Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sketches of a Non-Cognitivist Account of Morality

I recently discussed my reasons for thinking we should look for a non-cognitivist account of morality. Now I want to take some positive steps outlining what I think such an account might look like. I'm still working through all this, so I expect to stumble a bit here and there.

First, there might be a misconception that moral non-cognitivists don't believe in morality, or don't believe that moral statements have the sort of reason-giving power that people normally think. The concern is that non-cognitivism doesn't account for morality as it is commonly understood, and that it tries to undermine the common notion of morality. On the contrary, non-cognitivism (in my view) should fully account for everything philosophically and psychologically interesting about morality. Morality is taken as a given, as a process which we all observe and participate in, and which stands in need of psychological exploration and philosophical elucidation.

Another common concern is that non-cognitivism reduces moral statements to statements of personal taste. We can easily see the difference between statements like "The Beatles are great!" and "Abortion is immoral." When we make moral judgments or commandments, we are making statements with a special sort of force. We are putting pressure on other people to do (or not do) something.

We should not underestimate the importance of statements of personal taste, nor should we oversimplify the non-cognitivist's position on this matter. Statements like "The Beatles are great!" do have some reason-giving power. Expressions of taste can direct other people's actions. They are significant and they can motivate people, cause conflicts, and even lead to a strong sense of camaraderie.

Yet, statements of taste don't quite seem morally binding. At least, if they are, it is in a very weak sense. It's common, I think, to feel some small sense of moral indignation when our favorite musical groups, sports clubs, artists, or what have you are disrespected or unfavorably treated by friends, neighbors, in the press, and so on. We think that they deserve better, and we might be sad or frustrated that the world doesn't share our views. There are plenty of degrees of difference here--how we feel about music is probably much stronger than how we feel about flavors of ice cream--but there is presumably a spectrum, and characteristically moral statements might be at one end of it. I'm not sure that the difference between "The Beatles are great!" and "Abortion is immoral!" is so fundamental. The difference may be one of degree, though the difference is significant enough to warrant an explanation.

Our moral sense is intrinsically connected to our sense of personhood. When we make moral judgments, we are making judgments about what it means to be a person. For example, when we are morally outraged, we might say somebody is not a person, but a monster. Or we might ask, "What kind of person would do that?" Moral corruption is corruption of personhood. Exhibiting moral excellence is being a good person.

We also seem to define ourselves--who we are, the kind of person we are--by our tastes. So, again, questions of personhood can involve questions of taste as well as questions of moral integrity. These questions might not be so dissimilar.

Personhood is not a biological concept, but a normative one, though I expect there are biological constraints on what we could rationally consider a living person. I suspect that we have physiological mechanisms which motivate our interest in converging on a shared sense of personhood, too. We have a biological interest in harmonious normativity. We thus produce morality, which is a process of constructing and enforcing norms. We thereby seek out and foster dignity, which is the feeling of being a good person.

We don't respond well to seemingly arbitrary moral dictums, nor are we always inclined to listen to people who express moral disagreement with us. When we confront each other with contrary moral views, we either attempt to negotiate a shared understanding of what it means to be a person or we reach an impasse. In such cases, we might appeal to some particular moral system or principle which we believe serves as a measure of dignified action. Not just anything can count as a standard in that regard, but it is not the case that some measures are the right ones and some are the wrong ones. There is no standard by which we could conceivably measure our standards of personhood. (And if we did devise such a meta-standard, we would still lack a standard by which we could judge that one.)

We can make factual statements about norms, of course. I can say, "It is wrong to X," and (thanks to contextual implication) just mean that X is not permitted by some agreed upon ethical system. In this case, my moral judgment (if I am making one at all) is not specifically about X, but about following a particular ethical system. So, it is a fact that X is wrong according to some system, but it is not a fact that it is morally right or wrong to follow that system.

Against non-cognitivism, Russell Blackford says that, in some cases at least, people who say "X is morally wrong" mean that X is objectively forbidden, and he says that such statements are simply false. I think "X is objectively forbidden" is incoherent, unless it means that X is forbidden by some objectively known set of principles. In that case, "objective" just means, "capable of being recognized by any properly situated observer." Any properly situated observer can recognize the principles laid out in, say, the American Declaration of Independence, for example. So that could provide us with some kind of objective moral authority. Not an absolute one, of course, but the notion of an absolute moral authority seems incoherent.

People might appeal to some objectively recognizable moral authority to justify their moral judgments, but I do not think that the meaning of any moral judgment just is an appeal to some moral authority. If that were the case, then the judgment would not be that X was wrong per se, but that some particular authority should be followed. If my moral judgment is that X is wrong because it is wrong to go against Y, then my moral judgment is about Y, not X. And this is still a normative claim, not a factual one.

The premise here is that moral commandments and the like are of a logically different kind. They are not factual statements. They are more like promises, such as the promise we make when we say "I do" during a marriage ceremony. It has a great deal of significance and force--it is even contractually binding--but it is not a statement of fact. And what is a promise, but an act of setting some inter-personal condition on ourselves? Moral statements are like that, except instead of imposing inter-personal conditions on ourselves alone, we are imposing them on all persons as such.

There's a lot more to be said on this topic, but hopefully I've sketched out some interesting ideas. In sum, we can (and do) rely on facts in our assessments about what is or can be considered a person. Moral judgments can be based on factual knowledge. I do not claim that all talk of persons is normative or outside the scope of factual discourse. But the category of persons, as such, is normative. It does not reduce to biological or physiological categories. Furthermore, when we make moral judgments, commandments, or statements in general, we are constructing a notion of personhood which extends to all conceivable persons (though it may entail epistemic or other constraints; for example, I might think X-ing is immoral, but I might not say you were immoral for X-ing if you lacked the required knowledge base to recognize the salient features that made your behavior immoral.). We are not appealing to biological or physiological facts, even if what we are doing is informed by such facts. We are forging a sense of personhood, imposing it on others as well as on ourselves. That is the sense of moral prescriptions.