If you say, "Killing people is wrong," that's morality.  If you say, "You shouldn't kill people because God prohibited it," or "You shouldn't kill people because it goes against the trend of the universe", that's metaethics.

    Just as there's far more agreement on Special Relativity than there is on the question "What is science?", people find it much easier to agree "Murder is bad" than to agree what makes it bad, or what it means for something to be bad.

    People do get attached to their metaethics.  Indeed they frequently insist that if their metaethic is wrong, all morality necessarily falls apart.  It might be interesting to set up a panel of metaethicists—theists, Objectivists, Platonists, etc.—all of whom agree that killing is wrong; all of whom disagree on what it means for a thing to be "wrong"; and all of whom insist that if their metaethic is untrue, then morality falls apart.

    Clearly a good number of people, if they are to make philosophical progress, will need to shift metathics at some point in their lives.  You may have to do it.

    At that point, it might be useful to have an open line of retreat—not a retreat from morality, but a retreat from Your-Current-Metaethic.  (You know, the one that, if it is not true, leaves no possible basis for not killing people.)

    And so I've been setting up these lines of retreat, in many and various posts, summarized below.  For I have learned that to change metaethical beliefs is nigh-impossible in the presence of an unanswered attachment.

    If, for example, someone believes the authority of "Thou Shalt Not Kill" derives from God, then there are several and well-known things to say that can help set up a line of retreat—as opposed to immediately attacking the plausibility of God.  You can say, "Take personal responsibility! Even if you got orders from God, it would be your own decision to obey those orders.  Even if God didn't order you to be moral, you could just be moral anyway."

    The above argument actually generalizes to quite a number of metaethics—you just substitute Their-Favorite-Source-Of-Morality, or even the word "morality", for "God".  Even if your particular source of moral authority failed, couldn't you just drag the child off the train tracks anyway?  And indeed, who is it but you, that ever decided to follow this source of moral authority in the first place?  What responsibility are you really passing on?

    So the most important line of retreat is the one given in The Moral Void:  If your metaethic stops telling you to save lives, you can just drag the kid off the train tracks anyway.  To paraphrase Piers Anthony, only those who have moralities worry over whether or not they have them.  If your metaethic tells you to kill people, why should you even listen?  Maybe that which you would do even if there were no morality, is your morality.

    The point being, of course, not that no morality exists; but that you can hold your will in place, and not fear losing sight of what's important to you, while your notions of the nature of morality change.

    Other posts are there to set up lines of retreat specifically for more naturalistic metaethics.  It may make more sense where I'm coming from on these, once I actually present my metaethic; but I thought it wiser to set them up in advance, to leave lines of retreat.

    Joy in the Merely Real and Explaining vs. Explaining Away argue that you shouldn't be disappointed in any facet of life, just because it turns out to be explicable instead of inherently mysterious: for if we cannot take joy in the merely real, our lives shall be empty indeed.

    No Universally Compelling Arguments sets up a line of retreat from the desire to have everyone agree with our moral arguments.  There's a strong moral intuition which says that if our moral arguments are right, by golly, we ought to be able to explain them to people.  This may be valid among humans, but you can't explain moral arguments to a rock.  There is no ideal philosophy student of perfect emptiness who can be persuaded to implement modus ponens, starting without modus ponens.  If a mind doesn't contain that which is moved by your moral arguments, it won't respond to them.

    But then isn't all morality circular logic, in which case it falls apart?  Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom and My Kind of Reflection explain the difference between a self-consistent loop through the meta-level, and actual circular logic.  You shouldn't find yourself saying "The universe is simple because it is simple", or "Murder is wrong because it is wrong"; but neither should you try to abandon Occam's Razor while evaluating the probability that Occam's Razor works, nor should you try to evaluate "Is murder wrong?" from somewhere outside your brain.  There is no ideal philosophy student of perfect emptiness to which you can unwind yourself—try to find the perfect rock to stand upon, and you'll end up as a rock.  So instead use the full force of your intelligence, your full rationality and your full morality, when you investigate the foundations of yourself.

    The Gift We Give To Tomorrow sets up a line of retreat for those afraid to allow a causal role for evolution, in their account of how morality came to be.  (Note that this is extremely distinct from granting evolution a justificational status in moral theories.)  Love has to come into existence somehow—for if we cannot take joy in things that can come into existence, our lives will be empty indeed.  Evolution may not be a particularly pleasant way for love to evolve, but judge the end product—not the source.  Otherwise you would be committing what is known (appropriately) as The Genetic Fallacy: causation is not the same concept as justification.  It's not like you can step outside the brain evolution gave you:  Rebelling against nature is only possible from within nature.

    The earlier series on Evolutionary Psychology should dispense with the metaethical confusion of believing that any normal human being thinks about their reproductive fitness, even unconsciously, in the course of making decisions.  Only evolutionary biologists even know how to define genetic fitness, and they know better than to think it defines morality.

    Alarming indeed is the thought that morality might be computed inside our own minds—doesn't this imply that morality is a mere thought?  Doesn't it imply that whatever you think is right, must be right?  Posts such as  Does Your Morality Care What You Think? and its predecessors, Math is Subjunctively Objective and Probability is Subjectively Objective, set up the needed line of retreat:  Just because a quantity is computed inside your head, doesn't mean that the quantity computed is about your thoughts. There's a difference between a calculator that calculates "What is 2 + 3?" and "What do I output when someone presses '2', '+', and '3'?"

    And finally Existential Angst Factory offers the notion that if life seems painful, reductionism may not be the real source of your problem—if living in a world of mere particles seems too unbearable, maybe your life isn't exciting enough on its own?

    If all goes well, my next post will set up the metaethical question and its methodology, and I'll present my actual answer on Monday.

    And if you're wondering why I deem this business of metaethics important, when it is all going to end up adding up to moral normality... telling you to pull the child off the train tracks, rather than the converse...

    Well, there is opposition to rationality from people who think it drains meaning from the universe.

    And this is a special case of a general phenomenon, in which many many people get messed up by misunderstanding where their morality comes from.  Poor metaethics forms part of the teachings of many a cult, including the big ones.  My target audience is not just people who are afraid that life is meaningless, but also those who've concluded that love is a delusion because real morality has to involve maximizing your inclusive fitness, or those who've concluded that unreturned kindness is evil because real morality arises only from selfishness, etc.

    But the real reason, of course...

    New Comment
    20 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

    If you say, "Killing people is wrong," that's morality.

    It seems to me that few people simply say, "Killing people is wrong." They usually say, if asked for possible exceptions, "Killing people is wrong, except if you're a soldier fighting a legitimate war, a police officer upholding the law, a doctor saving a patient from needless suffering and pain, an executioner for a murderer who has had a fair trial, a person defending himself or herself from violent and deadly attackers ..." It seems that most of the debate is over these exceptions. How do we resolve debate over the exceptions without recourse to metamorality?

    Peter, most of the reasons people give for making exceptions are not themselves meta. For most of the examples you give, the intuitive justification is something along the lines of "the reason killing is wrong is that life is valuable, and in these cases not killing would involve valuing life less than killing would." Nothing meta there.

    Here's my metamorality. Using these terms broadly, law is to a community as will is to an individual, and law is to an environment as desire is to an anatomy. Good is communal law congruent with individual will, anatomical desire and environmental law. Joy is individual will congruent with communal law, environmental law and anatomical desire. Pleasure is anatomical desire congruent with environmental law, communal law and individual will. Order is environmental law congruent with anatomical desire, individual will and communal law. Evil, misery, pain and chaos are incongruencies among communal laws, individual wills, anatomical desires and environmental laws.

    Peter, most of the reasons people give for making exceptions are not themselves meta. For most of the examples you give, the intuitive justification is something along the lines of "the reason killing is wrong is that life is valuable, and in these cases not killing would involve valuing life less than killing would." Nothing meta there.

    Aaron, I don't see how your proposal resolves debate over exceptions. For example, consider abortion. Presumably both sides on the abortion debate agree that life is valuable.

    Okay, so morality can be computed within my brain but still have a meaning regarding things outside my brain. But in order to do that, my brain's sense of morality has to be entangled with something outside my brain. What is it entangled with?

    Oh yay! Do tell! I'm very interested to here your metemoral philosophy... Before you started posting on morality, I thought the topic a general waste of time since people would always be arguing cross-purposes, and in the end it was all just atoms anyway... Your explanation of metemorality helps to explain why all these moral philosophies are in disagreement, yet converge on many of the same conclusions, like 'killing for its own sake is wrong' (which people do decide to do- two students from my high school riddled a pizza delivery boy with bullets just to watch him die). I am wondering what universals can be pulled out of this...

    I said it somewhere else, but... it seems like Caledonian’s sole purpose in life is to disagree with Eliezer whenever possible. Reminds me of a quote from Stephen King:

    "These days if Stu Redman said a firetruck was red, Harold Lauder would produce facts and figures proving that most of them these days were green."

    Just exchange Stu Redman for Eliezer, and Harold for Caledonian…

    I'll be interested to see what your metamorality is. The one thing that I think has been missing so far from the discussion is the question that without some metamorality, what language do we have to condemn someone else who chooses a different morality from ours? Obviously you can't argue morality into a rock, but we're not trying to do that, only argue it into another human who shares fundamentally similar architecture, but not necessarily morality.

    Moreover, to say that one can abandon a metamorality without affecting one's underlying morality doesn't imply that society as a whole can ditch a particular metamorality (eg Judeo-Christian worldviews) and still expect the next generation's morality to stay unchanged. If you explicitly reject any metamorality, why should your children bother to listen to what you say anyway? Isn't their morality just as good as yours?

    It may be possible that religious metamorality serve as a basis to inculcate a particular set of moral teachings, which only then allows the original metamorality to be abandoned. eg It causes at least some of the population to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, when they otherwise might not have done the right thing at all.


    Richard, I don't know anything about moral theorists, but this series of posts has helped me understand my own beliefs better than anything I've ever read, and they've coalesced mostly while reading this post. "Meta" was a concept missing from my toolbox, at least in the case of morality, and Eliezer's pointing it out has been immensely productive for me.

    behemoth, I think the point you make about the second generation is an important one. Because children are both irrational and bad at listening to their intuitions when it's inconvenient to do so, having some form of metamorality is useful to serve as a vessel for morality. The problem is, in doing that, people bind the vessel and its contents, and can't pour the contents into some other vessel if theirs turns out to be leaky. Which is why rationalism is important.

    Please don't feed the troll.

    What is "philosophical progress"?

    No! The problem is not reductionism, or that morality is or isn't about my brain! The problem is that what morality actually computes is "What should you feel-moral about in order to maximize your genetic fitness in the ancestral environment?". Unlike math, which is more like "What axioms should you use in order to develop a system that helps you in making a bridge?" or "What axioms should you use in order to get funny results?". I care about bridges and fun, not genetic fitness.

    Actually, "Whatever turns y'all on" is a pretty damn good morality. Because it makes sense on an intuitive level (it looks like what selfishness would be if other people were you). Because it doesn't care too much where your mind comes from, as it maximizes whatever turns you on. Because it mostly adds up to normality. Possibly because it's what I used, so I'm biased. Though I don't think you quite get normality - killing is a minor offense here, because people don't get to experience it.

    Is there a reason for the term "metamorality" rather than "meta-ethics"? Eliezer, you get occasional (frequent?) comments arguing that you are pontificating outside your area of expertise and/or re-creating the wheel while ignoring decades or centuries of established work in those areas. Making up your own term, without an explicit rejection of the existing term/ideas or any reference to existing thought, suggests ignorance. It implies that you think you are the first person ever to tread this ground, or perhaps that no one before you is even worth engaging.

    Which, hey, has a long and proud history amongst philosophers. But it does not inspire confidence.

    Zubon, in this case, it's because I consistently use the word "ethics" to mean something different from "morality" (namely, prosocial instrumental values, as opposed to terminal values; i.e. Prisoner's Dilemma type stuff). You're right that the topic here is standardly called metaethics in academia - but I'm sorry, that term just sounds wrong to me, and I can't bring myself to use it.

    I've linked to the SEP entry on metaethics in passing, but should perhaps do so with more of a banner.

    I trust that the link is in one of the linked posts. There are 35 links in the post...

    Mostly a note in case this is part of the book version. Meta-ethics is fairly well-worn territory, so noting awareness is good. Otherwise, the immediate assumption is that you do not know the existing counter-arguments. (Also, citing yourself and only yourself is kind of Ayn Rand-ish, although again not rare. I doubt that you are trying to engage academic philosophers.) You have many comments that you are engaging mischaracterizations of others' arguments.

    Oh, forget it. You're right. Name changed.

    But I do insist on being able to say, "One metaethic, two metaethics" or a lot of the things I wanted to say about one metamorality, two metamoralities will not be sayable.

    I feel liked I kicked your puppy. Sorry. If nothing else, I just made a lot of comments using "metamorality" look odd. I like clarity, but I'm not emotionally attached to the orthodox terminology.

    I think refering to a meta-ethic/multiple meta-ethics is orthodox. I suppose that talking about competing meta-ethical theories is meta-meta-ethics, and I always support more "meta-"s. (Now we just need a way to consult the GOD Over Djinn for a final answer.)

    I love the topic and it brings up some ideas I've had in mind that I've never seen outside of it. I think making these points even more clear would be helpful. I think there is a lot that could be said around the Moral Void, and also about detaching from a belief or theory in general and the feelings involved. Maybe something about transferring those feelings to your attitudes instead of your beliefs or something like that. Great post and blog!

    "You shouldn't kill people because X" actually contains two statements: "You shouldn't kill people" and "If X, you shouldn't kill people". I believe you presume only the latter to be meta-ethical (and yes, you need that hyphen, given how many ae-digraphs we have).