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Analytic Ethics (Metaethics)

Evaluating our premises

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The category of analytic ethics, also often referred to as metaethics, is perhaps the most difficult of the three to understand. In fact, some philosophers disagree as to whether or not it should be considered an independent pursuit, arguing that it should instead be included under Normative Ethics. Nevertheless, it is discussed independently often enough that it deserves its own discussion here.

Basically, metaethics involves reasoning about the presuppositions behind the moral systems developed under the category of normative ethics. Whenever a moral system is created, it is based upon certain premises about reality, human nature, values, etc. Metaethics is all about questioning the validity of those premises and arguing that perhaps we don't really know what we are talking about after all.

The first key aspect of metaethics is one which can also be annoying for many: semantic discussions. In order to understand the nature of morality, it can be very important to better understand how people should and do use key words like good, evil, moral, etc. This isn't the simple issue it might appear. Some have argued that the entire field of ethics has gone wrong because of misunderstandings about how people use moral language.

According to one view, called emotivism, the statement "murder is wrong" does not actually express an objective claim about the world. It is, instead, a negative emotional reaction to the act of murder - not entirely unlike a cry of pain. Such an expression might be characterized as appropriate or inappropriate, but it cannot be characterized as either true or false any more than a laugh can be true or false. Thus, when I say "X is immoral," I am not just expressing my emotional reaction to X, but I am also trying to get you to share that reaction with me.

The reason why some question whether or not metaethics should it be its own pursuit is because many feel that these questions should already have been discussed and debated as part of the development of the moral system in question. However, philosophers spend enough time discussing these questions independent of any specific moral system that this objection is not as strong as it seems.


Analytic ethics asks quite a lot of questions, including:

How are moral judgments even possible? Why be moral at all?
Do moral values exist objectively or only subjectively?
Are moral values relative to something, like culture or individuals?
Can morality exist independently of religion?
Do people have a free will which would make moral judgments possible?

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