File this under “meta-meta-ethics”
Don Loeb and Michael Gill currently defend a ‘variability thesis’, the view that ordinary moral thought and language contains both cognitivist and non-cognitivist elements.
As Gill puts it, in a recent paper, “there really are cognitivist aspects to our moral discourse, which the cognitivists have accurately analyzed, and … there really are non-cognitivist aspects, which the non-cognitivists have accurately analyzed.” Moral discourse contains a mix of these elements. The thesis can be expanded to other areas, internalism, and so on. An earlier proponent of a similar idea was W.D. Falk, in “Morality, Self, and Others”: some parts of moral practice are social; other parts are self-regarding. The advantage of the view is that it comports well with the mongrel historical heritage of our actual practices, and also explains why certain debates in moral theory are so intractable. One disagreement between Loeb and Gill is that though Gill denies, that the variability implies ‘incoherentism’ about ordinary moral thought. However, there are a range of possibilities I can see, and I wonder what Soupers might think of the idea, and the alternatives. (And I do not exhaust them here.)
i) Ordinary moral thought contains, in addition to its normative claims, its own ‘folk theory’ of itself, a folk metaethics. The alleged variability could be here: the character of first order normative claims is homogenous and invariable (say, all expressions of attitudes or all expressions of belief), but the folk metaethics is variable: It construes those first order normative claims in incompatible ways. About some areas, for whatever reason, what we ordinarily think we’re doing when we moralize is expressing attitudes; about others, we think we’re expressing beliefs. Philosophers have latched onto these two different aspects of folk metaethics, not seeing that there are, in fact, two different folk theories. Philosophers mistakenly that folk metaethics is invariable when it isn’t. This alternative, if true, doesn’t seem to be all that damaging to moral practice. Sure, folk metaethics is screwy. But so is folk metaphysics and folk epistemology. That’s why we all have jobs!
ii) Another position is that ordinary moral thought contains the view that “folk practice (or metaethics) is invariable”. It needn’t say *how* it’s invariable (all cognitivist, all noncognitivist, etc.) All that it needs to claim, in order to create incoherence, is that folk practice is variable, yet folk practice be mottled–either in first order terms or in its metaethics. There would be a problem explaining how such a mistaken thought might ever have arisen, at least about first order moral claims. How could it have come to be a part of ordinary moral thought that its practice is invariable when it isn’t? It seems that eventually, reality would intrude.
iii) A quite different possibiliy is that first order normative practice is itself variable. In some places it is (say) noncognitive, in others it is cognitivist. Various metaethical camps have each latched onto one of the parts and mistakenly tried to use this as a Procrustean bed in which to ram the rest of moral practice. This appears to be Gill’s view (it was, I think, Falk’s as well). A priorism among philosophers explains why philosophers have overlooked this, ignorance of what moral practice is really like.
iv) Suppose there’s a twofold variability: first order practice is in some places noncognitivist, others, cognitivist; and our folk metaethics likewise is cognitivist about some practices, noncognitist about others. If so, one might further expect these variabilities to line up, the fault lines to match up, more or less. One would expect it, that is, if one thinks that folk theory isn’t dumb. Here, the only ‘incoherence’ would be in metaethics itself, in the assumption Loeb and Gill challenge, of invariability. On the other hand, there might be a mismatch, and for good reasons: there may be pressures toward a folk metaethical (but false) assumption of the invariabile character of moral thought. It may be, that is, that this kind of incoherence is actually good–not in the first order normative thought, but in the folk metaethics. For instance, it might be good that what we think we’re doing when we’re thinking in moral terms is always the same sort of activity–independently of how that activity is cashed out (cognitivist/noncognitivist, etc.). A belief in a seamless practice will reinforce its apparent rationality–or at least might.
V) A final thought: Anil Gupta argues that incoherence in a concept is not incompatible with the truth of propositions that use that concept. This seems to be one way in which Loeb’s view may be challenged. Even if there is an incoherence in moral thought, it doesn’t impede the possibility of the truth of moral claims.