Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Journal of Social Psychology, 1981, 115, 227-235.


University of New South Wales, Australia


Editor's Note: Too infrequently do social psychologists challenge the epistemological bases and implications of the concepts guiding their theories, their research, and themselves. In the role of a somewhat tolerant gadfly the author of this paper takes a fresh look at one of the concepts favored by social psychology. The Journal, therefore, departs from its usual stern but eclectic criterion which demands that a contribution contain empirical or experimental data of statistical significance.


Maze has argued that all users of moral discourse thereby attribute factual properties to moral propositions. His argument is challenged. It is suggested that the factual format of moral propositions tends to mislead, but that moral propositions are, after all, policy statements, statements about goals and rules for attaining them. Maze's suggestion that the factual format of many moral propositions arose as a polite form of social manipulation is seen as solving certain difficulties in a utilitarian account of moral discourse; its nonutilitarian appearance is thus a form of self-effacing ellipsis, not a sign of its real intent.


"To express an attitude is to express moralism and moralism is the attribution to acts of properties they do not have. No intellectually honest person can knowingly therefore have attitudes." This paraphrase is my summary of the attention-getting thesis at the core of a long article by Maze (1). Utterly wrong-headed though it may seem at first glance, his article is nonetheless an extremely illuminating and extremely effective attack on meta-ethical non-naturalism (the doctrine that moral properties are in some sense irrevocably inherent in certain acts). In the present paper I wish to propose what could be called a less extreme version of Maze's thesis: I will argue that Maze's account of moralism is correct, but that there are some moral propositions that are not instances of moralism in Maze's sense. Attitudes, then, may be any of three types of moral propositions only one of which is irrevocably incoherent.

It seems to me that Maze gives an excellent account of how certain misunderstandings about moral discourse arise. Under the rubric of "moralism" he describes certain very important pathological uses of moral discourse. I would dispute, however, that Maze's account has the generality of application that he claims. I would submit that many ordinary users of moral discourse are not "moralists" and use such discourse without assuming or intending much that Maze implies they must thereby assume or intend. I hope to show in fact that a utilitarian sort of meta-ethical naturalism is in some sense "basic" and that the non-naturalism Maze describes, explains, and attacks is merely a confused deviation from that base.

Maze's account, then, represents a very persuasive explanation of how non-naturalistic meta-ethical theories arise. The important mistake that Maze, to my mind, makes is to assume that all users (except perhaps some philosophers) of moral discourse are meta-ethical non-naturalists. He says that anybody who has attitudes is a person who "claims to know, perhaps by intuition, perhaps by revelation, that there are certain activities of the kind 'ought-to-be-done' and others of the kind 'ought-not-to-be done.' " He goes on to claim that "it is the ascription of moral properties that is the special function of attitude expressions." Later again in his paper Maze repeats this assertion in the words: "What I am asserting, then, is that an attitude expression is a claim that a certain action ought to be done (or refrained from) under specifiable circumstances by a specifiable class of person, because it has the objective moral property of goodness or rightness or desirability (or badness etc.)."

I feel we should assert the opposite to Maze's position. We could assert that no one of normal mental competence fancies on reflection that goodness or rightness are objective properties. While it is true that the two statements "X is pink" and "X is good" have the same form, I personally have yet to meet someone who, when asked what the difference between the two was, did not reply: "The first is a statement of fact and the second is a value judgment" -- or something of equivalent import. If it is true that, as Maze says, "Statements of the form 'X is good' . . . masquerade as factual statements," the masquerade is not one that fools many people. As some evidence for this assertion, Piaget (5) found that "moral realism" was a stage of thought found only in young children-soon to be superseded by a perception of moral statements as statements about rules rather than about facts [see also Merchant and Rebelsky (2)].

Where, then, does this leave us? Do we simply have to choose between Maze's assertions and the ones detailed above? Is it a case of "never the twain shall meet?" Since we seem to have arrived at what is essentially a dispute about the nature of common usage in a particular area, a venture into "counting the horse's teeth" may again be a not entirely inappropriate way to settle a philosophical dispute. In a word, why not do a survey to find out what people do in fact mean when they use moral discourse? This is not entirely a vainly optimistic project. What we glorify by the name of "meta-ethics" is to the ordinary man in the street a matter of no small importance -- though certainly not under that label. I would submit in fact that just what we mean by "Right and Wrong" or "Good and Bad" is one of the commonest disputes there are. So much of our ordinary social interaction is about whether something or another is an instance under these terms that an awareness of what the terms may be taken to imply is essential to even elementary conversation.


With this thought in mind, then, I drew up a list of 20 meta-ethical formulations as they might be made in everyday life and asked all students in an introductory sociology course (not a philosophy course) in an Australian university to indicate the extent of their agreement with each. The results appear in Table 1. The numbers in the table represent the frequencies with which a particular response was chosen (N = 117). An inspection of the results reveals that the four statements on which there is something like unanimity were nos. 5, 6, 7, and 12. They agree that what is right for one man may be wrong for another and they reject "what is right and wrong was laid down before man ever began to think about it." They also reject, however, that "right and wrong are myths." We cannot of course expect that what these students say will be typical of what the community as a whole will say but at the very least these figures constitute strong support for the contention here that no one account can suffice to explain what is meant by such terms as "right" and "wrong." That 89 students agreed with statement no. 19 constitutes apparent support for Maze's contentions, while the agreement of 71 with item 17 is strong support for a utilitarian account of ethical discourse. It may be interesting to know also that by the normal conventions of psychometrics, the 20 items formed a satisfactory "scale" -- with a reliability coefficient (alpha) of .76 [see Shaw and Wright (6)]. Thus the correlations between these 20 items written to polarize around the naturalism/nonnaturalism issue were sufficiently high to indicate that there was in fact a position on a single underlying issue substantially determining the person's response to each item. I would summarize the above results, then, as showing that these particular students believed that people do not in general use moral statements to mean the same thing and that they see grounds for supporting both a naturalistic and a non-naturalistic account of ethics. At the very least, then, these figures support my contention that Maze's account of the meaning of moral discourse is true of the usage of some people only. It is not universally applicable. On Maze's account no student should have agreed with item 17.



The Statements:

1. There is no such thing as an absolute right and wrong.
2. The only things that are right and wrong are what man has made so by his laws.
3. "Things are wrong only if you think they are.
4. There are some things which can never possibly be right.
5. It is always possible that what is right to one man will be wrong to another.
6. What is right and wrong was laid down before man ever began to think about it.
7. Right and wrong are myths.
8. What is right and wrong doesn't depend on man's opinions about it.
9. There is a higher moral law of which man's law is only an imperfect reflection.
10. There are some things which are right regardless of time and place.
11. One man's opinion on what is right and wrong is as good as another's.
12. There are universal moral laws.
13. What is right for one man may be wrong for another.
14. Some things are just wrong and that's all there is to it.
15. Whether a thing is right or not doesn't depend on man's convenience.
16. There are no absolute, unchanging moral laws that man can go by.
17. Things are regarded as wrong only because if everyone did them, civilized life would become impossible.
18. Your conscience is nearly always an infallible guide.
19. Some things you just know to be wrong without anybody needing to tell you.
20. You cannot go against your conscience.

The responses:

SD = Strongly Disagree; D = Disagree; NS = Not Sure; A = Agree; SA = Strongly agree. NR = No response




What I believe happens, then, is that "good" and "right" have a basic meaning that is something like "that which is in our own long-term self-interest" or "that which is my goal," but because of the need for a polite form of social manipulation and disagreement people speak as if "goodness" or "rightness" were objective properties. Some of them, particularly when given the sort of upbringing detailed by Maze, are however misled by this polite ellipsis into supposing that there must in fact be some objective properties for these forms of speech to refer to. This error is, I believe, a far less pernicious one than Maze imagines. I have found that even those who appear to be the most thoroughgoing of non-naturalists do, when quizzed about how they know something is "just wrong," quite readily admit that its being "wrong" is a world removed in type from being "pink" or "quick." They acknowledge that "x is wrong" is not a statement of fact. It is a "value judgment." I would submit in fact that the distinction between moral and factual propositions is an inevitable part of any child's moral education. Generally, the small child who disobediently runs across the road will be told, "you naughty boy," rather than, "if you run across the road you may get knocked down and killed and I don't want you to get killed." On the other hand, at some time he will be bound to ask why it is that crossing the road is naughty for him but not naughty for daddy. From the answers to such inquiries he will very soon learn that the naughtiness resides not in the act itself but rather in whether or not that act constitutes the transgression of a rule or a standard, and that different people may follow -- or be obliged to follow -- different rules. He will also learn that rules are formulated for the purpose of helping people to avoid various undesired eventualities or to attain desired ones and that this is the reason why different people choose to follow or are obliged to follow different rules -- they may be more or less in need of such help, they may prefer a different brand of help, or they may desire different eventualities. He will learn that ". . . is good" statements are related to "I like" statements but will differentiate the former as instrumental or long-term. All things we dislike are bad except insofar as they lead to something we do like. All things we like are good except insofar as they lead to something we dislike. In the case where several alternatives are liked or disliked equally choosing one in particular may lead to something that we do emphatically like or dislike and this too will be termed good or bad.

Wherever, of course, we are seeking something long-term, we need to have at least an opinion about what actions will get us there, and acting in accord with such an opinion will be an example of following a rule. "The Good" is either our long-term goal itself or whatever rule is believed to get us there.

In both cases what we conceive of as "The Good" will be socially formed via reward, punishment, and imitation. For the child, both his goals and his opinions about how to achieve them will tend to converge with those of his parents and his parents will in fact for much of his behavior demand this. Contrary to Maze's assertions, however, the above account shows that this "internalization" of his parents standards need not imply for the child any acceptance of a delusion.

On the above account, then, moral arguments are perfectly intelligible. In general, one can argue either about empirical propositions or about policies. To show that an apparently factual statement is reducible to a policy statement does not remove it from the realm of argument. Quite the contrary, it seems to me that most of our everyday arguments are about policies. What we argue about in the two cases is simply different. One argues about the evidence for an empirical proposition, but about the effectiveness ("utility") of policies. A policy is a resolve to follow some particular rule, and moral arguments are arguments about what rules are most effective in enabling one to reach particular goals. Does rule X, Y, or Z lead most efficiently to goal Q? It is, of course, also a possibility that in the course of argument with another, one will find out that one's companion does not share and cannot be induced to share or consider one's own goals. Once this has been firmly established, there is no further point in the argument. Perhaps one of the most frustrating sorts of moral debate is the one where neither is aware that the goals are not agreed upon -- either because the goal is vague (perhaps "happiness" would be an example here), because one of the parties denies his real goals in favor of more socially approved avowed goals, or because overly sweeping assumptions about goals are made by one or both parties.

Thus "Smoking is bad" becomes translatable to "Smoking will keep you away from your (presumed) goal of a long life." In this sense, as many previous writers have detected, moral propositions may have truth value (e.g., 3). Also, "Smoking is bad but I like it," becomes translatable to: "Smoking now deprives me of certain future satisfactions but I like doing it now."

On this account, then, the person who uses the language of "right" and "wrong" or "good" and "bad" is not, as Maze asserts, necessarily deluded. He may simply be labelling and know he is labelling particular acts as instances of following or transgressing some rule or other. Insofar as the goals and their derivative rules or standards are generally agreed upon, his utterances may serve as simple factual communication. Thus: "This is a good chisel" could simply communicate that the chisel is not blunt or notched. It is a chisel effective for achieving the goals that are normally achieved with chisels. Instrumentality in achieving goals is the unifying feature that explains why "bad" as applied to objects means "falling below a standard" and "bad" as applied to acts means "transgressing a rule." Rules are simply a particular type of standard (for acts) and both are maintained for the sake of achieving goals.

In conclusion, I would like to say that I find great value in Maze's having pointed out so clearly how easily the "factual" format of moral judgments can lead some people (including many philosophers) to argue "as if" we were dealing with facts. I agree with him that many people do so argue and that it can be confusing or even dangerous so to do. I have, however, found that even our local Ayn Rand objectivists will, when probed, quite happily acknowledge that "The Desirable" or "The Good" is simply that which works to the long-term self-interest of the individual. The stress is simply on the "long term." One may have bad desires if they work in the long term to one's ill. Christians, too, speak of Sin as if it were an objective entity but again when pressed will affirm that Sin or Wrongdoing is simply that which transgresses the will (or law) of God. To Christians also, then, wrongdoing is the transgression of a rule. The only difference is that, like children, Christians feel compelled to obey rules made by others. Why this is so would be a separate inquiry.

To return to the focus of Maze's paper, then, what are attitudes? More exactly, what is there about attitudes that distinguishes them from straightforward statements of belief or straightforward expressions of preference? On the account given here there is no sharp distinction. Insofar as there is one at all, however, it is that attitude statements are particularly about goals. By a goal one simply means a basic (i.e., nonderivative) preference, a preference, moreover, which is generally not fulfilled at the time it is expressed. As such, goals are emotional or reflexive rather than rational, and argument is essentially irrelevant to them. They correspond to what Murray (4) calls "needs."

Attitude statements then may consist of the following: (a) an avowal that the utterer holds some particular goal; (b) an expression of belief that some course of action leads to some particular goal -- a goal that may be explicitly stated or implicitly assumed; (c) the phenomenon described by Maze, where the performance (or nonperformance) of some act has become a goal in itself accompanied by a self-deceptive screen of belief that that act has some irrevocable but undemonstrable "moral" property.

There is no strict philosophical ground on which we might be critical of some act becoming a goal in itself. All that can be objected to are the occasions when this phenomenon is accompanied by incoherent beliefs. Take, for example, the phenomenon of attitudes to racial discrimination. An objection to racial prejudice may fall into any of the above three categories of attitude. In category two it might consist of a stated belief that racial discrimination reduced the sum of human happiness and an avowal that the maximization of human happiness was a goal sought by the utterer. In category one it might consist of a simple avowal that the avoidance of racial discrimination was a goal in itself for the utterer. In category three it might be an assertion that acts of racial discrimination had some objective moral property of Wrongness -- goals regardless.

With regard to the person in category two we can have little objection. His goals are explicit and we can decide by introspection whether or not we share them. If we are well adjusted and well socialized products of a civilized culture, we probably will. Either way, whether racial discrimination leads to or detracts from the achievement of that goal is open for rational discussion.

With regard to the person in category one we may feel that he has been oversocialized into making a goal out of what was originally intended as merely a means. Both we and the person making the statement, however, realize that there is no point in disputation. It is a matter of the emotional responses of the utterer.

With regard to the third person, however, we feel that he has made and perversely continues to make a mistake about the grounds for his own aversion. He has been socialized similarly to the person in category one but has acquired incoherent cognitive beliefs to accompany his emotional conditioning. Whether or not we share his goals we must find unsatisfactory the cognitive beliefs that accompany them. We cannot accept his explanation that his aversion is due solely to some property of the act rather than to his own conditioning history.

In summary, then, attitudes, far from being foolish are necessary. They are the conscious expression of our past conditioning or socialization and socialization is necessary to civilized life. It is only when attitudes are accompanied by pseudo-cognitive beliefs that we must find them objectionable.


1. MAZE, J. R. The concept of attitude. Inquiry, 1973, 16, 168-205.

2. MERCHANT, R. L., & REBELSKY, F. Effects of participation in rule formation on the moral judgment of children. Genet. Psychol. Monog., 1972, 85, 287-304.

3. MITCHELL, D. The truth or falsity of value judgments. Mind, 1972, 81, 67-74.

4. MURRAY, H. A. Explorations in Personality. New York: Oxford, 1938.

5. PIAGET, J. The Moral Judgment of the Child. Glencoe, El.: Free Press, 1948 (orig. published, 1932).

6. SHAW, M. E., & WRIGHT, J. M. Scales for the Measurement of Attitudes. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

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