If Philosophy

Metaethics: What is Right, What is ‘Right’ and What is Right?

Metaethics is a field of study that deals with three types of question regarding morality. Namely, (i) ontological questions about whether there actually are such things as moral facts, (ii) questions concerning the semantics of moral judgements, and (iii) the epistemology of them; whether or not we can know what is right and how, if so. Let’s look at a few of these, and some of their potential answers.

The ontological question “are there moral facts?” may be answered either affirmatively, or negatively. We call these stances the realist and nihilist positions, respectively. The realist may then either be a naturalist or a non-naturalist. The naturalist argues that moral facts exist in the same way as natural facts do. There is nothing different in essence about moral facts in comparison to some natural fact, as for instance the length of a stick. The non-naturalist instead argues that there is something different about moral facts. Perhaps because they (supposedly) override desires that are incompatible with doing what is right, or perhaps they even motivate us to act in specific ways to some degree. The nihilist however, as already indicated, argues that moral facts don’t exist. According to them, the fabric of the world just doesn’t contain ethical value; we’re in a world without worth. I’m not entirely sure doom and gloom follows if this is so, though. Can you be broke if there’s no such thing as money? It’s not evident, but at least you probably won’t be in monetary debt. So there’s that.

The semantic type of questions deal with what terms such as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mean or express. Descriptivists argue that moral concepts work as regular descriptive concepts. To say of an action that it is right or wrong is a lot like saying that an object is large or small. The expressivist, on the other hand, argues that moral concepts express our attitudes toward actions. According to the expressivist, to say that an action is right or wrong is roughly the same as going “yay for the action” or “boo for the action”. Neither of these statements can, strictly speaking, be true or false. The division between the descriptivist and expressivist lies exactly in this. Expressivists argue that the semantics of ethics is truth-evaluable. Expressivists argue the opposite.

Lastly, the epistemological question of whether we can know what is right or not may be answered, much like the first one, affirmatively or negatively. We may call the affirmative answer the cognitivist position, and the negative answer the sceptic position. There are some combinations of answers to these three types of questions that fit together more easily than others, but there are many different combinations. Assuming that knowledge is something like justified true belief, then we may only have knowledge of moral facts if descriptivism and realism are both true. How we may be justified in our beliefs about ethics, if at all, is of course a controversial topic. Do intuitions suffice? Whose, if so? How are conflicts to be resolved? These are among the first questions that pop up, but also among the most difficult questions to answer. I’ll leave these questions unresolved. Whatever answer is right, I’m probably going to be at least a little bit off the mark.


We have established that metaethics revolves around three types of question. These types are the ontological, semantic, and epistemological. The ontological question has two answers, the affirmative one being presented by the realist, the negative one by the nihilist. The semantic question about what ‘right’, ‘good’, ‘wrong, and ‘bad’ mean can be answered either as the descriptivist does; that they are predicates much like any other predicate, or as the expressivist does; that they are terms that express our positive or negative attitudes toward actions. Lastly, the epistemic question “can we have knowledge about moral facts?” may be answered positively, like the cognitivist does, or negatively, like the sceptic does. Many combinations exist. With a little luck, these labels may be of some help in thinking about these somewhat abstract matters. In that, I at least hope that I’m right.

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