A few weeks ago, a reader requested that I write a post on metaethics:
I would be interested in a post on metaethics; how we know what's right and wrong, and whether morality is objective or subjective, relative or universal.
Metaethics deals with, as the questions infer, the broad questions of how one knows right from wrong, the source of ethics, etc.
One set of metaethical answers points to revelation: God (of whatever identity or religion) spoke (through whatever media) and gave these principles or commands. Right consists of adhering to the principles or following the commands; wrong is doing otherwise. Generally, believers perceive these definitions of right and wrong to be objective and universal. Examples of this religious approach to metaethics include Islamic ethics and most Protestant Christian ethics. Jewish ethics also belong to this approach, with the caveat that only a handful of basic principles apply to all humanity; the rest of the principles or commands are only to Jews, though God may have given other principles or commands to other people.
Religious ethics are obviously problematic. First, not everybody believes in God; people who do believe in God frequently claim to believe in different gods. Second, revelation, no matter how vociferously or persuasively believers argue, is not objective, i.e., revelation is not susceptible to scientific proof. Third, not all religious ethics make universal claims, thus offering confusion rather than help to non-believers.
Another set of metaethical answers relies upon philosophical analysis. Famously, Immanuel Kant articulated the categorical imperative, which he believed he had identified relying only upon human reason and that is the only universal ethical principle. The categorical imperative (one of Kant’s three formulations of it is do only that which you would want everyone to do if in the same situation) bears a striking resemblance to the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do to you). The resemblance is not surprising. Kant was reared in a pietistic German Lutheran family. Is the resemblance correlative or causative?
More problematically, other philosophers have reached different metaethical conclusions. Some philosophers believe metaethics a dead end, hopelessly futile endeavor. Others have crafter very different metaethical principles. Perhaps best known and most directly challenging to Kant’s categorical imperative are the several versions of utilitarianism. In general, utilitarianism argues that right consists of doing that which will bring the most good or happiness to the greatest number of people.
Utilitarianism has a number of significant problems. First, who defines what the good is or happiness is? Second, how does one measure good/happiness and bad/unhappiness to make the utilitarian calculus? Third, utilitarianism can result in the majority exploiting the minority. For example, people without red hair might decide that global utility would be maximized by enslaving red haired people and having them do all of the unpleasant labor. Most utilitarian metaethical approaches seek to avoid this type of problem by defining good or happiness in such a way as to include universal human well-being. More recently, utilitarian metaethicists have further broadened the definitions to include the flourishing of all life. However, the definitions seem to compromise the utilitarian project of constructing a metaethical system solely based on calculating maximum utility.
Yet another metaethical approach begins by asking what constitutes the good life, i.e., identifying the characteristics essential for flourishing/happiness. Secular philosophers like Aristotle adopted this approach, as have Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas. My next post will develop this approach – known as virtue ethics – more fully.