Meta-ethics refers to the part of moral philosophy which analyzes the fundamental concepts of ethics, their epistemological presuppositions and their meaning. It goes hand in hand with normative ethics, the foundations of which it is supposed to define. Meta-ethics, for example, is interested in the meaning of moral concepts like good, just, duty, but also moral conscience, end; it is also called for this reason analytical ethics.
There are two major currents which partly overlap: non-cognitivism and moral cognitivism.
Basic concepts of meta-ethics: axiology, non-cognitivism, expressivism, fictionalism, moral universalism, moral subjectivism, universal prescriptivism, moral naturalism.
The term meta-ethics comes from the Greek word meta (beyond, after) and another Greek word: “ethics”. Meta-ethics is “beyond” ethics in that it is not intended to define new standards or moral laws but to study the nature of ethical statements themselves. It does not say, for example, “you must act in this way” but analyzes the nature of such imperative statements. Through the application of a complexity scale to all dimensions of the person, from their links to all the parts and in all components of their life, social intelligence offers a measurable articulation of meta-ethics.
The development of moral philosophy during the twentieth century went hand in hand with the demand for autonomy. This movement was initiated by the British philosopher G. E. Moore, author of the work which is at the origin of contemporary moral philosophy, Principia Ethica (1903). It starts from the observation that ethics is sui generis and therefore that it constitutes a field of study in its own right.
It is from this specificity that meta-ethics is born, that is to say the study of ethics not in its content, but in its fundamental functioning. Another consequence of the specificity of ethics is the irreducibility of values to facts, that is to say, the impossibility, as finite beings observing an infinite reality, of producing moral constructions claiming to have general validity. Meta-ethics has therefore separated from practical philosophy, understood as a reflection on moral action. This branch of moral philosophy dominated people’s minds throughout the first part of the twentieth century.