By Michael Gakuran | | Philosophy | Leave a comment |

Simon BlackburnOnto Expressivism (which comes under the Non-cognitivist camp). Here, philosophers are concerned with value. They don’t think that our moral judgments are statements of belief. No. Nor do they think they our moral judgements are truth-apt. There are no moral ‘facts’, according to them. All we can do is either approve or condemn some action.

Why would we want to do this? Surely saying that morality is based on our simple expressions of like and dislike undermines our moral practices? It certainly would, but there is more to Non-cognitivists than meets the eye, or so they would want us to believe. Before we jump in, note that there are other types of Non-cognitivism, such as Emotivism and Prescriptivism. Indeed, Expressivism itself can even be thought of as a type of Non-cognitivism, but many in recent years have chosen to think of the Non-cognitivist camp as a whole by labelling it the ‘Expressivist’ camp. Now that’s cleared up (hopefully), we can advance!

Why Expressivism?

So, when we make moral judgements, most of us would say that we express our beliefs. Things are absolutely morally or wrong in the world, irrespective of what we choose to think about them. This means that we think there are moral facts – that is, we can in some way point to something in the world and label it as ‘moral’. Doing this would make us Cognitivist Naturalists (we think that moral judgements express beliefs about moral facts and that these facts can be reduced to things in the world). If you think that morals are more ‘out there’ and metaphysically dubious, you might be a Non-naturalist or a Supernaturalist. Goodness could be synonymous with our feeling of Pleasure, for example. In the Open Question Argument, Moore argued that doing such a thing was impossible. We ‘cannot define goodness in terms of natural properties’. This is because we can always ask the question ‘I know X is pleasurable, but is it good?’ (or any such variation). Hence, it would seem, more needs to be said about how a Naturalist can solve this problem and explain our concept of morality.

The Expressivist has his own picture of things. Rather than getting trapped in the Cognitivist net by trying to argue for real and existing moral facts (naturalism), or even by trying to argue for metaphysically strange moral facts (non-naturalism) or relying on God (supernaturalism), he does away with it all and says that we are mistaken in thinking that there are moral facts. Much like the Error Theorist then. The difference between the Expressivist and the Error Theorist is that the Error Theorist thinks that we are mistaken in thinking moral facts exist at all, whereas the Expressivist argues that, while it looks as though our moral judgements suppose the existence of moral facts, what is actually happening is that we are expressing an attitude. In other words, we are simply approving or disapproving of something, a desire or ‘conative state‘. Something like a gut reaction – a boo or a hiss in regards to some action.
So, Expressivism has good things going for it. In particular, Judgement Internalism. To understand that, take a gander at how philosophers talk about Motivation.

Expressivism vs. Subjectivism

A brief note about not confusing Expressivism and Subjectivism. Here’s Dr. Pekka’s (my lecturer) explanation (emphasis added):

>> According to subjectivism, when I say “Cheating on your spouse is wrong,” I am describing or reporting my attitude toward cheating.
>> Crudely, this is saying “I don’t like cheating.”
That is straightforwardly true if and only if I don’t like cheating.


According to expressivism, when I say “Cheating on your spouse is wrong,” I am expressing or manifesting my attitude toward cheating.
>> Crudely, this is saying “Boo cheating!”
This is neither true nor false, nor apt to be assessed as such.

The problem with Subjectivism is that both people can utter perfectly true statements and there need by no way of sorting out what is right and wrong. The two people simply just hold different beliefs about a topic and it is true they hold these beliefs assuming they are speaking frankly). With Expressivism however, they hold different attitudes. I say ‘Boo plucking pigeons’ and you say ‘Hooray plucking pigeons’. So then, how to explain moral disagreement? How to sort out right from wrong?

Before that, let’s just see what Expressivism has going for it (from Dr. Pekka’s lecture slides):

1. The Argument from Moral Internalism: Only expressivists can make sense of the essential action-guiding character of moral judgements.
2. The Argument from Metaphysical Parsimony: Expressivism can make sense of the phenomena of morality without problematic metaphysical assumptions.
3. The Argument from Epistemic Inaccessibility: Expressivism can make sense of our talk of moral knowledge without assuming peculiar and implausible cognitive capacities.
4. The Argument from Semantic Openness: Expressivists have the best explanation for the open feel that Moore noted.

We saw the argument from Moral Internalism before. It seems to fit well with Expressivism because making moral judgements involves some degree of motivation. When I make a moral judgement X, I am necessarily motivated to follow that judgement (because there are no moral facts; everything is a matter of value. Calling on moral externalism would require there to be moral facts). The Semantic Openness argument refers to Moore’s Open Question Argument. The Expressivist will argue that the reason the question ‘is X good’ always remains open is because we are expressing approval towards X, whereas for a natural property (a fact), we do not talk in terms of approving or disapproving. Hence, Moore’s argument seems to help the Expressivist.

In Emotivism (similar to Expressivism) Stevenson argues that our moral language (expressing our attitudes or values) is not just about saying ‘Boo-Hooray’ to problems. What we are actually doing is trying to persuade others to feel the same things we do:

“When you tell a man he oughtn’t to steal, your object isn’t merely to let him know that people disapprove of stealing. You are attempting, rather, to get him to disapprove of it…. Ethical terms are instruments used in the complex interplay and readjustment of human interests.” (1938, p.19)”

In this sense then, Expressivism isn’t just about merely expressing one’s desires. That said, it still faces a barrage of problems. The biggest of which is known as the ‘Saving the Appearances‘.

Saving the Appearances

When we talk about ethics, make propositions and draw conclusions, we seem to be talking about facts, that is, things that are true or false independently of how we feel. In other words, we talk of morality as if we are realists (moral facts really exist – they aren’t just metaphysically dubious properties).

But under the Expressivist account, we have quite clearly seen that they consider morals to be nothing more than matters of attitude and expressing one’s approval or disapproval towards some action (i.e. non-cognitivism). There are no moral facts. So, in order for the Expressivist account to remain plausible, they will have to explain how we can account for this disparity between common sense and the Expressivist theory. Hence the task of ‘saving the appearances’. First up, Metaphysical Parsimony:

Metaphysical Parsimony

Expressivism does not postulate strange and ‘queer’ moral properties in the way that Cognitivists do. Because Expressivists are Anti-Realist, they explain our moral judgements as expressions of attitude or value, not belief. In this way, they avoid saying that there are moral facts. The Realist can neutralise this threat if she can properly explain moral properties though.

Next, a more advanced version of Moral Judgement Internalism:

Internalism Refined

Much like I would argue from a Realist point of view, the Expressivist is also free to use the evolutionary argument to better his cause.

It basically says that human beings are social animals and we have evolved the need to cooperate with one another. Morality makes this possible, but it can only do so if it is ‘motivationally effective’.

Blackburn says this:

“Evolutionary success may attend the animal that helps those that have helped it, but it would not attend any allegedly possible animal that thinks it ought to help but does not. In the competition for survival, it is what the animal does that matters. This is important, for it shows that only if values are intrinsically motivating is a natural story of their emergence possible.” (Blackburn, FE 48)

What does this mean then? Basically, that without intrinsically motivating moral values, we would not have been able to evolve as we have. Imagine for a second that we are not yet the rational creatures we are today. In order to get to where we are today, we need to cooperate and be mutually beneficial to one another. We do not yet have our rational minds to reason and determine that cooperation is needed, so it could be argued that we would need some internal and hence motivational impulse to push us to cooperate.

But could the same not be said of Moral Judgement Externalism? Could we not suppose that, even as non-rational animals in the process of evolving into human beings, we are aware of the circumstances around us, of social order (such as in chimpanzees) and thus the importance of cooperation? I think that we could, and indeed many animals do this . Yet we would not easily label those animals as having a ‘moral intuition’ for doing so. We would more likely say that they are responding to the situation. Hence we would likely determine that they are motivated by contingent factors around them.

Thus, in my opinion, the MJI vs. MJE debate goes on.

Those two admirable defences aside, Blackburn has one much more formidable argument up his sleeve. Quasi-Realism. Oh God. Let’s give it a shot and see if we can’t crack it.


Let’s start with an excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Quasi-realism is best thought of not as a philosophical position but as a philosophical program. The quasi-realist is someone who endorses an anti-realist metaphysical stance (perhaps a particular kind of anti-realist metaphysical stance—see final paragraph of this supplement) but who seeks, through philosophical manoeuvring, to earn the right for moral discourse to enjoy all the trappings of realist talk. Such a view may hold that although the underlying logical structure of the sentence “Stealing is wrong” is nothing more than “Stealing: Boo!”, it is still legitimate for ordinary speakers to use such language as “Fred believes that stealing is wrong,” “If stealing is wrong, then so is borrowing without permission,” “Stealing would remain wrong regardless of what anyone thought of it,” “The sentence ‘Stealing is wrong’ is true,” and even, perhaps, “The property of wrongness is instantiated by stealing.”


Ethical sentences do not express propositions, they project emotional attitudes as though they were real properties.

So we have Blackburn, an Anti-Realist at heart, aiming to ‘earn the right’ to be able to speak as the Realists does. Remember that Expressivism denies that there are moral facts and holds that our moral judgements are expressions of attitude. Yet it is troubled by the lack of objectivity that manifests itself. So, it tries to suck the good parts out of the Realist’s account while still maintaining that morals are still nothing more than Boo’s and Hooray’s. It wants to be able to say “Stealing would be wrong even if our attitude towards it were different”. Um…How?

Perhaps looking at the Mind-Dependence challenge in more detail would help. Note that there is more popular and heavily discussed Frege-Greach challenge to Expressivism, but I will not comment on that here.

Mind-Dependence Challenge

The challenge for Blackburn is this: How can we take obligations, duties and objectivity seriously with a view like Expressivism? If our moral judgements are merely our approval or disapproval (i.e. they depend on our own emotional reactions – our minds), how can we account for the fact that morality seems to be grounded in objectivity?

Here’s an example from Dr. Pekka’s lecture slides:

1. For the Expressivist, to think that training child soldiers is wrong is to hold an attitude of moral disapproval toward training child soldiers.
2. So, if we didn’t morally disapprove of training child soldiers, it wouldn’t be wrong.
3. But training child soldiers would be wrong even if everybody morally approved of it.
4. So, expressivism makes morality objectionably mind-dependent.

So the Expressivist seems to be committed to 2. If we did not morally disapprove of training child soldiers, then the act of training child soldiers would not be wrong.

Blackburn denies this, saying that the Expressivist is *not* committed to 2. He says it is because the conditional (if statement) present in 2. is a ‘first order moral claim’ – that it expresses a moral attitude towards a possible moral sensibility. For example, consider 2. in this way:

Hooray! (lack of disapproval of training child soldiers + NOT Boo! training child soldiers)

Essentially what he seems to be saying is that we are Hooray-ing (agreeing with) the pairing of two logically similar statements. (Remember that the Expressivist cannot use normal propositions and talks in terms of beliefs, because he has denied that beliefs cause moral judgements). Lack of disapproval in training child soldiers (i.e. we approve) + Not disapproving (i.e. we approve) would render a logically sound argument. Quite how this is meant to help us is beyond me.

Lost? Me too. Let’s try another. Blackburn on dog-kicking:

“Suppose someone said ‘if we had different sentiments, it would be right to kick dogs’, what could he be up to? Apparently, he endorses a certain sensibility: one which lets information about what people feel dictate its attitude to kicking dogs. But nice people do not endorse such a sensibility. What makes it wrong to kick dogs is the cruelty or pain to the animal.” (1984, 218)

So, what he seems to be doing here is saying that it is the natural facts or properties (the dog’s feeling pain and yelping when people kick it) that make it wrong for us to kick dogs. But hold on, isn’t that reducing our moral judgements back to moral properties again like the Realist wants to do?

Perhaps not. Let’s consider the best possible attitudes response:

Best Possible Attitudes

Blackburn argues that an attitude is true when it expresses an attitude which cannot be improved. What does this mean? That, in real world terms, where a disagreement between two people results in a moral dilemma, one must consider all possible alternatives and made an educated decision, so long as there is some common ground and shared values to relate to one-another. If one has reason to believe there is a fault in the other party’s reasoning, one’s own view would be superior. But if one comes to respect the other party’s views, then it indicates that both people hold valid moral viewpoints. In Blackburn’s words (2002, 134):


“…I hope I have looked at the matter as objectively as it deserves. That is, I have not overlooked some hidden complexity, or let some hidden agenda of bias or self-advantage determine my attitude. This is what objectivity is in ethics.”

Proof: “…Proof in these areas depends upon some common ground, and some communal ‘similarity space’ within which analogies prove compelling, inconsistencies matter, and at least some shared values can be deployed by each side together.”

Hmmm… Not sure I got that at all. How about Projectivism?


Blackburn is a Projectivist. We could argue that we are merely projecting our emotional responses onto the given situation (dog-kicking). Thus, when we say ‘kicking dogs is wrong’, it might be interpreted that we are saying that kicking dogs has a property – the property being the power to prompt an emotional projection from a person. And properties are tied with facts and beliefs. In this sense then, Blackburn might be able to gain the right to talk as if there are moral beliefs. But note, the Moral Realist may also use this argument to support his position. Check out this condensed explanation from Stanford, as this area is particularly tricky:

Jane sees two youths hurting a cat and thinks “That is impermissible.” The causal story begins with a real event in the world: two youth performing actions, a suffering cat, etc. Then there is Jane’s sensory perception of this event (she sees the youths, hears the cat’s howls, etc.). Jane may form certain inferential beliefs concerning, say, the youths’ intentions, the cats’ pain, etc. All this prompts in Jane an emotion: She disapproves (say). She then “projects” this emotion onto her experience of the world, which results in her judging the action to be impermissible…Here, impermissibility is the “new creation.” This is not to say that Jane “sees” the action to instantiate impermissibility in the same way as she sees the cat to instantiate brownness; but she judges the world to contain a certain quality, and her doing so is not the product of her tracking a real feature of the world, but is, rather, prompted by an emotional experience.

…[I]t is widely accepted by Projectivists that often we don’t know better—that we are taken in by our own Projectivist tendencies. And if this is so, then it is natural to assume that Jane ultimately believes that the action is impermissible: Her emotional projection results in a belief. And since this belief is at least as good a candidate as the emotion for being identified as the moral judgment, Projectivism is perfectly compatible with mentalistic cognitivism.

The same argument holds, mutatis mutandis, if we choose to characterize noncognitivism as a thesis concerning sentences or speech acts. Since we can assume that the language with which people discuss moral matters will reflect their experience, then when they say things like “Hurting that cat is impermissible” we can assume that they are asserting that the situation instantiates this property (the property that they have in fact projected onto their experience). But if they are asserting such things—that is, expressing their beliefs on the matter—then they cannot simply be expressing their emotions.

…[W]hen Jane utters the sentence “Hurting that cat is impermissible” what she is doing is best interpreted as asserting that the act of hurting the cat has the power to prompt a certain kind of emotional response in her (or in some person in specifiable ideal circumstances). One might even hold that she should be interpreted as asserting that the act of hurting the cat has the power to prompt a certain act of emotional projection. And since the act may indeed have this property, her assertion may be true. Whether this will count as a form of moral realism depends on how we choose to specify the relevant (in)dependency relation between moral facts and our mental activity…”

I’ll admit it. I really don’t fully grasp Quasi-Realism at all. It seems needlessly complicated and patched with workarounds that, for all intensive purposes, could be better argued from a Realist point of view. I haven’t seen any convincing arguments for Expressivism apart from the revised internalist view, which I think can be incorporated into the Realist’s views anyway, and (although I didn’t address it) the Frege-Greach problem poses a much more technical and tough challenge for Expressivism. With the clock ticking to the exam, I think it’s time I addressed the Realist views of Railton and Boyd and try to outline my own Realist stance on the matter of metaethics!



The lecture notes of Dr. Pekka Vayrynen at the University of Leeds

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Pea Soup – Interview with Blackburn

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