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MetaEthics

A. 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.







B. Non-naturalism.

And if naturalism really does seem implausible to you, then you may like the second theory, which we can call non-naturalism.  This can be defined as follows:

Non-naturalism is the view that ethical sentences express propositions, and that they cannot be reduced to nonethical sentences.

So the way that we’re defining these views, naturalism and non-naturalism are both kinds of cognitivism -- that is, both of them share the view that ethical sentences express propositions.  What they disagree about is whether ethical sentences can be reduced to nonethical sentences.  Non-naturalism says they can’t.  As that British philosopher of common sense, G. E. Moore, said, goodness is a simple, undefinable, non-natural property.

To call it "non-natural" doesn’t mean that goodness is somehow supernatural or ghostly or divine or anything like that.  All that it means to say that goodness is non-natural is to say that it can’t be reduced to natural properties like human needs, wants, pleasures, and so forth.

Or to say the same thing, goodness can’t be defined in terms of anything else.  So Moore thought that goodness is indefinable.  Now, does that mean that he thought that talk of goodness of nonsense?  Definitely not: talk of goodness is quite meaningful.  It’s just that you can’t formulate what this meaning is in a definition.  You can’t say, for example, "goodness" means "pleasure."  Moore said you couldn’t give any definition like that at all.

Still, you might wonder, how is it possible that a word could be meaningful, and yet indefinable?  Well, let me give you an example of another word that is definitely meaningful, but you couldn’t give any plausible definition of it: "thing."  I mean "thing" in its broadest sense.  How could you define this?  Something is a thing if, and only if, ... what?  How could you finish this definition?  Or how about the word "whole" as in "whole and part."  Something is a whole if, and only if, it ... what, has parts?  OK, but then define "part" for me, and do that without referring to wholes.  You can define wholes in terms of parts, or parts in terms of wholes, but as far as I can tell, you have to take either "whole" or "part," one of those words, as primitive, undefinable, or basic.  Here’s another example: the word "and" and "not."  These are extremely important words in logic; but all logicians admit that you have to start out with some basic, undefined concepts in logic, and in fact "and" and "not" are often two of their choices for undefined terms.  Then they proceed to define other terms in logic using "and" and "not."  And I’ll bet you can think of all sorts of examples of primitive, undefinable terms from mathematics and geometry -- such as "point," as in "point on a line."  Anyway, you get the idea.

So Moore’s claim, which is the central claim of the non-naturalist, is that "good" is indefinable.  And if that’s the case, then the meaning of sentences containing word "good" can’t be explained entirely in terms of sentences not containing the word "good."  You can’t substitute talk of pleasure, or needs, or anything like that for talk of good.  Once you are talking about goodness (or badness, for that matter), you’re talking about a subject that is just as fundamental as talk of things, of wholes and parts, of "and" and "not," and of points on lines.  Just as those things are simple and indefinable, so goodness is simple and indefinable.  So said Moore.  That’s the basic contention of non-naturalism.

OK, so why think that non-naturalism is true?  Why think that "good" can’t be defined?  Are there any arguments for that claim?  There are some, or two anyway, that we can look at.

The first argument for non-naturalism is really very simple.  In fact, maybe we shouldn’t call it an argument; it’s better to look at it as simply a way of putting certain facts into perspective; call it a "line of thought."  Consider, on the one hand, properties like hardness, roundness, dampness, and so forth.  These are all natural properties; we encounter them in the real world and we can perceive them.  Consider, on the other hand, properties like being good and being right.  We say that a great novel like Moby Dick is a good thing; so goodness is a property of that novel.  And we say that paying back debts, and telling the truth, are generally the right things to do; so rightness is a property of certain human actions, like paying off your debts, and truth-telling.

But isn’t it straightforwardly obvious that these are two really quite different kinds of properties?  Those natural properties, like hardness and roundness, can be perceived and encountered in the real world.  On the other hand, goodness and rightness -- well, where are they?  Can you see the goodness of a novel?  Can you touch rightness?  Can you use scientific instruments to measure morality?  Of course not.  So it seems simply obvious -- or so goes this line of thinking, which we won’t dignify with the name "argument" -- that goodness and rightness aren’t natural properties.  And if that’s the case, they can’t be defined in terms of any natural properties; if they could be, then they would be, ultimately, natural properties themselves.  Moore actually went so far as to say that it’s a fallacy to think that goodness is a natural property: he called this the naturalistic fallacy.  But really all that amounts to is calling naturalism a fallacy -- which doesn’t prove anything.  I could just as easily say that non-naturalism is a fallacy, and say that Moore committed the non-naturalistic fallacy!

Anyway, I think a lot of people find this line of thinking fairly plausible.  There does seem to be something inherently fallacious about thinking of goodness as a natural property.

But this raises a rather difficult question.  See if you can think of any answer to it yourself.  Suppose for a moment that Moore is right, and that goodness is an indefinable, non-natural property; you can’t bump into it, or see it, but you do know when novels, and foods, and states of mind, are good.  But if goodness isn’t a natural property, then how do you know this?  You should be able to tell me what sort of question that is -- a question that asks, "How do you know that something is good?"  It’s an epistemological question.  But in particular we’re talking about knowledge of moral facts.  There’s a branch of epistemology, or of ethics, or both, called moral epistemology which studies how we know moral facts, and how moral beliefs are justified.

If Moore says that goodness is a non-natural property, then how does he know that anything is good?  It’s evidently not by any ordinary, natural process.  Think about that.  If you could know that cake is good by some natural process (say, just by eating it and having a pleasant taste sensation), then you could identify the goodness of the cake as some natural property that that natural process detected.  For example, the cake gives you pleasure; that’s how you know it’s good; so you can say that the cake’s goodness is just the same as, and is reducible to, the fact that it can give you pleasure.  That’s the idea.  That’s how you’d know that the cake is good, if you thought that goodness might be a natural property.  But if you’re Moore, and you think that goodness isn’t a natural property, then how do you know that anything is good?  How do you distinguish the good things from the bad?

One answer that has been fairly common among British philosophers, although not so much anymore, is to say that we have a special faculty, a faculty of moral intuition.  And this faculty tells us what is good and bad, right and wrong.  The view that there is such a faculty is called moral intuitionism.  So we taste the cake and this faculty kicks into gear and tells us that it is good.  That’s not such a great example, though, because even the non-naturalist might want to allow that, when we say that cake is good, we just mean that we like it.  But what about a good person, or a right action?  If we see a good person, or a right action, and our faculty of moral intuition is sufficiently developed and unimpaired, then, the moral intuitionists say, we can simply intuit that the person is good, or that the action is right.

Now, don’t ask me what "moral intuition" means.  All I know is that it is supposed to be a mental process that is different from other, more familiar faculties like sense-perception, and that moral judgements are its outputs.  So when you judge something to be good, or some action to be right, then you’re using your faculty of moral intuition.  And that faculty is attuned to those non-natural properties.  Perhaps the best ordinary notion we have, that approximates the notion of a faculty of moral intuition, would be conscience.  If I get a pang of conscience after I do something I know is wrong, my faculty of moral intuition has kicked in and is being directed at me.

We could go on and talk about moral intuitionism for a long time, because there are, believe it or not, lots of different varieties to the theory.  But we can’t afford the time.  I will just say this about it -- that we should see whether or not we can explain how we might come to know moral facts without talking about some mysterious faculty of moral intuition.

So let’s look at the second argument for non-naturalism.  This is called the open question argument, and was introduced and made famous by Moore.  This argument is actually one of the things that Moore is quite famous for.  Which is unfortunate, because later on in his life, some years after he published the argument, he said that it was no good!

Even if the argument is no good, it’s instructive to look at it.  If you take a class in ethical theory, you’ll probably study it again in more depth.  But actually, the argument is pretty simple.  It goes like this.

Suppose I want to give a definition of "good."  So I say that "good" means "pleasure-causing."  In other words, according to my definition, if something is good, that means it causes pleasure; and if it causes pleasure, then it is, by definition, good.  But Moore complained that we could always ask, "But are pleasure-causing things good?"  And the point is that that would always be an open question.  This means that it’s not just a foregone conclusion that, indeed, pleasure causing things are good.  It’s an open question, a perfectly legitimate question that someone who understands the English very well might ask: Is everything that causes pleasure good?

Moore then went on to say that you could criticize any definition of goodness like that.  To take another example: I could say that "good" means "desirable."  So anything that’s desirable is good, and whatever is good is desirable.  Moore says that we can ask a question here -- what would his question be?  Well, it would be this: "Is everything that is desirable good?"  And Moore would observe that this is an open question.  The answer isn’t obvious to someone who understands the English language.

So here’s the formula that you can use to generate Moore’s question.  If someone says "good" means X, then you reply by asking: But is X actually good?  And then you observe that this is an open question.  The answer is never obviously "Yes."  And yet we’re all competent speakers of the English language; we all know what "good" means.  So if we did come across the correct definition of "good," then, the implication is, we’d be able to recognize it.  But we can never just automatically recognize any definition of "good" as the definition of "good."  If I tell you that "good" means X, it’s always an open question, as far as ordinary speakers of the language are concerned, whether X is good.  And therefore, Moore concluded, the word "good" can’t be defined.  It’s indefinable.  If it were definable, then a question of the definition in the form of "Is X good" would not be an open question.  But questions of that form are always open questions.  So "good" cannot be defined.

That’s the open question argument.  Now, you might find at least one part of it puzzling -- a part where you might have wanted to stop me and say, "How’s that again?  Why does Moore say that?"  I mean the following step, from (1) to (2):

(1) Moore’s question, "Is X good?" is always an open question to any English speaker; that is, no English speaker would be able to recognize "good" means X as obviously the correct definition.

(2) "Good" cannot be defined.

What I want to know is: How is (2) supposed to follow from (1)?  Can’t we admit that (1) is correct, and at the same time claim that (2) is false?  I mean, why couldn’t we?  Consider what that would amount to.  It’s the following conjunction of claims: no one can recognize that any definition of "good" is correct, but "good" is still definable.  Honestly why can’t we say both things at the same time?

Look at it like this.  Moore seems to assume that "good" can be defined only if competent English speakers would recognize the correct definition when they saw it -- and in that case, the question, "Is X good?" would be answered, "Obviously yes, discussion closed."  That’s how Moore viewed it.  But I don’t think that’s correct.  It seems entirely possible to me that "good" might have a definition which ordinary English speakers wouldn’t recognize when they saw it at first.  You’d have to argue that the definition was correct.

Compare the situation to other attempts at definition in philosophy -- like the case with "knowledge."  We all have a pretty good idea of what the English word "knowledge" means.  But does that mean that if we see the correct definition of "knowledge," we’ll immediately recognize that it’s the correct definition?  Surely not.

So here’s the point: there are a lot of deep concepts that are studied in philosophy, like goodness and knowledge and consciousness and so on.  We all can recognize instances of these things.  We will all recognize perfectly well that motherhood is good, that we know that 2+2=4, and that we are all conscious right now.  But that doesn’t mean that we will immediately recognize the correct account of the meaning of "good," "know," and "conscious."

So back to the open question argument.  Moore says that for any definition of goodness, where we say "good" means X, you can always ask "Is X actually good?" and that will be an open question.  But my reply -- which is not just my reply but a fairly common reply to Moore -- is to say that that proves nothing.  Even if it’s an open question to ask, "Is X actually good?" it doesn’t follow from that that X is not the definition of "good."  It might be, for all we know.  We won’t necessarily recognize a truly enlightening theory of goodness when we see it.  That’s a perhaps unfortunate fact, but I think it’s true.



C. Non-cognitivism.

We have spent a long time discussing non-naturalism, and it’s time now to look at the third meta-ethical theory, called "non-cognitivism."  We won’t spend as long on this.  Remember that cognitivism is just the view that ethical sentences express propositions.  Well then you know what non-cognitivism is:

Non-cognitivism is the view that ethical sentences do not express propositions; instead they express something else, such as emotions or recommendations.

So the idea is that when we say that something is "good," or "right," or "moral," then we aren’t actually making a statement that can be true or false; all that we’re doing is expressing a certain kind of emotion we feel, or trying to evoke or cause a certain kind of emotion in others, or we’re implicitly commanding or recommending that people behave in certain ways.  Different kinds of non-cognitivism differ in what ethical sentences are said to do.  Emotivists, for example, say that ethical sentences express and evoke certain kinds of emotion.  Prescriptivists, on the other hand, say that ethical sentences are implicit commands or recommendations.  You aren’t going to need to know the differences between these views really; the point is that it’s not as though ethical sentences are totally meaningless.  It’s just that they don’t have cognitive meaning -- which is to say that they don’t express propositions.  Their meaning is a little like the meaning of outbursts like "Hurray for kindness!" and "Murder -- boo, hiss!"

Another way to think of non-cognitive meaning is like this.  Suppose I say, "If you steal money from your employer, you’re doing something wrong."  Then the idea is I could simply say, in a tone of shock or revulsion, "Stealing money from your employer!!" and that outburst would have about the same meaning as saying that stealing money is wrong.  Saying that an action is wrong just expresses how you feel about the action.

Non-cognitivism was fairly widely advocated in the middle of this century.  It isn’t as popular as it once was, but it still has quite a few proponents.  So you might wonder why anyone would advocate this theory.  I certainly am puzzled as to why so many philosophers have advocated it.

I can think of two reasons, anyway.  The first is basically the first "argument," or as we were calling it the "line of thought," behind non-naturalism.  Again, the basic idea there was that we can’t perceive or bump into goodness or rightness.  Now, Moore concluded from that, that "good" must be indefinable, standing for basic property; perhaps we know it by a faculty of moral intuition.  But the non-cognitivists draw a different conclusion.  They say that goodness and rightness aren’t anything in the world at all.  They aren’t really properties of anything.  When we use words like "good" and "right," all we’re doing is expressing our emotions, or issuing commands.  We aren’t describing any sort of mysterious properties in the world.  So what I’m saying is that non-cognitivism gets its motivation from the view that goodness and rightness, if they were something in the world, would appear to be rather mysterious or strange properties; and so non-cognitivism concludes that they really aren’t in the world at all.

The second reason or motivation behind non-cognitivism is a perfectly legitimate observation.  Namely, the observation that when we use moral sentences -- when we morally praise or blame people and their actions -- we are, in any case, doing more than merely making factual statements.  Even if we are making statements about moral facts, we are also expressing our attitudes, or trying to shape other peoples’ attitudes.  Just look at an example and you’ll see this right away.  An example like, "Mary is a good person."  You can imagine Mary’s friend saying this, and if we all know Mary, then we’ll know why Mary’s friend says it: for example, Mary never lies, she is a very responsible person, she is always nice, and so forth.  Saying that she’s a good person expresses approval of those good habits that we know Mary practices.  It’s as though Mary is saying, "Mary is good -- go thou and do likewise."  So here’s the point then: ethical sentences, regardless of whether they express propositions or not, do definitely have the function of expressing our attitudes and our recommendations.  It’s just that the non-cognitivist goes one step further than most of us, and says that that is all that ethical sentences.  All they do is express attitudes, or make recommendations.

Now, I don’t know what you’ll think of non-cognitivism.  I suspect many of you will find it strange, and I think that some number of you might actually like it quite a bit, because it allows you to hold onto a sort of sophisticated moral relativism.  And indeed you’ll find this view underlying some educational theories.  I mean that some theories about teaching kids ethics in the schools seem to assume that non-cognitivism is true; when we talk about "good," "bad," "right," and "wrong," all we’re doing is expressing how we feel.  So you will find some modern educationists having schoolchildren "clarifying" their values by asking them how they feel about different situations.  You probably did this when you were in school; you probably know what I’m talking about, and so non-cognitivism probably seems familiar, and even obvious, to some of you.

I’m just going to make one criticism of non-cognitivism.  We could go on all day explaining objections to it, I think, but one objection is particularly powerful.  Before I explain it, remember how we criticized the definition of "meaningfulness" as "understandability."   The proposal was that a sentence is meaningful if it’s understandable.   Our criticism of that proposal was: that might be true, doesn’t give the meaning of the word "meaningful."  Why?  Because it doesn’t explain what it is about meaningful sentences, that makes them meaningful.  It certainly seems that there is something about those sentences that makes them meaningful -- and which, incidentally, makes us able to understand them.

Now we can make a similar sort of criticism of non-cognitivism.  Non-cognitivism claims that the meaning of ethical sentences consists entirely in how we feel about the person, or thing, or situation described; or what our recommendations are with regard to the item in question.  But this just raises a question: what it is about the item in question that makes us feel the way we do, or that makes us recommend what we do?  Take the case of the good Mary again.  The question in this case is: What is it about Mary that makes us say that she is a good person -- that makes us express moral approval of her, and that makes us recommend to others that they emulate her?  Surely there’s something about her that makes us say she’s good.  It’s not like she is just some nonentity with no properties at all, and we just arbitrarily say of a nonentity that we approve of it!  No, Mary is a complex human being about which (in our example) we know a lot.  And the question is: What is it about her, out of all the things we know (or believe) about her, that makes us say that she’s good?

It’s not like the answer to that question is any big puzzle or anything.  It’s rather obvious to anyone who knows Mary: she has a number of habits, like telling the truth, taking care of her responsibilities, treating others kindly and fairly, and so forth.  And it’s seeing all of those habits together which make us say that she’s a good person.

Now I wonder if you can see what’s coming next in this criticism of non-cognitivism.  Just think about it.  If it’s Mary’s habits that make us say that she’s a good person, well then, why don’t we just say that we can translate the ethical sentence, "Mary is a good person," into a sentence about Mary’s habits?  Why not say that "Mary is a good person" means "Mary tells the truth, takes care of her responsibilities faithfully, treats others kindly, and so forth"?  Notice, the latter sentence doesn’t contain any ethical terms.  It just describes her habits.  So the point is that if it’s Mary’s habits that make us call her good, then we can just say that her goodness consists in her having all those habits.  By "Mary’s goodness" we just mean "Mary’s habits X, Y, and Z."  And if Mary has habits like that then she’s good; and if she doesn’t, or if she has other habits like the unfortunate tendency to kill people and eat their livers with fava beans, then she’s bad.

So to generalize now, we can criticize non-cognitivism by saying that it seems to ignore the perfectly legitimate possibility, that we can reduce ethical sentences to sentences about whatever it is about the items that make us state those ethical sentences.  We can reduce a claim about the wrongness of stealing, or about the goodness of banana splits, to claims about what it is about stealing or banana splits that makes us state the ethical sentences in question.

Now as I said, there’s a lot more we could say about non-cognitivism.  For example, how do we distinguish moral feelings from other sorts of feelings.  But we don’t have time to go into it any further.  We have bigger fish to fry.