Meta-Ethics: Think Unusually Deep About Why Things Matter In Life

Maarten van Doorn
Jul 12, 2018 · 9 min read

What are the most important things in life?

Here’s my answer:

1. Family

2. Friends

3. Work

What does your list look like?

I hope this exercise didn’t consume all your thinking power — we’re just getting started.

Second question: Why are these the items on your list; what about them makes them important?

Be warned: this question has been known to cause puzzled expression on human faces.

Have your answer? Good.

It should look something like this:

‘Family, friends and work are the most valuable things in life because they fulfill criterion X’.

They make me happy, they are the things I care most about, they are the most valuable things that exist — something like that.

Now, at step three, I’d like to know why that measure is an adequate test for figuring out what matters in life.

Fill in the blanks:

‘Criterion X gets at what matters in life because … ?’.

At this point, you’re probably off to the bar to drink and watch the world cup, wondering if I’m always this annoying and thanking God that you don’t have to deal with me in real life.

Be that as it may, the question of how to ultimately — at bottom, at the end of the chain of why-questions — justify judgments about which things matter in life is a very important one.

What is the reason that certain things are important in life?

And in virtue of what is that reason a good reason?

In philosophy, such questions are studied by those who do ‘meta-ethics’. Meta-ethicists, like me, aim to explain how ethical thought and talk fit into reality.

Let’s take a look — it’s terribly exciting.

What ‘makes’ ethical judgments true?

“The question of truth and the question of life’s meaning are the most fundamental questions of meta-ethics.” -David Wiggins

We have been asking ourselves three questions: What matters in life? What is the reason that these things (and not others) matter in life? And finally, in virtue of what is that reason a good reason for importance in life?

If anything, it’s likely that one of two possible ideas just popped in your head.

You might think that anyone who understands what ‘to matter in life’ even means, knows that these (say family, friends, work) are the things that matter — they are, as matter of fact, the important things in life.

Congratulations, you’re an ethical realist.

According to them, the reason that (say) family matters is because it is a fact about reality that family is important: there are discoverable facts about what is important in life just like there are facts about physics.

There are ethical facts, independent of us.

Alternatively, you might think that what makes family, friends and work valuable is not ‘reality’, but that the reason they are important is something about me — that I care about those things, for example.

There are no ethical facts independent of us.

Congratulations, you’re an ethical anti-realist.

Ethical anti-realists deny that the universe houses ethical facts, and say instead that things are valuable in virtue of some relation to the person for whom they are valuable.

It might be fun to think about this for a second and see what your intuition tells you.

How do you think that ethics fits into reality? Do ethical facts exist independent of us?

There are ethical facts

“Ethical facts are as real and as ontologically respectable as any [other type of facts].” -David Enoch

Ethical realists respond to these meta-ethical quandaries by insisting that the universe contains ethical facts.

If a realist disagrees with my list, he will say that it’s wrong because it’s incompatible with how the world is.

For example, religious ethical realists will think that I’m making a mistake in not putting God on my list of top priorities in life, because it’s a fact of reality that God is the most important thing that exists. Saying that God is not the most important thing in life is wrong for the same reason as it is a mistake to say that spiders have six legs (they have eight), that water is white (it’s colorless), that the earth is flat (it’s round) and that the speed of light is infinite (it’s 299.792.458 m/s) — these statements are inaccurate because as a matter of fact the universe isn’t like that.

Ethical realism states there are laws of ethics like there are laws of nature: as with statements about the speed of light, statements about what one should do are likewise true when they correctly describe reality.

The main problem with this is that it can offer no explanation where further explanation seems to be needed.

Marry Harry or Barry? Your country or your family?

Let me offer an explanation for that.

In most circumstances, if you can save a drowning stranger at the cost of ruining your new shoes, the answer to the question, ‘Why does the fact that the act would save her life have greater weight than the fact that it would ruin your shoes?’ can reasonably be ‘Those are the facts.’

There are other cases — ‘hard cases’ — however, in which further explanation — explanation beyond ‘that’s just how things are’ — is reasonably demanded, and the realist cannot provide it.

How much should you give to charity? Should you have one child, two, five, or none? Which of two careers should you pursue, all things considered — one in the arts or one in finance? Marry Harry or Barry? Should you care for your family or serve your country?

The realist must hold that the fact that one thing (family) is more important than another (country) has no further answer other than ‘That’s just how things are’ and that, consequently, the reason that you should do this and not do that is nothing else than reality itself (or ‘That’s just how things are’).

However, there remains an unnerving degree of mystery as to why cognition of a piece of reality should compel me to act in a certain way: a theory that could explain why someone does the right thing from a third-person perspective could nevertheless fail to justify the action from the agent’s own, first-person perspective and so fail to support its claims about what this agent should do. Realism doesn’t give the right kind of explanation of why some things in life matter more than others.

Saying ‘that’s just how things are’ seems to be the wrong thing to say — when it comes to practical value judgments, merely citing alleged facts about what the world is like doesn’t get at the right thing. It misunderstands the puzzle.

In hard cases about what you should do, isn’t it unsatisfying to rest with ‘That’s just how things are’?

Ethical realism, however, seems committed to saying that there is no further explanation to be had.

There are no ethical facts

“To matter is to matter from the point of view of someone.” -Sharon Street

Realism tells a clear story about what the reasons why we should care for amount to (they are facts about reality), but you might feel that, in hard cases, it struggles to fittingly explain why such facts about how things settle what I should do.

Is it really a fact about reality that family is more important than country like it’s a fact that spiders have eight legs?

‘Just how things are’ is unacceptable because we strongly feel that I have something to say about whether friends are or are not more important than work or whether I should serve my country or take care of my family: the correct answer to such questions is not exclusively determined by how things are, but also has something to do with me.

That connection is the guiding intuition that ethical anti-realists build on. According to them, there are no ethical facts independent of us.

For example, I might stay home to care for my parents because it follows in a deep sense from who I am that I have most reason to value their health over patriotism. If you are another kind of person, it is not unlikely that you, in fact, have good reason to go and serve your country.

The absence of facts about what matters in life opens the possibility that you and I can disagree about whether friends or work is more important, without it being the case that one of us is wrong.

However, that doesn’t mean that a judgment about what one should do cannot be in error.

For judgments about what one should do, it’s not reality that we should look at. Rather, we should investigate whether this judgment withstands scrutiny from the standpoint of other judgments of importance that I already accept. An ethical statement can only be right or wrong ‘from somewhere’.

This was a complicated step, but what it amounts to is that you can still make a mistake by your own lights. The truth or falsity of value judgments depends on the standpoint of the person who’s making the judgment.

For instance, if family is my number one priority, then I should allocate more time to meeting new women than I currently do (philosophy departments and hangouts in Budapest suffer from a worrisome lack of female attendees), but I don’t do that and that’s stupid. It’s a mistake by my own standards.

Really, Jack? Another one?

To sum up: anti-realism holds that the truth of any value judgment is relative to other value judgments of the person who makes the judgment.

The problem with this is that there are cases in which we want to say that people really are making a mistake about what to do, and not only by their own lights.

Let’s take a nice forceful example.

Imagine Jack the Ripper, the infamous 19th-century serial killer.

Let’s stipulate that he cares a lot about killing people and that the value judgment that killing other people is the most important thing in life does follow from his standpoint.

If I care a lot about killing people, and not at all about the suffering of others, does that mean I have justified my choice to devote my time and energy to killing people (after all, that is what I care about, and therefore it is what I value in life, and therefore I spend my life doing it)?

It does not. Jack the Ripper was wrong.

If what makes some value judgment true is some formal relation with our other value judgments then it could turn out that a person really has most reason to kill innocent people. But, we are inclined to think, you never have most reason to do that and if you think you do, then you are mistaken. Hence, what makes a value judgment true cannot be some connection to the other value judgments I make.

The Holy Grail

Phew, that was a lot of fun to write.

Let’s see where we are.

According to ethical anti-realism, the ultimate source of a value judgment’s authority comes from within. However, ethical truth and falsity seem to be more objective than this theory can account for: are my own standards all that matters in determining what is most important in life?

According to ethical realism, the ultimate source of a value judgment’s authority comes from reality. However, ethical truth and falsity seem to be less objective than this theory can account for: are my own standards irrelevant in determining what is most important in life?

As you can see, there seems to be either too much objectivity or not enough objectivity.

So why not take an in-between position?

It’s not that easy — a middle ground is quite hard to come by in this debate. What would such a theory look like?

Either ethical facts exist, or they do not exist.

If they exist, then we have an objective benchmark by which to assess value judgments and ‘that’s just how things are’ is the ultimate explanation for why (say) family is more important than friends.

If they do not exist, then in virtue of what, exactly, could Jack the Ripper’s ethical judgments be mistaken, if not by his own lights?

By contrast, when we contemplate examples like Jack’s, we have the strong sense that Jack is somehow failing to ‘see’ what’s true about how to live.

Although, in ethics, this objectivist thought has its own explanatory problems, the gut feeling that Jack makes a ‘real’ mistake is hard to shake.

We want a theory to explain exactly what such a person’s mistake would consist in when he or she fails to ‘see’ what is true about how to live, while accommodating both the objectivity of realism and the first-person perspective of anti-realism.

That would be The Holy Grail in secular meta-ethics.

Thoughts, anyone?


There’s more to that

If you’ve got the solution to this puzzle, you don’t really need to subscribe to my personal blog because I’m not sure what you would learn from the weekly dose of similarly mind-expanding ideas.

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Maarten van Doorn

Written by

PhD candidate in philosophy. What do you think you know, and how do you think you know it? Get ideas that make you think: maartenvandoorn.com

The Understanding Project

Do you believe that we can do better at playing the game of life? If you engage with us, you’ll get answers.

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