This post will be difficult to write as I’ll have to reign in my frustrations (I was thinking of calling this ‘Must Do Better’ or ‘All Souls Night, Part II’…). I’ve been reading Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek’s and Peter Singer’s The Point of View of the Universe – Sidgwick & Contemporary Ethics. Chapter 2 (sections 2–4) of this book contains a ‘Parfit-inspired’ criticism of expressivism and Blackburn, which I find quite upsetting. It makes me feel sad for Simon Blackburn (he really must get tired of objections like this) and it also makes me wonder about OUP’s editorial processes (I don’t see how this section could pass a peer-reviewed journal). In any case, here I want to start from a very basic distinction and then go through quickly some of the fairly outrageous claims de Lazari-Radek and Singer make about expressivism.
There are two different views in this context that are both inspired by David Hume. One of these is a first-order normative view about what reasons a given agent has. This view is sometimes called ‘existence internalism’ and it has been perhaps most clearly formulated by Bernard Williams. Roughly, his version of the view claims that a consideration is an reason for an agent to phi if and only if there is a sound deliberative route for the agent from her pre-existing motivational set to phying via that consideration. On this view then, it is true that what reasons an agent has at a given moment is a function of her desires (plus other items in the motivational set, plus sound deliberation, plus imagination…). Of course, since Williams introduced the modern version of this view, there has been huge amount written on whether existence internalism is true.
The second view is expressivism. Expressivism is a semantic (or better still a metasemantic) view about the meaning of normative sentences/utterances and the content of normative judgments. This means that it tells a story of what normative sentences mean on the basis of the desire-like, world-to-mind direction of fit mental states, which these judgments express. For example, one expressivist view about reasons claims and thoughts would be that to think that ‘The fact that P is a reason for S to phi in C’ is to be for taking the fact that P into account in phi-ing friendly way in C (to borrow something like Antti Kauppinen’s suggestion) and when you utter the sentence you conventionally express this thought.
The important point is there is no connection whatsoever between existence internalism and expressivism (other than that they are both Hume-inspired). As a semantic view of the meaning of reasons sentence and thoughts, expressivism is completely neutral about what reasons agents have, whether these reasons are facts, propositions, desire-belief pairs, and especially whether the having of a reason by a given agent depends on that agent’s current desires. Expressivism merely is a view about what you think when you think that existence internalism is true: when you say that Charlie’s reasons depend on his current desires you are expressing your attitude of being for Charlie only using those considerations which have the power to move him into account in action-friendly way in deliberation. Expressivism is equally also a view about what it is to think that existence externalism is true: when you say that Charlie’s reasons do not depend on his desires you are expressing your attitude of being for Charlie also using other considerations (that don’t move him given his current motivational set) into account in action-friendly way in deliberation. Expressivism doesn’t decide which one of these first-order normative views is true, full stop. You can be an expressivist and endorse either.
With this distinction in mind, we can turn to de Lazari-Radek and Singer’s treatment of expressivism. They call existence internalism subjectivism. Here’s what they write ‘Simon Blackburn is an expressivist, and therefore a subjectivist…’ (49). As explained above, ‘therefore’ here is just confused. Accepting expressivism does not commit you to the first-order normative view that what reasons an agent has depends on her desires. This means that by criticising subjectivism you do not criticise expressivism. For this reason, the objections de Lazari-Radek and Singer make to expressivism just do not hit the target.
To see this, let’s start from de Lazari-Radek and Singer’s objections to subjectivism. This is based on Parfit’s Future Tuesday Indifference case. There’s a person, call him Jack, who ‘cares about his pleasures and pains in just the same way as we do, with one important exception – he doesn’t care about them if they happen on any future Tuesday’. The idea then is that Jack has an objective fact-given reason to care about his suffering on Future Tuesdays and it is rational for him to do so, whereas existence internalism (‘subjectivism’) entails that Jack has no such reason and that it is therefore not irrational for him not to care about Tuesday suffering. Let’s accept that this charge against subjectivism is true (I have my reservations about this). This still is in no way a problem for expressivism. All expressivism says is that when Parfit, de Lazari-Radek, Singer, me, you or anyone else thinks that Jack has an objective object-given reason to avoid Future Tuesday suffering we are all for Jack taking his Future Tuesday suffering into account in deliberation in avoidance-friendly way. And, given that we deeply care about Jack and all other human beings and their well-being at any time, presumably we are for this. Nothing in expressivism says that we wouldn’t or shouldn’t be.
This means that the Future Tuesday Indifference is not a problem for expressivism in any way whatsoever (and so are not objective object-given reasons). De Lazari-Radek and Singer do make other objections too. The main one is that expressivists cannot explain how our moral attitudes are significantly different from our allegiances to sporting teams. I do think that this is a good objection to expressivism. It is called the ‘Moral Attitude Problem’. This is a problem Ayer already consciously struggled with and it has since been extensively discussed (there’s a nice overview in Miller’s intro to metaethics). I was surprised not to see any acknowledgement of this fascinating debate.
However, De Lazari-Radek and Singer tie this objection to the previous objection about reasons and this is again where things go wrong. They think that what distinguishes moral judgments from personal preferences is that we can give reasons for our moral judgments whereas for personal preferences we can give only causal explanations. The claim then is that because expressivists do not ground moral judgments on reasons they fail to explain the difference. This must be a point Blackburn is tired of hearing. I can only say that of course expressivists do ground moral judgments on reasons just as much as we all do. I can quote Blackburn: “Cruelty is bad … because it exhibits the intention to cause pain” (Ruling Passions, 307–308). Equally, “the truth … that you have an obligation to your children is child dependent, and the truth that you should not kick friendly dogs for fun is dog dependent” (Must We Weep for Sentimentalism?). This means that, as should already be clear, expressivists like Blackburn can give exactly the same objective object-given reasons for moral judgments as Parfit, de Lazari-Radek and Singer. Their metaethical view merely gives an account of what it is to think that there are such reasons for our moral attitudes. This is why it is inappropriate to say that ‘expressivists cannot defend the claim that moral issues really matter’ (50). To repeat, expressivists can defend the claim that moral issues really matter by giving exactly the same reasons why they matter than everyone else.
De Lazari-Radek and Singer’s discussion of expressivism also contains a number of other problems that are due to failure to fully understand quasi-realism. Here’s just one illustration:
“To accept Blackburn’s view, however, brings us close to some kind of mental schizophrenia. If I utter the sentence “It is wrong that people are starving to death in Somalia and we are doing nothing to help them” and at the same time think that in saying this I am just expressing my attitudes, rather than stating anything that is true, then there is no way in which my judgment can express the idea that what I am saying is important independently of my present attitude toward it”.
There are a number of problems here. There is nothing “mere” or “just” about our attitudes or expressing them – these are the deepest concerns that make us who we are; according to Blackburn you are stating something true when you say that sentence, and your judgment (or his or mine) in no way is important because of your present attitudes (but rather for good reasons). I could go on and on, but I think I have to end here as I am sure you have the picture.