The Meaning of Life, Continued

A couple of weeks ago I posted an essay in response to a post of Bill Vallicella’s on whether life might have an objective meaning. In his piece Bill argued that any attempt to offer a purely subjective interpretation must lead to an infinite regress, and therefore must be false. I responded, drawing on work by Daniel Dennett, that the regress argument might not block a suitable naturalistic account. This led to a long discussion in the comments thread, with over a hundred entries. Toward the end, philosopher Peter Lupu offered some extensive criticisms of my position, which I would like to begin to address here.

In particular I wish to take a point-by point look at his last two comments. Today we will start with the first of them.

Peter writes:


A. Let me sum up your position as it stands now.

(1) You maintain that moral propositions, statements, judgments do not have a truth-value because there is no objective realm of facts to which they could correspond.
(2) You maintain that moral intuitions are to be discarded in the context of this discussion whenever they conflict with your naturalistic account.

It is important to distinguish here between moral intuitions themselves — intuitions about what is morally right — and meta-intuitions about the source of those intuitions. I am interested in both, but we must keep in mind that they are different.

(3) There are no moral disagreements; there are only differences in taste.

I find the language troubling here. I did not say there are no moral disagreements. What I said was that when two people assert conflicting moral propositions, the assumption that one is “right” may be mistaken.

(4) What we construe as moral propositions, statements, and judgments are in fact nothing but, and emerge from, adaptive dispositions.

Yes, they are dispositions. But it is the emergence of the capacity for moral dispositions itself, as a means of enhancing the cohesion and solidarity of social groups, that was the important adaptation here on evolutionary timescales. This or that particular disposition may not necessarily be adaptive in any evolutionary sense, any more than any particular variation in an organism’s phenotype must turn out to be adaptive.

B. I will now raise some objections about your meta-ethical views expressed in (1)-(4):

Claim: You have changed the subject and no longer engage in a discussion about morality. It is not even clear what subject matter you are addressing. Here are some of the considerations which support this claim:
(a) In order for a theory to be assessed as an adequate or inadequate account of a given subject matter it must first be deemed as a theory about the subject matter in question. So before we can judge whether your meta-ethical account is adequate or not we must first determine whether it is indeed a theory about the subject matter of “morality”. Well, is it?

Let us see:
(a1) You argue that moral-propositions do not have a truth value because there is no objective domain to which they correspond. Therefore, according to your meta-ethical theory there is no distinctive subject matter of morality at all.

I must say I find this line of argument perplexing. Morality is a central feature of human life, and it is the subject matter in question here.

To offer a similar example: another important aspect of human life, namely religion, is a subject matter of great interest. Religions express a great many propositions about the nature of God, what God wants, and so forth. It may well be that none of these have a truth value at all; it may be the fact of the matter that God does not exist. But this does not mean that one cannot form theories about religion itself, about the possible reasons we have for holding the various beliefs we do, etc. Likewise, that there may turn out to be no objective truth value to moral beliefs does not mean that the origin of those beliefs, or the phenomenon of human morality itself, is not a suitable topic for study.

(a2) You argue that moral-intuition cannot serve as evidence in favor of one or another meta-ethical theory. Hence, one important source of evidence specific to this subject matter is totally irrelevant. But you offer no alternative theory of evidence that can adjudicate between different accounts of this subject matter.

What I am saying is that moral intuitions are themselves the observable data that a naturalistic theory of ethics may be able to account for without recourse to theistic or Platonic explanations.

(a3) You argue that despite all appearances to the contrary what is viewed as moral disagreements are nothing but differences in matters of taste. By construing moral disagreements as matters of taste you in fact deny that moral attitudes, such as beliefs about moral matters, have a cognitive content (or meaning) at all. In other words, what we normally view as conflicting moral beliefs with contradictory content (matters that belong to the cognitive domain), you construe as completely different phenomena; these are not beliefs at all, they are instead preferences based on non-rational dispositions such as taste, etc.

You completely misrepresent my position here. Nowhere have I said that moral views are free of cognitive content. You seem to be casting me in the bizarre position of arguing that nobody actually believes that murder or treason are wrong. What I am saying, instead, is that these beliefs may arise from wired-in aspects of our cognitive architecture. After all, if we try to “drill down” to the bedrock of our moral intuitions, we come to a place where we just “feel” the rightness or wrongness of a given act; a naturalistic account of human morality will seek to explain why those feelings — which express themselves as moral beliefs, or at least form the foundation of our moral beliefs — are what they are.

(b) Thus, your meta-ethical theory has no subject matter of its own. The source of evidence in favor or against a given theory cannot be moral in character; so moral theories have no evidence of their own. And, finally, propositions that appear to have a distinctively moral content in fact lack any content whatsoever.
(c) Therefore, your so-called “meta-ethical” theory is not about the subject matter of morality or ethics at all. If we were to simply look at the theory from the inside, as it were, we could not tell that it is about anything having to do with morality. The only reason that your theory has anything to do with morality at all is because you make certain statements about it; namely, that it is an account of what we normally label by the term ‘morality’. But, in the absence of a domain, evidence, and content recognizable as distinctly about morality, such a claim-from-the-outside has absolutely no force. Thus, you have changed the subject and no longer engage in a discussion about morality.

I hardly know what to say here. Surely we agree that human beings have moral feelings and intuitions, and make moral judgements. It is those feelings, intuitions, and judgements that are the subject I am examining here. Why do we have them? Why do they have the content they do? I maintain that there may be persuasive naturalistic answers to these questions.

C. Let me now address your arguments on behalf of claim (1) in A above. You maintain that moral propositions, statements and judgments do not feature a truth value because you cannot see what would constitute an objective realm of facts to which they correspond and which will determine an objective truth-value for such propositions.
Claim 1: Your argument fails to consider several options that do offer an objective realm to which moral propositions can correspond and which can determine an objective truth-value for them.

(a) There are at least three different moral theories that offer an objective model that renders moral propositions true or false:
(a1) Theism: Moral propositions are objectively true by virtue of corresponding to the explicit mandates of God or to the logical consequences of these; if they conflict with such mandates or their logical consequences, then they are objectively false.
(a2) Utilitarianism: Moral propositions are objectively true if they follow from the correct principle of utility; otherwise they are false.
(a3) Deontological (Kantian) Theories: Moral propositions are objectively true if they follow from a version of Kant’s Categorical Imperative; if they conflict with anything that follows from the Categorical Imperative, then they are false.

I am well aware that there are alternatives to naturalistic accounts of morality. I wrote the original post, from which this long discussion has ensued, not to insist that non-naturalistic models are wrong or incomplete, but simply to argue that they may be wrong or incomplete: that there may be another plausible account, under which we have the moral intuitions and moral beliefs we do not because they are factually true, but because they help us to thrive.

(b) (a1)-(a3) are certain meta-ethical theories that offer an objective basis for morality. They construe moral propositions as having a truth-value; as having cognitive content; and as having an evidential basis we can rely upon to adjudicate among alternative moral theories. So all three meta-ethical theories are clearly about the domain we normally identify as morality.
(c) Each of these meta-ethical theories may be vulnerable to certain objections. But all of them are immune to the objection I have raised about your meta-ethical theory; namely, that your account changed the subject matter of our conversation to such a degree that we no longer recognize in it a theory about what we normally identify as the subject matter of morality. So whether these meta-ethical theories are correct or not, we at least can evaluate their adequacy because we know that they are about the subject matter of morality.

This flattens and obscures an important hierarchical distinction. The examples you give are theories of morality, and as such they assume that there is in fact a “correct” ethics, and seek to establish a framework for evaluating competing ethical claims — whereas this is a theory about morality itself, and seek to account for why we have moral intuitions in the first place, and why they tend to be what they are. It does not seek to adjudicate the truth value of this or that moral belief; it merely seeks to get at why we have the beliefs we do, and why we have moral beliefs at all.

Claim 2: You do not see that there can be an objective domain for moral discourse because you have a very narrow conception of what constitutes a legitimate domain for any discourse. But your narrow standard of what constitute a legitimate objective domain would exclude fields that we all consider to be legitimate subject matters of inquiry.
(a) Abstract Sciences: Mathematics (as well as geometry) is considered abstract because its subject matter requires us to posit a domain of objects that are not in space and time (I am now expounding the classical view, which is the most common among mathematicians; there are alternatives such as intuitionism and constructivism (a version of formalism in mathematics)).
(a1) Mathematical propositions thus have a cognitive meaning because they are about a domain of objects, namely, mathematical structures which include entities such as numbers, sets of numbers, properties of numbers, etc.
(a2) The evidence in mathematics appeals to proofs and to mathematical intuitions about the relationship between proofs and the truth of mathematical propositions.
(a3) There are genuine disagreements about mathematical propositions and there is a fact of the matter which side is correct.

As you say, there are various philosophies of mathematics. On a formalist view, the “fact of the matter” is implicit in the rules and axioms we permit. Indeed, there was a great deal of disagreement about whether such entities as complex numbers, non-Euclidean geometry, and the infinitesimals of the calculus ought to be regarded as the sorts of things about which “true” propositions could be made; their utility was such that they have been accepted, by convention.

(b) Moral discourse, like mathematical discourse, may feature a very similar structure. Its domain may be an abstract moral structure consisting of moral properties and their relationship to certain types of actions. It is this relationship that determines the truth or falsity of moral propositions. We can glean these relationships by relying upon our moral intuitions and we can appeal to a variety of sources to gather evidence on behalf of one or another moral view. Moral intuitions play a role in both discovering new moral truths as well as by evaluating moral theories with respect to their claims. For instance, if a moral theory claims that lying is wrong without exceptions, then we can evaluate this claim by devising circumstances in which our moral intuitions judge that lying, under such circumstances, is either permissible or morally obligatory.

Agreed: moral discourse may feature a very similar structure. My point is that it also may not. Our moral intuitions might not point to any externally existing moral ontology. Indeed, if we assume they do, then we need to account both for why we often disagree about moral issues, and how we make the intuitive connection to the underlying moral “facts” in the first place.

(c) Moral discourse appears to have a logical structure of its own which suggests it does feature a cognitive content. For instance, we can define moral obligation in terms of negation and the moral notion of permissibility; we can define moral prohibition in terms of negation and permissibility or in terms of negation and the notion of obligation, etc. Hence, we are able to set up rules of inference that are specific to moral discourse just like in non-moral discourse, or modal discourse, or mathematical discourse.

Again: nowhere do I deny that moral discourse has a cognitive content. It may be similar to cognitive content about physical facts of the world, or it may be similar to cognitive content about mathematical objects, or it may be similar to cognitive content about gnomes, unicorns, and golden mountains.

Conclusion: The logical, evidential, and other factors stated above suggest that moral discourse features a logical structure and therefore cognitive meaning; that there is a certain kind of evidence that is relevant to moral discourse; that we can devise a model of a subject matter for such discourse. We may even construct a model whereby the relevant portions of human history offer a certain kind of evidence on behalf of certain meta-ethical and moral theories.
By contrast, your account takes the conversation outside the realm of morality altogether and offers us no reason to think that it has anything to do with morality as such.

I hope I have shown that this is a gross mischaracterization of my view. The aim of naturalistic theories of morality is to understand and account for the existence and content of human morality viewed as a biological, anthropological, psychological, and cultural phenomenon.

Related Posts:
  1. The Meaning Of Life
  2. The Meaning of Life, Continued


  1. Charles says

    Reading stuff like this makes me feel stupid. I have a vague idea of what he is trying to say, but if pressed I doubt very much I would be able to explain it.

    May I ask one question in an attempt to pull myself ever so slightly out of the quagmire of ignorance? What does it mean when you say that something does or does not have “cognitive content”?

    Posted July 29, 2008 at 4:06 am | Permalink
  2. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I’m afraid there’s some talking at cross purposes going on. If you deny that there are moral facts of the matter, that moral propositions have a truth value, then you are denying that moral discourse has cognitive content.

    Actually, as I try to get clear about what your view is, it strikes me that you aren’t a moral nihilist at all; that you think the “normative foundation” of morality is the cohesion and solidarity of social groups. A lot of people share that view, even if they don’t buy into the adaptationist story about the emergence of morality. But a lot of other people, including me, don’t think that social cohesion/solidarity is the be all and end all of morality. And the adaptationist framework itself doesn’t seem to provide reasons to single out social cohesion rather than, say, individual reproductive success, as of “special” moral significance.

    This is a different sort of criticism than the one Peter raises, but it raises the same sort of questions about whether the subject matter under discussion is morality or something else entirely.

    Posted July 29, 2008 at 9:46 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Bob and Charles, you are right: there does seem to be some fog here regarding what we mean by “cognitive content”.

    I take the expression to mean, as according to the usual definition, “the range of what has been perceived, discovered, or learned”. It seems to me that the criticism here insists on an excessively narrow notion of “cognitive content”, one that stipulates that the content must be ontologically veridical to be there at all. Under such an interpretation we can have no cognitive content about dragons or unicorns, it seems — and our cognitive content about UFOs or even God has a sort of Scroedinger’s-cat-like existence that depends on whether they are ontologically real or not. But we learn about dragons and unicorns and God and UFOs in various ways; we also have intuitive perceptions regarding morality, and are taught moral attitudes as children, and so on. To insist that there being no “fact of the matter” about whether unicorns only come in white means that we can have no cognitive content about unicorns seems wrong to me, and to make the same sort of argument about morality seems wrong as well.

    As for moral norms and nihilism: my point is that it is the adaptive value for humans of living in cohesive groups that made the capacity for moral intuitions a fitness-booster, and that over time the foundations of such intuitions got built into our cognitive architecture at a deep, biological level. In particular it is our capacity for empathy that makes the whole thing work, and recent research has turned up brain structures that are apparently there for that very purpose. Social cohesion isn’t the be-all and end-all of morality for any of us, I think — we are capable of constant philosophizing about, and cultural revision of, our moral guidleines — but the machinery of morality arose, I think, as an adaptation for making us work better in social groups.

    The shadow of nihilism looms when one realizes that on this view the foundation of our morality was built by a process that simply favored fitness. We can say that fitness is a perfectly acceptable basis for morality — that the “Golden Rule” tends to emerge naturally as an optimization for the survival of intelligent social animals — but then we do have to acknowledge that morals rest on rather indifferent natural contingencies. This is an interesting line of philosophical inquiry, though: if intelligent social animals will always evolve a moral sense, then we might come right back round to some sort of basis for considering Golden-Rule type moral guidelines as being objectively grounded in nature.

    Posted July 29, 2008 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  4. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Just to clarify about ‘cognitive content’ and it’s relation to truth values…

    Agreed that what is perceived, discovered or learned has cognitive content; but note that a proposition expressing such content can be true or false. This is generally thought to mark a difference from expressions of taste or preference, which aren’t thought of as taking truth values. If an assertion like ‘x is immoral’ is like ‘x is delicious’ in not having a truth value (a view you seem to have expressed), then it would usually be considered to express a non-cognitive judgment. At least that’s how ‘cognitivism’ plays out in moral theory. And note that what you call “ontological veridicality” is not an issue here — it can’t be if one of the values in question is ‘false’.

    Posted July 29, 2008 at 7:04 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    As it happens I am now in the ER, having experienced some thoracic discomfort and dizziness. I appear to be fine, but am spending the night, I think.

    Bob, what about cognitive content regarding unicorns?

    Posted July 29, 2008 at 7:39 pm | Permalink
  6. Charles says

    Malcolm: I hope it’s nothing serious!

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to parade my ignorance a little bit more and beat the dead horse that is “cognitive content.” Let me go back to your definition (which, incidentally, is almost identical to the one I found at… should’ve done my homework, I guess):

    “The range of what has been perceived, discovered, or learned” about something.

    Is it possible to have cognitive content regarding unicorns?

    Well, to perceive means “to become aware of something through the senses.” There are other definitions that I have found, but they all seem to have sensory stimuli in common. Since no one has ever seen a unicorn, we cannot say that anyone has perceived anything about them.

    Discover and learn are similar, with the primary difference seeming to be that “discover” is often used to refer to learning something for the first time, or something that was not known before. Which still brings us back to “learning.” This basically means “to gain knowledge.”

    So I suppose what it all comes down to is this: can we have knowledge of something that does not exist? This is actually an important point for me, since my primary field of study is folklore. What do we call the body of information on a mythical character? Is it knowledge? Is it opinion? If the character doesn’t exist, I guess it would be easy to say that it’s not “real” knowledge.

    But I see a problem with that: people have different “knowledge” concerning things that we assume to exist. One hundred people will perceive the same object in one hundred different ways–does this invalidate their “knowledge” of the object? Does that mean we only have “opinions” about things and no real “knowledge”?

    Here is something that I tell my students about translation, and it usually makes them stop and think for a moment: no translator is capable of translating the text in and of itself. Instead, we translate our interpretation of the text. The reason for this is that the text has no meaning (or its meaning is not complete) until we engage in the act of interpretation. One of the major reasons (although certainly not the only reason) why translations differ is that translators interpret the original text in different ways.

    In the same way, what we “know” about something is dependent on our interpretation of that something, and may differ from what someone else “knows.” This raises the question of whether or not we can ever know anything. Wait… this is solipsism, isn’t it. Crap. I’ve gone and thought myself into a corner again. This is what I hate about philosophical discussions–the more I think and reason, the more complicated things get.

    So… I guess my point is that I still don’t really understand what cognitive content is, or if we can say that such a thing even exists if we start drawing lines between what can be verified and what cannot be verified.

    Posted July 29, 2008 at 9:22 pm | Permalink
  7. bob koepp says

    I hope it’s nothing more serious than a New York summer day — as if that isn’t serious enough! Take care, and accept it from those around you.

    The truth status of statements about imaginary things has been approached in different ways by different people. You might recall some discussions of the semantics of imaginary entities at Bill V’s. It’s not a settled area by any means.

    Posted July 29, 2008 at 10:08 pm | Permalink
  8. peter says


    I hope you are well and nothing serious is going on.


    I am leaving tomorrow morning to MN to visit my gf who underwent a serious brain operation yesterday. I will be away for about two weeks, so I will not be able to continue these discussions on a regular basis. Will try my best, but I cannot promise anything. It is unfortunate that when Malcolm wrote a reply post to my criticisms of his position, I must be absent.


    There is no need to feel stupid just because you may lack suitable background in certain areas in philosophy. Being exposed to such background may easily allow you to grasp most of what is being said here.

    Now, as for “cognitive content”; perhaps, I should have defined this concept before I used it. Bob gave some good examples of what is and what is not included under the term ‘cognitive content’. The best place to research these technical terms is Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [linked on our sidebar -MP]. The articles there are excellent and range from fairly introductory to advanced and everything in between. It is the best “quick” source for these technical terms on line.

    e.g., the preference in taste for chocolate ice-cream is said not to have a “cognitive content”. But the belief that the earth is flat has cognitive content; namely, the proposition expressed by the English sentence “The earth is flat”. Generally any attitude accompanied by a “that” followed by a meaningful sentence expressing a proposition (or a full thought) is an attitude that has “cognitive content”.
    I hope this is somewhat helpful: Remember the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


    Let us know that you are OK as soon as you can.

    Posted July 29, 2008 at 10:59 pm | Permalink
  9. Addofio says

    Malcolm, I hope and trust you are OK. Maybe a little more R & R is in order?

    As to “cognitive content”–a question, addressed to all and sundry. If the statement “chocolate ice cream is good” is not taken to have cognitive content because it’s mere opinion and hence lacks truth value, what about the statement “I like chocolate ice cream”, when made by a specific person such as myself? I would assume it does have cognitive content–perhaps not verifiable or falsifiable by y’all, but nonetheless there. Have I got it right?

    Charles–I empathize. “I believe that I know some things, and I know that I believe some things, but what the difference is between knowledge and belief I do not know.” Li’l thing I coined while in grad school, and it still applies.

    ‘nother question, that circles around to where the discussion started: What would the relationship be between “cognitive content” and “meaning”?

    Posted July 29, 2008 at 11:57 pm | Permalink
  10. bob koepp says

    Addofio – I’m far from expertise in philosophy of language, semantics, etc., but I’ll try to address your concerns. Usually one would say that ‘chocolate ice cream is good’ lacks a truth value because it expresses a judgment of taste or preference rather than because it expresses an opinion. Depending on what an opionion is about, it might be either true or false. e.g., it is my opinion that CO2 is not the main driver of global warming in the past century — and I could be right or wrong about this. In contrast, my opinion that butter brickle is better than chocolate isn’t true or false.

    If we bring the person who holds an opinion into the picture things change. Even though it’s neither true nor false that butter brickle is better than chocolate, the statement “Smith judges butter brickle to be better than chocolate” is true or false — it’s a statement about Smith.

    Hope that answers at least some of your questions.

    Malcolm – A day later, how are you?

    Posted July 30, 2008 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  11. Addofio says

    I get the distinction being made between pure opinion having no truth value, and a statement about an opinion, which will have truth value. But I’m struck by the fact that this means we need to use some kind of three-valued logic (or other multi-valued logic). Both “chocolate is good” and “I like chocolate” are in the form of propositions, as far as lingistic form is concerned. Yet one is a proposition (has truth value) and one isn’t (has no truth value) by this account. This means that two-valued logic only applies to some statements that have the form of propositions, but not to all, because some statements that have the form of propositions in fact aren’t propositions, but merely opinions. It seems to me this would have rather large consequences for one’s philosophical system, since most such systems use two-valued logic to make their arguments.

    Also, couldn’t one get rather tangled up in the question of whether some statement is a true proposition (has truth value) or a mere opinion? E.g., “You think that is a proposition, but that’s merely your opinion; in fact, it’s merely an opinion.” “No, no. Your claim that tat is only an opinion and not a proposition is merely an opinion; it is in fact a proposition.”

    Hm-m . . . That’s beginning to have a familiar ring to it. . . :-)

    Posted July 30, 2008 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  12. bob koepp says

    Addofio – I’ve probably added to your confusion by uncareful use of the term ‘proposition’. Maybe I should second Peter’s suggestion about turning to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for more careful explanations.

    Posted July 30, 2008 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  13. Charles says


    Thanks for that resource. I’ve taken a quick look at it, and it looks to be very informative indeed.

    I think I’m getting the idea behind “cognitive content,” but I’m not completely sure if I have it right. Would I be near the mark if I said that cognitive content refers to something that can be true or false in general, not just for specific individuals? That is, the statement “chocolate ice cream tastes good” may be true for me, but it may not be true for someone else. On the other hand, the statement “chocolate is made from small, furry bunnies” has cognitive content, because it can be true or false.

    Hmm… I get the feeling that I am oversimplifying things here.

    Posted July 30, 2008 at 10:28 pm | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Addofio; that’s exactly the point I’ve been trying to make. We cannot know whether all the propositions we make actually have truth values or not: a child would imagine that her opinion about the color of Santa’s socks is either true or false. If this is what “cognitive content” must mean, then we simply need a more useful term.

    Posted July 31, 2008 at 8:19 am | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says

    I might not be able to contribute much here for a day or two…

    Posted July 31, 2008 at 8:19 am | Permalink
  16. bob koepp says

    Maybe something I’ve said has left the impression that cognitive contents can only be about things that are actual. If so, ignore the idiot behind the postings. There’s absolutely nothing about the position of cognitivism that implies opinions about the color of Santa’s socks are neither true nor false. And the issue is not a matter of opinion vs knowledge; propositions can express opinions which are false as well as those which are true. None of this is even relevant to the question of whether predications of moral properties could take truth values.

    Posted July 31, 2008 at 9:47 am | Permalink
  17. Malcolm says

    I’ll read the relevant SEP entries, but I do think this whole cognitive-content question is a bit of a distraction.

    In ordinary language, we do, quite obviously, express opinions about morals; we say “x is wrong”, “y is right”, and so forth. My point is that such assertions assume that there is some ontological fact of the matter — and that this assumption may in fact be mistaken. I don’t know how much more simply I can put it than that.

    This is really just a starting point, but we don’t seem able to get past it. What I want is to explore the consequences of this view to see what our moral framework can consist of if the model I am describing is correct.

    Posted July 31, 2008 at 10:25 am | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says

    What is particularly interesting is how some instinctive dispositions — those having to do with food preferences for example — manifest themselves as mere affinities and aversions, whereas others serve as a basis for a whole system of rationally justified beliefs.

    Posted July 31, 2008 at 10:47 am | Permalink
  19. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Certainly, check out SEP articles. Here’s one about moral cognitivism.

    If statements like “x is wrong” do assume that there is some fact of the matter, then they express cognitive content, regardless of whether that assumption is correct. Of course that assumption might be wrong. But I fail to see how that’s relevant to the queston of whether statements with moral content take truth values, or whether truth valuation is a binary or n-ary affair.

    Posted July 31, 2008 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  20. Malcolm says

    One final point to repeat about cognitive content — Peter writes:

    Generally any attitude accompanied by a “that” followed by a meaningful sentence expressing a proposition (or a full thought) is an attitude that has “cognitive content”.

    So, “it is the case that torturing babies is wrong” fits this description; I argue that it may not have an ontological truth value, though. I hardly think this means that morality is not a subject at all.

    Posted July 31, 2008 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  21. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Please explain the significance of your regular references to “ontological” truth — in particular, whether this is different from “plain vanilla” truth.

    Posted July 31, 2008 at 11:09 am | Permalink
  22. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Sorry for multiple positngs, but I just noticed something that needs to be addressed if our discussion is to be productive.

    In your 11:00 am post, you offer a quote from Peter in which he refers to an attitude of the sort usually called propositional attitudes (because they are conceived of as attitudes toward propositions). But your comment concerns the proposition, not the attitude. So it doesn’t engage the point Peter was making. When trying to sort out the issues before us, it’s necessary to move very carefully from one idea to the next or we’ll create a worse mess than the one we’re trying to clean up.

    Posted July 31, 2008 at 2:42 pm | Permalink
  23. Addofio says

    Here’s a definition of “ontological truth” that I very strongly suspect is NOT what Malcolm has in mind :-) I went hunting, and found this at


    Truth (Anglo-Saxon tréow, tryw, truth, preservation of a compact, from a Teutonic base Trau, to believe) is a relation which holds

    (1) between the knower and the known — Logical Truth;

    (2) between the knower and the outward expression which he gives to his knowledge — Moral Truth; and

    (3) between the thing itself, as it exists, and the idea of it, as conceived by God — Ontological Truth. In each case this relation is, according to the Scholastic theory, one of correspondence, conformity, or agreement (adoequatio) (St. Thomas, Summa I:21:2).

    I must say, the definition of moral truth given above confuses me.

    Posted July 31, 2008 at 9:26 pm | Permalink
  24. Malcolm says

    Hi all,

    I’m sorry to have been unable to keep up here the past few days. I’m still a little woozy, but I’d like to move past the current obstacles to forward motion in this discussion.

    Bob, when I talk about “ontological truth” in this context, I am only trying to make a distinction between what we believe to be obvious moral truths and some actual underlying “fact of the matter”. But yes, there is really no difference between what I am referring to as “ontological” truth and “plain vanilla” truth.

    This business of “cognitive content” has certainly bogged things down here. I will read the SEP article you pointed me to. Once again, here is the position I am outlining:

    When we utter sentences about morality, for example “murder is morally wrong”, we express beliefs that we hold, namely that it is in some way “true” that murder is wrong. I think that on a naturalistic view of human origins there we are constituted to have such beliefs because they have helped us to thrive, but I think there are no externally existing moral facts upon which such beliefs actually rest. There are indeed other sorts of facts than might account for our coming to hold these beliefs — organisms that are capable of empathetic, “Golden Rule” type relationshsips with each other will do better than those that aren’t, and so such intuitions will always arise in intelligent social animals — but I do not think that we need to conclude that there is some Platonic realm in which these alleged “truths” are carved.

    In other words, if I say that it is a moral truth that x, and you say that it is a moral truth that ~x there is no deeper ontological fact to which we can appeal.

    This does not mean that there is no “subject matter” regarding morality. Morality is obviously a central feature of cognitive and cultural architecture. All I am saying is that our belief that there are objective moral truths does not make it so: we may believe that there are such “facts of the matter”, but simply be mistaken.

    It strikes me as (very) odd that anyone would suggest that whether human morality is even a subject at all should depend on possibly unanswerable questions of ontology and metaphysics.

    Posted August 1, 2008 at 10:54 pm | Permalink
  25. peter says

    Malcolm, Bob

    I think we can think of Malcolm’s position here in two broad steps:

    (A) The Error-Theory step:
    (i) Moral propositions have no truth-value; they are neither true nor false. Our conception otherwise is due to a systematic error of assimilating the “logical form” of moral propositions to other types of propositions.
    (ii) Attitudes toward moral propositions, therefore, are not really “propositional attitudes”, such as belief, etc. While we can formulate a sentences such as “John believes that murder is wrong” and this sentence looks like a typical propositional attitude sentence, this is merely a superficial syntactic similarity. Since moral propositions have no truth-value, sentences such as the example I just gave cannot be viewed as attitudes towards propositions.
    (iii) Since moral propositions have no truth-values, disagreements about moral judgments cannot be construed as disagreement about the truth or falsity of a moral proposition. Some other account must be given to them.

    (B) Since the error-theory about moral propositions is correct, then their deep-structure cannot be analyzed along the usual lines. So the error-theory allows us to re-construct the nature of moral propositions, attitudes toward moral matters, and apparent moral disagreement in new and different terms. Malcolm’s, Dennett’s, etc., are one approach one can take.

    My question to this way of looking at things is this: What constraints must an account along the lines of (B) satisfy in order to be a satisfactory account of morality?

    Our normal moral intuitions are guided by the underlying presupposition that moral propositions are either true or false; that our attitudes toward moral propositions is something like belief; that there are genuine moral disagreements; and that there are at least certain moral intuitions that can serve as evidence against one or another moral theory. Now in the absence of all of this pre-theoretical data, how can we determine whether one or another re-construction of the moral realm is better than another? We simply lack any basis to determine the adequacy of such theories. And that was the problem I have tried to pose to Malcolm previously.


    Posted August 2, 2008 at 10:41 am | Permalink
  26. JK says

    Posted August 2, 2008 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

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