What Is Morality?

Whenever you think you have an obvious answer to a question that has been debated for several thousand years by some of the greatest philosophers, and you’re just a college student, one would be justified in presuming you to be a bit arrogant.

Of course, while I try to be a bit humble about it, this describes me all to well – on both accounts of atheism and morality, and several other things. Whether this counts as grounds to dismiss all of my ideas without considering them – well, that’s your fallacy to commit.

Very few other topics have had more ink and electrons dedicated to them than studying the topic of morality. However, despite tens of thousands of pages, all that remains is the same amount of confusion as where we started. It should be obvious that if a process goes through thousands of years of thinking and emerges with nothing to show for it, something isn’t just wrong with the answers, but with the process that is generating those answers.

Which Problem, Exactly?

When it comes to morality, there are actually two types, descriptive ethics and normative ethics (the terms morality and ethics are often used interchangeably). Descriptive ethics describes what a society, group, or individual currently thinks is “right” and “wrong”, whereas normative ethics describes what a society, group, or individual should say is “right” or “wrong”, or what actually is “right” or “wrong”, if there is such a thing.

Descriptive ethics is a question for anthropologists, and not all that interesting to us at the moment. So we’re going to set aside descriptive ethics and focus on normative ethics. Within normative ethics, there are three different key questions to answer, each getting more general:

  • The question of applied ethics: Which specific things are right and wrong? Is eating meat wrong? Is abortion wrong? Is murder wrong?

  • The question of ethics: Which processes should we use to answer questions of applied ethics? What makes eating meat right or wrong?

  • The question of meta-ethics: What does morality describe? What is “right” referring to, exactly?

Luckily, all three of those questions can typically be answered by answering these five questions:

  1. Do moral statements like “Abortion is wrong” actually communicate something that is truth-apt?

  2. If yes, do moral statements communicate something that can sometimes be true?

  3. If yes, are moral statements justified by appealing to descriptions of the world?

  4. If yes, are these descriptions something other than people’s opinions?

  5. If yes, which descriptions should we specifically focus on?

Moral Dispute

Unfortunately, there is disagreement on every step of those five questions, and there have been for centuries. It seems like there has been little progress made in this philosophical field.

Take someone like Aristotle. He believes that statements like “abortion is wrong” can communicate something that is truth-apt, potentially true, a description of the world, independent of opinion, and absolute, because “abortion is wrong” refers to “abortion is not virtuous”. (Note that’s what the statement would refer to, not the statement that Aristotle or other virtue ethicists would necessarily accept as true.)

Kant agrees that “abortion is wrong” communicates something that is truth-apt, potentially true, a description of the world, independent of opinion, and absolute, but disagrees on question #5, because “abortion is wrong” refers to “we have a rational duty to not preform abortions”.

And someone like Bentham also agrees with Aristotle and Kant all the way to question #5, but says that we shouldn’t care about virtue or duty, but rather should say that “abortion is wrong” refers to the claim that “abortion does not maximize the pleasure of all sentient beings”.

Additionally, someone like Alonzo Fyfe agrees with Aristotle, Kant, and Bentham until question #5, instead suggesting that “abortion is wrong” refers to the claim that “the desire to have an abortion is not a desire that we have, all things considered and all else being equal, a strong reason to promote”.

And not to be outdone, Locke disagrees on #5, claiming that “abortion is wrong” means that “abortion is not something everyone would agree to if signing a hypothetical social contract”.

Lastly, Rand disagrees with the whole crew on #5, saying that “abortion is wrong” is actually referring to the claim that “having an abortion is contrary to an individual’s rational self-interest.

Morality Rooted in Preferences

And others take different paths on other points in the line of questions. Ockham disagrees on #4, saying that we should appeal to an opinion because “abortion is wrong” means that “abortion is contrary to the commands of God”.

Railton argues that we should also appeal to opinion, but this time “abortion is wrong” has nothing to do with God, and instead means “abortion is not what a perfectly rational and fully informed person would approve of”.

In further disagreement, Westermarck states that “abortion is wrong” means “abortion is not what our society approves of”.

Lastly for this group, Harman also disagrees, thinks that being moral is about what the individual approves of.

Morality as an Irreducible Truth

Others disagree on #3. Boyd thinks that “abortion is wrong” is a truth-apt, potentially true statement, but is irreducible, thus not justifiable by appeal to other facts.

Morality as Systematically False

Others disagree on #2. Mackie holds that while morality is something that is truth-apt, it is not something that can be true, because statements about morality refer to properties that don’t exist, like intrinsic value.

Morality as Not Truth-Apt

In case you’re sensing a pattern, others disagree on #1. Stevenson believes that morality cannot be truth-apt because it does not express a proposition. Instead, something like “abortion is wrong” is saying “Abortion! Boo! Ick! Hiss!” or something like “I disapprove of abortion, do so as well”.

So there is dispute on every level of moral argument, and it’s our job to see what is going on and unravel all this if we want to arrive at a moral theory that we can use confidently, if such a thing exists considering #1 and #2.


So the current philosophy of ethics / morality / normativity seems pretty shaken up – there are a lot of theories all over the place about how moral language functions, whether moral facts exists, and what we should do / ought do / must do. In response to this, I’m starting this series where I seek to get to the bottom of all this.

In the next post, I’ll ditch all these definitions and seek to provide my own account for the meaning of things like “good” and “ought”.


An earlier draft of this essay appeared on my old blog. This essay was followed up in “A Meta-Ethics FAQ”.