Thursday, November 25, 2010

What Is Morality, Anyway? (Pt. 1)

When people say "Genocide is wrong" or "Good folks donate to the needy," what are they claiming and what are they doing?

Metaethics is the branch of philosophy that steps back from the debate over the correct procedure for generating moral judgments1 and asks about the nature of moral judgments (and related concepts like goodness and obligation).

Note: I've read several summaries of metaethical positions and each arrangement differs significantly. This post represents my own attempt to get a handle on things. Criticism welcome.

Do moral judgments include truth claims?

In a previous post about propositions2, I explained how not everything we say is appropriately labeled 'True' or 'False.' We can command, recommend, express feelings, etc. without claiming that something is the case (or isn't the case). Expressivism and Prescriptivism are two views which deny the appropriateness of labeling moral judgments as 'True' or 'False.' Instead, they characterize moral judgments as expressions of emotion or, additionally, as personal demands that other people act a certain way (prescriptions).

An expressivist might interpret "Genocide is wrong" as "Genocide? Yuck!" Meanwhile, a prescriptivist might interpret "Good folks donate to the needy" as "Hey you, donate to the needy!" According to these non-cognitivist views of morality, moral judgments may look like truth claims but this is just for rhetorical effect.

Other views of morality still allow emotional expression and demands to play a part in moral language, but affirm that moral judgments also make claims which can be true or false. Philosophers who defend these cognitivist views of morality point out how some features of moral language are hard to explain if we deny any place for truth claims. I find these cognitivist arguments convincing. And according to the PhilPapers survey3 of philosophers, cognitivism (judgments include truth claims) is much more popular than non-cognitivism (truth claims not included).

What makes a moral judgment true? Answer #1: Attitudes.

It's possible to slightly tweak an expressivist interpretation of "Genocide is wrong" from "Genocide? Yuk!" to "It's the case that I react to genocide with a 'Yuk!'" The new formulation counts as a truth claim, but not a very interesting one. Another person could say "Genocide is not wrong" and not be disputing the first truth claim any more than when one person says "I like chocolate cake" and the other says "I don't like chocolate cake." So according to individual subjectivism, moral judgments are practically all true. Moral disputes may look like truth disputes, but actually they're more like disputes over which bands are good; we talk like we're disputing facts but most of us realize we're really just expressing our personal taste in music.

Cultural subjectivism would interpret "Genocide is wrong" as something like "It's the case that our culture reacts to genocide with a 'Yuk!'" This allows for false moral judgments within a culture. If a 21st century American or European man says, "Slavery is wrong," he would be making a truth claim which turns out to be true. But if the attitudes of so-called "western culture" were to change back to the way attitudes used to be, the claim "Slavery is wrong" from anyone in the changed culture would be false.

Divine subjectivism would interpret "Genocide is wrong" as something like "It's the case that God reacts to genocide with a 'Yuk!'" This is a lot like individual subjectivism, except only the attitudes of one individual count for making a judgment true. This view has something important going for it: the truth of moral judgments is no longer grounded in human attitudes; cultures can be incorrect about the morality of genocide and slavery. However, if morality is grounded in divine attitudes, there is no way to say one set of divine attitudes would be better than another. This is a problem if divine attitudes can change, or if we want to compare the morality of two imaginable Gods, or if we want to say there's something about genocide and slavery that make them wrong besides divine attitudes.

I find all of these attitude-grounded interpretations of moral truth claims dissatisfying. When I say "Genocide is wrong," I don't just mean that I, my culture, or God has negative attitudes about genocide. I'm claiming that genocide would fail a moral evaluation even if I, my culture, or God had positive attitudes about it. Philosophers have proposed a number of ways moral judgments might include truth claims which don't (at least directly) depend on attitudes.

...Part 2
...Part 3
...Part 4


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