I’ve been thinking of new ways to make progress in the
cognitivism vs. non-cognitivism debate. Suppose
that I sincerely judge that eating meat is wrong (call the result ‘a moral
thought’). Is my moral thought then a
belief that eating meat is wrong, or am I in some other kind of a mental state?
To solve this question we need some way of classifying mental states as beliefs
and non-beliefs. The traditional way to do this is to think of the different
functional roles which different kinds of mental states have. Once we have
figured them out, we can then think of what sorts of roles moral thoughts have
– whether they have more belief-like roles or not. I want to try to think about
whether the debate could go into a new direction from this starting-point.
Traditionally, non-cognitivists have identified functional
roles of certain kinds of practical mental states (desires, plans, approvals,
and the like). What is special about these roles is their closeness to the
production of action. The claim has then been that, because moral thoughts play
a similar role and beliefs don’t, moral thoughts are not beliefs (this is the
traditional Humean argument from internalism). This gets us to the debates
about internalism/externalism in which people debate how close to
action-production moral thoughts really are. It has also been asked why beliefs
themselves could not play a resembling role. One problem with both of these
debates is that it seems like people have fairly certain conflicting views
about these issues which they are unwilling to change, and so no agreement seems
to be in the horizon.
I want to suggest a new direction (just a thought here).
Instead of starting from the functional role of the ordinary non-cognitive
states and seeing whether moral thoughts play similar roles, why not begin from
the functional roles of ordinary beliefs? We could then try to figure out
whether moral thoughts have features that match those functional roles. Could this
be a way forward?
One rough thought would be that what is special about the
functional role of beliefs is that they, unlike other states, are
systematically sensitive to our thoughts about the evidence for truth and
falsity of those states. This is the idea behind doxastic involuntarism. Of
course, we do need to make some sort of rationality assumption here, but it
does seem essential for believing that p that, if you come to think that there
is overwhelming evidence for not-p, then you stop believing that p. If you do
continue to think that p, then either you are being irrational in some
explicable way or your state isn’t a belief in the first place. Instead it
might be a supposition, wishful thinking, faith, or the like.
Do moral thoughts function in this way? If they did, then we
would have some reason to believe that they are beliefs, whereas if they didn’t
we would have some reason to believe that they weren’t.
The problem is that it is surprisingly hard to tell. Imagine
that I first think that eating meat is ok. I then get evidence that the animals
I eat are hurt in the production. As a result, I come to think that eating meat
is wrong. You might first think that this shows that my initial thought that
eating meat is ok is sensitive to my thoughts about evidence. But, this doesn’t
seem quite right. I’ve changed my mind about the qualities of certain actions
(that one is eating meat of animals that suffered) but I have not changed my
mind of the moral status of the different qualities which the relevant actions
might have. And, it’s the latter kind of changes of moral thoughts that we
would need to consider. Unfortunately, it seems like that kind of moral
conversions are rare and not usually rational, evidence-based processes.
What we would need for getting a clear case would be people
who have come to think that there is overwhelming evidence that all their moral
thoughts are false. There is a small group of such people, namely the error
theorists, whom we could consider. Some of them have even reported what has
happened to their moral thinking after they became convinced of the truth of
error theory (are these reports reliable and literal?).
On my reading, J.L. Mackie, Charles Pigden, and Jonas Olson
have all said that they have continued to hold their prior moral thoughts
(well, Pigden says he has changed them to more ‘life-affirming’ ones). Bart Streumer
is a tricky case as he reports that he is unable to believe error theory even
if he has written down all the arguments that lead to it. In contrast, to my
knowledge, no one has explicitly reported giving up their moral thoughts
because they came to think that they are false (Richard Joyce perhaps?). Garner
and Hinckfuss have reported that they have given up their moral thoughts for
other reasons (namely, for the consequences of having those thoughts, which
makes me also think about non-cognitive states).
I know the sample is small and the reports may not be
reliable. Yet, there is some hint of moral thoughts not being sensitive to
thoughts about the evidence for their truth and falsity here. This would
suggest that their functional role is not that of beliefs. And, at least we
might have some means to make progress in figuring out whether moral thoughts
have the functional role of beliefs or not. All we need to investigate is what
happens to the moral thoughts of those who become convinced by the error
theoretic arguments. Maybe people who have thought that morality depends on God
and who have lost their religion could be studied here.