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June 24, 2009


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Hi Heath,

Thanks for the interesting post.

Can you say more about why you think an expressivist is committed to the view that meanings are "determined" by what mental states an individual is expressing? An expressivist like Gibbard does hold that mental states are the semantic values of sentences. But does this commit the expressivist to the view that these semantic values are determined by a speaker? Consider the mental states that would be assigned to sentences like 'Thank you!' or 'Damn you!'. I'm assuming that the semantic values that would be assigned to these sentences--say, gratitude and frustration respectively--are not determined by any particular speaker, but rather by some kind of community convention. That is, it is a community convention that an utterance of 'Thank you!' is the expression of gratitude. Couldn't expressivists say the same thing about the semantic values of normative claims?

I would also recommend reading Mark Schroeder's 'Expression for Expressivists' paper. If I remember this right, Mark argues against the views according to which, for the expressivists, the moral utterances express whatever mental states speakers are actually in. Roughly, the idea is that instead the expressivist should hold that moral utterances express mental states in which the speaker should be in if she were following the norms of assertion of the moral discourse. The psychological part of expressivism then provides an account of what these right kind of mental states are. This is why the expressed mental states would be GS rather than NS even if the speaker were in NS mental states. And, this is also why expressivism makes meaning public rather than something dependent on the individual.

Dan and Jussi,

I think you both point out a possibility I did not take adequate account of, namely that the semantic values of moral terms might be mental states but that which mental states they are is not determined by what’s in the speaker’s head at the moment. And given the possibility of insincere moral utterance, this seems important and right.

So here’s perhaps a better way to make the point. I take it that NS is as good a semantics, for some possible kind of discourse, as GS is; NS and GS have the same expressive power. So what determines whether I or you or we are speaking GS or NS when we use moral language? Dan suggests community convention and Jussi suggests norms of assertion and for simplicity I will go with the latter.

One might start by asking, What determines the norms of assertion? If it’s very democratic and statistical—we count up moral assertions and check which mental states are associated, majority wins—then it’s far from clear to me that GS comes out on top. Even if it did come out on top in “our” community, this would be a function of our sincerity and good-heartedness, and if there were some other more devious community where NS came out on top I’m not sure we could avoid talking past them.

But that whole line of thought makes no sense on an expressivist understanding. Norms of assertion are just norms, so if I say what the norms of assertion are (e.g. I argue for GS over NS) I am just expressing my plans for using moral terms…or maybe I am expressing my plans for how you are to use moral terms. As soon as we go normative in our expressivist semantics, there will be no fact of the matter what the semantics is, rather the semantics expresses a plan (of some kind) for using moral terms. Which plan that is, is precisely what’s at issue.

I’m not sure how bad that is, though at the moment I would say it is bad. Gibbard canvasses something like it under the rubric of “norms all the way down.”

Hi, Heath.

There are excellent reasons to distinguish between so-called 'political' and 'agential' senses of 'ought' or 'should'. For example, the 'the meeting ought to start by noon' is most naturally interpreted as saying that a certain state of affairs ought to be the case - namely, that the meeting starts by noon. But there are good reasons to suspect that 'Bill ought to start the meeting' does not just say that it ought to be the case that Bill starts the meeting. For more on this distinction, see Broome on 'ought', the relevant chapters of Wedgwood's The Nature of Normativity, or my 'Do Oughts Take Propositions?'.

The question that we should be asking, is which of these, if either, Gibbard's plan-theory is supposed to account for. I suggest that it is the agential 'ought', not the political 'ought'. Your Nietzschean proposal, in contrast, fits better with the political 'ought'. For example, one of the tests for the agential 'ought' is to compare sentences like 'Bill ought to kiss Lucy' and 'Lucy ought to be kissed by Bill'. Your Nietzschean proposal would predict that someone who utters the former is expressing a plan to, if she had control over Bill's action, get him to kiss Lucy. It is plausible that it is incoherent to have such a plan, and not also plan, if one had control over Lucy, to get her to be kissed by Bill. So it makes sense, on the Nietzchean approach, for these two sentences to entail each other. In contrast, on the Gibbard approach, it makes perfect sense to endorse one but not the other. You just plan, if you are Bill, to kiss Lucy, but if you are Lucy, to avoid Bill like the plague - nothing incoherent about that.

In other words, I don't see why there should be anything problematic about the possibility of a potential ambiguity, here; in real life normative words have different meanings from one another and sometimes are even ambiguous, and these two proposals seem to match up with a real ambiguity.

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