Cognitivists believe that moral statements do express beliefs which can be true or false, and that it is possible to have objectivity in moral statements. Therefore there can be moral progress and mistakes. Non-cognitivists believe that moral statements cannot be objective and are not statements which can be proved as true or false.
Discussing what is "good" means that we need to define the word itself and debate whether it is a quality, whether someone can be a good man or if they only act in a good way. Finally the word "good" appears to act in a different way to colours which we can clearly see and understand.
Moral realists believe that there is a moral structure to events in the world, like the laws of gravity and the structure of an atom.
For cognitivsts moral truths are either transcendent (Plato), natural, or relational.
Plato's moral truths are the "miraculously transcendent" forms which exist in a seperate world, one "unaffected by the vissitudes of change and decay". His philosopher kings have to study in a painful process to have the Forms revealed to them which they then try to follow the course that the Forms show them.
The existence of these forms means that immoral actions are simply from a lack of knowledge of these Forms: “No one who either believes or knows that there is another possible course of action, better than the one he is following, will continue on his present course.” As acting morally is always in your best interests, these problems arise from a lack of knowledge.
Plato argues that no one would actively decide to be a drug addict, instead they don't fully understand the other courses (therepy etc.) that are available to them, or they don't have complete knowledge of how much pain they cause to their family.
Evaluation of Plato
Plato's Forms are badly developed and remain a bewildering concept with very little evidence. The Forms cannot be proven by logic nor can they be evidenced in our world today.
Our understanding of what is "good" and "right" changes a lot, a perfect triangle and a perfect partner are very different and it's hard to see which qualities they "inherited" through the Forms.
Plato could respond to the previous criticism by saying that they still reflect the form of "perfection" and when we complete the painful process we can truly understand what these objects all have in share.
This leads onto another criticism of Plato's forms, that they are elitist because getting to understand the Forms is something that only a few people who are "naturally fitted for philosophy" are able/given the opportunity to do.
However, lots of things like studying physics appear somewhat elitist. (understanding of maths, being able to learn easily) and that does not mean that gravity does not exist. Just because a concept is hard to understand does not automatically make it incorrect.
It's also debatable whether people always do what is in their best interest, smoking packets warn the smoker of the dangers but they still buy the cigarettes.
Naturists suggest that we can understand what is moral through our observations of phenomena in our everyday life. For example, utilitarianism makes the connection between "doing chores makes people happy" and "doing chores would be good", because it would maximise the pleasure of the family. In contrast, psychological egoism forms of naturalism propose that people always act in their own self interest and always will define what is "good" as what gives them the most pleasure.
Virtual theorists like Foot propose that we can define the word "good" and use it in the same what that we would define "dangerous". Something dangerous needs to be something that people should be careful around, and so we can use the word on signs etc. therefore we could define "good" as something with real benefits for people. Therefore what is "good" are actions which have clear benefits for humanity which can be observed in the world.
Therefore naturism claim that we can evidence "good" from our world, which has the advantage of appearing observable, and does not have the moral elitism of Plato.
The is-ought gap, or the naturalistic fallacy, criticises naturism by arguing that there is no necessary connection between whether something is "good" to commit an agent to actually fulfil the action. For example, utilitarianism would maximise pleasure, which can be defined as good, but that does not mean that we should take actions to maximise our pleasure.
Also, naturalism isn't necessarily evidenced in our world; lots of people act unvirtuously and still enjoy a great quality of life.
Naturalism still does not resolve what is "good" because everyone has different definitions of what is actually and virtuous. For example, both virtue ethics and utilitarianism are naturalist theories, yet they still differ.
Plato proposes in the ring of Gyges that morality is not good for any "inherent effects on its possessor", instead we only value "good" becuase of the reputation it offers. Foot responds to this by claiming that the effort of lying to everyone and keeping up the facade of justice whilst being unjust would exhaust the unjust man, meaning that justice prospers in the end. This is counterattacked by Adeimantus in the Republic who claims that "nothing worthwhile is easy".
What is "good"?
Foot's distinction makes us wonder what type of word "good" actually means. Some people distinguish between thick and thin concepts, in which thick concepts, like "danger" or "bravery", have a clear meaning and are easily described. In contrast, thin concepts like "good", "right" or "bad" are hard to fully definee and understand. This distinction undermines Foot's argument.
Alternatively, some people use define "good" as a secondary quality which is dependent on our sense perception, shown through disputes over whether a colour is blue, green, or turqoise. Hume says that "Vice and virtue may be compared to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which...are not qualities in objects but perceptions in the mind".
If morality is a primary quality then moral qualities must be relative, making a strong case for moral relativism. A cognitivist responds by saying that even though there are slight differences in perception of colours and morals, people (for example, the colour blind) can still make a mistake in their perception. McNaughton also criticises the seperation betweeen whether an act is "good" and what the act is, denying that good is a property like "red". He says that "the beauty of the sunset is woven into my experience" and we do not percieve the kindness of an act as something which can be removed from the act.
What is "good"? (II)
Alternatively, David Clarke argues that if we interpret morality as similar to colours then we can teach knowledge of virtue just as we teach colours. Therefore we can make moral progress and morality does exist, even though its hard to fully grasp.
McDowell then proposes that there is a fundamental difference between colours and morality. Colours have a causal relationship with the object, which can be evidenced through the colour spectrum whereas whether an action is "good" or "wrong" merits a response. However, this is subjetive, shown through our responses to animal rights or different types of suffering, which undermines the cognitivists position.
Alternatively, viewing morality as a quality which changes under observations could mean that actions defined as "good" are those which are seen as good by the observor. This could be a different type of naturalism rather than a criticism of morality itself. However, Hume would probably respond saying that peoples perceptions change too much to make any of this verifiable.
Externalists and internalists.
Moral realists are either exteernalists, who believe that what is "good" is can be studied and understood using facts. However people may choose to act, or not to act in response to these facts.
Internalists argue that people should fulfil a duty if they feel that it is the rigth thing to do and desire this action.
Normative relativsm argues that different moral attitudes are appropriate in their time. This increases tolerance, but the argument "when in Rome..." can be used to justify slavery and numerous other deeds which we percieve as bad.
This is impractical as t meanst here is no moral progress, and that we cannot evaluate morals themselves, instead we accept the origin that they came from. Surely we can understand the existence of certain morals, like the idea that slavery was right and look at its origin without justifying the moral act itself?
However, more specific criticisms of normative relativism is that it assumes that all cultures are homogeneous which is never the case. For example, normative relativism implies that every Southerner accepted and endorsed slavery, which is not the case.
A less convincing criticism is that it underestimates people psychologically and implies that nobody would stand up for what they believed in.
Arguably relativism undermines itself as it is clearly a relative idea born from our culture.
Statements about morality are not verifiable by the verifiable principle. He combines this argument with the is-ought gap to conclude that all statements about morality are simply expressing their emotional stand on the issue. For example, "helping people is good" actually means "I approve of helping people".
This is also defined as the hurrah/boo theory. Moral language does not state that "abortion is wrong" instead it says "I don't like abortion, and I don't think that people should undertake abortions"
People argue against emotivism because it shows morality to be completely subjective, and some respond saying that facts are viewed through different lenses but the facts still exist. For example, headlines choose between "murdered" or "butchered" or "assasinated" but the fact that someone killed another person is not debatable.
Secondly Ayer undermines moral debates, if it was nothing more than a "I like pizza" "I don't like pizza" then there would not be the complexity evidenced in these debates.
Arguably emotivism treats everything equally, if someone dislikes pizza that is hardly an urgent matter whereas usage of the death penalty is far more serious.
Hare develops Ayer's arguments, suggesting that moral statements are more than just a statement of emotion, instead they are us prescribing our moral judgements. Under this theory, there are no moral truths, instead all good acts are commended by our society. Therefore "good" can never be identified with a transcendent truth, instead it is defined as what one individual prizes.
However, perscriptivism could simply be added onto a cognitivist theory by explaining how we talk about morality whilst true ideas of "good" (e.g. the forms) exist.
There are some cruel actions that we feel transcend just emotions.
Also, if there is no moral truth then we should not enforce our understanding of morality (less of a criticism more of a consequence)
No one is objective enough to consider good equally and we favour different interests, very few people would treat their family and strangers in the same way.