December Meet-Up: Meta-ethics (semantical theories)

This month’s topic: Meta-ethics

First question first: what is morality?

Morals and ethics are very similar, even the same under some definitions, but in a general sense, morals are meant to refer to the internally created differentiation between good and bad, right and wrong, as well as our personal intentions, decisions and actions in regards to those determinations, while ethics are the specific application of morals in a specific context.  For the purposes of discussing metaethics, however, it is fine to conflate the two, as metaethics entails discussing the presumptions which underlie normative morals and ethics.

There are several branches of ethics.  One of them called meta-ethics is about knowing, understanding and defining ethics. Normative and applied ethics focus on what is moral (and how we can act morally), while metaethics focuses on morality itself.  So normative or applied ethics might ask “What should we do?” or “How should we handle this situation?” metaethics asks “What is goodness?” or “What does moral mean?” or “How do we distinguish right and wrong?”  It seeks to understand the nature of morality.

We’re going to talk about metaethics today, specifically what are called semantic theories.  That might sound quite lofty and nebulous, but it’s actually a simple aspect of ethics and morality with complex implications.  It’s about what we mean when we say “good” and “bad”.

I assume that it goes without saying why a discussion of morals and ethics is so important, but the same may not necessarily be said about metaethics, so I’d like to elaborate on why I chose this topic: our expanding knowledge regarding science, particularly evolution and genetics, has led us to a wide variety of conclusions about morals and ethics, some less substantiated than others.  For example, the conclusion that certain races are more deserving of life than others (so-called social Darwinism, taken to a more extreme form).  I believe that the ability to define morality, especially in practical deliberation, is an increasingly important one in terms of evaluating morality and making moral decisions.

I realized there are a lot of questions regarding ethics and morals, and each of them entails some pretty heavy philosophical consideration, so today I’d like to focus on one central question: What is the meaning of good/bad, right/wrong?  What exactly do people mean when something is moral or immoral?  Is there some factual, truth-related basis to it, or is it just a matter of preference or social prescription?  Hopefully in the future we can address the other very important questions as well.

To discuss it further, I’d like to talk about two broad schools of thought called cognitivism and non-cognitivism

 Cognitivism holds that right and wrong are factual matters, just like saying “Water is H2O”.  They are called truth-apt statements, or statements that can be either true or false. Because of this it can logically accommodate the connection between moral and non-moral thought and talk, but has a harder time figuring out the nature of morality.  They hold that non-cognitivism holds that the burden of proof lies on the non-cognitivists to explain why we speak of morality in terms of truth-apt statements.

Non-cognitivism has the opposite problem.  Non-cognitivism is, of course, the opposing view that moral statements cannot be true or false, but rather they are statements of feeling or preference.  It implies that moral “knowledge” is impossible. Hume noticed that moral disputes often carry heavy emotions and we can’t adjudicate to verification or falsification like we can with scientific statements.  For example, with water we can point to it and give it qualities like “wet” or measure it, but we can’t do that when someone says “slavery is wrong!”.  Non-cognitivists are interested in the attitudes which are expressed and what people are actually doing when making such claims (for example, reacting to the world or expressing a desire for an ideal world).  They posit that language, and thus a moral statement, is simply a tool for influencing others. They also hold that the burden of proof lies on the cognitivists to demonstrate that moral statements can be true or be a property.

Let’s look at some cognitivist ideas now.

Moral realism is the stance that moral statements are mind-independent (they don’t have to exist in a mind), objective facts about the world.  One form of this is Ethical NaturalismEthical Naturalism suggests that we can gain moral knowledge by inquiring into the natural world, just like what we do with scientific knowledge. They assume that there is natural justification for morality.  They look to scientific models of reductionism (breaking things down into parts, like from an object to its atoms) to understand moral reality.  In other words, it holds that there is a “science of morality.”  It holds that moral concepts are natural properties of the natural world, much like “hardness” or “dampness”.  It suggests that we can base ethics on rational and empirical consideration of the natural world.  It supposes that there are objective answers to moral questions.  For example, why is it right to protect family members and loved ones?  They would point to our biological make-up creating the imperative.  It does not necessarily suggest that the answers we find will be absolutely certain, just like we do not suppose scientific facts are absolutely certain, either.

Ethical Non-Naturalism, also a type of cognitivism, holds that moral statements are factual, mind-independent and objective, but while Ethical Naturalism holds that these they are properties of nature, Ethical Non-Naturalism holds that they are simply undefinable, non-natural (not to be confused with supernatural) properties, kind of like the laws of logic.  They allow for the justification of moral beliefs to be grounded in brute facts, or facts that are true a priori, such as “killing someone innocent is wrong”. It holds that moral properties are sui generis (a concept or property of its own). What this means is that, unlike Naturalism, an Ethical Non-Naturalist cannot reduce, for example, “goodness” to a need or a want or a pleasure (as naturalists do) like they could with natural properties like “hardness” or “dampness”, but only hold that goodness is goodness; it is undefinable beyond that.

Ethical Subjectivism is the stance that moral statements are made facts by individual people or society.  In other word, moral statements are true about the attitudes of people or societies, but not about nature or the world itself.  So if the members of a community hold that “lying is completely and always wrong”, then that particular statement becomes factual for that community.  We could hold “Lying is completely and always wrong in that community” as a factual statement.

Ideal Observer Theory holds that we can determine what is objectively right by imagining a hypothetical “ideal observer” and assuming that what this observer evaluates as right is, in fact, right, regardless of how we feel about it.  So when we consider a situation, we can determine its objective moral value by imagining a third, disinterested party observing and evaluating it.

Divine Command Theory holds that a unique being, such as God, is necessary for determining what is factually right.

Ok, now on to the non-cognitivist theories:

Prescriptivism holds that moral statements are merely prescriptions or authoritative recommendations.  So a statement like “killing is bad” may seem like a truth-apt statement on the surface, but actually it is equivalent to “you shouldn’t kill”, which is not a statement of fact but opinion.  Therefore, morality isn’t about “knowing” what’s right or wrong, but about judging people’s and action’s character and then prescribing an action.  It is the feeling – for example, of disgust towards murder – that keeps us from behaving badly, not any “facts” about the world or any property of “wrongness”. Universal Prescriptivism holds that moral statements are universalized imperatives or commands.  So while cognitivists treat “Murder is wrong” as a statement of fact, Universal Prescriptivists treat it like a command: it means “do not murder” and they expect to be obeyed universally.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative holds that one reasoned imperative entails all subsequent obligations.  This imperative is absolute and unconditional.  It is an intrinsic property; an end-in-itself: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”   Kant believed that through this type of reasoning we could derive all morality.  So whether or not killing was an “objectively” bad thing to do was irrelevant; we would just have to ask ourselves “Does it contradict the imperative for me?”  If it does, it’s immoral.  If not, it’s moral.  Empirical experience from the natural world was unnecessary.

Emotivism holds that ethical sentences serve merely to express emotions.  Emotivists hold that moral statements cannot be empirically verified, and so are meaningless in any factual sense.  The only empirically verifiable aspect is the action, so if I say “stealing that money was bad” this breaks down to “You stole that money.  It was bad.”  The only fact is “you stole that money” and “it was bad” is meaningless.  Instead, it is simply a declaration of my disapproval, like saying “Boo to stealing money!” which is not factual at all.

Quasi-realism holds that moral statements “act” like factual statements but are not really.  So, for all intentions and purposes we treat them like facts and properties but they actually just express emotional attitudes.

Problems with cognitivism:

l  What does it mean to say a moral statement is “true”?  Does it mean it actually describes the external state of the world, independent of the proposition?  In other words, when we say “Murder is wrong” does it correspond to some fact in the world (a la the correspondence theory of truth)?  Can we “point to” wrongness?  Is it a spatial-temporal object, like a cat or a tree?

l  Response to Frege-Geach Problem (the Embedding Problem): Blackburn’s quasi-realism holds that we project our attitudes on to the world as if they were true (and thus susceptible to verification and falsification), thus accounting for their apparent truth-apt, logical structure. Blackburn recognizes that any form of expressivism is susceptible to the equivocation problem, if we accept the conditional as being logical. But Blackburn asks “what commitment do we put into conditionals?” as the quasi-realist accepts that moral discourse has surface logical structure, this does not mean that they have actual, classically logical structure. Once one holds sincerely that, for example, “Lying is wrong,” this is just a different way of saying, for example, “Lying has the property of being wrong” or “I believe that lying is wrong” or “It is true that lying is wrong” or that “It is a fact that lying is wrong.” The solution Blackburn proposes is the introduction of an expressive language with a corresponding logic of attitudes (Hooray and Boo). This language is meant to express approval or disapproval of an action, rather than a logical relationship. For example, “Lying is wrong” translates as “Boo! to lying”. It can be argued that this serves no practical purpose though; while it reconciles moral discourse with non-cognitivism, people will still continue to conduct discourse in this manner.

2  (This is a problem with naturalism) G.E. Moore agreed that morals have properties, but that it was wrong to assign them natural or even supernatural properties.  Basically, the idea was that by virtue of the fact that we ask if X is good it means that it is meaningless to definitively and conclusively state that X is good as though it indisputable.  The fact that the goodness of X is an open question, a question that cannot be deduced from the conceptual terms alone, so it cannot be answered as though it were a natural or supernatural property.  It’s still controversial whether good is the same thing as pleasure, for example.  If this is true, then moral facts cannot be reduced to natural properties and that therefore ethical naturalism is false.  Moore used this in defense of ethical non-naturalism.  One contention with this is that if goodness is a property discovered a posteriori, then it is not a meaningless question, as it requires inquiry and discovery to find the answer to that question, much like the statement “Water is H2O” (and hence it is still open).  This is done by invoking rightness and wrongness to explain certain empirical phenomena, and then discovering a posteriori whether maximizing utility occupies the relevant explanatory role, the assumption being we can find an empirical explanation of what we mean by “rightness” or “goodness”. Only if goodness is considered an a priori property can we say it is closed. However, the above account of a sort of a posteriori moral search is unsatisfactory in that normal value, and not moral value, can be used to explain the relevant events. Normal value arises from the relationship between desire and a state of affairs. People tend also to objectify such value, into categorical moral value, though this is fallacious. So, a situation that can be explained by the existence of real moral value (e.g. the fulfillment of preferences, the tendency towards social stability) can also be explained by non-moral value. This explanation is far simpler, given the ontological difficulties surrounding moral value. Another general problem with this is that Moore assumes the open question is a meaningful one.  Some say this begs the question (how does he know?).  One attempt to answer this utilized psychology: If X is good, then X will act as an intrinsic motivator to do it (naturally), but a person can understand that Action X will produce X and yet the person may still not do X, so X is still an open question.  It also assumes that morals are properties at all or that they even express beliefs (as opposed to feelings or imperatives or prescriptions), a contention that all non-cognitivists hold.  They would argue that it is open simply because we aren’t attributing any properties at all.

Problems with non-cognitivism:

l  If moral statements are simply statements of emotion, attitude or prescription, then why is it so plausible to express them as beliefs or attribute them as properties to actions or people?

2  If moral statements are imperatives or prescriptions, then why can we apply rules of logic to them and come to understand them better even though imperatives, feelings and prescriptions don’t?

3  If morals are just quasi-realistic expressions of attitudes or emotions, then why can I feel positively about something yet know it is immoral or vice versa?  How can I like/prefer something and yet simultaneously hold that it is immoral and vice versa?

Frege-Geach Problem (Embedding Problem): Indeed, we tend to express morality cognitively when we say “Lying is bad”, for instance.  If cognitivism is not true then how can we make logical inferences based on it?  According to Geach, the sentence “Telling lies is wrong” has the same meaning regardless of whether it occurs on its own or as the antecedent of “If telling the lies is wrong, then getting your little brother to tell lies is also wrong”. This must be so, since we may derive “Telling your little brother to tell lies is wrong” from them and both by modus ponens without any fallacy of equivocation. For example, the statement “it is wrong to get someone else to lie” can be derived logically as this modus ponens: “1. it is wrong to lie and 2. If it is wrong to lie, then it is wrong to get someone else to lie, therefore 3. It is wrong to get someone else to lie”.  Sure, separately they could be looked at as emotional attitudes or imperatives, but how do you explain the ability to infer one from the other, regardless of how we may feel about the proposition?  In the conditional “if lying is bad” we are not expressing a feeling or imperative, but rather a conditional truth statement, so to say that “lying is bad” expresses an attitude or imperative in one case but a truth statement in another case is a logical fallacy (equivocation).  So how can we arrive at a conclusion like “therefore getting other people to lie is also bad” unless it is a logical statement?  We either have to accept it or reject modus ponens. The problem with Blackburn’s response is his appeal to attitude consistency (logical). Hale argues that such an appeal requires explaining the consistency. How the quasi realist would go about this, without appealing to logical terms such as ‘belonging to a set’ or non-contradiction involves statements such as ‘x belongs to set S’ and ‘x is equal to y’, which are descriptive (and hence involve truth-aptness and evaluation). The quasi-realist cannot allow this. This is a problem, as whether or not some attitude is a member of some set is a matter of fact. The onus is on quasi-realist to provide a more detailed account of inconsistent attitudes which does not involve truth-aptitude, which would require appealing to logic. The Frege-Greach Problem is a question about the role of normative/expressive sentences and is a challenge to non-cognitivism. A positive solution to both challenges would open a room to the rationality of non-cognitive discourse in ethics. On the contrary, a negative one would show that the only option for rationalism in ethics is cognitivism or — in the worst case scenario — to irrationality and ethical nihilism.

Some questions and issues that were raised:

1. Can’t we state a preference or desire or feeling that is in contradiction to our moral stance?  For example, I may not like telling the truth but still think it is the right thing to do, no?  If so, doesn’t it follow that moral statements are not necessarily equivalent to emotive statements or statements of preference?

2. Couldn’t morality have non-natural properties (i.e. transcendent properties or logical properties or conceptual properties) that do not necessarily exist empirically but exist rationally?

3. Being that morality ultimately needs to be applied to individual situations each with their own unique set of circumstances, how could we, even theoretically, develop an objective morality to govern or even just guide us in determining what is right and wrong in each and every case?  Isn’t each and every case necessarily related to its unique set of circumstances and thus relative?

4. Bear in mind that morality is NOT about evaluating people as people, but rather people’s actions and behavior.  It is unnecessary and even meaningless to call a person bad or immoral, but it may serve a purpose to call an action bad or immoral.

5. What role does a person’s intention or motivation play in determining morality?

6. Being that values are subjective and individual and that we derive a sense of morality or moral code from them, doesn’t it follow that morality is then subjective as well?  What exactly is the connection between values and morality?  What would a cognitivist say in regards to this?

What do you think?  Any ideas or questions or comments?  Please leave them below!


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