As regular readers of this blog will no doubt have noticed, I have a continuing fascination with expressivism. It both attracts and repels me, much like a David Lynch movie. I’ve been trying to figure out what it is, exactly, that I don’t like.
Consider, in this vein, Moral Beliefism. MB is a cognitivist view: it’s the view that when you make moral utterances, you are expressing your moral beliefs. Well, what realist could want more? But listen to the following dialogue between Mob (a MOral Beliefist) and Og (the Other Guy). Mob, like many metaethicists in professional mode, helpfully glosses all her moral utterances:
Mob: Torture is wrong. Of course, when I say that, I am just expressing my moral belief that torture is wrong.
Og: What do you mean you’re “just expressing your belief”? It’s not as if this kind of thing is morally optional.
Mob: No, of course it’s not optional. Of course, when I say that, I’m just expressing my belief that my belief that torture is wrong is not optional.
Og: Dude, torture is very very bad.
Mob: I totally agree! Of course, in agreeing with you, I am just expressing my belief that torture is very very bad.
Og, and I, get frustrated. Mob seems to indicate, with the “just expressing” locution, that the beliefs are somehow optional, ungrounded, not corresponding to anything. It’s as if Mob has pulled the beliefs out of her hat. And of course she can say that they are not optional, but she gives the impression that this is one more optional belief—and optional non-optionality is not really non-optional. And yet, MB is textbook cognitivism. What’s missing?
I think this: that the whole point of belief as a mental state is to track reality, to get things right. And this is also the point of the reasoning that goes into believing: it’s a procedure which we assume or intend to get us closer to the truth of things. To say, “It’s just my belief” seems to communicate that this is not going on; the belief is not tracking truth or reality, and for that reason it would be equally ok, rationally speaking, to have the opposite belief. This is the way many undergraduates use, “It’s just my opinion” about moral matters; even if we take ‘opinion’ to name a cognitive state, there is something unserious about saying that all moral views are simply expressions of one’s opinion.
This indicates that it is not the belief-state per se, but its reality-tracking feature that I value in cognitivism. There are views of belief on which beliefs (or moral beliefs) do not have this feature, and so I am not happy with them either. And I think here is what I don’t like about standard-issue expressivism: expressivists hold that moral claims express desires or plans, and (the implicit assumption is) that desires/plans do not track anything.
But on the other hand, it seems possible that you could be an expressivist, holding that moral claims express desires, but holding that desires track (say) the good. This is, after all, the classical view of desire. I think I would have no objections to such an expressivism.
I don’t think this kind of expressivism can work for technical reasons, or rather, I don’t think it winds up really being expressivism. But I think we see something like tracking-expressivist views popping up when people talk about the ‘correctness’ of desires or intentions or plans. I’ve seen views like these in a number of places recently.
I’d be interested in any reflections readers have on these thoughts. But here are some concrete questions. (1) How close to classical views of desire as rational appetite for the good are those quasi-expressivists who appeal to ‘correctness’ of desires and plans? Is that a real similarity? (2) Is the no-tracking feature of standard-issue expressivism what captures the/a reason that people don’t like it as an account of moral judgment?