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.