Monday, January 04, 2016
What are moral judgments?
On one account, moral judgments are truth-bearing propositions. The claim, "rape is wrong" reports a fact about the world.
I think this is true.
On another account, moral judgments express attitudes. The claim, “rape is wrong” is equivalent to saying, “Booooo!” to rape. “Boooo!” has no truth value.
I think this is true as well.
These are not mutually exclusive options. A person can shout angrily, “You ran into me!” In doing so, she can utter a statement that is objectively true and, at the same time, express an attitude towards that situation (and towards the person who brought it about).
In the case of moral condemnation, the agent is not only reporting the fact of the matter in the sense, "You lied" or "You ran over me." Insofar as it is moral condemnation, she is also saying that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn such an act. Then, she adds to this, the condemnation that she says is warranted.
As I have been discussing in recent posts, when I say that moral claims report facts about the world, a lot of people misinterpret that. They interpret this as a claim that states of affairs contain an intrinsic prescriptivity. Their first instinct is to assert that I am making a claim that intrinsic prescriptivity exists when I claim that moral statements are sometimes true.
However, that is not my belief.
Intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist. However, value claims often report relationships between states of affairs and desires (not necessarily the desires of the person making the claim). These relationships exist in the real world as a matter of fact. To deny the existence of these relationships is to deny a substantial aount of what explains the behavior of objects in the real world.
Most discussion in moral philosophy stops here. However, I think they are leaving out an important element.
There is a third property to moral judgments.
Moral judgments are meant to do work. They are meant to act on the limbic system to bring about actual changes to the physical structure of the brain. Specifically, they are meant to create and promote desires that tend to result in repeating what was praised and in avoiding what was condemned.
They are not meant to cause agents to do good deeds so that the agent can be praised, and to avoid bad deeds so that the agent can avoid condemnation. These are useful considerations. However, an agent who acts for the sake of praise or avoiding condemnation is generally not considered moral. The moral agent does what is right and avoids what is wrong for its own sake, not for the sake of rewards or avoiding punishment.
If I had to identify a moral philosopher who actively promoted this view, I would put John Stuart Mill near the top of that list. He wrote that agents begin to do as a means to happiness they eventually come to see as a part of happiness. In more modern language, what agents do in order to fulfill their (other) desires becomes something desired for its own sake, independent of its consequences. The role of morality is to bring private interests into alignment with the public good by promoting those interests that serve the public good and inhibiting those interests that thwart the public good.
So, then, in answering the question of what moral judgments are, I think they have three elements.
(1) Value judgments are often truth-bearing propositions that report relationships between states of affairs and desires (not necessarily those of the agent), and moral judgments are a species of value judgments. Specifically, they relate actions to desires and aversions that people have reason to promote, and they evaluate malleable desires and aversions by their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires and aversions.
(2) Moral judgments express praise or condemnation.
(3) Moral judgments are tools that are used to do work altering the sentiments of individuals, promoting interests that serve the public good and inhibiting interests that thwart the public good.
And these are all related.
Praise and condemnation act on the limbic system to promote desires and aversions, not only in the brains of those praised and condemned, but in others who come to experience or hear about the praise and condemnation. They aim to alter these desires and aversions because of the relationships between those desires and aversions and other desires and aversions – their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires.
This is what moral judgments are.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:01 AM