[Home]MetaEthics/NonCognitivism

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We have spent a long time discussing non-naturalism, and itís time now to look at the third meta-ethical theory, called "non-cognitivism." We wonít spend as long on this. Remember that cognitivism is just the view that ethical sentences express propositions. Well then you know what non-cognitivism is:

Non-cognitivism is the view that ethical sentences do not express propositions; instead they express something else, such as emotions or recommendations.

So the idea is that when we say that something is "good," or "right," or "moral," then we arenít actually making a statement that can be true or false; all that weíre doing is expressing a certain kind of emotion we feel, or trying to evoke or cause a certain kind of emotion in others, or weíre implicitly commanding or recommending that people behave in certain ways. Different kinds of non-cognitivism differ in what ethical sentences are said to do. Emotivists, for example, say that ethical sentences express and evoke certain kinds of emotion. Prescriptivists, on the other hand, say that ethical sentences are implicit commands or recommendations. You arenít going to need to know the differences between these views really; the point is that itís not as though ethical sentences are totally meaningless. Itís just that they donít have cognitive meaning -- which is to say that they donít express propositions. Their meaning is a little like the meaning of outbursts like "Hurray for kindness!" and "Murder -- boo, hiss!"

Another way to think of non-cognitive meaning is like this. Suppose I say, "If you steal money from your employer, youíre doing something wrong." Then the idea is I could simply say, in a tone of shock or revulsion, "Stealing money from your employer!!" and that outburst would have about the same meaning as saying that stealing money is wrong. Saying that an action is wrong just expresses how you feel about the action.

Non-cognitivism was fairly widely advocated in the middle of this century. It isnít as popular as it once was, but it still has quite a few proponents. So you might wonder why anyone would advocate this theory. I certainly am puzzled as to why so many philosophers have advocated it.

I can think of two reasons, anyway. The first is basically the first "argument," or as we were calling it the "line of thought," behind non-naturalism. Again, the basic idea there was that we canít perceive or bump into goodness or rightness. Now, Moore concluded from that, that "good" must be indefinable, standing for basic property; perhaps we know it by a faculty of moral intuition. But the non-cognitivists draw a different conclusion. They say that goodness and rightness arenít anything in the world at all. They arenít really properties of anything. When we use words like "good" and "right," all weíre doing is expressing our emotions, or issuing commands. We arenít describing any sort of mysterious properties in the world. So what Iím saying is that non-cognitivism gets its motivation from the view that goodness and rightness, if they were something in the world, would appear to be rather mysterious or strange properties; and so non-cognitivism concludes that they really arenít in the world at all.

The second reason or motivation behind non-cognitivism is a perfectly legitimate observation. Namely, the observation that when we use moral sentences -- when we morally praise or blame people and their actions -- we are, in any case, doing more than merely making factual statements. Even if we are making statements about moral facts, we are also expressing our attitudes, or trying to shape other peoplesí attitudes. Just look at an example and youíll see this right away. An example like, "Mary is a good person." You can imagine Maryís friend saying this, and if we all know Mary, then weíll know why Maryís friend says it: for example, Mary never lies, she is a very responsible person, she is always nice, and so forth. Saying that sheís a good person expresses approval of those good habits that we know Mary practices. Itís as though Mary is saying, "Mary is good -- go thou and do likewise." So hereís the point then: ethical sentences, regardless of whether they express propositions or not, do definitely have the function of expressing our attitudes and our recommendations. Itís just that the non-cognitivist goes one step further than most of us, and says that that is all that ethical sentences. All they do is express attitudes, or make recommendations.

Now, I donít know what youíll think of non-cognitivism. I suspect many of you will find it strange, and I think that some number of you might actually like it quite a bit, because it allows you to hold onto a sort of sophisticated moral relativism. And indeed youíll find this view underlying some educational theories. I mean that some theories about teaching kids ethics in the schools seem to assume that non-cognitivism is true; when we talk about "good," "bad," "right," and "wrong," all weíre doing is expressing how we feel. So you will find some modern educationists having schoolchildren "clarifying" their values by asking them how they feel about different situations. You probably did this when you were in school; you probably know what Iím talking about, and so non-cognitivism probably seems familiar, and even obvious, to some of you.

Iím just going to make one criticism of non-cognitivism. We could go on all day explaining objections to it, I think, but one objection is particularly powerful. Before I explain it, remember how we criticized the definition of "meaningfulness" as "understandability." The proposal was that a sentence is meaningful if itís understandable. Our criticism of that proposal was: that might be true, doesnít give the meaning of the word "meaningful." Why? Because it doesnít explain what it is about meaningful sentences, that makes them meaningful. It certainly seems that there is something about those sentences that makes them meaningful -- and which, incidentally, makes us able to understand them.

Now we can make a similar sort of criticism of non-cognitivism. Non-cognitivism claims that the meaning of ethical sentences consists entirely in how we feel about the person, or thing, or situation described; or what our recommendations are with regard to the item in question. But this just raises a question: what it is about the item in question that makes us feel the way we do, or that makes us recommend what we do? Take the case of the good Mary again. The question in this case is: What is it about Mary that makes us say that she is a good person -- that makes us express moral approval of her, and that makes us recommend to others that they emulate her? Surely thereís something about her that makes us say sheís good. Itís not like she is just some nonentity with no properties at all, and we just arbitrarily say of a nonentity that we approve of it! No, Mary is a complex human being about which (in our example) we know a lot. And the question is: What is it about her, out of all the things we know (or believe) about her, that makes us say that sheís good?

Itís not like the answer to that question is any big puzzle or anything. Itís rather obvious to anyone who knows Mary: she has a number of habits, like telling the truth, taking care of her responsibilities, treating others kindly and fairly, and so forth. And itís seeing all of those habits together which make us say that sheís a good person.

Now I wonder if you can see whatís coming next in this criticism of non-cognitivism. Just think about it. If itís Maryís habits that make us say that sheís a good person, well then, why donít we just say that we can translate the ethical sentence, "Mary is a good person," into a sentence about Maryís habits? Why not say that "Mary is a good person" means "Mary tells the truth, takes care of her responsibilities faithfully, treats others kindly, and so forth"? Notice, the latter sentence doesnít contain any ethical terms. It just describes her habits. So the point is that if itís Maryís habits that make us call her good, then we can just say that her goodness consists in her having all those habits. By "Maryís goodness" we just mean "Maryís habits X, Y, and Z." And if Mary has habits like that then sheís good; and if she doesnít, or if she has other habits like the unfortunate tendency to kill people and eat their livers with fava beans, then sheís bad.

So to generalize now, we can criticize non-cognitivism by saying that it seems to ignore the perfectly legitimate possibility, that we can reduce ethical sentences to sentences about whatever it is about the items that make us state those ethical sentences. We can reduce a claim about the wrongness of stealing, or about the goodness of banana splits, to claims about what it is about stealing or banana splits that makes us state the ethical sentences in question.

Now as I said, thereís a lot more we could say about non-cognitivism. For example, how do we distinguish moral feelings from other sorts of feelings.


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Last edited February 7, 2001 3:58 am by LarrySanger (diff)
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