Dismissal of Emotivism

In my post, The Truth of Truth, I linked to a BBC page outlining Emotivism. I did this even though the leading paragraph reads, as follows:

Emotivism is no longer a view of ethics that has many supporters. Like subjectivism it teaches that there are no objective moral facts, and that therefore ‘murder is wrong’ can’t be objectively true.

BBC Ethics Guide

As I subscribe to Emotivism and its Prescriptivist progeny, I’ll respond from my perspective. Let’s parse the paragraph stepwise:

Emotivism is no longer a view of ethics that has many supporters.

Notice immediately the appeal to popularity. People have been convinced rhetorically that this cannot be true, primarily because they are uncomfortable with the notion. People tend to resort to escalating commitment, digging in their heels and doubling down on their position.

Just because something is popular doesn’t make it incorrect, but neither are unpopular opinions untrue.

Like subjectivism it teaches that there are no objective moral facts

Indeed, as I’ve discussed at length, there are no moral facts. Morals are human constructs of language and subject to contextual framing. The prevailing meta-narrative is that a moral code is necessary in a society, which is further predicated on the notion that society is necessary. Any moral code is, then, by definition, subject to this underlying meta-narrative.

I can say that I think society and cooperation are necessary for the continuation of our human species, but this is also admittedly and unabashedly self-centred hubris—another unquestioned meta-narrative.

We also have a domain boundary problem. At times, we have altered the boundaries to exclude people from the definition, hyper-focus on people in the definition, or exclude entire other species and kingdoms.

All of these are subjective. So when the inevitable response is, ‘I mean for humans’, we now know the subject.

‘murder is wrong’ can’t be objectively true.

On the topic of emotion, murder is a heavy hitter. After all, who is going to argue that murder is not wrong, let alone subjective?

Even on the surface it’s obvious that this is a tightly scoped claim, and there a few things going on here:

  1. Murder is a legal subset of killing.
  2. As for the victim—murderee anyone?—, s/he is defined to be human. We cannot murder dogs or roses.
  3. As for the actor—I’m going with murderer here—, this subset is limited to (A) humans, (B) killing not authorised by the State, and (C) unintentional killing.
    • A human can be declared a non-person or a partial person in order to exempt it from the moral charge. We’ve seen this time and again throughout history, entire classes of people who could be killed with no moral outrage.
    • A human can be exempted (given a free pass) by maintaining that their killing isn’t murder whilst others are vilified for killing not yet regarded as murder. The rules are subject to change without recourse.
      • The State declares that killing in some justified circumstance puts a person in some protected realm outside of the scope of murder. These might be military personnel, police officers, executioners, and so on.
      • Abortion antagonists claim that doctors performing these procedures should be considered to be murders.
      • Euthanasia opponents claim that doctors performing these procedures are murders.

If one—the subject—does not accept this frame, s/he also doesn’t accept the, let’s say, verdict. Vegan philosopher, Peter Singer claims that all animal life should be protected, that any killing is immoral. Some have claimed that nature itself should have a voice.

And so a statement like ‘murder is wrong’ is nothing more than a prescriptive emotional statement:

I feel that murder is bad (emotions with justification defended by protective layers of reason), and you should too.

Just Saying

Not an ounce of objectivity to be found, excepting, of course, for the objection I have to the counter-claim.


I’ll save you a click to the BBC page. These paragraphs are as silly as the first.

Emotivism has become unpopular with philosophers because the theory that led the Emotivists to think that moral statements were meaningless has fallen from favour.

Less technically, if expressing moral judgements is really no more than expressing one’s personal opinion there doesn’t seem any useful basis for arguing about moral judgements.

In practical terms, Emotivism falls down because it isn’t very satisfying. Even (most) philosophers think moral statements are more than just expressions of feeling.

And it’s perfectly possible to imagine an ethical debate in which neither party has an emotion to express.

Non-philosophers also think there is more to ethics than just the expression of an attitude or an attempt to influence behaviour. They want a better explanation and foundation for shared standards of morality than Emotivism can provide.

The Truth about Truth

The notion of Truth is not as cut-and-dry as it might appear at first glance. As a non-cognitivist, I don’t believe in the notion of objective Truth, so I am not entirely sure why it matters enough to me to continue to talk about it. I suppose I’m an Emotivist and Prescriptivist, if these terms capture the essence of my feelings. The Emotivism is what attracts me to an issue whilst Prescriptivism is why I feel the urge to transmit my beliefs. I’ll also suppose, if I adopt an evolutionary survival framework, that people do this to enhance probability of survival by minimising otherness. It also identifies me to those with a similar perspective. The inherent risk is that this attempt at community-building also broadcasts my potential—and let’s be real here, actual—otherness.

In practice, I’d venture that most people simply take the notion of truth for granted, and given an inquiry would defend it with an ‘of course it’s true‘ response with no need for additional justification. But as with human language more generally, Truth is an approximation of a notion. I like to categorise it as Archetypal.

The issue with Truth and other virtues (and pretty much everything else not analytically tautological), is that people don’t seem to believe that they operate asymptotically. They believe there is a truth, it’s objective and accessible, with enough inquiry, can be discovered.

I am self-aware that employing the language of maths and science is a problem adopted for many in philosophy, as they attempt to legitimatise a position by explaining it relative to the currently adopted metanarrative framework. I also know that by adopting this frame, I (or anyone in a similar position) am (is) twisted into convoluted knots. This is how science had been forced into retrograde motion models to explain a geocentric model of the universe, but when the paradigm was shifted to a heliocentric model, these off behaviours fell by the wayside. I suppose a superior approach would be to redefine the language and deposition the frame, but that’s easier said than done.

Graph: Correspondence of Truth to Reality (Asymptotic Curve)

The common assumption is that, over time, scientific inquiry will lead us closer to the truth. Correspondence theory supports the notion that more observations and perspectives will lead to a closer approximation, and eventually tools at our disposal will lead to more granular definitions, until we reach a point that and differences in the tangency to reality will be insignificant, a veritable rounding error. But there are several problems with these assumptions.

FIRST

We have no idea how close or far we are from Reality on the Y-axis, representing Truth.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is truth-correspondence-1.png
Graph: Correspondence of Truth to Reality (Asymptotic Curve)

Assuming for the time being that there is an approachable truth, we have no reference to understand how close to reality we might be. In practice, we seem to operate on a basis of always being within some level of statistical significance of where Truth = Reality, and when new information is introduced, we say, “Hooray for Science!” Aren’t we glad that science is self-correcting. Empiricism has its own issues.

Historically, we’ve had ‘wrong’ correspondence between Truth and Reality, but then we got it ‘right’—until we didn’t. Rinse and repeat.

We may all be familiar with the story of how Einstein progressed and refined Newtonian physics. What Einstein did is to create a new narrative—a synchronous shift of paradigm and rhetoric—, which has been accepted into a revised orthodoxy. In our mind, this feels like progress. But how close are we to the real truth?

Taking our understanding of gravity as the fabric of space-time, we still have no idea what’s going on or how it operates, but this doesn’t prevent us from accepting it as a black box and making pragmatic predictions from there. So, for all intents and purposes, the ‘truth’ mechanism is less important than the functional relationship, just as I can tell time on a watch I have no idea how it operates.

SECOND

We have no idea if any changes to our perception move us closer to or further from Reality.

Rather than being asymptotic, perhaps the relationship to is polynomial (or the result of some stochastic function). See the graph above. As we move into the future (in red) and look back, we may perceive that we’ve reversed against some notion of progress. Common wisdom is that progress is directly, positively related to time. But is it?

In my first amendment, I reference how Einstein progressed and refined Newtonian physics, but in the future, this could be shown to be wrong. In our minds, what had seemed like progress may in retrospect turn out to have been a false assertion.* Moreover, we’ll dutifully accept this updated notion of truth if the rhetoric is sufficient to fit our concept of evidence, especially given humans’ propensity for pareidolia.

I am no true Sceptic, but neither do I accept the prevailing meta-narrative whole cloth. Unfortunately, I am in no better position than the next person to discern proximity to the underlying structure of reality.

THIRD

Rhetoric is a primary driver to fashion our sense of how close or distant we are from reality. Rhetoric shapes and focuses the frame.

War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, and Ignorance Is Strength

1984, George Orwell

I’ve already commented at length about the primacy of rhetoric. To recap for the purpose of this disquisition, the only meaningful arbiter of truth is rhetoric—the ability to persuade the larger populace to accept something as true.

Here, I’d expect someone to counter with, ‘Just because people are convinced that something is true doesn’t make it so’, and they’d be right. However, as we cannot access the underlying reality accept through our admittedly fallible senses, who’s to argue?

Moreover—departing on a tangent—, we know that other lifeforms—let’s stick with the animal kingdom—have different senses than humans, and some humans perceive things differently to the normie (if I may adopt a spectrum term) .

Sharks have electroreception (re: The Ampullae of Lorenzini), which allows them to perceive small changes in electrical fields as well as what’s termed a lateral line ( mechanoreceptor function), which allows them to recognise changes in environmental pressure. Other known sensory adaptations are echolocation in bats and dolphins and chemoreceptors (notably in insects and snails).

We are probably also aware that different animals have differing degrees of sense acuity compared to humans. Dogs hear frequencies above the human threshold and have better olfactory discrimination. Birds of prey have superior vision. Women typically have a broader colour vocabulary.

Bees see in ultraviolet; snakes can ‘see’ in infrared; owls have night-vision.

And then there’s synesthesia, a condition in which one sense is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses. A person with synesthesia may perceive sound as colour (chromesthesia) or perhaps taste.

Given concepts of normality, we presume we are synesthesia are normal and these other people are somehow not, but for all we know, we normies are evolutionary dead ends, soon to be displaced by synesthesiacs. (Is that even a word? It is now.)

But I digress.

Perception is reality. If one can convince you of something, e.g. Donald Trump is a good president, then it’s ostensibly true to you. If one can convince an entire population that something is true, e.g. the plot of Orwell’s 1984, or The Matrix, then who’s to say otherwise.

FOURTH

Intent in communicating perception does not get one closer to some corresponding reality. It merely converges perception.

This fourth entry is a response to this comment by Landzek from The Philosophical Hack regarding the notion of intended truth in communication.

Extending the simple asymptotic function from the first section, we might see (in Graph 4a) a slight variation in interpretation due to the insufficiencies of language—providing us with a close enough for the government approximation to some shared perception. People in this group will tend to agree on some perception, say, that the earth is spherical.** The average distance from perception to reality is the same for all in-group members, give or take some small variance that I’ll dismiss as an insignificant rounding error.

Graph 4a: Correspondence of Truth to Reality (Simplified in-group concurrence)

Graph 4b, however, illustrates two opposing perceptions of reality. In this example, I show proponents of orthodoxy (group O), who claim the earth to be roughly spherical, arbitrarily closer to reality than proponents of an alternative theory (group A), who claim that the earth is flat.

Each in-group has some variance from the mean notion, but ex-group members are orders of magnitude apart, as measured by the blue and red bars to the right of the chart. If we assume some binary condition that the earth is either spherical or flat with no other options, one of these might be considered to be right whilst the other would be wrong. We can establish this situation relative to the ex-groups, but, still, neither of these is comparable to Reality™ .


Graph 4b: Correspondence of Truth to Reality (Simplified ex-group concurrence)

The intent of each group may be to promote the perspective of the group—each claiming to be closer to the truth than the other. It is easy to imagine a situation where both claimants are equally distant from the truth:

Imagine two groups, each making opposing claims:

  • Tarot is superior to Astrology in predicting the future.
  • Astrology is superior to Tarot in predicting the future.

I’ll go out on a limb here and create a reality where the future is not predictable by either measure, irrespective of what each in-group believes.


* I am not versed well enough in the history of science, but I’d be interested to know which, if any, scientific advances have been a step ‘backward’, that a belief had overtaken a prior belief only to have reverted to the former.

I am aware of the slow march of science and the ignorance of possibly valid assertions simply because the rhetoric was not strong enough or the PR just wasn’t adequate. An example might be the debate of theoretical Democracy versus Communism: which is better than the other. Of course, there are too many dimensions to consider, and the adoption or exclusion of one dimension over another might be enough to tilt the outcome.

In the real world—see what I did there—, the US spend billions upon billions of dollars to interfere with Communism—and I am not taking a position whether it would have succeeded or failed on its own terms—, just to be able to knock down the strawman some century later though propagandising and disinformation campaigns.


** I understand that the earth being an oblate spheroid is primarily an analytical distinction, so is tautologically true, but I am using a simplification of a commonly accepted fact.


DISCLAIMER: In order to keep generating new content (or even content) on this blog, I will occasionally adopt a new approach of publishing unfinished thoughts instead of waiting to complete the thought. This means, I may be editing pages in place to correct my position and alter narrative flow, of not the narrative itself.

EDIT: I’ve included my amendments in line above, though I’ve retained links to the original content.

Paradox

How can one simultaneously be an SJW (Social Justice Warrior) and be a non-cognitivist? How can one who doesn’t believe in the notion of identity nonetheless defend it? How can someone who doesn’t believe in the notion of justice seek it? And how can a conscientious objector apply a ‘warrior’ title to his own identity?

(Viscerally, I am an SJW—at least I consider myself so (because I just said so, right?). As a non-cognitivist, in particular, an emotivist (Ayer), an expressivist (Moore), and a prescriptivist (Hare), why should I care? And isn’t this somewhat paradoxical or perhaps hypocritical?

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

I used to consider myself an Existentialist Nihilist, and I still have a fondness for this particular worldview. In many ways, at a more mundane, pragmatic level, I operate as an Existentialist, but that’s only because, in the realm of workaday political philosophy, one cannot be so ethereal, as it were.

Even though I don’t believe in any higher purpose for humans or life, I still have an urge for survival, and I recognise that no man is an island, that there is safety in numbers. At least this is my adopted metanarrative. I don’t feel that I am some rugged individual. I rely on others, and I’d prefer amicable relationships over adversarial.

I’ve always valued a sense of personal identity and autonomy, but only as an emotional response. I’ve also never felt the urge to control the identity co-opted by others. This means that if you are gay, straight, trans, pan, or whatever, it doesn’t matter to me.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Jesus, Sermon on the Mount

If you are a CIS-male and want to wear a dress or enhance your breasts, it’s none of my concern.

FULL DISCLOSURE
Although I respect a person’s choice to, say, be trans in whatever shape or form, I don’t consider myself to be pansexual, so I wouldn’t presume that I am going to date that person. Whether this is a prejudice or preference, I am not going to argue the semantics.

Anyhoo….

Despite understanding that identity doesn’t ‘really’ exist and in the end, it doesn’t even matter, I will (and do) vocally defend the ‘right’ of a person to express this identity.

So, perhaps also paradoxically or hypocritically, I’ll comment on someone’s fashion sense —and trust me; I am no fashion maven. So just because I won’t deprive you of your ‘right’ to express yourself the way you chose does not mean I have no opinion (positive or negative) about how you present yourself, and it doesn’t mean that I won’t make a joke or make light of how you express. I am not a fan of politically correct (PC) speech, a trend American Liberals are on the wrong side of.

Intersex Person

In the end, there is the space of objective reality and the space of workaday life. For some accident of history and evolution, I have been thrust into a world where I need to interact with people who believe there is more then there actually is and they subscribe to some metanarrative. Unfortunately, unlike Neo in the Matrix, I am not able to cut through the bullshit, and so my dominant strategy is just to play around. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

As an emotivist, I am an SJW because it is visceral to me.

As an expressivist, your sense of morality expressed through mores and customs hold no water, and I won’t abide by the restrictions they impose.

As a prescriptivist, I think that you should share my emotion in the spirit of do unto others…

Interestingly enough (or not), I am a fairly typical (albeit eccentric) white male. My self-expression differs more in my beliefs and speech than in my physical person or attire. Talk to me for more than a few moments, and this will become immediately apparent.

Insufficiency Theory of Language

I’m not an ethical subjectivist. The truth* is that I am a non-cognitivist. I gravitate more toward Ayer‘s Emotivism. Stevenson‘s Expressivism and Hare‘s Prescriptivism add the element of intention. This may seem like hair-splitting, but the distinction lies in the taxonomy of meta-ethics.

Emotivism and the rest are categorised under the non-cognitivist branch whilst ethical subjectivism falls into the cognitivist bucket. Intuitively, humans appear to have an innate bias toward accepting cognitivism, much in the same way as they seem to be wired to believe in supernatural concepts and see images of Jesus in toast. Whether these are vestiges of some successful evolutionary strategy is beside the point, but the problem it creates is that, in contrast, non-cognitivism is perceived as counterintuitive.

In its essence, cognitivism can be distilled down to the belief that moral statements are truth-apt, which is to say that they can be evaluated as true or false. Because of the current created by intuitionists, I lead with my fallback position, which is one of ethical subjectivism or more likely error theory.

Heads I win; Tails you lose

Although for reasons I’ll articulate later, entering a conversation assuming truth-aptness, the conversation can at least focus on the compositionality and universality components because whether I believe that moral statements cannot be evaluated as true or false, the default cognitive position of the general population is that they can be. This is not to say that I identify as a quasi-realist, which is to believe that there is no truth-aptness but to behave (pretend) that they do.

coin-flip - Captioned
Image: Deciding the truth-aptness of a moral claim

God Is Dead

In his critique of Enlightenment beliefs, Nietzsche declared that ‘God is dead’ as he understood the implications of a society absent a justification for not only believing that morality claims are truth-apt but that they are true, divinated from some metaphysical, supernatural, and universal power. In practice, the Enlightenment replaced God with a rather animated and interactive concept of Nature, hence were born all sorts of natural rights. You may get a sense of some déjà vu, as humans, not being particularly creative, just reappropriated and rebranded the same tropes Theists use prior to that. They just performed a search-and-replace of God with Nature in a manner similar to the Christian appropriation of pagan holidays.

Goddead
Image: God is dead

Non-cognitivism has generally fallen out of favour primarily because it was sort of painted into a corner by the Frege-Geach (embedding) problem, but this issue is only intractable if you accept the given frame.

I should probably just link out to a different source to explain the Frege-Geach problem because I feel it’s a red herring, which only presents a problem if you accept the frame established by the Structuralist

The problem here is that language is a complex, socially constructed communication system. Even if we accept Chomsky’s theory of the innate ability to parse language, the syntax, lexicon, and grammar are still arbitrary human constructs. I can’t likely repeat this point often enough: humans have a poor track record of creating and comprehending complex systems, examples of which are the various half-cocked socio-political, economic, jurisprudent, and philosophical systems. Hubris is evidently a successful evolutionary selection factor, as it persists everywhere and certainly in people of power.

The logical positivists ran into a similar problem when they proposed the verification principle that asserted that a statement is only truth-apt if it is either an ANALYTICAL statement or a SYNTHETIC statement, and yet this assertion with neither analytical nor synthetic, so it itself does not meet the verification principle. It’s simply a normative prescription.

Fundamentally, this quandary underscores the deficiencies of the constructed language system more than anything else, what I am developing with a working title of Insufficiency Theory. A tangent to this theory is my concept that the only moral truth (and many social truths) are simply rhetorical victories—situations where one agent employing rhetorical devices has convinced others as the truth of some condition.

Intermission

intermission

A problem with writing an unstructured stream of consciousness is that you look up and realise your post is getting pretty lengthy, and there is a lot more depth than you expected. Due to this, I am going to unpack this over several posts over several days.

Disclaimer

DISCLAIMER: I am not a professionally-trained philosopher, linguist, psychologist, or gynaecologist for that matter. I had considered studying Linguistics at uni as well as Philosophy, but I opted instead to study Economics and Finance, as these appeared to be more pragmatic. As relates to philosophy and language, I am an autodidact. This said, this particular area is new to me, so I am certain that I am missing key elements and may have large gaps in my understanding. In some cases, I’ve read more excerpts and others’ perspective on these people and their work than their actual work product. I am trying to catch up, but that leads me to a place fraught with selection and affirmation bias—though I do try to comprehend counter arguments as well. Moreover, I am painfully well aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and I am trying to allow for enough time to elapse to move further along this curve.

dunning-kruger-graph[1]
Chart: Dunning-Kruger Effect

Article head  image cropped from here: http://existentialcomics.com/comic/80


* Truth: (n) an opinion or held belief