📆 March 26, 2023 | ⏱️ 3 minute read

Intuition for Metaethics

Shortly after publishing “Making Sense of Metaethics”, I realized that it’s not obvious how I reached my conclusion without some more context. I’m making this entry to provide that context.

In Making Sense of Metaethics, I argue two things:

  1. Moral statements can communicate emotions, attitudes, and imperatives, but they’re mainly stated as facts.
  2. The factual component of moral statements refers to one’s values.

If you simply listen to the way people use moral language, the first conclusion is pretty self-evident. The second however, is not. So here’s where my intuition comes from:

It starts with a thought experiment that helps determine if a claim is incoherent. Imagine two separate realities. They are completely identical except that in one, some statement is true and in the other it’s false. To be clear, when I say “reality”, I’m also including consciousness, parts of the physical universe which are unobservable, etc.

With coherent claims, a reality where the claim is true differs from one where it’s false. There may be some exceptions depending on how you interpret the thought experiment, but that’s not relevant for this entry. A reality where there’s a tree in my front yard is materially different from one where there’s no tree in my front yard. A reality where objects on Earth fall at 9.8m/s² is verifiably different from one where they fall at 2.0m/s².

This thought experiment also works for subjective claims like “Your green is different from my green.” We seem to be blocked from testing such a claim, but we can still imagine how two realities, one where that statement is true and the other where it’s false, are different. So it seems to be a coherent claim to make.

I don’t want to get too off-topic, but I want to apply the thought experiment to one more test case to demonstrate how it’s useful: How would a reality where free will exists be different from an identical reality without free will? It wouldn’t be any different because free will is incoherent.

So say killing is morally wrong in reality A and not morally wrong in reality B. How does killing being wrong in reality A make reality A different from reality B? Ethical theories which can’t provide a definite answer to this question are incoherent because whether they’re true or false literally makes no difference in reality. By the same reasoning, entire categories of ethical theories can be swiftly ruled out as incoherent.

So when I was defining moral semantics in my entry “Making Sense of Metaethics”, my goal was to figure out a way of interpreting moral statements coherently. I accomplished that by interpreting moral statements as claims about how one’s values are satisfied or inhibited. This way, we gain several desirable properties of a moral semantics:

As I’ve said before, I think moral claims can also express emotions, attitudes, and imperatives. But interpreting moral statements exclusively as emotions, attitudes, and imperatives doesn’t really line up with the way people use moral language, it doesn’t put morals in the realm of science, and thus it doesn’t allow for moral reasoning.

So that’s why I define moral semantics in terms of values. If there’s another way to define moral statements that also yields these properties, I’m not aware of it. So that’s where I get my intuition come from.

If there are any questions, get in contact with me and I’ll do my best to answer them.