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A danger of definition: Polar predicates in moral theory

by Mark Alfano

In this paper, I use an example from the history of philosophy to show how independently defining each side of a pair of contrary predicates is apt to lead to contradiction. In the Euthyphro, piety is defined as that which is loved by some of the gods while impiety is defined as that which is hated by some of the gods. Socrates points out that since the gods harbor contrary sentiments, some things are both pious and impious. But “pious” and “impious” are contrary predicates; they cannot simultaneously characterize the same thing. Euthyphro changes his definition, but the problem of recognizing emotional ambivalence is only side-stepped. I go on to show how contemporary philosophers run into a similar problem. According to Prinz, something is good if and only if we harbor positive sentiments towards it and bad if and only if we harbor negative sentiments towards it. Thus, if we are ambivalent towards something (if we harbor both positive and negative sentiments towards it), then it is both good and bad. Like “pious” and “impious”, “good” and “bad” are contraries. Next, according to the fitting-attitude theory first elaborated by Brentano and favored by contemporary meta-ethicists like Blackburn, Brandt, Ewing, Garcia, Gibbard, McDowell, and Wiggins, something is good if and only if it is a fitting (appropriate) object of approbation, and something is bad if and only if it is a fitting (appropriate) object of disapprobation. I argue that moral ambivalence is sometimes appropriate, i.e., that the correct response to some things is to both love and hate them. Hence, according to the fitting-attitudes theory, some things are both good and bad. I conclude by discussing a variety of ways in which the problem of ambivalence may be solved, suggesting that attitudes of approbation and disapprobation be further individuated by the reasons for them.

ISSN 1559-3061
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