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Metaethics is the study of the nature of ethical properties and statements. It includes questions about the sort of evidence which can be used to support moral ideas, whether morality is culturally relative, and what the nature of moral facts could be.

Although metaethics can seem highly abstract, judgements about how to do the most good may depend on the answers to these metaethical questions. For instance, any judgment about what to value relies on evidence, and in assessing that evidence people should take into account metaethical ideas about the sort of evidence which can support moral judgments.

One central metaethical debate concerns moral realism. “Murder is wrong” seems to most people like a true statement, but what makes it true? Moral realists argue that if the statement is true, it is true in virtue of some moral property or fact which exists independently of people’s attitudes. Moral anti-realists deny this claim.

Moral Realism has a number of forms:

  • Moral Naturalism: The claim that moral truths are reducible to natural facts in the world.

  • Moral Non-Naturalism: The claim that moral trust are unusual types of truths (perhaps equivalent in nature to truths about mathematics).

Moral Anti-Realism also has a number of forms:

  • Moral Error Theory: The view that people’s moral practice and language commit them to mind-independent moral truths, but that there are no such truths.

  • Moral Non-Cognitivism: The view that moral practice does not commit people to mind-independent moral truth. Moral Non-Cognitivists argue that moral practice is properly understood as an expression of people’s values.

Further reading:

Joyce, Richard. 2015. Moral anti-realism. In Edward Zalta (ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Lenman, James. 2006. Moral naturalism. In Edward Zalta (ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Ridge, Michael. 2014. Moral non-naturalism. In Edward Zalta (ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Sayre-McCord, Geoff. 2012. Metaethics. In Edward Zalta (ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Sayre-McCord, Geoff. 2015. Moral realism. In Edward Zalta (ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Van Roojen, Mark. 2013. Moral cognitivism vs. non-cognitivism. In Edward Zalta (ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Wikipedia. 2016. Meta-ethics.