Crash Course: Metaethics

Crash Course: Metaethics


Natalia Cecire, a lecturer in English and American literature at Sussex, has embarked upon an interesting project called “Crash Courses for the Desperate”:

Lately I’ve been thinking about what to do with students who suddenly need to get up to speed in a field, and don’t have time to take a course or immerse themselves in it for a year. I’m especially thinking of MA students or students writing an undergrad senior thesis, who need some purchase on the field and can’t just coast on glib summaries anymore, especially if they’re thinking about going on to do further graduate work.

So far what I’ve come up with are some little one-week self-education programs for a few different areas, recognizing that what I’d recommend isn’t necessarily what other people would recommend, and that these might date quickly.

I think this is a great idea. You can see her attempts—in queer theory, modernism, and history of science—here (via Matt McAdam). Cecire’s crash course “syllabi” are fairly spare and each fits on a single page. They include reading suggested works and devising questions about them for the reader to ask him or herself, as well as some further tasks.

Crash courses for the desperate in various philosophical areas could be quite helpful in getting existing students with less comprehensive academic backgrounds up to speed. What I’ll be trying here over the next couple of weeks at DN is taking up different specific areas and inviting readers to submit suggested works to read, central questions to ask, and anything else they might think of as helpful.

Today’s area for discussion is metaethics. What are your suggestions for a “one-week self-education  program” in metaethics?

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Anon
Anon
5 years ago

Mackie: Ethics, chs. 1 and 2 for Error Theory.
Ayer: Language, Truth and Logic ch. 6 for Emotivism
Blackburn: Spreading The Word chs. 5-6 for Quasi RealismReport

Rachel Handley
5 years ago

Alexander Miller: An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics.Report

Fritz McDonald
5 years ago

Shafer-Landau, Moral RealismReport

Kevin DeLapp
Kevin DeLapp
5 years ago

Shafer-Landau’s short book “Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?” could be nicely worked through in a week. Although it’s unapologetically realist, it gives a comprehensive survey of most of the available positions, showing how one debate has grow out of another, and it contains a helpful appendix in which famous arguments in metaethics are recast in standard form. It’s pitched at exactly the pedagogical level Cecire mentions, viz. advanced undergrads or early grads.

I suspect Cecire’s project might also be quite useful for many early-career instructors who often have to go from spending years immersed just in a single specialized field, to suddenly teaching introductory courses on a wide range of topics. These kind of one-week self-education programs would make for excellent reviews or primers!Report

Furry Boots
Furry Boots
5 years ago

This syllabus is much longer than Cecire’s crash courses, but there lots of good stuff in it: https://www.academia.edu/7296502/_Sample_syllabus_Ethics_Before_and_After_Morality

For a general overview it suggests: Darwall, Stephen, Allan Gibbard, and Peter Railton. “Toward Fin de siècle Ethics: Some Trends,” in their Moral Discourse and Practice: Some Philosophical Approaches (Oxford, 1997).
Mackie, J. L. Ethics: Inventing right and wrong (Penguin, 1977).
Miller, Alexander. An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics (2nd ed. Polity, 2013).
Williams, Bernard. Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. (Cambridge, 1993).Report

Matti
Matti
5 years ago

Mark Schroeder’s wonderful Noncognitivism in ethics, for critical yet sympathetic exposition of non-cognitivist theories.Report

Metaethicist
Metaethicist
5 years ago

Subjectivity of values, the first chapter of Inventing Right and Wrong, by J.L. Mackie to start. I’d also read Darwinian Dilemma by Sharon Street. Ayer’s essay on emotivism, ch. 6 of LTL. And then various essays from Russ Shafer-Landau. I take him to be the most prominent realist right now. Maybe something from Railton too, since he and SL have very different ideas about realism.Report

Matt McAadam
Matt McAadam
5 years ago

Cecire’s “crash courses” are much more thoughtful and nuanced and curated than most of what’s been offered here so far. Her lists are not populated with the kind of synthetic works mostly suggested above, but, rather, with works doing the first-order thinking the reader is trying to get up to speed on. This is exactly what’s great about them. I think we can assume someone doesn’t need to be told to pick up an intro level book on a topic to get, say, an intro to it.Report

Fritz McDonald
5 years ago

Matt McAdam:

If you do not find these suggestions sufficiently thoughtful or nuanced or “curated,” perhaps you might be so kind as to offer a syllabus of your own?Report

Matt McAadam
Matt McAadam
5 years ago

Sorry I hurt your feelings, Fritz. I’ve been out of philosophy for a number of years so probably couldn’t intelligently do what you ask. That doesn’t disqualify me from recognizing that the generic and unimaginative suggestions that you and others made are travesties of Cecire’s crash courses.Report

Margaret Atherton
Margaret Atherton
5 years ago

Matt is entirely right. I wish someone would take a look at Cecire’s syllabi and try to replicate them with respect to metaethics. (Not me,obviously, I’m on the learning end here.)Report

Fritz McDonald
5 years ago

My feelings are not hurt! Trust me: I’ve been called worse. I’ve been called worse than “unimaginative” as well.

In any case, I think that your claim that the works mentioned here are “generic” and “synthetic” is false. In fact, I’m not quite sure I understand what you mean by “synthetic” or “first order.” The works mentioned here, such as the Shafer-Landau book I mentioned, are among the most significant, original contributions to the recent metaethics literature. Shader-Landau’s book is the most relevant, innovative, book length treatment of moral realism since G.E. Moore. Similar claims could be made about some of the works cited by others. Schroeder is one of the leading current figures in the field. You could say the same about Street. Anyone who doesn’t know the work of Blackburn or Gibbard or Railton is missing a great deal of contemporary metaethics.

I grant your point that none of us have offered a list similar to Cecire’s. However, I think spitballing/crowdsourcing a list is a way to do something that gets part of the way there.

A more thorough overview that I actually think is a better, albeit dated, introduction to the field than Cecire’s type of lists is the Darwall, Gibbard, and Railton essay cited above. The Darwall, et al essay directs readers to relevant readings.Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

For what it is worth, this thread has been effective: just ordered the Shafer-Landau book.Report

Fritz McDonald
5 years ago

If you really want to dive into the deep end of the pool by reading something rigorous and hard, go for Schroeder’s Being For, especially if you have some formal logic background.Report

Nathan Kellen
Nathan Kellen
5 years ago

Sharon Street’s PhilCompass paper “What is Constructivism in Ethics and Metaethics?” is a fantastic opinionated introduction to the realism-antirealism debate in metaethics, and includes a discussion of expressivism as well.Report

ejrd
ejrd
5 years ago

Miller’s book really is excellent.Report

Daniel Muñoz
Daniel Muñoz
5 years ago

This is nothing like a comprehensive list, but these are some favorites:

(1) The Myth of Morality, Ch. 1 – Richard Joyce
(2) ‘Internalism about Reasons: Sad but True?’ – Kate Manne
(3) ‘Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?’ – H.A. Prichard
(4) ‘Moral Arguments’ – Philippa Foot
(5) Ethics Without Principles, Chs. 2-3 – Jonathan Dancy
(6) ‘Acting for the Right Reasons, Abilities, and Obligation’ – Errol Lord
(7) ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ – Anscombe
(8) The Right and the Good, Ch. 2 – W.D. Ross
(9) ‘Two Distinctions in Goodness’ – Korsgaard
(10) ‘Moral Dilemmas and Consistency’ – MarcusReport

Aaron Garrett
Aaron Garrett
5 years ago

David Brink’s “Moral Realism and the Sceptical Arguments from Disagreement and Queerness” in conjunction with Mackie is a great way in.Report

Mark van Roojen
5 years ago

I recently had to think about something along these lines for a book I was working on that is meant to be read along with primary sources. It’s longer than a week’s worth of readings, and has a few features that make more sense in the context I was using it for. But, FWIW (and please forgive the inconsistent formatting as I did a bunch of cutting and pasting for this comment):

Some Problems:

Problems for a Common Subject Matter:
Mackie, J. (1977). Ethics: Inventing right and wrong: Penguin UK. chapter 1, in particular §8 pp. 36-38.
Moore, G. E. (1903). Principia Ethica: Cambridge: Cambridge UP. chapter 1.
Hare (1952) The Language of Morals (OUP) chapter 10 especially, pp. 148-9

Epistemology:
Harman, G. (1977). The nature of morality: An introduction to ethics: Oxford University Press, Chapter .
Street, S (2006). A Darwinian dilemma for realist theories of value. Philosophical Studies, 127 (1), 109-166.

Internalism:
Williams, B. (1980). “Internal and External Reasons,” In R. Harrison (ed.), Rational Action: Cambridge University Press.
Korsgaard, C. M. (1986). Skepticism about practical reason. The Journal of Philosophy, 5-25.
Smith, M. (1994). The Moral Problem: Blackwell, chapters 3 & 4.

Positions Taken in Reaction:

Error Theory:
Mackie, J. (1977). Ethics: Inventing right and wrong: Penguin UK. chapter 1,
West, C. (2010). “Business as usual? The error theory, internalism, and the function of morality,” In Joyce & Kirchin (eds.), A World Without Values: Springer, 183-198.

(Relatively) Simple Subjectivism:
Harman, G. (1978). What is Moral Relativism?. In Values and Morals (pp. 143-61): Springer.

Less Simple Subjectivism
Firth, R. (1952). Ethical absolutism and the ideal observer. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 12(3), 317-345.
McDowell, J. (1988). “Values and secondary qualities,” Honderich (ed.) Morality and objectivity. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

NonCognitivism:
Ayer, A. J. (1946). Language, truth and logic (Rev. ed.). London, Victor Gollancz., chapter 6,
R. M. Hare (1952) The Language of Morals (OUP) chapters 1 and 10
Blackburn (1985) Spreading the Word, (OUP) Chapter 6

Fictionalism:
Nolan, D., Restall, G., & West, C. (2005). “Moral fictionalism versus the rest,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 83(3), 307-330.
Kalderon, M. (2005). Moral fictionalism: Oxford University Press is longer but nice too.

Externalism:
Foot, P. (1972). “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives”. The Philosophical Review, 305-316.

Synthetic Naturalism:
Boyd, R. N. (1988). How to be a moral realist. In G. Sayre-McCord ed.), Essays on Moral Realism: Cornell University Press., or
Railton, P. (1986). Moral realism. The Philosophical Review, 163-207 or
Sturgeon, N. L. (2006). “Ethical naturalism” in D. Copp (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory: Oxford University Press.
Horgan, T., & Timmons, M. (1992). Troubles for new wave moral semantics: the ‘open question argument’revived. Philosophical Papers, 21(3), 153-175.

Moral Functionalism/Network Analyses:
Jackson, F., & Pettit, P. (1995). “Moral functionalism and Moral Motivation,” The Philosophical Quarterly, 20-40.

Nonnaturalism:
Shafer-Landau, R. (2006). “Ethics as Philosophy: A Defense of Ethical Nonnaturalism,” In Horgan & Timmons (ed.), Metaethics after Moore (pp. 209). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Dancy, J. (2006). “Nonnaturalism,” Oxford handbook of ethical thought. Oxford University Press, 122-145.Report

Mark van Roojen
5 years ago

And Mark Schroeder’s Noncogntivism book is (as Matti notes above) a really first rate book aimed at advanced undergrads but enlightening for anyone. If I were to expand the above it would be among the first additions.Report

Anon Grad
Anon Grad
5 years ago

No one has mentioned any Kantian constructivist pieces yet–I think the best short piece for introducing some of the general ideas of such a view would be Korsgaard’s “Realism and Constructivism in Twentieth-Century Moral Philosophy”.Report

David Sobel
David Sobel
5 years ago

I second the suggestion of Shafer-Landau’s Whatever Happened to Good and Evil for people who are not already trained up in philosophy. It is great. The other suggestions here strike me as quite good but the Shafer-Landau is really accessible, more so than most of the other stuff.Report

Hanno Sauer
5 years ago

Michael Huemer’s “Ethical Intuitionism” is the correct answer. Best book on metaethics ever written?Report

MEist
MEist
5 years ago

omg the photoReport

Jeremy
Jeremy
5 years ago

David Enoch’s excellent Taking Morality Seriously needs to be mentioned. Enoch argues for what he calls Robust Realism, a rather radical, exciting version of non-naturalist metaethical and meta normative realism. (His website also lists some papers of his that you can read for free.)

A good survey of Metaethics — including many of the papers mentioned already, plus a few more important ones — is Foundations of Ethics, edited by Shafer-Landau and Terrance Cunio.

As mentioned already a couple times, probably the most highly recommended general introduction to Metaethics is Miller’s. But I also want to recommend Andrew Fischer’s fantastic Metaethics: an Introduction, which Fischer had originally set-out to write as a kind of introduction to Miller’s more difficult introduction. To be able to simplify a field like Metaethics as effectively as Fischer does is a remarkable service for the novice.Report

William
William
1 year ago

I found Shafer-Landau’s *Moral Realism: A Defence* to be extremely comprehensive, and to have an extremely insightful formulation of constructivism and other rival accounts. Its only flaw is not including an extended discussion of error theory or many “offence” (as opposed to defence) arguments for moral realism, which I might suggest *The Myth of Morality*, ch.1 by Joyce to supplement the former and *Taking Morality Seriously* by Enoch, ch. 2-3 for the latter.

*Moral Realism: A Defence* might take a bit longer than a week to read, but I think it depends on how intensive your plan is.Report