Expressing Moral Belief

Dissertation, Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München (2022)
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It is astonishing that we humans are able to have, act on and express moral beliefs. This dissertation aims to provide a better philosophical understanding of why and how this is possible especially when we assume metaethical expressivism. Metaethical expressivism is the combination of expressivism and noncognitivism. Expressivism is the view that the meaning of a sentence is explained by the mental state it is conventionally used to express. Noncognitivism is the view that the mental state expressed by a moral sentence is a noncognitive, desire-like state. The central question of this dissertation is this: "How can metaethical expressivists explain that we are able to express moral beliefs?" The shortest answer this dissertation will give is the following: "by becoming `dispositional expressivists´." Dispositional expressivists hold that moral beliefs are dispositions to be in certain mental states that resemble desires. More precisely, a central thesis of this study is that to hold a moral belief is to be disposed to be in a desire-like, noncognitive state where this state has some specific structure. This dissertation arrives at and justifies this thesis by making a number of steps. It starts with preparing the ground by developing a general theory of what it is for a sentence to express a mental state. Roughly, this theory states that for a sentence to express a mental state is for that sentence to be conventionally used to perform a speech act which counts as sincere only if the user or speaker is in that mental state. This theory of expressing satisfies all the constraints that must be satisfied for it to be compatible with the purposes of metaethical expressivism. The next step is to provide a solution to the most notorious semantic problem confronting metaethical expressivism, the problem of explaining how sentences containing moral words can have compositional meaning and stand in logical relations also known as the Frege-Geach or embedding problem. Building on the research of Mark Schroeder, a new expressivist semantics, called `Attitude Semantics´, will be developed for a first-order language. The motivating idea underlying attitude semantics is that expressivists can avoid the problematic feature of so-called `biforcation´ if they treat the structures of the mental states expressed by moral sentences as well as that expressed by non-moral sentences as being isomorphic. In order to give those structures a philosophically interesting interpretation, it will be suggested that we treat sentences as expressing dispositional states. As a toy example we will treat the sentence `murder is wrong´ as expressing the disposition to be for blaming for murder. After dealing with the Frege-Geach problem, I turn to the metaethical expressivists' project of quasi-realism. Two major goals of this project are to explain how moral sentence can be truth-apt and how the states expressed by them can be regarded as moral beliefs. In order to establish those goals I critically examine a number of theories of truth-aptness by providing counterexamples to them. I then present my own theory which says that a sentence is truth-apt iff and because there is a conventional way to use it to express a belief. What is new about this theory is that it treats expressing a belief as being explanatorily more basic than being truth-apt. Belief, according to this theory, explains truth-aptness, not vice versa. This has the important consequence that it shows that what I call the `orthodox strategy´ of quasi-realists is mistaken and needs to be inverted: expressivists must `earn the right´ to moral belief before they can establish that moral sentences are truth-apt, and not the other way round. The second part of this dissertation is then concerned with the question of what it is to hold a moral belief and how they can figure in rational reasoning. In short: it is concerned with earning the right to moral belief. After discussing the major problems confronting a noncognitivist theory of belief, most importantly what I call the `tightrope problem´, I argue for a dispositional form of noncognitivism about moral belief that combines elements from Eric Schwitzgebel's dispositionalism about belief and Sebastian Köhler's `conceptual role expressivism´. This dispositional noncognitivism perfectly matches and justifies the dispositionalist interpretation of the expressivist semantics developed before. In order to fully earn the right to moral belief, however, metaethical expressivists must also deal with several epistemological objections concerning the rationality of moral belief. The first objection I deal with comes from Derek Baker and is directed against Mark Schroeder's specific development of expressivism. I deal with this objection because my own theory bears close resemblance to Schroeder's theory and so it might be worried that it confronts the same issues. Fortunately, we will see that Baker's objection rest on a number of mistaken assumptions and so neither applies to Schroeder's expressivism nor to the version which I defend in this study. The other epistemological objection to metaethical expressivism I deal with is Cian Dorr's famous wishful-thinking objection. In contrast to previous replies to this objection I attack it by directly questioning the central assumption on which it rests, namely that reasoners can never be justified in basing a factual belief on a desire-like state. I argue that this is false, and that under certain conditions reasoning from desire-like mental states to factual beliefs is justified. My argument shows that even if holding a moral belief is being in a desire-like noncognitive state, basing factual belief on a moral belief can give one an epistemic reason for the factual belief. Hence, even if moral thoughts are wishes, moral thinking is not wishful thinking. I take my arguments to earn the dispositional expressivist the right to moral belief. By the previously defended theory of truth-aptness in terms of belief, this allows the dispositional expressivists to conclude that moral sentences are also truth-apt. This finishes the quasi-realist project of this dissertation. In the last part of this dissertation I switch gears and present two unnoted problems for metaethical expressivists having to do with explaining moral motivation. Both arguments are surprisingly simple. The first one is this: if motivation requires a belief as well as a desire (Humeanism), and moral judgments motivate by themselves (internalism), then moral judgments cannot be desires only. If this argument is sound, it shows that the famous `motivation argument´ not only entails the falsity of cognitivism, but also the falsity of noncognitivism. The second argument is the following: moral judgments when combined with suitable external desires motivate to act (externalism), but if motivation requires belief as well as desire (Humeanism), then moral judgments cannot be desires only. I discuss several ways in which noncognitivists might want to deal with those problems, but leave it as an open question whether those solutions will ultimately be viable. Overall, this dissertation makes serious contributions to the research program of metaethical expressivism. It makes proposals for how to solve a number of notorious problems, such as the Frege-Geach problem in semantics and the wishful-thinking problem in epistemology. Besides this, however, it also raises two new problems for metaethical expressivism in the philosophy of action. For those reasons this dissertation will be of interest for anyone who wants to defend or criticize expressivism in metaethics, and more generally, anyone who wants to better understand our astonishing ability to express moral beliefs.

Author's Profile

Sebastian Hengst
Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München (PhD)


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