The Nature and Explanatory Ambitions of Metaethics

In Tristram McPherson & David Plunkett (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Metaethics. Routledge. pp. 1-28 (2017)
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Abstract
This volume introduces a wide range of important views, questions, and controversies in and about contemporary metaethics. It is natural to ask: What, if anything, connects this extraordinary range of discussions? This introductory chapter aims to answer this question by giving an account of metaethics that shows it to be a unified theoretical activ- ity. According to this account, metaethics is a theoretical activity characterized by an explanatory goal. This goal is to explain how actual ethical thought and talk—and what (if anything) that thought and talk is distinctively about—fits into reality. We begin by introducing and developing this account, and illustrating it via discus- sion of a simple illustrative metaethical theory: Simple Subjectivism. We then explain important upshots of the characterization. Our account is novel and controversial, as is the status of metaethics as a theoretically fruitful project. We thus compare our account to competing characterizations of the field, and explain how our account permits us to address certain challenges to the theoretical significance of a distinctively metaethical project. In the conclusion, we explain why, given our account, one might think that meta- ethics matters, and explain how we understand the history and future of self-conscious metaethical theorizing. As we will emphasize, we should expect new ways of approaching the explanatory project at the heart of metaethics to emerge in the coming years, as the tools and resources we have for tackling that project expand. Our hope is that by empha- sizing the centrality of the explanatory project itself, rather than just focusing narrowly on the views that have been developed so far by those engaged in that project, we can help encourage and facilitate the development of new questions, arguments, and views that help move the field forward.
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