Hi folks! Been a LessWrong lurker for a while. Here's a little project I'm excited about, which has been useful in organizing my thoughts on meta-ethics.

This piece is a walk-through of an original flowchart (made with lots of help from friends) that categorizes the major meta-ethical positions. It lays out the points where different meta-ethical theories diverge and gives a brief intro to each major theory. I think it's a nice tool for getting a sense of the broadest strokes of academic meta-ethics, and being able to hold the different theories in your head.


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Michael Huemer gives two taxonomies of metaethical views in section 1.4 of his book Ethical Intuitionism:

As the preceding section suggests, metaethical theories are traditionally divided first into realist and anti-realist views, and then into two forms of realism and three forms of anti-realism:

  /       \
 /         Intuitionism
 \              Subjectivism
  \            /
   Anti-Realism -- Non-Cognitivism

This is not the most illuminating way of classifying positions. It implies that the most fundamental division in metaethics is between realists and anti-realists over the question of objectivity. The dispute between naturalism and intuitionism is then seen as relatively minor, with the naturalists being much closer to the intuitionists than they are, say, to the subjectivists. That isn't how I see things. As I see it, the most fundamental division in metaethics is between the intuitionists, on the one hand, and everyone else, on the other. I would classify the positions as follows:

   Dualism -- Intuitionism
 /                      Subjectivism
/                      /
\          Reductionism
 \        /            \
  \      /              Naturalism
         \               Non-Cognitivism
          \             /

I'm planning to make an edit to the piece addressing the common alternate way of defining realism, such that it essentially is synonymous with objectivism. These classification schemes are really useful for me to think about when working on that, so thanks! As you can see in the first one, anti-realism is encompassing subjectivism—potentially confusing to someone who has read my piece, because I specifically classified subjectivism as a realist position! The issue is coming from the fact that your first diagram treats "realism" as meaning "moral claims are truth-apt, some are true, and the truth values of them are mind-independent" (which is basically the same as objectivism) whereas I've defined it simply as "moral claims are truth-apt and some of them are true." Both definitions are commonly acceptable I believe, and the reason I've chosen the definition I did is because I want an overarching distinction between believing in mind-dependent moral truths and mind-independent moral truths. But the other way of doing things is common enough that it needs to be addressed in the piece so as to avoid confusion.

In the first categorization scheme, I'm also not exactly sure what nihilism is referring to. Do you know? Is it just referring to Error Theory (and maybe incoherentism)? Usually non-cognitivism would fall within nihilism, no? I actually don't think either of these diagrams place Nihilism correctly.

That second diagram is pretty crazy. I don't like it haha. I'm not super well acquainted with the monism/dualism distinction, but in the common conception don't they both generally assume that morality is real, at least in some semi-robust sense? (And again, why the distinction between Nihilism and Non-Cognitivism? What is Nihilism referring to?)

Thanks so much for sharing! Super useful stuff for me to think about.

In the first categorization scheme, I'm also not exactly sure what nihilism is referring to. Do you know? Is it just referring to Error Theory (and maybe incoherentism)?

Yes, Huemer writes: "Nihilism (a.k.a. 'the error theory') holds that evaluative statements are generally false."

Usually non-cognitivism would fall within nihilism, no?

I'm not sure how the term "nihilism" is typically used in philosophical writing, but if we take nihilism=error theory then it looks like non-cognitivism wouldn't fall within nihilism (just like non-cognitivism doesn't fall within error theory in your flowchart).

I actually don't think either of these diagrams place Nihilism correctly.

For the first diagram, Huemer writes "if we say 'good' purports to refer to a property, some things have that property, and the property does not depend on observers, then we have moral realism." So for Huemer, nihilism fails the middle condition, so is classified as anti-realist. For the second diagram, see the quote below about dualism vs monism.

I'm not super well acquainted with the monism/dualism distinction, but in the common conception don't they both generally assume that morality is real, at least in some semi-robust sense?

Huemer writes:

Here, dualism is the idea that there are two fundamentally different kinds of facts (or properties) in the world: evaluative facts (properties) and non-evaluative facts (properties). Only the intuitionists embrace this.

Everyone else is a monist: they say there is only one fundamental kind of fact in the world, and it is the non-evaluative kind; there aren't any value facts over and above the other facts. This implies that either there are no value facts at all (eliminativism), or value facts are entirely explicable in terms of non-evaluative facts (reductionism).

Thanks, I really like this. There are a lot of positions within moral philosophy and it's easy to get lost among them. This seems like a handy way to help build the intuitions about how the positions cleave theory space.

Epistemic status[1]: Do meta-ethics matter? (see below), and what does it mean for something to be empirical if it can't be verified?


Ethics can have a basis for going from is to ought, whether or not that base is justified*, which can render later** judgements 'empirical'. But people can lie, especially in favor of what they prefer being ethical, when they are not going from 'ethics' to 'action'.

*What does it means for an ethical basis to be justified?


Further Contents

1. Conditional Judgements

2. Understanding intent (of message, of speaker)

3. Ethics 'provide' a way to get from 'is' to 'ought'. (see also: 6.)

4. (Turning one ethical statement into another.)

5. Subjectivism and the Death Penalty

6. Ethical decision making, or justification? (continues 3)

1. Conditional Judgements

But there is still a fact about what the speaker is actually experiencing. It’s possible she might not dislike stealing, for example—maybe after robbing a bank I get caught by the cops, and in a pitiful attempt at deceiving them I exclaim, “I don’t even like stealing!”

Or someone could like stealing conditional on getting away with it.

  • Such a thing can (in theory) be determined about a specific event - particularly after the fact, based on whether or not they were caught.
  • With more difficulty, and some assumptions, this could be translated from a binary statement into one of:
  • -- probability (of getting caught) or
  • -- a statement about expected utility, though these approaches seems odd.

2. Understanding intent (of message, of speaker)

The question of what a speaker intends to communicate when they make a moral claim is an empirical question, and I think it’s safe to say that different people mean a variety of different things when they make moral claims. So I don’t think it makes sense to unreservedly jump on board with a conclusion about how to correctly interpret all moral claims. Someone can always come along and be like “Actually, when I make a moral claim I mean something totally different from what your theory says I mean,” and I guess you could just insist that they are lying or very confused about their own internal experience, but that seems like a silly thing to commit yourself to doing all the time.

Classify such statements as emotive or subjective. (Perhaps someone can say "I see the sky as red" and have this be empirically true - it is still (or was) subjective.) Does emotive include the empirical? (It seems to include a notion about meaning being encoded in the act of saying or doing something, and a person saying something true is also an act.)

3. Ethics 'provide' a way to get from 'is' to 'ought'.

Do you think that you have ever made a moral claim that turned out to be false? Think back over the course of your life, maybe to when you were a child. If you can recall a time when you made a moral claim that you feel you later learned was wrong (you didn’t just change your mind, but discovered the claim to be false) that’s an indicator that you think of your moral claims as truth-apt.

Or there's an ethical "basis" of some form like:

Suffering is bad. (Ethical)

X is bad. (Empirical aspect: Does it lead to suffering? More suffering than the alternative?)

4. (Turning one ethical statement into another.)

This statement has the capacity to be true or false (and I actually think it’s false, but we’ll get to that later), so it is a truth-apt statement.

Compromise: Lies should be held to a higher stand than truth. (Caveat: in some circumstances.)

5. Subjectivism and the Death Penalty

The aspiring subjectivist might have some bullets to bite when they consider the existence of people generally considered to be really bad. If a psychopath believes murder is good, then is it really true that murder is the right thing for him to do?

This relies on an condition, that seems to be mentioned out of proportion to its frequency. For something that might be more common, some people are in favor of the death penalty (at least for certain crimes, if a certain standard of evidence is reached, etc).

6. Ethical decision making, or justification? (continues 3)

You might worry about the fact that relativism doesn’t seem to allow for moral progress over time.

If morality is 'determined' by some fact, then what is moral may not be about 'slavery' but instead about how a given practice measures up to that standard. From Wikipedia's Proving Too Much:

The Georgia-born American educator Henry Coppée in 1850 described in his "Elements of Rhetoric" that if one argues that slavery is evil because masters are put into situations where they can beat slaves to death, then marriage and parenthood are also evil because domestic violence exists.

On this basis, the argument (above) could be furthered on the grounds that if violence exceeds some threshold, then the practice should be abolished/made illegal/etc., and then argue in favor of 'current standards' that slavery exceeds this amount while marriage and parenthood do not. But if data is never examined, and all that is taking place is justification, then a claim that empirically based morality/etc. is occurring is false, and the activity is rendered somewhat inauthentic. And without a way to determine whether or not someone is telling the truth, why should their statements be taken as "empirical"?

[1] This phrase has nothing to do with the meaning of the constituent words.