Tagged: Sam Harris

Non-Cognitivist Trajectories in Moral Subjectivism

imageWhen I say that “greed is not good” the everyday mind creates a series of images and references, from Gordon Gekko’s inverse proposition to general feelings about inequality and our complex motivations as people. There is a network of feelings and, perhaps, some facts that might be recalled or searched for to justify the position. As a moral claim, though, it might most easily be considered connotative rather than cognitive in that it suggests a collection of secondary emotional expressions and networks of ideas that support or deny it.

I mention this (and the theories that are consonant with this kind of reasoning are called non-cognitivist and, variously, emotive and expressive), because there is a very real tendency to reduce moral ideas to objective versus subjective, especially in atheist-theist debates. I recently watched one such debate between Matt Dillahunty and an orthodox priest where the standard litany revolved around claims about objectivity versus subjectivity of truth. Objectivity of truth is often portrayed as something like, “without God there is no basis for morality. God provides moral absolutes. Therefore atheists are immoral.” The atheists inevitably reply that the scriptural God is a horrific demon who slaughters His creation and condones slavery and other ideas that are morally repugnant to the modern mind. And then the religious descend into what might be called “advanced apologetics” that try to diminish, contextualize, or dismiss such objections.

But we are fairly certain regardless of the tradition that there are inevitable nuances to any kind of moral structure. Thou shalt not kill gets revised to thou shalt not murder. So we have to parse manslaughter in pursuit of a greater good against any rules-based approach to such a simplistic commandment. Not eating shellfish during a famine has less human expansiveness but nevertheless caries similar objective antipathy,

I want to avoid invoking the Euthyphro dilemma here and instead focus on the notion that there might be an inevitability to certain moral proscriptions and even virtues given an evolutionary milleu. This was somewhat the floorplan of Sam Harris, but I’ll try to project the broader implications of species-level fitness functions to a more local theory, specifically Gibbard’s fact-prac worlds where the trajectories of normative, non-cognitive statements like “greed is not good” align with sets of perceptions of the world and options for implementing activities that strengthen the engagement with the moral assertion. The assertion is purely subjective but it derives out of a correspondence with incidental phenomena and a coherence with other ideations and aspirations. It is mostly non-cognitive in this sense that it expresses emotional primitives rather than simple truth propositions. It has a number of interesting properties, however, most notably that the fact-prac set of constraints that surround these trajectories are movable, resulting in the kinds of plasticity and moral “evolution” that we see around us, like “slavery is bad” and “gay folks should not be discriminated against.” So as an investigative tool, we can see some value that gives such a theory important verificational value. As presented by Gibbard, however, these collections of constraints that guide the trajectories of moral approaches to simple moral commandments, admonishments, or statements, need further strengthening to meet the moral landscape “ethical naturalism” that asserts that certain moral attitudes result in improved species outcomes and are therefore axiomatically possible and sensibly rendered as objective.

And it does this without considering moral propositions at all.