Note: This post is written by Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer and is a response to Jussi Suikkanen's post Expressivism, Subjectivism and Reasons
Response to Suikkanen
In The Point of View of the Universe [OUP 2014; henceforth PVU] we seek to bring Sidgwick’s most important ethical ideas into dialogue with contemporary ethics. This means that the book has a wide range, covering metaethics, the nature of justification in ethics, the dualism of practical reason, ultimate value, and some practical questions about utilitarianism. We could not go into detail about each one of these issues, and so we focused on those that seem most important to us.
Suikkanen takes us to task for our discussion of expressivism, in particular for failing to acknowledge that it is a semantic or meta-semantic view about the meaning of normative sentences. But in the section that precedes the one from which he quotes, we do note that expressivists claim that there is a minimalist sense of truth in which moral judgments can be true or false. We then say: “In the following section we focus on what we see as the core of the dispute between subjectivism and objectivism: whether there can be objective reasons for action.” [PVU 44] In the section that follows, we argue that Blackburn is a subjectivist “in the sense in which we have been using the term,” while also noting that he thinks it makes sense to say that moral judgments are true.
These statements still seem to us to be defensible. To explain why, we need to consider Suikkanen’s claim that “…there is no connection whatsoever between existence internalism and expressivism (other than that they are both Hume-inspired).”
We think it to be quite an extraordinary interpretation of Hume to claim that the connection between the two lies only in the fact that Hume, quite independently, came up with both views. Hume argues that reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions and then he argues that “Since morals …have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be derived from reason.” [Treatise, Bk III, Pt I, Sec i.] It would be hard to put more plainly the link between his view of reason as the slave of the passions (the inspiration for what Suikkanen, following Williams, calls “existence internalism,”) and his view of morality, which is presumably the inspiration for expressivism.
Nevertheless, Suikkanen tells us, expressivism is completely neutral about whether the fact that a given agent has a reason depends on that agent’s current desires. He follows this statement with a paragraph giving expressivist readings of the statements “Charlie’s reasons depend on his current desires” and “Charlie’s reasons do not depend on his current desires.” The paragraph concludes with the statement: “Expressivism doesn’t decide which one of these first-order normative views is true, full stop. You can be an expressivist and endorse either.”
Like Campbell Brown, in his comments on Suikkanen’s post, we have some doubts about whether the statements in question are normative. But even if they are, what does this establish? One could just as easily give expressivist readings of the statements “Expressivism can be supported by sound reasoning” and “Expressivism cannot be supported by sound reasoning.” If Suikkanen seriously maintains that expressivism is neutral between these two claims, we can reasonably ask why we should bother with a theory the proponents of which do not affirm that it is supported by sound reasoning. If, on the other hand, Suikkanen more sensibly denies that expressivism is neutral between these claims, then obviously the fact that one can give an expressivist reading of contradictory claims does not show that expressivism is neutral between the claims, let alone establish that there is “no connection whatsoever” between expressivism and Hume’s view of practical reason.
So we cannot avoid the real question of substance: once it is granted that there are objective reasons for action, independently of the desires of the agent (in other words, once we reject the premise of Hume’s argument for his theory of morality), does expressivism remain an interesting and defensible position? Note the conjunction: in our view, expressivists can’t have it both ways. Perhaps expressivism can be made defensible, a la Schroeder, as a semantic or meta-semantic theory, but only at the cost of emptying it of substantive claims so that it becomes trivial.
In conclusion, we will allow ourselves a comment on the level of invective Suikkanen employs in his post. Philosophers are rightly proud of the fact that in our discipline we can tell those who hold different views that their premises are implausible, their arguments unsound, their conclusions absurd. None of that troubles our friendship or our collegiality. Nevertheless, we have to wonder if there is something about expressivism that makes its proponents feel they must express their feelings more strongly than the rest of us. Are our claims really so “outrageous”? Could they not be published in a peer-reviewed journal? Oddly enough, we have a counter-example: Suikkanen’s own 2009 paper, “The Subjectivist Consequences of Expressivism,” in which he defends exactly the position he now derides. Here is a sample passage:
If expressivism has this awkward consequence, this should count seriously against the view. Expressivists themselves have claimed that their view and their other commitments do not have this implausible implication. If my argument is correct, then that claim is false. At least normatively speaking, the commitments of their view have subjectivist implications. Of course, I cannot prevent Simon Blackburn from repeating over and over again, as he does, that it is not the case that phi-ing is wrong if and only if I (or anyone else) disapprove of phi-ing (or believe that I disapprove of it). If the argument given above follows from materials he is committed to, then all this implies is that he is committed to an inconsistent set of claims or attitudes. [Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 90 (2009) p.364-387 at 377.]
We particularly enjoy the reference in this passage to Blackburn, for which Suikkanen is now apparently trying to atone. We think that, in writing in his post that Blackburn “really must get tired of objections like this,” Suikkanen owed it to the reader to disclose that he himself was among those responsible for Blackburn’s weariness. Suikkanen will no doubt say that five years ago he was young and naïve, and now he knows better, thanks in particular to Schroeder, who argues against this paper in his unpublished paper “Does Expressivism have Subjectivist Consequences.” But if the claims we make in PVU are so “outrageous” now, they were presumably outrageous when Suikkanen made them too, because all of Blackburn’s key writings were already out by then.
~Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer