Sandra LaFave

The next part of the class will focus on metaethical challenges to normative ethics

Metaethics is analytical, critical thinking about the presuppositions of normative ethics. Metaethics asks questions like “What do normative theories mean by ‘good’ and ‘right’?”; “How can moral judgments be proved?”; “Why be moral at all?”, etc. A number of metaethical questions constitute significant challenges to the very enterprise of normative ethics; for example,

  1. Is morality merely a matter of individual feelings (emotions) rather than reason?

    The view that moral statements are reports or expressions of individual feelings is called subjectivism.

  2. Is morality possible without religion?

    We will explore this question in our module "Ethics and Religion."
  3. Is morality merely social convention, and thus relative to culture, and possibly different from culture to culture?

    The view that morality is merely social convention (how one's culture feels, and thus not a matter of reason) is called cultural relativism or ethical relativism. Relativism is like subjectivism at the level of culture. Relativism is widely believed, but there are strong arguments against it.
  4. Is morality merely a system for the manipulation of one social group (for example, working people, women, ethnic minorities) by the dominant group?

    We will explore this question in our module "Ethics and Ideology."
  5. Are people really capable of altruistic (non-self-interested) behavior?

    The view that people are incapable of altruistic behavior is called psychological egoism. ("Mother Teresa, that bitch -- she just wants a higher place in heaven. She's doing all those so-called unselfish acts for her own selfish reasons!") The view that people should pursue their own self-interest is called ethical egoism. Like cultural relativism, psychological egoism is widely believed but seriously flawed. Ethical egoism needs a lot of analysis and clarification: whether you should adopt ethical egoism depends on what you mean by "do what's in your self- interest".
  6. Even if people are capable of altruistic behavior, is it rational to be altruistic?

    This is a deep question. Why should I care about being moral? Plato's Republic tries to answer it.
  7. Do people have free will, a prerequisite for morality, in the first place?

    This topic is normally treated in Philosophy 1 and we will not pursue it in this class. If you are interested in the free will question, have a look at my notes on "Free Will and Determinism."

Ethics in philosophy is mainly normative ethics or metaethics.



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