Expressivism in meta-ethics is a theory about the meaning of moral language. According to expressivism, sentences that employ moral terms – for example, "It is wrong to torture an innocent human being" – are not descriptive or fact-stating; moral terms such as "wrong", "good", or "just" do not refer to real, in-the-world properties. The primary function of moral sentences, according to expressivism, is not to assert any matter of fact, but rather to express an evaluative attitude toward an object of evaluation. Because the function of moral language is non-descriptive, moral sentences do not have any truth conditions. Hence, expressivists either do not allow that moral sentences have truth value, or rely on a notion of truth that does not appeal to any descriptive truth conditions being met for moral sentences.
1 Expressivism 2 Distinction from descriptivist subjectivism 3 Historical development: from noncognitivism/emotivism to cognitivist expressivism 4 Arguments for
5.1 The Frege–Geach problem 5.2 Relativism objection and the argument from moral error 5.3 Illocutionary act-intention argument
6 References 7 Bibliography
Expressivism is a form of moral anti-realism or nonfactualism: the
view that there are no moral facts that moral sentences describe or
represent, and no moral properties or relations to which moral terms
refer. Expressivists deny constructivist accounts of moral facts –
Some expressivist philosophers a representative work: year
A. J. Ayer Language, Truth, and Logic 1936
C. L. Stevenson The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms 1937
R. M. Hare
Simon Blackburn Essays in Quasi-Realism 1993
Allan Gibbard Wise Choices, Apt Feelings 1990
Terence Horgan (with Mark Timmons) Cognitivist Expressivism 2006
Some early versions of expressivism arose during the early twentieth
century in association with logical positivism. These early views are
typically called "noncognitivist". A. J. Ayer's emotivism is a
According to emotivism, the act of uttering a moral sentence of the
type "X is good (bad)" is closely akin to the expression of a positive
(or negative) emotional attitude toward X, and such an utterance can
be paraphrased by "Hurrah for X!" or "Boo, X!"
C. L. Stevenson also advanced an important version of emotivism.
At the beginning of the middle of the twentieth century, R. M. Hare
was an important advocate of expressivism / noncognitivism. Hare's
view is called prescriptivism because he analyzed moral sentences as
universal, overriding prescriptions or imperatives. A prescriptivist
might paraphrase "X is good" as "Do X!".
More recent versions of expressivism, such as Simon Blackburn's
"quasi-realism", Allan Gibbard's "norm-expressivism", and Mark
Timmons' and Terence Horgan's "cognitivist expressivism" tend to
distance themselves from the "noncognitivist" label applied to Ayer,
Stevenson, and Hare. What distinguishes these "new wave"
expressivists is that they resist reductive analyses of moral
sentences or their corresponding psychological states, moral
judgments, and they allow for moral sentences/judgments to have
Horgan and Timmons' label "cognitivist expressivism" in particular
captures the philosophical commitment they share with Blackburn and
Gibbard to regard moral judgments as cognitive psychological states,
i.e. beliefs, and moral sentences as vehicles for genuine assertions
or truth-claims. Much of the current expressivist project is occupied
with defending a theory of the truth of moral sentences that is
consistent with expressivism but can resist the Frege-Geach objection
(see below). Expressivists tend to rely on a minimalist or
deflationary theory of truth to provide an irrealist account for the
truth of moral sentences.
See also: Non-cognitivism
Open question argument
Main article: Open question argument
According to the open question argument (originally articulated by
intuitionist and non-naturalist G. E. Moore), for any proposed
definition of a moral term, e.g. " 'good' = 'the object of desire' ",
a competent speaker of English who understands the meaning of the
terms involved in the statement of the definition could still hold
that the question, "Is the object of desire good?" remains unanswered.
The upshot of this argument is that normative or moral terms cannot be
analytically reduced to "natural" or non-moral terms. Expressivists
argue that the best explanation of this irreducibility is that moral
terms are not used to describe objects, but rather to evaluate them.
Many philosophers regard expressivists or noncognitivists as "the real
historical beneficiar[ies] of the open question argument."
Some moral realists maintain that a synthetic reduction of moral terms
to natural terms is possible. Other realists
(including Moore himself) have concluded that moral terms refer to
non-natural, sui generis properties or relations; but
non-naturalism is vulnerable to the argument from queerness (see
It is wrong to tell lies. If it is wrong to tell lies, then it is wrong to get your little brother to tell lies. Therefore, it is wrong to get your little brother to tell lies.
In the second statement the expressivist account appears to fail, in that the speaker asserting the hypothetical premise is expressing no moral position towards lying, condemnatory or otherwise. The expressivist thus cannot account for the meaning of moral language in this kind of unasserted context. This problem assumes that logic only applies to real truth values. Relativism objection and the argument from moral error Further information: Moral relativism Illocutionary act-intention argument Further information: Illocutionary act Terence Cuneo argues against expressivism by means of the following premise:
It is false that, in ordinary optimal conditions, when an agent performs the sentential act of sincerely uttering a moral sentence, that agent does not thereby intend to assert a moral proposition, but intends to express an attitude toward a non-moral state of affairs or object.
Proponents of expressivism are concerned to preserve the participants in ordinary moral thought and discourse from charges of deep error. But, Cuneo argues, there is evidence that many such participants do intend to represent a factual moral reality when they make moral judgments. Hence, if the expressivists are correct and moral language is not properly used to make factual, descriptive assertions, many participants in ordinary moral discourse are frustrated in their illocutionary act intentions. On these grounds it is argued that we should give up expressivism, unless the expressivists are to give up on their claim that expressivism is not an essentially revisionist view of moral thought and discourse. References
^ Horgan & Timmons (2006c), pp. 220-221. ^ a b Horgan & Timmons (2006b), p. 86 ^ Horgan & Timmons (2006b), p. 75 ^ Timmons (1999), p. 154 ^ Blackburn (1998), pp. 50-51 ^ Ayer (1936) ^ van Roojen (2005), § 2.1 ^ Stevenson (1937) ^ Hare (1952) ^ van Roojen (2005), § 2.2 ^ Blackburn (1984, 1993, 1998) ^ Gibbard (1990) ^ Horgan & Timmons (2006a, 2006b, 2006c) ^ Horgan & Timmons (2006b), p. 76 ^ Darwall, Gibbard, and Railton (1997), p. 5 ^ Cuneo (2006), p. 67
Ayer, A. J. (1936). Language, Truth, and Logic. London:
Blackburn, Simon (1984). Spreading the Word. Oxford: Oxford University
Blackburn, Simon (1993). Essays in Quasi-Realism. Oxford: Oxford
Blackburn, Simon (1998). Ruling Passions. Oxford: Oxford University
Cuneo, Terence (2006). "Saying what we Mean", pp. 35-71 in Russ
Shafer-Landau, ed., Oxford Studies in Metaethics, vol. 1. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Darwall, Stephen, Gibbard, Allan, & Railton, Peter (1997). "Toward
Fin de siècle Ethics: Some Trends", pp. 3-47 in Stephen Darwall,
Allan Gibbard, and Peter Railton, Moral Discourse and Practice.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gibbard, Allan (1990). Wise Choices, Apt Feelings. Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press.
Horgan, Terry & Timmons, Mark (2006a). "Cognitivist Expressivism",
pp. 255-298 in Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons, eds., Metaethics after
Moore. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Horgan, Terry & Timmons, Mark (2006b). "Expressivism, Yes!
Relativism, No!", pp. 73-98 in Russ Shafer-Landau, ed., Oxford Studies
in Metaethics, vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Horgan, Terry & Timmons, Mark (2006c). "
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