A position statement on metaethics (or, the package deal fallacy)

“Metaethics” means taking a step away from standard ethical-slash-moral questions (is abortion morally permissible? is it permissible to bomb civilians if it will end the war sooner and prevent a greater number of deaths?) and asking questions about the questions. Do we know the answers to any moral questions? If so, how do we know them? Do moral statements even express claims that could be true or false? If they are do, are any of the moral claims people ordinarily make true? And so on. I’ve struggled with these kinds of questions for a long time, but I’ve finally gotten a straightforward personal position statement on them.

Here it is: with a solid majority of the meta-ethical questions I’ve heard in my life, I have no idea what to say about them. Nevertheless, what is definitely not true is that right and wrong is simply a matter of what some person or persons says or thinks. For example, cutting off the clitorises of little girls couldn’t be right for some culture simply because they believe it’s right in that culture. And even if there were a god, he couldn’t make genocide right simply on his say-so. Views that say otherwise are completely crazy.

The end.

The epiphany I’ve had here–and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get straight in my head–is that the question of whether right and wrong is simply a matter of what some person or persons says or thinks is a different question than other questions. Therefore, if that’s the main question we care about, we don’t have to worry so much about the other questions, because the answers to the other questions mostly don’t entail an answer to the question we care about.


I tend to have little patience for people who insist on confusing the question of whether there are any gods with other issues. But when I find myself screwing an issue like this up, I wonder if there may be a major human cognitive bias lurking somewhere in the area. A hard-wired tendency to see individual claims not as individual claims, but as package deals that must stand or fall together. While I’m no fan of Ayn Rand, I have to say she beat me to this one.

From the archives: The Sam Harris-William Lane Craig debate
Bill O'Reilly's argument for the existence of God
Peter van Inwagen's argument for Christianity
My looong review of William Lane Craig's book Reasonable Faith