Some replies to Copp from Hare's point of view

November, 1996

In his book, Morality, Normativity, and Society (pages in this essay refer to this book), Copp argues against Hare's universal prescriptivism. Here are some replies to his arguments.


First, he argues against non-cognitivism in general (16-17), and he thinks that this argument applies to Hare's prescriptivism (75). Roughly speaking, non-cognitivism holds that normative judgements are expressions of emotion (emotivism), prescriptions (prescriptivism), or expressions of acceptance of norms (norm expressivism). In any case, according to non-cognitivism, normative judgements do not have truth values. Copp's arguments are supposed to show that cognitivism (which admits truth values to normative judgements) is "more natural and more simple" than non-cognitivism (15). He raises four points in favor of cognitivism over non-cognitivism. I don't think I should reply Copp's first two kinds of reasons, however, because Copp himself showed how non-cognitivists can reply to these points (16). So I concentrate on his third and fourth arguments.

His third reason is argument from simplicity. For example, when we say "If swimming is wrong, someone will stop us," this "swimming is wrong" cannot be an expression of the acceptance of norm. So non-cognitivists need different kind of treatments for this kind of usage of 'wrong', while cognitivists deals with this case without such problem. Therefore, cognitivism (at least Copp's version of it) provides a simple and unified, hence better, account (17).

I show you how this argument misses the point. Simplicity is no virtue in this kind of situation. To illastrate the point, take the Grucho Marx's word (posted in the lounge of our department):

(1) Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.

I think this is a perfect case of the context dependency of the meaning of a word. Now, just apply Copp's simplicity argument to this case (I am sorry for analyzing such a funny sentence). First, we analyze the second part of the sentence. We see "flies" means some kind of animals and "like" is the verb of the sentence. Now, turn to the first part. We can imagine a theory which says that this sentence means there is a kind of animals called "time flies" and they like an arrow. This theory is "simple" and "unified" in Copp's sense. But simplicity is no virtue here because the theory is simply wrong. In general, the mere fact we can explan something in unified manner does not mean that the explanation is better than other explanations. We should look at the subject matter carefully and decide if the explanation is right or wrong. This is what Gibbard claims. The two occurrences of the word "wrong" in "swimming is wrong" and "if swimming is wrong, someone will stop us" characterize two different kinds of speech act as a matter of fact, so these two cases should be analyzed differently, like two "flies" in the above case. Of course Copp will reply that there is no such difference in this case, but this is the matter which should be settled by empirical supports. If the result turns out in Gibbard's favor, Copp's simplicity gives no support to cognitivism. If it were to turn out in Copp's favor, he would not need the support of simplicity argument any more, since cognitivism would have enough support already. So, in any case, Copp's simplicity argument misses the point. Hare's own answer to the case Copp raises is in order. Here introduces the notion of 'inverted commas' usage of moral words. So the sentence in question is interpreted as "if swimming is 'wrong', someone will stop us," and "'wrong'" refers to people's opinion about wrongness. Of course this is a complication, but complication itself is not a vice, as I argued here.

Copp's fourth argument appeals to normative judgements other than moral judgements (18). Epistemological claims, claims on rational choice, claims on meanings and so on are all considered as normative. However, at the same time we put truth value to the sentences like "p knows q," "X means Y" and so on. Here non-cognitivism needs a different treatment for such normative claims again. Thus, Copp concludes, non-cognitivism calls for a disunified account of normativity.

A part of the answer to this claim is already given in the previous answer, namely unified account is no virtue in such a case. Copp also misses an important distinction between moral judgements and the examples he uses here. Normative claims in epistemology and semantics are peculiar in a point, namely they are normative claims on the truth values of certain descriptive propositions. For example, "p knows q" itself may be a descriptive sentence, but an epistemological claim that we should accept "p knows q" as true in such and such circumstance is not descriptive in such a way. This latter part of epistemology make epistemology a normative enterprise. If one provides an unified account to moral judgements and epistemological judgements by ignoring this peculiarity, it is just as absurd as the unified account to the sentence (1) above.

2. Universalizability

Universalizability means that if someone judges that X is good in a case, he/she means that, in every other cases in which all universal features (everything except for proper names) of the situation is the same, X is good. Copp argues against this notion by claiming that there is a case in which an apparently moral norm violates this requirement (76-77).

Copp's example is an insider code, which "assigns different status to insiders and outsiders simply on the basis that outsiders are not members of the insider group" (76). Now, suppose there is an insider group which allows to enslave an outsider, and let Alan be an outsider and Bill be an insider. Then to enslave Alan is right, while to enslave Bill is wrong, even thogh Alan and Bill are totally the same in their universal properties. According to universalizability thesis, either these judgements are non-moral or inconsistent, but neither of the interpretations is tenable (77).

How would Hare answer to Copp's argument? First of all, Alan and Bill are not the same in all universal properties. Copp admits this in his puzzling footnote: "Of course, sinse Bill is a member of the insider society and Alan is not, there are differences between them that are differences in their universal descriptive properties. But this is irrelevant to the issue of whether the insider judgements violate the universalizability constraint, unless no judgements ever violate the constraint" (77, n. 13). I am not quite sure why he judges that the differences are irrelevant, But I think that I can answer by showing how and when such differences are relevant to the issue.

To figure out if an insider code is a moral code, the above situation is not enough for the judgement according to the universalizability thesis. Suppose Bill agrees the above two judgements, namely that to enslave Alan is right, while to enslave Bill is wrong, even thogh Alan and Bill are totally the same in their universal properties exept for the differences pointed out in Copp's footnote above. Let us imagine that now Bill is caught by people from another insider society. The people decide to enslave Bill, according to their own insider code. What is Bill's response?

There are three possible cases.

(1) Bill does not protest.

In this case, we can admit that Bill's insider code is a moral judgement, namely "everyone in an insider society may enslave outsiders."

(2) Bill protests giving reasons.

If Bill protests by saying "my society has such and such properties but your society does not, so we can enslave outsiders but you cannot ," he is also making a moral judgement, namely "everyone in an insider society with such and such properties may enslave outsiders."

(3) Bill protests without giving reasons.

If Bill protests without any reason (or with reasons which inevitably refer to proper names), then we should understand this as expressing his own interest. In this case, at least for him, insider codes are just expressions of the interest of his society, and does not count as moral judgements.

In any case, there is no inconsistency involved. To sum up, the situation Copp descibes is incomplete for the purpose of applying the universalizability thesis. By additional considerations, some insider codes turns out to be moral codes, while others not, by the application of the thesis.

Copp further argues that insider codes should be in the same category as other moral judgements because insider codes affect quality of life. But simple imperatives can also affect our quality of life. Does Copp admit that all important imperatives are moral judgements? I do not think so. So I think that this argument is irrelevant to the present issue.

3. Overridingness

According to Copp, Hare's overridingness is "the thesis that one's morality is something that yields prescriptions which, as a matter of psychological fact, one lets override all other prescriptions" (77, his emphasis). Copp raises a counterexample to this thesis. The example (taken from Bernard Williams) goes as follows (77-78): Gauguin took up the life of a creative artist as his ideal, and strived to live up to it. He might well agree that by pursuing this life he neglected what he morally outght to do (to take care of his family, for example), but his ideal override the moral obligations. He might well also agree that his ideal is not a moral ideal in any sense. Apparently non-moral ideal can override a moral judgement psychologically.

Copp's formulation of overridingness is not quite truthful to Hare's own usage, however. According to Hare, a normative judgement is overridden when the person does not obey it without abandoning the judgement. A critical moral judgement cannot be overridden (this property is called "overridingness"), but any other normative judgement (including intuitive moral judgement) can be overridden. The distinction between critical moral thinking and intuitive moral thinking is important here. In critical thinking, one should represent everyone else's preference equally as if it is his/her own preference, and judge which preference has priority (utilitarianism is a special case of critical thinking which uses maximization rule in this consideration). Since critical thinking needs much energy and time, we choose prima facie moral principles by critical thinking, and in ordinary situations we obey these prima facie principles intuitively. This is called intuitive level. In some extraordinary cases, however, prima facie principles may be irrelevant from critical point of view, and therefore may be overridden by critical moral judgments.

With this understanding of Hare's own notion of overridingness, it is easy to reply Copp's counterexample. First of all, in the Gauguin's case, the obligation to take care of his family and other obligations are in intuitive level. So they are overridable. Second, Here is talking about meaning of moral words (and judgements including these words), so overridingness is not a psychological fact. In other words, it is psychologically possible that someone misuses the words like 'moral' or 'ought to'. Moreover, if Gauguin had really undergone a critical thinking and decided to pursue his own ideal, this is a moral judgement (though his ideal itself may not be a moral ideal). This just means that, when he represented everyone's preference (including his own preference for the ideal) equally, his own preference outweighed other preferences. Copp's argument seems to confuse two different levels, namely the level of moral judgements and the level of preferences (including ideals) chosen by moral judgements. So nothing is wrong with Gauguin's case for Hare's theory.

A possible reply from Copp (suggested by prof. Greenspan to me) is to deny the plausibility of the distinction between critical and intuitive level. An important part of the above answer is that the moral judgements included in Gauguin's case are intuitive ones, thus overridable. Then Copp might want us to provide a clear case of an overriding (i.e. critical) moral judgement. If we cannot provide a single case of such a judgment, the status of overridingness as an indicator of moral judgements is in danger.

To answer this possible reply, it is convenient to distinguish two levels of critical thinking, namely the critical thinking as an ideal limit and critical thinking actually used (Hare himself is well aware of the distinction in his argument; see chapter 3 of Moral Thinking). On the one hand, in the critical thinking we should consider all universal properties of the situation, by the definition of the critical thinking. Such a perfect knowledge is not available to us. On the other hand, when we consider which prima facie principle to obey, we are doing a critical thinking, without such a perfect knowledge. The former is the critical thinking as an ideal limit, while the latter is the actual critical thinking. The latter sense of critical thinking, which we do in our life, is overridable. For example, suppose I arrive at the conclusion that I should kill an innocent person after taking everything into account, namely by a critical thinking. It is possible that after all I do not obey the conclusion, by considering the probability that I overlook some important aspects of the situation, that I just miscalculate, or something like that. In this sense my actual critical thinking is overridden by a prima facie principle that I ought not kill an innocent person. I doubt that any kind of actual moral judgements serves as a case of purely overriding ones. Nevertheless, I think that overridingness is still a meaningful indicator of moral judgement in the following sense. In our actual critical thinking, we try to arrive at a better approximation to the critical thinking as an ideal limit, by gathering more and more information, checking reasonings and calculations again and again, and so on. In the ideal limit of this process, we have a perfect knowledge, and we can take all universal properties of the situation into account. Since everything (including our own and other people's ideals) are taken into account, there is nothing left out to object to the judgement. Hence in this ideal limit a critical moral judgement is overriding. Now, the more we approach to this ideal in our actual critical moral thinking, the more overriding is the resulting judgement. In this sense, an actual critical thinking is an enterprise to get as much overridingness as possible. We can find many such moral judgements in our life. For example, when we are in a moral dilemma, we consider as many aspects of the situation as possible. By adding more and more such considerations, the conclusion becomes more and more unlikely to be overridden. Therefore, I think that overridingness is still a useful indicator of moral judgements.

4. conclusions

Above considerations on prescriptivism, universalizability and overridingness show that Copp's rejection of Hare's universal prescriptivism is unwarranted. As for non-cognitivism (including prescriptivism), Copp's argument from simplicity does not work, because simplicity is not a virtue in this kind of an enterprise. As for universalizability, the plausibility of Copp's argument comes from an incomplete characterization of the situation. As for overridingness, Copp's own argument is based upon misunderstandings of the notion. There is a possible further reply from Copp on overridingness, but we can answer it successfully from Hare's point of view.