In the beginning was A.J. Ayer

Brian Barry

  • Moral Relativity by David Wong
    California, 248 pp, £28.00, July 1984, ISBN 0 520 04976 4
  • Beyond Subjective Morality: Ethical Reasoning and Political Philosophy by James Fishkin
    Yale, 201 pp, £17.50, January 1984, ISBN 0 300 03048 7

The creation of moral philosophy as we know it: in the beginning was A.J. Ayer, and moral assertions were without form, and void. More precisely, they were of a grammatically misleading form and lacking in meaning. In Language, Truth and Logic (published in 1936), Ayer maintained that what appears to be a moral assertion (e.g. ‘Stealing money is wrong’) ‘expresses no proposition which can be either true or false’. Such sentences are unverifiable and hence meaningless, for the central tenet of his logical positivism was that the meaning of a statement is equivalent to the observations that would make it true.

What is really happening, then, when someone makes what appears to be a moral assertion? Ayer proposed that such an utterance should be analyzed as a kind of exclamation – an expression of (rather than a statement about the presence of) a feeling, like ‘Phew!’ (as against ‘I feel hot’) – or as a command, like ‘Don’t do that!’ These analyses are consistent with the claim that what appear to be moral assertions have ‘no objective validity whatsoever’. For as ‘pure expressions of feeling’, they ‘do not come under the category of truth and falsehood. They are unverifiable for the same reason as a cry of pain or a word of command is unverifiable – because they do not express genuine propositions.’ This account was refined in various ways in the following decades, but there still seemed little room for moral deliberation or for rational argument about moral issues. It was hardly surprising, then, that philosophers (at any rate in their professional capacity) tended to discuss what people were doing in saying something was right or wrong rather than talking themselves about what was right or wrong.

Logical positivism was never actually refuted but it was abandoned as what has come to be called a ‘degenerate research programme’. In moral philosophy this abandonment took the form, by and large, of turning away not only from the logical positivists’ answers but from their questions too. Instead of proposing alternative accounts of what moral assertions were, the generation that started writing in the Sixties and Seventies addressed live moral problems, in the conviction that, whatever moral judgments might ultimately turn out to be, they had enough complexity of structure to challenge the best philosophical intellects, and that whatever philosophers could contribute to their elucidation would be worthwhile.

The past few years have seen developments in two opposite directions. On one side, the movement towards ‘applied ethics’ has taken an ever more concrete form. Books have appeared on the ethics of social work, nursing and engineering; there are now internships for young philosophers in a variety of institutions (including the US Congress); and a few resourceful PhDs have set up as beeper-equipped ethical consultants. On the other side, there has been a renewal of interest in the fundamental questions about the nature and function of morality – sometimes called meta-ethics – that had been shelved by common consent. There is of course no incompatibility between the two, but ideally there should be a tension, so that applied ethics never quite becomes an extension of ‘advice to the lovelorn’ and meta-ethics is pulled away from abstract word-spinning.

Both Wong’s and Fishkin’s books belong to the new wave, in that they are primarily concerned to argue general theses about morality, rather than to argue for particular substantive moral conclusions. But the authors understand that it really makes a difference for the way in which we should think about ourselves and our relations to other people whether what they say is true or not, and there is a note of urgency in both that is most appealing irrespective of one’s agreement or disagreement with the content. Perhaps it is the fact that the authors are still relatively early on in their academic careers that accounts for their refreshing belief that philosophy matters.

It will be best to begin with Wong, because he explicitly takes up the logical positivists’ questions about the meaning and truth conditions of moral assertions but gives different answers from theirs. Wong’s book is structured around six propositions, slated on the first page, that together make up, he believes, the maximum claim for the ‘objectivity’ of morality. These are as follows:

1. Moral statements have truth values;

2. There are good and bad arguments for the moral positions people take;

3. Non-moral facts (states of affairs that obtain in the world and that can be described without use of moral terms such as ‘ought’, ‘good’ and ‘right’) are relevant to the assessment of the truth value of moral statements;

4. There are moral facts (that may or may not be claimed to be reducible in some way to non-moral facts);

5. When two moral statements conflict as recommendations to action, only one statement can be true;

6. There is a single true morality.

7. ‘When morality is called subjective,’ Wong says, ‘several and perhaps all of the above claims are denied.’ (Freddie Ayer rejected all of them in 1936 and I think that Sir Alfred would still reject them now.) Since some people call themselves objectivists on the strength of accepting only some of the propositions while others call themselves subjectivists on the strength of denying only some of them, Wong proposes a new distinction: those who reject the sixth proposition he dubs ‘relativists’ and those who accept it ‘absolutists’.

Wong himself suggests that relativism, so defined, best corresponds to our ‘moral experience’, and in the event denies not just the sixth proposition but the fifth as well, while claiming that he can accommodate the correctness of the first four. The key term in his account is ‘adequate moral system’, which he claims to be ‘a more explicit rendering of what people have in mind when they use terms such as “the right moral rules” ’. If we take as a canonical moral statement ‘A ought to do X,’ Wong suggests that we construe it as follows: ‘By not doing X under actual conditions C, A will be breaking a rule of an adequate moral system applying to him or her.’

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