Marge and Homer’s ice cream argument, or why metaethics matters


If I told you that ethics matters, you might nod at me silently, wondering why on earth I needed to state the obvious. Of course it does, you’ll say. It matters whether murder is right or wrong, it matters whether euthanasia is right or wrong, and it matters whether abortion is right or wrong. Why? There are a few answers to this, and here’s only one of them: the ethical choices we make can change the course of our lives.

In contrast, my claim that metaethics matters might be – and sometimes is – met with a blank stare or a furrowed brow. The first thing that follows the stare is a question: What is metaethics? When I explain what metaethics (the exploration into the meaning of moral judgment) is – that it tells us what we mean when we say an action is morally wrong, or right – I’m usually asked one of three follow-up questions: 1) Who cares? 2) Don’t we already know what we mean? And 3) What has that got to do with me?

We can answer the first question quickly: you care! I promise that you do. You care about what words mean. If you order a meal from a menu, it matters to you that you think you’re saying what you’re actually saying. Otherwise, you might end up with pineapple on your pizza. So, you care, now what? Please don your 1940s mystery thriller hat, because we need to begin with a little metaethical detective work.

Metaethics and ethics have different purposes. They ask separate questions and seek seemingly unrelated answers. Ethical theories tell us what we ought to do, whereas metaethical theories tell us what ethical terms mean. To find out why metaethics matters, we need to dig a little deeper into what ethics is first.

Ethics is best explained via its various competing ethical theories. Utilitarianism, a moral theory defended by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, urges us to place moral importance on the consequences of our actions. On this view, if the consequences of an action would bring about more happiness, then the action is morally acceptable. One implication of this view is that there are, strictly speaking, no prohibited actions. Kantian ethics, on the other hand, does not place importance on consequences. Instead, a Kantian will claim that: 1) there are actions that are prohibited; and 2) the consequences of an action are irrelevant to whether one ought to carry it out. Let’s see how these theories might work in practice.

Imagine John and Beth work for a very secret part of the government, which investigates UFOs. Just as they are both giving up on ever coming face-to-face with an alien, they are sent to investigate a crashed UFO. One alien remains alive, and intelligence suggests that the aliens were up to no good and planted bombs in every country around the planet before crash-landing. Only the alien knows where these bombs are. And, if they aren’t discovered in time, the bombs will explode, simultaneously causing the death of millions and suffering to billions. The alien, who can communicate with humans perfectly well, says nothing when John and Beth question him. They try various forms of persuasion to no avail. It looks like the only way to get any information out of the alien is to torture him. Our moral question is clear: should John and Beth torture the alien?

Now imagine that John is a utilitarian; he thinks that contemplating the consequences of actions and whether they add to overall happiness is a good way to figure out whether we ought to do something or not. He tells Beth that it’s morally permissible to torture the alien because doing so may prevent terrible suffering. Beth, a Kantian, disagrees. Torturing the alien might prevent suffering, but the alien is a person, and so should not be used as a means to an end. We can see, then, that ethical theories can have stark differences in what they take to be morally important. They tell us differing and sometimes conflicting things about what we ought to do, but the function of these differing theories remains the same. They craft their notion of ethics in action, they all instruct us on what we ought – according to the specific theory – to do.

Even if John liked cold-blooded murder, this would not mean that murdering someone in cold blood was morally good

In contrast, metaethical theories aren’t concerned with what the morally right thing to do is. Rather, they aim to explain what we mean by our moral utterances. If John claims that torturing the alien is the right thing to do because it will prevent a huge amount of suffering, the metaethicist doesn’t focus on whether his utilitarian reasoning is faulty. Instead, they want to know what John means when he claims that an action is morally good.

Metaethical theories can be split into two broad camps: moral realism and moral antirealism. Both camps have very different things to say about what moral goodness might be. According to moral realism, whether an action is morally good or morally wrong is entirely independent of our thoughts and desires. Essentially, the goodness of what John does isn’t determined by his beliefs or desires about what John does. John may not like, for example, cold-blooded murder, but the wrongness of cold-blooded murder has nothing to do with whether John likes it or not. Even if John liked cold-blooded murder, this would not mean that murdering someone in cold blood was morally good.

For moral realists, what makes something morally wrong is independent of us. Whichever type of moral realist theory you subscribe to, you’ll still agree about one thing: that when John says he did something wrong, we don’t think the moral facts of the matter depend on John’s beliefs or desires. Whether he approves of his action or not is beside the point. Moral antirealists, however, argue that, when we say an action is morally good, we are talking about our beliefs, desires, sentiments or feelings. Morality, on this view, is made by humans, not discovered. Moral antirealists, like moral realists, come in many varieties. But one claim tends to unite all antirealists: they tend to deny that what makes something morally wrong is independent of us.

Whether we choose to do something or not has an impact – sometimes small, sometimes huge – on the people around us, not to mention ourselves. It is precisely because what we do matters that metaethics also matters. If it turns out that we misunderstand each other when we are arguing about something, then this may change how we feel about a topic. For example, imagine Marge and Homer arguing about whether they ought to eat chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Marge votes for chocolate, Homer votes for vanilla. But Homer doesn’t share Marge’s understanding of what vanilla means, he thinks that a food called ‘vanilla ice cream’ has a chocolate flavour. What does this mean? Well, this means that they both really want to eat chocolate ice cream, but they have two different understandings of what they mean by ‘vanilla ice cream’. Worse still, they both essentially agree that they want to eat chocolate ice cream, but Homer has a mistaken understanding of what vanilla ice cream is. What looks like a disagreement turns out to be an agreement.

How, we might ask, can we aim our arrows at the same place if we can’t see the target?

Now imagine if Homer and Marge are arguing about whether torture is morally acceptable. Marge thinks it is morally acceptable in the alien case, and Homer disagrees. But they have different ideas about what ‘morally acceptable’ means. Homer, say, takes an antirealist stance, whereas Marge takes a moral realist stance. Homer believes torture is morally wrong, and he thinks saying so is tantamount to expressing disapproval of abortion. Marge claims that torture is morally acceptable, but not because she believes it to be so (though she does), but because it is a moral fact that torture is morally acceptable. Maybe Marge doesn’t really like the idea of torture, she may have a few negative beliefs about it, even disapprove of it, but her disapproval doesn’t automatically mean it is morally wrong. It might be hard for Marge and Homer to ever agree on what ought to be done in abortion cases if they can’t even agree on what ‘morally good’ means. How, we might ask, can we aim our arrows at the same place if we can’t see the target?

Now, you might think Marge and Homer’s disagreement is ultimately about the ethical theories they accept. Homer and Marge are arguing about what one ought to do. But their metaethical views affect their approach to the debate. Homer may well be inclined to an ethical theory that eschews abstract notions of good. Marge may be dissatisfied with such theories because they don’t seem to capture the authoritative character of morality.

In addition, regardless of the ethical theory you hold, you are still aiming at getting the right answer – to find out if there even is a right answer – to nevertheless try to do the right thing. Both utilitarians and Kantians want to do what is morally right. But, as we’ve seen, two people in an ethical debate might mean wildly different things by ‘morally good’, which may hinder agreement or confuse further debate. The most striking example of this would be someone who denies that there is such a thing as moral goodness and someone who strongly believes in it. The former nihilist view might hinder debate before it can even get started. Let’s go back to our alien thought experiment.

Imagine that it is up to John the nihilist and Beth the moral realist to decide whether or not to torture the alien. Their views of what they mean may diminish or increase their motivation to act. The moral nihilist, one imagines, will not be so easily persuaded by ethical reasoning that they ought to do something as the realist who believes moral objectivity exists and demands certain things from us. So, not only do the meanings of our moral concepts matter in terms of being able to understand one another, they may also have some impact on behaviour.

We need to know, ultimately, if the meanings of our moral concepts affect our practical action. We need to find out if shared or unshared understandings of ethical judgment can help us understand disagreement about what we ought to do. Understanding the very things we say helps us to understand ourselves, and how we view the world. And so, even if we find that metaethics doesn’t affect our moral choices, we may find it nevertheless matters because it reveals a new way of understanding ourselves and others.

Rachel Handleyis teaching fellow in philosophy at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. She was previously an honorary fellow in philosophy at the University of Liverpool in the UK.