Ethics is the science of morality and is applied to daily living in that it seeks to guide human actions, thoughts, words and motives in terms of certain values. Meta-ethics is the science that investigates morality; that seeks to examine ethical values, arguments and inferences. Thus if we ask – “Is it right for X to spread lies about Y in revenge for not being invited to a party?” – we are posing an ethical question. However when we start asking “What do we mean by right?”, “What makes a specific action right or wrong?” we have strayed into the realm of meta-ethics.
The difference between these two levels of ethical analysis is often not obvious. Often we are not aware of these two operating levels, often we do not care to think at the level of meta-ethics. This is a moot point because most disagreements in ethical discourse though they are disagreements on ethical conclusions primarily arise because of fundamental differences in the meta-ethics operating beneath. This is in many ways analogous to everyday situations where we end up arguing about syntax and semantics (words and meanings) rather than about concepts.
However second degree ethical analysis or meta-ethical analysis is required for humans to be able to justify our uniqueness as moral animals. The bottom-line being that we need to have basic ethical principles defined which we can apply consistently, coherently, correctly and completely. These principles would in turn drive our ethical values which makes comparison between alternative choices possible. This comparison is required, obviously to make the choices, but a more important consequence of this top down approach is that we should be prepared to review old choices as new information becomes available which could change the ethical value associated with each choice.
I brought this analysis up for a specific reason. We often hear views raised with regards to 'absolute morality' and 'relative morality'. These are almost always passionate views expressed with great conviction. But they are not often backed up by clear explanation of what absolute morality vis-a-vis relative morality entails. However when these votaries of absolute versus relative morality are asked to explain or give examples; it often transpires that the 'absolutists' are talking about the broad ethical principles while the 'relativists' tend to focus on specific ethical values and the resultant choices and decisions. It is intuitive then that 'absolute' and 'relative' morality are not necessarily contradictory or conflicting concepts; it is perhaps just as intuitive to observe that ethical principles are more or less stable or fixed while their application is dynamic and open to contextual nuances that must be relatively evaluated. Of course, one would expect a given set of ethical principles to be internally consistent, coherent and logical - in the absence of which attributes their stability comes into question. It perhaps seems to be a little in-apt to use the plural 'ethical principles' in this discussion when in most cases a single over-riding ethical principle seems to be operative. However, deeper analysis of the roots of the moral decison making machinery in the human psyche may lead to a plurality of ethical principles.
Differentiating between ethical values and ethical principles is often tricky and subjective. Take for instance the Ten Commandments. Are they 10 ethical principles? Or are they 10 ethical values? I would tend to analyse them as ethical values - specific statements mandating specific ethical choices. The underlying ethical principle is explicit in the very title 'Commandments' - Obeying the Commands of the Abrahmic Deity is the overriding ethical principle entailed here. But then this is my analysis, others may disagree.
However, the ethics - metaethics / principle-value schema adumbrated above is merely the surface simplicity and structure of a complex and less investigated substrate lying underneath. Ethical thinking, like any other kind of thinking, derives from the mental machinery configured in the human brain and is therefore shaped by the very configuration. Ethical thinking is primarily associated with how we deal with other people. This is significant because through the 0.5 million years of human (homo sapiens) evolution and 5 million years of homonid evolution, a defining feature of the EEA - Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation has been 'each other'. In other words the environment to adapt to which most of human and recent homonid evolution happened was other humans / homonids! It is almost certain that this evolution - which happened in response to other people - was an evolution principally of mental machinery. Significant development being growth in brain size, acquisition of language, a powerful inference engine, and a sophisticated theory of mind - which lets us make conjectures about other minds upto as high as 5 degrees (Peter thinks that Jane knows that he believes Jane's impression about Peter is based on . . .). The mind is far from being a tabula rasa at birth, but comes pre-fabricated with a complex mental machinery, algorithms, templates and inference systems developed over 5 million years of hominid and human mental evolution in response to living with othjer people. As stated above, since ethics is primarily concerned with thinking about how to behave towards other people, ipso facto, ethical thinking is a prime candidate for having been factored into the mental machinery that evolved as an adaptation to other people.
What this entails is that despite the possible variety of ethical principles and the ethical values founded from those principles; human ethical thinking has at its roots a universal set of templates and algorithms. Evolutionary psychologists, anthropologists, biologists, sociologists and such other scientists are only now beginning to look under the hood of this 'ethical brain' which has so far operated like a black box. This is not really surprising. We are thinking machines; ‘thoughts’ keep pulsing rapidly through the synaptic network and soup of neuro-chemicals that constitute our cauliflowers. But we are not aware of the thinking process (unless we define ‘thought’ specifically as a conscious and deliberate activity). There is literally much more happening in our minds than we know - Freud was right after all! Once the above mentioned scientists have finished mapping out the ethical brain, we will have a factual description of a truly universal meta-ethic. The meta-ethic of Gray's Anatomy that applies to each and every human being on the planet - from French or Fijian, American or Aboriginal. And yet, this is a fallacy. Any description of our naturally selected, evolved, adapted, 'ethical thinking' would just be a description of a partially innately developed process that inclines most of us into arriving at certain ethical conclusions in certain situations. This is purely descriptive of a natural / innate thought process and in no way determines the ethical value of the thoughts so arrived at!! To say that is to argue something to the effect that what is natural is what is right; or what is un-natural is what is wrong. It smacks of the all too common confusing of what IS with what ought to be. It is one thing to say that certain ethical inference systems (or tendencies towards developing these inference systems) may have evolved in the human / hominid EEA, because those ethical inference systems conferred on the genetic-factors responsible for their development selective advantage over other genetic-factors that could have led to different ethical inference systems. Such a claim probably is testable, and may be a fair hypothesis to proffer based on what we presently understand about natural selection and how it works. But should these ethical inference systems – as and when their mechanism is fully understood and explained – be the basis for the meta-ethic for human societies to operate by? Probably not. Going one level higher – does the process that in all likelihood was ‘responsible’ for the evolution of these inference system – namely Darwinian natural selection – itself constitute a viable meta-ethic? Should we define good as “that which makes our genes prolific”? Most of us would cringe with horror of the very prospects of that.