Short Ramble on Meta-Ethics

I’m not really confident in the application of analytic philosophy to the realm of ethics/moral philosophy. Consider non-cognitivism, which states that moral utterances have no truth-value. The opposite of this would be cognitivism, which states that moral utterances do in fact have truth-values (basically).

Both of these hinge on a common assumption in contemporary philosophy – that for something to be true it must be a proposition. If something isn’t a proposition, it has no truth value – moral utterances do not assert propositions, ergo, no truth-value and hence no moral knowledge can be had. This all hinges on various developments in philosophy in the 20th century (Frege, Russell, etc), so there’s a lot going on in the background here. Most of the time knowledge tends to be thought of in the ‘knowing-that’ sense.

So in a nutshell, moral knowledge can’t be had, because moral utterances can’t be true, because moral utterances don’t assert propositions, and you can’t know something that isn’t true.

It seems a bit odd to restrict knowledge to such a tight scheme, though. I mean, it seems that we know lots of things that aren’t strictly propositional – intuition of course can be very wrong about things though. But a more concrete example could be Polanyi’s tacit knowledge – non-propositional, non-codify-able, knowledge. ‘We know more than we can tell.’ Sure, this isn’t ‘known’ in the same sense as a proposition with a truth-value, but I can’t really see that too much follows from that (unless such knowledge is thought to be the only kind that matters, I guess). Interestingly enough, Polanyi investigates formal propositional logic and concludes that the tacit element is present even there. If that’s true, then maybe strict logic can’t completely meet the standards set by non-cognitivism. If we can only know something which is true, and the only things that can be true (have a truth-value) are propositions, and if there is a tacit (non-formal, non-codify-able) element in propositions, then it seems that there’s a bit of an awkward problem.

But that was a bit far afield – my basic point is that, granting that ethical ideas don’t assert propositions, based on the above considerations it doesn’t seem to follow that moral knowledge can’t be had. Maybe I’m on to something here, maybe not.

One thought on “Short Ramble on Meta-Ethics

  1. Chris Falter November 7, 2014 / 1:26 am

    Both the Hebrew and Greek words which are translated as “to know” in English connote a personal, if not intimate, familiarity–along with the standard propositional sense. So you’ve got Biblical support.

    Like

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