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Are moral assertions merely expressions of emotion?


To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Are moral assertions merely expressions of emotion?
Date: 16th April 2009 12:14

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 28 March with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'Are moral assertions merely expressions of emotion?'

In response to your question about time-management, the most important advice I can give is to NOT attempt to reproduce practice essays. Assume that you are able to come up with ideas and arguments that you have not thought of before. Examiners can tell when a candidate is thinking on his/ her feet. You will always get credit for this, even if you make slips (even better if you can correct them).

Knowing (a lot) more than the average candidate, you have more to say and this does present a problem. That is why taking time to think and plan before you write (whether you actually 'write a plan' or not) is so vital. In those five minutes you have time to order your priorities. There might not be time to investigate every aspect of a question so you have to select. If you have an original 'take' on the problem then you need to think about the best way to present this so that it doesn't get buried as an afterthought (or worse, not expressed properly because of lack of time).

When choosing questions, 'Do I have something original to say?' should take priority over, 'How much do I know?' You need additional time for this selective process too.

Your essay on emotivism is very thorough and I have few real disagreements. I don't like emotivism, but I also don't think that any of the arguments you consider are strong enough to defeat this view of ethical judgements.

To express disapproval is clearly different from stating (as a piece of self-knowledge) that you disapprove, although it is clearly possible to do the former in doing the latter. 'I disapprove of your doing X' is (also) an expression of disapproval, while, 'If you were to do X I would disapprove' is not.

My intuitions on the Frege-Geach problem is that Blackburn is basically right and that (never mind the details) there will always be a plausible way to explain the combinatorial aspect of ethical judgements interpreted as expressions of emotion.

The moral attitude problem is more tricky. Let's say that I enjoy eating meat but feel moral repugnance towards doing so. Here we have a 'pro' gustatory attitude battling it out with an 'anti' moral attitude. It is irrelevant how 'strongly' I feel in either case. The most powerful desire for meat must (logically) give way to my genuine recognition that it would be wrong to do so. The label 'moral' simply signifies that the approval/ disapproval in question is final, overriding, the end of the matter.

It could be argued, therefore, that we don't need any additional 'non-circular' criterion for what makes a moral attitude moral. 'Moral judgements are overriding' is all that one needs to say. It is a matter of fact that we do regard certain considerations as overriding: hence there is such a thing as ethics. If we didn't have this view, then there wouldn't be a question to answer. This looks circular, but I don't think it is.

Another point that could be made is that 'good' is a very bad example of a moral judgement because it is so 'thin'. The majority of moral concepts have various grades of 'thickness' which involves descriptive criteria with consequences for action. There has been lot of discussion of the 'thickness of moral concepts' (with Blackburn expressing general scepticism regarding this approach).

This doesn't solve the problem of 'where the motivation comes from'. However, a cognitivist could argue that we are looking in the wrong place. My commitment to moral dialogue arises from my 'respect for the other' by virtue of which the other's needs/ desires become motivational for me. To accept a given moral vocabulary, and its implications for action, is to accept a priori the possibility of reasons for action which are not based on my own desires but rather on the desires of the other.

This is not an objection to emotivism but rather an argument against the arguments for emotivism (specifically, number iii, the 'argument from moral internalism' although it also has implications for the other arguments). We can accept that moral judgements involve emotion, indeed, that it is part of what it is to have the moral virtues -- being the kind of person who makes reliable moral judgement and acts upon them -- that one feels the kind of emotion it is appropriate to feel (as in Aristotle's view that failure to feel or express anger in circumstances where anger is appropriate is a moral failing).

All the best,