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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10 thoughts on “Emotive Realism and Moral Deviance

  1. I’m not clear on how an emotion or sentiment could be correct. Either I feel something, or I do not. How does right or wrong enter into it?

    What if we say that moral judgments entail beliefs about the appropriateness of emotions and/or sentiments? For example, I have negative feelings about murder, and I believe that these feelings are appropriate–i.e., have a constructive role to play in the world.

  2. Sorry, I only meant to italicize “appropriateness” in that last comment.

    Also, I wonder if it is accurate to call these moral judgments “deviant” or “deformed.” I think a great deal of moral talk is of this sort, and that it defines many people’s experiences of morality. It seems normal for a person to, for example, believe that many things are morally wrong (e.g., adultery, drinking), but to fantasize about them and/or do them with enjoyment. Aren’t some religions notorious for creating and exploiting the guilt that characterizes this tension?

    I wonder if we can draw a parallel to Nietzsche’s distinction between master and slave moralities. Perhaps his slave morality is when moral condemnation is against the emotional drives of the moralizing agent. Conversely, his notion of master morality is when the moral judgment empowers the agent’s moralizing instincts.

    I’m not sure the master/slave terminology is better than the deformed/well-formed or deviant/non-deviant vocabularies, though. It still privileges only one variety of moral experience, and not obviously the most common or important kind. Perhaps instrinsic/extrinsic is a better way of putting it?

    I think beliefs must play a part in moral judgments of both the extrinsic and intrinsic kind, but I don’t see why we should suppose that moral judgments just are beliefs. Rather, I think moral noncognitivism is right, and that moral utterances are not statements that could be true or false, but a way of directing future behavior by stigmatizing certain acts. The difference between intrinsic morality and extrinsic morality is in the way this stigmatizing occurs.

    Part of my disagreement here is that I don’t recognize condemnation as an emotion. I would rather say it is an action.

  3. I agree that a completely virtuous person would have the appropriate sentiments (such as disgust or condemnation) towards immoral actions. However, it doesn’t seem to follow that the having of such a sentiment is essential to a moral judgment. There is a difference between a moral judgment being “deformed” and a person who is making that judgment being “deformed.” I think that you are confusing what is essential to a moral judgment with what is essential to possessing a moral character.

    Compare the case of non-moral belief. Ideally, I would believe what is true and care enough about believing what is true to feel discomfort when I discover that I have a false belief. If I met both of these conditions I would have an excellent intellectual character so to speak. If I had correct beliefs but didn’t care that I did, there would be nothing wrong with the judgments contained in those beliefs, there would be something deficient in me.

  4. Hi Aaron and Jason thanks for the comments!

    Jason, I agree that ‘condemnation’ is not ordinarily used to name an emotion but I think that it is pretty clear that there are distinctively moral emotions that have both positive and negative valences. It is common to use ‘approbation’ for the positive moral emotion, which makes sense because approbation involves praise. So too condemnation involves censure or blame so I use it as the negative analog of approbation. If you don’t like that use that is fine with me…we can call it ‘boo!’ if you want to…

    As for emotions being correct or appropriate I guess I tend to want to stick with ‘correct’ since I am a bit of a moral realist and I think the ‘appropriate’ talk might weaken that but other than that I guess i don’t see what is at issue here. If you think that you can give justifying reasons for emotional responses then I think we basically agree. I take the work of people like Philippa Foot to have suggested this line. Normally it is incorrect to be afraid of something that is harmless and this is because there are logical connections between the concepts of fear and harm. It is correct, or appropriate if you prefer, to be afraid of things that cause harm incorrect, or inappropriate, otherwise. Moral concepts have this same feature.

    Aaron, I guess some of our disagreement goes back to our discussion about internalism. I don’t really understand what it means to call something a moral judgment that isn’t motivating and I don’t see beliefs as motivating neither do I see emotions, by themselves, as motivating…you need both…but I agree that this is an empirical question. I find the evidence to be firmly in teh favor of the view that the emotions mustr be part of the story about moral judgments (not character)…for instance see Prinz’s recent paper. Of course where Prinz and I disagree is over whether there can be justifying reasons for our emotional reactions that are not cultural dependent. I think we can he thinks we can’t (and so is an open relativist). But either way he does a good job of laying out a lot of empirical works that suggests that the emotivists were on to something about moral judgments…I am persuaded by this and am only pointing out that this doesn’t necessarily mean that we must be relativists…

  5. I appreciate the response, Richard.

    I think your view is that there must be some particular moral emotion which grounds our moral judgments. Thus, regardless of what we call it, when we talk about moral condemnation, we are talking about some particular emotion. You say we can call it “condemnation” or “boo!”, or whatever we please. (Personally, I don’t think “boo!” is an attractive option, since it is a non-denoting expression.)

    Why should we think that moral judgments require a specific sort of emotion? I would agree that, generally speaking, moral condemnation involves some negative emotions. Happiness, love, and joy do not, of themselves, lead to condemnation. Conversely, approbation requires some positive emotions. However, I don’t see why we should want to isolate one specific emotion as “condemnation,” or isolate any set of emotions as uniquely moral. Is there a well-known argument motivating this move?

    Perhaps it’s just a clash of intuitions, but it seems obvious to me that condemnation is a judgment. It’s something we intend. As such, it cannot be an emotion.

    I’m not up on the literature here, but I think there is a distinction between emotions and actions. An action cannot be an emotion, and vice versa. Actions intrinsically involve intent and reflection on the meaning of the act. Emotions do not. When I am afraid, I am not intending to be afraid, and my fear does not intrinsically involve reflection on the meaning of my fear. I do not intend my fear (though I may intentionally make myself afraid, e.g., by watching a scary movie.) Yet, when I condemn a behavior, I am intending to do this, and this involves reflecting on what my condemnation means. That is, unless I condemn by mistake; however, I cannot accidentally condemn something without misunderstanding the meaning of my actions, just as I cannot accidentally get married without misunderstanding the role of my performance in the ceremony. This is why I find it impossible to think of condemnation as an emotion. Same for approbation.

    My reason for taking issue with your notion of “correct emotions” is similar. Unlike actions, emotions cannot be correct or incorrect. Only those behaviors which are intended can be either correct or incorrect. For example, a sunset cannot be correct or incorrect, unless we are talking about some action which intended that sunrise–or which accidentally caused the sunrise by intending to do something else.

    As a counter to my view, you say that people can justify their emotional reactions, in part by referring to logical connections between emotions and consequences (e.g., fear and harm). Let’s say I see something that looks like a snake, and I momentarily panic. Then I realize it was just a garden hose. I might say, “I shouldn’t have been afraid, because it was only a garden hose.” But can I also say, “My fear was incorrect?” I don’t think that would make sense, because my fear was not intended.

    In terms of evolutionary biology, my fear of the garden hose was adaptive–it’s adaptive to be afraid when you see something that might be a snake. You might suggest that an error arises when fear persists even after we recognize that it’s a garden hose, and not a snake. But how could this be an error?

    Perhaps the fear is based on a faulty belief about garden hoses. But in that case, it is the belief that is wrong, not the emotional response. Or let’s say the fear is not a learned response, and not a matter of faulty beliefs; it’s just a behavior without any known evolutionary advantage. Is it therefore wrong? Perhaps, if “wrong” just means “not constructive.” But then we shouldn’t say the fear is incorrect. It’s not a mistake.

  6. Another objection to your view occurs to me.

    You say that moral judgments entail particular emotions and beliefs about those emotions. Yet, moral judgments seem most clearly to be directly about behaviors, and not about whatever emotions might be involved. For example, a person might not feel that slavery is wrong, but they come to believe it is wrong through logical arguments. Thus, they agree that slavery is wrong, even though they don’t associate this with any particular emotional response to slavery. If they say “slavery is wrong,” they do not mean “it is correct to feel that slavery is wrong.” They mean something quite different, and their meaning does not entail any beliefs about emotional responses to slavery.

    More generally, when we judge a person’s behavior as either moral or immoral, we are not judging their emotional reaction to their behavior. And, usually, when we try to be more moral, we don’t start by trying to have different emotional reactions. We start by changing our intentional behavior. And we judge ourselves as moral when our intentional behavior is modified, and not when our emotional reactions are different.

    Also, if your view is that moral statements are factual, then “slavery is wrong” should be comparable to “water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit.” Yet, when we say that about water, we do not mean it is correct to feel that water boils at 212 degrees. We don’t require any particular feeling at all. So why should a particular feeling be required in the case of moral judgments?

  7. One more argument which might be worth considering . . .

    If you are correct, then justifying a moral sentiment is tantamount to justifying the claim that a particular emotional response to a particular stimulus is correct. E.g., justifying the moral sentiment that slavery is wrong requires showing that some negative moral emotion is the correct emotional response to slavery. The problem is, you have to show that slavery is wrong in order to justify the emotional reaction. What demonstrates the wrongness of slavery cannot be the emotion itself, for if that were the case, then no justification would be necessary. The answer to “why is slavery wrong?” would just be, “because it causes me to feel that it is wrong.” That is obviously not acceptable. What makes slavery wrong is not the moral emotion, but what justifies that emotion. I think this means that justifying a moral position cannot equate to justifying a moral emotion.

  8. My intuition here is that you are causing more trouble than is necessary by requiring one thing, a moral judgment, have multiple parts which are clearly not always there.

    I can quite dispassionately right now make dozens of moral judgments that I think are true, that I endorse, that I have no emotional opposition to. But right now I don’ t feel much enthusiasm for “littering is wrong”. Am I not making a moral judgment just because I can’t work up any anger while I’m all peacefully contemplating philosophy on a blog?

    What’s no longer properly moral about the judgment that I’m making it dispassionately? Sure a lot of cognitive science is saying that emotional regions of the brain activate when we make a lot of moral judgments but I don’t think that makes them necessarily emotional in themselves. They have a content which is divorceable from feeling and still recognizable. And I am puzzled by what would be deviant—a decidedly normative term—about my not getting worked up over the litter issue right now. What’s wrong with that?

    I understand the value of having emotions that are properly responsive to goodness and badness as being a properly moral person. But if we always were feeling every moral judgment all day we’d be a total mess.

    And in some cases, I need to not feel emotional responses proportional to the wrongs at stake. Take for example if I am a reporter or in law enforcement or a doctor and for whatever reason correlating my emotions to a wrongness around me might ruin my objectivity or my concentration and disrupt my ability to behave justly.

    Maybe your concern is that someone who abstractly recognized wrongness but never cared about it or abstractly recognized rightness but never cared about it would be insufficiently motivated or responsive to rightness and wrongness. But again that just means that a full moral character has some propensities to feel the rightness or wrongness of deeds proportionately to their degree of rightness or wrongness with the appropriate corresponding emotions in both cases.

    But the moral judgment itself is a distinguishable feature of moral life that can be separated from emotions without any fault, any reason to call it properly “deviant”.

    That doesn’t mean there aren’t also the speech act versions of making a moral judgment as you suggest. But the emotivists went overboard in reducing ALL such judgments to having a speech act character. That’s just taking a multifarious phenomenon and trying to force it into a single manifestation. Seems totally unnecessary to me.

  9. I read the Prinz article…..pretty impressive display. However, I think my view that sentiment is not essential to moral judgment still has a little bit of wiggle room left in it. For example, consider Prinz’s treatment of psychopaths. Let’s grant that a true psychopath simply sees immoral actions as those that are opposed by the local authorities and the psychopath just can’t quite grasp the idea that it is dysfunctional (in the Aristelian sense) and therefore wrong to harm another person. Or, to tell another realist story….the psychopath can not understand that others have value and are part of the kingdom of ends.

    What follows from this is that a general concept of “wrongness” has an essential emotive component. This is a significant result, but I can still understand cognitively that an action that I not only fail to detest, but actually love and enjoy, is wrong. All I have to do is recognize, perhaps by analogy, that the case in question is relevantly similar to another case that I understand is wrong. Hence, emotion would be required in order to obtain a generic concept of wrongness, but an emotional response would not be necessary for every moral judgment. What do you think?

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