Jon Baron wrote at:
May 30, 2006
Emotivism in moral judgment research
Some psychologists have become attracted to "emotivism," an idea rejected by philosophers (particularly R. M. Hare, in The language of morals) in the 1950s. The idea is that moral judgments are just expressions of emotion. The statement, "abortion is wrong" amounts to "abortion, ycch."
Suppose we start out with just our emotions. The problem is that your emotions may not give other people sufficient reason to do what you find emotionally pleasing and avoid what you find repulsive. You need to give them reasons. So the idea of moral reasoning is invented. You say things like, "Abortion is wrong because it is KILLING." Some do not find this enough. They argue back, saying, "But we kill animals, and even people. So why is killing bad sometimes and not bad other times?"
Once this discussion starts, people have a hard time preventing it from taking on a life of its own. People start making arguments based on reasons, such as, "Why shouldn't women be allowed to vote?" or "Shouldn't slavery be a crime?" or "Shouldn't we try to stop genocide on the other side of the world?" Of course, in each case, each side of the discussion may provoke emotions to help their case. But the emotions are now secondary, recruited in order to move others to accept reasons.
Ultimately, the reasons appeal to people's altruism, their concern with the well-being of others. Atruism is supported by emotions such as empathy, but the reasoning is not just a communication of emotion or something that evokes it.
The emotivists want to say that the talk of reasons is just a sham. But why would this ruse have any effect on anyone unless giving of reasons, and responding to them, were already part of our lives?
In other domain, such as tastes for food, we do not make arguments. We do not try to convince each other with reasons that okra tastes good. (An apparent exception is that we sometimes say, "You need to develop a taste for okra." But this is just a prediction about a psychological effect.) Importantly, we do not treat moral judgment as one of these cases.
To save the case for emotivism, someone would have to argue that moral reasoning really is a sham, that moral discussion is no more meaningful than a debate about the size of angels. This position seems difficult to maintain. At the very least, moral judgments are recommendations that we make to each other, and that we follow more often than not.
Of course, there is much more to say than I have said here. But the issue comes up a lot, and I thought a sketch of my views would be appropriate.
Posted by baron at May 30, 2006 06:47 PM
My response, written April 9, 2007
There are, of course various versions of emotivism. Not all of them say that moral judgments "are nothing more than" expressions of emotion.
My own consequentialist view holds that any pronouncement of what is morally good is, in fact, an attempt to persuade others to do things that lead to consequences that the pronouncer imagines will make him/her feel good. If you are not sure that things work this way, see how many counter-examples you can find in everyday life, where someone tries to convince others that a particular action is the morally correct thing to do, yet imagines experiencing only negative emotions if the other person bought the moral argument. How many times does an anti-abortionist imagine feeling only bad when others agree not to terminate pregnancies?
So, moral pronouncements may not be mere expressions of emotion, but the emotions that are anticipated if another person buys your argument certainly play a role.
The idea that moral reasoning is a sham is not altogether correct, but it is on the right track in the sense that I'm not going to convince someone to do something with an argument like, "Do that because it makes me feel good!" I need an argument that covers up what's in it for me. The argument can be deontological ("It's just the right thing to do, period.") or the argument can promise some benefit to the person I am trying to convince ("You'll feel good about helping with the relief effort.") So there can be an element of deception in moral argumentation. And moral pronouncers may be most effective when they are self-deceived about the personal benefits they derive as they try to convince other persons to behave "morally."