My apologies about the delay and I do recommend also checking out Richard's Arneson's interesting post on moral luck below, but we are finally able to begin the discussion of Jack Woods's Philosophers' Imprint paper 'Expressivism and Moore's Paradox'. To start things off, here is Teemu Toppinen's critical intro to the paper. I'm looking forward to know what you all have to say about Jack's wonderful paper and Teemu's equally brilliant discussion of it![Addition – 01/07/14: I've just been informed that a version of Teemu's critical notice will be published by JESP. Wonderful news and I'll add the link to the published paper later.]
Thanks for asking me to kick off the discussion of this terrific paper. Woods offers a neat, sharp argument against expressivism and discusses (and refutes) a number of potential objections. I first quickly outline Woods’s argument, and then explain why I don’t think that it succeeds.
Woods’s argument goes roughly as follows:
(i) If expressivism is true, then the parity thesis is true, that is, sincere moral assertions express desire-like states (e.g., being in favor of or against something) in exactly the same way as sincere non-moral assertions express beliefs.
(ii) The way in which non-moral assertions express beliefs explains why sentences of the form ‘p, but I don’t believe that p,’ where ‘p’ is a non-moral sentence, are Moore-paradoxical.
(iii) If the parity thesis is true, then the way in which moral assertions express desire-like states should explain why sentences such as ‘Murder is wrong, but I’m not against it’ are Moore-paradoxical.
(iv) These latter kinds of sentences are not Moore-paradoxical. So:
(v) The parity thesis isn’t true. So:
(vi) Expressivism isn’t true.
Woods’s focus is on arguing against the parity thesis. The conclusion that expressivism isn’t true is drawn only very tentatively. More precisely, then, the conclusion of the paper is that given the plausible assumption that expressivists should accept the parity thesis, expressivism isn’t true. (Two minor things: (a) Woods at one point (p. 6) seems to suggest that the familiar expressivist accounts of the expression relation, such as the one proposed by Mark Schroeder (e.g., in Being For), would involve rejecting the parity thesis. I’m not sure that this is right, but this doesn’t seem to matter much, as I agree with Woods that something like his objection would, in any case, apply to (at least most of) these accounts. (b) It is perhaps worth pointing out that Woods’s argument also seems to threaten some ‘ecumenical’ forms of cognitivism and besire-views.)
My main worry about this argument is due to its focus on moral assertion, in particular. To anticipate my main concern, I think that we should reject premises (i) and (iii). I’m fine with assuming that expressivists should accept a parity thesis of the relevant kind. If (i) and (iii) were formulated as claims about normative assertion, then perhaps expressivists should accept these theses. But if we make the required modifications to (i) and (iii), (iv) does not seem to be true anymore. And so the modified parity thesis and expressivism can both be saved.
It is best to begin with premise (iv), which Woods mostly concentrates on. Consider the following claims (p. 5):
(11) Murder is wrong, but I don’t believe it is wrong.
(3) Fuck the Yankees! I have no negative attitude toward the Yankees.
(8) Murder is wrong, but I’m not against it.
Woods suggests that (11) and (3) are incoherent in a way in which (8) is not. I’m inclined to agree. A possible, quite plausible explanation for why this is so is this: ‘Murder is wrong’ expresses a belief that murder is wrong, but might not express, in the same sense, any desire-like attitude against murder. This explanation might sound like it would be a bad fit with expressivism, but it seems to me that actually expressivists can accept this explanation. They can do this, assuming that ‘wrong’ is a context-sensitive term, which is often, but not always, used to make a normative judgment, consisting (at least in part) in a desire-like attitude. If something along these lines makes sense, and if the non-normative uses of ‘wrong’ are central and common enough, then it’s no wonder that sentences such as (8) are more easily given coherent readings than, say, (11) or (3).
In discussing possible objections, Woods acknowledges the possibility of broadly this kind of defensive move. He notes that someone might suggest that ‘Murder is wrong’ can be used in an inverted-commas sense, as making a claim to the effect that murder is wrong by the standards of the prevailing society. He also considers the possibility that this sentence could be used in a ‘theoretical’ sense to make a ‘cold and impersonal’ moral judgment. I’ll say some more on these suggestions and Woods’s objections below. But it is helpful to note, already at this point, that these ideas do not exhaust the options that expressivists have with regard to giving descriptive, non-normative readings of a sentence such as ‘Murder is wrong.’ The expressivist could suggest that when we use the sentence ‘Murder is wrong,’ we always, very roughly, characterize murder in relation to standards or norms of a certain kind. Perhaps the relevant kinds of norms are norms for when to feel guilt and resentment. (Perhaps they should be understood quite differently, but this should suffice for illustrative purposes.) However, just which norms of the relevant kind are relevant might vary from one context to another. In some contexts, ‘Murder is wrong’ might be used to make a claim about the relation of murder to the norms that have currency in the speaker’s own society. In others, this sentence might express, for example, a belief about the norms of some other, salient, society, or about the norms that the speaker used to endorse (perhaps before having suffered a severe brain damage). A very central, plausibly primary, use for this sentence would be that of relating murder to standards that the speaker herself endorses, or subscribes to. This, the expressivist might say, would be the genuinely normative use of the sentence. It would be this specific sense of ‘wrong’ which the expressivist would wish to give an expressivist account of. What’s been suggested here is very much inspired by Michael Ridge’s recent, relatively detailed and sophisticated account of the meanings of ‘good,’ ‘ought,’ etc., in his Impassioned Belief (OUP, 2014), but the basic idea of there being a variety of descriptive uses for terms well suited for making normative judgments is, of course, a familiar one.
If this line of response were correct, then there should also be senses of ‘wrong’ which would make sentences like (8) come out as incoherent. But this seems like a nice prediction to me. Let’s begin with some normative claims that aren’t specifically moral, and that are not so easily given non-normative readings. Consider:
(12) All things considered, we ought not to murder, but I’m not in any way against murdering.
(13) There’s some reason not to murder, but there’s nothing about murder that I’d be against.
These seem incoherent to me, just like, for instance, (11) or (3), above. That’s a neat prediction of expressivism. How about wrongness in a normative, ‘reason-implying’ sense?
(14) Murder is wrong – that is, wrong in a sense which implies that there are extremely weighty reasons not to murder –, but I’m in no way against murder.
Again, this seems clearly incoherent. So, it seems fine to allow that there are such readings of ‘Murder is wrong’ which would render something very much like (8) incoherent. (‘Murder is wrong [in the reason-implying sense], but I’m not against it’ might still sound coherent, because this claim could perhaps be understood as saying that even though there are extremely weighty reasons against murder, it’s still, on balance, okay.)
So, again, (i) and (iii) should only (possibly) be accepted once they’ve been modified so as to make claims about the relationship between normative assertions and desire-like states. However, once we modify these premises in an appropriate way, (iv) does not seem to be true anymore.
As noted, Woods (p. 7) considers some objections roughly along these lines. First, he acknowledges that one might object that the “relative felicity of the examples [such as (8)] is due to an inverted-commas use of ‘wrong’. When so used, ‘Murder is wrong’ means something like ‘Murder is wrong (by the moral standards of the prevailing society)’.”
Woods isn’t happy, at all, with the inverted-commas response. He suggests that “such an aberrant interpretation of the meaning of ‘Murder is wrong’ is implausible without conditions suggesting such an interpretation” (p. 7). I do not think, however, that this is a very aberrant interpretation. For instance, when I teach ethics, there often are people in the audience who have some difficulty seeing how ‘Murder is wrong’ could have any other kind of meaning. So, it seems to me that an inverted-commas reading of sorts is very much available for this sentence. In any case, I’ve suggested that there’s a wider range of descriptive ways of using ‘wrong,’ and not all of these seem aberrant. It also seems quite plausible that utterances of (8) themselves suggest a descriptive interpretation exactly because, in using this sentence, the speaker is reporting that she doesn’t have the attitudes that one would take ‘Murder is wrong’ to express when used normatively, as it is most commonly used.
Now, Woods does consider the idea that “it is the mere availability of an inverted-commas reading that renders the examples coherent” (p. 8). He notes that “inverted comma readings are often indicated by stress, but [(8) does] not require stress to be felicitous.” However, the inverted-commas (or the other non-normative) readings of sentences such as ‘Murder is wrong’ need not be indicated by stress, so this seems irrelevant.
Woods also argues that “the mere existence of an inverted comma reading […] is not sufficient for the coherence of such examples” because “predicates of personal taste, for example, clearly have an inverted commas reading, but ‘Broccoli is delicious, but I don’t like it’ is still strikingly incoherent” without an appropriate stage-setting. Now, it’s true that there just being a sensible inverted-commas reading for the relevant sentences is not sufficient to make them sound coherent. However, such readings may be more or less easily available or accessible to a hearer. ‘Wrong,’ it seems to me, is quite often used in an inverted-commas sense, or, anyway, in some descriptive sense. So, here a descriptive reading is easily available. ‘Delicious’? Not so often, it seems. Now that I have given the sentence ‘Broccoli is delicious, but I don’t like it’ some thought, I can easily hear it as coherent (perhaps the speaker has a history of being a broccoli-lover, or perhaps she’s deferring to those with a more ‘refined’ taste in order to be more helpful). However, this sentence was, at least in my case, somewhat more resistant to a coherent interpretation than ‘Murder is wrong, but I’m not against it.’ I wouldn’t say that one sentence sounds more incoherent than the other, but it’s easier (for me) to hear the latter as coherent. (As for the standard Moore-paradox sentences such as ‘Snow is white, but I don’t believe it is,’ these would seem to require truly aberrant interpretations in order to make any sense.)
So, I don’t think that Woods’s response to the objection from inverted-commas uses succeeds. Also, the objection from inverted-commas uses can be further strengthened by acknowledging a wider range of descriptive uses for terms like ‘wrong.’
Another related objection, discussed by Woods, distinguishes “between cold and impersonal moral judgments issued in the course of theorizing and heated moral judgments issued in the course of criticizing others’ actions or guiding our own” (p. 9). Woods suggests that if uses of terms like ‘wrong’ don’t always express desire-like states, “it is unlikely that such attitudes will play a serious role in the account of their meaning” (p. 9). His proposal is that moral assertions often conversationally imply that the speaker has the relevant desire-like state. However, as argued above, there are other, more expressivist-friendly, options available for capturing the distinction between those uses of terms like ‘wrong’ that express desire-like states and those that don’t.
I’ve focused on what I found to be problematic about this very nice paper. The rest seemed pretty convincing to me. Finally, I cannot resist noting that I appreciated the decadent air of p. 5, which contained, within one spread of a philosophical article published in a top notch journal, uses (or, anyway, mentions) of ‘Yay for drinking a lot of beer tonight’ and a sentence of the form ‘Fuck the x,’ plus, in a footnote, a description of drug-induced hallucinations.