Analytical Contents

1   Introduction

1.1   The field of metaethics

Metaethics addresses questions about the nature of evaluative statements and judgments, including questions about the meaning of evaluative discourse, our knowledge of value, the objectivity of value, and how value judgments provide reasons for action.

1.2   What is objectivity?

An objective property of a thing is one that does not constitutively depend on observers’ attitudes towards that thing.

1.3   Five metaethical theories

There are exactly five metaethical theories: non-cognitivism, subjectivism, nihilism, naturalism, and intuitionism.

1.4   An alternative taxonomy of metaethical views

Metaethical theories may divided into monistic and dualistic theories. Monistic theories may be further divided into reductionist and eliminativist theories; but these theories differ from one another only semantically. Only intuitionism is dualistic and differs fundamentally from all other theories.

1.5   A rationalist intuitionism

I will defend a form of intuitionism according to which terms such as ‘good’ refer to objective, irreducible value properties, which we know about on the basis of rational intuition, and our evaluative judgments give us reasons for action independent of our desires.

1.6   Background assumptions

I assume that there are objective facts and knowledge outside the area of ethics. I shall argue that ethics is no different.

Part I: Alternative Metaethical Theories

2   Non-Cognitivism

2.1   Classical non-cognitivism

Non-cognitivists hold that evaluative statements do not assert propositions; instead, they are more like imperatives or expressions of emotion.

2.2   How can we tell if cognitivism is true?

Non-cognitivism should be tested empirically, by examining how we use evaluative language.

2.3   The linguistic evidence for cognitivism

In ordinary language, evaluative statements behave in every discernible way like cognitive statements. Non-cognitivists have difficulty making sense of many ordinary statements involving evaluative terms.

*2.4   Hare on moral truth

Hare unsuccessfully tries to explain why we can call evaluative statements ‘true’ and ‘false’.

*2.5   Gibbard’s factual-normative worlds

Gibbard’s notion of factual-normative worlds offers no solution to the Frege-Geach problem.

*2.6   Blackburn’s solutions

Blackburn’s solution to the Frege-Geach problem rests on misinterpretations of language and fails to address several related problems for non-cognitivism.

*2.7   Timmons’ assertoric non-descriptivism

Timmons’ theory cannot account for moral error and cannot explain the distinction between realism and anti-realism.

2.8   The introspective evidence

Introspectively, moral judgments seem just like beliefs, and unlike emotions, desires, or other non-cognitive states.

3   Subjectivism

3.1   What is subjectivism?

Subjectivists hold that evaluative statements report the attitudes of observers towards the objects of evaluation. Different forms of subjectivism invoke, respectively, the attitudes of individuals, society, God, or hypothetical ideal observers.

3.2   Individualist subjectivism

Individualist subjectivism implies that Nazi moral statements are true, that moral disagreement is impossible, that I am morally infallible, and that arbitrary attitudes generate obligations.

3.3   Cultural relativism

Cultural relativism suffers from analogous problems.

3.4   The divine command theory

The divine command theory of ethics suffers from some of the same problems. In addition, there are questions about whether God exists and how we can know what he wants if he does.

*3.5   The ideal observer theory

If we are careful to make the theory non-circular, the ideal observer theory faces analogous problems to those facing individual subjectivism and cultural relativism.

3.6   The subjectivist fallacy

The most common arguments for subjectivism rest on transparent confusions between belief and truth, and between what causes a belief and the content of the belief.

4   Reductionism 

4.1   What is reductionism?

Reductionists believe (i) that what it is for a thing to be good can be explained using non-evaluative expressions, and (ii) that we know moral truths on the basis of observation.

4.2   Analytic reductionism

Analytic reductionists believe that some non-evaluative expression is synonymous with ‘good’. This is refuted by G. E. Moore’s Open Question Argument.

4.3   The is-ought gap

4.3.1   Hume’s Law: an initial statement

It is impossible to validly deduce an evaluative statement from non-evaluative premises.

*4.3.2   Searle’s challenge

Searle’s attempted counter-example fails due to equivocation.

*4.3.3   Geach’s challenge

Geach’s attempted counter-example fails because it is invalid and one of its premises is evaluative.

*4.3.4   Prior’s challenge

Prior’s counter-example is uninteresting since it cannot provide a plausible model of how typical ethical knowledge is gained.

*4.3.5   Karmo’s proof

Karmo has proven in general that there is no sound derivation of a non-trivial evaluative proposition from non-evaluative premises, where an evaluative proposition is one whose truth, once all the natural facts have been fixed, depends on which value system is correct.

4.4   Synthetic reductionism

Synthetic reductionists hold that, although the meaning of ‘good’ cannot be given using non-evaluative expressions, one can explain what goodness is using non-evaluative expressions.

4.4.1   Can moral facts be known by observation?

Even if moral properties are reducible, it would be fallacious to infer that we can know moral truths by observation. We cannot observe that a thing is good, because there is no distinctive way that good things look, sound, smell, taste, or feel.

4.4.2   Can moral facts be known by inference to the best explanation?

Even if some moral facts are explanatory, we cannot know moral truths by inference to the best explanation, because moral facts do not explain any observations that could not be explained as well by non-moral facts.

*4.4.3   Can moral claims be tested?

Moral theories do not generate any testable predictions without relying either on ad hoc posits or on the assumption that conscious beings have some independent access to moral truths.

*4.4.4   The unifying power of moral explanations

Moral explanations of some observations might offer the advantage of unifying seemingly disparate phenomena. But competing explanations of the same phenomena that either invoke different moral properties or posit unified non-moral properties can achieve the same advantage.

4.5   The argument from radical dissimilarity

The simplest argument against reductionism is that moral properties just seem, on their face, radically different from natural properties.

4.6   Explaining moral beliefs

Reductionist accounts of how moral beliefs might be justified fail to apply to nearly anyone’s actual beliefs.

Part II: Ethical Intuitionism

5   Moral Knowledge 

5.1   The principle of Phenomenal Conservatism

It is reasonable to assume that things are as they appear, in the absence of grounds for doubting this. Judgment in general presupposes this principle.

5.2   Ethical intuitions

Intuitions are defined as initial, intellectual appearances. Ethical intuitions are intuitions with evaluative contents. They are not merely beliefs or products of beliefs. Not all intuitions are equally credible.

5.3   Misunderstandings of intuitionism

Intuitionists do not take intuitions to be infallible or indefeasible, nor do they hold that all moral knowledge is intuitive.

5.4   Common epistemological objections

I respond to the objections that (1) we need an argument that intuitions are generally reliable, (2) we have no way of checking intuitions, (3) intuition can be used to justify any claim, and (4) intuition is ‘queer’.

5.5   The implausibility of nihilism: a Moorean argument

The premises nihilists use to argue for their position are far less plausible than many of the moral claims those premises are supposed to refute. We should rather reject the nihilist’s premises than reject all evaluative claims.

5.6   Direct realism and the subjective inversion

Direct realists about perception hold that perceptual experiences render beliefs about the physical world justified, not by constituting signs of external states of affairs, but by constituting apparent direct awareness of external phenomena. Intuitionists should take a similar direct realist view about ethics.

*5.7   The isolation of the moral realm

A priori knowledge is explained by our ability to grasp abstract objects, or universals. An adequate grasp of one or more universals leads to reliable beliefs about the properties of and relations among those universals, even though universals do not cause our beliefs about them.

6   Disagreement and Error 

6.1   The prevalence of moral disagreement

There are many disagreements about value, both between societies and between individuals within a society.

6.2   The idiot’s veto

The ‘Idiot’s Veto’ is the idea that a claim is disqualified from counting as objective by the mere fact of some people’s disagreeing with it.

6.3   Can intuitionists explain disagreement?

Some object that intuitionists cannot explain why there are many disagreements about value.

6.3.1   The caricature

The argument from disagreement has sometimes rested on an absurd caricature according to which intuitionists hold that intuition immediately and infallibly resolves all moral questions.

6.3.2   The prevalence of non-moral disagreement

The prevalence of moral disagreement is rendered unsurprising by the fact that there are many examples of non-moral disagreements with features similar to those of moral disagreements.

6.3.3   A menagerie of error

There are many causes of error in both moral and non-moral matters, including bias, confusion, fallacies, hasty judgments, and so on.

6.3.4   Disagreement is predictable

Errors are particularly common in areas where there are strong and frequent biases, where people defer to their cultures, and where people defer to religion, and in all areas of philosophy. This makes error and disagreement in ethics unsurprising.

6.4   Can intuitionists resolve disagreements?

Some object that intuitionists have no way to resolve ethical disagreements.

6.4.1   Hypothetical disagreements

Intuitionists can offer no reasoned way of resolving a disagreement if it is stipulated that each party refuses to grant any premises to his opponent. But this shows nothing interesting.

6.4.2   Controversial moral questions

There are some actual moral controversies that intuitionists are unable to resolve. But this is true of all metaethical theories and is no evidence against intuitionism.

6.4.3   Foundational moral controversies

There may be disagreements about foundational moral principles that intuitionists cannot resolve. This worry is generally overstated and also fails to provide evidence against intuitionism.

6.4.4   Disputes in general

Some object that intuitionists cannot resolve any disagreements involving conflicting intuitions. But while intuitionists cannot resolve all disputes, nor can they force people to be rational, they can offer rational ways of attempting to resolve many such disagreements.

6.5   The self-refutation problem

Proponents of the argument from disagreement face the problem that many people disagree with each alternative metaethical theory and with the argument from disagreement itself.

6.6   Disagreement as an argument for realism

Disagreement poses a greater challenge to anti-realists than to realists.

6.6.1   Can anti-realists explain disagreement?

Anti-realists have more trouble explaining ethical disagreement than moral realists do.

6.6.2   Can anti-realists resolve disagreements?

Anti-realists can offer no rational way of resolving fundamental moral disagreements. Current practice in moral philosophy seems to presuppose intuitionism.

7   Practical Reasons 

7.1   The Humean argument against realism

Motivating reasons are distinguished from normative reasons. Humeans believe that reasons for action depend on desires, that moral attitudes inherently provide reasons for action, and that no mere belief about an objective fact is sufficient for the having of a desire. They conclude that moral attitudes are not beliefs about objective facts.

7.2   The connection between motivating and normative reasons

The ‘ought implies can’ principle and the principle of charity in interpretation can each be used to establish a close tie between normative and motivating reasons.

7.3   A rationalist conception of motivation

People are motivated by appetites, emotions, prudential considerations, and impartial reasons. The latter two are not desires in the ordinary sense. Moral reasons are a species of impartial reasons.

7.4   Why believe the Humean conception?

7.4.1   The intuitive appeal of the Humean conception

The intuitive appeal of the Humean conception of reasons depends on one’s having only typical non-evaluative beliefs in mind. Hume’s central argument for his position fails.

*7.4.2   Smith’s argument

Smith’s argument for the Humean conception, relying on the notion of ‘direction of fit’, rests upon an equivocation.

7.5   Extending the Humean conception?

Modern-day Humeans reject Hume’s extreme position that no action can ever be rational or irrational. They propose several constraints on rational action.

7.5.1   The Foresight Constraint

The foresight constraint holds that one is rationally required to give some weight to one’s future desires. This cannot be sustained on a broadly Humean conception of normative reasons.

7.5.2   The Imagination Constraint

The imagination constraint holds that one rationally ought to give some weight to desires one would have if one were to vividly and correctly imagine certain states of affairs. The Humean conception cannot support this.

7.5.3   The Consistency and Coherence Constraints

The consistency and coherence constraints hold that one rationally ought to modify an inconsistent or incoherent set of desires so as to render it consistent and coherent. The Humean conception cannot support this.

7.5.4   The Deliberation Constraint

The deliberation constraint holds that one rationally ought to deliberate about what to do and abide by the results of that deliberation. The Humean conception cannot support this. The Humean conception affords no grounds for rationally criticizing any choice.

7.5.5   Coda: the need for evaluative facts

The problems facing the Humean conception can be avoided by recognizing objective, evaluative facts. This points us towards intuitionism. Scanlon’s attempt to avoid the need for non-natural evaluative facts faces problems of circularity and infinite regress.

7.6   The authority of morality

7.6.1   The authority of morality: a rationalist view

Rational moral judgments weigh self-interest among other factors, just as rational prudential judgments weigh present inclination among other factors. Consequently, morality takes precedence over prudence, and prudence takes precedence over current desire.

7.6.2   The arbitrariness of morality on the Humean view

For Humeans, moral imperatives stem from an arbitrarily selected subset of our desires with no more reason-giving force than any other desires.

7.6.3   The problem of weakness of will

Rationalists can make room for weakness of will and free will, while Humeans cannot.

7.6.4   How anti-realism undermines morality

Anti-realism undermines moral beliefs and moral motivation. It teaches us that we have no impartial motives for action and that there is no reason to act morally when this does not satisfy our own desires.

7.7   Why be moral?

On one interpretation, ‘Why be moral?’ is a nonsense question. The nature of moral evaluation makes moral action inherently rational. The question ‘Why be rational?’ is nonsensical.

8   Further Objections 

8.1   The argument from weirdness

Mackie objects to moral facts on grounds of their ‘queerness’. But on no obvious interpretation is it true both that moral facts would be queer and that this queerness constitutes evidence against their existence.

*8.2   Troubles with supervenience

The evaluative properties of a thing seem to depend on its non-evaluative properties. Some find this relationship problematic.

*8.2.1   Mackie’s objection

Mackie finds the relation queer. This has no more force than his general argument from queerness.

*8.2.2   Objections to the notion of prima facie rightness

Strawson finds the notion of a type of action’s necessarily having a tendency to be right incoherent. Examples involving forces in physics and good moves in chess demonstrate the notion’s coherence.

*8.2.3   Blackburn’s objection

Blackburn finds it puzzling that the general principle of the supervenience of the ethical is analytic but that no particular ethical theory is analytic. I show that realists are better able to explain this alleged datum than Blackburn himself is.

*8.2.4   Jackson’s objection

Jackson raises a puzzle about why ‘good’ would refer to a non-natural evaluative property, even if such a property existed, rather than to a disjunction of natural properties. But Jackson begs the question against intuitionism.

*8.2.5   An analogy: the supervenience of logical properties

The supervenience of value properties on non-evaluative properties is analogous to the supervenience of logical properties on semantic properties. Non-demonstrative arguments provide a particularly close analogy.

8.3   How can we understand ‘good’?

The unobservability of goodness, together with disagreements about what is good, pose a problem for how children could first learn the meaning of ‘good’.

8.4   Is intuitionism too subjective?

Some have misinterpreted intuitionism as a subjectivist doctrine. But moral knowledge is no more subjective, on the intuitionist account, than any other kind of knowledge.

8.5   Do my arguments prove too much?

Some arguments against moral anti-realism seem to apply also to anti-realism about funniness, coolness, and the like. But on reflection, a subjectivist account of the latter properties is more compelling than a subjectivist account of value.

8.6   Evolution and ethics

8.6.1   The evolutionary objection to realism

Sociobiological theories of the source of moral attitudes cast doubt on the belief that these attitudes track objective facts.

8.6.2   The realist’s burden

Moral knowledge may be a by-product of reason. Moral realists need not argue that evolution predicts the existence of moral knowledge, but only that it fails to predict the absence of moral knowledge.

8.6.3   How good are evolutionary accounts of ethics?

Existing evolutionary accounts of ethics are unimpressive, both because of their failure to account for the details of our moral intuitions and beliefs, and because the flexibility of the paradigm makes evolutionary hypotheses difficult to falsify.

8.6.4   An evolutionary account of moral perception

Accurate moral perception might have survival value by virtue of its facilitating peaceful cooperation.

8.7   Is intuitionism too revisionary?

Intuitionists may have to reject large portions of conventional morality, leading to suspicions that they have misunderstood ordinary moral concepts. But it may be that most people are habitually confused about ethics. Furthermore, intuitionism can be interesting even if it involves a reinterpretation of moral discourse.

9   Conclusion 

9.1   The failures of alternative theories of metaethics

9.1.1   Non-cognitivism

I summarize the linguistic and introspective arguments against non-cognitivism.

9.1.2   Subjectivism

I review five main problems facing subjectivists.

9.1.3   Naturalism

I review the Open Question Argument against analytic reductionism, followed by two main arguments against synthetic reductionism.

9.1.4   Nihilism

I review the implausibility of nihilism.

9.2   The intuitionist view

9.2.1   Intuition and moral knowledge

I review my account of moral knowledge, including the principle of Phenomenal Conservatism.

9.2.2   Moral motivation

I review the rationalist view of reasons for action, as well as the objections to the competing, Humean account.

9.3   Select objections to intuitionism

I review some of the most common objections to intuitionism and my responses to them.

9.3.1   ‘Intuition cannot be proven to be reliable’

9.3.2   ‘Intuitionists cannot explain disagreement’

9.3.3   ‘Intuitionists cannot resolve disagreements’

9.3.4   ‘Intuitionism is weird’

9.4   The revolt against values: how intuitionism lost favor

I explain why intuitionism is unpopular.

9.4.1   Was intuitionism rationally refuted?

Intuitionism did not receive a fair examination in the late twentieth century. Rather, it was rejected because it did not fit with the spirit of the age.

9.4.2   Cynicism

Modern intellectuals have sought to tear down their own society’s values. Intuitionism does not fit with modern cynicism.

9.4.3   Political correctness

Intuitionism is politically incorrect. It suggests that some people are morally bad and that some cultures have seriously wrong beliefs.

9.4.4   Scientism

Intuitionism does not fit with the modern worship of science. Moral properties are not studied by science, and ‘intuition’ does not sound like the scientific method.

9.4.5   How intuitionism became ‘implausible’

The above factors bias the judgment of intellectuals when they assess metaethical theories. The attitudes of intellectuals filter down to the rest of society.

9.5   The importance of intuitionism

Intuitionism is an important counter to anti-realist theories that undermine our moral motivation and our sense of value and meaning in life.

9.6   How I became a spooky, unscientific intuitionist

My path to intuitionism went through the realizations, first, that most knowledge is unprovable and unlike scientific and mathematical knowledge; and second, that the dependence of moral properties on non-moral ones does not entail the existence of an algorithm for computing moral verdicts from non-moral facts.