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The Embedding Objection: Part IV “The Challenge from Incomplete Semantics”

The series on “The Embedding Objection” continues. The first post explained what I take expressivism to be. The second post distinguished four main kinds of expressivism: Simple non-truth-evaluable expressivism (e.g., Ayer’s emotivism), Simple minimalist expressivism (e.g., Blackburn’s projectivism), Complex minimalist expressivism (e.g., Stevenson’s emotivism), and Complex robust expressivism (e.g., Hare’s prescriptivism, my Expressive-Assertivism). The third post discussed The Objection from Truth Ascriptions. In this post, I discuss what I used to believe was the most pressing difficulty for expressivists, what I call “The Challenge from Incomplete Semantics.”

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Ok, So What is Expressive-Assertivism?

I have been asked by several people to post my “official” formulation of the metaethical theory that I favor, what I call “Expressive-Assertivism.” (You can read the long version here.) So here it is.

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The Embedding Objection: Part III “The Objection from Truth Ascriptions”

This is the third of a series of posts in which I try to make clear the different embedding difficulties that, as a family, are thought to present the most pressing objection to expressivism and to distinguish the different kinds of expressivism toward which each difficulty is most forcefully directed. The first post explained what I take expressivism to be. The second post distinguished four main kinds of expressivism: Simple non-truth-evaluable expressivism (e.g., Ayer’s emotivism), Simple minimalist expressivism (e.g., Blackburn’s projectivism), Complex minimalist expressivism (e.g., Stevenson’s emotivism), and Complex robust expressivism (e.g., Hare’s prescriptivism, my Expressive-Assertivism). Let’s begin the discussion of the various embedding difficulties by focusing on a rather straightforward difficulty for expressivism, what I call will call the “Objection from Truth Ascriptions.”

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Responsibility and Identity, Part Deux

There have been a number of very interesting and insightful comments on my original post about responsibility and identity (regarding the fission case). In order to keep my sanity (and my day job!), I’ve had to force myself to refrain from commenting more than twice on any original post, so I’ve let the opportunity pass to talk about several of the comments made. Nevertheless, I think the conversation has been interesting and fruitful, and I thought that a recent comment by John Fischer deserved attention sufficient to warrant a new post. John remarked that we could perhaps find reason to doubt the original “platitude” (that one person can’t be morally responsible for the actions of someone else) by thinking of much more ordinary cases, specifically those involving children. So I as a parent would, it seems, be responsible for the actions of my child (say, if I let my 13-year-old drive the car around the neighborhood and he crashes into something). Ordinarily, those wanting to defend the platitude will say something like, “Well, you (the parent) are still responsible only for your own actions, which in this case were to allow your not-yet-responsible child to wreak havoc in the neighborhood.” I suppose this would be akin to letting your pet monkey loose: he’s not a responsible agent, so we attribute responsibility to you for letting him loose.

This answer doesn’t quite do justice to John’s case, however, because he seems to be insisting that you are responsible for the actions of the child (and not, as it were, responsible just for your lax parenting). But I actually find this to be not quite right. You are clearly appropriately subject to blame for allowing the child to do what he did, but are you really appropriately subject to blame for what the child did? This goes to the heart of the view on responsibility I really want to advocate (but won’t do so quite yet here), namely, that it’s a matter of being appropriately subject to the reactive attitudes (e.g., resentment, anger, etc.) with respect to your general character, and not necessarily with respect to any particular action you’ve performed. Now there’s much involved in that formulation that I won’t go into just yet, but for now I’ll simply say this: it seems that we don’t appropriately react with resentment towards the child because he has yet to develop a moral character, whereas we do react with resentment towards you (the parent) because you (ostensibly) have, and because the action of letting your child run amok reveals certain negative aspects of your character, ones that indicate a willingness to ignore the basic demand for goodwill towards your fellows. But in any event, we’re still reacting negatively toward you for that aspect of your character revealed in the (in)action of lax parenting, and not with respect to any aspect of your character revealed by your child’s actions. This is what distinguishes the parenting case from the original Adam/Brett/Carl case: we hold Brett/Carl responsible for the actions of Adam insofar as their character is exactly similar to his (and is causally produced by his); no such resemblance of character obtains between you and your child, though, so I think the parenting case can be accounted for by the defenders of the original platitude.

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The Embedding Objection: Part II, Four Kinds of Expressivism

This is the second of a series of posts in which I try to make clear the different embedding difficulties that, as a family, are thought to present the most pressing objection to expressivism and to distinguish the different kinds of expressivism toward which each difficulty is most forcefully directed. The first post explained what I take expressivism to be. In this post, I distinguish four main kinds of expressivism. The heart of the series, the actual embedding difficulties, will begin with the next post in the series.

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Responsibility and Identity

It is taken to be a platitude that one person can’t be morally responsible for the actions of someone else (see, e.g., Ted Sider’s book Four Dimensionalism for a recent reaffirmation of this claim). But there seems to be a fairly simple argument against this view, an argument drawing from Derek Parfit’s work on personal identity. Suppose that Adam has committed a brutal murder, and he then undergoes fission, that is, one half of his brain is put in one identical triplet’s body, and the other half is put in the other identical triplet’s body (call the two other triplets Brett and Carl). Let us then stipulate that each of the resulting persons is qualitatively identical to Adam. What’s happened to Adam? There are the usual four options: Adam survives as both, survives as Brett, survives as Carl, or doesn’t survive. There are clearly two persons in existence after the fission, though, so because one person doesn’t equal two, Adam can’t survive as both. And there’s no non-arbitrary reason for why he would’ve survived as Brett and not Carl, and vice versa. So the best description of the case is that Adam hasn’t survived the fission. But this isn’t even remotely as bad as ordinary death; indeed, what’s occurred to Adam is just as good as ordinary survival: both Brett and Carl will (quasi-)remember Adam’s commission of the crime, they’ll fulfill his intentions (at least insofar as their duplication won’t cause pragmatic conflicts in carrying them out), and they’ll persist in his beliefs, desires, goals, and general character.

But what about responsibility for his actions? If the loss of identity in this way is unimportant with regard to ordinary patterns of prudential concern, then why should it matter with regard to moral attributions like responsiiblity? What matters instead, it seems clear, are the relations of psychological connectedness that obtain between Brett/Carl and Adam. But insofar as these relations obtain to the highest possible degree, there seems no reason to deny that both Brett and Carl are responsible (or least quasi-responsible) for Adam’s actions, which is a straightforward denial of the so-called platitude: one person can be responsible for the actions of someone else.

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The Embedding Objection: Part I, “What is Expressivism?”

Many people think that the problem of embedding ethical sentences like (1)

(1) Intentionally flying airplanes into tall buildings is wrong

within more complex sentences like (2)

(2) If intentionally flying airplanes into tall buildings is wrong, then I won’t do it

is one of the most challenging difficulties facing expressivists. This difficulty is often called “The Embedding Objection” or “The Frege-Geach Problem.” I also think The Embedding Objection is one of the most challenging difficulties facing expressivists, though I think the difficulties are not often fully understood as well as they might be. One reason, I think, is that ‘The Embedding Objection’ is an exceedingly misleading definite description: despite the occurrence of the definite article, there are, as far as I can tell, at least eight different problems that fall under the label ‘The Embedding Objection’; despite the occurrence of ‘objection’, not all of these problems are intended by those who mention them to be objections (for example, Dreier’s (1996) insistence that expressivist theories must account for compositionality is not an objection that they cannot); and despite the occurrence of ’embedding’, some of the problems have nothing fundamentally to do with embedding (for example, Sinnott Armstrong’s (2000) “Deepest Problem of Embedding”). Another reason is that there are several different kinds of expressivism, and so it is not always clear toward which kind of expressivism each of the eight problems is most forcefully directed. So, in a series of entries, I’ll try to make more transparent the different problems falling under the label ‘The Embedding Objection’ and toward which kind of expressivism each problem is most forcefully directed.

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