Sharon Street has argued that (prominent versions of) quasi-realist expressivism (“expressivism,” for short) has a knowledge problem. Others, such as Allan Gibbard and Jamie Dreier, deny this. I’m inclined to agree with Sharon on this matter, albeit for reasons somewhat different from those she offers when she states her challenge.
Stating what the alleged problem is requires a bit of set up. The first step is to get a sense of what distinguishes quasi-realist expressivism from realism. Here is one way to do so that meshes with much of what expressivists say.
Reflection on everyday moral thought and practice seems to reveal that:
(i) In moral experience, the world calls for or demands a certain kind of response. Agents often form moral judgments on the basis of such “morally rich” experience.
(ii) Moral judgments have the marks of a descriptive belief: they are classificatory, truth-evaluable, apt candidates for knowledge, and apt for inference.
(iii) Moral reasoning often generates the conviction that not any response will do and, inter alia, the conviction that we can make moral mistakes.
(iv) Moral judgments have the marks of a practical attitude: they are often directive, and motivationally efficacious.
Call these claims, which metaethical theories endeavor to accommodate and explain, core moral data. Realists endeavor to accommodate and explain claims such as (ii) by appealing to the claim that moral judgments are beliefs with moral moral representational content and they attempt to accommodate and explain claims such as (iii) by holding that there are moral facts that we can accurately (or fail to accurately) represent. Call beliefs and facts of these sorts robust moral beliefs and robust moral facts (because of the explanatory work they’re supposed to do). Expressivists attempt to accommodate and explain claims such as (ii) but not by appeal to the claim that moral judgments are beliefs with moral representational content. And they attempt to accommodate and explain (iii), but not by appealing to moral facts. Expressivists generally agree that we have moral beliefs, that they represent moral facts, and that moral facts exist. But they deny that these beliefs and facts are robust in the sense just specified; data such as (i)-(iv) get accommodated and explained by other means.
Now consider a claim such as:
(A) It’s a fact that engaging in recreational slaughter of fellow persons is wrong.
Expressivists maintain that (A) is true. But there are at least two different positions to which expressivists might commit themselves when maintaining this.
Thin expressivism embraces a metalinguistic/semantic thesis about what it is to say or think (A) is true. Roughly, the view tells us that to commit oneself to (A) is simply to commit oneself to being in an attitudinal state of a certain kind (e.g., a planning state, or a state of condemnation, or….) and whatever else that entails (where this does not include robust moral facts). Thick expressivism goes further, maintaining that to commit oneself to (A) is to commit oneself to there being moral facts (albeit not robust ones).
I worry that those writing on behalf of expressivism move between these views when replying to the sorts of concerns that Sharon raises. But I’ll touch upon that later. For now, suppose we understand expressivists to embrace Thick expressivism. As I understand it, Thick expressivism endorses both:
(B) Moral judgments often accurately represent the moral facts; and
(C) When moral judgments accurately and reliably represent the moral facts – that is, “track” the moral facts – these judgments are often cases of moral knowledge.
The view, then, accepts claims such as:
(a) Your judgment that engaging in recreational slaughter is wrong tracks the fact that engaging in recreational slaughter is wrong.
(b) Your judgment that torture is wrong tracks the fact that torture is wrong; and:
(c) Your judgment that lying simply to save face is wrong tracks the fact that lying simply to save face is wrong.
The initial worry I’d like to raise is that, if Thick expressivism were true, the truth of these propositions would be a remarkable coincidence because in no case could the moral facts which your moral judgments account track account (even in part) for the accuracy and reliability of your moral judgments. This worry, as I say, is close to but not identical with Sharon’s because it does not appeal to anything in the neighborhood of an evolutionary debunking argument. It simply appeals to (a), (b), and (c) and the claim that moral facts exist but are not robust.
To say that moral facts cannot account for the moral knowledge we have sounds strange to me: How could one know that recreational slaughter is wrong but not because recreational slaughter is wrong? But that aside, Thick expressivism seems to have two options available in response to the charge that it commits itself to a vast array of remarkable coincidences. The first is to accept some version of a “third-factor” view, according to which there is some entity that both explains why the moral facts hold and how we could track them (but does not entail that moral facts themselves explain how we track them). The second option is to embrace some version of a response-dependence version of moral facts, according to which (correct?) attitudinal states determine the moral facts that we track and that we can track these attitudes (but does not entail that moral facts themselves explain how we track them).
These responses move us beyond the initial worry because now explanations are in the offing. The further worry, though, is that (I) there is no version of a third-factor view that’ll be compatible with Thick expressivism and (II) committing itself to a response-dependent view would expose Thick expressivism to exactly the sorts of objections that realists press against other varieties of response-dependence view and that, in various places, expressivism claims to avoid altogether.
One reason why I’m inclined to agree with Sharon that there’s a problem here is that those who respond on expressivism’s behalf tend to do so by appealing to Thin expressivism. They tell us that there’s no problem because expressivism is simply telling us what it is to say or think claims such as (A) and what it would be for (A) to be “objective.” If Thin expressivism were the view under consideration, that seems like a promising response. But if Thick expressivism is the view under consideration, then appealing to metalinguistic/semantic claims regarding what it is to think and say things like (A) doesn’t address the worry raised at all. These claims could not be offered as explanations of (a)-(c). A still further and related worry is that it really seems that when expressivists present their view, they often have Thick expressivism in mind; they affirm that there are moral facts (sometimes even designating what these facts are, namely, true thoughts.) If these appearances are to be trusted, then when expressivists reply to the remarkable coincidence challenge by appealing to what Thin expressivism says, they are taking back with one hand what they give with the other.