Analyzing Non-Cognitivism and Other Meta-Ethical Theories of Morality

Updated on August 18, 2018
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Luke Holm earned bachelor degrees in English and Philosophy from NIU. He is a middle school teacher and a creative writer.

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Meta-ethical Theories of Morality

In this article I will discuss, define, and show why a certain theory of ethical morality holds more grandeur than other ethical theories of morality. More specifically, I will prove that the non-cognitivist form of moral nihilism is the most correct theory of morality. In juxtaposition with this attempt, I will provide an analysis of four other moral theories and display why they fall short of the excellence of a non-cognitivist theory of morality. The other theories, in order, are subjectivism, relativism, error theory, and ethical objectivism. After I have discussed these, I will display why non-cognitivism is the most correct theory of morality to adopt.

Fallacy of Ethical Subjectivism

Let us begin with the theories of subjectivism and relativism and why these theories fall short because of each other. A theory of ethical subjectivism makes the claim that there are moral truths and that each person has a final say as to what these truths may be. This means that if subjectivism is the correct moral theory to believe, each individual person has a final say in what moral truth is.

In a way, all moral commitments would be true. The person who believes it is morally permissible to have an abortion is just as morally correct as is the person who believes that it is wrong to have an abortion. This, however, seems like a flawed theory of morality, for it seems, at least intuitively, that sometimes people are mistaken about their own moral truth. As we can see, there must be a problem with this theory, because obviously the pro-abortion person is going to disagree with the anti-abortion person. It seems, then, that people cannot turn to their own inner workings to decipher whether or not something is ethical.

The ethical subjectivism theory suggests that morality is determined by the individual. This is wrong because two people might have contradicting beliefs, thus failing to agree upon a principle of morality.

Fallacy of Ethical Relativism

If people cannot trust their own intuition as to what a correct moral judgment may be, then perhaps they can turn to their society, because, hey, if my society says it is alright, then it must be, right? Wrong. This form or reasoning would be considered relativism. Like subjectivism, relativism fails to be the most correct theory of morality because of contradiction.

In The Argument from Moral Disagreement, there is a society saying slavery is wrong and there is another society saying slavery is morally permissible. Here, both societies cannot be correct about their moral claims. It is simple enough to say that if you find a contradiction in the discipline of philosophy then you must revisit and take into careful consideration the notion that the theory you are working with is not the most correct theory that can be found.

The ethical relativism theory suggests that morality is determined by the state. This is wrong because two societies might have different laws, thus failing to agree upon a principle of morality.

Fallacy of Ethical Error Theory

Next comes the opposing nihilistic view of error theory. Error theory makes the claim that our moral commitments are always mistaken. The error theorist believes that there are evaluative statements that are truth-apt, but that these statements are always false. When a person makes a moral judgment, she ascribes an actual moral property to an act or object, yet there are no moral properties. So, all first-order moral judgments are false. This is the most nihilistic view of the theories of morality being discussed and is often derived from a proof called The Argument from Moral Error.

The error theorist postulates that if non-cognitivism, subjectivism, or relativism is true, then no one’s/society’s moral commitments can ever be mistaken. However, it seems that moral commitments sometimes are mistaken. This can easily be shown in cases of genocide or slave ownership in which the society, government, or person feels that the actions they performing are morally permissible. So, says an error theorist, non-cognitivism, subjectivism, and relativism are false, because basic moral commitments sometimes are mistaken.

Although it initially seems that the error theorist has successfully attacked the other theories, a fatal flaw emerges if it is evaluated closely. For any of these theories, we must take into consideration alpha or the real world. For, in the real world, it seems as though we sometimes have correct moral commitments. One way to show this is to reason with The Argument from Moral Progress.

The ethical error theory suggests that a ideas of morality are mistaken. This is wrong because, over time, society has come to know a deeper sense of morality. This suggests that a principle of morality does exist.

The Argument from Moral Progress

In this argument we take the world as it is today into consideration and look to see if we have made moral progress throughout the years. The Argument from Moral Progress states that one can make moral progress only by reference to some fixed standard of comparison. However, the error theorist makes the claim that any such fixed standard would obviously be false. So, if error theory were true, there can be no moral progress. Yet, there seems to be moral progress.

Take, for example, the social standards of society that believes killing and stealing are wrong. It seems as though killing and stealing are wrong and that at one point in human existence there would not have been a dispute about these things. Another example is that of slave ownership. Since it is a general notion that living free is the optimal way to live one’s life, it again seems as though we have progressed since the days of slavery. If there has been moral progress, then someone has been correct about a moral statement. And if someone has been correct about at least one moral statement or judgment, then error theory must not be the most correct theory to conform one’s beliefs to.

Fallacy of the Ethical Objectivism

Let us take into consideration, then, that there are objective moral standards that define good and evil. This is the view that the ethical objectivist would adopt. This notion goes entirely against any nihilistic notions of morality, for not only do objectivists believe that there are true evaluative statements, but that there are also objective moral truths.

This theory is often times an unclear theory, since it begs the question as to where these objective moral standards come from. Since we have already ruled out that trusting the basic moral principles of the self, or of society, end in conflict, we must then turn to a higher power. The higher power that holds these objective moral values could be said to be God.

There you have it, whatever God says is morally good is morally good, right? Not quite. The question of whether God deems something good because it is good or whether it is good because he says it is good is still a problem. This problem is called the Euthyphro problem and it arises in Plato’s Republic when Socrates and Euthyphro discuss piety. Since we cannot be sure as to whether something is good because God says it is good or whether something is good because it is good, we must exclude God as a factor in our debate. If we exclude the existence of God, we get The Argument from Atheism. The Argument from Atheism makes the claim that objective morality requires the existence of God. But, in either a ruled out circumstance or in a reality in which there is no God, atheists claim that there is no God. So, therefore, the Atheist would say, there are no objective moral truths.

The ethical objectivist theory suggests that morality does exist, and that what is moral is transcribed by God. This is an unacceptable position to take for two reasons: the Euthyphro problem and Atheism. The Euthyphro problem questions morality as something intrinsically moral or delineated by God. Whereas Atheists do not believe in God, but can still act morally. Both cases digress into unclear principles of morality.

The Ethical Non-Cognitivist Theory of Morality

By now you may be asking yourself, what, then, is the most correct theory of morality? The answer is a non-cognitivist approach to morality and it excludes the general notion of morality which has been discussed prior to this statement.

Non-cognitivism is a form of nihilism and makes the claim that moral judgments are not capable of being either true or false. For the non-cognitivist, the claim that abortion is wrong is neither a claim that states 'I think abortion is wrong,' nor the claim that states 'abortion is wrong.' To the non-cognitivist, such statements are devoid of any truth value. For non-cognitivists, moral statements are not propositions which can be truth-apt, they are merely devices which people or societies have constructed in order to influence others to adopt their view of a certain moral dilemma.

In Charles Stevenson’s view of non-cognitivism, he states that moral judgments do not report facts, but create an influence (Markie 458). “When you tell a man that he oughtn’t to steal, your object isn’t merely to let him know that people [societies] disapprove of stealing. You are attempting, rather, to get him to disapprove of it” (458). Stevenson goes on to display that using ethical terms, those of right and wrong, are like using instruments in the complicated interplay and readjustment of human interests. In a non-cognitivist point of view, saying abortion is wrong is like saying, “Abortion--boo!."

The ethical non-cognitivist theory suggests that any sense of morality is a play on words meant to persuade a third party. According to this theory, all previous theories may as well be postulates of children; having no real principle in fundamental reality.

All Moral Theories are Flawed

If reflected upon, it seems correct to say that any moral statement is merely an attempt to get others to adopt your moral view. Since either everyone or every society is looking out for their best interest, the statement that morality is a persuasive instrumental technique to sway the minds of others should not seem so odd. And for those who still hesitate to believe that morality is a human construction created in order to influence others, think about morality on a subatomic level.

This is the fundamental existence of reality. On this level, there is no right or wrong, no good or bad. There just is. However, if one is pushed so far as to generate these statements, it is likely that the pusher will never understand what this theory of morality proposes in the first place.

And in the off chance case that someone makes the claim that this theory contradicts itself, it is likely that they are speaking of the proposition of the theory and not the moral statement of the claim. An example of this is the critique of the statement “moral judgments are not truth-apt.” One could say that this statement represents a truth and is therefore contradicting itself. While this may be true in the context being debated, the debater should remember that this theory is proposed for moral judgments and not for propositional statements such as the one the theory presents.


Humans Create Morality to Persuade Others

In conclusion I have argued that subjectivism and relativism should not be accepted notions of morality because they contradict each other. Also, error theory and ethical objectivism fall short on their own accord when attempting to display some set proposition about objective principles of morality. With this being said, the article concludes that non-cognitivism is the best solution to the problem of morality. There is no morality in the sense which the other theories speculate upon. Morality is merely a persuasive construct which humans or societies use as a device to influence the minds of others.

Crash Course: Meta-ethics

© 2018 JourneyHolm


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