I have started talking about morality and I will continue to talk about morality so I should probably explain a bit about what I mean. By morals I mean what we should do, and what is right and wrong, good and evil. I generally don’t distinguish between these different terms. I am a moral realist so I will usually mean the first category, I describe below.
There are several different notions that people have about what morals are and what we mean when we say something is “wrong” immoral etc. I think the explanations I give match pretty well with how philosophers generally understand these terms. Here are what I consider the big 4 general ideas of meta-ethics. That is if we step really far back from any ethical debate I think these 4 concepts can help us understand what we mean when we call something right or wrong:
Objective Moral Realism: People in this group believe that when we say something is wrong we are making a positive claim about reality that is true or false regardless of what anyone believes about it.
There are several types of realists but one distinction is between, Non naturalists and naturalists. Moral non-naturalists believe that rightness or wrongness is a property of reality that attaches to certain morally relevant occurrences.
Moral Naturalists think that that the rightness and wrongness simply is the set of facts that make up certain occurrences. For the moral naturalist there is no additional property of wrongness. But the naturalist still believes certain events are wrong. Just like they believe some things are water. Water happens to be those things that are h2o. They are not, H2O plus another “water property.” Our understanding of water supervenes on anything that has the chemical composition H2O. Likewise wrongness supervenes on certain occurrences.
Both are realists. Moral realists include Russ Schaefer Landau (moral realist of the non-naturalist variety) and Nicholas Sturgeon (moral realist and naturalist) The best introduction to meta-ethics I have found is Russ Schaefer landau’s “whatever happened to good and evil?”
I am a moral realist. I don’t really have a strong view on moral naturalism versus moral non naturalism.
Error theorists, Nihilists: This group believes there is no such thing as morality. So arguing about whether something is right or wrong is like arguing about whether male unicorns have 38 or 42 teeth. It’s all based on an erroneous understanding of the world. JL Mackie’s excellent book “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong” is a great book that sets forth this understanding. He is a very good writer and should be read on his own. Among the points he makes is that if ethical properties were to exist in reality they would be queer things. And even if they did exist how would we know what they are?
Another error theorist is Richard Joyce. He argues that even if moral properties did exist what we know about evolution makes it extremely unlikely that we would know what they are. He wrote an excellent book covering this theory called “The Evolution of Morality.” He has also written several papers many of which can be accessed on his website. Both are good writers Mackie’s book might be a bit easier for someone new to the meta-ethics to digest.
Note that although Richard Joyce argues that evolution makes our moral beliefs (if they were to exist) unreliable that in itself does not really make him a nihilist. Richard Joyce, Sharon Street, and Mark Linville are 3 philosophers who have published papers explaining how our understanding of evolution debunks the notion that we can have reliable moral beliefs. That is if we assume naturalism is true it debunks them. Here btw “naturalism” just means not believing in anything supernatural. So no God(s) or spirits or anything of the sort. “Naturalism” is related to “moral naturalism” but not the same term. It’s pretty clear that Richard Joyce and Sharon Street are naturalists and Mark Linville is a Christian. I think Sharon Street is a relativist, Mark Linville is a realist and Richard Joyce is a nihilist. So Mark Linville is making the argument based on the assumption that naturalism is true, where as the other two really think naturalism is true.
Relativism: Generally speaking this group thinks that moral claims can be true or false by comparing it with reality but it’s not independent of what people believe. Subjectivists might think what is right and wrong is up to each individual. Here morals are like tastes in food. Asking if giving to the poor is good is like asking if chocolate is good. Most will agree it is but it’s up to each individual.
More commonly relativists tend to base morals on a relevant community. They believe that there is some relevant community (sometimes a hypothetical community which to some extent can make it like realism) that decides what is right or wrong. Currency is a common analogy. A $10 bill is a piece of paper. But it is worth $10. It would be false to hold a $10 bill up and say “this is worth $14 dollars.” But that statement is true or false due to the beliefs of the relevant community. Gilbert Harman is a well-known relativist.
My own view on relativism: Ok this is where we get the problems along the lines of what if the Nazis killed everyone who disagreed with them so all that was left were Nazis who thought Jews should be killed. Would it then be right to kill Jews? That seems a problem with this position. Russ Shaefer Landau asks if the same event can take place in several different societies. For example a member of the mafia might kill a victim who is also in the mafia’s cultural community and it is not wrong in that set of circumstances according to that community. But it also occurred in New York and according to that society it is wrong. If it can occur in 2 societies, then the same exact event might be wrong and not wrong at the same time.
But beyond that I think I have another deeper problem. This is taking the position that when it comes to morals we make it all up. Do we want to believe in make believe? It is essentially adopting the position that we are staring at the shadows on the cave and we are fine with structuring our lives around that. For me, I can’t really get behind it. If that is all we mean by truth when it comes to morals then moral truths lose too much significance. I don’t really care if I live my life wrongly if all that means is I lived my life wrong according to some group or other.
Noncognitivists: This group denies that moral claims are the sorts of claims that can be considered true or false. Thus if I were to say “it’s wrong to stick babies with bayonets” they think this is only my expressing disapproval. In essence they think I am saying “boo to sticking babies with bayonets!” Now is “boo to sticking babies with bayonets” true or false? What about “yay! 49ers” or “Boo! seahawks”? These utterances are really neither true or false. They are not making a claim about reality but instead are just expressions of approval or disapproval. According to noncognitivists moral statements are really just these sorts of utterances and should not be interpreted as propositions that can be either true or false.
These are what I consider 4 corners of what people people mean by morals. There are many different theories and terminology involved, and these theories are not always exclusive of each other. But I think just getting an understanding of these 4 basic ideas is helpful to navigate.
Like I said I am an objective moral realist. So when I refer to morals that is typically the brand I am referring to.