Saturday, March 25, 2006

Cognitivism or non-cognitivism?

I'm allied with the non-cognitivist utilitarian camp of Hare/Singer/Frey but I'm not totally convinced of my loyalty on this one. Since I believe value can be boiled down to desire-satisfaction, there would seem to be a fact of the matter about whether someone's desire is being satisfied. Hence the statements "x is good" or "x is right" might seem to be analyzable as beliefs rather than desires (or emotive utterances) themselves. On the other hand, I find myself unpersuaded by any argument for cognitivism that I've come across. I'd be curious to hear where people stand. Can anyone offer a spirited argument for or against cognitivism?

6 comments:

  1. I lean heavily towards the cognivist side, although I've once or twice wondered whether each is really a redescription of the other. Still, a question thats often made me lean towards cognitivism is this:
    Since the surface structure of language leans strongly in favour of cognitivism (we say "That is a good thing to do", not "Yay! Good thing!"), that seems to make cognitivism the default. But every argument I've heard for non-cognitivism (which usually take the form of "how can a factual proposition give you motivation or reason to act?) seems to me to favour an error theory over non-cognitivism. If the surface structure of language points to cognitivism, and cognitivism isn't possible, what reason to we have to assume non-cognitivism over an error theory?

    I guess thats a burden-of-proof argument rather than anything stronger, but I've sometimes found it convincing.

    Alex

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  2. My view of this matter is probably superficial. I haven't done the requisite reading on this topic to get a good grasp of the subject matter. Neverthless, here's my take as it stands:

    We might distinguish between two types of moral utterances. On the one hand, we express our own "belief" or attitude when we respond to a question akin to "is this the right thing to do?" Alternatively, we might express what we take to be the relevant moral community's opinion on the matter. So, for instance, you might ask me whether or not going to church on Sundays is the right thing to do. Since I'm not a church goer, I might respond "no" on the grounds that I don't believe in God, and so don't think much of going to church on Sundays. Then again, I might, given that we are, say, amongst a deeply religious crowd respond by saying something like "most people here seem to think so."

    The latter seems cognitivist to me, while the former may be non-cognitivist. In the former, I merely express my attitudes on the basis of a belief system that doesn't include God. In the latter case, however, I make an assesment of the relevant moral community and respond according to what I think is considered true amongst that community. It may be that that community's beliefs are non-cognitivist, but that's a step removed from what I'm doing, which is assessing what that community actually believes. The claim that the relevant moral community has a particular moral attitude admits of truth or falsity, and so looks to me to be cognitivist, even if the attitudes so described are ultimately non-cognitivist.

    At any rate, here's a question to help me be less than naive about this subject. Is the question about the expression of first-order attitudes (as in, "I affirm/believe going to church on Sundays is right") only? Or is it all right to look at second-order expressions of first-order attitudes (like, "It is true that Christians believe going to church on Sundays is the right thing to do")?

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  3. I’m attracted to cognitivism because I sometimes think it’s a mistake to act in certain ways and correct to act in others. Non-cognitivism primarily comes in two stripes: expressivists and prescriptivists. I don’t know where Frey and Singer fall, but Hare was a prescriptivist, see Language of Morals, as apposed to the classic expressivist view of emotivism, see Ayer and Stevenson [I think Stevenson wrote “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms”].

    Expressivism isn’t as popular today as it once was, but I think Simon Blackburn is a contemporary expressivist. I think the real problem for this view is that we actually dispute the rightness or goodness of something. And further, we’re often convinced by these arguments. If at bottom we’re just saying Yah! And Boo! Then we shouldn’t be arguing over rightness and goodness. I know this isn’t any nail in the expressivist coffin, but it’s compelling to me. What’s more, I think that even if we’re not arguing with someone else, it seems possible we could deliberate with ourselves and doing something more than Yah! And Boo! (Btw, I also know that Yeah and Boo are caricatures of this view, but they will do).

    I can’t remember what the problem with prescriptivism is, but I imagine it’s similar. When we say, “It’s good to be tidy,” it seems as though we’re saying something more than “I think you should be tidy.” (Again, I can’t quite remember how Hare formulates this, but check the Stanford Encyclopedia if it matters to you.) I suspect I’ve done something wrong, because this looks like a belief which may be true or false, but the “should” here is normative and it too is under scrutiny. Maybe a more accurate formulation is something like “It’s good to be tidy,” means “I want you to be tidy.” To be non-cognitivist it would have to be the case that my wants could NOT be T or F. If you think they’re not truth apt, I think the discussion for you turns from here to sincere and insincere utterances of “It’s good to be tidy.”

    If you do think prescriptions are truth apt, then you may still wonder whether you have a solid cognitivist theory. Certainly it’s cognitivist, but is it cognitivist in the right way. I think the failure for prescriptivism isn’t that it fails to give an account of normative or evaluative utterances, but that it does so in a way that fails to capture exactly what we mean when we use them. As a philosopher, I’m willing to admit that I’ve been debauched by learning and so my intuitions fail me here. But that’s what the cognitivist is going to press. And that’s I think where the Error theorist, like Mackie, picks up.

    At the end of the day, though, I think I’ve done some things right and some things wrong. And if I were an error theorist then I couldn’t say this without being in error about something, namely that it’s possible for such beliefs about what I did to ever be true.

    I've probably butchered some of these views, but it's been awhile sense I've looked at this stuff. Please let me know where I'm making errors...

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  4. Oh yeah, I just noticed a pretty interesting discussion of many of the different views, expressivist/prescriptivist, on PEA soup.

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  5. "Expressivism isn’t as popular today as it once was, but I think Simon Blackburn is a contemporary expressivist. I think the real problem for this view is that we actually dispute the rightness or goodness of something. And further, we’re often convinced by these arguments. If at bottom we’re just saying Yah! And Boo! Then we shouldn’t be arguing over rightness and goodness."

    I think expressivism still has a number of adherants (Blackburn, Gibbard, Singer etc.). I think Blackburn has a response to your criticism, and its the response that led to my comment above that I sometimes wonder how distinct they are. I think he says that we can have complex expressions of emotion, so that I can feel B!{Thinking that murder is wrong|Thinking that Jeff was murdered|Thinking that Jeff's murder was good} (where "B!" is "Boo!" and "|" seperate propositions that my attitude is about). With this in place, he can offer a way in which argument can take place. People can realise that they hold B! attitudes about other attitudes they have, and then try to sort out the views they hold. I guess he'd further state that others can, through argument, make me more aware of some of the attitudes that I already hold, causing some kind of argumentative progress.

    Its quite an interesting solution, but I say, I wonder just how much ground they've given to the cognitivist in employing it.

    Another problem, of course, is how it is that they identify the attitude in question as "moral" - what makes B!{Garlic} non-moral, and B!{Murder} moral? I think its hard for them to identify a non-circular criterion for this.

    "Is the question about" the expression of first-order attitudes (as in, "I affirm/believe going to church on Sundays is right") only? Or is it all right to look at second-order expressions of first-order attitudes (like, "It is true that Christians believe going to church on Sundays is the right thing to do")?"

    I'm not too familiar with prescriptivism, but regarding expressivism, I would've thought only first-order propositions. It looks as though the second order statement is truth apt, because we're stating that its true that Christians believe X.

    Having said that, I think some - no doubt controversial - people (Steven Barker) try to argue for a kind of global expressivism, where nothing you state is truth-apt, and its all expression of emotion (e.g. including things like "I see a chair"). Having said that, I don't know his position all that well so I may be characturing him here.

    Alex

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  6. Art,

    One thing that I think some non-cogs would say that they have over error-theorists is that they can account for the necessarily motivating force of sincere moral judgments (of course it is contentious that there is such a necessary motivating force but non-cog frequently champion this claim). Non-cogs might well say that they can account for this alleged fact because moral judgments just are the expression of motivational states—thus they have an easy account of why the two are so intimately related. If on the other hand sincere moral judgment expressed a belief, as error theorists seem committed to (how else could moral claims be systematically false if they were not truth-apt, and what else is truth apt that moral claims might be if not beliefs?). Thus the non-cog might try to claim that error theorists cannot capture the necessary connection between moral judgments and motivation.

    I don’t mean to be endorsing such an argument, just saying that I think non-cogs are likely to haul it out in the face of your challenge.

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