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MetaEthics|Naturalism

 

Now here is how I described meta-ethics just a little while ago: meta-ethics is the study of what sort of meaning ethical sentences have.  That way of putting it is a little misleading, so let me clarify.  Here’s an ethical sentence: "Pleasure is good."  If I tell you, "Meta-ethics studies what sort of meaning ethical sentences have," then you might think to yourself, "I guess he means that meta-ethics studies what I mean by ‘good’ when I say that pleasure is good."

Well, that’s really not quite right.  That question, about what "good" means, would be better regarded as a topic the theory of value.  That’s really just my opinion; other philosophers, like Hospers in our reading, would say that the meaning of the word "good" is definitely a topic in meta-ethics, not the theory of value.  They would say that the theory of value investigates which sorts of things are good, once the meaning of "good" is explained.  But as far as I’m concerned, we may as well consider these two questions, about what "good" means and about which things, in general, are good, as being at bottom the same.  And they are both questions answered in the theory of value.  But in that case, if meta-ethics isn’t in the business of defining "good," then how is it concerned with the meaning of ethical sentences at all?  How are we to understand this claim that meta-ethics is the study of what sort of meaning ethical sentences have?

The emphasis is on the words what sort.  In other words: meta-ethics asks which of various kinds of meanings ethical sentences might have.  But now your natural question is going to be: "What do you mean ‘various kinds of meaning’ of ethical sentences?  What ‘kinds of meaning’ do you have in mind?  What are my choices?"

Well, let me explain your choices, using our sentence about Mary as an example.  After presenting all three, I’ll explain each choice in more depth.

(1) The meaning of "Mary is a good person" can be explained using another sentence that does not use the word "good."  For example: "Mary, on the whole, has made people in the world happier than they would have been without her."  Or: "Mary has a number of habits like telling the truth, discharging her responsibilities regularly, being nice to people, and so on."

(2) The meaning of "Mary is a good person" cannot be explained using another sentence, because, although the sentence does express a proposition, the word "good" is primitive, which means that its meaning cannot be stated in other words at all.

(3) The meaning of "Mary is a good person" cannot be explained using another sentence, because this sentence merely expresses or evokes a certain kind of emotional reaction, or involves a certain kind of command or recommendation.  It’s as though we were saying "Yay for Mary!"  Or: "Look at Mary!  Be like her!"  But in any case, this third option denies that "Mary is a good person" expresses a proposition.  All it does is express an attitude or a feeling.

Now remember, what I’m trying to do is to explain to you what meta-ethics is.  I said it is the study of what sort of meaning ethical sentences have; but now we can say something much more specific, because now we have some rough idea of three options that we’re talking about when we talk about "sorts of meaning."  Here’s how we could put the central question of meta-ethics; it’s a three-part question.  "(1) Can the meaning of ethical sentences be restated in other words that do not use normative concepts like ‘good’ and ‘right’?  (2) Do ethical sentences express propositions?  (3) Can the meaning of ethical sentences be explained entirely in terms of the emotions they express, or are meant to cause in other people, or in some other way that doesn’t involve expressing a proposition?"  The different meta-ethical theories differ just in how they answer each of these questions.

I’ll admit that this is rather complicated, so I don’t expect you to understand it fully yet.  Let’s go over the different main meta-ethical theories.  I think once we’ve gone over the different theories, you’ll have a better idea of of what these three questions mean.  So let’s dive right into the first main meta-ethical theory.

The first theory we’ll consider is called naturalism, sometimes also called definism, because it holds that ethical terms can be defined; the meaning of ethical sentences can be given in totally non-ethical terms.  So to question (1), "Can the meaning of ethical sentences be restated in other words that do not use normative concepts like ‘good’ and ‘right’?" the naturalist answers, "Definitely."  Why?  Because ultimately, goodness and right are natural properties; they are ultimately properties of things that can be located in the natural world.  So then here’s a definition of "naturalism":

Naturalism is the view that ethical sentences express propositions, and that they can be reduced to nonethical sentences.

Notice that this definition has two parts, the part that comes before the "and" and the part that comes after the "and."  Let’s take a closer look at each part.

First, there’s the notion that ethical sentences express propositions.  Well, what exactly does that mean?  I’ve already told you what propositions are; they are, roughly, what meaningful sentences are supposed to be about.  So if an ethical sentence does express a proposition, then there is indeed something that the sentence is about.  It’s not like the claim, "Mary is a good person," is about nothing.  It’s about Mary, and it’s identifying her goodness.

To get a better idea of what it means to express a proposition, compare this to something that doesn’t express a proposition.  Say I’m minding a convenience store, and I see a thief pick up a candy bar and run.  I just manage to exclaim, "Hey!"  When I say, "Hey!" I’m not expressing a proposition.  I’m not saying, "That’s a thief there"; I’m not saying, "that thief is getting away"; I’m not saying, "that thief really annoys me."  I’m not saying anything at all, really.  And that’s the point: it’s not a proposition that I’m expressing.  Rather, it’s an emotional state that I’m expressing.  I am surprised and angered and I express my surprise and anger to the thief by saying "Hey!"

So what the first part of the definition of "naturalism" says is that ethical sentences do express propositions.  They aren’t just emotional outbursts, as though I were saying, "Hey!" or "Yay for Mary!"  They are actually expressing propositions that can be true or false.  And derivatively, you can say that ethical sentences themselves are either true or false.

That’s another important way to explain what it means for ethical sentences to express propositions; if they express propositions, they’re either true or false.  So if you’re a naturalist then you think ethical sentences are either true or false.  So for example, it can be true or false that Mary is a good person.  It can be true or false that stealing and lying are always wrong.  On the other hand, if you think the sentence, "Mary is a good person" can’t be either true or false -- if you say that, then you’re not a naturalist.  To be a naturalist, you have to think that ethical sentences are either true or false.

And notice, if I say that ethical sentences merely express emotions, as though they they were just exclamations like "Hey!" and "Yay for Mary!" then I don’t think ethical sentences are true or false.  Consider this: "It’s true that ‘Hey!’"  Or this: "It’s false that ‘Yay for Mary!’"  Well that doesn’t make any sense.  Mere expressions of emotion, mere outbursts, aren’t true or false.  They can be appropriate or inappropriate.  If Mary happens to be an ax murderess, then it’s totally inappropriate for me to say, "Yay for Mary!"  But it’s not false to say that, because mere emotional expressions aren’t true or false: only sentences that express propositions can be true or false.

OK, this has been all by way of getting you to understand the first part of the definition of "naturalism," and that part reads, "the view that ethical sentences express propositions."  Let’s give that view a name: call it cognitivism.  So cognitivism will be the view that ethical sentences express propositions.  Having explained this view, it’s going to make it easier later on to understand so-called noncognitivism, because noncognitivism specifically denies this view.

But now what about the second part of the definition of "naturalism"?  The second part says that ethical sentences "can be reduced to nonethical sentences."  Now you’re going to have to remember this notion of reduction from our discussion of the mind-body problem.  I told you that philosophy is interconnected and interdependent -- well, it really is!  Anyway, so what does it mean to say that ethical sentences can be reduced to nonethical sentences?  It just means that you can state the meaning of ethical sentences in other words, in sentences that don’t include any ethical terms like "good" and "right."  All this talk of good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral, and so forth -- that’s all just shorthand for some complex propositions about what human beings need, or desire, or what gives them pleasure, or what secures their long-term happiness, and so forth.  So this notion that ethical sentences can be reduced to nonethical sentences really amounts to saying that ethical sentences are a kind of shorthand, a kind of very useful abbreviation, for claims about nonethical facts about human needs, desires, and so forth.

Now, when we discuss the theory of value, I’m going to give you some theories of what "good" means.  So I’ll be giving you a few examples of how you could reduce talk of goodness to talk about other things -- like pleasure, or happiness.  So really you could look at the theory of value as a way of thinking naturalism through; the theory of value can be regarded as an attempt to figure out how to reduce goodness to nonethical properties; and for that matter, the theory of conduct, as we’ll see, can be regarded as an attempt to figure out how to reduce moral obligations and permissions to nonethical properties as well.  So if you are wondering how on earth we could ever reduce ethical sentences to nonethical sentences, just wait, because we’ll be looking at some examples of such reductions.