This is the second of a series of posts in which I try to make clear the different embedding difficulties that, as a family, are thought to present the most pressing objection to expressivism and to distinguish the different kinds of expressivism toward which each difficulty is most forcefully directed. The first post explained what I take expressivism to be. In this post, I distinguish four main kinds of expressivism. The heart of the series, the actual embedding difficulties, will begin with the next post in the series.

The four main kinds of expressivism I have in mind can be distinguished by focusing on three distinctions: simple v. complex expressivism, truth-evaluability v. non-truth-evaluability, and robust v. minimal truth conditions.

A simple expressivist theory is an expressivist theory according to which a proper, literal utterance of an ethical sentence, like ‘Intentionally flying airplanes into tall buildings is wrong’, is the performance of only a direct expressive illocutionary act or only a direct directive illocutionary act. Gibbard’s norm-expressivism, Ayer’s emotivism, and Blackburn’s projectivism are all simple expressivist theories, since they would all hold that a proper, literal utterance of an ethical sentence is the performance of only a direct expressive illocutionary act. A complex expressivist theory is an expressivist theory according to which a proper, literal utterance of an ethical sentence is the performance of a direct expressive or direct directive and the performance of at least one other direct illocutionary act–most probably an assertive. Hare’s prescriptivism, Copp’s realist-expressivism, my expressive-assertivism, and, I think, Stevenson’s emotivism are all complex expressivist theories. (On whether Stevenson’s considered theory is a complex expressivist theory, see especially Facts and Values, pp. 204-206, in which he seems to vacillate between his theory being simple or complex.) Hare’s prescriptivism would hold that a proper, literal utterance of an ethical sentence is the performance of a direct assertive and a direct (universally applicable) directive, while Copp’s, my, and Stevenson’s (if, in fact, his is a complex expressivist theory)theories would hold that such an utterance is the performance of a direct assertive and a direct expressive.

Let’s say that a sentence S of L is truth-evaluable in L if and only if S possesses certain features that are necessary and sufficient for S’s having truth conditions in L, and, hence, for S’s being either true or false in L, and that a sentence S of L is non-truth-evaluable in L if it is not truth-evaluable in L. Hare, Stevenson, Blackburn, Copp, and I hold that ethical sentences are truth-evaluable. Ayer holds that ethical sentences are non-truth-evaluable. Gibbard also holds that ethical sentences are non-truth-evaluable, or at least he does so in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings (pp. 8, 10); in Thinking How to Live, he seems to accept that ethical sentences are truth-evaluable (p. 18).

And let’s say that, if ethical sentences are truth-evaluable, a true one is robustly true if truth is some philosophically interesting property (like correspondence, useful to believe, coherent with one’s other beliefs, etc.) and is minimally true if truth is not some philosophically interesting property. Blackburn, Gibbard (in THL) and Stevenson hold that ethical sentences are minimally true. (For Stevenson’s view on truth minimalism, see Facts and Values, pp. 214-220). Hare, Copp, and I hold that ethical sentences are robustly true.

The three preceding distinctions show that expressivist theories can be categorized into six distinct kinds, although I will discuss only the four plausible kinds:

1. Simple, non-truth-evaluable expressivism (SNT-expressivism): Gibbard’s norm-expressivism (as described in WCAF) and Ayer’s emotivism. For simplicity, I’ll simply use ‘Ayer’s emotivism’ in future posts as a placeholder for any SNT-expressivist theories.
2. Simple, minimalist expressivism (SM-expressivism): Blackburn’s projectivism and Gibbard’s norm-expressivism (in THL). In future posts, I’ll use ‘Blackburn’s projectivism’ as a placeholder for any SM-expressivist theory.
3. Complex, robust expressivism (CR-expressivism): Hare’s prescriptivism, Copp’s realist-expressivism, my expressive-assertivism. I’ll use ‘expressive-assertivism’ as a placeholder for any CR-expressivist theory.
4. Complex, minimalist expressivism (CM-expressivism): Stevenson’s emotivism. I’ll use ‘Stevenson’s emotivism’ as a placeholder for any CM-expressivist theory.

(For reasons we need not discuss here, simple, robust expressivism is incoherent, and complex, non-truth-evaluable expressivism is unmotivated.)

We could, of course, distinguish even more refined forms of expressivism. For example, there could be several different kinds of minimalist expressivist theories distinguished by different kinds of minimalist theories of truth, as well several different kinds of robust expressivist theories distinguished by different kinds of robust theories of truth. Hopefully, though, we have enough to get us started.

3 Replies to “The Embedding Objection: Part II, Four Kinds of Expressivism

  1. I recently became aware that Kyle Swan, continues to develop a complex expressivist theory, which he began to develop in a paper called “A Metaethical Option for Theists,” forthcoming in Journal for Religious Ethics.

  2. Dan,
    I don’t remember my Stevenson very well, but I had thought he said that in addition to saying that moral judgments express emotion, he said that they include a prescription (a directive?) to others to feel similarly. Should he be lumped with Hare (with respect to moral judgments being directives), or not, since the speaker only directs others to feel rather than to do (or refrain from doing)?
    Also, I know you plan to post something on Hare soon, but I’ll bring it up now. I read him as being committed to moral objectivity in a less full-blown way. He’s not a minimalist but instead says things like “Objectivity is attained only because of the prescriptive element, common to different cultures which share a moral language, and the logic governing this. The logic of the prescriptive element requires moral prescriptions to be applied universally to all similar cases, and hence constraints them to be impartial.” So “good” or “right” are used essentially to commend (he thinks they have to be so in order to handle the problem of moral disagreement in the missionary case). But this really seems to suggest a kind of simple expressivism, since moral terms are used essentially to commend rather than to pick out properties.

  3. Hi Kyle. First, you are right that Stevenson says in various places that moral judgments include some kind of prescription or directive for others to feel a certain way (in addition to expressing emotion). However, in Essay 11 of Facts and Values, a very illuminating essay in which Stevenson provides many retrospective remarks on his ethical theory, he is clear that this directive or “invitation-so-to-speak” is supposed to be taken to be what we would now call a perlocutionary act (or, more precisely, the perlocutionary intention), not a direct illocutionary act (pp. 208-209). He also says on p. 214 of the same essay, “But it must be remembered that (comparing evaluative sentences with those that are partly in the imperative mode) are useful only for the purpose of cutting through the supposition that ethical sentences can express nothing but beliefs. If expected to do more than that, imperative models will be misleading.” So, I think Stevenson, in the end, does not intend his theory to be a prescriptive theory like Hare’s.
    Second, you write, “But this really seems to suggest a kind of simple expressivism, since moral terms are used essentially to commend rather than to pick out properties.” If this is Hare’s terminology, then it would suggest that Hare is a simple expressivist. But, I don’t recall Hare ever using the word ‘essentially’. He uses ‘primarily’. And in saying that moral terms are used “primarily” to commend rather than to describe, I take Hare to mean that, for these terms, it would be easier for their descriptive meanings to change than for their nondescriptive meanings to change (see, for example, Language of Morals, 7.4 and 7.5 and through the years up through Sorting Out Ethics p. 54, 61). But this does not imply or suggest a simple expressivist theory.
    Third, you write that “I read (Hare) as being a committed to moral objectivity in a less full-blown way. He’s not a minimalist but instead says things like ….” This seems to suggest that *I* take Hare to be committed to moral objectivity because I take him to hold that moral sentences have robust truth conditions. I don’t, because you are right that, for Hare, moral objectivity is a result of the prescriptive force and universilizability of moral terms. Indeed, for Hare, moral objectivity *cannot* be the result of moral sentences having robust truth conditions, since Hare is a (speaker) relativist about the properties that moral terms pick out.
    Thanks again for the comments, Kyle.

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