Irrealist Moral Cognitivism

Posted on November 11, 2006


One thing that has taxed my ‘little grey cells’ for a while now is how to understand the relationship between moral realism and moral cognitivism. While cognitivist realism and non-cognitivist anti-realism are natural combinations of the two, irrealist cognitivism and non-cognitivist realims are less straightforward. What would a cognitivist who was an anti-realist be professing to believe in?

Some clarificatory definitions:

Moral Realism is the meta-ethical position which states that moral values are objective and conform to a truth/falsity analysis. In a nutshell, the thesis that there are moral facts which are real independently of anyone’s experience of them. Moral realists include Plato and John McDowell.

Moral Cognitivism is the view that ethical statements or utterances express propositional content. Moral realism entails moral cogntivism, because it entails ascribing truth/falsity predicates to moral facts. Such claims can only be made by a cognitivist.

Anti-Realism is the view that there are no independently existing moral entities, or at least if there are they are not the subject or concern of ethical language, which is socially or culturally relative. Nietzscheans, Marxists and numerous meta-ethical relativists (such as Bernard Williams) fall under this category.

Non-Cognitivists believe that moral setences do not express propositional content, but something else. For a non-cognitivist, there can be no such thing as a moral argument (or , at least, a moral argument that cannot be reduced to something else). Emotivists, Prescriptivists and Projectivists fall under this category.

The connection between moral realism and cognitivism makes intuitive sense as long as we adopt some sort of correspondence theory of truth: moral sentences make sense and can be described as true or false because they relate to something actually existing. In my view, things are rather more murkey when we consider other realist/cognitivist combinations.

For example: a moral anti-realist who was also a cognitivist needs to be able to say that ethical statements have propositional content and can be described in terms of truth and falsity, yet such propositons do not describe a ‘factual’ state of affairs. What then, do they describe?

Mackie’s error theory is an example of this type. He maintains that moral propositions do have meaning (i.e. propositional content) and describe the world, but that at the same time there are no moral facts. Moral judgements are therefore held to be false or ‘in error’ but nonetheless meaningful. This seems like a nonsense to me: it suggests that even though we know that morality is a kind of fiction it nonetheless is important for us in exactly the kinds of ways that it would be were it real.

Another kind of irrealist moral cognitivism is suggested by Simon Blackburn. His ‘projectivism’ understands moral language to have meaningful content, but that such content is not dependent on (or relative to) the world. The cognitive content of moral language is something which we are the author of. As such, should it be understood as some kind of conscience? If so, why should moral language seem to be about the world at all? Why should moral language take a universalistic form?

One problem facing irrealist moral cognitivism is that it seems to run up against the very moral intuitions it attempts to explain. This in itself need not be considered fatal: Utilitarianism can also fall foul of this. However, whereas the Utilitarian can simply say that when our moral ituitions come into conflict with utilitarianism, so much the worse for our irrational moral intuitions. The cognitive anti-realist needs to justifiy our use of a moral language which seems to be describing a state of affairs while at the same time denying that such a state of affairs actually exists. This seems to me to be a very difficult – if not untenable – position to maintian (and perhaps largely motivated by the desire to have one’s cake and eat it too).

To read: Skorupski, J. ‘Irrealist Cognitivism’, Ratio 1999, XII