[This piece is a substantially-revised version of an earlier post, 'Ethics in a nutshell'.]
Meta-ethical questions are a bit like questions in the philosophy of mathematics, where various forms of platonism or realism do battle with more mundane interpretations. The key difference, I would suggest, is that the philosophy of mathematics has very little impact on the way mathematics is done, whereas meta-ethical disputes do impinge on normative (or prescriptive) ethics as practised by philosophers (though not, it must be said, on most ordinary ethical decision-making).
Unfortunately, meta-ethical disputes (which are often driven by deeply-felt convictions about the nature of human life and reality) are not readily resolvable, posing problems not only for meta-ethics but also for normative ethics.
Moral reasoning is complex and difficult enough, even if one is working – like many religious thinkers – within a generally accepted broader framework. But if there is no agreed-upon framework then conclusions are going to be – to say the least – very contestable.
And what of science? Science can, I believe, change the way we see the world in a way that philosophy can't. Though there is an important distinction to be maintained between the descriptive and the normative, between scientific and value-based judgements, science can undoubtedly offer new insights into value-based questions.
Our evolving understanding of the natural world and our place in it has a profound impact not only on how we see particular moral issues but also on how we frame and respond to general questions about human values, responsibility and freedom.
For example, 'ought' implies 'can', and the findings of science have a lot to say on what is realistically possible in terms of human behavior and what is not.
More generally, as our knowledge of human psychology has advanced, there have been – and there will continue to be – changes, both subtle and profound, in the way we think about right and wrong and conscience and guilt – and also changes to institutional mechanisms for dealing with anti-social and criminal behavior.
One approach to descriptive ethics which is not strictly scientific but which complements more rigorous approaches involves looking at how adjectives like 'ethical' and 'moral', auxiliaries like 'should' and nouns like 'obligation' or 'duty' are actually used in ordinary day-to-day contexts, and attempting to discern the implicit social rules and expectations which underlie the use of such expressions.
Every society, every social group, incorporates implicit rules of behavior. These rules (some relating to etiquette or manners, others to morality) can be studied and described like any other aspect of social life, though such descriptions will of necessity be incomplete and somewhat interpretive.
These systems of implicit moral rules coexist, of course, with explicit rules, as exemplified in systems of law and regulation. Though my focus here is on the former, it's important to be aware of the subtle, complex and often contentious relations between the two.
Just as the law is a system of enforceable explicit rules, so morality can be seen as a system of implicit rules. And just as the law outlines legal responsibilities and confers certain legal rights, so moral systems can be seen to assign responsibilities and confer certain moral rights. If you break society's explicit laws and are discovered, formal mechanisms of enforcement and justice are set in train. Similarly, if you break implicit moral rules, informal mechanisms (like disapproval and ostracism) will likely be triggered. The basic principle (hard-wired into our brains, perhaps) is that if you flout the rules you forfeit your right to the benefits and protections those rules might potentially provide.
Normative, as distinct from descriptive, approaches to ethics involve the individual actually becoming ethically engaged (rather than just describing what is). This will involve making or accepting or rejecting particular moral judgements or affirming or endorsing or arguing for particular judgements or values. It inevitably involves interpreting social rules, sometimes criticizing, and sometimes rejecting them.
Deontic logic traditionally divides behaviors into three broad classes: obligatory, impermissible and optional. ('Optional', by far the most appealing, is also, plausibly, by far the largest of the three classes.)
It's a complex branch of logic, but the real complications and challenges of practical moral thinking are not so much logical as contextual. Because, obviously, the general situation and the specific position(s) of the individual(s) involved need to be taken fully into account.
Times have changed since F.H. Bradley wrote his famous essay, 'My station and its duties' [a chapter, actually, of his book Ethical Studies (1876)], but the basic principle of the contextuality of ethics still applies. A person's duties or obligations derive in large part from (or at least cannot be assessed without taking into account) his or her positions in complex societal, professional and familial structures.
The key question in ethics is a situated-first-person question: what should I – in a particular situation at a particular time – do (or refrain from doing)? I say this is the key question in ethics, but such a question (and this is reflected in the ambiguity of the word 'should') often goes beyond ethics or morality, and merges with questions of prudence or etiquette or other areas or dimensions of life.
Unacceptable behavior causing serious harm to others, however, is clearly an issue in which ethical (and probably also legal) considerations will dominate.
What of ethical subjectivism? Is it a threat or a problem? My view is that, if normative ethics is seen as something theoretical, as an area of study to be compared and contrasted with descriptive (psychological or sociological) approaches, the former will inevitably suffer from the comparison, especially concerning claims to having an objective basis.
But if, on the other hand, normative ethics is seen in a more practical light, seen as an integral part of actually living and choosing rather than in purely academic or epistemic terms, then questions of objectivity versus subjectivity may not even arise.
The fact is, we are all forced to make ethical and other value-based decisions all the time. And, while empirical knowledge, reason and rational discourse can play an important part in these decisions, other more obscure elements are also inevitably in play.