Monday, August 9, 2010

I Never Metaethics I Didn't Like

One of the challenges atheists face from theists is on the foundations of ethics. Of course, theists themselves face problems on this score. But it is an important issue and worth some attention, in my opinion. I know next to nothing about the philosophical approaches to ethics, so I will begin with some very basic stuff: classifying the different approaches to ethics that are out there, a discipline known as metaethics

If you had asked me a couple of weeks ago, I would have guessed that the most fundamental distinction in metaethics is the one between moral realists and moral anti-realists. Realists hold that moral facts are mind-independent facts, objective properties about the real world. Anti-realists, on the contrary, think moral facts are subjective, or are matters of convention among a group of people.

There is, however, a still more fundamental distinction; between the (unhelpfully named) cognitivist and non-cognitivist approaches to ethics. Cognitivists hold that moral claims, say, "Eating meat is wrong," are propositions: statements that might be true or might be false, but about which it is meaningful to argue whether they are true or false. For some cognitivists (anti-realists), the truth or falsity might be a matter of subjective opinion or group convention; for others (realists), it might be a matter of objective fact. But for both, moral statements can be meaningfully given the labels "true" or "false," at least with respect to a person's beliefs.

Non-cognitivists, then, deny that moral claims can be true or false, or that they say anything about anyone's beliefs.  Rather, moral statements express opinions, or are prescriptive. On the former view (known as emotivism), "Eating meat is wrong" is simply a way of saying "I disapprove of eating meat - and you should, too!" Or, as it is sometimes put more briefly, "Boo on eating meat!" The prescriptivist view says something similar, but emphasizes the "you should, too!" part: moral statements are imperatives; commands that should be obeyed, not just by the speaker, but by everyone. Non-cognitivists are necessarily moral anti-realists.

Non-cognitivism is similar to some anti-realist cognitive accounts, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out:

It is useful to contrast non-cognitivism with one particular variety of cognitivism in order to more clearly present what the non-cognitivist is claiming. Various versions of cognitivist subjectivism equate moral properties such as rightness with the property of being approved of by some person or group. To be right is to be approved of by the speaker, or the speaker and her friends, or the members of the speaker's society, or everybody...

But this by itself is not sufficient to make the position non-cognitivist. This variety of subjectivism agrees with one of the positive non-cognitivist theses (that moral utterances conventionally express non-cognitive attitudes), but it does not agree with either of the essential negative non-cognitivist claims (that the judgments don't express beliefs and/or that they are not truth-apt)....

A simple example gets the idea across. One can express dislike of something by saying that one dislikes it. This is the way that a cognitivist subjectivist thinks we express moral attitudes. But one can also express dislike of something by booing or hissing. This is much like the way some non-cognitivists think we express moral attitudes. The latter way of expressing an attitude is different from the way cognitivist subjectivists think we express moral attitudes because it expresses the attitude without saying that we have the attitude.

Thus, for the non-cognitivist,  moral statements are not claims about the beliefs or values of the speaker or of some group, they are merely speech acts that express approval, or disapproval, or that encourage conformity with some norm.

Problems arise for the non-cognitivist when simple moral statements are part of longer sentences. From the Wiki page:

  • Eating meat is not wrong.
  • Is eating meat wrong?
  • I think that eating meat is wrong.
  • Mike doesn't think that eating meat is wrong.
  • I once thought that eating meat was wrong.
  • She does not realize that eating meat is wrong.
Attempts to translate these sentences in an emotivist framework seem to fail (e.g. "She does not realize, 'Boo on eating meat!'"). Prescriptivist translations fare only slightly better ("She does not realize that she is not to eat meat").

This is called the embedding problem. It seems that, at least in the way they are normally used, moral claims express more than mere (dis)approval.


  1. I'm not sure there is an embedding problem, doesn't it only seem to come up if we use simple text substitution? Surely if we consider the actual meaning of the non-cognitivist statement these can be rephrased. If we piggyback on disgust as a stand-in then the base case would be "murder is disgusting [to me]" -- the last part is rarely expressed explicitly which is why people may mistake it for a universal.

    Then the last sentence would translate to the thinker believing "She does not realise that eating meat is disgusting," which in turn may expand to the full version that the thinker may not be aware of: "She does not realised that *I* find eating meat disgusting".

  2. I had a similar reaction upon reading about the embedding problem. It doesn't seem too hard to find translations of all those phrases that capture the idea better than simple substitution does. However, philosophers seem to agree that there is an embedding problem, so maybe there's more to be said than what's on Wikipedia. (Imagine that!)

    I think "to me" heads in the wrong direction, tho. It should be more like, "murder is disgusting to me, and it should be disgusting to you, too." This way you capture the prescriptive element.

    But then the embedding problem returns: "She does not realise that she should find eating meat disgusting" just doesn't work.

  3. The SEP article I linked to has an in-depth discussion of the embedding problem. It seems particularly severe in the context of logical arguments like the following:

    (P1) If tormenting the cat is bad, getting your little brother to do it is bad
    (P2) Tormenting the cat is bad.
    Ergo, getting your little brother to torment the cat is bad.

    If P2 doesn't express a proposition, capable of being true or false, then it's hard to see how it can be used AS IF it were a proposition in P1.

  4. That's either the best pun I've ever come across or the worst. I can't decide.

  5. The problem with "murder is disgusting to me, and it should be disgusting to you, too" is that when it uses prescriptivism it uses a version of a moral statement which is the very thing that was supposed to be reduced.

    The logical argument makes the problems more clear though, I guess what I had in mind was a slightly weaker version of noncognitivism. I had in mind something like the function Boo(mind,action) which returns whether a given mind has a boo reaction to a certain action. Then each Boo statement is capable of being true or false if we supply both arguments. In this case we have
    (P1) Boo(me,tormenting cat)--> Boo(me,getting brother to torment)
    (P2) Boo(me,tormenting cat)
    Therefore Boo(me,getting brother to torment)

    I guess where the non-cognitivism side comes in is when people act as if there's only one argument that being the situation -- this leads to the kinds of problems of incoherence that non-cognitivism raises.

  6. John D - thanks, I guess.

    a Nadder - Your formulation returns us to cognitivism, no? Boo(x,y) takes on truth values.

    I think the idea in non-cognitivism is to view moral statements purely as speech acts, with no propositional content. "Yuck" cannot really be replaced with "I find that disgusting" - even though at one level we know that's what "yuck" means.

  7. The full version with two arguments is cognitivist -- but most people ignore the first argument in which case it becomes much more blurry as to whether there is a truth value or not. I guess I actually fall in the middle: I think most of our ill-defined concepts of morality are non-cognitivist but once we pin these down in some stricter manner they become more cognitivist.