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August 03, 2004


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Dan, I think the view of cognitivist internalists, such as McDowell, McNaughton, and Dancy, can be understood as holding that moral judgments are complex attitudes. In this respect, they are like, say, gladness (an example given to me by Jamie Dreier way back when). To be glad that p involves both believing that p and desiring that p, or more generally, having both a thetic (mind-to-world) and a telic (world-to-mind) direction of fit to p. A more subtle view is developed by Horgan and Timmons in a series of recent articles, some of which haven't come out yet (e.g., "Nondescriptivist Cognitivism," "Cognitivist Expressivism," and others). On their view, moral judgments are attitudes that are similar in some crucial respect, but not in all respects, to beliefs, and also to desires. Finally, there is the view sketched by Millikan in "Pushmi-Pullyu Representations" (*Mind and Morals*, ed. L. May et al.) that moral judgments are attitudes more primitive (evolutionarily and cognitively) than either beliefs or desires but feature some crucial aspects of both.

Hi Uriah. Thanks for the pointers, which is exactly what I was hoping for with the post. I think, however, that all of the folks you mention above view moral attitudes as (logically) simple, unitary states, not complex or composite ones as I was suggesting. For example, I have always read McDowell, McNaughton, Dancy, and Millikan as holding a "besire" theory of moral attitudes. That is, I have always read them as holding that a moral attitude is a (logically) simple, unitary psychological state that has both word-to-world and world-to-word directions of fit; and these directions of fit are the respects in which moral attitudes are like beliefs (word-to-world) and also like desires (world-to-word). I'll look them over again to make sure I've read them correctly. Of the Horgan and Timmons articles you mention, I have read only "Nondescriptivist Cognivitism," but, as I understand them, they also want to hold that a moral attitude is a simple psychological state, not a complex one (of course, they go on in that article to describe complex psychological states that are composed, in part, of these moral attitudes, such as psychological states that are expressed by complex sentences that embed atomic ethical sentences). More specifically, as I understand them, they want to hold that a moral attitude is a special kind of simple belief, namely, one that is not in the business of representing or describing the way the world is and, so, does not have a word-to-world direction of fit. Like the others, I'll read this article over to make sure that I have got their view correctly.

So, again, the view I am suggesting is one in which moral attitudes are complex and consist, in part, of a belief and a desire. I also want to make clear that the view I am advocating is not really novel. The idea that psychological attitudes can be complex has been recognized, though I haven't been able to find that it has been seriously entertained as a possibility for moral attitudes. For example, Smith very briefly mentions the possibility that moral attitudes can be complex as a defense from a particular objection by besire-theorists (The Moral Problem, p. 117), but other than for that purpose, seems just to ignore this possible view that, as I see it, would completely dissolve The Moral Problem.


First, I think that your reading of McDowell, McNaughten, et al. concerning this issue is the right one.

Second, perhaps characteristic moral emotions – guilt, anger, resentment, indignation, shame, contempt, derision – are complex attitudes of the kind you have in mind. Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology (Cambridge, 2003) by Robert Roberts presents an account of emotions according to which they are "concern-based construals". For Roberts, construals are like perceptual beliefs, involving the way things appear to the subject. But emotions are construals that are based on concerns – desires, interests, or aversions – the subject has.

Roberts has in the works a companion volume to the 2003 book where the account of the emotions is directly implemented in an account of moral judgment. Until this appears, you might look at Linda Zagzebski, “Emotion and Moral Judgment” PPR, (Jan 2003) and Sabine Doring, “Explaining Action by Emotion” PQ (April 2003), which both seem to suggest something similar. Zagzebski does write as if she thinks this approach dissolves the moral problem.

Hi Kyle. Thank you so much for the suggested readings. Also, the suggestion that the characteristic emotions of morality might also be complex attitudes is interesting. If they are, then the idea that the more general moral attitudes are complex would really not be all that surprising.

Thanks again.

Dan, I think I misinterpreted your original post. But now I'm a bit worried about how to go about distinguishing complex from simple attitudes. Suppose Comp and Simp are two psychologists working on gladness, and they have this disagreement:

Comp: Gladness that p is a complex attitude that has belief that p and a desire that p as "parts" or "constituents".

Simp: Gladness that p is a simple attitude that has a belief-ish-that-p and desire-ish-that-p aspects to it.

How would they go about settling the dispute? More specifically, what is the psychologically real feature that is supposed to distinguish gladness as conceived from Comp from gladness as conceived by Simp?

(Also, Dan, I realize I use "judgment" differently from you, to cover not only linguistic acts, but also mental states.)

Hi Uriah. Your good question is a good one. (Here's another: "Who cares? What's the practical upshot of moral attitudes being complexes of beliefs and desires rather than simple states with two directions of fit?") I haven't been able to think about these questions very much, so perhaps others will have some suggestions. But I will make what, I'm sure, is a rather obvious point: even supposing that we are not able to discover any real difference between one who has a complex attitude consisting of a belief and a desire and one who has a single attitude with both directions of fit, there is still the metaphysical question of whether moral attitudes are complex or simple. And on this question, I think there is more support for the idea that moral attitudes are complex (assuming that the debate is between only these two positions). There is nothing mysterious at all about having a belief that p and some kind of pro-attitude toward p, so there is nothing mysterious about a complex attitude consisting of the two. On the other hand, I think besires are quite mysterious kinds of mental states, the arguments for their existence are few, and, to me, are not very persuasive. It seems to me that anything the postulation of besires is intended to explain can be explained equally well by appealing to complex attitudes consisting of a belief and a desire. Perhaps others, especially defenders of the existence of besires, can shed a more charitable light on these questions for us?

You raised the possibility of an amoralist -- someone who has the epistemic part of moral judgments but not the practical part -- as a potential objection. I'm trying to think about what a person who had the practial but not the epistemic part would be like. I'm thinking that such a person could be moved to action by experiences that we would call 'feelings of obligation'. However, if others weren't moved to action in the same circumstances that moved him, he wouldn't regard them as making any kind of mistake. I don't regard people as making mistakes if they fail to desire foods that I enjoy, and that's how he would see other people's failure to be morally engaged.

I don't have very strong intuitions about whether this person's attitudes count as moral, though I lean slightly towards seeing his attitudes as nonmoral, which is good for your view. Do you have any intuitions about this case? And do you know of any literature on cases like this?

Hi Neil. Your question seems to be, "What makes an attitude a moral one?" A good place to start might be Chapter 1 of Simon Blackburn's Ruling Passions. He claims there, plausibly, that what makes one's attitudes moral depends in large part on our second-order attitudes towards our first-order attitudes which, in turn, are directed towards some salient feature(s) of a situation, and then on our third-order attitudes towards those second-order attitudes, and so on. For example, suppose a person were to delight in injuring or lying to others for the fun of it. My initial reaction (i.e., my first-order attitude) is repulsiveness at such acts. Moreover, I approve of this first-order attitude, which is a second-order attitude, and this second-order attitude may cause me to have a different first-order attitude of desire to instill in my children a repulsiveness toward such acts, and so on. Blackburn's story may explain why you do not take the person in your example to be making a mistake. That is, perhaps you do not have the appropriate first-, second-, third-, etc. order attitudes towards his failure to desire certain foods. For example, you may not care at all whether that person desires foods that you enjoy, you may not care that you do not care about such things, and you may not have any desire whatsoever to instill in your children the desire to eat certain foods that you enjoy, and so on. If so, then your attitudes towards eating foods that you enjoy are not moral ones, and so you may not regard this person as making a mistake. (Compare your example with the example above in which a person delights in injuring or lying for the fun of it. If you are repulsed by this person's delight, if you desire to be repulsed by this person's delight, if you have a desire to instill in your children a repulsiveness towards such actions, etc., then you may have a moral attitude towards such acts, and, in turn, may be inclined to view this person as making some kind of mistake, namely, the mistake of having an inapt attitude.)

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