Before beginning in earnest, I want to note one more thing. The flip side to moral realism is basically that there is no actual right or wrong, but that instead morality is relative. Closely tied to this view is non-cognitivism, a family of views which hold that because moral claims, e.g. “murder is wrong” can’t really be right or wrong, saying something like “murder is wrong” is really just saying “boo murder”. That is, non-cognitivists think of moral claims as being merely emotional expressions of attitudes towards behaviors or people; you don’t like how killing, or drinking, or atheists, or polygamy, or what-have-you make you feel and so you express your anger/fear/disgust by saying it is “bad’ or “wrong”. Someone else who likes how these things make her feel will say they are “good” and “right”. And neither person can really claim to be “correct” any more than the other.
The Flip Side
I think that non-cognitivism is ridiculous and trying to discredit it was the number one motivation for me writing the dissertation I wrote. As there are different versions of non-cognitivism, however, the task is quite complicated. So I settled on doing my best to see how I could undermine one of the most influential non-cognitive theories, David Hume’s sentimentalism or moral sense theory.
The thing is, David Hume is one of the greatest philosophers of all time, and his theories are still very influential, so in order to do a good job of undermining his view, I needed to be thorough. My hope was that if I did a good enough job on this, I could be in a position to undermine any similar ethical theory, maybe even all non-cognitivist theories. I decided the way to go about doing this was to focus on the emotions. Like any ethical theory, sentimentalism has a view on what the emotions are and what they do (we’ll get to that later). I charted out a likely story on how sentimentalism got its position on the emotions and the impact of that view on the credibility of sentimentalism.
In fact, I did this for several specific ethical philosophers, who I grouped into three camps based on their views on the emotions. Here’s a cheat sheet for later: I found that Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius were Pluralists, philosophers such as the Stoics and Descartes were Cognitivists, and philosophers and thinkers such as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume and William James were Non-cognitivists. These views on the emotions, which I’ll explain as we go along, lead these thinkers to conclusions about morality. So to the extent they are right or wrong about the emotions will determine how right or wrong they are about morality. In the next post I will begin from the beginning.