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Is It Possible to Discuss Moral Right and Wrong?

Updated on May 24, 2014

Moral Right and Wrong

Is It Possible to Talk about Moral Right and Wrong?

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Is It Possible to Discuss Right and Wrong?

One often hears people say these days that it is not possible to talk about right and wrong. Amiguity is the bane of discussion and there are many ambiguous words and phrases in this claim. If one were to step back and examine the claim, as a reasonable and competent user of the language, one could assign different possible meanings to it:

  1. It is not polite to discuss moral right and wrong since there is always a chance that there is disagreement between the discussants and, so, unpleasantness may ensue.
  2. You are more likely than not to find it very hard, perhaps impossible, to persuade others when it comes to moral subjects.
  3. There is something fundamental - about language or about meaning, and about the subject of morality - that makes it impossible to meaningfully discuss right and wrong.

Only 3 above makes a radical challenge to the possibility of having a meaningful discussion of moral right and wrong. 1 and 2 are based on understanding "possible" to mean something like "efficacious" with efficacy referring to the pragmatics of persuading others or accommodating their feelings.

3, on the other hand, points to something inherently wrong with an attempt to use language for the purpose of making moral statements. It is unlikely that most people use this phrase in this sense. This is because most people actually make moral statements in their daily lives. This suggests that they think it is possible to make meaningful moral statements. No one speaks nonsense willingly when they are trying to same something meaningful.

At the same time, it is 3, and not 1 or 2, that makes the kind of challenge that is worth considering. In the history of ideas, and in philosophy in particular, this claim has been made. From the point of view of the average person who is not versed in sophisticated discourse, the case made can be surprising but it is worth considering it.

What could be wrong with the subject of moral right and wrong, so that using language to make moral statements fails?

  1. Moral right and wrong are ultimately about tastes, preferences, likes and dislikes, feelings and ways of being disposed favorably or unfavorably toward something. This view actually has a familiar ring because it is also fashionable nowadays to be taking moral matters as being, deep down, matters of taste. Now, it is not obvious, again, why one cannot make meaningful statements when expressing an emotion. It goes like this. When someone makes an exclamation like "Wow!" or "Ouch!" or "Mmmm!", this person is not making a meaningful statement. What he or she utters is not capable of logical evaluation. To understand why, think along these lines: only those expressions are meaningful about which we could say that they are true or false - or, even, possibly true, or even that they are indeterminate but could be true or false or something along these lines. But the expression of emotion as such is not like that. Of course, "she said 'Ouch!'" is a meaningful statement. But the cry "Ouch!" is not. Now, if moral right and wrong are ultimately about emotive outcries, then it is not possible to make moral statements. "Hitler is evil" is really like "Yikes!". You can see that this view, known as Non-Cognitivism or Emotivism, is a corrective view: it goes behind what the users of language do to show what is claimed to be the real mechanism at work. The everyday user of language uses the sentence "Hitler is evil" as a conveyor of a meaningful statement but the school of thought we are examining here corrects that. It is very interesting that people who have no idea about such hyper-sophisticate theories, nevertheless persit in echoing the fashionable claim that morals are like emotional outbrusts.
  2. Another way of challenging moral statements is by arguing that any attempt to make a moral statement fails because it misuses language. You might find this surprising - if you think about it, you shouldn't - but misuse of language generates nonsense. This is objective nonsense - it is not a matter of it being nonsense to you but not to me. Lewis Carroll's ingenious books are littered with examples of nonsense or absurdity that stems from misuse of language. As an example, think of the word "triangle" and how our language, as a game, defines it. Don't worry that the word might have meant something else. Baseball might havbe had a two-strike rule but, as the word "baseball" is used, any such game cannot be baseball! Now, given our language game and the definition of the word "triangle" in it, the sentence "A triangle has four angles" is grammatically correct but meaningless, absurd or nonsensical. This is not a matter of subjective psychology. Someone could think that this is a meaningful sentence but, still, they would be confused - objectively so! Back to the point about moral sentences. The charge we are examining is this: any moral sentence is bound to violate or misuse language in some way - we have to show how - and, so, every moral sentence is meaningless. This would mean further that it is impossible to use language for the purpose of talking about moral right and wrong. We do this, of course, but it is wrong still. To engage in such discourse is to use language incorrectly. This view, defended by Ludwig Wittgenstein in a famous lecture, will be discussed in another posting. What is your first reaction to this?

There is also a view that moral sentences do not actually have meaning. They are vehicles not for propositions (meanings of declarative sentences, which can be asserted correctly in discourse); rather, sentences with moral terms in them are non-cognitive in the way a grammatically correct but meaningless sentence like "ouch!" is. Such a sentence (unlike the sentence "he said 'ouch!'", is an outpouring of an emotional outburst and, as such, it does not convey anything that can be assessed as true or false. Since logical meaning is a matter of truth-value, this sentence is meaningless. It does not make or express a proposition. The Emotivist view of ethics takes sentences with moral terms in them to be like the sentence " ouch!" and, as such, meaningless. It is not presumptively fallacious to subscribe to this theory, of course. Yet, to denounce moral discourse as meaningless without awareness of an underlying theory is logically pathological. It can be shown that there is no private language: so, the claim that the individual agent determines whether discourse is meaningful or not should be taken as false; appeal to this solipsistic view of meaning often becomes a default support for the view that moral discourse is meaningless - and this support, accordingly, fails.

© 2014 Odysseus Makridis


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