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Morals, Ethics, and Metaethics   G. E. Moore

Abstract: Prescriptive ethics is distinguished from descriptive ethics, and metaethics is characterized.

I. Although different writers use the words "ethics" and "morals" in different senses, in this course we will make the following distinctions in order to avoid fallacies of equivocation in ethical arguments.


A. Descriptive Ethics or Morals: a study of human behavior as a consequence of beliefs about what is right or wrong, or good or bad, insofar as that behavior is useful or effective. In a sense, morals is the study of what is thought to be right and what is generally done by a group, society, or a culture. In general, morals correspond to what actually is done in a society.



1. Morals is best studied as psychology, sociology, or anthropology. Different societies have different moral codes.



2. Morals is a descriptive science; it seeks to establish "what is true" in a society or group.



3. Often morals are considered to be the shared ideals of a group, irrespective of whether they are practiced.



4. In the sense of descriptive ethics or morals, different persons, groups, and societies have different moral standards. This observation is seen as true by all sides.




a. We would commit the fallacy of equivocation to conclude from this observation that there is no universal ethical (q.v., below under I, B) standard.




b. We can only conclude by observation that there appears to be or is no universal moral standard.  For more on this distinction see the notes on the Case Study: Moral Rules and Ethical Standards.




c. This confusion between descriptive and prescriptive ethics occurs quite often by persons untrained in philosophical analysis. Isaac Asimov got it right when he wrote, "Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what's right."


B. Normative Ethics or Prescriptive Ethics: the study of moral problems which seeks to discover how one ought to act, not how one does in fact act or how one thinks one should act.



1. More specifically, (normative) ethics is the discipline concerned with judgments of setting up norms for ...




a. When an act is right or wrong--e.g., is it wrong to liter on campus when we pay someone to pick up the litter.




b. What kinds of things are good or desirablei.e., is knowledge to ge sought for its own sake or for money; is money to be sought for its own sake or for power? And so on.




c. When a person deserves blame, reward, or neithere.g., a person who stole your wallet returns it intact two weeks later, how doe you judge his actions? What is appropriate to say?



2. From the terms introduced so far, you can see that different things can be meant by the terms: ethical, unethical, moral, immoral, nonmoral, amoral, and nonethical.




E.g., how would you describe the action of a mechanic who throws a tire iron over in a corner after changing a tire? Think about probable consequences both mental and physical.


C. Metaethics or Analytical Ethics: the discipline concerned with elucidating the meaning of ethical terms or the discipline concerned with the comparison of ethical theories.



1. Metaethics is an analytical inquiry. Metaethics asks, "What is _____?" e.g., goodness, excellence, right, amoral, and so on.



2. That we ordinarily do not agree on the meaning of common ethical terms can be easily seen by the following quiz.




a. Is the meaning of "ethical concern" clear? Let us define ethical concern as describing an action which can help or harm persons (including ourselves).




b. Which of the following situations would you look upon as a matter of ethical concern?





1. Slipping an ace from the bottom of the deck in order to win an informal game of cards.





2. Arriving late for ethics class.





3. Jaywalking after looking both ways to make sure its clear.





4. Keeping your car washed.





5. Keeping your car in good running condition.





6. Drinking a coke between classes.





7. Doing two hours work for eight hours pay.





8. Attending a boring ethics class.





9. Drinking a beer after a difficult test, if you are over 21 years old.





10. "Borrowing" a pencil or paper in order to take a test.




c. With some thought, it can be easily seen that all these situations have the possibility to help or harm others (including ourselves) and so would be of ethical concern.

II. Lets briefly look at a particular example of metaethics: G. E. Moores analysis of "good" in Principia Ethica


A. If one can develop a set of principles for distinguishing between good and bad conduct, we must be able to understand what "good" means.



Consider the ten situations above. If we cannot agree on what situations are of ethical concern, then our ethical theory would be worthless.


B. One way to start is to ask what all good things have in common.



1. Moore answers the term "good" cannot be defined in any other terms as, for example, "brother" can be defined as "male sibling."



2. Moore concludes good is a simple quality, like the color yellow; it cannot be defined in any other terms. If you dont already know what it means, you cannot explain it to anyone.



3. The Naturalistic Fallacy: defining an ethical term (prescriptive) in terms of a descriptive equivalent. Compare, for example, the definition of "yellow" with respect to a certain frequency of light. We know what yellow is even though we do not know that it has a frequency, and even if we did know the frequency, it would not be an adequate definition.

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