Meta-ethics and Moral Beliefs

by squelchtoad

A friend of mine likes to point out that expounding any particular normative ethical theory isn’t “a get-out-of-metaphysics-free card.” I think she technically means “meta-ethics,” but metaphysics is obviously related to meta-ethics, particularly if, like my friend, you’re a fan of grounding ethics in Aristotelian teleology. My friend writes for Patheos’s atheist blog portal, but she admits that she is drawn to the idea of God by the possibility of finding a human-independent and yet still personal grounding for the Moral Law. A question for her and others like her follows.

Suppose I could demonstrate to you beyond all possible doubt that one of the following two propositions was necessarily true:

  1. There does not exist a supreme being.
  2. There exists a supreme being (In the sense of an eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient creator of the universe) who commands that people rape one another, abandon any children they bear, and cause as much senseless pain as possible to humans and other animals[1].

Would you—could you—hope that (2) was the case instead of (1)? Are you prepared to hope for an “objective” Moral Law if that law will be deeply contrary to your current (ungrounded) moral beliefs, or do you simply want those beliefs validated?

(A fun and important corollary question: if (2) proved to be the case, would you be able to bring yourself to worship that being? Would you resign yourself to being morally broken in your desire for what you once thought good? Would you start to argue that eternality, omnipotence, and omniscience were not the true grounds of normative “ought” claims?)

I want to defend those who don’t hope for (2). I am far more convinced that the things the hypothetical supreme being commands are wrong than I am convinced that their wrongness requires the particular kind of grounding that a supreme being potentially offers. I will sacrifice that grounding of morality long before I sacrifice certain moral views I hold. Philosophy happens on many levels. It’s possible for you to be confident at more concrete, less “fundamental” levels than you are at more abstract and “fundamental” ones. I am far more confident that murder is wrong than I am that any particular meta-ethical theory (e.g. Divine Command, Moral Platonism, etc.) is correct.

This also implies that I am more confident that some kind of real ought-ness exists than I am that any particular kind of real ought-ness exists. But that just follows from simple set theory. For the same reason, there are more bank tellers than feminist bank tellers, even among 31-year-old single female former philosophy students.

Indeed, I worry that some people who abandon ethical convictions they hold in order to gain the certainty of a spelled out meta-ethical theory[2] may have fallen into a trap akin to the conjunction fallacy. People find stories with more specific information more plausible and likely, even though making a claim more specific makes it harder for it to be true! While it may feel easier to choose one meta-ethical theory than to be confident that “something-I-know-not-what” underlies your moral beliefs, that doesn’t mean you should do so, or that you need to in order to expound and act upon your moral beliefs.

My ultimate ethical goal is to take the right actions[3] (that’s a basic, arguably definitional meta-ethical belief that I am willing to endorse). I am currently more confident about what some of those actions are (helping others) and are not (murder) than I am of what undergirds them. As such, I’m willing to speculate about meta-ethics, but I’m not necessarily going to privilege a nice clean meta-ethical theory over my concrete moral beliefs when the two conflict.


[1] Some people argue that such a being could never command such things—that you can derive as necessary propositions at least some of our consensus moral beliefs from the idea of an omniscient and omnipotent eternal creator. I have never seen a derivation that I find compelling, but, regardless of that, I invite those people to treat (2) as “Moral Platonism is true, and the nature of the Good is such that we ought to rape others, abandon the children we bear, and commit acts of senseless cruelty.” I’m sure I’ll get some Platonists who now try to derive commonsense morality from the idea of “The Good.” I invite them to show me their derivation and attempt to convince me.

[2] i.e. people who embrace a theory that conflicts with their intuitions and then try to change those intuitions.

[3] Yes, that might include thinking the right thoughts and feeling the right feelings.