Monday, March 14, 2016

Realism? Non-Cognitivism? Emotivism? The Case for "All of the Above".

Are you a moral realist? Anti-realist? Cognitivist or non-cognitivist? Emotivist? Prescriptivist? Error-theorist? Objectivist? Absolutist?

How about "All of the above"?

It turns out that whenever anybody claims to be one of these things to be the accurate account of morality they (um . . . we . . . for I have done this, though I am now nearly certain that it is a mistake) are making an assumption that may not be true.

The assumption is that there is universal agreement on the meaning and use of moral terms. We all have to be using moral terms as realists for realism to be true. We all have to be using moral terms as emotivism if emotivism is true.

If, instead, different people use moral terms in different ways, then it is quite possible for one person to be an emotivist, another to be a cognitivist, and yet another to be an error theorist.

J.L. Mackie, in his book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, makes this mistake, and then (unknowingly, I believe) provides an account that shows why it might be mistaken.

Mackie starts with the idea that all moral claims are false. He argues that (1) all moral statements claim that the object of evaluation contains an intrinsic prescriptivity, and (2) intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist, so (3) all moral claims are false.

In saying that all moral claims are false he is saying that there is nearly universal agreement in the use of moral terms such that they always point to intrinsic prescriptivity.

What he intends to do about this is to replace contemporary morality with a new morality. He argues for this by pointing to the way that scientists replaced an old definition of atom ("without parts") with a new definition ("the smallest piece of a given element, but which still is made up of yet smaller parts - electrons, neutrons, and protons"). This move did not harm chemistry at all, so a comparable move should not harm morality.

Mackie wants to replace this defective system of morality with a new system. In this new system, we recognize that there is no intrinsic prescriptivity and we universalize our moral principles across different interests. It is a system where no interest is taken as "intrinsically correct" or "intrinsically incorrect."

Let's assume that Mackie is correct to this point. He introduces this new form of morality and, slowly, people adopt it. Let us assume that we reach a point where 80 percent of the people are using moral terms in the old way where all moral claims are false, and 20% of the population has adopted the new way where some moral claims are objectively true - but where moral claims are not claims about intrinsic prescriptivity.

At this point, Mackie would have created a society where nobody can claim that moral realism is true or false. Moral realism would apply to the 20% of the people who, by "moral", are using Mackie's new definition. Meanwhile, "anti-realism" (in the form of an error theory) still applies to the other 80% who, by "moral", are still making claims about intrinsic prescriptivity.

Anybody who asserts that moral realism is the one and true account of morality, or that error theory is the one true and accurate account of morality, would be wrong. To make either assertion is to make the false assumption that 100% of the people are using the term "moral" the same way.

The thing is, we might already be in a situation where the claim that 100% of the people are using the term "moral" with the same meaning is false.

Simon Kirchin says in "A Tension in Moral Error Theory" ( (in A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie's Moral Error Theory, (Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin, eds.), 2010)  that the fact that moral theorists come up with so many different accounts of morality suggests that people are not in 100% agreement on the use of meaning of moral terms. Our moral language is a mess - and in that mess it would be false to claim that there is the type of agreement necessary to say that "realism" or "emotivism" or "cognitivism" or any of the other views is true of all of morality.

So, the next time one is invited to defend moral realism, or relativism, or Mackie's error theory, or any of a number of similar positions, perhaps the best and most accurate response is to say, "I can't. Moral language is simply too varied, ambiguous, and vague to allow us to defend any one of these theories."

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