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Attacking Morality: A Metaethical Project

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Allen W. Wood*
Yale University
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Metaethics is the philosophical study of what morality is. It differs from ethical theory, which attempts to systematize (and possibly ground) moral judgments, and also from practical or applied ethics, which reflects on particular moral issues or problems. As it has been done in this century, metaethics has usually involved three interrelated projects: a metaphysical investigation into the nature of moral facts and properties, a semantic inquiry into the meaning of moral assertions, and an epistemological account of the nature of moral knowledge. In all three areas, the questions raised by twentieth-century metaethics have apparently been radical, and the dominant position was even openly nihilistic. In metaphysics it was antirealist, maintaining that there are no moral facts, in epistemology noncognitivist, denying that there is moral knowledge, and in semantics emotivist or prescriptivist, holding that moral assertions aren't assertions at all, but are speech acts utterly devoid of truth conditions.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1995

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1 This is the best way to put it, since ‘disquotational’ theories of truth allow emotivists to equate 's is true’ with ‘S.’ Even if the semantic function of ‘S’ is solely to express an emotional reaction, someone who sympathizes enough to be disposed to utter ‘S’ is saying something equivalent to 's is true,’ and someone who expresses antipathy can, correspondingly, say something equivalent to ‘S is false.’ Even utterances whose only function is to express emotions therefore can, in this minimal sense, be said to possess truth values. But of course there are no truth conditions for mere expressions of emotion.

2 Mackie, John L.Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin 1977)Google Scholar

3 Ibid., 22-4

4 We might consider such a person to be either contradicting himself or talking nonsense. But following Mackie, perhaps that accusation could in turn be treated as only a ‘higher order’ assertion which should not be interpreted as criticizing the philosopher's views on religion.

5 Williams, BernardEthics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1985) ch. 10Google Scholar; Wolf, SusanMoral Saints,Journal of Philosophy 79 (1982)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Caputo, John D.Against Ethics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1993)Google Scholar

6There are no moral facts at all. Moral judgments agree with religious judgments in believing in realities which are no realities. Morality is merely an interpretation of certain phenomena- more precisely, a misinterpretation” (Nietzsche, Twilight of Idols, “The Improvers of Humanity,” § 1). When Nietzsche wrote this, he intended it as a radical attack on morality, as the foundation of his “demand upon the philosopher, that he should take his stand beyond good and evil“ (ibid.). Yet English speaking metaethical antirealists usually regard Nietzsche's inference here with impatient condescension, as the sort of thing one might expect from a particularly naive and annoying undergraduate. On this point I have always sided with Nietzsche and the naive undergraduates.

7 Plato, Republic, tr. Grube, G.M.A. (Indianapolis: Hackett 1974)Google Scholar. Cited below by Stephanus number. Quotations and paraphrases follow Grube's translation, with some modifications.

8 See Foot, PhilippaMoral Beliefs,Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 59 (1958-1959) 420425Google Scholar; Sturgeon, NicholasWhat Difference Does It Make if Moral Realism is True?Southern Journal of Philosophy 24 (1986) 126-7CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 For similar reasons, the intelligibility of Thrasymachus's view casts serious doubt on any semantical form of ‘internalism,’ which takes it to be part of the meaning of words such as ‘just’ that people have some reason or motive for doing what is just. It presents no difficulty, however, for other forms of internalism, such as those which say merely that there necessarily is a reason or motive for doing what is just. Such views are, to be sure, committed to denying that Thrasymachus's account of justice is correct, but they can easily admit that it is intelligible and not self-contradictory. Their contention is rather that justice is a different property from the one identified by Thrasymachus and that of this property it is in fact true that there is necessarily a reason or motive for doing actions which have it.

10 Marx-Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz Verlag 1966-) 25: 351-2; Capital vol. 3, translated by Fernbach, David (New York: Random House 1981) 460-1Google Scholar

11 See Wood, AllenKarl Marx (London: Routledge 1981) ch. 9Google Scholar and Marx Against Morality,” in Singer, P. ed. A Companion to Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell 1990) 511-24Google Scholar. Thus in Thrasymachus's view, someone who holds, for instance, that just laws are those made in the interest of the governed is making a fundamental mistake about what justice is. This is precisely the sort of mistake which benefits the rulers and makes the notion of justice so useful to them. Such a person may nevertheless believe correctly that the actually existing laws are just, and they may in fact be just. If a party came to realize that the existing laws benefit the rulers at the expense of the ruled, it might propose a new legal code which benefits the ruled, and argue for these new laws on the ground that they are more just than the present ones. In Thrasymachus's view, their argument would rest on the same confusion by which they had previously been hoodwinked; it would be based on the party's substitution of a vulgar and mystified conception of what justice is for a correct one. There is no sign that the Thrasymachus of Plato's dialogue would have shared the goals of this party, but if he had shared them, then he would still criticize the party for articulating its views in terms of an erroneous and mystified conception of what justice is. What this party wants, he ought to say, is not justice, but rather injustice - and he would add (if he agreed with the party's goals) that this injustice is precisely what would make the proposed laws desirable and worthy of adoption. This, in effect, was Marx's reason for condemning those in the working class movement who advocated socialist distribution on grounds of justice (see Marx-Engels Werke 19:8; Marx Engels Selected Works [New York: International Publishers 1967]325). For what the socialists demand is not a distribution which corresponds to the prevailing (capitalist) mode of production, but rather one which contradicts it. What they demand may be quite all right, but their way of articulating the demand betrays a fundamental misconception about the nature of justice, resting on even more fundamental misconceptions about social reality.

12 Macintyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press 1981, 2d. ed. 1984)Google Scholar; Rawls, Political Liberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1993)Google Scholar

13 Carr, DavidChastity and Adultery,American Philosophical Quarterly 23 (1986) 363-71Google Scholar. Williams's quoted remarks, taken from a 1971 radio broadcast, are cited by Carr on p. 370.

14 Mill, Utilitarianism, ed. Sher, G. (Indianapolis: Hackett 1979) 2830Google Scholar

15 See Kant, Conjectural Beginning of Human History, Kants Schriften, Berlin Academy ed. 8:113.Google Scholar

16 Kant, Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason, Academy ed. 6:151-90Google Scholar

17 Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? Academy ed. 8:35

18 Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Academy ed. 4:431-41Google Scholar

19 Mill, Utilitarianism, 3Google Scholar

20 Kant, Groundwork 4:441-45Google Scholar

21 Human, All-Too-Human,§ 45

22 Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, especially§§ 10-11, 1415Google Scholar

23 Nietzsche, On the Genealogy; of Morals, Second Essay,§ 2; cf. also Human, All-TooHuman, § 96; Mixed Opinions and Maxims,§ 89; The Wanderer and His Shadow, § 48; Daybreak,§§ 9, 14, 16.

24 Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay,§§ 1718Google Scholar

25 Ibid., §§ 5

26 Ibid.,§§ 9, 12-13, 15

27 Ibid.,§ 6

28 Ibid.,§ 19

29 The maximal invention of this sort, Nietzsche thinks, is that of the forgiving God who had to sacrifice himself for our sins because these were too profound and heinous ever to be expiated by any punishment we might undergo: the infinite love and infinite beneficence of such a God, and the infinite debt we incur on its account, is sufficient to provide endless occasions for the most exquisite forms of self-torment (ibid.,§§ 20-21).

30 Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, § 11Google Scholar

31 Ibid.,§ 14

32 Cf. Mill, Utilitarianism, 5051.Google Scholar

33 Freud, Some Character Types Met With in Psychoanalytic Work,Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works (New York: Macmillan 1964-) 19:53Google Scholar. Nietzsche anticipated this point: see Thus Spake Zarathustra, First Part,§ 6: “The Pale Criminal.“

34 Freud, The Ego and the Id, Complete Psychological Works 19:36, 48, 167Google Scholar

35 Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, 184-95Google Scholar

36 “A distinction must be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the … ideological forms in which human beings become conscious of this conflict” (Selected Works, 183).

37 This is obviously true of Caputo, Against Ethics; see also Scott, Charles C.The Question of Ethics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1990).Google Scholar

38 And not only like such things, but, as a matter of culture and institutions, actually entwined with them. Also, the point is not to deny that morality does sometimes protect us from cruelty and barbarism, just as tyrants sometimes do justice among their subjects and abusive husbands sometimes protect their wives.

39 Thrasymachus's radical critique of morality, for example, avoids any threat of self-defeat in just this way. Marx's critique of morality is self-consistent only if the values on which his critique of capitalism rests are non-moral values. Most of the controversy over Marx's anti-moralism comes down to the question whether this is a possible interpretation of the basis of his social critique.

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