Why Non-cognitivism is Correct
Non-cognitivism is the meta-ethical position that moral statements aren’t truth appropriate. That is, an ethical claim like “lying is wrong” is not saying anything objectively true or false about lying, but rather “wrong” is just the attitude we carry with respect to lying and people who lie.
I got interested in Non-cognitivism (and eventually came to accept it) after reading A.J. Ayer’s, Language Truth and Logic, of which meta-ethics is only a piece. There are different brands of non-cognitivism, of which Ayers is pretty crude. In his rendering moral propositions like “lying is wrong” are converted to the form “boo! Lying” – our attitudes are expressed to convey emotions not facts. In this video I won’t argue for a particular version of non-cognitivism, just the general principles.
Ayer was an important Logical Positivist who came from the Wittgenstein school that rejected most of metaphysics and philosophy as pursuing dead-ends in language. Most of the problems of and disagreements in philosophy, in this my view, aren’t problems at all, but instead range from meaningless conjectures to semantic confusions of our ordinary language, which is ill-equipped for understanding the world as it is. Using the steadfast principle of verification, therefore, we can cut through the metaphors and essentialism of language to get to truth.
The logical positivists have come and past, and today’s empiricists and moral non-cognitivists have moved on too, with theories that are now much more sophisticated. But the positivist approach is still in my opinion by and large correct. Many of the debates in philosophy can be solved by just stepping back and looking at the material reality of what it is you’re philosophizing about.
By this standard I judge non-cognitivism to be positively correct. Looking at the way we moralize it seems to be abundantly obvious that, at least in the first instance, moral expressions are expressions of internal attitudes and do not have any actual truth conditions.
Think about the human sense of right and wrong. We know with a high degree of certainty the following facts about our moral sense:
1. It was not injected into us by a God.
2. They are not real properties in the universe, which is approximately what natural right-er’s believe. Natural rights theories range from question begging to a kind of divine command theory without the deity.
Because the moral sense is neither “intelligently designed” nor “intelligently derived” the 3rd thing we can say with certainty is that our moral sense had to have been a product of our biological evolution.
Indeed, we can say that our innate moral sense is evolved with a high degree of certainty because of a huge wealth of biological, neurological and anthropological data that has poured in over the last half century, and which has been organized in a literature of Evolutionary Psychology.
In this video I don’t intend to make that case for you. I take it as a given. Popular expositions of the evidence have been published in numerous books in recent years, if you want to understand the evidence for yourself. Of the ones I’ve read I can recommend Moral Minds by Marc Hauser, in which he argues we have a kind of innate moral grammar, analogous to Chomsky’s universal grammar. Then there’s The Moral Animal by Robert Wright, The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, and Evolutionary Psychology by David Buss. Any attempt by me to defend this view – that our innate moral sentiments are emotional responses that the human species evolved because they helped our ancestors survive and procreate – would be a weak duplication of what you can read in those books.
But for this video let me pick one clear illustrative example: our attitudes towards rape.
There is a clear and cross cultural consensus that to rape is to do a wrong, ignoring for simplicity the special exceptions that prove the rule. Furthermore, the attitude is very clearly pre-cognitive, given the strong emotions that come along with it, comparable to those for murder. We understand rape is wrong, in other words, not as a cognitive belief, an acknowledgment of a fact, like observing that rape is non-consensual or to causally note that it’s raining outside, but as an intense emotional conviction that phenomenonlogically borders on knowledge. Yet the wrongness of rape is a very strange thing if you think about it. Sure it’s non-consensual, it’s violating and often violent, but many things happen to us without our consent including violence, and while we may consider most of it wrong, we don’t think it has moral equivalence to murder – the total annihilation of a person’s existence. Indeed, sex is something people do voluntarily all the time, and people have learned to have very open attitudes about sex in general, but very few undisturbed people volunteer death, and even when people do there are strong moral attitudes against it.
The fact that we have evolved psychologies goes a long way to explaining these weird equivalences. The evolutionary purpose of humans is to survive, procreate and invest in their offspring to carry on their genes. Women, the primary victims of rape, were forever in our species history the child carriers. Sex in Northwest Africa circa 50,000 BCE had none of the casual implications sex often has today. Sex, for a woman, was literally life threatening, and a large fraction would die during labour. This contrast with men, who, ignoring a few serious venereal diseases, have next to no biological reason to feel reluctant about having sex. This is reflected in the number of sex cells men produce compared to women. Women therefore have evolved to be relatively picky compared to men in choosing a mate, with a focus on commitment. Getting knocked up by the wrong guy, the genetically and socially inferior guy, or worse a complete stranger, is ensuring your fate to the forces of natural selection. Women have therefore evolved a psychology to guard their sexuality from strange men, and likewise have men who would have been fathers with a similar genetic interest to not have their daughter be inseminated by the kind of person too unfit to find a voluntary lover.
Survival and reproduction have a peculiar kind of equivalence, in terms of importance, with regard to natural selection. It’s this very equivalence that our non cognitive attitudes mirror. And in any event, neurological studies have confirmed that moral opinions arise from preconscious attitudes.
I chose rape because it’s vivid, but a similar argument can be made for all our base moral attitudes. This doesn’t mean there’s no cognitive potential for morality. We are obviously able to take our attitudes, most of which have a technical kind of universality, and form beliefs around them, or construct entire ethical theories. The important point is that our morality is in the first instance non-cognitive. This is the meta-ethical reality. It doesn’t come from god and is not a property of nature. The cognitive constructions that come after are allowed because they don’t claim to be meta-ethics. They are things like normative and applied ethics, and one is justified to partake in them so long as one acknowledges GE Moore’s argument about them being Open Questions. I’m a non-cognitivist when it comes to aesthetics too. Evolution has selected our sense of beauty – for instance, in picturesque landscapes or the waist-hip ratio. The former is became beautiful because it indicated natures plenty, and in the latter because it indicated fertility. Yet theres no meta-aesthetic way to substantiate these attitudes as true or false, so we simply live with them as attitudes, and construct aesthetic rules while never closing the argument of what’s beautiful.
Putting it short and simple: non-cognitivism can be said to be true if and only the following 2 these are valid:
A. Moral and indeed aesthetic propositions are non-factual.
b. And our moral attitudes are psychologically non-cognitive, meaning emerging prior to cognition.
The first of these is patently obvious once you understand the non-natural state of moral properties and the second is, in the positivist tradition, a scientifically demonstrated fact.
I rest my case.
(check out my archive to see past posts I’ve done on Non-cognitivism, like in November)