Follow up to: We Ought Not Have an Ought Simpliciter
I officially started this series of essays on normativity with “The Meaning of Morality”, where I broke down the debate around morality to the following five questions:
- Do moral statements like “Abortion is wrong” actually communicate something that is truth-apt?
- If yes, do moral statements communicate something that can sometimes be true?
- If yes, are moral statements justified by appealing to descriptions of the world?
- If yes, are these descriptions something other than people’s opinions?
- If yes, which descriptions should we specifically focus on?
Now that I’ve established a view on meta-ethics, I’d like to start tackling some answers to these questions. In this essay, I’d like to answer the first one about truth-apt.
Laying the Scene
Since then, I argued for Stephen Finlay’s end-relational theory which states that all normativity is relative to an end — things aren’t just good, but rather good for something. Furthermore, ought statements express that some action is likely to satisfy the end in question. For example, a cup might be good (for drinking) and we ought to drink from it (in order to satisfy our thirst).
Though of course statements like “You ought not murder!” certainly don’t sound relative to a standard for measuring action — rather, they just sound like blanket commands. Indeed, this is because they are! Following Daniel Boisvert’s theory, statements have more than just descriptive components, and statements about morality are often expressive, assertive, and directive as well.
But how does this measure up to the view that morality is actually just expressive, assertive, and/or directive, yet lacks a key descriptive component? In answering this, I don’t presume to have been able to settle hundreds of years of debate over meta-ethics. However, end-relative theory can be used to help understand what is going on in these questions and explain that at least some of what looks like disagreement isn’t disagreement at all.
Let’s start by confronting this question about whether morality can be truth-apt…
Are Moral Statements Truth-Apt?
Statements are truth-apt if they are propositions, ie they have “logical content” and are capable of being assigned a value of “true” or “false”. For example, “the sky is polka dotted” is a truth-apt statement that happens to be false, and “the Earth is round” is a truth-apt statement that happens to be true.
On the other hand, a statement like “the Earth” is not truth-apt because it can’t be assigned a value of true or false. Same with statements that contain nonsensical concepts, like “the Earth is bloogort”, or other nonsensical phraseologies, like “the color green is sleeping”. Furthermore, commands like “Shut the front door!” cannot be true and aren’t truth-apt.
Some philosophers think that statements like “X is moral” are not truth-apt, meaning they think that no statements about morality are propositions — this position is known as non-cognitivism. This usually suggested for two reasons — either the suspicion that “moral” is a nonsensical word that does not actually refer to anything or because “X is moral” can only be understood as a demand to X.
Is Morality Nonsensical?
I’m somewhat sympathetic to the idea that the concept of “morality” is a hopeless confusion that just cannot be resolved. In “Too Many Moralities”, I argued that morality is a subset of normativity, and because there are multiple different standards that could be referred to as “moral standards”, there are multiple moralities.
Thus saying “X is moral” could mean that X satisfies any number of potential moral standards. However, these standards could be mutually exclusive, and without knowing which standard is meant, the statement “X is moral” might be genuinely indeterminate. Thus, non-cognitivism has a big grain of truth — morality itself may start out as indeterminate and thus not truth-apt.
However, morality is not hopeless — merely asserting what moral standard is being used can instantly make it determinate and thus true or false. For example, it may not be possible to know whether “abortion is immoral”, but it is possible to know whether “abortion maximizes total well-being” or whether “having an abortion is something a person would do if they had all the desires that people generally have reasons to promote” or whether “having an abortion is something we can will to be universal maxim”, etc. So for reasons along these lines, morality seems to be sensical enough once you reduce it down a step.
Is Morality Just a Demand?
The other sense of non-cognitivism is that morality is just a demand and thus cannot be true or false. If someone says that “murder is immoral” all they are doing is making a demand upon you to not murder, but not saying anything to describe “murder”. As I mentioned in “Categorical Imperatives and Quadruple-Function Normativity”, there is a grain of truth to this too — many moral statements are made with an intention to make a demand.
However, not all demands are moral statements and not all moral statements are demands. It seems easy to ask something like “is eating meat immoral?”, genuinely not know the answer, and expect a meaningful dialogue and even an answer (once a moral standard is agreed upon), with no demands explicitly made. Furthermore, it seems easy to assert “If jumping jacks are morally wrong, then it is morally wrong for my brother to do jumping jacks”, without expressing any sort of sentiment about jumping jacks. For those keeping score at home, this is referred to in philosophy as the Frege-Geach Problem.
Thus non-cognitivism definitely captures some of how moral language is used, and presumably much about how it is employed in the “real world” outside philosophy blogs and journals, but does not account for all of it.
Is Morality Just an Expression of Desire?
David Hume thought that morality doesn’t come from reason but rather from emotion, and thus all moral statements are the expression of desires. To say that “Murder is wrong” is to express an intense dislike for murder. This does seem to have a grain of truth as well and capture a lot of the emotion behind someone strongly insisting on the wrongness of murder. However, it seems possible to say “Murder is wrong, but I don’t care, and I’m going to murder anyway” — clearly, this is saying murder is wrong by some standard other than the desires of the speaker.
But perhaps this still just desires — perhaps instead saying “My community dislikes murder intently, but I don’t”? Again, another grain of truth — many moral standards do seem to be only enforced and discussed because people strongly desire them to be used to evaluate action. However, it seems we can meaningfully talk about standards that no one cares about at all — like what we ought to do to maximize the amount of spaghetti in the universe.
So I’d stand by morality being about a moral standard of choice being used to evaluate action. But I’d emphasize that the choice of moral standard to use is very much dictated by personal desire. And furthermore, moral standards quite frequently involve evaluating actions based on how they satisfy desires. So Hume isn’t very far from the mark — there’s lots of desire floating around.
Descriptive Non-Cognitivism vs. Normative Non-Cognitivism
So we already talked about how ethics can have a descriptive component — or that an ethical statement communicates something that describes the world. Now, this is confusing, but “descriptive” is also used in another sense — descriptive ethics is a theory about ethics in the “real world”; describing how ethics is actually employed. Versus “normative” ethics which is how ethics “should” be. (Note: I use “ethics” and “morality” interchangeably.)
Descriptive ethics: describes how ethics is used in the real world without any commentary about whether this is correct.
Normative ethics: how ethics should be used; the correct nature of ethics.
Descriptive component: the part of ethical statements that describes how the world is.
Now, when people make theories of ethics, they could be referring to descriptive ethics or normative ethics, and it isn’t always made clear which is going on. So some philosophers might say “Sure, you can state facts about whether or not an action meets a standard of evaluation, but people don’t usually do that, so morality isn’t about that”. And the funny thing is that, to this, I would completely agree.
I want to explore moral psychology further (and will in future essays), but right now it seems that ethics is frequently used to express emotion and makes reference to standards that are not coherently applied or understood. But, of course, the frequently used moral standards don’t mean that we can’t evaluate actions by a standard like utilitarianism, which does make coherent statements about ethics.
Non-cognitivism is the view that statements about what is moral are not truth-apt — moral statements don’t express any logical content. This theory has a fair amount going for it — I’d agree that many moral standards are incoherent, I’d agree that moral statements do have significant emotive and declarative components, I’d agree that moral statements have a lot to do with desires, and I’d agree that most people frequently use morality to express their emotions without employing a logically coherent standard.
That being said, none of this undermines a descriptive component of ethics, which very much exists. Saying “we ought to, in order to maximize well-being, donate more money toward famine relief” is a coherent statement that describes how the world works (how a certain action is evaluated by a certain standard) and can be true or false. Thus, it follows from this that moral statements can be true or false.
However, just because moral statements can be true doesn’t mean any of them actually are. In the next essay, we’ll look to see if there is any truth to ethics, with special emphasis on this business about “moral realism” and “moral anti-realism”.
Followed up in: Will the Real Moral Realism Please Stand Up?
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