Edited by Daniel Star (Boston University)
About this topic

Metaethics (or Meta-ethics) is that part of philosophy concerned with the ultimate status and grounding of ethics, whether in external metaphysical terms, or in internal, psychological terms. It is commonly contrasted with Normative Ethics (the part of philosophy devoted to elucidating and defending very general ethical principles), and Applied Ethics (which is devoted to offering and defending solutions to practical moral problems). Questions that arise about the external status and possible grounding of ethics include: are there ethical facts (e.g. facts about what we morally ought to do), independent of mental attitudes and social norms? if so, what is the best metaphysical account of such facts? Regarding the internal status and possible grounding of morality, questions include: how are moral judgments related to psychological motivation? when, if at all, do they constitute knowledge? if the status of ethics is not grounded in facts external to human psychology, how might we best understand ethical truth claims? This division of metaethics into external and internal dimensions is only intended to be rough and ready. The study of moral language seems, prima facie, to bridge the internal and external (how are units of moral language related to the world and to our moral judgments?), and it isn’t clear where we might best fit the topic of moral responsibility (when, if at all, can we be held morally responsible for our actions?). Less obviously, it has become a crucial, although far from universally held, view in contemporary metaethics that even if there are external ethical facts, internal psychological conditions may impose strict limits on which facts provide us with normative reasons. Reasons internalists hold, while reasons externalists deny, that an entity can only be a reason for action if it stands in a suitable relationship to an agent’s (deliberatively idealized) motivational states (Williams 1979). A closely related internalism about moral judgements (that they necessarily motivate us, assuming we are rational) is commonly also construed as a premise in an argument for non-cognitivism, which has it that ethical judgments are not purely representational states but necessarily contain a motivational component. As with the literature on reasons and deliberation, the literature on non-cognitivism is vast, and much of it is dedicated to overcoming certain philosophical problems that non-cognitivism appears to face. But the moral realism that would reject non-cognitivism also faces many objections, as does moral error theory which, like moral realism but unlike non-cognitivism, takes moral talk and thought at face value, yet contends all moral judgments are, by their nature, untrue.

Introductions Shafer-Landau 2003 ; Schroeder 2010; van Roojen 2015
In this area

History/traditions: Meta-Ethics