Thursday, April 28, 2011

On 'Non-descriptivist Cognitivism'

In their paper 'Non-descriptivist Cognitivism: Framework for a New Metaethic,' Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons (H&T) challenge the widely held assumption that beliefs must be aimed at describing the world. They carve out space for genuine beliefs which aim at how the world ought to be, then argue that moral judgments are of this kind.

Non-descriptivist Cognitivism — Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons (search link)

Moral Judgments: Beliefs or Something Else?

One of the major divisions in moral philosophy is whether moral judgments express beliefs or, alternatively, something else like attitudes (emotivism) or demands (prescriptivism).

Cognitivism — moral judgments (primarily) express beliefs
Non-cognitivism — moral judgments (primarily) express something other than beliefs

Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of cognitivism is that moral judgments behave like beliefs in natural language as well as in logical form. H&T affirm that moral judgments have the 'logico-grammatical trappings of genuine beliefs' and give this example:
Either Jeeves had already mailed Uncle Willoughby's parcel or Bertie ought to mail it.
It's hard to see how 'Bertie ought to mail it' could be a simple attitude expression, since the speaker would either have an attitude or not whatever the status of an unknown fact off somewhere else. This and other considerations about our use of moral language present a substantial obstacle for non-cognitivism.

Moral Judgments: Built-in or Contingent Motivation?

Another major division in moral philosophy is whether or not a person making a moral judgment is necessarily motivated by it, at least to some extent.

Internalism — accepted moral judgments necessarily motivate
Externalism — accepted moral judgments don't necessarily motivate

A strong argument in favor of internalism is that moral beliefs seem to have an unusually close connection to motivation. As H&T put it:
Typically, anyway, moral judgments directly dispose us toward appropriate action, independently of our pre-existing desires—whereas ordinary nonmoral beliefs only become action-oriented in combination with such prior desires.

Internalism pairs more easily with non-cognitivism; and externalism with cognitivism. It's easy to view beliefs as only contingently motivating and other kinds of expressions as having the motivation built-in.

But H&T are proposing a view that is both cognitivist (moral judgments express beliefs) and internalist (accepted moral judgments necessarily motivate). Taken individually, these views have a lot going for's the combination that seems dubious. If they can argue convincingly for a method of harmony, their overall view becomes an alloy of two strong elements.

The Essence of Belief

According to H&T, a belief is 'a kind of psychological commitment state' with 'way-the-world-might-be content'. Notice the word 'might' in that definition. Usually, we think of beliefs as purporting to represent how the world is, not just might be. H&T are leaving the basic definition of belief open for two distinct subtypes of belief: descriptive beliefs and evaluative beliefs.

The belief that 'Bertie will mail the parcel' is descriptive.
The belief that 'Bertie ought to mail the parcel' is evaluative.

Is this concept of 'evaluative belief' legitimate? I'm undecided, but here is the proposed model:

Anatomy of a Descriptive Belief
<core descriptive content: 'that Bertie mail the parcel'> ← is-commitment

Anatomy of an Evaluative Belief
<core descriptive content: 'that Bertie mail the parcel'> ← ought-commitment

Note: Evaluative beliefs do share a core descriptive content, but the ought-commitment makes it a non-descriptive belief overall.

Tension Relief

I don't think it will be controversial that evaluative beliefs support internalism just as easily as non-cognitivism can. They have a built-in ought-commitment!

The real test is whether H&T's model solves the problems non-cognitivism has with the 'logico-grammatical trappings' of moral judgments. Let's go back to the earlier example:
Either Jeeves had already mailed Uncle Willoughby's parcel or Bertie ought to mail it.
How is this understood under Non-descriptivist Cognitivism?
On our view, such a belief is to be understood as a logically complex commitment state with respect to a sequence of core descriptive contents.
Specifically, the person uttering this complex moral belief is saying she is close to holding an ought-commitment to 'that Bertie mail the parcel' and will inferentially hold it if she comes to hold an is-commitment to 'that Jeeves had not already mailed the parcel.' (Or at least that's best I can do to characterize their take on that particular kind of complex moral judgment; I'm not confident I have it right.)

Does This Work?

No idea. I'm having a hard time accepting evaluative beliefs as properly-so-called beliefs. Even if the 'logico-grammatical' stuff does work, I would be inclined to say this shows moral judgments don't need to express beliefs to get past that challenge. Why couldn't non-cognitivists use the same tools?

Nor do I accept that 'ought' is a distinct sibling to 'is,' because — following Stephen Finlay's end-relational theory — I consider 'ought' to be a matter of whether, given an implied end, an action is more likely than not to precede that end. But this is a minority externalist view which does not have the initial plausibility of internalism.

Mostly I wanted to explain where Horgan and Timmons are coming from. It's undoubtedly a thought-provoking paper.

1 comment:

  1. @myself
    .."I'm having a hard time accepting evaluative beliefs as properly-so-called beliefs."

    It's only philosophers who routinely limit beliefs to descriptive beliefs. Everyone else also uses 'belief' to express their commitments, hopes, etc.