Al, Betty, Carla, Dan, and Ed accept the claim, “Utilitarianism is true.” They accept it because they have been told it by their revered professor, Dr. Black. In fact, their reverence for Dr. Black is so great that they would revise any other claim they accept before revising this one. However, there is a twist. In addition to accepting that utilitarianism is true, each student also has certain other beliefs as well:
- Al believes, correctly, that utilitarianism is the moral theory that tells you to do what will bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
- Betty believes, correctly, that utilitarianism is a moral theory, but she does not know which theory it is.
- Carla has no idea what utilitarianism is.
- Dan believes, incorrectly, that ‘utilitarianism’ is the name of a mathematical thesis, though he has no opinions about which mathematical thesis it names.
- Ed believes, incorrectly, that utilitarianism is the claim that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal in area to the sum of the squares of the other two sides (i.e., he has utilitarianism confused with the Pythagorean theorem).
We would ordinarily say that all the students have at least one belief (or more generally, one mental state) in common, namely the belief that utilitarianism is true. And we would say that when each asserts, “Utilitarianism is true” they all mean the same thing. But can an expressivist make sense of these ordinary intuitions?
According to the expressivist, the state of accepting “Utilitarianism is true” is either a cognitive state (an ordinary belief) or a non-cognitive state. (If you don’t like that terminology, substitute your own.) The difference is supposed to be reflected in the conceptual role of the state. Since “Utilitarianism is true” looks like a good example of a moral belief, let’s begin by supposing that the mental state the five students have in common is a non-cognitive one. But why think that Ed’s acceptance of this claim is in any way non-cognitive? It plays the same role that “The Pythagorean theorem is true” would for a normal mathematically educated person. Perhaps, then, the state is a cognitive one. But why think this about Al, for whom the claim functions exactly as it did for, say, Jeremy Bentham? Perhaps, finally, Al’s mental state of accepting “Utilitarianism is true” differs from Ed’s. But it is hard to see any grounds for this position, especially since the acceptance is equally deeply entrenched for both of them.
I’ve not even brought up Betty, Carla, and Dan. What should the expressivist say about Carla? If you think a certain named theory is true, but have no idea what kind of theory it is, is your state cognitive or non-cognitive? What grounds could there be for saying one or the other?
Here’s a diagnosis of the expressivist’s difficulty. The usual thing to say is that the meaning of “Utilitarianism is true,” and consequently the content of the mental state of accepting this statement, is “wide,” i.e. does not depend solely on the psychological states of those who accept it. It depends on history, social usage, etc. The expressivist explains the meaning of any sentence in terms of the mental states it expresses, so any wideness in the meaning of a statement has to be a wideness in the content of the state expressed. But since part of what’s wide about “Utilitarianism is true” is whether ‘Utilitarianism’ names a moral or a mathematical theory, it follows that whether or not a mental state is cognitive or non-cognitive is a wide property of the state. But that just seems like too much for the expressivist to swallow.