Josh’s post about Russ Shafer-Landau’s moral nonnaturalism and a strand in Michael’s post about Mackie and disagreement brought back to me something that I have been thinking about for awhile: whether moral attitudes are (logically) complex. As far as I have been able to tell, I have not seen any work suggesting that this might be the case. Rather, almost all discussion that I have seen concerning moral attitudes assume that such attitudes are either (logically) simple beliefs or (logically) simple pro- or con-attitudes. I think there may be reason to think otherwise. But even if there is not, I think that recognizing this possible view is important for other reasons concerning a good deal of the dialectic that goes on in metaethics.
By ‘logically complex’ psychological attitude, I just mean an attitude that is composed of more than one attitude. So, the view I am suggesting is this: moral attitudes are complex psychological states consisting of a belief and a desire. For example, if I judge that donating to charity is right, that judgment expresses a complex psychological state consisting of a belief that donating to charity has a certain property (viz., rightness) and a pro-attitude toward donating to charity or toward the property rightness, or something. So, on this view, moral attitudes are not merely beliefs, nor are they merely desires, but a complex consisting of both. (Also, if a “besire,” assuming there are such things, is a simple psychological state that has both directions of fit, then neither, on the suggested view, are moral attitudes besires.)
The reasons to think that moral attitudes may be complex in this way are not very novel; they are just most of the standard reasons to think that moral attitudes are beliefs and most of the standard reasons to think that moral attitudes are pro- or con-attitudes. For example, that ethical statements are in the indicative mood that is intuitively reserved for conventional use to express beliefs, that some phrases, such as ‘good intentions’, appear to refer to moral properties and, hence, to have descriptive content, and that many of our actions, such as arguing, reflecting, deliberating, and convincing others about ethical matters provides some evidence that moral attitudes have representational or descriptive content and, hence, are beliefs. On the other hand, that a change in one’s pro- or con-attitudes reliably follows in the wake of a change in one’s moral judgments and that there appears to be a very strong link between a person’s acceptance of a moral claim and the person’s motivation provides some evidence that moral attitudes are motivational and, hence, are desires, broadly construed as some kind of pro- or con-attitude. Of course, all of this evidence for moral attitudes being either beliefs or desires is defeasible, but there is no doubt that these considerations seem to lead us to the conclusions that moral attitudes are beliefs and that moral attitudes are desires.
Thus, we find much of the literature arguing over whether moral attitudes are beliefs or desires. But, such an argument seems pressing only on the assumption that moral attitudes are simple psychological states; otherwise, there would seem to be no reason to argue for one side or the other. But all of the evidence just mentioned is not only consistent with, but also suggestive of, the claim that moral attitudes are both beliefs and desires–or, more accurately, that they are complex psychological states consisting, in part, of a belief and, in part, of a pro- or con-attitude. Perhaps the only initial, intuitively strong reason to reject such a view is a correspondingly strong intuition that an amoralist is conceptually possible. Nor can it be claimed that the existence of complex psychological attitudes is uncommon. For example, it seems quite plausible to think that fears and hopes are also complex psychological states. For example, if I fear that there is a black widow in the shoe that I am about to put on, my attitude seems to be a complex consisting of a belief that a black widow may be in the shoe that I am about to put on and a desire that there not be.
I think the question of whether moral attitudes are simple or complex psychological attitudes is important. For example, the assumption that moral attitudes are simple states is precisely the wedge in current metaethics that drives what Michael Smith thinks is the central organizing problem in contemporary metaethics, what he calls “The Moral Problem,” the problem of reconciling three intuitively plausible, but apparently mutually inconsistent claims. Here are the three claims, modified slightly (The Moral Problem, p. 12).
(1) Moral judgments of the form ‘It is right that I ___’ express a subject’s belief about an objective matter of fact, a fact about what it is right for her to do.
(2) If someone judges that it is right that she ___, then, ceteris paribus, she is motivated to ___.
(3) An agent is motivated to act in a certain way just in case (a) she has an appropriate desire and a means-end belief, where (b) belief and desire are, in Hume’s terms, distinct existences.
The idea is that these three claims appear to be mutually inconsistent. (1) and (2) indicate that moral attitudes are necessarily, motivational beliefs, but (2), (3a), and (3b) indicate that only desires, and not beliefs, can be necessarily motivational. Smith then goes on to describe, justly I think, the last century of metaethics as trying to resolve this apparent problem. However, notice that this problem is only a problem on the assumption that moral judgments express either simple beliefs or simple desires. That is, (1) and (2) indicate that moral attitudes are necessarily motivational beliefsonly if we also assume that the moral attitude expressed in moral judgment is a simple belief. If we are not assuming this, then all we can really conclude from (1) and (2) are that moral judgments express attitudes that are in part beliefs and in part motivational–and this is perfectly consistent with moral attitudes being complex states consisting of both a belief and a desire. The recognition that moral attitudes can be complex attitudes consisting of a belief and a desire provides a swift, powerful dissolution to The Moral Problem.
I think the recognition that moral attitudes can be complex psychological states is also important for other kinds of metaethical dialectic. For example, there seem to be at least two important things at stake in Shafer-Landau’s recent discussion of what he calls the Non-cognitivist argument against moral realism (Moral Realism, p. 121). First, by ignoring the distinction between simple and complex attitudes, SL misses an opportunity to rather easily refute the Non-cognitivist argument–at least as an argument against moral realism. Second, by ignoring the distinction, SL’s first and third objections to Humeanism fail (or, more precisely, these objections will remain unsettled at least until the issue of the possibility of an amoralist is settled).
As SL understands it, the Non-cognitivist argument is an argument against realism. (I think, historically, this argument should be taken as an argument for Expressivism, rather than as one against Realism, but that is another matter.) Taking now into account the distinction between simple and complex attitudes, the Non-cognitivist Argument as stated on p. 121 is ambiguous between the following two arguments. (I’ll use ‘simple’ and ‘complex belief’ rather than the more cumbersome ‘simple’ or ‘complex attitude consisting, in part, of a belief’.)
(1) Necessarily, if one sincerely judges an action right, then one is motivated to some extent to act in accordance with that judgment (Motivational Judgment Internalism).
(2) When taken by themselves, neither simple beliefs nor complex beliefs motivate (Motivational Humeanism?).
(3) Therefore, moral judgments are neither simple nor complex beliefs.
(1) Necessarily, if one sincerely judges an action right, then one is motivated to some extent to act in accordance with that judgment (MJI).
(2) When taken by themselves, simple beliefs do not motivate (Motivational Humeanism?).
(3) Therefore, moral judgments are not simple beliefs.
If the Non-cognitivist argument is to be taken as Argument 1, then it is unsound, because 2. is obviously false. Consider again, for a counterexample, the complex psychological state of fearing that there is a black widow in the shoe that I am about to put on. The psychological state of fearing that ___ can reasonably be considered a complex state consisting of a (simple) belief that a black widow might be in the shoe that I am about to put on and a (simple) desire that it not be. Since this state is certainly motivational, 2. is obviously false, and Argument 1 is unsound. On the other hand, if the Non-cognitivist argument is to be taken as Argument 2, then, even if it is sound, it does not tell against realism at all, since its conclusion is consistent with moral judgments being in part simple beliefs.
So, by ignoring the distinction between simple and complex attitudes, SL misses what appears to be an easy opportunity to refute the Non-cognitivist Argument. But, SL doesn’t use these objections against the Non-cognitivist Argument. Instead, he offers three other objections to Motivational Humeanism (and then some other objections (1)). By ignoring the distinction between simple and complex beliefs, I think SL’s first and third objections against Humeanism fail. Let’s just look at his first objection, which is an appeal to our intuitions about some apparently evaluative beliefs:
Before theorizing about motivation, most of us would find it plausible to suppose that some evaluative beliefs . . . (c)an motivate all by themselves…. Sometimes a desire simply doesn’t appear on the scene–‘I saw that it needed to be done, and did it. I don’t recall wanting anything at the moment’.” (p. 123)
Now if one is assuming that these examples provide examples of (i) beliefs that are (ii) evaluative, (iii) simple, and (iv) had by persons who are motivated as described, then one should draw the conclusion that these are evaluative, simple beliefs that are sufficient for motivation and, hence, that Humeanism is false.
But what reason has SL given us for supposing that these beliefs are evaluative and simple? If evaluative beliefs are complex psychological states consisting of a simple belief and a simple desire, then if these examples provide examples of evaluative beliefs, then these beliefs consist in part of a desire, and hence, Humeanism has not been shown to be false. On the other hand, if evaluative beliefs are complex, then if these examples provide examples of simple beliefs that are sufficient for motivation, then these beliefs are not evaluative (because they are simple).
The upshot is that, in order to use this objection effectively against Humeanism, Shafer-Landau has to first show that evaluative beliefs are simple beliefs. So, I think there are two things at stake for SL’s failure to appreciate the possibility that evaluative judgments are complex. First, he does not avail himself to what appear to be very good objections to the Non-cognitivist Argument as an argument against realism, objections he has ready-to-hand. Second, at least two of the objections he does offer to the Non-cognitivist argument seem to fail–at least until it can be shown first that moral attitudes are simple. (I want to reiterate that I am not intending here to pick on Shafer-Landau. I am just using his discussion of the Non-cognitivist Argument as representative of much of the discussion in the literature concerning moral attitudes.)
So: I want to throw out the suggestion that moral attitudes are complex psychological states consisting in part of a belief and in part of a pro- or con-attitude. The reasons to think so are most of the standard reasons to think that moral judgments are beliefs and most of the standard reasons to think that they are pro- or con-attitudes. The only reason to think not, it seems to me, is if one also has a correspondingly strong intuition that an amoralist is possible. Moreover, until the issue is resolved, it seems that a lot of the current metaethical dialectic should be massaged to include this possibility. I am really interested to hear what others think about these matters. And if there have been others that have suggested that moral attitudes are complex, please let me know.