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Are moral properties impossible?

Abstract

Perhaps the actual world does not contain moral properties. But might moral properties be impossible because no world, possible or actual, contains them? Two metaethical theories can be argued to entail just that conclusion; viz., emotivism and error theory. This paper works towards the strongest formulation of the emotivist argument for the impossibility of moral properties, but ultimately rejects it. It then uses the reason why the emotivist argument fails to argue that error-theoretic arguments for the impossibility of moral properties face the same conclusion. Finally the paper argues that these arguments for the possibility of moral properties might have consequences for our thinking about their actuality, regardless of whether we accept emotivism or error theory.

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Notes

  1. small caps refer to concepts.

  2. Thus according to Mackie’s conception of moral values they are objectively prescriptive in the sense that we should pursue them regardless of what we desire or want and regardless of whatever other normativity there is (prescriptivity was his word for overriding normativity). Mackie writes: “[k]nowing [moral values] or ‘seeing’ them will not merely tell men what to do but will ensure that they do it, overruling any contrary inclinations” (Mackie 1977, pp. 31–32). The fact that Mackie uses the word ‘ensure’ here suggests that ‘prescriptivity’ also contains an element of motivational internalism, where (knowledge of) moral values has an automatic impact on the will (normative force doesn’t have this property). In light of this some of his commentators suggest that Mackie “seems to have confused the motivational import of [an atomic] moral belief with the normativity of a moral fact” (Copp 2010, p. 146). For ease of exposition I leave this debate to one side and stipulate that for Mackie, prescriptivity refers to overriding normative force. Chapter Five in Mackie’s (1977) details his reasons for accepting the other-regarding conception of moral values where the function of morality is to enable human cohabitation.

  3. I model possible worlds talk on modal realism for ease of exposition, but nothing of substance hangs on this (others theories of modality, I suspect, could be used just as profitably for my purposes). The paper also takes facts to register the instantiation of properties (Shafer-Landau 2003, p. 65); so moral facts, if they exist, register the instantiation of moral properties.

  4. Mackie also argued that the function of our moral language is to communicate the instantiation of moral properties so that it follows that our moral language is ‘in error’—moral language tries to refer to things that don’t exist. This is the main difference with emotivist or expressivist antirealist theories which also argue that there are no moral properties but that this does not mean that moral language is in error. According to emotivists, moral language has a non-representational function to be explored in the next section.

  5. This means that Olson’s claim that “moral properties are necessarily uninstantiated; they are simply too queer to be instantiated in any possible world” (Olson 2014, p. 12, n. 17) is false, as is Joyce’s (2001) error theory, which is an earlier attempt to move from queerness to impossibility (cf. Coons 2011).

  6. I use the term ‘moral judgment’ to refer to mental states that can take either cognitive or non-cognitive psychology and I use the term ‘moral statement’ to refer to moral judgments that are made publicly available by being uttered or inscribed.

  7. A similar story, perhaps, can be told about Carnap, who writes that “a value statement is nothing else than a command in misleading grammatical form” (Carnap 1935, p. 25). The story would be that commands too do not express distinctively moral propositions. In what follows, and for ease of exposition, I only consider Ayer’s emotivism.

  8. What follows shouldn’t be read as a reconstruction of what emotivists actually believed about the modal status of their antirealism but instead as an attempt to see where their arguments can take us.

  9. I present the argument on the level of moral semantics but given the emotivist’s ‘natural’ thought that moral psychology informs moral semantics (see the opening paragraph of this section), the same argument can also be put in psychological rather than semantic terms.

  10. So this argument for moral properties’ impossibility works without us having to first specify what moral properties would have to look like if there were any (as error-theoretic arguments for moral properties’ impossibility, such as Loeb’s argument to be discussed later, require). For this argument is that with emotivism, we cannot specify what moral properties would be like and that it follows from this that they are impossible. On the assumption that I’m right that we cannot specify moral properties’ instantiation conditions if emotivism is true, this is a good-making feature of this argument. After all, had it not been possible to formulate an argument for the impossibility of moral properties without having to first specify what moral properties would have to look like if there were any, then one good antirealist metaethical theory—emotivism—could never be used as the basis of an argument for moral properties’ impossibility as a matter of principle, which is unnecessarily restrictive and prima facie implausible. Moreover, the conclusion I want to reach in this paper is that we cannot move from emotivism to moral properties’ impossibility, so if I’m wrong that we can formulate at least an intelligible argument for moral properties’ impossibility that takes emotivism as one of its core premises then my conclusion still stands. Hence I proceed with this kind of argument for moral properties’ impossibility unapologetically.

  11. Cf. Brown (2013, pp. 627–628).

  12. This move wouldn’t be possible if moral properties are understood in the pleonastic sense according to which they are necessary existences (Olson 2014, p. 12, n. 17); however, we have already rejected this way of thinking about moral properties (see Sect. 1). That this move works on the non-pleonastic way of thinking about moral properties will be argued in the below.

  13. Cf. Stevenson (1937, p. 14) on defining moral goodness as something that is “pink with yellow trimmings.”

  14. I write ‘normative’ rather than ‘moral’ judgments and properties as Streumer’s argument applies to all normative properties, not just moral properties (this immaterial for my purposes in my paper).

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Acknowledgments

Thanks to Pekka Väyrynen, Andrew McGonigal, Gerald Lang, John Divers, Michael Bench-Capon, my audience at the Postgraduate Session 2013 (87th Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and the Mind Association) and especially an anonymous reviewer for Philosophical Studies for helpful comments on various drafts of this paper. Financial support is acknowledged from the Royal Institute of Philosophy (Jacobsen Fellowship, 2012–2013).

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Correspondence to Wouter F. Kalf.

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Kalf, W.F. Are moral properties impossible?. Philos Stud 172, 1869–1887 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-014-0376-y

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Keywords

  • Moral properties
  • Impossibility
  • Emotivism
  • Error theory