June 20, 2024

What do we mean when we say ‘murder is wrong’?

This series of articles will discuss various ethical systems, from Kantian Ethics to neo-Aristotelian Virtue Ethics. However, before discussing various ethical systems, I want to discuss the meaning of moral language. When we confer moral praise or rebuke, what sentiment are we trying to express?


First, the groundwork: we have beliefs and we have desires. A belief could be ‘I see a glass of water’ in front of us, and a desire might be ‘I want to drink that glass of water’. The key difference is that desire seem to hold a motivational aspect – now I do not want to claim that motivations immediately lead to action, the above motivation does not necessary lead to us taking the glass of water – there are other considerations (maybe we are tired), but it can initiate an action. A belief would not.


Now we come to the issue of moral statements – we seem to hold them as beliefs, and refer to them, as there is a matter-of-fact to which we can appeal; however, there is also a motivational aspect to moral statements. If you claim ‘murder is wrong’ and there is no motivation for you not to murder, then would anyone want to claim that you have made a moral claim? If we hold a moral position and there is no motivation impact on us whatsoever, the consensus among philosophers (and I would argue most people) would be that we do not truly hold that moral position.


The motivational aspect of moral statements, alongside our usage of them in the common day as if they were beliefs is where the debate regarding moral semantics begins. There are two major positions to hold: cognitivism and non-cognitivism. The former regards moral statements as being beliefs and having ‘truth-conditions’ (by that, I mean there is a possibility that a statement is either truth or false), the latter does not. For non-cognitivists, there are two major schools: emotivism and prescriptivism. Emotivism simply states that moral statements, even if they grammatically look like beliefs (e.g. ‘murder is wrong’) are simply an expression of feeling. The most simple being Ayer’s ‘boo/hurrah’ theory. Sentences such as ‘murder is wrong’ are effectively stating ‘boo murder’, i.e. a negative feeling towards murder, while uses of the moral terms such as ‘good’ suggest a positive feeling. Prescriptivism suggests that any moral claim (again, even if they look like a belief) is simply guised command utterances. ‘Murder is wrong’ is a guise for ‘do not murder’.


When it comes to cognitivism, while moral statements are held as beliefs, the problem now becomes are the truth-conditions subjective or objective? Is the statement ‘murder is wrong’ true because I hold the belief murder is wrong? Then it seems we all make moral claims all the time, and we are always correct! If we hold instead that the truth-conditions are objective, then how can we ever know if statements such as ‘murder is wrong’ are true or not?!


The problem of moral semantics is one that persists even today, with non-cognitvists having to defend their belief against the fact that it seems we hold moral beliefs and use them in discourse in the same way we use any other beliefs. And cognivists have to reconcile the motivational aspect and also the problems of holding truth-conditions, whether subjective or objective.

by Saket Kumar

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