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Non-cognitivism

1. Ayer’s emotivism

In a famous passage in his 1936 Language, Truth and Logic, A. J. Ayer, wrote:

if I say to someone, ‘You acted wrongly in stealing that money’, I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, ‘You stole that money’. In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, ‘You stole that money’, in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks. The tone, or the exclamation marks, add nothing to the literal meaning of the sentence. It merely serves to show that the expression of it is attended by certain feelings in the speaker.

If now I generalise my previous statement and say, ‘Stealing money is wrong’, I produce a sentence which has no factual meaning – that is, expresses no proposition which can be either true or false. It is as if I had written ‘Stealing money!!’ – where the shape and thickness of the exclamation marks show, by a suitable convention, that a special sort of moral disapproval is the feeling which is being expressed. (1936: 142)

Ayer’s view is that moral judgments are neither true nor false; instead they are used to express (or arouse) emotions. Ayer carefully distinguishes his view from a view that may on the surface seem to be similar, viz. what he calls ‘subjectivism’. The subjectivist view that Ayer has in mind claims:

Subj: moral judgments express propositions, but express propositions about the speaker’s feelings.

Emotivism is not subjectivism (so characterised). On emotivism, it is not that in making a moral judgment we express a proposition about our feelings. Rather in making a moral judgment we do not express a proposition at all. The moral utterance simply is, on Ayer’s view, itself an expression of emotion.

2. The Frege-Geach problem

There are a number of problems with Ayer’s emotivism. But let me just provide you with a key one. This is referred to in the literature as ‘the Frege-Geach problem’.

‘Murder is wrong’, on the expressivist account, is an expression of an emotion, like ‘Murder boo!’. But now consider what happens in unasserted or embodied contexts. Suppose someone claims: ‘If murder is wrong, then one should not advocate doing it’. Since this agent does not assert that murder is wrong, it seems implausible to claim that he or she expresses disapproval of murder. But then since the emotivist insists that in asserting ‘murder is wrong’ we simply express disapproval of murder, and yet in the embedded contexts we do not express disapproval or approval, the agent cannot mean the same thing by ‘murder is wrong’ in the two contexts.

This is not itself a problem for the emotivist, for the emotivist can simply say that the semantic function of ‘murder is wrong’ is different when it is asserted and when it is embedded in ‘If murder is wrong …’ If someone asserts the former he or she expresses a certain emotion, whereas if someone states the latter he or she expresses something else. The problem is rather this. Consider:

(1) Murder is wrong (2) If Murder is wrong, then one should not advocate murdering people So (3) One should not advocate murdering people

We accept that this is formally valid. However, if emotivism is true it is not, since by ‘murder is wrong’ in (1) and (2) mean (express) something different. But if the agent means something different in each case, then the argument equivocates in the meaning of its terms. But it does not.

3. Blackburn’s quasi-realism

Blackburn would characterise both his and Ayer’s view as versions of ‘projectivism’:

Projectivism: ‘we have sentiments and other reactions caused by natural features of things, and we “gild or stain” the world by describing it as if it contained features answering to these sentiments, in the way that the niceness of ice cream answers to the pleasure it gives us’ (1993: 152). Projectivists are usually anti-realists (although they need not be non-cognitivists: Mackie’s error theory is also projectivist), holding that objective moral values do not exist, but are instead projections of our attitudes. (For the suggestion that Projectivism is technically consistent with moral realism, see e.g. Joyce’s supplement ‘Projectivism and quasi-realism’ in his SEP article ‘Moral anti-realism’.) So why does Blackburn not call himself an ‘anti-realist non-cognitivist’, rather than a quasi-realist? Blackburn thinks that the key practices characteristic of moralising are available to the projectivist:

I try to show how the realist-seeming grammar of moral discourse can be explained on that [sc. the projectivist] metaphysic. This involves, for instance, addressing the Geach-Frege problem of accounting for the unasserted occurrence of sentences using moral terms, explaining the propositional form that we give to moral utterances, explaining why we may legitimately worry whether one of our moral views is correct and hence explaining the role of a concept of truth in ethics, and so on. (1993: 152)

Blackburn notes that Mackie (as a cognitivist) cites Russell’s feeling that on a particular moral issue (in this case opposition to the introduction of bull fighting in this country) one does not just express a desire that the thing should not happen, but does so while feeling that on that matter one’s desire is right. He replies:

The quasi-realist will see it [viz. thinking that one’s desire is right] instead as a proper, necessary expression of an attitude toward our own attitudes. It is not something that should be wrenched out of our moral psychology; it is something that we need to cultivate to the right degree and in the right places to avoid the (moral) defect of indifference to things that merit passion. This actually illustrates a central quasi-realist tactic: what seems like a thought that embodies a particular second-order metaphysic of morals is seen instead as a kind of thought that expresses a first-order attitude or need. (1993: 153)

4. Blackburn on the Frege-Geach problem

Blackburn asks us to consider a language which has the expressive qualities of moral statements explicitly built into it. It might, he suggests, contain a ‘hooray!’ operator and ‘boo!’ operator (H!, B!) which can then attach to descriptions of things to result in expressions of attitude. (E.g. ‘B!(murder)’ would be the expression that occurs corresponding to ‘Murder is wrong’.) Blackburn would recast our earlier argument:

(1*) B!(murder)

(2*) H! B!(murder); B!(advocating murdering people)

So (3*) B!(advocating murdering people)

On this view, the ‘validity’ of the argument is accounted for by the fact that if someone expressed commitment to (1*) and (2*), but failed to express commitment to (3*), he or she would have a clash of attitudes, a combination of attitudes of which he or she himself or herself disapproves. It has been objected that a clash of attitudes is a moral failing, not a logical one. For Blackburn’s response, see his ‘Attitudes and Contents’ (§3-4) in his Essays in Quasi-Realism and Chapter Three (§4) of his Ruling Passions, 1998.

References: Blackburn, S. ‘Errors and the Phenomenology of Values’, in his Essays in Quasi-Realism, 1993. Miller, A. An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics, Chapters 3 and 4.

Realism and Normativity


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