Monday, January 07, 2019

Metaethics 0001: A.J. Ayer - Non-Cognitivism

This series of posts will concern the topic of the second course I am taking this semester - Metaethics. The text we are using is Cahn, Steven and Forcehimes, Andrew (eds), Foundations of Moral Philosophy: Metaethics, Oxford University Press, 2017. Consequently, the postings that I will be making will be based on the entries in this anthology. This text book comes with "study questions" at the end of each entry, so I will be using those in constructing these postings. However, I intend my answers to be a bit more than one would usually expect in response to such study questions as I intend to analyze and assess the answers not only in terms of whether they are correct, but whether the correct answer has any merit.

Our first assigned reading from this book is an excerpt from: A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic (New York: Dover Publications, 1953). A.J. Ayer argued that "normative thoughts are not cognitive".

What does that mean?

This means that, if you come across somebody who says, "People should be willing to give at least 10% of their income to charity" isn't saying anything that is like a statement. It is neither true nor false. Ayer wrote, "Statements of value are . . . expressions of emotion that can neither be true nor false." He does think that we can make meaningful statements about the meanings of moral terms. In fact, that is the project Ayer is engaged in with this essay. The claim that "statements of value can be neither true or false" is a statement that can be true, but it is not a statement of value so there is no contradiction here. It is a statement about value terms but it is not an evaluation.

But when it comes to moral claims, Ayer asserts, "The exhortations to moral virtue are not propositions at all, but ejaculations or commands which are designed to provoke the reader to action of a certain sort." As such, the study of moral claims does not even belong to philosophy - since they are not "definitions or comments on definitions." Utilitarianism concerns happiness and unhappiness - which is a proper object for psychological study, but not philosophical study. Subjectivism has to do with feelings of approval and disapproval - something else for the psychologist to study. However, here, we should note, that the psychologist may study how a person feels about something - whether he approves or disapproves - but cannot answer any questions about what he SHOULD approve or disapprove of. And "should" is the term that is under investigation here. This is the term of normative thoughts. This, according to Ayer, is why utilitarianism and subjectivism cannot say anything about ethical terms. They can give a proper analysis of "is" but not of "should".

Desirism, of course, holds that moral statements are truth-bearing. A statement like "People should be willing to give at least 10% of their income to charity" can be true because "People generally have many and strong reasons to condemn and, perhaps, to punish those who do not give 10% of their income to charity" is true. So, desirism is a cognitivist theory. Ayer would say that this is a mistake.

Interestingly, Ayer states, "It is worth mentioning that ethical terms do not serve only to express feeling. They are calculated also to arouse feeling, and so to stimulate action." This is something that desirism would agree with, in a way. "Right" and "wrong" are statements of praise and condemnation that are supposed to act on the reward systems of others in such a way so as to form aversions to doing that which is called wrong and desires to do that which is called right.

So, the study questions:

According to emotivism, do those who say stealing is wrong thereby say they disapprove of stealing?

First, Ayer says that such a statement is ambiguous. It is possible to use the term "wrong" in a descriptive or an anthropological way - as when an anthropologist says that something is taken to be wrong within a particular culture or society. This use of "wrong", of course, does not say anything about the approval or disapproval. Furthermore, Ayer states that moral claims are non-cognitive, but the proposition "I disapprove of stealing" is a cognitive statement. It has a truth value - capable of being true or false. Ayer states, "sentences which contain normative ethical symbols are not equivalent to sentences which express psychological propositions, or indeed empirical propositions of any kind." But "I disapprove of stealing" is a psychological proposition. Consequently, Ayer would have trouble reducing my statement "stealing is wrong" to the statement "I disapprove of stealing."

Indeed, Ayer states, "The orthodox subjectivist does not deny, as we do, that the setences of the moralizer express genuine proppositions. All he denies is that they express propositions of a unique non-empirical character. His own view is that they express propositions about the speaker's feelings. If this were so, ethical judgments clearly would be capable of being true or false. They would be true if the speaker had the relevant feelings and false if he had not."

According to Ayer, why are moral judgments unanalyzable?

Ayer argues in the form of a dilemma. Either moral absolutism is true, or moral naturalism is true.

We must reject moral absolutism because we have no way to resolve moral disagreements. If "slavery is wrong" is a moral absolute, then there must be some way to resolve conflicts between different views. There is no way to resolve conflicts, so we must reject absolutism. Ayer considers the option that our moral intuitions give us knowledge of the moral facts. However, different people have different moral intuitions and we still have no way to verify the intuitions - to show which are correct. Because we cannot resolve these disputes, we must reject absolutism.

We must reject moral naturalism because empirical claims are merely descriptive, rather than descriptive. These are the claims of psychology, which tells us what a person feels or what makes him happy, but cannot answer "should" or normative questions.

Because we must reject both absolutism and naturalism, according to Ayer, we must admit "that the fundamental ethical concepts are unanalyzable, inasmuch as there is no criterion by which one can test the validity of the judgments in which they occur." (Though, I think, Ayer does not literally mean 'validity' but 'truth').

According to Ayer, is argument over moral issues possible?

The term "argument" is ambiguous. In fact, people get into arguments over moral issues all of the time (and Ayer admits this). What Ayer denies is that the moral disputes are resolvable. When one person says that something is wrong and another says that it is not wrong it is as if one person sneezed and another person coughed. There is no "dispute" between them whereby they can resolve whether either the sneeze or the cough was incorrect. When people have these disputes, they are often over matters of fact. Did the agent actually make a promise? Was there collusion? Did the payments violate campaign finance law? Of course, these types of questions can be resolved. However, when the dispute boils down to the actual value claim, "Our judgment that it is so is itself a judgment of value, and accordingly outside the scope of argument. It is because argument fails us when we come to deal with pure questions of value, as distinct from questions of fact, that we finally resort to mere abuse."

Of course, desirism holds that this "abuse" is condemnation - which is the proper form of conduct to use to generate - through its activation of the reward system - a disposition to form correct patterns of behavior (promote good desires).


One of the observations that Ayer admits to is the fact that we seem to treat moral statements as genuine propositions capable of having a truth value. When we say that slavery is wrong, we mean by this "slavery is wrong" is true. We are not just sneezing or coughing at slavery. We hold that those who hold a different view are mistaken. We could be wrong about this. However, a principle of charity suggests that, all else being equal, a cognitivist theory that makes the sense of these observations is better than a theory that dismisses them. The theory that fits the observations best is the theory that holds that moral claims can be objectively true or false. Against this, Ayer challenges critics to simply provide examples of how moral arguments can be resolved. This cannot be done in a short paragraph. However, I will assert without proof that understanding moral disputes as disputes over what people generally have many and strong reasons to praise or condemn goes a long way to answering Ayer's challenge.

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