Metaethics is an incredibly broad topic about which literally hundreds of thousands if not millions of pages have been written. We cannot tackle it comprehensively here or anywhere. But it is possible to know enough about it to make reasonable metaethical judgements. I’ve thought for quite some time about putting down some of my metaethical thoughts here and have ultimately decided to do so in the hope that this may help either of my readers to make those more reasonable judgements.
Today is a day for axiomata (for axioms if you’re not a philosophy nerd) relating to systems of metaethics. It is the most basic beginnings of metaethical systems where we attempt to spell out just a few things which are essential features of the largest percentage of such systems. (It is unfortunately true that none are uncontested, though I believe at least some should be.) Note that there are other topics in metaethics (such as epistemology) which are not directly engaged below.
The first axiom is that any metaethics must be a system which guides the behavior of moral agents by providing a method or methods to answer to the question, “What ought I to do?” in various, widely divergent circumstances as well as providing justifications for considering the methodology favorable and the resulting answers correct, or else it must be a system by which one can arrive at the conclusion that there is no answer to the question “What ought I to do?” In other words, if a system exists that does provides the answer, “I don’t know,” or “there is no relevant guidance in this circumstance,” that can still be considered a metaethial system. Of course it a system consistently returns this same, unhelpful answer it might be metaethical only in a sense relative to philosophers. In common behavior one does not ask questions to which one does not want an answer. Such systems are ignored in practical ethics and by the vast majority of people since they actually do want help in deciding what they ought to do in various circumstances.
Second, the actual answers to the question, “What ought I to do?” are considered ethics and not metaethics. Metaethics (in this context) is limited to methodology and justification.
Third, for a potential answer to the question “What ought I to do?” to have moral import, it must be possible to act out that answer. It makes no moral sense to say that I “ought” to revive the ancient dead. All metaethical systems, therefore, address only the possible. To the extent that the impossible is addressed, it cannot properly be said to be related to metaethics.
Fourth, a system for answering “What ought I to do?” is only metaethical to the extent that the question is asked in a context of relationships. If a course of action has no potential to affect others, it has no moral import. Definitions of “others” may be contested (e.g. animal rights or animal welfare movements often encounter resistance to the idea that non-human animals can be considered morally relevant others, questions of abortion rights sometimes encounter similar points of contention) and some of the others alleged to be involved may not have evidence for their existence (e.g. moral systems that presume a god or gods who can be pleased, injured, angered, disappointed, satisfied, or otherwise affected by the actions of the moral agent). Notwithstanding these arguments about who or what might count as an other, metaethics concerns itself only with social or relational questions.
Fifth and perhaps most controversial, any metaethics must sustain itself. This is not to say that any system must justify itself in order to qualify as metaethics (although this is a requirement for any metaethical system to have coherence and is something I demand of my own metaethics). Rather it is to say that if an inevitable result of embracing a metaethics is either the extinction of a population or the abandonment of that metaethics, then I contend that it is not a metaethical system in the first place. I’ll be returning to this fifth point and the related question of justification in a later post.
To sum up, a metaethical system is a justification for a sustainable methodology, and the sustainable methodology itself, for providing answers to socially and/or relationally significant forms of the question, “What ought I to do?” that are possible to act out.
As always, critiques and comments are welcome below. If there are necessary features of any system of metaethics which you believe I’ve neglected here, please leave a comment. I’m especially curious to see how many of you consider sustainability as necessary to any system of metaethics and how many consider it merely desirable (or, perhaps, neither necessary nor desirable if anyone holds that position).