Meta-ethics is a slippery and sometimes frustrating subject, but it's also important. In particular, backdrop meta-ethical assumptions (and confusions) structure our approach to ethics in deep ways -- e.g., what we expect the true normative ethics to look like, how we relate the authority of moral norms, and how we understand moral epistemology. But beyond this, and for all its dry abstraction, meta-ethics (for better or for worse) is where secular folks go to talk about the meaning of life -- even if they don't put it in those terms. That is, meta-ethics is ultimately about what makes anything worth doing at all, about the basic structure of our existential situation as decision-makers. And our views about that inflect our orientation towards large swaths of life more generally.

My own work in this area tends to focus on two broad types of meta-ethical views:

  • Robust, non-naturalist normative realism, on which there are mind-independent normative facts that are irreducibly "over and above" facts about the natural world. (This is a view associated with philosophers like Derek Parfit, Thomas Nagel, and David Enoch, and it's fairly popular in some parts of the philosophy community.)
  • More reductionist and naturalist (subjectivist, anti-realist) meta-ethical views, on which the natural world is all there is, and normativity is grounded in facts about what we care about and choose to fight for. (There are a bunch of views in this broad vicinity -- but I don't think the differences between them as are substantive and important as the difference between this whole class of views and non-naturalist realism.)

My own sympathies are with the latter sort of view, and I think the difference matters. However, both the views have problems. In particular:

Problems for non-naturalist realism:

  • The biggest problem for realism, I think, is that it doesn't give us the right type of epistemic access to the normative facts it posits. (I explore this in "The ignorance of normative realism bot.")
  • For closely related reasons (and at least on an externalist construal), it also leaves us motivationally alienated from the normative truths, which could have absolutely no connection with what we want or care about. (I explore this is "Alienation and meta-ethics (or: is it possible that you should maximize helium?)")
  • Finally, it makes the value of actual, concrete things in the world conditional on the existence of a type of "normative frosting," floating on top of the world, without which joy, love, friendship, and so on would have no value. But we can make decisions just fine without this frosting to guide us. (I explore this in "The despair of normative realism bot" -- see especially the last few sections.)

Problems for anti-realism/subjectivism:

  • The biggest problem for subjectivism, I think, is that it deprives your decision-making of any external standard to validate it or give it authority, and so decision-making (and interactions with others -- including efforts to help them) can begin to look like "imposing your arbitrary will." (I explore this in "Subjectivism and moral authority," and "In search of benevolence (or: what should you get Clippy for Christmas?)").
  • Some hope that what you would decide/want/care about, under certain idealized conditions, can provide the right kind of external standard. But I don't think it does. Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself. (I explore this in "On the limits of idealized values"; see also "A ghost" for a gesture at a type of idealization.).

The problems for realism, here, tend to stem from its putting normativity too "far away" -- from your mind, from your heart, and from the world. The problems for anti-realism, by contrast, tend to stem from its putting normativity too "close" -- that is, making what you should do too much a product of you, rather than of something beyond yourself.

I'm hoping to write few additional essays on topics in this vicinity soon -- in particular, on how to act in light of uncertainty about meta-ethics, what the best form of normative realism looks like, and how anti-realists should think about the process of influencing the values of others.


Seeing more whole

On looking out of your own eyes.

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Why should ethical anti-realists do ethics?

Who needs a system if you’re free?

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Against meta-ethical hedonism

Can the epistemology of consciousness save moral realism and redeem experience machines? No.

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Against the normative realist’s wager

If you find a button that gives you a hundred dollars if a certain controversial meta-ethical view is true, but you and your family get burned alive if that view is false, should you press the button? No.

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The ignorance of normative realism bot

This essay lays out what I see as the strongest objection to normative realism: namely, that it leaves us without the right type of epistemic access to the normative facts it posits. To illustrate, I discuss various robots in unfortunate epistemic situations. Realism makes ours analogous.

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On the limits of idealized values

Contra some meta-ethical views, you can’t forever aim to approximate the self you would become in idealized conditions. You have to actively create yourself, often in the here and now.

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Subjectivism and moral authority

Reflections on the sense in which subjectivism about meta-ethics deprives morality of authority.

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The despair of normative realism bot

We don’t need non-natural normative facts to tell us what to do. We can decide for ourselves.

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A ghost

On a thought experiment I find useful in thinking about what to do.

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Alienation and meta-ethics (or: is it possible you should maximize helium?)

Can what you should do hold no appeal whatsoever?

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