Friday, December 21, 2012

Brogaard on relativism and expressivism

Berit Brogaard's "Moral Relativism and Moral Expressivism" is a funny paper. It's nice and clear, shows an impressive familiarity with the literature (sometimes, anyway), and deals with big issues like the nature of emotions, relativism, and expressivism in ethics. But it's surely wrong on most if not all of these big issues.

Brogaard gives virtue ethics as an example of "the view that there is one fundamental moral principle that determines what is right and wrong in all circumstances" (p. 539). Her characterization of virtue ethics is based, supposedly, on Anscombe's "Modern Moral Philosophy." The third sentence of that paper states its second thesis: "that the concepts of obligation, and duty‑-moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say‑-and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of "ought," ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible..." So it's a bit odd to identify Anscombe's view as an example of the view in question. That is, it's strange to treat a view that rejects the concepts of moral right and wrong as being a view about what determines what is morally right and wrong. And a better understanding of virtue ethics might have made relativism seem less attractive to Brogaard, since she arrives at it (in this paper, at any rate) by a process of eliminating other theories, such as virtue ethics.

But what about emotions, relativism, and expressivism? Emotions, she says, are "perceptual representations of body changes that occur in response to external stimuli" (p. 545). As she presents it this is something like the standard view these days, or her twist on the standard view. Apparently everyone has been more or less convinced by William James' counter-intuitive theory. It seems like a funny way to characterize an emotion like sadness or happiness though. Why think that emotions are representations of anything? Why think that they are perceptual? What if I experience bodily changes not in response to external stimuli? Can't perceptual representations of these changes then be emotions? Imagine I am afraid of the dark and quake at the prospect of having to go into the basement. My quaking is fearful. I quake with fear. But my thinking about going into the basement is fearful too, and I do it with fear. Neither my quaking nor my thinking is my fear. And though each is done with fear, this fear is not some other thing that exists without them. If I am not thinking of anything that frightens me and show no physical symptoms of fear (ruling out the possibility that I might be afraid subconsciously) then it makes no sense to say that I am experiencing the emotion of fear. Perhaps Brogaard is thinking that emotions are felt, and that feeling is a kind of perception. So there must be something to be perceived, and this can only (or is most likely to be) our own bodily changes. But feeling an emotion is not like feeling a carpet. It is just having the emotion. I haven't looked into all of Brogaard's arguments, or those of others whose work she builds on, but something seems to have gone wrong here. (Phil Hutchinson would have something to say about this, I imagine.)

Brogaard's relativism has a Humean flavor. Moral principles are only ever true relative to a moral judge, she says, and "An action possesses the property of being wrong relative to a moral judge if and only if the action triggers a particular kind of negative moral state in the judge" (p. 546). So an attempt to kill me that I do not recognize as such is not right or wrong relative to me, because it does not trigger the relevant "negative moral state" in me. I don't know what "wrong relative to me" can mean, therefore, except "regarded as (or perhaps felt to be) wrong by me." And in that case, are we really talking about wrongness any more? If I wonder whether some course of action I'm considering would be wrong can it be true that what I'm really doing is trying to get some perception of my body into focus (assuming that a "negative moral state" is some kind of emotion)? I suppose that wondering whether something is wrong might be the same as trying to figure out, or understand clearly, how I feel about it. But the question is still how I feel about it (so the proper focus is not myself) and how I feel about it (and aboutness is not a causal relation, so the proper focus of my inquiry is not any physical effects).

She counts it as a consideration in favor of her view that, according to it, it would be true for a pro-choice person to say, "If I had had a negative moral attitude toward abortion, abortion would have been wrong." She also thinks it is "not [...] that unintuitive" (p. 548) to say that "It is morally permissible to murder people" is true when uttered by a serial killer. Again it seems to me that something has gone badly wrong. How can anyone possibly think that something that is (in their view) morally acceptable would have been morally unacceptable if only their own feelings about it had been different? (There are cases where this could happen, but they are irrelevant to the point. For instance, if I am grieving and you make a questionable joke that amuses me then I might think that it would have been wrong of you to make that joke if it had not made me laugh. But that's not the kind of situation at issue here.) A person like that would have to think of themselves as something like God dictating what is good and what is evil, or else they would have essentially no grasp of the concept of morality at all. To take a crude example, if I felt that torture was OK then the conclusion that follows is that I would be depraved, not that torture would be all right in that case. 

Following Hume again, Brogaard thinks that morals produce or prevent actions, and that they must therefore be something like emotions. But is the judgment "stealing is wrong" anything like that? If I were seriously tempted to steal, would repeating this (very thin) moral fact to myself have any motivating force whatever? I think it would be a joke. Moral propositions don't, it seems to me, have any power to produce or prevent actions. (Which is not to say that ethical considerations have no motivating power. But such considerations are typically thoughts about people, relationships, and thick moral concepts.)

She claims also that "Bad art does not trigger the same emotions in me as morally reprehensible actions" (p. 553). It does in me, at least sometimes. What makes art bad is often pretentiousness, sentimentality, or vanity. And those are moral failings. 

The end result is this (to my mind) bizarre claim:
Moral and aesthetic emotions have a different phenomenology. The reason for this is presumably that they represent different physiological changes to the body state. (p. 554)    
'Represent' here seems to mean something like are caused by. Which might have some truth in it, although it seems odd to say that crying made him sad rather than that sadness made him cry. If I think about a massacre and start crying, but only feel sad when I think about my own tears, then I am not sad about (or at) the massacre.

There seems to be an awful lot of metaphysical weirdness crying out for Wittgensteinian therapy here. Can that be right? I don't fully trust my judgment on this because I know I haven't done my homework (I've only read Brogaard's paper once, don't know much of the literature she cites, and don't have her paper in front of me now), and Brogaard is quite eminent. Can someone like that really be as wrong as she seems to me to be? Or have I just misunderstood?


  1. well wittgenstein surely never thought that eminence saved one from being haplessly muddled

  2. Indeed. I find several things she says incredible, though, which makes it hard to know what to think. Surely she's not saying...? But the more I go into her argument the more I think I can see how she got there, and the more I think, yes, she really is saying that. This is both why I don't read much mainstream contemporary philosophy and why I probably should.

  3. you have tenure: you should read poetry

  4. I like some philosophy. And we have post-tenure review, so I have to keep behaving like I don't have tenure.