Ethics as a Very Serious Game

What are we doing when we say that an action is morally right or wrong? That’s one of the questions philosophers try to answer when they do “metaethics”. In metaethics, the question isn’t whether a particular action, like stealing candy from a little kid, is right or wrong. That’s a question for ethics. Metaethics concerns the nature of ethical judgments themselves. Is an assertion like “stealing candy is wrong” true or false, or is it more like saying “Hey everybody, don’t steal candy!”

Here’s part of a metaethical article by a University of Miami philosophy professor named Richard Chappell. It’s from a series of articles he wrote about the highly influential British philosopher Derek Parfit:

J.L. Mackie famously objected that “If there were objective values, then they would be entities… of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” Parfit seeks to defang such metaphysical qualms by denying that objective values (or normative properties more generally) would have to exist “in the universe” at all. Nor do they exist in some separate, ghostly Platonic realm. That is still to treat them too much on the model of concrete objects that exist in space and time. Instead, Parfit suggests, abstract entities like numbers and objective values exist in a “non-ontological” sense. True claims about numbers and values are as true as true can be, but—Parfit insists—these truths “have no positive ontological implications.” This is Parfit’s Non-Metaphysical Cognitivism in a nutshell.

Parfit thus hopes to secure the best of both worlds: the objectivity of robust non-naturalist normative realism, without the ontological costs. Whether this is a coherent position is, unfortunately, less clear. Parfit claims that abstract entities “are not a kind of entity about which it is a clear enough question whether, in some ontological sense, they exist, or are real, though they are not in space and time”….

Some skeptics have thought that objective values would be more problematic than other abstract objects. Mackie supposed that they must be imbued with a kind of magical motivating force…. [Parfit responds that] normativity is causally inert: it marks what truly ought to be done, but it cannot push us to do it. Their causal inefficacy makes Parfit’s non-natural properties more metaphysically innocent (being compatible with the principle that physical effects can only stem from physical causes), but perhaps more epistemically puzzling.

If abstract objects cannot causally influence physical objects such as our brains, how can we possibly know anything about them? … Parfit suggests that the necessary truths of logic, mathematics, and philosophy are self-evident in the sense that full rational understanding of the claim in question gives one sufficient justification for believing it: no causal interaction or external evidence is required.

To appreciate that 2+2=4, or that pain is bad, you don’t need to run a scientific experiment to better reveal the causal structure of the world (and indeed, doing so wouldn’t help). Once you’ve acquired the relevant concepts, you just need to think clearly. Not all self-evident truths are so obvious as these examples, and we are all fallible, imperfectly rational beings. So people may disagree about what is truly self-evident, and sometimes get it wrong. But the core suggestion is nonetheless that careful thinking may see us right (and at any rate is the only hope we have, so we might as well give it our best shot).

Non-cognitivists hold that our moral judgments express (something like) desires rather than beliefs. The early emotivists claimed that “murder is wrong” meant, roughly, “Boo to murder!” Contemporary expressivists and quasi-realists are more sophisticated, but Parfit notoriously dismissed their developments as mere window-dressing for a “bleak view” that is ultimately “close to Nihilism”. For Parfit, it is crucial that there are normative truths out there for us to discover.

It can be difficult to pin down the disagreement between realists and expressivists, however. For expressivists can affirm normative truths (given a minimalist theory of truth, on which “it’s true that murder is wrong” is just to affirm that murder is wrong). And they can even affirm objective, stance-independent normative truths, for they can affirm norms opposing murder without condition. The affirmed norm thus negatively evaluates murder even in those possible worlds in which the expressivist comes to adopt pro-murder norms.

So we cannot straightforwardly assert that only realists can hold murder to be objectively wrong, independently of their attitudes. Expressivists may endorse that same norm. They, too, can disapprove of their pro-murder counterpart. And of course even the moral realist could have counterparts that believe murder to be good. So: what’s the difference? Parfit insists that moral truths are true in a way that goes beyond minimalism. He isn’t just re-affirming his preferred moral norms, but claims that some norms are right in a way that goes beyond merely affirming them.

Of course, if expressivists insist on reinterpreting this claim as just yet another norm affirmation, then I’m not sure how to stop them. But it does seem clear enough that there’s a distinctive claim here that the rest of us can grasp, even if they refuse to admit it!


I’ve been thinking about metaethics off and on for more than 50 years. I’ve never thought metaethical questions are easy to answer. But after reading Professor Chappell’s article, it all became clear! Eureka!

No, actually, that’s a lie, but I did reach a tentative conclusion.

I think ethics is like a game, a very serious game. And ethical statements can be true or false in the same way statements about the rules of a game are.

Chess is a game. Some people take it extremely seriously. Chess has official rules:

The rules continued to be slightly modified until the early 19th century, when they reached essentially their current form. The rules also varied somewhat from place to place. Today, the standard rules are set by FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs), the international governing body for chess [Wikipedia].

If ethics is like a game, does it have any official rules? According to some people, it does (see The Bible), but I think it’s more like chess before people accepted the creation of a governing body. Everybody who played the game correctly in the 17th century agreed that the queen could move in any direction, but not everybody everywhere handled promotion the same way (that’s when a pawn is replaced by a more powerful piece).

So, like the statement “the game always ends before a king is taken” is true in chess, “everything else being equal, keeping promises is the right thing to do” is true in ethics. “The queen can only move in one direction” is false in chess, while “it’s fine to make random people suffer just for the hell of it” is false in ethics.

There are obviously big differences between ethics and chess. Ethics is practiced or  “played” much longer than chess and by more people, apparently in every culture. There is more disagreement about what’s permissible in ethics than in chess. Everybody who plays chess thinks it’s a kind of game; very few people think ethics is (although that will depend on how many people read this blog). The scope of ethics is much broader than the scope of chess; what’s at stake is usually more serious in ethics; we engage in ethics to get along with other people or be a good person or maybe go to heaven, not to have fun, pass the time or defeat an opponent.

But like in chess or baseball or roller derby, rules aren’t “discovered” in ethics. This is a controversial idea. Quoting the article above, “for Parfit, it is crucial that there are normative truths out there for us to discover”. Parfit and other “ethical realists” think ethical rules weren’t created by human beings; they were discovered, as if they existed independently, waiting to be found.

I don’t think ethical rules or norms were discovered. Scientists, mathematicians and detectives make discoveries. You make a discovery when you find your keys. You could make a discovery about the rules of chess by looking in a chess book. But the rules of chess weren’t “discovered” the same way the Pythagorean theorem or the chemical composition of water were. The rules of chess developed through the years as people decided how the game should be played. Some rules were probably discarded; others were added; some were revised. I think ethics works that way. Ethical rules or norms were developed over thousands of years as people decided how to live, in particular, how we should behave toward each other. Chess was presumably improved when its rules changed, when it became true that chess is played a certain way. People’s behavior was presumably improved when ethical norms changed. It became true that ethical people behave in certain ways.