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Philosophy of Value - Are Moral Claims Truth-Apt? (Expressivism)

Philosophy of Value - Are Moral Claims Truth-Apt? (Expressivism)

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Published by Victoria Ronco
“If killing the innocent is wrong, then abortion is wrong. Killing the innocent is wrong, so abortion is wrong”. What would the expressivist say about this inference? Is it logically valid?
“If killing the innocent is wrong, then abortion is wrong. Killing the innocent is wrong, so abortion is wrong”. What would the expressivist say about this inference? Is it logically valid?

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Published by: Victoria Ronco on Feb 24, 2011
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02/28/2015

“If killing the innocent is wrong, then abortion is wrong. Killing the innocent is wrong, so abortion is wrong”.

What would the expressivist say about this inference? Is it logically valid?

If assertive claims are stating actual facts about the state of the universe, then how is it that two people can make conflicting assertions on moral issues? Does this lead us to conclude that moral claims are not truth apt? This essay will examine the expressivist account of moral statements and what problems arise if we agree with the expressivist theory that normative statements are not factual statements but merely relative to individual and subjective emotive beliefs. Firstly we will establish the main idea behind simple expressivism, and its standpoint on the subjectivity of normative statements. Secondly, we will discuss the Frege-Geach problem and how it collaborates with expressivism instead of being in discord with it. Having explored the restraints that the Frege-Geach problem imposes on modus ponens, we will see how the Frege-Geach problem makes it imperative that the simple expressivist rejects the idea that normative statements are truth-apt.

Both Error Theorists and Realists have concluded that the truth of atomic declarative sentences for the subject matter in question require the existence of the relevant sort of objects or properties. However, they disagree on whether those objects and properties do in fact exist. Whilst the error theorist says that they don’t (and therefore normative statements are systematically and uniformly false), the realist claims that they do exist in at least some instances. Expressivism, another alternative, disagrees with the realist view of the truth-aptness of normative statements. Sentences in the declarative mood (for example, “the sandwich is in the fridge”) are usually used for making assertions which can either be true or false, depending on whether the fact that is being asserted to obtain does in fact actually obtain. The expressivists claim that the realist is misled by the syntax of the sentences of that area into thinking that they are truth-apt. For example, “stealing is wrong” is in fact no more truth apt than “put the sandwich in the fridge”. The lack of truth-aptness in the latter is blatant, whereas in the former it is masked by its surface syntax. So what then, are moral sentences conventionally used for

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if they aren’t for assertions? According to Expressivism, the primary function of ethical sentences is the expressions of emotions, attitudes and beliefs that they make, or the pressure that they apply on action and the issuing of commands. Moral talk, according to expressivists, is not “truth apt” in the way that verifiable facts (like “the moon is made of limestone”) can be. We can check whether or not the moon is made of limestone by obtaining and analyzing a sample, making the statement “the moon is made of limestone” a statement that is capable of being either true or false, and is thus “truth-apt”, or has the aptitude to be true. Expressivists argue that when a moral declarative statement such as “murder is wrong” is said, there is no “fact” being stated that can be considered “true”. They believe that moral language is used to express when we approve of a certain position, not whether we consider the position to be true. That is, if I utter “murder is wrong”, I am not stating that “murder is wrong” is true, I am merely asserting that I approve of the statement “murder is wrong.”

The Frege-Geach problem explains why simple expressivism rejects the truth aptness of normative claims by proving that the inference contained in the essay title statement is not logically valid. When someone, for example, says “Murder is wrong”, he is not expressing a belief or an assertion but rather some non-cognitive sentiment or feeling, incapable of being true or false. That is to say, there is no truth-aptness in a statement like “murder is wrong” or “killing innocent people is wrong”. The emotivist (a type of expressivist) would argue that the phrase “murder is wrong” is used to express a sentiment of disapproval towards murder, instead of being a truth-apt normative statement. But what happens when we consider a statement like “murder is wrong” when it isn’t being used to make an assertion, for instance: “If murder is wrong, then getting my little brother to murder people is wrong”? Here “murder is wrong” is not being used to make an assertion at all; it is functioning as the antecedent of a conditional. It isn’t used to express the speaker’s disapproval towards murder (like the expressivist would argue). The semantic function therefore must be different from the one given for the straightforward assertion expressed by “murder is wrong”. That is to say, if we have the premises laid out: 1) Murder is wrong

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2) If murder is wrong, then getting your little brother to murder is wrong 3) Therefore getting your little brother to murder is wrong How do we account for the apparently valid inference? Herein lays the crux of the FregeGeach problem. For the argument to be considered valid, the occurrence of “murder is wrong” in premise 1 must mean the same thing as the occurrence of “murder is wrong” in premise 2. But if we examine the semantic functions of each statement, we see they are different, and therefore “murder is wrong” in 1 and 2 do not in fact mean the same thing. The example of premises 1-3 would really be no more valid than arguing: 4) my lager has a head on it 5) if something has a head on it, then it must have eyes and ears 6) therefore my lager has eyes and ears Here it is easy to see that there are different meanings of the word “head” used in 4 and 5. Similarly, there are different meanings of “Murder is wrong” being used in 1 and 2. In 1 it is an assertion and in 2 it is merely the antecedent or a conditional. But let us consider another example of modus ponens which is non-moral: 7) it is raining 8) if it is raining then the streets are wet 9) therefore the streets are wet Why is this argument not similarly invalid? The argument holds because “it is raining” means the same thing in premise 7 as it does in premise 8. That is, in 7, “it is raining” is asserting that a state of affairs obtains; in 8 it is asserting that if the state of affairs obtains then so does another (the streets being wet). So if we consider the statement “If killing the innocent is wrong, then abortion is wrong. Killing the innocent is wrong, so abortion is wrong”, we can see how it is logically invalid. “Killing the innocent is wrong” is not a moral assertion, but rather the antecedent part of the conditional “If killing the innocent is wrong, then abortion is wrong”. Not only is it a statement without truth-aptitude, but it also faces the problem of having different semantic meanings in each premise. Because “Killing the innocent is wrong” is not verifiable (we cannot prove that it obtains), then it is not logically valid to imply that if it does obtain, then the second premise (“abortion is wrong”) is true.

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Another argument for why the statement is invalid also aids in proving that normative statements are not truth apt. If we consider the statement “If killing the innocent is wrong, then abortion is wrong. Killing the innocent is wrong, so abortion is wrong” and reword it into the following premises: 10) Killing the innocent is wrong 11) If killing the innocent is wrong then abortion is wrong 12) Abortion is wrong. We see that the any individual can agree to premise 10 but disagree with premise 12, due to any number of factors ranging from social conditioning to personal experience or personal sentiments. That is to say, person X could “hurrah” (internally agree with) the statement that “killing is wrong” but simultaneously “boo” (internally disagree with) the statement that “abortion is wrong”, and the person would be perfectly justified in doing this as according to the expressivist this is the full capability of morality. The FregeGeach problem points out that when person x considers the connection between premise 10 and premise 12 in premise 11, it becomes evident that neither 10 nor 11 can be truth apt, hence simple expressivism must reject that moral claims can have truth aptitude.

The Frege-Geach problem is thus verifying simple expressivism in so much that it proves that it is impossible for moral statements to be truth apt. Moral claims are supported to be personal reflections about assertions and as such cannot be used as verifiable facts-of-the-matter. Ayer’s Verification Principle, which purports that there are three types of statements: those which are true, those which are false, and those which are neither and are literally meaningless shows how moral claims are of the third group. Ayer asks of all statements “is it true by definition?” and “is it in principle verifiable?”, and in the case of moral claims we find that moral claims cannot be true by definition, and cannot be verified (tested with empirical data) either, rendering them meaningless. He explains that making a moral statement such as “you acted wrongly in breaking into my house” is the equivalent of saying “you broke in to my house” in a particular tone of voice. The “wrongly” is merely an expression of an emotional attitude towards housebreaking. The burglar could easily reply “there is nothing wrong with housebreaking”, and we would find that there is no fact-of-the-matter that could decide between the two

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statements. To conclude, when we consider what the expressivist would say about the title statement (“If killing the innocent is wrong, then abortion is wrong. Killing the innocent is wrong, so abortion is wrong”) we find that he would argue, using the FregeGeach point and the Verification Principle that it is logically invalid, and that moral claims lack truth aptitude making the statement completely subjective and reflective merely of the speakers opinion and sentiments. There is no moral weight in the statement, and it also does not follow that if “killing the innocent is wrong” abortion must also be wrong, as it is impossible to verify that killing the innocent is wrong in the first place, as well as the possibility of agreeing with the first premise but disagreeing with the second due to cultural relativity and social upbringing.

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Bibliography Warburton, Nigel. Philosophy; The Classics (2nd Edition). Routeledge 2000 Mackie, J.L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (from course pack) Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press 1994 Philosophy of Value Lecture and Tutorial Notes on Expressivism and the Frege-Geach Problem.

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