In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Metaethics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Surveys
  • Reference Works and Online Resources
  • Moore and the Open Question Argument
  • Intuitionism and Non-Naturalism
  • Response Dependence
  • Constructivism

Philosophy Metaethics
Alex Miller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0073


Metaethics can be described as the philosophical study of the nature of moral judgment. It is concerned with such questions as: Do moral judgments express beliefs or rather desires and inclinations? Are moral judgments apt to be assessed in terms of truth and falsity? Do moral sentences have factual meaning? Are any moral judgments true or are they systematically and uniformly false? Is there such a thing as moral knowledge? Are moral judgments less objective than, say, judgments about the shapes and sizes of middle-sized physical objects? Is there a necessary connection between moral judgments and motivation? Are moral requirements requirements of reason? Do moral judgments have a natural or non-natural subject matter? A useful way of starting on metaethics is to distinguish between realist and non-realist views of morality. Moral realists hold that moral judgments express beliefs, and that some of those beliefs are true in virtue of mind-independent moral facts. Opposition to moral realism can take a number of forms. Expressivists deny that moral judgments express beliefs, claiming instead that they express non truth-assessable mental states such as desires or inclinations. Error theorists and (revolutionary) fictionalists claim that moral judgments are systematically false. Response-dependence views of moral judgments allow that moral judgments express beliefs and that at least some of them are true, but hold that they are true in virtue of mind-dependent moral facts. Moral realism itself comes in many varieties: reductionist, non-reductionist, naturalist, non-naturalist, internalist, externalist, analytic, and synthetic.

General Overviews

Overviews of metaethics are often found in larger reference works about ethics. The volumes listed in this section contain a broad range of high-level introductory essays by key researchers in metaethics. Singer 1991 is an overview of ethics in different cultures and historical settings before moving into theories and practical applications. LaFollette 2000 has a section on metaethics that includes essays on relativism, naturalism, moral intuition, and objections to ethics. The first half of Copp 2007 is devoted to issues surrounding metaethics. Skorupski 2010 devotes a section to these issues as well, including error theory and fictionalism, while Brady 2011 provides a vivid snapshot of contemporary metaethics. McPherson and Plunkett 2017 is a comprehensive, high-quality, and up-to-date volume.

  • Brady, Michael, ed. New Waves in Metaethics. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.

    A selection of cutting-edge articles on naturalism, non-naturalism, error-theory, fictionalism, expressivism and particularism by a selection of up-and-coming metaethicists.

  • Copp, David, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    The first half contains twelve essays on metaethical themes by Blackburn, Railton, Sturgeon, Dancy and others, as well as an introductory essay by the editor.

  • LaFollette, Hugh, ed. The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

    The first half contains eight useful introductory chapters on metaethical themes.

  • LaFollette, Hugh, ed. International Encyclopedia of Ethics. 9 vols. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

    A huge resource, containing many entries on metaethical issues, themes, and theories.

  • McPherson, Tristram, and David Plunkett, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Metaethics. New York: Routledge, 2017.

    A collection containing 43 chapters of central topics in metaethics by an impressive array of philosophers.

  • Singer, Peter, ed. A Companion to Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

    Part 4 contains several very useful chapters on metaethical themes by leading metaethicists such as Dancy, Smith, and Hare.

  • Skorupski, John, ed. The Routledge Companion to Ethics. London: Routledge, 2010.

    Part 2 contains several essays on some central topics in metaethics.

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