DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L145-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2012
Retrieved September 21, 2020, from

1. History

Contemporary metaethics often dates its emergence as a distinct subfield of moral philosophy to the publication of G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica in 1903, although many Moorean lines of argument can be found in  Henry Sidgwick’s earlier Methods of Ethics (1874). In his work Moore distinguished sharply between two questions: (1) what things are good? and (2) what is goodness? He accused previous moral philosophers – most notably the utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill – of having conflated these questions by claiming to have identified what the property of goodness itself is (metaethical) on the basis of identifying which things possess it (ethical). Moore proceeded provocatively to claim that goodness was a primitive, unanalyzable property, launching more than a century of vigorous debate.

However, philosophers have been asking questions that we would now classify as metaethical since the dawn of moral philosophy. It was Plato who posed one of the most central metaethical questions: do we judge things good because we first desire them, or do we rather desire things because we first judge them to be good? And most of the major moral philosophers throughout history – including Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Mill and Nietzsche – have theorized about morality’s metaphysical, epistemological and psychological foundations.

Moore’s sharp separation of metaethics from normative ethics occurred in the context of philosophy’s so-called linguistic turn. During the early twentieth century Anglo-American philosophy was dominated by the view that philosophical questions are at base problems about language and can be solved through a better understanding of the meaning of the words with which those questions are expressed. Moral philosophy is a case in point. From around the 1930s, noncognitivists (or ‘expressivists’) like A. J.  Ayer (1936) claimed that normative ethics, conceived of as a search for moral truths, was based on a confusion about the real function of moral words, which is not (as normative ethics seems to assume) to predicate properties and state facts, but instead to express the speaker’s feelings towards something or to perform commands (see Emotivism; Expressivism; Metaethical theories, hybrid; Objectivity §1; Prescriptivism). If making a moral claim is merely expressing one’s subjective feelings then it would not seem to be included in the job description of a philosopher, whose task is the identification of truths. Hence in 1952 R. M. Hare could write that ‘ethics, as I conceive it, is the logical study of the language of morals’. Due to this kind of thinking, language-focused metaethics reigned supreme in moral philosophy through the middle of the century.

Starting from the 1950s normative ethics began to enjoy a renaissance and metaethics temporarily saw a concomitant decline. This was due to a variety of factors including disillusionment with the philosophical rationales for the linguistic turn and subsequent revival of substantive metaphysics, recognition of deep problems for noncognitivist views in ethics, and the development of new ways of doing normative moral philosophy. One effect of these developments, however, was an explosion of new theoretical possibilities within metaethics itself. Consequently, metaethics is today a thriving subfield with a remarkable array of theoretical positions championed by one philosopher or another.

Citing this article:
Finlay, Stephen. History. Metaethics, 2012, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L145-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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