What The Emotivists Get Right
As a moral realist (one who holds that moral claims are propositions that, when true, tell us truths about the real world), I would normally be classified as somebody who must then assert that the emotivists are mistaken.
Emotivists state that moral statements are not propositions at all. They are emotional utterances. To say that charity is good is functionally the same as cheering charity. To say rape is bad is functionally the same as booing rape. Cheers and boos are not propositions having a truth value. Consequently, moral claims are not propositions having a truth value.
While I reject the emotivist claim that moral statements are propositions, there is a grain of truth to what the emotivists are telling us. Moral claims have an emotive component. They are not only statements about what it is people have reason to praise and condemn. They are also acts of praise and condemn. They carry within themselves the praise and condemnation they claim to be justified.
Specifically, I defend a theory that holds that moral claims, when true, describe relationships between malleable desires and other desires.
Briefly, a part of the theory states that desires are one of two types of propositional attitudes - the other being beliefs. A belief that P is a non-motivational attitude that P is true. A desire that P is an attitude that motivate the agent to make it the case or keep it the case that P is true.
A desire that P is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which P is true.
A virtue is a malleable "desire that P" that tends to fulfill other desires, while a vice is a malleable "desire that P" that tends to thwart other desires.
There is an objective fact of the matter as to whether a malleable desire tends to fulfill or thwart other desires - tends to make or keep true the propositions that are the objects of those other desires. Consequently, there is an objective fact of the matter as to whether a desire is a virtue or a vice.
A true moral statement concerning virtue and vice, then, describes a "desire that P" as a desire that tends to fulfill or thwart other desires. In doing so, it describes the "desire that P" as a desire that people in general have reason to praise (so as to make it stronger and more common), or to condemn (so as to make it weaker and less common).
However - and this is the part that the emotivists get right - a moral utterance is also, and at the same time, an act of praise or condemnation itself. Moral statements have an emotive component - a cheer or a boo - that is included for the purpose of actually strengthening the desire it identifies as a virtue and inhibiting the desire that it idenfies as a vice.
Because true moral statements are both descriptively true and emotive acts of praise and condemnation, the realist and the emotivist both can find evidence for their positions. What then happens is that the realist points to the evidence for his position and says that the emotivist is mistaken. The emotivist does the same thing - pointing to the evidence that exists for emotivism and claiming that this implies the rejection of moral realism.
"Sam is a good person," both describes Sam as having qualities (malleable desires) that people generally have reason to make more common in themselves and others. It also praises Sam and, in so doing, seeks to strengthen those qualities, not only in Sam, but in any who witness Sam's praises.
In some of my discussions in defending desirism, this dual nature of moral claims presents a problem.
People often ask me "what if" stories to determine what desirism will say under some set of imaginary and hypothetical situations. For example, in a recent discussion, I was asked what desirism would say if it were the case that children could be made to enjoy sex - would this not argue that sex with children is permissible?
A part of that answer is "no" because making children vulnerable to sexually transmitted disease and other forms of physical harm would still be desire-thwarting. Furthermore, our inability to distinguish whether a given relationship conforms to these qualities would make it significantly harder to prevent harsher forms of abuse.
However, what if these other problems could also be solved?
Now, we are entering into the realm of science fiction - an imaginary world that is significantly different from the real world in which we live.
One might be able to dream up an imaginary world where the desire to have sex with children creates little or no tendency to thwart other desires. In this case, desirism would have to say that the people in that world have little or no reason to promote an aversion to having sex with children.
But that is not this world.
Here, the dual nature of moral claims comes into play.
I could say that in that world, according to desirism, having sex with children would be morally permissible. However, I could only make this claim if I was using the phrase "morally permissible" in a sense that was free of its emotive content.
To say that these acts would be morally permissible in the emotive-laden sense of the term is to say that we have no reason to want those of us with which we live today to have an adverse reaction to the events in that story. But this is not true. We have a great many and strong reason to promote an adverse reaction to the events in that story among fellow members of our community. That adverse reaction will help to keep our children safe.
At the same time, if I were to leave the emotive content in the moral term and say that those acts will still be immoral (because we in this world whose children are at risk should still have an adverse reaction to such a state), then the person raising the objection switches to the non-emotive sense of the moral term and accuses me of being inconsistent. Yes, it is true, from the assumptions build into the story that the people in the story have no reason to condemn such acts. But we still do.
The problem here resides in equivocating between two different senses of a moral term - between the emotive-laden sense and the emotive-free sense. With or without the emotive content, a moral claim gives different answers to what appears on the surface to be the same moral question. But this is only an illusion. In fact, we are being asked two different moral questions. As such, there are two different answers. It is important to keep both the questions and the answers distinct.
There are still objectively true and false answers to both moral questions. We simply need to be clear as to which moral question we are answering - the one with emotive content, or the one without.