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PHIL234 Are there moral facts?

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Are there objective moral facts, or should we embrace moral nihilism or moral relativism? Examination of classic answers to this question developed in 20th- and 21st-century philosophy.

This paper provides an in-depth introduction to one of the most vibrant and fast-growing areas of contemporary philosophy. Topics covered will include G.E. Moore on ethical naturalism and the open-question argument; A. J. Ayer's emotivism; Simon Blackburn's quasi-realism; Allan Gibbard's norm-expressivism; John Mackie's "error-theory" of morality; internalism and externalism about moral psychology; and contemporary naturalist moral realism.

Paper title Are there moral facts?
Paper code PHIL234
Subject Philosophy
EFTS 0.15
Points 18 points
Teaching period Semester 1 (On campus)
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $929.55
International Tuition Fees Tuition Fees for international students are elsewhere on this website.

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One PHIL paper or POLS 101 or 72 points
PHIL 315
Schedule C
Arts and Music
This paper will particularly appeal to students with interests in ethical theory, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language or metaphysics.
Teaching staff

Course co-ordinator: Professor Alex Miller


Paper Structure

In the lectures we will introduce some of the main topics discussed in 20th-century and contemporary metaethics, including:

  • G.E. Moore's Open Question argument against ethical naturalism and his own brand of ethical non-naturalism
  • A. J. Ayer's emotivist account of moral judgement
  • Simon Blackburn's development of emotivism into his Quasi-Realism
  • Allan Gibbard's norm-expressivist account of moral judgement
  • J. L. Mackie's argument from queerness and error theory of moral judgement
  • Internalist and externalist accounts of the relationship between moral judgement and motivation
  • Nonreductive naturalist versions of moral realism

The seminars will complement the lectures; in particular, we will discuss a number of the primary texts discussed in the lectures. These are all available in Fisher and Kirchin (eds.) Arguing About Metaethics (details below).


  • Final 3-hour exam 70%
  • Two 2,000-word essays, each worth 15%
Teaching Arrangements

2-hour weekly lecture

1-hour weekly seminar


Alexander Miller, Contemporary Metaethics: An Introduction (Cambridge, Polity Press 2013).

Andrew Fisher and Simon Kirchin (eds.), Arguing About Metaethics (London: Routledge 2006).

Graduate Attributes Emphasised
Scholarship, Communication, Critical thinking, Ethics, Information literacy, Research, Self-motivation.
View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.
Learning Outcomes
Students who successfully complete the paper will acquire
  • The ability to make philosophical analyses and to present and assess philosophical arguments to an acceptable standard
  • A broad awareness and grasp of what is at issue in general metaethical debates
  • A demonstrated ability to explain and assess philosophical positions and arguments in their own words

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Semester 1

Teaching method
This paper is taught On Campus
Learning management system


Stream Days Times Weeks
A1 Thursday 14:00-15:50 9-15, 17-22
Friday 13:00-13:50 9-14, 17-22