Metaethics is a perennially popular subject, but one that can be challenging to study and teach. As it consists in an array of questions about ethics, it is really a mix of (at least) applied metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, and mind. The seminal texts therefore arise out of, and often assume competence with, a variety of different literatures. It can be taught thematically, but this sample syllabus offers a dialectical approach, focused on metaphysical debate over moral realism, which spans the century of debate launched and framed by G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica. The territory and literature are, however, vast. So, this syllabus is highly selective. A thorough metaethics course might also include more topical examination of moral supervenience, moral motivation, moral epistemology, and the rational authority of morality.
Alexander Miller, An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003).
This is one of the few clear, accessible, and comprehensive surveys of the subject, written by someone sympathetic with moral naturalism.
David Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Brink rehabilitates naturalism about moral facts by employing a causal semantics and natural kinds model of moral thought and discourse.
Michael Smith, The Moral Problem (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).
Smith's book frames the debate as driven by a tension between the objectivity of morality and its practical role, offering a solution in terms of a response-dependent account of practical rationality.
Gilbert Harman and Judith Jarvis Thomson, Moral Relativism & Moral Objectivity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996).
Harman argues against the objectivity of moral value, while Thomson defends it. Each then responds to the other.
Frank Jackson, From Metaphysics to Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).
Jackson argues that reductive conceptual analysis is possible in ethics, offering a unique naturalistic account of moral properties and facts.
Mark Timmons, Morality without Foundations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Timmons distinguishes moral cognitivism from moral realism, interpreting moral judgments as beliefs that have cognitive content but do not describe moral reality. He also provides a particularly illuminating discussion of nonanalytic naturalism.
Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001).
A Neo-Aristotelian perspective: moral facts are natural facts about the proper functioning of human beings.
Russ Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism: A Defence (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003).
In this recent defense of a Moorean, nonnaturalist position, Shafer-Landau engages rival positions in a remarkably thorough manner.
Terence Cuneo, The Normative Web (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007).
Cuneo argues for a robust version of moral realism, developing a parity argument based on the similarities between epistemic and moral facts.
Mark Schroeder, Slaves of the Passions (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007).
Schroeder defends a reductive form of naturalism in the tradition of Hume, identifying moral and normative facts with natural facts about agents’ desires.
A blog devoted to philosophy, ethics, and academia. Its contributors include many active and prominent metaethicists, who regularly post about the moral realism and naturalism debates.
Maintained by James Lenman, professor of philosophy at the University of Sheffield, this online resource provides a selective list of published research in metaethics.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
See especially the entries under ‘metaethics’.
Topics for Lecture & Discussion
Note: unless indicated otherwise, all the readings are found in R. Shafer-Landau and T. Cuneo, eds., Foundations of Ethics: An Anthology (Malden: Blackwell, 2007). (FE)
Week 1: Realism I (Classic Nonnaturalism)
G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, 2nd ed. (FE ch. 35).
W. K. Frankena, ‘The Naturalistic Fallacy,’Mind 48 (1939): 464–77.
S. Finlay, ‘Four Faces of Moral Realism’, Philosophy Compass 2/6 (2007): 820–49 [DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2007.00100.x].
Week 2: Antirealism I (Classic Expressivism)
A. J. Ayer, ‘Critique of Ethics and Theology’ (1952) (FE ch. 3).
C. Stevenson, ‘The Nature of Ethical Disagreement’ (1963) (FE ch. 28).
Week 3: Antirealism II (Error Theory)
J. L. Mackie, ‘The Subjectivity of Values’ (1977) (FE ch. 1).
R. Joyce, Excerpt from The Myth of Morality (2001) (FE ch. 2).
Week 4: Realism II (Nonanalytic Naturalism)
R. Boyd, ‘How to be a Moral Realist’ (1988) (FE ch. 13).
P. Railton, ‘Moral Realism’ (1986) (FE ch. 14).
T. Horgan and M. Timmons, ‘New Wave Moral Realism Meets Moral Twin Earth’ (1991) (FE ch. 38).
Week 5: Antirealism III (Contemporary Expressivism)
A. Gibbard, ‘The Reasons of a Living Being’ (2002) (FE ch. 6).
S. Blackburn, ‘How To Be an Ethical Anti-Realist’ (1993) (FE ch. 4).
T. Horgan and M. Timmons, ‘Nondescriptivist Cognitivism’ (2000) (FE ch. 5).
W. Sinnott-Armstrong, ‘Expressivism and Embedding’ (2000) (FE ch. 37).
Week 6: Realism III (Sensibility Theory)
J. McDowell, ‘Values and Secondary Qualities’ (1985) (FE ch. 11).
D. Wiggins, ‘A Sensible Subjectivism’ (1991) (FE ch. 12).
Week 7: Realism IV (Subjectivism) & Antirealism IV (Constructivism)
R. Firth, ‘Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer’ (1952) (FE ch. 9).
G. Harman, ‘Moral Relativism Defended’ (1975) (FE ch. 7).
C. Korsgaard, ‘The Authority of Reflection’ (1996) (FE ch. 8).
Week 8: Realism V (Contemporary Nonnaturalism)
R. Shafer-Landau, ‘Ethics as Philosophy’ (2006) (FE ch. 16).
T. M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), ch. 1.
T, Cuneo, ‘Recent Faces of Moral Nonnaturalism’, Philosophy Compass 2/6 (2007): 850–79 [DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2007.00102.x].