See part I here.
The second major branch of metaethics is cognitivism. These folks hold that moral statements make truth claims and that they convey information and facts about actual states of affairs in the world. According to cognitivists, moral statements can therefore be true or false. There are a few different views as to what are the real world object of these statements.
A subjectivist says that moral statements are about the speaker, or subject. Private subjectivists think that moral statements describe the psychological state of the speaker. This is more than an expression of feeling, which can’t be true or false; if I say “I dislike pizza,” but I really like it in reality, then I’ve said something false.
Cultural relativists are subjectivists that hold that “X is right” means “we in our culture dislike or don’t approve of X.”
Like noncognitivism, subjectivism takes normative statements and translates them into something nonmoral (a statement about my personal tastes, for instance). For an analysis of relativism, one version of subjectivism, go here. (ID: pugnacious. password: irishman) You’ll see from the link that relativism guts morality and takes away a wide swath of our moral experience.
Objectivist theories focus on the moral acts or objects themselves. For instance, “cheating is wrong,” on this view, says something about the act of cheating; it ascribes a property of wrongness to the act of cheating.
Objectivist views subdivide even further, between ethical naturalism and ethical nonnaturalism. The former holds that ethical terms (right, wrong, etc) can be boiled down to natural, scientific properties. “Murder is wrong,” according to this view, can mean one of several things, including: what an impartial, ideal observer approves, what furthers human survival, what behavior has been selected by natural selection, what maximizes pleasure.
Note that none of these are irreducibly normative and moral in nature; on this view, right/wrong/obligation/worth/goodness, etc turn out to be biological or psychological properties.
It is important to see that none of what I said so far contains a full, robust meaning of “objective.” The last view, ethical nonnaturalism, contains this robust meaning. According to this view, there are irreducibly moral properties that exist in the world. These properties exist in addition to natural properties (squareness, blueness, etc). “Murder is wrong” ascribes an unanalyzable moral property to something, and this property cannot be reduced further.
The moral argument turns on this definition of “objective.” On this definition, saying something is an objective moral value means that something is right or wrong independent of whether or not anyone believes it so. For example, even if Fred Phelps somehow took over the world and convinced everyone that his brand of gay bashing is good, it would still be deeply wrong.
Even though many philosophers have spent a career arguing otherwise, I think upon reflection, we can see that there are just such objective moral values. Someone who tries to reduce the statement “torturing babies for fun is wrong” to a feeling or to a statement about my psychological state is, simply, mistaken. The act itself has an irreducible moral property, “wrongness,” or what have you, and it’s plain as the nose on my face.
**to be continued tomorrow!