What is a Sincere Moral Judgment?

Expressivism holds that moral judgments are, at least in part, expressions (in some appropriate sense of ‘express’) of pro- or con-attitudes. Since it is typically thought that a person’s sincere judgment (of any kind) requires that person to at least have the attitudes one is expressing, and since pro- and con-attitudes are normally thought to be sufficient for being motivated (to some degree), it is typically thought that expressivism entails judgment internalism, the view that there is some conceptual connection between a person’s sincere moral judgments and his or her motivation—and expressivists usually accept the entailment. However, in “Realist-Expressivism: A Neglected Option for Moral Realism” (2001), David Copp rejects the entailment from expressivism to judgment internalism by suggesting that a person could make a sincere moral judgment without having the relevant pro- or con-attitude she is expressing. In rejecting the entailment, Copp appears to be relying on a concept of sincerity that is cashed out in terms of the conceptually prior notion of deception. That is, for Copp, a person’s judgment is sincere if she is not trying to deceive anyone while making that judgment. For example, if I am in the midst of a talk exchange with someone who knows (and I know that he knows) that I harbor no contempt whatsoever towards a specific group of people (say Canadians), but I can think only of the derogatory term ‘Canuck’ to refer to that group of people, my utterance of ‘They are Canucks’ will be sincere (because not deceptive), even though I lack contempt towards Canadians. I do not think Copp’s understanding of sincerity accurately corresponds to what is normally meant by sincerity, though it is close. However, his move shifts the burden to others to explain what else sincerity could come to, if not avoiding deception. In trying to meet this burden, I’ve been wondering whether sincerity can be cashed out, not in terms of the conceptually prior notion of deception, but in terms of an extension of Grice’s maxims of conversational cooperation and, more specifically, in terms of an extension of his maxim of quality.

Grice was particularly impressed by the fact that conversation is purposive, rational, and cooperative, and so he postulated a set of maxims that he believed people generally follow in conversation (or in any purposive, rational, cooperative activity) (“Logic and Conversation”). The most general maxim is what he called the Cooperative Principle: “Make your conversational contribution such as is required at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” But how does one follow the Cooperative Principle? In response, Grice offered several more specific maxims, the following of which tend to ensure that speakers will be conversationally cooperative. One of Grice’s more specific maxims is Quality—”Try to make your contribution one that is true”—which he supplements with two submaxims: “Do not say what you believe to be false” and “Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.”

Because he was mostly interested in sorting out issues in logic, Grice was focused mainly on assertive illocutionary acts, whose purpose is to describe the world. However, since conversation includes the performances of expressives, directives, commissives, and declaratives, in addition to assertives, Grice’s maxims of Quality (as well as all the others), can be extended in the following manner to cover these other illocutionary acts as well:

assert only what you believe to be true, and refrain from asserting what you believe to be false and that for which you lack adequate evidence;

express only pro- or con-attitudes that you have, and refrain from expressing pro- or con-attitudes that you do not have;

direct hearers to perform only those acts that you desire them to perform, and refrain from directing hearers to perform acts that you do not desire them to perform;

commit yourself only to a future course of action that you intend to carry out, and refrain from committing yourself to future courses of action that you do not intend to carry out.

declare to obtain only those states of affairs that you deem appropriate given your socially constructed position of authority and only while you are acting in that position, and refrain from declaring those states of affairs that you do not deem appropriate given your socially constructed position of authority or while you are not acting in that position.

By appealing to this kind of extension of Grice’s maxim of quality, we can understand sincerity in general as the following of these maxims. Thus, an illocutionary act, I, performed by a speaker, S, in (properly and literally) uttering a sentence, T, of L at time t is sincere if and only if

If I is an assertive, then S believes T to be true;

If I is an expressive, then S has the pro- or con-attitude expressed in PL-uttering T;

If I is a directive, then S desires that her hearer perform the act directed in PL-uttering T;

If I is a commissive, then S intends to carry out the course of action to which S commits herself in PL-uttering T.

If I is a declarative, then S deems it appropriate, while in S’s socially constructed position of authority, that some state of affairs A obtain.

Since most expressivists hold that moral judgments (in the form of moral utterances) are performances of either expressives or directives, it follows that a person’s sincere moral judgment requires that person to have some kind of pro- or con-attitude (taking, of course, a desire to be a specific kind of pro- or con-attitude).

It is also easy, on this conception of sincerity, to see why Copp might have thought that sincerity could be cashed out in terms of avoiding deception, since it is usually, but not always, the case (as Copp’s examples show), that a person violating these maxims is being deceptive.

3 Replies to “What is a Sincere Moral Judgment?

  1. Dan,
    Your own way of capturing sincerity strikes me as more plausible than Copp’s, but I was curious about a couple of points. First, what sort of examples does Copp offer (if any) to address the worry that sincerity is something other than absence of deception? It seems obvious to me that I can utter a sentence without intending to deceive but also without being sincere in my utterance, as when I forward a hypothesis in philosophical conversation. Does Copp think that sincerity *entails* lack of deception?
    Second, how (in general) do expressivists address weakness of will? I ask because perhaps one motivation for a position like Copp’s (i.e., a position that denies the entailment from expressivism to judgment internalism) iss to explain weakness of will as a divergence between a person’s sincere moral judgments and her attitudes (and, a fortiori, between her judgments and her actions). It would strike me that those expressivists who accept the entailment from expressivism to judgment internalism are denying the possibility of weakness of will, no?
    MC

  2. It seems obvious to me that I can utter a sentence without intending to deceive but also without being sincere in my utterance, as when I forward a hypothesis in philosophical conversation. Does Copp think that sincerity *entails* lack of deception?

    Hi Michael. For Copp, lack of deception is sufficient for a moral judgment’s (in the form of a moral utterance) being sincere. So, if we want to understand what sincerity is, we can make some progress by first understanding that it is something that is entailed by lack of deception. On this reading, then, for Copp, sincerity does not entail lack of deception, though lack of deception entails sincerity.
    But your counterexample raises a point about expressivism in general. Expressivism (as a thesis about moral utterances) holds that certain kinds of moral utterances are the expressions of pro- or con-attitudes, namely, those moral utterances in which the words are used correctly and the speaker is speaking “literally,” where the latter qualification is intended to rule out cases in which the speaker is, say, reciting lines in a stage play, or, as your counterexample suggests, the speaker is merely putting forward a hypothesis in a philosophical conversation. So, although it is true that your putative counterexample is one in which lack of deception does not entail sincerity, it is not a genuine counterexample, since your merely putting forward a hypothesis would not be a literal utterance.

    Second, how (in general) do expressivists address weakness of will? … It would strike me that those expressivists who accept the entailment from expressivism to judgment internalism are denying the possibility of weakness of will, no?

    I think the heart of your question concerns the relation between judgment internalism and motivation. A strong version of judgment internalism holds that there is a some kind of conceptual connection between sincere moral judgments and being sufficiently motivated to perform some act, i.e., so motivated that I actually perform the act. This strong version is incompatible with the phenomena of weakness of the will. A more modest version of judgment internalism holds that there is some kind of conceptual connection between sincere moral judgments and being motivated to some degree. This more modest kind is not incompatible with the phenomena of weakness of the will, since it allows that I can be motivated to some degree to, say, refrain from eating a second piece of pie, though I give in to some stronger motivation to eat the second piece. So expressivists, like nonexpressivists who accept judgment internalism (e.g., Smith), typically address weakness of the will by appealing to the more modest version of judgment internalism.

  3. Let me make one more clarificatory remark that I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle. Although I write above about “the entailment from expressivism to judgment internalism,” I hope it is clear from the context of the original post that this should be read as “The entailment from expressivism plus sincerity to judgment internalism.”

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