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Monday, February 21, 2011

Why I'm a Moral Noncognitivist

Slightly modified on 24 Feb 2011.

Moral noncognitivism is the view that moral statements (e.g., "X is morally wrong" and "Y is morally obligated to Z") have no truth conditions. They do not express propositions, and therefore cannot be said to express beliefs, where beliefs are defined as propositional attitudes. All this means is that moral statements do not denote facts about the world. Phrases like "morally wrong" and "morally obligated" do not cash out in factual terms. These phrases do not predict, explain, or otherwise refer to any properties, behaviors, or laws.

When we look at the grammar, moral statements don't seem different from other sorts of expressions. We can add "I believe that" or "It is true that" at the beginning of moral claims. This might seem to count as a mark against noncognitivism, but I don't think it does.

First, to clarify, the noncognitivist does not deny that such statements make sense. The point is only that they lack factual content. In the moral idiom, the phrase "it is true" functions differently than it does in other idioms. The challenge for noncognitivism is to account for the widespread belief that moral statements do express beliefs which could be true or false.

One strategy is to claim that there are moral beliefs, but that these are not propositional attitudes, and that moral statements can be true or false, just not in a factual sense. This is a way of respecting common sense without conceding any metaethical ground. The idea is that words like "true" and "belief" have different meanings when they are used in the moral idiom. The noncognitivist still has to account for this difference.

At this point, I want to shift gears and argue that such an account is worth looking for. To do this, I will explain why I reject cognitivism. (It's often easier to reject theories than it is to argue for them.) The basic premise of cognitivism is that there are facts about the world which make moral statements true or false. Moral realists, moral relativists, and error theorists all accept this premise.

Moral relativists believe that moral facts are subjective, and that moral statements are therefore true or false relative to particular individuals or cultures. When we say "X is wrong," we are saying it is wrong according to some set of values. This view seems to be supported by the fact that different people and cultures seem to value different things and that their moral discourse reflects these differences. The problem is that, when people make moral judgments, they are not deferring to some established set of standards or values. Instead, they are promoting a standard. The difference is between saying "X is wrong" and "X is wrong according to the principles of Y." The latter statement is a report about some set of principles, and not a moral judgment about X.

Furthermore, when people say "X is wrong," they are not saying it is wrong only for themselves, or only for people who share their values. They are rather saying that X is wrong for anybody in a given situation. Moral statements apply to any properly situated person regardless of what that person happens to want. If "X is wrong" just meant "X is not permitted by our shared values," one could object that our shared values are morally suspect. For the moral statement to have moral force, we would have to add, "and we are morally obligated to respect these shared values." This reading of moral statements is absurd, since "we are morally obligated to respect our values" would have to mean "our values do not permit us to disrespect our values." We might still wonder whether we should respect our own values. In any case, is such a statement really implied by every moral statement? I don't think this is an accurate description of moral statements. So much for moral relativism.

According to error theorists and moral realists, what makes moral statements true or false is the existence of some fact which objectively defines right and wrong. The difference between them is that moral realists believe that some moral statements are true and some are false, while error theorists believe that they are all false. The moral realist seems to have the upper hand here, since it is rather bold to claim that, while moral statements could in principle be true, they all just happen to be false. Couldn't some of them just happen to be true? How could we know?

That last question is worth repeating: How could we know whether or not a moral statement was factually true or false? If there is no way of knowing, then why should we think they could be?

This suggests a bigger problem with cognitivism: There does not appear to be any sense in saying that a moral statement is factually true or false. Clearly moral statements have meaning. Noncognitivists don't deny that. What we deny is that this meaning cashes out in factual terms. Since we have no grasp of what it means for a moral statement to be factually true or false, we cannot assume that the meaning of such statements entails factual truth or falsity. Yes, we all know what we mean when we say that "X is wrong" is true or false; yet, nobody has any idea what sort of fact this could indicate. The obvious approach, I think, is to suppose that we aren't talking about facts at all.

Like the moral relativist, I think that moral statements do relate to values and norms. However, unlike the moral relativist, I don't think moral statements can be judged by appealing to values and norms. Rather, I think they are constructive, creative acts which help produce norms. When we say they are true or false, we are promoting or voting for a norm. Votes make sense, but there is no sense in saying they are true or false.

Moral realists appeal to some natural (or supernatural) fact which is supposed to make moral statements right or wrong. They ask us to suppose that there is some natural (or supernatural) phenomenon rightly called "the good" which all moral statements are about. A moral statement is true or false depending on whether or not it properly denotes the good. But what makes the good good? Is it good because people value it? Or do people value it because it is good?

If it is good just because people value it, then we cannot tell people they should value it. So, if somebody disagreed with us about what was good, we would have no basis for saying they were morally wrong.

If people value it because it is good, however, then we have to wonder what makes it good. It must be good independently of any values. But this doesn't make sense. The term "good" is an evaluation--it is based on values. The idea of "good in itself" is incoherent. This goes for talk about God as well as talk about neurological states which could somehow ground our moral discourse. What makes a particular neurological state good? It cannot be good in itself.

Some error theorists recognize that the search for a ground of the good is hopeless in principle. They conclude that all moral statements are false. What they have not realized is that, if there is nothing in principle which could make moral statements factually true, then there is nothing which could make them false. They have no truth conditions.

The door to moral noncognitivism is wide open. Moral statements are meaningful, but not factual. They don't cash out in non-moral terms. They are normative, creative acts in which we produce standards of human dignity. There isn't a factually correct answer to the question of whether or not a person deserves their dignity, but we want dignity all the same.