Does expressivism have subjectivist consequences?

Philosophical Perspectives 28 (1):278-290 (2014)
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Metaethical expressivists claim that we can explain what moral words like ‘wrong’ mean without having to know what they are about – but rather by saying what it is to think that something is wrong – namely, to disapprove of it. Given the close connection between expressivists’ theory of the meaning of moral words and our attitudes of approval and disapproval, expressivists have had a hard time shaking the intuitive charge that theirs is an objectionably subjectivist or mind-dependent view of morality. Expressivism, critics have charged over and again, is committed to the view that what is wrong somehow depends on or at least correlates with the attitudes that we have toward it. Arguments to this effect are sometimes subtle, and sometimes rely on fancy machinery, but they all share a common flaw. They all fail to respect the fundamental idea of expressivism: that ‘stealing is wrong’ bears exactly the same relationship to disapproval of stealing as ‘grass is green’ bears to the belief that grass is green. In this paper I rehearse the motivations for the fundamental idea of expressivism and show how the arguments of Frank Jackson and Philip Pettit [1998], Russ Shafer-Landau [2003], Jussi Suikkanen [2009], and Christopher Peacocke [2004] all fail on this same rock. In part 1 I’ll rehearse the motivation for expressivism – a motivation which directly explains why it does not have subjectivist consequences. Then in each of parts 2-5 I’ll illustrate how each of Jackson and Pettit’s, Peacocke’s, Shafer-Landau’s, and Suikkanen’s arguments work, respectively, and why each of them fails to respect the fundamental parity at the heart of expressivism. Though others have tried before me to explain why expressivism is not committed to any kind of subjectivism or mind-dependence – prominently including Blackburn [1973], [1998], Horgan and Timmons [2006], and, in response to Pettit and Jackson, Dreier [2004] and Smith and Stoljar [2003], the explanation offered in this article is distinguished by its scope and generality..

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Mark Schroeder
University of Southern California


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