery at the time and in the places where is was accepted. Only looking back do we say that slavery is wrong now according to our modern society’s ethical theory.

Moral Empiricism

Moral empiricism is the view that the fact of which ethical theory is correct is merely an empirical fact about human nature.

Moral empiricism is similar to moral relativism in that it admits there is no ethical theory that is correct in an extra-human objective way. But it avoids many typical problems of moral relativism because it does not admit inconsistent ethical theories among humans which is (usually) the relevant group.

Moral empiricism is similar to moral constructivism in that it finds the source of morality to be human-centric as opposed to the universe in general without specific reference to humans. But is refines the constructed source of moraltiy to be in human nature rather than in more superficial societal features such as political authority, trends in moral sensibilities, etc.

Moral empiricism does not reduce to moral intuitionism, since intuitions are merely a symptom of human nature. Moral intuitions are not a part of human nature, but are caused by aspects of humans that are accounted for by the pattern of human nature. In this way, there can by certain statistical correlations between moral intuitions and the correct ethical theory as sought by empirically investigating human nature, since the influences of human nature can be invariant while other extra-human influences vary.

// TODO: Give a more specific idea of what is included in the pattern “human nature” e.g. biological patterns over time, social patters over time, etc.

// TODO: Explain why moral empiricism is compelling. Not only does it solve all these issues, but empirically it should be shown to be most closely in line with what people mean by “morality”

// TODO: more explanation of moral empiricism, and give examples and compare/contrast with other (similar) metaethical theories

// TODO: give interesting caveat about how moral empiricism allows for different ethical theories to be true for pre-humans, post-humans, and also aliens

// TODO: address problem of animals: actually, this is not so hard. We feel negligible moral sympathy for animal cruelty by other animals than we do for animal cruelty by humans, so its really about human morality still