Moral Utterances, Nihilism and the Negation Problem

David Faraci, from Bowling Green State University, has asked me to run the following post on his behalf (he’ll be responding to comments directly):

I want to argue that expressivism is incapable of making sense of certain kinds of nihilistic utterances.  Much of this argument comes from thinking about Mark Schroeder’s work on the negation problem in Being For.  I am hoping for feedback on both the argument and its implications.  I think the success of this argument would pose a serious threat to expressivism.  Surely it is possible to be a nihilist and to express one’s nihilism.  But if I’m right, expressivism implicitly denies this.

Consider the utterance, “murder is not wrong.” The expressivist must explain what attitude is being expressed and why it is inconsistent with the attitude ‘murder is wrong’. Schroeder offers a solution: employ a single non-cognitive attitude, ‘being for’. Suppose Jim makes this utterance sincerely.  Schroeder suggests that there are three possible ways for the expressivist to understand Jim’s attitude:

n1. Jim is not for blaming for murder.

n2. Jim is for not blaming for murder.

n3. Jim is for blaming for not murdering.

Schroeder writes: “For any sentence ‘A’ expressing the attitude, FOR(α), ‘~A’ expresses the attitude FOR(¬α).”  On this view, someone who sincerely utters “murder is wrong” is best understood as ‘being for not blaming for murder’ (n2).  But now suppose Jim is a nihilist.  If Jim is understood as in n2, then Jim is ‘for’ something.  But nihilists are not ‘for’ anything.  So, Jim cannot be understood as in n2.  What’s more, Jim does not have to be a full-blown nihilist for this to be the case.  So long as Jim rejects ‘wrongness’, we cannot take his ‘murder is not wrong’ attitude as committing him to ‘being for not blaming for murder’.  We have no idea what Jim’s attitude towards blaming is.

The expressivist might reject Schroeder’s interpretation and suggest that we instead understand Jim as in n1.  But this brings back the very problems Schroeder was trying to address.  What is Jim expressing here?  There seem to be three options: he is expressing (a) a belief; (b) a noncognitive, non-‘being for’ attitude or; (c) a ‘being for’ attitude. It cannot be (c), which has the same problems as understanding Jim as in n2. It would be odd if the expressivist chose (a); this would make Jim’s moral claim cognitive. In any case, whether she does choose (a) or (b), she runs up against Schroeder’s objection to earlier solutions to the negation problem. What makes Jim’s non-‘being for’ attitude inconsistent with ‘being for blaming for murdering’? If Schroeder is correct, no explanation is possible, and the expressivist is back to square one.

 

The expressivist is between a rock and a hard place.  She may understand Jim as having a non-‘being for’ attitude, in which case she cannot explain why he is in conflict with the non-nihilist.  Alternatively, she may understand him as having a ‘being for’ attitude, but this is an objectionable distortion of what Jim says and means to say.  Either way, the expressivist has no way of properly understanding something common in moral discourse.

47 Replies to “Moral Utterances, Nihilism and the Negation Problem

  1. I don’t get the problem. What is the problem of understanding Jim’s utterance in term of n1, i.e., as an expression of lacking an attitude of being for blaming for murder. This would mean that the nihilist uses the negation with wide scope (It’s not the case that murder is wrong) rather than with narrow-scope (Murder is not-wrong). The latter would commit to some being for attitudes but the former does not. And, I don’t see why he cannot be saying that he lacks an attitude. Why would an expressivist be committed to either (a), (b), or (c)?

  2. Hi David,
    Some first thoughts:
    (1) Can you say a bit more about why a nihilist is committed to saying ‘Murder is not wrong’?
    (2) I would think a nihilist might say something like this instead: “Murder is wrong, but that is no reason to avoid it.”
    This could then be interpreted as him reporting the facts that others are against it and that he is not against it. He would, in other words, be expressing beliefs. Why couldn’t the expressivist be ok with that?

  3. “What makes Jim’s non-‘being for’ attitude inconsistent with ‘being for blaming for murdering’?”
    Consider both
    ‘Jim is not for blaming for murder’
    and
    ‘Jim is not for blaming for not murdering’.
    (To wit, Jim is for neither (i) blaming for murder nor (ii) blaming for not murdering.)
    Both claims are consistent and noncognitivist. Yet the latter is inconsistent with the (cognitivist) attitude
    ‘being for blaming for murdering’.

  4. Also, can a nihilist be against non-nihilism or “in conflict” with non-nihilism given the assumption that “nihilists are not ‘for’ anything”? That sort of conflict or denial would seem to be being for something, namely being for not being a non-nihilist.

  5. Michael,
    I think that proposal assumes that the nihilist is for something (namely not blaming for murdering or not-murdering), but we were supposed to assume that nihilists aren’t for anything to get the problem going in the first place.

  6. First, I just want to thank Dave Shoemaker and the other editors for giving me this opportunity. And of course, my thanks to everyone who is posting comments.
    Jussi, Michael and Brad,
    I think all of your points are close enough that I can address them together. Please let me know if I’ve missed anything: Certainly, not all nihilists are in conflict with non-nihilism, but some are. Say Jim is just a moral nihilist. He takes it that there are non-moral reasons for adopting moral nihilism. I think that Jim would say “murder is not wrong” and mean this to contradict those who think it is. Of course, we could understand him as Brad suggests, as expressing that he believes something others deny. But this brings up the problem of conflict. There is no inconsistency between the belief that one is not against murder though others are and ‘being for blaming for murder’. This conflict problem also explains why the expressivist can’t make use of n1. The nihilist could be saying that he lacks an attitude, as Jussi suggests, but we have to interpret him in some way such that he’s expressing this. I think this is Michael’s concern as well. Certainly, ‘Jim is not for blaming for murder’ is inconsistent with his ‘being for blaming for murder’. But, again, the problem is not explaining why these are inconsistent, but explaining how the expressivist can understand Jim’s utterance such that he is expressing his ‘not being for blaming for murder’. My claim was that he is either expressing a belief that he lacks the moral attitude, expressing some other non-‘being for’ attitude towards the moral attitude, or expressing something like ‘being for not being for blaming for murder’. The first two run into the conflict problem; the last makes him ‘for’ something. Broadly, the problem is this: For them to be inconsistent, two utterances must express the same kind of attitude. We can’t assume Jim is ‘for’ anything, and thus no proper interpretation of his utterance can contradict any moral attitude, as understood in terms of ‘being for’.

  7. The expressivist might think that what attitudes a moral utterance expresses does not depend on what attitudes the speaker actual has. The expressivist has to, after all, think that when sincere speakers and insincere speakers utter the same sentence the mean the same thing. Given that for the expressivist the meaning of claims is given by the attitudes they express, this entails that when an insincere speaker says that ‘murder is wrong’ she too expresses the same attitude of being for blaming for murder even if she really isn’t for blaming for murder.
    If this is right, then the nihilist can also be taken to express the attitude of being for not blaming for murder even when he doesn’t have that attitude (in the same way as the insincere speaker does). This explains why the sentences and utterances are inconsistent with the non-nihilist’s. OF course, there has to be a separate explanation for how the attitudes of the nihilist differ from his opponents. But, for this, there seems to be a simple story: one has the for attitudes whilst the other lacks them.

  8. Hi David,
    You write: “There is no inconsistency between the belief that one is not against murder though others are and ‘being for blaming for murder’.”
    I am not sure I see this point yet.
    Say I believe, correctly, that I am not against abortion, but that others are against it – e.g. in the sense that they are for blaming for murder.
    (1) As Blackburn, etc point out, those others are also against anyone who is not against abortion; they are, for example, for criticizing or even punishing people who are not against abortion.
    (2) Now assume also that if X is not against abortion, then X is also not against those who are not against abortion.
    Generalizing, these points seem to support the following conclusion:
    If one believes (truely) that one is not against murder though others are AND one is also for blaming for murder, then one both is and is not against those who are not against murder.
    That looks like an inconsistency.
    Maybe I am missing something though, or simply assuming something I cannot!

  9. Jussi,
    I don’t really see this as a solution. My argument is meant to demonstrate that expressivism makes it impossible to be a nihilist. What you propose seems to be little more than bullet-biting. It would turn out that all purported nihilists are either insincere or mistaken about their own attitudes. This is a serious problem if it is important that the nihilist’s position be one a person can sincerely take. When someone who is insincere or mistaken about his attitudes makes an utterance, while we cannot conclude anything about his actual attitudes, we should be able say what he takes his attitudes to be. But this is not true of the nihilist here. The nihilist does not take himself to be expressing his ‘being for’ anything. He means to express something else entirely, something the expressivist cannot make sense of. Whether the nihilist actually has the attitudes he means to express is not important.
    Brad,
    Jim believes that he is not ‘for blaming for abortion’ and that others are ‘for blaming for abortion’. We can rephrase your (1) as: Those who are ‘for blaming for abortion’ are also ‘for blaming for not being for blaming for abortion’. I have argued that for Jim, (2) cannot be understood in terms of ‘being for’. Given your entailments, we know that Jim has some non-‘being for’ attitude such that he is not against those who are against abortion. You write: “If one believes (truely) that one is not against murder though others are AND one is also for blaming for murder, then one both is and is not against those who are not against murder.” The trouble is that there is a conflation here: You are understanding the belief as a ‘not against’ and the ‘being for’ as an ‘against’. But this is precisely what is at issue. If ‘being for’ and belief are fundamentally different attitudes, as Schroeder’s expressivist maintains, in virtue of what can they be understood to be inconsistent?

  10. Hi, if it is allowed I would like to contribute my two cents, though it’s entirely possible that I’m going to totally miss the nuance of argument as I am a debatably trained philosopher.
    As an existential nihilist personally, I would have to say that it is clear that my moral nihilism is utterly incompatible with an expressivist account of a moral language, however I think this for a slightly more base reason than the debate of whether we can reliably interpret the utterance of the nihilist as being morally equatable to a statement of blame (whether negated or not).
    It comes to the fact that the nihilist would reject the expressivist premise that because Jim is uttering the words they relate to anything within Jim.
    It is difficult to see the incompatibility because both the expressivist and the nihilist would reject the naturalist idea of an objective moral language of expression and utterance, but a nihilist would go one stage further and claim that in actual fact there is no moral language at all, whether objective or subjective (either under expressivism, or under any non-cognitivist position) and as such would claim that Jim is merely making a factual observation on the legality, or falsely accepted social hallucination that murder is wrong.
    The expressivist attempt to translate this to a blame statement is the erroneous part of the analysis, becasue you wouldnt say that the statement “sodium burns yellow” is translatable to a second level statement about some internalised mental state or attitude about the sodium burning yellow.
    The nihilist would reject the expressivists attempt to rephrase the apparently moral “murder is wrong” into any internalised attitude statement, when the nihilist is making an morally empty factual statement about the nature of the social fabric we face in the world, and doesnt attempt to tie it to any sort of ethical or meta-ethical idea.
    Sorry if this is miles wide of the mark, but I thought it might clarify why we can claim that expressivism is unable to process my moral nihilism.
    Matt

  11. Hi, if it is allowed I would like to contribute my two cents, though it’s entirely possible that I’m going to totally miss the nuance of argument as I am a debatably trained philosopher.
    As an existential nihilist personally, I would have to say that it is clear that my moral nihilism is utterly incompatible with an expressivist account of a moral language, however I think this for a slightly more base reason than the debate of whether we can reliably interpret the utterance of the nihilist as being morally equatable to a statement of blame (whether negated or not).
    It comes to the fact that the nihilist would reject the expressivist premise that because Jim is uttering the words they relate to anything within Jim.
    It is difficult to see the incompatibility because both the expressivist and the nihilist would reject the naturalist idea of an objective moral language of expression and utterance, but a nihilist would go one stage further and claim that in actual fact there is no moral language at all, whether objective or subjective (either under expressivism, or under any non-cognitivist position) and as such would claim that Jim is merely making a factual observation on the legality, or falsely accepted social hallucination that murder is wrong.
    The expressivist attempt to translate this to a blame statement is the erroneous part of the analysis, becasue you wouldnt say that the statement “sodium burns yellow” is translatable to a second level statement about some internalised mental state or attitude about the sodium burning yellow.
    The nihilist would reject the expressivists attempt to rephrase the apparently moral “murder is wrong” into any internalised attitude statement, when the nihilist is making an morally empty factual statement about the nature of the social fabric we face in the world, and doesnt attempt to tie it to any sort of ethical or meta-ethical idea.
    Sorry if this is miles wide of the mark, but I thought it might clarify why we can claim that expressivism is unable to process my moral nihilism.
    Matt

  12. David,
    You write: “You are understanding the belief as a ‘not against’ and the ‘being for’ as an ‘against’. But this is precisely what is at issue. If ‘being for’ and belief are fundamentally different attitudes, as Schroeder’s expressivist maintains, in virtue of what can they be understood to be inconsistent?
    I am still not clear here.
    Going along with your case, I am understanding the use of the sentence ‘Abortion is not wrong’ as expressing the speaker’s belief about what attitudes he has.
    By extension, I would think that the expression of this belief *implies* that the speaker is not against abortion (or against those who are not against abortion).
    In short: the nihilist cannot express a lack of attitude, because that is nothing to express – but his expression can express the belief which implies that he lacks the attitude.
    Is that much ok?

  13. Sorry had to run to class…you can probably see where I am going with this.
    The relevant inconsistency would be like the one exhibited by an utterance of this: ‘No one in this room hates Palin, but, man, do I hate Palin.’
    The first part expresses a belief, and the second part expresses an attitude. And there seems to be some sort of inconsistency here.
    We can haggle over whether it is an inconsistency in some technical sense (as people do in the Moore cases), but it seems that the general line I am suggesting can rebuff the claim that this is a serious problem for the expressivist — we can grant it is not inconsistency in some technical sense, but then ask why this is a problem for the expressivist.
    Less analogous, but similar inconsistencies:
    (1) Uttering both ‘No one is in serious pain in here’ and ‘Arrggggggggg……my arm….’ while clutching at an arm that has been stabbed.
    (2) Imagine someone uttering ‘No one is in pain here’ while obviously bracing himself against the pain – some facial or bodily emotional expression of the pain.

  14. Sorry – pain is probably not the best thing to bring in, because it is not obviously an attitude…but you can substitute an attitude in…

  15. Matt,
    I’m going to work backwards through your comment: You write that “you wouldnt say that the statement “sodium burns yellow” is translatable to a second level statement about some internalised mental state or attitude about the sodium burning yellow.” I think that you would; you would take it to indicate a belief. If I say sincerely “sodium burns yellow” then we can understand me as expressing “I believe sodium burns yellow.” So, I’m not sure I see why the nihilist would resist any such “internalized” understanding of a moral claim. The problem, as I see it, is not that the nihilist can’t be understood as having an attitude; in fact I think the cognitivist can capture the nihilist’s attitudes—beliefs—quite well. The problem, rather, is that the cognitivist has no choice but to understand the nihilist in terms of the sort of attitude she understands all moral claims in: the normative attitude ‘being for’. Also, I didn’t mean for my nihilist to reject moral language itself. One can certainly be a nihilist about the truth or appropriateness of moral claims without maintaining that such claims are not what they purport to be. You are correct, however, that nothing here rests on understanding ‘wrongness’ in terms of ‘blame’. That is just the understanding of ‘wrongness’ Schroeder assumes for the sake of argument, so I do the same.

  16. Brad,
    Thanks for the Palin example; it was useful in thinking about this. I really need to think about this more (and on more sleep) but let me make a couple of preliminary comments. You suggest that the belief that one is not ‘for blaming for murder’, because it implies that one really is not ‘for blaming for murder’, is inconsistent with ‘being for murder’. First, I’m not entirely convinced of this implication. It seems possible that someone might believe he lacks an attitude that he in fact has and thus I think it still plausible that the nihilist’s belief here is not inconsistent with the ‘being for’ attitude in question. Even if I accept your solution, though, I think there are further problems. A lot of people find expressivism prima facie implausible because it looks to make us out to be deeply confused about our own language and about an entire class of our attitudes. When the nihilist denies the wrongness of murder, he might believe himself to have no beliefs whatsoever about his noncognitive attitudes towards murder or blaming for murder. Now, not only is he saddled, as is every cognitivist, with having failed to express what he thought he was expressing, but he has succeeded in expressing a belief he doesn’t believe he has (and indeed might believe he does not have)! Is this really plausible?

  17. David,
    I’m having a very hard time understanding what’s going on.
    A nihilist, according to your version, is someone who is not for anything. Okay. If that’s what you really mean, then I think the expressivist response is obvious: a nihilist cannot use normative language in the ordinary way. That doesn’t seem to me to be a problem for expressivism. I think it’s quite correct, myself.
    But I’m not at all sure this is what you really mean, because you also say

    Say Jim is just a moral nihilist. He takes it that there are non-moral reasons for adopting moral nihilism.

    But if he takes it that there are reasons for something, then isn’t he for that very thing? Or is the point that since Jim is a moral nihilist, he is not morally for anything but might be non-morally for plenty of things?
    You also say this:

    not all nihilists are in conflict with non-nihilism, but some are.

    Can you explain how a nihilist could fail to be in conflict with non-nihilism? Why would that be called “non-nihilism” if it is not in conflict with nihilism per se?

  18. Jamie,
    Yes, the idea was that one could be either a full normative nihilist (not ‘for’ anything) or a more “limited” nihilist, such as a moral nihilist (not ‘for’ any moral attitudes). (I’m actually not sure I like these characterizations of the nihilist in terms of ‘being for’ but I’ll just go with them for now.)
    Jussi asked whether nihilists can really be “in conflict” with non-nihilists. I took the idea to be this: There is a difference between mere inconsistency (having attitude p and attitude not-p) and “conflict” where I have attitude p and am against the having of attitude not-p. I think that most of the time, attitudes that are inconsistent will also be in conflict (it is somewhat odd to believe p but have no problem with the belief not-p). But I take it that the full normative nihilism is in precisely this position and thus while his view is inconsistent with non-nihilism, they may not be in conflict. I’m not sure this distinction makes sense, but it’s what I had in mind when responding to Jussi.

  19. David,
    Initally, thank you for not merely riddling what I imagined to be naive babble with the pepper of intellectual assault.
    I see what you are saying about the problem appearing because of the expressivist ideal that all moral attitudes can be taken as “being for” statements which the nihilist would claim as being invalid.
    However, I would say that it is also arguable that as I claim that the nihilist could deny the existence of the internalised attitudes derived from mere assertations.
    For example, taking the sodium statement, it is clear that it will be true that sodium burns yellow independent of my (or any individual) noticing it and stating it. The truth condition of the statement is is determined irrespective of the internalised attitude of the speaker.
    The nihilist would be hard pressed to deny the actuality of the combustion reaction of the sodium, but could deny that stating and believing are in any way connected. It is this particular denial that is an more apparent contradiction with the expressivist view… or perhaps to phrase that better and pass due respect to a professional in the field, it is an additional problem with the expressivist position.
    I suppose this is my main confusion, is it an axiomatic position that stating and belief are as connected as supposed here, and the more extreme nihilistic position would bypass the expressivist position and also pose a challenge to the core epistemological idea as well.
    Surely, though I was a little off before, my claim can sit alongside your original points about “being for” and provide a deeper and more expansive attack on the expressivist?
    Matt

  20. I see.
    So, is the problem supposed to show up with moral nihilists? I don’t think your particular problem does show up. Suppose Jim is a moral nihilist. So, he is not for any moral attitudes. He sincerely asserts, “Murder is not wrong”. A Schroeder-expressivist thinks, “Oh, Jim is for not blaming for murder.” This seems fine. Not blaming for murder isn’t a moral attitude, is it? I mean, lobsters don’t blame anyone for murder, and they don’t have moral attitudes.

  21. Jamie,
    Yes, I take it that the problem does show up for the moral nihilist. I tried to address your position in my original post when I wrote:
    “What’s more, Jim does not have to be a full-blown nihilist for this to be the case. So long as Jim rejects ‘wrongness’, we cannot take his ‘murder is not wrong’ attitude as committing him to ‘being for not blaming for murder’. We have no idea what Jim’s attitude towards blaming is.”
    Let me expand on this a little to try and clarify. According to the view under consideration, the expressivist understands positive wrongness-claims in terms of ‘being for blaming’ and negative wrongness claims in terms of ‘being for not blaming’. For this to make sense, there must be a commitment to the idea that all and only those things that are morally wrong ought to be blamed for. If there was no such commitment, it would be hard to see why anyone could be understood as ‘being for not blaming for murder’ just because they said “murder is not wrong.” I don’t think this is a rational or conceptual commitment; it seems to be a substantive moral one. But the moral nihilist has no substantive moral commitments, so while he may be ‘for not blaming for murder’ on non-moral grounds, we are not justified in assuming that he is. What’s more, even if he is, while we would have succeeded in attributing to him an attitude he has, since he is not committed to it by his utterance, the expression of this attitude cannot be a proper understanding of that utterance.

  22. I thought you said a moral nihilist is someone who is not for any moral attitudes. But not blaming for murder is not a moral attitude, so why shouldn’t a moral nihilist be for not blaming for murder?
    You’ve given a different description of a moral nihilist this time: he has no substantive moral commitments. Maybe that could be the criterion of moral nihilism. But it is not a very clear criterion. Suppose someone is very tolerant – is that a moral commitment? What if he gets angry and vicariously offended when he sees defenseless people being treated badly? Is that a moral commitment?
    I think it’s an interesting question whether what is expressed by “Murder is not wrong” is (invariably) a moral commitment. I tend to think that it is, but it’s not obvious one way or the other. But in any case I believe it is an independently interesting question, and not a special problem for an expressivist.

  23. Jamie,
    I didn’t mean for those to be different descriptions. I understand a moral nihilist as someone with no substantive moral commitments. I take it that the expressivist understands a moral commitment as a ‘being for’ some moral attitude, like blaming. She should thus understand the moral nihilist as someone who does not have any such moral ‘beings for’. So, what of this commitment that allows the expressivist to interpret “murder is not wrong” as ‘being for not blaming for murder’? If it is a moral commitment, as I suggest, then it is also a moral ‘being for’, something like ‘being for blaming for all and only that for which one is for blaming’. A moral nihilist does not have this commitment, because he has no moral ‘beings for’. We therefore cannot assume that he is ‘for not blaming for murder’ just because he says “murder is not wrong” (though he might be).
    I think you’re right that a better way of talking about this is in terms of whether “murder is not wrong” entails a moral commitment. If it does, then the moral nihilist can’t say it. If it doesn’t, then ‘being for not blaming for murder’ can be its proper interpretation only if the we know that any given speaker has certain moral commitments. So, for this utterance, either: (a) it entails a moral commitment, in which case the moral nihilist can’t say it; (b) ‘being for not blaming for murder’ is not a proper interpretation of it, or; (c) everyone has certain moral commitments, so there are no moral nihilists.

  24. Jamie,
    Also, I missed your lobster thing from before. Lobsters are not ‘for not blaming for murder’ they are ‘not for blaming for murder’. The argument about that interpretation is what I’ve been going back and forth on with Brad.

  25. Matt,
    I don’t know much about this stuff, but I’ll take a stab: I take it that a sincere utterance indicates that the speaker ‘takes himself’ to have an attitude of some kind. If the sincere utterance is assertoric, I take it this indicates that the speaker believes himself to have a belief with (roughly) the content of the utterance. He might not really have the first-order belief, but I find it hard to understand how he could fail to have the second-order one (believes he believes). In a sense, having this second-order belief seems guaranteed by the idea that his utterance was “sincere.” I suppose one might find a way of divorcing these two but, yes, I think this would be an attack on general conceptual claims, not just on expressivism.

  26. “[T]o be inconsistent, two utterances must express the same kind of attitude.”
    Suppose Bob says, “The present king of France wears diapers.”
    Suppose Jim retorts, “That’s not true.”
    Jim’s contention is inconsistent with Bob’s, but in no way are the competing contentions based on the same attitudes about the “present kings of France” (or even diapers, I suppose).
    I think something similar is going on in the nihilist’s negation of murder’s putative immorality. If Jim is a nihilist, his negation isn’t expressively moral, it’s cognitively skeptical — viz., about the semantic presuppositions of the moral claim in issue (in the one case, that ‘the present king of France’ has reference, in the other that ‘wrong’ has cognitive content). Thus, Jim’s negation in the moral case does not require “a commitment to the idea that all and only those things that are morally wrong ought to be blamed for,” any more than a negation in the royal case would require a commitment to the idea that the present king of France wears something other than diapers. Or?

  27. Michael,
    I think I might not be understanding your comment. Aren’t Bob and Jim both expressing beliefs? Aren’t all beliefs the same kind of attitude?
    Perhaps what you’re getting at is that the moral nihilist, like your Jim, is proclaiming some sort of presupposition error? This might be right but I don’t see it as inimical to my position. The nihilist doesn’t believe that ‘wrong’ has no cognitive content; that’s the expressivist’s view! Nihilists believe something like: ‘wrongness’ is necessarily never instantiated. In any case, neither belief could explain why the nihilist is in conflict with the person who is ‘for blaming for murder’.
    Am I missing something in your comment?

  28. David,
    I don’t think an expressivist need have any view at all about what counts as a moral commitment. Expressivists have a view about the meaning of normative sentences and thoughts.
    Since philosophers mean many different things by ‘nihilist’, we need you to say what you mean by it if we’re going to understand your argument. Saying that it’s someone with no moral commitments is somewhat helpful, but not helpful enough, because ‘moral commitment’ is not a very clear term. Saying (and as far as I understand you, you are still saying this) that it’s someone who isn’t for any moral attitude is more helpful.
    You wrote,

    Lobsters are not ‘for not blaming for murder’ they are ‘not for blaming for murder’. The argument about that interpretation is what I’ve been going back and forth on with Brad.

    I didn’t say that lobsters are for not blaming for murder. I’m sorry, I thought that was clear. I’ll explain more carefully.
    Here is what I said:

    Not blaming for murder isn’t a moral attitude, is it? I mean, lobsters don’t blame anyone for murder, and they don’t have moral attitudes.

    I thought the following was in question: whether not blaming for murder is a moral attitude. I figure that if we can truly describe something as ‘not blaming for murder’, and not blaming for murder is a moral attitude, then that thing must have a moral attitude. But, we can truly describe a lobster as ‘not blaming for murder’. So, if not blaming for murder is a moral attitude, then the lobster must have a moral attitude. But a lobster has no moral attitudes. So, not blaming for murder is not a moral attitude.
    Do you see why I thought this was significant? If not blaming for murder is not a moral attitude, then a moral nihilist can be for not blaming for murder, because, according to your criterion, a moral nihilist is someone who isn’t for any moral attitude.

  29. Jamie,
    I have a point that I’d like to raise about what you say. (Apologies all round if this has been raised before and I’m just to dumb to see it)
    You say:
    if we can truly describe something as ‘not blaming for murder’, and not blaming for murder is a moral attitude, then that thing must have a moral attitude
    Which is true, if we could determine uniquely that ‘not blaming for murder’ is a moral attitude then we could legitimately say that anyone who holds this attitude will be holding a moral attitude, and as such we could presumably move to an expressivist position for analysing this attitude, though it need not be exclusively to an expressivist position.
    However, I would say that there is a missing link in your logic. We cannot show that the only root of the attitude ‘not blaming for murder’ is moral in origin. If there was a non-moral approach to this attitude we couldn’t raise the definite link to morality and as such we have to follow David’s argument.
    Is this not true?

  30. David,
    I suppose my nihilism and personal belief that my statements and my beliefs are not causally (physically or metaphysically) connected will have to take a seat, I’m not sure that I would agree about the tenacity of belief-statements (on any order), but I do see that if I held that there was a connection, your argument would run perfectly smoothly.
    Matt

  31. Matt,
    I’m afraid you missed my point. My point was to show that not blaming for murder is not a moral attitude. Thus, the lobster.

  32. Ah, well, my mask of ability may have begun to slip there. Apologies.
    Interestingly, debating whether or not I had actually made a valid point about Jamies idea gave rise to another idea that could be thrown at the expressivist, though as I only just thought of it it may be horribly miscued and naive!
    Couldn’t a nihilist, of any extremity (from Davids moral nihilist alone to what seems to be a fairly bleak nihilist I present), argue that in fact there could be a direct link between moral statements and moral attitudes, but deny the expressivists claim that sign must be preserved?
    For example, surely we could imagine an individual who held that ‘murder is wrong’ and that we should not blame people for murder. (Casting aside any argument that infact these two statements/beliefs/attitudes are debatably inconsistent)
    I grant that this idea is not fully furnished and may need some serious work, but could a challenge not be levied against expressivism because of this need for sign (ie being for/being not for) having to be directly related to the sign (Wrong/not wrong) of the statement?
    Matt

  33. Hi David,
    You made two points in the last response to me.
    (1) You wrote: “It seems possible that someone might believe he lacks an attitude that he in fact has and thus I think it still plausible that the nihilist’s belief here is not inconsistent with the ‘being for’ attitude in question.”
    I assume that someone who believes he lacks the attitude but actually has it is not really a nihilist. He is someone who thinks he is a nihilist but who is not because he actually harbors moral attitudes. I agree with Jamie that some confusion is being generated because you have not nailed down what being a nihilist entails.
    (2) Your point about the revisionary implications of expressivism is helpful, insofar as it sheds light on your worry.
    But I am a bit confused by this: “When the nihilist denies the wrongness of murder, he might believe himself to have no beliefs whatsoever about his noncognitive attitudes towards murder or blaming for murder.”
    This seems to entail that the nihilist can think that there is nothing wrong with lying, but be in the dark, e.g., about whether he feels guilty for the lies he has told or indignation towards those that have lied to him.
    Is that like the case you want to use to attack the expressivist?

  34. re (1) above: my initial thought was that the lack of attitude was an *implication* of the *utterance*, so even if the person utters the sentence while harboring the attitude, the expressivist might still be able to take the line I suggested….not sure about that, but thought it was worth mentioning.

  35. All (esp. Jamie and Matt),
    I must apologize because I think I have been conflating two senses of “moral attitude.” I have been calling both ‘blaming’ a moral attitude and ‘beings for’ things like blaming moral attitudes. Clearly, these are not the same. There are a bunch of ways to set the distinction, so let me just stipulate: ‘Being for’ is a general normative attitude. There are moral attitudes in the sense that I have been using ‘blaming’ that we can have towards objects, actions, etc. There are also normative moral attitudes like ‘being for blaming’. But Matt pointed out another problem I’ve been worrying about: Can ‘blaming’ really be a moral attitude? If it is, then it is impossible for the nihilist to ever be ‘for blaming’ (and, as Matt points out, for the non-nihilist to ever be ‘for not blaming’ for those things he takes to be wrong). But this seems unreasonable. Why couldn’t the nihilist think we ought to blaming for non-moral reasons? What’s more, I think this is going to be a problem for any common attitude (disgust, hatred, anger, etc.). As soon as we stipulate that it’s a moral one, the nihilist loses the ability to be ‘for’ it on any grounds. So, I think the best thing to do is to return to the old ‘booing’ stand-in for the “particularly moral” attitude. Then we can understand ‘murder is wrong’ as ‘being for booing murder’. We are then considering two options: The nihilist who says “murder is not wrong” is either ‘not being for booing murder’ or ‘being for not booing murder’. I don’t think this really affects the argument but it might help clear confusion (at least for me).
    Jamie,
    First, I see why I was misreading the lobster thing. I never thought that ‘not blaming for murder’ was a moral attitude. In fact, I don’t think ‘not blaming for murder’ is an attitude at all. It is the lack of an attitude; it can even be said of a rock that it is ‘not blaming for murder’. The point was that since it is not an attitude, it cannot be directly expressed. One can only express that one has some attitude towards ‘not blaming for murder’. One believe it of oneself or one might be is ‘for’ it. I never denied that the moral nihilist can be ‘for not blaming for murder’; I denied that he has to be. And if he doesn’t have to be ‘for not blaming for murder’ then this cannot be a proper interpretation of his saying “murder is not wrong.”
    As to moral commitments, maybe I’m not understanding what they are. I take it that a moral commitment is (in cognitive terms) some substantive moral claim that one is committed to either expressly or because it somehow follows from other moral beliefs one has. The expressivist reading of this would seem to be that a moral commitment is (in my new language above) a normative moral attitude (a moral ‘being for’) that one is either committed to expressly or because it somehow follows from one’s other normative moral attitudes. If this is not how “moral commitment” is usually understood, I apologize. But then let my definition just be stipulative. It seems that a commitment in this sense must exist for us to ever understand “murder is not wrong” as ‘being for not blaming for murder’ (or, now, ‘being for not booing murder’). But then my last point comes back: Since the nihilist has no normative moral attitudes it would turn out that since this interpretation depends on all speakers having such attitudes, either it is not a proper interpretation in general or there are necessarily no moral nihilists.

  36. Brad,
    I thought of what you said in “re (1)” after I responded to you last time and I suspect it’s right. So, I’ll just grant the possibility of this interpretation. My real worry, though, continues to be (2). Unfortunately, what I wrote was not exact enough, but I think I can make sense of it. What I meant was that he might believe himself to have no normative attitudes towards murder or blaming for murder. This doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have beliefs about his own feelings of guilt or indignation, but that he might believe himself to not be ‘for’ anything at all when it comes to murder or blaming for it.
    But you have given me an idea for a possible solution to my own problem: There are going to be two types of moral nihilist, tracking the inconsistency/conflict distinction: those who merely have no normative moral attitudes and those who are (non-morally) against such attitudes. We can understand the former as ‘not being for being for moral attitudes’ and the latter as ‘being for not being for moral attitudes’. So, when they say “murder is not wrong” they are expressing neither a belief that they lack a moral attitude nor a ‘being for’ not having such an attitude. Rather, they are expressing, respectively, a belief that they are ‘not for being for booing murder’ and, that they are ‘for not being for booing for murder’. Then we have to ask, again, what makes them inconsistent with the non-nihilist. Well, in the first case their belief implies (as you suggest) that they lack the attitude ‘being for booing for murder’. This is inconsistent with ‘being for booing for murder’. This takes care of the nihilist whose position is “merely inconsistent” with non-nihilism. The second kind is in conflict with non-nihilism. Since he is ‘for not being for booing murder’ he is only inconsistent with the non-nihilist if the non-nihilist is ‘for being for booing murder’. I suppose it is plausible that given the nature of morality, if one is ‘for booing murder’ then one is also ‘for being for booing murder’. If this is the case, then this explains the inconsistency.
    This might work (if someone can tell me why it doesn’t, that would be awesome), but I still think there is an important point here: We cannot simply offer ‘being for not blaming for murder’ as an interpretation of “murder is not wrong” because this claim is ambiguous between that attitude and those of a nihilist whose attitudes are about normative moral attitudes. This leaves one final puzzle for the expressivist: When someone says “murder is not wrong” he might be expressing one of two distinct ‘beings for’ or he might be expressing a belief. So, the expressivist still has yet to offer a consistent semantic view of such claims.

  37. David,
    I never denied that the moral nihilist can be ‘for not blaming for murder’; I denied that he has to be
    My point wasn’t that you had denied that a moral nihilist can be for not blaming for murder. My point was that the argument depends that denial.
    I thought the argument went approximately like this:
    A moral nihilist = someone who is not for having any moral attitude. And, a moral nihilist can sincerely assert that murder is not morally wrong.
    But, Schroeder-expressivism entails that someone asserting that murder is not morally wrong expresses being for not blaming for murder. So, Schroeder-expressivism entails that a moral nihilist can be for having a moral attitude; so Schroeder-expressivism is false.
    I was pointing out that there is a false tacit premise in the argument, namely, the premise that not blaming for murder is a moral attitude. You now say that you didn’t mean that not blaming for murder is a moral attitude, so I don’t see how the argument is supposed to work.
    I think I’m done now, by the way – I might check this thread again some time, but not soon.

  38. Jamie (in case you come back),
    Your formulation is not what I meant to argue. I agree with the first three premises. But I don’t think this is enough to generate the conclusion because I didn’t mean to ever have the tacit premise that ‘not blaming for murder’ is a moral attitude (and I agree that would otherwise be necessary). What I meant to argue was this (same first three premises): “A moral nihilist = someone who is not for having any moral attitude. And, a moral nihilist can sincerely assert that murder is not morally wrong. But, Schroeder-expressivism entails that someone asserting that murder is not morally wrong expresses being for not blaming for murder.” This interpretation seems unwarranted unless we attribute to the speaker a further attitude, namely that not only ought we blame for things that are wrong, but we ought never blame for things that are not wrong. This looks to be neither a rational nor conceptual commitment. It thus seems that either:
    (1) We have no reason to attribute this further attitude to anyone, in which case the interpretation is just altogether wrong; so Schroeder-expressivism is false. Or,
    (2) The Schroeder-expressivist has some story about why this commitment stems from ‘being for’ some moral attitude. In which case, “Schroeder-expressivism entails that a moral nihilist can be for having a moral attitude; so Schroeder-expressivism is false.”

  39. Hi, David.
    Thanks for starting this discussion; I think Jamie covered most of the bases, but I just wanted to reiterate one thing, and then comment on one comment that you made which I think brings out where you’re being misled about how to think about things.
    The first comment is one Jamie already made in passing; it is that there is a general and interesting question about whether someone who denies that murder is wrong should count as making a moral claim. “Permissible” is often defined as “not obligatory”, after all, but that makes it seem difficult to see how to deny that anything is either permissible or obligatory; maybe we instead need to understand these as having a shared presupposition or something like that. Expressivism – including the expressivist semantic framework from Being For which you discuss – is neutral on this question. If you think it should come out one way rather than another, then all that you need to do, is to use that as a constraint on how you fill in the details of the expressivist semantics, along the lines described in Being For.
    Second point, which I hope will be more illuminating: You said, at November 07, 2008 at 03:25 PM, referring to the thesis that thinking that murder is not wrong is being for not blaming for murder: “For this to make sense, there must be a commitment to the idea that all and only those things that are morally wrong ought to be blamed for.”
    I think this sentence might get right to the heart of what is motivating you, because from the point of view of the semantic framework of Being For, it is confused. The crux of the matter is that to be for blaming for murder is not, at least according to this semantic picture, to think that murder ought to be blamed for. But in this sentence, you seem to be assuming that it is – that being for something is something like thinking that it ought to be the case.
    This is simply an incorrect way of understanding the framework – being for something is not a matter of thinking that it ought to be the case, or that it is good, or that it is K – for any way of filling in a normative predicate for “K”. To think that it ought to be the case that murder is blamed for has to be a matter of being for some relation towards the proposition that murder is blamed for. So it’s just false that there is any sort of commitment to the idea that all and only things that are wrong ought to be blamed for.
    Incidentally, I should mention again – as I did in the last thread – that absolutely nothing about the moves I make on behalf of expressivism in Being For turns on the appeal to blaming – or indeed on the appeal to any attitude whatsoever. So long as the expressivist holds that to think that murder is wrong is to be for some relation toward murder, that is enough to do the trick. The requisite relation need not be an attitude at all.

  40. David,
    I will add my last thoughts here.
    Yes, I see that by the substitution of blame and “booing” terminology in the argument does have the effect of clarification. I would still hold that the nihilist would reject the whole notion of what the expressivist is attempting to do with the moral language (and debatably the moral meta-language).
    However, that may be a matter of personal expression on the extent and nature of nihilism, which as noted wasnt really clear.
    I would be interested to determine whether one could determine if blaming was a moral attitude in itself, or more the social expression of the legal nature of the social contract with reference to the socially proscribed moral norms (however those norms were to be defined) but that will be the debate for another time I’m sure.
    Thanks one and all for my first taste of philosophical debate on real world (as opposed to classroom) issues.
    Matt

  41. Mark,
    “This is simply an incorrect way of understanding the framework – being for something is not a matter of thinking that it ought to be the case, or that it is good, or that it is K – for any way of filling in a normative predicate for ‘K’.”
    I admit I’m thoroughly confused. “Murder is wrong” is a moral claim and is thus normative for cognitivists and expressivists alike, no? It might not be understood in terms of an ought per se, but surely it is in some way prescriptive or entails an obligation or something along these lines. Minimally, doesn’t it have to be that whoever says it has some sort of conflict with those who fail to do what the speaker is ‘for’? How could this be unless the speaker took the other person as having an obligation, a reason, an ought, or whatever? I’m missing something here; I’m just not sure what it is.

  42. David –
    Don’t be confused. Ordinary expressivist views from the literature until now have worked by associating normative predicates – words like ‘good’, ‘wrong’, and so on – with attitudes. But that is what leads to the negation problem. The solution to the negation problem outlined in Being For is to not associate normative predicates with attitudes. Hence, the attitude of being for is not associated with any normative predicate. So being for X is not a matter of thinking that X is K, for any normative predicate ‘K’ – including ‘such that it ought to be the case’.
    You appeared, in your remarks, to be assuming that to be for X is to think that X ought to be the case. And your last comment suggests that I was right to think that this was playing an important role in what was animating you. But as I’ve just illustrated, that specifically flies in the face of the fundamental idea of Being For.
    To get a further grasp of why being for something is not a matter of thinking that something ought to be the case, pay close attention to what happens in the second half of Being For, in which I consider how to provide an expressivist treatment of a language containing descriptive as well as normative predicates – the semantic framework that I call Biforcated Attitude Semantics. That framework assumes that an ordinary belief that grass is green consists in two states of being for (the bi-for-cated attitude). But obviously believing that grass is green does not involve believing that anything ought to be the case.

  43. Mark,
    Okay, I think I see the point. Thanks for the clarification. I still think I have something of a worry, so let me try one more time and see what you think. You write in the book:
    “The solution is to say, just as all descriptive predicates correspond to belief plus some property that is contributed by the predicate, that all normative predicates correspond to being for plus some relation that is contributed by the predicate. For each predicate, F, there is a relation, RF, so that ‘F(a)’ expresses FOR(bearing RF to a).” (58)
    “‘Tolerance’, recall, was our stipulative name for the attitude toward murder expressed by ‘murder is not wrong’. We can see from n2, above, that this attitude is being for not blaming for murder.” (59)
    I still don’t see what justifies interpreting the negation of all claims that murder is wrong as claims of tolerance. It seems as though someone should be able to deny that murder is wrong without committing themselves to having any attitude towards blaming (or whatever gets filled in as RF) at all. And this makes sense, since the logical contradictory of ‘being for blaming’ is ‘not being for blaming’ rather than ‘being for not blaming’. The only thing that would seem to justify this, then, is not a moral commitment as I originally supposed, but a fact about ‘being for’, namely that one can only be ‘for’ something or against it (‘for’ its negation). But why would this be the case? And, if is the case, I’m still worried about the moral nihilist. As you say, it might be an open question whether ‘not wrong’ is a moral predicate. I think that it can’t be, but I won’t argue for that here. Let me instead assume it to be the case (since otherwise moral nihilists can’t even claim that murder is not wrong). It strikes me as implausible that any person whose views commit him to never ‘being for’ any moral relation must be universally tolerant. I think that this expresses my worry without my having to assume that ‘being for’ is normative.

  44. Sorry, I should have said that the implication is that someone can only express being ‘for’ something or against it, not that they can only be ‘for’ or against it.

  45. Hi, David.
    One more go. First point: it is true that the opposite of being for blaming for murder is not being for blaming for murder. Since the expressivist view is that thinking that murder is wrong just is being for blaming for murder, this is just to say that the opposite of thinking that murder is wrong is not thinking that murder is wrong. All well and good – that means that someone can not think that murder is wrong without being for anything.
    What you’ve been saying you wanted, however, was for it to turn out that someone can think that murder is not wrong without being for anything. You don’t get this, in Biforcated Attitude Semantics. If you think anything at all – that grass is green, that the Atlantic Ocean is not small, that my name is ‘Mark’ – anything – then you are for something. What that doesn’t mean, however, is that you have any moral views, or even that you tolerate anything. It just means that you think something. A nihilist who positively thinks that it is not the case that murder is wrong thinks something. So since thinking something always involves being for something, she is for something – but in no more objectionable a way and for no deeper reasons than anyone whatsoever who thinks anything whatsoever is for something.
    Now, in the book I used ‘disapproval’ and ‘tolerance’ as stipulative terms for the attitudes towards murder, whatever they are, that are expressed by ‘murder is wrong’ and by ‘murder is not wrong’. I used these terms because disapproval is naturally associated with impermissibility, and tolerance is naturally associated with permissibility, but in both cases they were explicitly stipulative. So one problem is that you seem to be appealing to intuitions about tolerance – which isn’t appropriate, since I was only using ‘tolerance’ in a stipulative way.
    As I noted in my original comment and I think Jamie also noted earlier, you may be getting caught up on the fact that the question of whether ‘permissible’ and ‘impermissible’ are interdefinable using negation simply cross-cuts the expressivist dialectic. The expressivist semantic framework in Being For is perfectly general. If you think that someone can deny that murder is permissible without thinking that it is impermissible, then you must think there is some shared presupposition there, and hence that they can’t be interdefined using negation. If so, then you can encode that assumption into Biforcated Attitude Semantics just as well as you can into ordinary descriptive semantics. In the toy examples that I used in Being For in order to illustrate the structural features of the view, I didn’t worry especially about this, but nothing prevents you from offering different analyses within the same framework.
    So far as I can tell, the only argument that no matter what analysis you gave of ‘wrong’ in Biforcated Attitude Semantics, it would turn out that denying that murder is wrong expresses objectionably moralized attitudes which a nihilist who thinks that murder is not wrong would not need to hold, would have to work by showing that any state of being for would be objectionably moralized in that way. But as I noted above, this can’t be any more objectionable than the objection that to think that grass is green is to be for something.

  46. First, thanks to you, Mark, and to everyone for being so patient and going back and forth with me on this. I think that I have failed to make myself as clear as I ought, since I do not mean to be making a lot of the assumptions that have been attributed to me. So, I will try one more time, but by no means do I take anyone to have an obligation to stick this out:
    First, I understand that ‘tolerance’ was merely stipulative; I did not mean for anything I said to rest on that being the relevant attitude. Second, I do think that permissible and impermissible are interdefinable in terms of negation, so I also do not wish to argue anything along those lines.
    So: You say that ‘being for’ is not a normative attitude. Fine. But when it gets coupled with something else, the result is normative. I take it that ‘wrongness’ is normative, and thus if all we mean by ‘wrongness’ is ‘being for blaming’, then ‘being for blaming’ must be normative. But ‘blaming’ (or whatever the relevant attitude) is just an attitude; it is not itself normative. So, then, the ‘being for’ must be doing at least some of the work in making ‘being for blaming’ normative. This is precisely why I agree with what you say in your final paragraph, but think that some nihilists would object to being told that they are ‘for’ something because they think that grass is green. For it to capture the moral nature of wrongness, ‘being for blaming’ must indicate something more than just ‘blaming’ itself; it seems it must indicate a sort of “support.” But then the ‘being for’ that goes with thinking that grass is green would also indicate such “support,” wouldn’t it? But some nihilists don’t support anything, in any sense. On such a view, they couldn’t think anything, even that they were nihilists.

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