Monday, October 10, 2016

Desirism Book - Part 29 - Prescriptivism

There is a view that holds that moral statements are commands - statements like "close the window" or "go stand in the corner."

This view is commonly found in religious morality where right and wrong are described as a set of divine commands. In these cases, God commands us, "honor thy mother and father" and "do not take the lord's name in vain", and it is our duty to obey.

On this model, moral claims lack truth value. If you were to hand somebody a list of commands and ask them whether they are true or false, they would look at you and try to make some effort to get you to make sense. A statement of the form, "Put your finger on your nose" has no truth value. If the agent obeys the command he can create a situation in which "I have put my finger on my nose" is true, but the command itself - the literal statement "put your finger on your nose" is not true or false.

This, by the way, is one of the objections to command theories of morality. Command statements do not have truth value, but moral statements do. If we were to repeat the statement above by giving people a list of moral statements, we would discover them answering that they are true or false. "abortion is murder," "slavery is wrong," and "if you borrow money from somebody and promise to pay it back then you are under an obligation to repay the money" are statements that people easily assert are true or false. Consequently, of moral claims are commands, people do not treat them as commands. They treat them as truth-bearing propositions.

Now, let us return to our proto-moral community consisting of Alph (with a desire to gather stones) and Bett (with a desire to scatter stones). Both of them have reason to promote an aversion to causing injury. To do this, they praise those who refrain from causing injury or who take steps to make injuries less likely, and condemn those who cause or create situations likely to cause injury. This, at least on our model, creates in both agents an aversion to causing injury.

"Do not cause injury", of course, is a command - it lacks a truth value. However, "It is wrong to cause injury" in our proto-moral world is a truth-bearing proposition, at least in the way that our agents Alph and Bett are using the term. It means that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn those who cause injury and/or to praise those who take steps to make injuries less likely. This, indeed, is true.

We will also note, in their moral statements, that the term "causing injury is wrong" also contains the condemnation of those who cause injury and the praise of those who prevent it in the very meanings of the term itself. To state that causing injuries to others is wrong is not only to state that reasons exist to condemn those who cause injury, it is also and at the same time a statement of condemnation of those who cause injury. It is also, and at the same time, a statement of praise for those who take steps to prevent injury. However, the fact that these statements contain a non-cognitive element (an expression of approval/praise or disapproval/condemnation) does not change the fact that they have a truth-bearing component as well which is sometimes true. It remains true that the people in our proto-moral community have reasons to promote a universal aversion to causing injury.

There are other arguments against a command theory of morality. One of these being that commands - in virtue of the fact that they are not truth-bearing propositions - cannot play a role in a logical argument. For example, we may have an argument that states: (1) Abortion is the taking of an innocent life without consent, (2) It is wrong to take an innocent life without consent, (3) Therefore, it is wrong to perform an abortion. It does not matter whether one agrees with the conclusion of this argument or with the premises. What matters is the fact that it forms what, in all appearances, is a valid argument.

However, if we were to substitute out the second premise and put a command in its place - "Do not take an innocent life." - then we no longer have an argument that makes any sense.

This is meant to show that the claim that moral statements are commands - that a command statement is the best way to understand and interpret a moral statement - does not work. We cannot simply remove a moral statement, put a command statement in its place, and accurately report that we have a statement that means the same thing as the statement we removed. The statement we removed made sense in the context of a moral argument, while the command statement makes no sense in that context. We cannot, in fact, use the latter as a substitute for the former.

In fact, our evidence suggests that we can only understand moral claims as truth-bearing claims. That is simply the role that they play in our language. Everybody who uses moral claims - with the exception of a few theory-laden philosophers - treats them in all respects as truth-bearing propositions. Consequently, the best interpretation we can give to moral claims is that they are capable of being true or false. Better yet would be an interpretation that respects the fact that they can be true, because a great many people do actually take them to be true.

The idea that a moral prohibition is something that agents have many and strong reasons to form an aversion to, using the tools of condemnation and punishment, fit this requirement. In our case of Alph and Bett, it is descriptively true that Alph and Bett have reasons to use condemnation to promote a general aversion to injuring others. In other words, in the proto-moral universe of Alph and Bett, injuring others is morally wrong. This is true as a matter of fact. It may justify the command not to injure others. In other words, upon being commanded not to injure others, it would answer the question, "Why not?" if the person commanded were to ask it. And in giving this answer, the person who answered the question would be saying, "People generally have many and strong reasons to condemn, and perhaps even to punish, those who injure others." The person commanded may well respond in turn, "I do not care about that," but the people issuing the command - people generally - still have many and strong reasons to make him care about that.

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