Emotive Realism and Moral Deviance

On my view a moral judgement consists in a moral emotion or sentiment as well as a belief about the correctness of that sentiment. So to judge that slavery is wrong is to have the moral sentiment of condemnation and the belief that condemnation is the correct emotional reaction to have. I also claim that we express both of these attitudes at the same time when we say that slavery is wrong but that this is not the meaning of the sentence ‘slavery is wrong’.

Last night while having drinks with my colleague Aaron Rizzieri he brought up what he thought was a problem for my view from what I will call moral deviance. Take, for instance, someone who has a genuinely positive emotional reaction to the thought of violence against women but at the same time knows that this is the wrong way to feel. This person might say “Violence against women is wrong, and I feel the wrong way about it”. It may seem that on my view ‘violence against women is wrong’ is used to express moral condemnation of violence against women (i.e. the moral emotion of condemnation and the belief that this is correct way to feel about it), but this person does not morally condemn violence against women since they have a positive emotional response to it so it looks like he is contradicting himself, even though the sentence itself is not contradictory. However, in this case the person most likely means that they understand that moral condemnation is the appropriate attitude to take towards violence against women and is saying that the attitude that they actually have towards such violence is the wrong attitude to have. This is not a problem for my view because I only claim that we typically use these sentences to express our moral sentiments, not that we do so in every case. This person is using the sentence in a non-standard way, but we often use sentences in non-standard ways. The only claim I want to make is, as already said, that the speech acts that I am pointing out are done by us as well. And that these speech acts capture what we might call distinctively moral speech acts.

Now Aaron raised a slightly different objection from moral deviance. When our moral deviant says that violence against women is wrong he is not performing the speech act that I have called moral condemnation but is he expressing a moral judgment at all? Saying no seems implausible but if yes then it doesn’t seem like my account captures what is essential to moral judgements. It seems to me that they do make a moral judgment but that it is deformed. Deformed moral judgments seem to me common and useful. The hope is that one’s belief will eventually lead to one having the appropriate moral emotional reaction and thus to the appropriate behavior.

One might see this kind of objection pushing one towards the view that the moral judgment should be identified with the belief in question.  So on this reading our moral deviant would be expressing the belief that the moral emotion of condemnation is the correct emotional response to violence against women but ultimately this just doesn’t seem right to me. Real moral judgments just seem to me to be rooted in emotional reactions.

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Higher-Order Mental Pointing

I recently re-watched the footage of the discussion from Hakwan’s actual talk at NYU. One interesting issue that came up (there were others I may talk about later) was whether a higher-order theory can avoid the mis-match problem.

The problem is this. Suppose you have a first-order state that is a seeing of red while one has a higher-order state to the effect that one is seeing green. David R. argues that the phenomenology goes with the higher-order representation and so in this case the person would have green visual phenomenology. They would be consciously seeing green. A first-order theorist will argue that the phenomenology goes with the first-order state. Block suggests this when he says that it is just the first-order state getting above a certain thresh hold that makes it phenomenally conscious. Hakwan wants to avoid this and so adopts a pointing view. On his view we have a higher-order confidence judgement to the effect that I am such and such % sure that I am in this or that sensory state. Since the higher-order state is just pointing at the first-order state Hakwan suggests that there is no mis-match problem for his view.

But the question then arises: what is mental pointing? On my view mental pointing is just having the right causal connection. That is I have a purely causal theory of reference for higher-order thoughts. However, these are complex demonstratives and have the form I AM IN THAT-RED* STATE. Where the THAT-red* term has it’s reference fixed by the causal connection between the states (sometimes I think it might be because it has the function to do so, sometime I don’t…) but the phenomenal character is determined by the conceptual content of the complex demonstrative. What are the other candidates for mental pointing? When asked later in discussion Hakwan offers the following. Suppose that each sensory state that the brain can be in is labeled 1-n. Suppose that the state labeled ‘1’ has a very good signal but something goes wrong and one has a higher-order confidence judgement that the state labeled ‘4’ is true then one will hallucinate 4 and fail to consciously see 1. But what are these labels if not the kind of complex demonstratives I talked about above?

Interestingly, later in the discussion, Hakwan proposes a nice empirical test that might help to decide between the higher-order view and the first-order view. The higher-order view predicts that one can have a conscious experience of green even when one has a first-order representation of red. Given what we know about the brain this might translate into having certain kinds of activity in the pre-frontal cortex that is different from the activity is V4. Suppose that we could identify, or read-out, stimulus color from the activity in V4 and we were also able to read out the color from activity in the pre-frontal cortex. Suppose that when the stimulus was unconsciously presented we say only the activity in V4 and not in the PFC. Suppose that in the Sperling-type cases we got evidence that the stimulus was represented unconsciously (activity in V4) but in the PFC we only got the read-out told us that they only saw some letters arranged in a grid. This would do what Hakwan suggests; take a prediction that no one in the world believes, do an experiment and see what happens.

I think that until we are in a position to do these kinds of experiments, or someone thinks of a clever way to get at the issue in a different way, we cannot rule the higher-order theory out. It may turn out to be false, but it may turn out to be true. Conceptual objections cannot help us as they only serve to tell us what we find intuitive.

Commercial Free Philosophy?

I recently cam across Rick Grush’s Commercial Free Philosophy site, a movement which I am deeply sympathetic to (see below)…I have been dying to read the new paper by Michael Gazzaniga but my school is too cheap to subscribe to Science Direct so I’ll never know what the right level of mind-bran analysis is…but anyways, I noticed that there was no mention of presenting at for-profit conferences. It seems to me that the arguments which support abstaining from publishing in for profit journals would also apply to conferences.

Just as an example, and since this one is coming up, take the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness,


Late Fees (after Friday 21st of May)
Student Member CA $280
Member CA $430
Non-member CA $530
Tutorials CA $60 each
Conference Dinner CA $70
Accommodation CA $94/night (or $47 shared)

$500.00 just to present a poster!?!?! On top of the money to fly there and have a room…Horseshit! Similar remarks can be made about the Tucson conferences, the SPP, the apa, and virtually every major conference out there. Now, look, I know that you need to charge something in order to offset the money put into organizing the conference (well, you don’t HAVE to (I didn’t) but I can see why one would think it was fair to do so) but these prices are ridiculous…most of us can’t afford that to present our research. It is true that the University helps offset the price but unless one is at a fancy research institution (hint: most of us aren’t) the help is negligible. So, to go to the apa in Vancouver cost me $2,500 and I got $500.00 from LaGuardia…big help. And for what? To be crammed into a session with three other papers plus commentators and five minutes scheduled for discussion? What a joke!

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What is Philosophy that it Sucks so Bad?

Brian Leiter wants to know what philosophers think of philosophy in 75 words or less…here is my 50 word stab (longer stab here)

Philosophy is distinguished from other endeavors by its method, which is roughly this: a good argument with the conclusion that p is a reason to believe that p. Philosophers, as we say, feel the force of arguments and are compelled to either accept their conclusions or to show why one needn’t.