Non-cognitivists believe that when we act morally we must act to satisfy a desire of our own. Can such an action be truly moral?
Non-cognitivists argue that there are no such things as moral ‘properties’ or moral ‘facts’; moral statements do not have truth conditions that we can establish through objective processes, all statements of moral value involve subjective attitudes or desires. Non-cognitivists therefore believe that when people make moral statements they do not express states of mind which are ‘cognitive’ in the way that beliefs are, instead they express ‘non-cognitive’ attitudes. For many philosophers, this view seems counter-intuitive, how can morality be based on what we subjectively ‘want’ rather than what we objectively ‘should do’?
As an early proponent of a form of moral non-cognitivism, Hume argued that moral distinctions are not derived from reason. Hume divided the processes of the mind into two distinct (and complementary) categories - passions and reason; “Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.”1
Other forms of non-cognitivism also hold that when we act morally we must act to satisfy a desire. For example, emotivism is the theory that a judgment that some action is right is based on subjective approval of that action.
An analogy which supports the non-cognitivist approach is that of mechanical robot. A robot can be programmed to have highly advanced powers of reason - it’s CPU could perform millions of calculations per second - but it cannot be ‘passionate’ in the way that a human can, it cannot desire something to be the case. Robots cannot be moral agents. To reason is to follow rules, but morality answers the question ‘which rules should we follow?’ A non-cognitivist argues that it is our passions that are the source of those moral rules.
There are a number of objections to non-cognitivist moral theories. Amoralists might argue that non-cognitivism cannot be correct since there are many examples where we accept moral judgments as being correct without being motivated to do what they recommend. They would therefore reject emotivism on the basis that it does not account for the nature of moral truth in real-world situations.
Another rejection of non-cognitivism is derived from the altruistic nature of morality. If we accept that humans are essentially selfish, how can this be a basis for a moral framework? Moral behaviour, some argue, is that type of behaviour which suppresses selfish motives and promotes altruistic behaviour. Emotivism is therefore rejected by those who believe that it cannot account for the altruistic nature of moral behaviour.
However, Darwinian evolutionary biology can provide a defence of altruism based on non-cognitivist lines. Darwin argued that self-sacrificial behavior, though disadvantageous for the individual, might still be beneficial at the group level: “a tribe including many members who...were always ready to give aid to each other and sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.”2 In this sense we can argue that humans may desire to act in a non-selfish way. Further, we can defend some actions as moral without selfishly desiring them if, at an underlying genetic level, it is in our interests to act in such a way. In this sense morality could be based on instinctive or sub-conscious behaviour that creates desire or approbation in us, whilst not based on a cognitive process.
Deontologists reject non-cognitivism as they believe that there are moral truths that are based on moral rules. For example, Kant argued that morality is founded on categorical imperatives which in turn are derived from our human rationality. Kant entirely rejects a non-cognitivist account of morality based on desires: “To preserve one’s life is a duty, and besides everyone has an immediate inclination to do so. But on this account the often anxious care that most people take of it still has no inner worth and their maxim has no moral content.”3
I believe that a non-cognitivist approach is more likely to explain moral values than a cognitivist one. I agree with Hume that we cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’. No set of premises consisting entirely of non-moral descriptive statements is sufficient to entail a moral conclusion. GE Moore also argues in a similar vein that where moral issues are ‘open questions’, their truth remains indefinable and their normative value is not something that can be established through a cognitivist process. I agree with
that any attempt to solve the problems of morality cognitively is inherently problematic. Moore
1 David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature (1737), Book III
2 Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871), p166
3 Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), trans Mary J. Gregor