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Let’s Get Meta!

by Rick Lewis

Well, you’ve heard of metaphysics but what on Earth, you may be thinking, is metaethics? Apart from it being the main theme of this issue, that is.

Ethics is a vast subject and vitally important, for it deals with how we should live our lives, with our values and who we want to be, with the choices we have to make, and above all with how we should treat one another. It includes famous systems of morality such as Kantian deontology, Utilitarianism, Virtue Ethics, and indeed Christian and other faith-based ethical systems. Metaethics, in turn, is the philosophy of how we think about ethics.

Metaethics considers fundamental questions underpinning all debates about ethics. These include the status of the language in which we express ethical judgments. (Our opening article, by Justin Bartlett, is about this). When we express a moral judgment, are we attempting to describe an actual state of affairs, or is it more about expressing our emotions, such as approval or disapproval? Are there actually any moral facts, independent of us and somehow built into the structure of the universe, waiting out there for us to discover? Or does morality only rest on subjective feelings and interests? This brings us also to moral relativism: Is ethics universal, or does talking about right and wrong only make sense within the framework of a particular culture or historical period with its own particular rules and values? And even then, is ethics about reasoning or is it about accepting rules given from above? Is the idea of a moral authority (whether it is a priest, a headteacher, a parent or even God) even coherent? Plato criticised the idea of divinely-given ethical rules with his famous Euthyphro dilemma, as you can read in Michael-John Turp’s article. Was he right? All of these questions, and many others too, are what we call metaethics.

Some believe that ethics is all about moral rules. There are plenty to choose from: Moses’ Ten Commandments; Immanuel Kant’s famous Categorical Imperative (“treat others as ends in themselves, not merely as means to your own ends”); the Utilitarians urging you to act so as to create the greatest happiness of the greatest number; and many more. But then what is the status of metaethics? I suppose you could see it as being about the rules behind the rules of ethics. How meta is that? By rules obviously I don’t mean guidelines that ethicists have to obey or else get slapped on the wrist by the Professor of Moral Philosophy. I mean rules more like laws of nature, or like the rules of mathematics or logic. But they would still constrain what it is possible to meaningfully say when we talk about ethics. This idea of metaethics being about clarifying the rules behind or underpinning ethics reminds me a little of a scene near the beginning of the classic 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Butch (played by Paul Newman) faces an unexpected challenge for the leadership of the Hole In The Wall Gang from one of his fellow outlaws, named Harvey Logan. Harvey insists on settling the question by means of a knife fight. He pulls out a knife and calls on Butch to do likewise, as the rest of the gang gather round:

Butch: [walking towards Harvey] “No, not yet. Not until me and Harvey get the rules straightened out.”

Harvey: [dropping his guard and looking outraged] “ Rules? In a knife fight? No rules!”

[As he is still speaking, Butch kicks him in the crotch. He crumples.]

Butch: “Well if there ain’t gonna be any rules, let’s get the fight started. Someone count one two three go.”

– from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

So before we start any ferocious arguments about ethics, do we need to get the underlying rules straightened out? Or should it be a free for all? You can decide!

Jay Sanders

I would like to express publicly my deepest thanks to Jay Sanders, Philosophy Now’s advertising manager, who is retiring. He joined us in a time of crisis for the magazine back in 2006. His resourcefulness, wise advice, cheerful stoicism, friendship and dauntless patient efforts ever since have enabled the rest of us to carry on sitting here wittering merrily to you and to each other about moral philosophy and movie stars. For this we are very grateful. Jay’s extremely able successor is Lisa Pearce.

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