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August 22, 2014


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Amen. There is a substantive issue about whether expressivism is subjective in any interesting sense, of course, but this turns on rather subtle issues about how to understand claims like ''If I didn't disapprove of kicking dogs, it wouldn't be wrong to kick dogs''. Are they first-order claims which we should endorse? This would be bad, obviously, but luckily there is no reason for a (reasonable and moral!) expressivist to endorse them. Are they metasemantic claims about moral judgments? More plausible, but controversial. And it is not nearly as obvious why we should care much about "subjectivism" in our metasemantic views.

These issues have been EXTENSIVELY discussed by Blackburn, Dworkin, Peacocke, here on Peasoup if I remember correctly, and so on. These issues are serious and interesting and not to be brushed under the rug in either direction, it seems to me.

It is depressing and embarrassing how little progress we are able to make. I assign Brand Blanshard's paper on "The New Subjectivism in Ethics", where Blanshard is guilty of the conflation you've pointed out here, between expressivism and existence internalism, to undergraduates. I tell them that at least one of them is going to make the same mistake in a paper, and that they will do so even though I'm warning them.

Blanshard's paper is from 1949, so he had an excuse. Since then the mistake has been made so many times I doubt anyone knows about all of them. Mark Schroeder rooted out the error in several of its appearances and gave a kind of recipe for explaining what's wrong with each, in 'Does Expressivism Have Subjectivist Consequences?', but I guess that didn't do the trick. Of course, Mark hasn't published the paper, but it can be found on his research page.

As I'm sure you know, "Must we weep for sentimentalism?" also contains an explanation of the conflation. I guess Singer and de Lazari-Radek didn't read that.

Anyway, good job. Someone has to clean up messes, so thanks for doing your share, Jussi.

Hi Jussi,

you're surely right that expressivism and existence internalism are independent of each other. However, as I recall, part of what motivates Gibbard and Blackburn to develop their expressivist theories is the idea that claims about attitude-independent reasons seemingly make sense. It is a nice feature of expressivism, they argue, that it can give an account of the meaning of claims about attitude-independent reasons. (Remember that in contrast, Williams said, in one of his main papers on the topic, that he thinks that we cannot make any sense of claims about "external" reasons.) So, though you're surely right that expressivism has no substantive implications, or at least that it does not imply existence internalism, there are connections between the two having to do with the motives behind the development of these theories: some of the top expressivists wish to explain how it can make sense to make normative claims that conflict with what existence internalism allows for.

Hi Sven

completely agree. I was just reading All Souls Night again and Blackburn makes your point (and most of my original post) wonderfully eloquently. The more I read that paper the more I love it.

Hi Sven and Jussi (or anyone else),

Can you point me to substantive expressivist discussions of Williams' internalism? I am aware of Gibbard's paper "Reasons, Thick and Thin," but would love to know of any other explicit expressivist defenses of externalism.



Hi Brad,

I am away from my Gibbard- and Blackburn-books at the moment. But just quickly from memory: I think Gibbard also talks about existence-internalism in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings. And Blackburn talks about these issues in Ruling Passions, saying, among other things, that normative and motivating reasons can come apart. (The idea being, I seem to remember, that though motivating reasons may need to always involve the agent's desires, there is no reason, as Blackburn sees things, why normative reasons would need to.) Blackburn also talks briefly about these things in a piece of his on Sharon Street's view (which at some point was posted on his website). Sorry for not being able to give more helpful and precise references at the moment, but like I said, I am on a trip and don't have access to my books at the moment.

Hi Brad

for a substantive discussion see pages 264-266 in Ruling Passions and especially Blackburn's "Majesty of Reason" paper (in the Practical Tortoise Raising collection). The discussion of Parfit in All Souls Night paper (still on Blackburn's website) is also instructive. I recall various other people writing and speaking about this but I'm not sure where to find the papers from.


It really is baffling and frustrating that this mistake can still be made so baldly after all this time. I'd like to read All Souls Night but can't find it online. Can someone less incompetent in such matters link to it please? Thanks.

Hi Eric,

All Souls Night


As I remember it, Gibbard talks about Brandt's subjectivist-style view early on in Wise-Choices.

Non-philosopher here, so I apologise if I get this completely wrong, but it seems to me like you're splitting a hair to no great effect. I recognise the conceptual difference between expressivism and internalism, as you label them, but to say, "there is no connection whatsoever between existence internalism and expressivism" is just absurd. There is a very obvious connection between them, and seeing as the connection is precisely what Parfit writes about, it seems relevant to this conversation.

I think the premises for my argument are something like this:
1) Either there are objective, non-internal moral reasons, or there aren't.
2) There are two proper types of motivations for action: internal desires and objective morals.
3) Moral language is used in discussions of motivations.

Now, if in fact there are no objective moral reasons, two things follow: a) the real referent of moral language is desires (expressivism); b) the only proper motivation for action is desires (internalism).

Obviously you're correct that there is no causal relationship between E and I, but they are both (I think necessary) consequences or corollaries of the claim that there are no such things as objective, external moral reasons. Therefore an argument against either one of them is at the very least *relevant* to the other.

Hi everyone, just to let you know that we have read the discussion. Thank you for it [even though it's hard to say we are happy with it :)]. We are going to answer shortly!


I don't disagree with your main point, but I am puzzled by some things you say.

First, you say:

Expressivism is a semantic (or better still a metasemantic) view about the meaning of normative sentences/utterances and the content of normative judgments.

Later you say:

Expressivism merely is a view about what you think when you think that existence internalism is true .... Expressivism is equally also a view about what it is to think that existence externalism is true ...

But I am not sure that these are normative thoughts (or normative judgements). Internalism and Externalism are views about the concept of a reason, I would have thought, not substantive claims about what reasons we have. You describe them as "first-order normative views", but that seems wrong to me.

Hi Campbell

I hope you are well. Yes and no. Consider the two following formulations of Internalism:

(Internalism 1) The fact that P is a reason for A to phi in C iff there is a sound deliberative route from A's motivational set to phi-ing in C via the fact that P.

This biconditional is merely a claim about when and what reasons an agent has. In this sense, it is a first-order normative claim (and metaethically neutral given that expressivists, non-naturalists and different forms of naturalism can accept this claim about extension of reasons).

It's true that some internalists (and I think Williams is amongst them) accepted the following stronger version of internalism:

(Internalism 2) For the fact that P to be a reason for A to phi in C is for there to be a sound deliberative route from A's motivational set to phi-ing in C via the fact that P.

This is a conceptual claim (or a metaphysical reduction) as you are probably thinking of internalism. This thesis reductively analyses reasonhood in terms of motivation. Internalism 2 then is not primarily a normative claim but rather a reductivist naturalist metaethical claim (which perhaps has normative implications). But no expressivist worth their salt would accept this reduction.

I'm not convinced that Internalism 1 is a (first-order) normative claim. Here's one reason to think that it is not. Internalism 2 is not a normative claim. But I2 implies I1 (I assume). And it is natural to think that the normative claims are closed under the inverse of implication; i.e., if X implies Y, and Y is normative, then X is normative. (Another view inspired by Hume!)

Campbell, either tea drinking is common in England, or all New Zealanders ought to be shot.

As you well know.

Hi Campbell

that cannot be right. If it were, there not be any normative claims whatsoever. Here's the argument:

Take any apparently normative claim of the form 'It is N to do X' where N is a normative predicate (reasons, oughts, right, wrong whatever normative predicate we want to look at - even if for someone of these predicates we would need to change the structure of the claim).

Then take a metaethical view that reductively analyses being N in terms of doing X. This view would say that: to be N is to be an instance of doing X. This metaethical view is not a first-order normative claim itself as it says something about the metaphysical structure of Nhood. It does, however, entail the first claim: It is N to do X. So, by your criterion the first claim would not be a normative claim.

This shows that as long as there are suitable candidates for reductive analyses of normative claims available there are no first-order normative claims. That can't be right.

To repeat, internalism 1 is just a claim about what reasons an agent has. It also has implications for what an agent ought to do and this claim can be accepted by the major metaethical views. So, it is a normative claim.

Jussi: But not all normative claims have that form. Consider, e.g., "Some acts of lying are wrong", or "Tom's lying to his friend was wrong". I doubt that these are implied by any reductive analyses of normative properties. The second example implies that Tom lied to his friend. But I don't think any analysis would imply this.

Jamie: Yes, I know. But there is a better version of Hume's Law than the one refuted by Prior.

For an act to be wrong is for it to be an instance of lying implies both of those claims.

"For an act to be wrong is for it to be an instance of lying". But this doesn't imply that Tom lied.

For an act to be wrong is for the act to an instance of lying and Tom lied implies that claim. That conjunction is not not a normative claim and it entails the claim that you accept is normative. We can do this all day. You give a normative claim and I can always generate reductions and factual claims that entail it.

"For an act to be wrong is for the act to an instance of lying and Tom lied". Why isn't this normative?

You said above that reductions like Internalism 2 are not normative claims. All we have added here to a reduction like that is that Tom lied. A conjunction of two non-normative claims isn't normative. Also, if you think that this is a normative claim then surely Internalism 1is.

"A conjunction of two non-normative claims isn't normative." I reject this. (I have a paper on this stuff if you're interested.)

"Also, if you think that this is a normative claim then surely Internalism 1is." Why? I don't see this.

Anyway, I'm afraid I've derailed this thread. Apologies for that.

Indeed, but you appear to have relied on the bad version: "if X implies Y, and Y is normative, then X is normative." The Prior disjunction is normative, right?


No, the Prior disjunction is not normative, according to me.

Prior's argument refutes this version of HL: If X1, X2, ... Xn jointly imply Y, and Y is normative, then at least one of X1, X2, ... Xn is normative. But this is the bad version, not the one I was relying on.

Okay. So sometimes we have no idea whether a proposition is normative, right?

(Even when we know exactly what it means, that is.)

"...sometimes we have no idea whether a proposition is normative..even when we know exactly what it means."
This is quite plausible. Your friend comes off the phone to your mutual enemy saying "well, at least the last thing he said was true." Whether what your friend said is normative plausibly varies with whether what the enemy said is normative. But you can know that what your friend meant, and even that what she said is true, without knowing what your enemy said.

Good point.

That seems different, since I know my friend has endorsed some proposition without knowing which proposition it is; his endorsement carries the force of that proposition. Whereas the Kiwi classification leaves the propositions in question completely transparent.

In some moods I feel like it's okay -- when the non-normative disjunct is true, then the plain old non-normative world is enough to make the disjunction true, so that's not really normative (the speaker accrues no normative commitment). But then sometimes it just seems crazy. If someone has merely described the world, how could a change in sipping habits ten thousand miles away make her assertion normative?

The Kiwi-Normative also fails to close under conjunction, which seems pretty odd.

Thanks Jussi!

Another nice paper on mistakes like this is Horgan and Timmons, "Expressivism, Yes!, Relativism, No!" in the Oxford Studies in Metaethics Vol 1. I don't recall them discussing reasons in particular, and so do not focus on the conflation of existence internalism for reasons and expressivism about reason discourse. But they do a great job with the genus of mistake of which that is a species, diagnosing it, helping people avoid it, and so on.

Hi Matt,

Thanks very much. I have never had a chance to read that, had forgotten about it, and am sure it must be good.

If you, or anyone else who happens on this comment, knows of any good discussions of Gibbard on objectivity, I would love to hear about that too!

Hi everyone,
Here is our response to Jussi Suikkanen:

Brad Cokelet asked us to make it a separate post and, we guess, discussion. Thanks everyone for your contribution.

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