Sometimes, when I do certain things, such as sit down and offer a human my paw, I get told I’m a ‘good dog’. And other times, when I do other things – like here, where I’m chewing a tasty slipper - I get told I’m a ‘bad dog’.
What do ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mean? They get used in lots of different contexts: the weather’s good when it’s sunny and bad when it rains; an artist or an athlete or a novelist can be good if they paint or run or write things in a skilful way; an action may be called ‘good’ if it’s moral and ‘bad’ if it’s immoral or unethical instead.
Calling me ‘good’ when I give my paw but ‘bad’ when I eat a slipper seems to be an example of the ‘moral’ meaning of ‘good’ and ‘bad’: I’m being praised for one and blamed or told off for the other, which seems like a moral kind of thing. But what do people actually mean when they say someone is being (morally) good or (morally) bad? And what makes something morally good or morally bad?
My humans seem to call me ‘good’ when I do something they want me to, and ‘bad’ when I don’t. This made me attracted to what human philosophers call ‘expressivism’ – the idea that when we use moral language like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ we are only expressing our likes and dislikes. ‘Good’ means ‘hurray!’ and ‘bad’ means ‘boo!’, and that’s the end of the matter. That’s quite different from how other people think of moral language – for example, some people think that if we say ‘stealing bones is wrong’, we’re expressing a belief rather than a dislike, and that that belief might be just as true or false as ‘there’s a jam sandwich on the table’, even if it’s more difficult to tell whether it’s true or not, because we can’t just eat it to find out.
I’ve been wondering whether expressivism is true of all moral language though, and I’m not convinced it is. That’s partly because it makes sense with statements like ‘stealing bones is wrong’, but it doesn’t make sense with some other sentences, such as ‘it is true that stealing bones is wrong’ or ‘Murphy believes that stealing bones is wrong’ or ‘Is stealing bones wrong?’. So, if expressivists think humans who use moral language are being expressivists when they use it, that doesn’t make sense of the way humans speak at least some of the time. So I think I might be an expressivist in relation to being called a ‘good dog’ for sitting when told or a ‘bad dog’ for chewing a slipper – but I’m not convinced I want to be an expressivist about everything.
You can read more about expressivism and that sort of thing here.
Mental walkies with Lola,