What is Metaethics?

Catherine Wilson Feb 9, 2016

Metaethics is the study of moral thought and moral language. Rather than addressing questions about what practices are right and wrong, and what our obligations to other people or future generations are – questions of so-called ‘normative’ ethics – metaethics asks what morality actually is. The metaethicist is interested in whether there can be knowledge of moral truths, or only moral feelings and attitudes, and asks how we understand moral discourse as compared with other forms of speech and writing.

Do the opinions people express about such issues as vegetarianism, warfare, abortion, inequality, genetic engineering, and punishment count as anything other than their personal beliefs, competing for dominance in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ but impossible ever to justify? On the one hand, this seems like the correct view to take, insofar as there is no agreed-on ‘decision procedure’ for ethical controversies. On the other, it is alarming to think that all moral opinions of whatever stripe are equally reputable and respectable – or that all are equally false. So we tend to waver between dogmatism, the conviction that our personal opinions must be right – though they are impossible to ‘prove’ and are disputed by other people – and nihilism, the position that there is no moral knowledge.

Part of the philosophy curriculum, metaethics is also of interest to many readers outside the academy. It is nevertheless a somewhat difficult subject to learn and to teach. Many books take the reader through a set of theories, including moral realism, intuitionism, expressivism, and emotivism, that offer rival accounts of how moral thought and language work. For the professional philosopher, knowledge of the ‘isms’ in all their variety is important, but in my experience it isn’t the best way to get into this fascinating subject.

Metaethics from a First Person Standpoint employs a different approach. Its aim is to show that moral knowledge is possible, not by defending or attacking the ‘isms,’ but by leading the reader down a thought pathway that begins with total scepticism about moral opinions. I try to show how to escape from moral nihilism in a series of carefully plotted steps leading from reflections on acting in one’s own self-interest, to reflections on acting in accord with social expectations, to reflections on acting in accord with moral norms.

My model was Descartes’s Meditations, which aimed to give readers a new conception of physical reality and their knowledge of it. Descartes began with hyperbolic doubt – the hypothesis that he was deceived in all his beliefs and experiences by an omnipotent ‘evil genius’ – and, by a series of small steps, emerged from it, overthrew the hypothesis, and discovered that he in fact knew a great deal about his mind, his body, and the external world.

There is much that is controversial in each step of Descartes’s argument. But one of the enjoyable aspects of reading his book is that it is possible to debate and discuss his argumentation, which is extremely lucid and presented in a clear and orderly way. I was aiming for the same kind of clarity, well aware that there remains plenty of room for disagreement about each step of my argumentation.

Overall, I hoped to make the sometimes rather dry and abstract study of metaethics more relevant, personal, and enjoyable. All the ‘isms,’ I believe, have something valuable to contribute to our understanding of moral thought and language, but none of them offer a satisfactory account on their own. For the reader planning to continue in this field, or even the reader who is already well-versed in the literature, I include many references and signposts to contemporary metaethical theories.


Metaethics from a First Person Standpoint is published in Open Access by Open Book Publishers and freely available to read here. It presupposes no prior training in philosophy and is a must-read for philosophers, students and general readers interested in gaining a better understanding of morality as a personal philosophical quest.

Catherine Wilson

Catherine Wilson is the Anniversary Professor of Philosophy at the University of York.