Meaning and Justification

So, I am finally done working on my paper ‘Consciousness, Higher-Order Thoughts, and What It’s Like‘. It has been converted into both PowerPoint and Poster format and I am looking forward to presenting it in the upcoming Weeks…but before I do I want to start what will be a series of posts on Emotive Realism, the metaethical view that I defend.

In some earlier posts (The Meaning and Use of ‘is True’, and ‘Truth, Justification and the Quasi-Realist Way‘) I argued against Simon Blackburn’s Quasi-Realism by showing that the deflationary account of truth that he relies on is unmotivated and cannot be support a satisfying account of justification. Ultimately what I want to do is to argue for a view that is emotive but that is also a kind of realism and which does nto hide behind the smoke and mirrors of deflationsim.

In this post I want show that Emotivism, and views like it, are actually two claims that can come apart; one about the meaning of ethical terms, the other about the justification of moral judgments. Emotivism is so often thought of as an anti-realist view mostly as a matter of the historical accident that its earliest defenders happened to be irrealists. If this is true then they is no principled reason why an emotive theory could’t also be a kind of realism. Along the way I wantto say something about what moral realism is.

The claim that these two issues (i.e. of th meaning of moral words and the justification of moral judgements) are seperate is not a popular view. In fact it is often thought that your views on one force your views on the other. In particular it is often argued that a philosopher’s theory of justification determines her theory of semantics and that this semantic theory is the only way to tell the difference between someone who is a ‘real-realist’ and quasi-realists like Simon Blackburn.  

David Copp (Copp 2001) is a nice example of this. He says that the distinctive doctrine of moral realism is that the moral realist thinks that the moral predicates refer to robust moral properties. So to say that suicide bombing is morally wrong is to assert that suicide bombing has the robust moral property of being wrong. To say that moral properties are ‘robust’ is to say that “[they] have the same basic metaphysical status as ordinary non-moral properties,” (p 4). It is of course a matter of some controversy just what the status of ordinary non-moral properties is. But in moral contexts there are, broadly speaking, two candidates and an ethical realist like Copp is committed to one of them. On the one hand we might think that there are non-natural properties and that ‘good’ and other moral words pick some of those properties out, or we might think that non-natural properties don’t exist and insist that moral properties must be natural properties and ‘good’ and other moral words pick some of those out.

The irrealist, on this view, is one who denies that the moral predicates refer to robust moral properties of either variety. It is, in fact, a huge mistake according to the irrealists to think that moral predicates act like non-moral predicates and refer to, or denote, or whatever, some kind of property. Moral predicates are in a different kind of business all-together and only look as though they stand for properties. What they really do is serve to express our moral sentiments, in much the same way that ‘ouch!’ express pain.

Notice though that even though we are told that we can differentiate these views by their semantics this is really supposed to be diagnostic of their views about the justification of moral judgments. The robust moral properties that moral predicates refer to are supposed to be the truthmakers for moral judgments in exactly the same way that non-moral properties are supposed to be the truthmakers for non-moral judgments. The irrealist denies that there are such properties and instead claims that moral judgments are justified by the emotional, conative, or motivational states of people. This leads us to the real distinction between realism and irrealism: If two people disagree over some fundamental moral claim, like whether unjustified killing is morally permissible, can, in some sense, both be right? A realist will claim that only one of them can be right, whereas an irrealist will claim that they can both be right. One way to secure this is by appealing to the kind of semantics already talked about, that is, by appealing to moral properties and claiming that the task of the moral predicates is to refer or denote those properties.

But there are really two questions that have been so far unaddressed in the meaning side of the question. Since we want to seperate meaning from use it then becomes important to assess whether the meaning claim that the emotivists made was really a claim about the meaning of the words or whether it was a claim about how the word was used independently of its meaning. It seems to me to be hostorically correct to say the latter, but even if it weren’t it is clearly possible to modernize the theory by saying that moral utterances are used to express our moral sentiments independently of their meaning, in much the same way that ‘I feel like a burrito’ (said in response to ‘what do you want for lunch? or something) expresses my desire to have a burrito for lunch independently of its meaning.

This could be the case even if the sentence that we said was literally false (as is the case when I say, of a talkitive friend, “he never shuts up”) This means that the issue of the meaning of the sentence that I say and the issue of the justification of the moral judgment I thereby express are completely seperate. There is no reason to think that in order to be a moral realist you must be committed to moral properties and to a semantics of moral words that has them referring to thos moral properties.

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