• Pfhorrest
    4.6k
    We’ve been talking a lot about meta-ethics in other threads lately. I had planned a while back to eventually start a thread about my own meta-ethical system, but since my last thread on my principles of commensurablism basically turned entirely into a discussion just about the implications on that, I thought I would instead start a thread about the meta-ethical possibilities generally, and why I fall where I do among them. I hope and expect that this will lead eventually into a discussion about philosophy of language more generally, as that’s where my thoughts had to go to figure my way out of the apparent trap that the usual span of meta-ethical options left me in.

    Wikipedia has a great breakdown of common meta-ethical positions and how they relate to each other. The rest of this OP is assuming you’re familiar with that, so give it a glance if you’re not

    Cognitivism seems like the default position most people start from: moral assertions are the kinds of things that can be true or false. I certainly started out and ended up there myself.

    The most common kind of cognitivism seems to be a form of subjectivism, divine command theory (what is good is what god commands). But for those who reject that view, like me, the most obvious alternative seems to be a form of moral realism: there are some facts about reality that make some things moral and other things not.

    The most straightforward candidates for such facts, especially for someone like me who had rejected the supernatural generally at the same time as rejecting divine command theory, are natural facts. Most Modern-era normative ethical theories like utilitarianism seem to just assume this, and that seems natural enough (pun intended).

    But there are a lot of good arguments like those put forward by the father of meta-ethics, GE Moore, against the possibility of natural facts constituting moral facts; notably the Open Question Argument, which is much akin to Hume’s is-ought problem or the fact-value distinction. Moore thought that this entailed that moral facts must be non-natural; and yet, he was still otherwise a realist.

    For those like me whose physicalist ontology cannot admit of some strange non-natural but nevertheless real moral facts, non-naturalism is a non-option. (This is also called the Argument from Queerness: wtf is a non-natural moral fact like?). But together with the defeat of ethical naturalism, that rules out all of moral realism. That puts us back in the subjectivist camp, but without a God to defer to, we’re left with a more ordinary subjectivism, a kind of cultural relativism: what is good is what your culture says is good.

    Yet that seems vulnerable to the same Euthyphro-esque attacks as Divine Command Theory: is what culture says is good good just because they say it is? (if so that seems rather arbitrary and unjustified) or do they say it's good because it actually is? (if so then it's not them saying it that makes it good and we're back to where we started: what actually makes it good?). Subjectivism also seems to undermine a lot of the point of cognitivism in the first place: if everybody's differing moral claims are all true relative to themselves, then it doesn't seem like any of them are actually true at all, they're just different opinions, none more right or wrong than the others.

    With both realism and subjectivism ruled out, the only cognitivist option left is error theory: everyone is trying to make truth-apt claims when they make their moral assertions, but all of them are categorically false. That seems just patently absurd, though, that everyone categorically are trying but failing to do something with language that just cannot possibly be successfully done. So then it seems much more reasonable that instead, people aren't trying to do that with language at all; they're trying to do something different altogether.

    That takes us finally out of cognitivism. The most straightforward kind of non-cognitivism is emotivism, a kind of expressivism which says that rather than making assertions of the kind that can be true or false, moral claims are just expressions of emotions, like "boo this" and "yay that". Like error theory, this ends up effectively a kind of moral nihilism: no moral claims are ever actually right, though unlike error theory, they're not all wrong either, because they're all not even wrong. That, I think, runs counter to most people's impressions of what they're trying to do with moral language, as evidenced by the fact that people actually have moral disagreements where they think that one person is right and the other is wrong.

    There are other non-cognitivist possibilities. Some hold moral discourse to be a kind of shared fiction, a projection of our feelings as though they were real facets of the world. That, to me, seems too much like error theory, mixed with some of the flaws of subjectivism: nothing is actually moral, but we agree to pretend like certain things we agree on are actually moral.

    There's one other non-cognitivist theory, universal prescriptivism, which holds that moral claims are actually more like imperatives, commands that we're giving each other, but specifically commands that are universalizable: commands that we're committed to issuing and adhering to in all similar circumstances. That one, I think, gets very close to a solution, because in being non-cognitivist it gets around all the problems with those views detailed above, but also escapes the nihilistic implications of other forms of non-cognitivism, and tries to salvage not the robust moral realism we discussed above, but a more minimal moral "realism", a mere moral universalism.

    ...

    I'm going to hold off on discussing where I went from there for now, and let everyone discuss whether all of these conventional options are so far insufficient, and we're in need of something new and different, which is where I found myself before trying to come up with such a new and different option.

    It looks to me like we need something that’s compatible with ontological naturalism or physicalism, that honors the is-ought divide, and yet still allows for moral claims to be genuinely truth-apt and not mere subjective opinions — and none of the conventional options above satisfy those conditions.
  • creativesoul
    9.9k
    What counts as a moral claim, as compared/contrasted to all the other kinds of claims that are not?

    :brow:
  • Pfhorrest
    4.6k
    The exact answer to that is precisely what is at question. What exactly is it that makes a moral claim different from any other (or not)?

    But the rough class of utterances we’re talking about are the kind involving words like “good, bad, moral, immoral, right, wrong, just, unjust, ought(n’t), should(n’t), etc”. As I’m sure you already know.
  • Echarmion
    2.2k


    Well, first moral claims are prescriptive. They tell you what to do. But there are of course different kinds of prescriptions.

    Moral claims tell you what to do regardless of your personal goals. This is often referred to as "objective", but the term "objective" has some unfortunate baggage associated. Perhaps it's better to call it "apodictic". Moral claims are prescriptive claims that establish a general duty you should follow.



    Where do you think Kant's "freedom through morality" approach falls within meta-ethics?
  • creativesoul
    9.9k


    It's bad, immoral, wrong, and unjust to whack a little old lady in the back of the head with a shovel for no reason whatsoever...

    What's the problem here regarding the truth of the above moral claim?
  • Pfhorrest
    4.6k
    Where do you think Kant's "freedom through morality" approach falls within meta-ethics?Echarmion

    I don’t recall that phrase exactly from Kant, so can you elaborate on that?

    I’ve also always had a hard time figuring out Kant’s metaethics. He seems clearly a cognitivist and not an error theorist. It seems plausible that he might either be some kind of universalist subjectivist like an Ideal Observer theorist, or else a non-naturalist realist. It’s really hard to say exactly.
  • Pfhorrest
    4.6k
    Meta-ethics isn’t about whether or not that kind of thing is true, but about what it means for something like that to be true (or false). What exactly is a claim like that saying?

    I haven’t given my account of that yet in this thread, only said briefly why I think the conventional accounts fail in one way or another
  • Isaac
    5.6k
    Moral claims tell you what to do regardless of your personal goals. This is often referred to as "objective", but the term "objective" has some unfortunate baggage associated. Perhaps it's better to call it "apodictic". Moral claims are prescriptive claims that establish a general duty you should follow.Echarmion

    So "You should drive on the left" is a moral claim?
  • Banno
    15.1k
    What counts as a moral claim, as compared/contrasted to all the other kinds of claims that are not?creativesoul

    It's a claim, not about what is the case, but what ought be the case; and it's a claim that applies to everyone, unlike a mere preference. Hence,

    moral claims are actually more like imperatives, commands that we're giving each other, but specifically commands that are universalizable: commands that we're committed to issuing and adhering to in all similar circumstances.Pfhorrest

    ...and further this leads to some disagreement as to the moral facts, and hence better to look at virtues rather than moral rules.

    My present thinking on the topic.
  • Banno
    15.1k
    It's bad, immoral, wrong, and unjust to whack a little old lady in the back of the head with a shovel for no reason whatsoever...

    What's the problem here regarding the truth of the above moral claim?
    creativesoul

    Forget about moral rules ad look at the person who hits the LOL... what do you make of them? They are telling us who they are by their acts. You tell us about yourself by your reaction to them.
  • 180 Proof
    6.5k
    better to look at virtues rather than moral rules.Banno
    :point:

    They are telling us who they are by their acts. You tell us about yourself by your reaction to them.Banno
    :up:
  • Echarmion
    2.2k
    I don’t recall that phrase exactly from Kant, so can you elaborate on that?Pfhorrest

    Kant's "groundwork" doesn't so much start with the question "what should I do" as it starts with the question "how can I be free". The categorical imperative is arrived at as the form of the "general law" that one must follow to be free of the vagaries of circumstance.

    So "You should drive on the left" is a moral claim?Isaac

    It could be. You need the context. But I realize we need another distinction between legal and moral.
  • Bunji
    33
    Interesting OP. Dissatisfaction with R. M. Hare's prescriptivism was the starting point for some very interesting developments in moral cognitivism by people like John McDowell, David McNaughton and Jonathan Dancy. The main objection to Hare's prescriptivism is of course his conception of universalizability (which is not like Kant's). According to Hare, if certain features of an action are reasons for judging the action to be right in one case, then those features are reasons to prescribe any action which has them in all cases. It is the "should do x in all cases" in which Hare's universalizability consists. For example, if my reasons for agreeing to plant some shrubs in a neighbour's garden are that doing so would be helpful and would give pleasure to my neighbour and to myself, then I am committed to prescribing all actions which are helpful and give pleasure to both agent and recipient in all possible cases where such an action is available. This leads to some very obvious problems. Suppose, for example, a sadistic person has the opportunity to help another sadistic person to torture a litter of puppies. Given my judgement in the original case, I'm forced to prescribe the action in the second case because it has all the relevant properties; it is helpful and gives pleasure to both the agent and to the person helped. If I can't go along with that judgement in the second case, then I'm forced to rescind my judgement in the first case. But why should I need to do that, when the action in the original case seemed perfectly reasonable?

    Particularists like Jonathan Dancy want to retain the idea that properties like helpfulness and pleasure are morally relevant and hence provide reasons for action, but to dispense with any notion of universalizability. So, properties which provide reasons for an action in one case may not do so in a different case, and might even count as reasons against an action in some cases, like the second one above. Crucial to this move is to give a plausible account of moral properties. Hence, the particularist regards morally relevant properties like pleasure and helpfulness as forming a base for resultant moral properties like "right" and "good". So moral properties as such are resultant properties, and the properties from which moral properties result are all reasons for or against action, depending on the precise circumstances that form the resultance base. In my view, the sophisticated development of an account along these lines gives the best prospect for moral cognitivism / realism.
  • Pfhorrest
    4.6k
    Kant's "groundwork" doesn't so much start with the question "what should I do" as it starts with the question "how can I be free". The categorical imperative is arrived at as the form of the "general law" that one must follow to be free of the vagaries of circumstance.Echarmion

    Interesting. I had forgotten that from Kant, but then separately elsewhere (regarding free will theodicies) come up with a similar thought of my own, that free will is having moral reasoning be causally effective on your behavior, such that thinking that something is what you should do causes you to do that, instead of something else that you didn’t think you should do, which would be unfree will (where your will, that which moves you to act, is not dependent on what you meant for it to be; you are not free to will what you want to will, where wanting to will something and thinking it’s the right thing to do just are the same state of mind).
  • Adam's Off Ox
    61
    Could you walk through the logic that helped you reject non-cognitive approaches? It seems you take the Wikipedia article as an exhaustive list of non-cognitive approaches. Personally I have found more nuance in this space.

    You also seem eager to reject all forms of moral nihilism. Is that a logical approach or a reflection of your sentimentality?
  • Kmaca
    24
    Not the OP but I think a moral claim is a proposition that can be made into a “x should...’ claim. Meta-ethical claims can include non-moral claims such as ‘The good is X’ which can in turn set the foundation for the ‘should’ sentences that are moral claims. But, then we get get into the messy bit about whether an ‘is’ can logically lead to an ‘ought/should’.
  • Kmaca
    24
    What do you think about the open question argument? I often think that it is too much of a bugbear that tries to dampen meta ethical debate before it gets off the ground. I’ve heard two interpretations 1) The strong one- absolutely no ‘ought‘ from an ‘is’. 2) The weak one, an ought can be derived from an is but not automatically. Some explanation or justification is required to show how we make that leap.
    As moral beings, we quite often derive values from perceived facts. It is the way that we morally reason. I think any meta ethical system needs to recognize this as more than mere error. If morality is a human invention, than the way that humans morally reason must have clout.
    Do you think the is-ought distinction is best interpreted as 1) or 2) ?

    Thanks!
  • Banno
    15.1k
    The open question, the naturalistic fallacy and the is/ought distinction... are distinct.

    Some finesse is needed.
  • Kmaca
    24
    If you get the time, please explain or link. I’ve always lazily ran them together but them being distinct would explain why Moore didn’t just quote from Hume when developing the open question argument as I’m sure Moore and all his contemporaries were well versed in Hume. Thanks!
  • Bunji
    33

    A sharp is/ought or fact/value divide is a specifically Humean feature designed to fit Hume's belief-desire theory of motivation. Moral realists undermine this sharp divide both by criticising Hume's own arguments in defence of it and with their observations of how moral reasons operate which entails an account of how moral properties and facts result from the morally relevant features of actions and the circumstances in which they are carried out. Because moral properties are regarded as resultant properties, "right" and "good" are not defined in terms of any natural properties, so the kind of realism being proposed is not vulnerable to the open question argument.
  • Kmaca
    24
    Thanks for the quick answer. I’m going to read through and try to digest it and hopefully it’ll clear things up for me. Much appreciated!
  • Bunji
    33

    You're welcome!
  • Mww
    2.8k
    Kant’s groundwork, with respect to moral philosophy, starts with the notion of a good will, a will good in and of itself.

    If moral dialectics are to be subsumed under Kantian transcendental metaphysics and do not themselves start there, they are doomed to be mistaken. Case in point, “freedom through morality” is exactly, unequivocally and catastrophically.......backwards.

    Start somewhere else, no problem.
  • Pfhorrest
    4.6k
    Could you walk through the logic that helped you reject non-cognitive approaches? It seems you take the Wikipedia article as an exhaustive list of non-cognitive approaches. Personally I have found more nuance in this space.Adam's Off Ox

    I haven’t completely rejected all non-cognitivist approaches; I think universal prescriptivism is the closest thing to right that I’ve seen. My own view could be called “non-cognitivist” by those who don’t distinguish cognitivism from descriptivism; my view is a non-descriptive cognitivism.

    I would like to hear about the nuances you’ve found that I left out here. The meta-ethics I studied in college didn’t have much more than that wikipedia article does about it.

    You also seem eager to reject all forms of moral nihilism. Is that a logical approach or a reflection of your sentimentality?Adam's Off Ox

    It’s a practical constraint. People generally talk and think and act like some moral claims are true and others are false and they try to figure out which is which. Arriving at moral nihilism is tantamount to simply giving up on that endeavor. But we can’t help but be constantly faced with moral questions as we live our lives. Rather than just trying to ignore those questions and by our actions tacitly assume some answer to them, which might be the wrong answer if there are right and wrong answers, practicality behooves us to at least consider the question and try to act in the way that is most probably right, should it turn out that anything is. So any approach that ends up saying there isn’t any answer to be found is for that reason impractical. We need some way of trying to answer moral questions.
  • Isaac
    5.6k
    We need some way of trying to answer moral questions.Pfhorrest

    Democracy, persuasion, tradition, consequentialism, virtue... It seems we have plenty. Do we need another?
  • Pfhorrest
    4.6k
    If none of them work sufficiently well then yes. If I thought any of those was a perfect solution I wouldn’t go looking for a better one.

    You may as well point at all the different religions’ accounts of the origins of the universe and ask if we really need scientific cosmology to come up with yet another one. Yes, we do, because those ones all have problems.
  • Isaac
    5.6k
    If none of them work sufficiently well then yes.Pfhorrest

    What would working sufficiently well consist in? Is it the extent of agreement with the answer, the extent to which you agree with it?

    Say, hypothetically, we asked the world "should we give a tithe to charity", by vote. The vote was 60/40 in favour of a tithe. Everyone agreed that this is a fine way to decide. Would that then make democratic vote a 'good' method for you?
  • Pfhorrest
    4.6k
    What would working sufficiently well consist in? Is it the extent of agreement with the answer, the extent to which you agree with it?Isaac

    Working sufficiently well means not being vulnerable to any reasonable criticism. Whether or not a particular solution is vulnerable to any criticism is up to each particular reasoner to evaluate. In my evaluation, there are sound objections to all the things you listed: people have problems with them and I can see why, their reasons for not completely accepting them seem sound to me. That isn’t to say that all of them are completely wrong in every way. A real solution would incorporate the best from all of them while avoiding the problematic parts.

    Say, hypothetically, we asked the world "should we give a tithe to charity", by vote. The vote was 60/40 in favour of a tithe. Everyone agreed that this is a fine way to decide. Would that then make democratic vote a 'good' method for you?Isaac

    In that particular case where everyone is satisfied, even the 40% who lost the vote, I have no objection there. Generally wherever there is unanimity there is no problem. But that doesn’t mean that every majoritarian vote gives a perfect solution to every moral question. It’s easy to construct scenarios where a majority vote clearly breaks down. (“Two wolves and a sheep...” etc).


    In any case, you brought these things up in the context of moral nihilism. To think that any of these actually is morally sufficient is already to reject moral nihilism. Moral nihilism would have it that none of them are and nothing possibly can be sufficient, because the questions are inherently unanswerable.
  • creativesoul
    9.9k
    Meta-ethics isn’t about whether or not that kind of thing is true, but about what it means for something like that to be true (or false). What exactly is a claim like that saying?Pfhorrest

    I was asking about the truth of that claim in direct response to the criterion set forth - for what you claim we need - in the last paragraph of the OP. Particularly, the bit about being 'genuinely' truth-apt, which to me amounts to what sorts of claims are even capable of being true, in addition to what makes them so...

    I see no reason for moral claims to be any different than any other claim in this regard. What I do not get is the confusion regarding what the claim means, or what it is saying. What's not to be understood about what the claim means, assuming we are competent language users? We all know what it means, don't we? If we do not, then we've gone horribly wrong somewhere along the lines in our meta-ethical considerations, because we most certainly used to.

    My initial question was the beginning of a rather different sort of approach. Seeing how that's what you seem to be asking for, perhaps we can pursue one, at least momentarily; for the sake of argument, so to speak.

    All of the different language use that make a claim a moral one as compared to not, have something else in common too. On my view, this other commonality is the determining factor. It is what makes a claim a moral one, conventional examples notwithstanding...

    All moral claims - all things moral for that matter - are about acceptable/unacceptable thought, belief, and/or behaviour. If being about that is what makes them moral claims, and that's what I'm currently advocating, then that completely leaves behind the personal value judgment aspect, which has some very interesting consequences.

    The term "moral" would no longer be being used - on pains of coherency alone - as a value judgement/assessment. Rather, "moral" would be used to pick out things that are about acceptable/unacceptable thought, belief, and/or behaviour. This, of course, broadens the scope well beyond where it is and would render moral facts as what's happened and/or is happening that had and/or has to do with acceptable/unacceptable thought, belief, and/or behaviour. True utterances of "ought" would correspond to the moral facts, in the very same way that other true statements correspond to fact. Note here that I'm not using "fact" as a name for true statements. Rather, facts are events; what's happened and/or is happening; the way things were/are.

    It's the very meaning of a claim that determines what ought or ought not be the case, just in case we look to see for ourselves, and even in the cases where we do not or cannot. If "the cat is on the mat" is a true statement, then a cat ought be on the mat should we check. If "the red cup is in the cupboard" is a true statement, then a red cup ought be in the cupboard should we check. That's what knowing the truth conditions/meaning for/of some statement amounts to. Why would it be any different for a moral claim?

    Take a promise made to plant a rose garden on Sunday. "I promise to plant a rose garden on Sunday" is incapable of being true/false at the time of utterance, but claims about that promise, or based upon that promise are most certainly capable of being so. For example, if one promises to plant a rose garden on Sunday, then "there ought be a rose garden on Monday", is true for the exact same reasons that there ought be a red cup in the cupboard.
  • Pfhorrest
    4.6k
    I see no reason for moral claims to be any different than any other claim in this regard. What I do not get is the confusion regarding what the claim means, or what it is saying. What's not to be understood about what the claim means, assuming we are competent language users? We all know what it means, don't we? If we do not, then we've gone horribly wrong somewhere along the lines in our meta-ethical considerations, because we most certainly used to.creativesoul

    Meta-ethical questions first arose in response to the logical positivists’ verificationist theory of meaning, which is very similar to what you outline later: a statement’s meaning is what it tells you to expect of the world if you go and investigate it. But moral statements, following the is-ought divide, aren’t telling you what to expect about your experiences of the world. If I hear that something is good, that doesn’t tell me to expect anything in particular about it to be apparently true, or for anything in particular to even appear to exist. You can't get an "is" from an "ought" any more than you can get an "ought" from an "is", so "ought" statements have no implications on what "is".

    So are moral statements then meaningless, if verificationism is true? And if not, then what do they mean, if not the same thing as non-moral statements? That's where meta-ethics comes in, trying to answer those kinds of questions.

    The term "moral" would no longer be being used - on pains of coherency alone - as a value judgement/assessment, and the same is true of utterances of "ought". Rather, "moral" would be used to pick out things that are about acceptable/unacceptable thought, belief, and/or behaviour.creativesoul

    "Acceptable/unacceptable" is just another kind of judgement/assessment, so I don't see the difference here. What does it mean for something to be acceptable? We can check the descriptive fact of whether something is accepted, but what observation do we make of a thing to verify its acceptability? Like, describe two things that are exactly identical in all of their features except one is acceptable and the other is not. What's that difference between them like? (This is a rhetorical question, I don't expect you, or anyone, to be able to actually do that).

    Take a promise made to plant a rose garden on Sunday. "I promise to plant a rose garden on Sunday" is incapable of being true/false at the time of utterance, but claims about that promise, or based upon that promise are most certainly capable of being so. For example, if one promises to plant a rose garden on Sunday, then "there ought be a rose garden on Monday", is true for the exact same reasons that there ought be a red cup in the cupboard.creativesoul

    In this case, the promise is basically just a future-tense description. "I promise to plant a rose garden on Sunday" and "I will plant a rose garden on Sunday" have pretty much the exact same content and function: they're impressing upon the listener the belief or expectation that on Sunday I will plant a rose garden. If they believe me when I say that, then they will expect me to plant a rose garden on Sunday, which is the sense of "there ought to be" here: it's expected that there will be.

    A lot of moral-ish language also gets used for future-ish descriptions and vice versa, because moral prescription is more often than not about the present and future, while descriptions of reality are more often than not about the present and past, so it's easy to conflate moral with future and real with past. (In my essay On Rhetoric I recently added a bit adapting Aristotle's past-centric "forensic" and future-centric "deliberative" forms of rhetoric into reality-centric and morality-centric forms instead).

    But they are distinct purposes, because one can also say prescriptive things about the past and descriptive things about the future. You can say that something ought to have happened yesterday, but didn't; and that something will happen tomorrow, but shouldn't; and so on. So just saying that something will happen, "ought to happen" as in you descriptively expect it to, or you will be surprised if it doesn't, is different from saying that something should happen, ought to happen, as in you prescriptively "expect" it to, or you will disappointed if it doesn't.

    Just because you think something is going to happen doesn't mean you think it ought to, and just because you think something ought to happen doesn't mean you think it will.
  • Isaac
    5.6k
    Working sufficiently well means not being vulnerable to any reasonable criticism. Whether or not a particular solution is vulnerable to any criticism is up to each particular reasoner to evaluate. In my evaluation, there are sound objections to all the things you listed: people have problems with them and I can see why, their reasons for not completely accepting them seem sound to me.Pfhorrest

    So the moral philosophy you're advocating is one which seems right to you? Yet if other people advocate a different moral philosophy they're not merely of a different opinion, but they are wrong?

    you brought these things up in the context of moral nihilism. To think that any of these actually is morally sufficient is already to reject moral nihilism. Moral nihilism would have it that none of them are and nothing possibly can be sufficient, because the questions are inherently unanswerable.Pfhorrest

    I don't think any morally sufficient, I'm trying to understand your position, not presenting mine.
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