Prescriptive Metaethics

By and large, metaethicists have focused on descriptive questions about the nature of our moral discourse. For instance, is it in the business of stating facts, or of expressing affective states? If the former, are there such facts? If the latter, how is this reconciled with the role that moral language plays in reasoning?…

There is one clear exception. Some who are interested in error theory have shifted their attention from the descriptive question to a prescriptive/ practical one–namely, “Are we to retain moral language? And if so, how are we to treat it?” (I give the practical variant since it might be thought problematic for an error theorist to ask a question framed in terms of “should.”) The reason for this shift is that the prescriptive/practical question seems quite pressing in the case of error theory. Error theory seems to force the question. The two most prominent answers discussed by error theorists, to my (limited) knowledge, are eliminativism and moral fictionalism (of the prescriptive variety).

Most other descriptive metaethical views do not seem to force the question in the same way. If, say, cognitivist-realism is true, it seems natural to many to accept moral language for what it is, and go about one’s business. The same goes for descriptive expressivism.

Yet, it strikes me that the prescriptive/practical question is intelligible on any descriptive metaethical view (provided, of course, that the descriptive metaethical story in question leaves room for some kind of divergence from our actual practices). I take it that eliminativism (the view that we should give up moral talk altogether) is a live option on all of the leading descriptive metaethical stories. And I expect that prescriptive expressivism is a live option on all of the leading descriptive metaethical stories. (Granted, some prescriptive views do not seem to be live options for certain descriptive views. Cognitivist-realism and prescriptive moral fictionalism seem incompatible.)

If it is intelligible to address the prescriptive question no matter what one’s descriptive commitments are, and if prescriptive expressivism can be intelligibly combined with any plausible descriptive view, this opens up an interesting possibility. Perhaps all roads lead to prescriptive expressivism. In other words, perhaps prescriptive expressivism is the leading prescriptive option, irrespective of whether one is a descriptive moral fictionalist, a cognitivist-realist, a descriptive expressivist, an error theorist, an indeterminacy theorist (i.e. one who thinks the semantic story is indeterminate), etc.

But what is prescriptive expressivism? A rough proposal is this: it is the view that recommends treating ourselves and others as if they are expressing commitments to norms. This, I take it, is something like pretending that we and others are doing this (which is distinct from the prescriptive moral fictionalist’s activity). (Of course, perhaps we don’t need to pretend in our own case. Perhaps, in our own case, we are able to effectively express commitments with our moral talk. I’m not sure and would be interested to hear thoughts about that.)

That’s all for now. I’m curious to know if there are problems with what I’ve said or if anyone has different ideas about what prescriptive expressivism might involve.

Later Addition (10/6/09):

Discussion with Don Loeb has alerted me to what seems an important distinction to make, which I hadn’t been appreciating:

    A self-directed prescriptive metaethical view is a view about how to (or, how one ought to) modify and/or treat one’s own use of normative language.
    An other-directed prescriptive metaethical view is a view about how to (or, how one ought to) treat other people’s use of normative language.

My talk of “prescriptive expressivism” above was gesturing at a combination of self-directed and other-directed prescriptive expressivism.

I’d be quite interested to hear people’s thoughts about this distinction.


15 Responses to Prescriptive Metaethics

  1. Don Loeb says:

    These issues certainly seem worth pursuing. In parallel to a proposal offered by error theorists like Richard Joyce (and thanks to an on-the-fly suggestion by Selim Berker at the latest Wisconsin metaethics conference), I’ve taken to calling my own practice “revolutionary expressivism.” When I talk moral talk, I wish to be interpreted as expressing my moral attitudes–not as making factual assertions. I don’t think “ordinary people” are using their words that way–hence “revolutionary.” (At present, btw, I am more attracted to “moral incoherentism,” than to the error theory, and I have published a long paper–with replies by Gill and Sayre McCord and a reply to critics by me–on that, fwiw.)

    That brings me to my two minor quibbles. I don’t think there is any pretense involved when I speak, at least most of the time, and I don’t see why to pretend. (I’m following Steve’s suggestion for how to express that thought, though I am on record as suggesting that the “practical variant” merely covers up an implicit, and problematic, “ought”.) People who know me have heard me say things like, “Killing your parents for fun is wrong, and when I say that I am expressing my acceptance of norms, blah, blah, blah,” many times.

    And I am not sure why we’d want to treat or pretend that others are (only) expressing attitudes. Why not say that they (those heroic ordinary people again) are making factual assertions (which are false) or talking nonsense? They may be expressing attitudes as well. But what I’d like to know is what the point of the pretense is (for them OR us), and how this sort of pretense IS different from that recommended by revolutionary fictionalism. We aren’t pretending to make factual assertions, I guess, but to express? But I am not pretending to express. I’m expressing.

    I am just not speaking standard English when I do so.

    Don Loeb (’91)

  2. Steve C. says:

    Hi Don, thanks for the remarks.

    One reason I think I favor the term “prescriptive expressivism” is that it is neutral with respect to different descriptive views. It would be odd for a descriptive expressivist who thinks we should treat moral discourse just as it is to call herself a “revolutionary expressivist.” It would be odd for a person who is undecided on the descriptive front to call him/herself a revolutionary expressivist, since this person is presumably unsure whether expressivism might be the correct descriptive view. Part of the point I want to make here is that the prescriptive view I’m gesturing at can be held by an error theorist, a Moorean, a descriptive moral fictionalist,… (But, I grant, “prescriptive expressivist” sounds less fiery and epic than your term.)

    You’ve made some very helpful points. I see now that there are (at least) two issues here that I wasn’t distinguishing: (1) How to modify or treat one’s own use of moral discourse (provided that s/he doesn’t go eliminativist)?; and (2) How to treat other people’s use of moral discourse?

    It sounds like you endorse (1) in your own case, using moral language to express norms you accept, and (2) in the case of others, treating their use of moral language in accord with the descriptive theory you accept (something like error theory, I take it?).

    In contrast, I was suggesting a view that amounts to (1a) in your own case, treating your own use of moral language as expressing norms you accept OR (1b) in your own case, using moral language to express norms you accept, and (2) in the case of others, treating their use of moral language as expressing norms that they accept.

    (I’m not sure what to make of the difference between (1a) and (1b). I agree with you that it seems possible for us to consciously use moral language to express our normative commitments. But, surely we can’t do that all the time. You and I will lapse into using normative language without thinking about what we’re doing. In those cases, perhaps it’s best for us to treat what we have said in our careless moments as expressions of our commitments. Is that a problem?)

    Anyway, it was a mistake to define “prescriptive expressivism” as I did. The view you’re suggesting is one view to take. The one I was suggesting is another. For the time being, we might call your view “self prescriptive expressivism” and the view I was suggesting “self/other prescriptive expressivism.”

  3. Steve C. says:

    Presumably, this distinction (between self, other, and self/other prescriptive metaethical views) will apply to other prescriptive metaethical views. So, we could distinguish, in the case of prescriptive moral fictionalism, how to modify/interpret one’s own use of moral language AND how to interpret others’ use of moral language.

  4. Don Loeb says:

    Hey Steve,

    First, “revolutionary” is a standard term, used to distinguish the sort of fictionalism according to which wone recommends reforming language from the form according to which one believes the discourse is already fictionalist. (The latter has got the ugly name, “hermeneutic fictionalism”. Bioth terms are applied to M discourse as well as others, including, for example, math.) I am just using that distinction. It has nothing to do with “fiery and epic”.

    If I understand you, you also want to be able to talk about people who are unsure about ordinary thought and talk (I wish there were more people who admitted to uncertainty about ordinary discourse, but wish to recommend that we merely express either way. I agree that there is no term for that view. Does anyone hold it? (I am probably as close as you’ll find, and I am fine with RP.)

    I have trouble imagining a Moorean thinking we should merely express. We still want, on her view, to state the facts. (And descriptivism is not incompatible with SOME expressing, after all.)

    Likewise a herme . . descriptive . . fictionalist thinks people are talking about what they take to be a fiction, and that’s as it should be (there being no moral facts.) Perhaps it is possible to be a descriptive fictionalist and think that we should stop pretending and merely express, instead. I guess I think descriptive fictionalism is too implausible to need this further complication. Few accept it, and those who do are unlikely to see expressivism as having advantages over fiction.

    Second, since prescriptivism is a form of expressivism, the term you suggest seems misleading. More generally I think we should be wary about multiplying labels unless they are needed.

    Third, fwiw, I am not an error theorist. As I said, I am more inclined toward incoherentism, which is, in my view, neither ET nor expresivism. (Sayre McCord says, in a footnote to his comment on my paper, that it has to be one or the other. But he added that after my reply was in, and I wasn’t given a reasonable chance to say why I disagree.)

    If I understand 1a and 1b, I’m in the latter camp. That is, I use moral language to think and express norms I accept. I decided to do that because I am a moral irrealist and I still want to think and talk about these issues. So I do also interpret my current use of M language as expressing, but I don’t think it is a standard way of talking and thinking.

    You suggest that I can’t do both because I must slip. I find that odd. I don’t always think about what my words mean, but I always an irrealist. I don’t slip out of that. And I don’t consciously think about my use of MOST words when I use them. I don’t see why that should be any more of an issue for words I use idiosyncratically. Suppose I call my son “Squirt,” knowing that he isn’t little or wet or anything squirty. And suppose I stop thinking about it, but still use it. I’m still using it as a nickname. It’s not just that we should interpret me as such.

    By contrast, I don’t wish to 2) treat others as merely expressing. That’s expressivism. I think they are either making factual assertions (a la the ET, when coupled with irrealism) or incoherent.

    But my view isn’t just about myself. I think M irrealism is true, and thus recommend believing it. If you do believe it, I have a suggestion for you. Be like me, and use your words to express. When it is worth clarifying, do so. Sometimes that’s not so helpful or would simply confuse people, and the ambiguous (or rather, misunderstood) language will work just fine in everyday conversation.

  5. Steve C. says:

    Thanks for the further comments, Don.

    Well, terminology is terminology. As long as we’re agreed that one can be both a “hermeneutic expressivist” and a “revolutionary expressivist,” I’m fine with people talking that way. For the sake of consistency, in what follows I’ll stick to the language I use in the post.

    I agree that most descriptive fictionalists and Mooreans will probably not be drawn to prescriptive expressivism. My main point was only that those combinations of views are not incompatible, and it seems hasty to ignore these possible combinations prior to investigation. After all, there might be very good arguments for prescriptive expressivism (or eliminativism, or prescriptive moral fictionalism, or…).

    Right. Sorry for assuming that your view is like error theory. I look forward to taking a look at your paper.

    On your point about 2), I should clarify that I don’t think treating others as merely expressing is the same as, or requires, believing that they are merely expressing. I think the two can come apart. Here’s a rough analogy. You may not believe that everyone is a selfish bastard to the core, but you might decide that you nonetheless wish to treat all people as if they were. (Perhaps you are convinced that this is the best way to be on guard against those occasional selfish bastards that you’ll encounter.) In treating people as if they’re like this, you needn’t believe that they are in fact like this. Likewise, in treating people as if they’re merely expressing, you needn’t (though you might) believe that they are merely expressing. That’s the distinction I had in mind. So, I think there is a difference between (what I crudely labeled) ” ‘other’ prescriptive expressivism” and descriptive (or hermeneutic) expressivism.

  6. Sven Nyholm says:

    I’m not sure I see the point of using normative language only as means of announcing, in an indirect way, which norms one accepts. If this is all there is to do, then this kind of invited the qestion (in response to somebody’s normative statements) “why should I care about what norms you accept other than insofar as your actions based on these norms will affect me?”.

    What might be missing for somebody who takes this attitude to Steve’s suggestion? Something like an invitition to consider the merits of those norms that one is accepting. When I am calling something a reason in a normative discussion I am assuming that this consideration will also resonate with the person I am addressing.

    If my normative claim is to have normative force, it seems to me, it has to be that I am not simply announcing, in an indirect expressivist way, what norms I am accepting, but also inviting the other party to the discussion to see they also will find the considerations I bring up to seem relevant to what to do. Not just in the sense that they will be able to plan their behavior around what I can be expected to do, given what my norms are, but also because they too might come to see the same things that I find important as intuitively bearing on what to do.

    So, bottom line (and I’m sorry if this has already been brought up above–I didn’t read people’s comments very carefully!): it seems to me that, if we are going to reform our use of normative language, then just trying to make it express our own acceptance of norms seems not to be all worth having it do. We should also—and this is something I think normative language already does—have the feature of being a way of inviting our listeners to consider the merits of these norms. What does that mean? Something like implicitly inviting them to see if the considerations we see as favoring following these norms also resonate with them.

  7. Don Loeb says:

    I agree. It’s never just announcing. That’s part of the “blah, blah, blah,” above. And it is absolutely central to every form of expressivism (or non-cognitivism.non-descriptivism) I know of. See Stevenson on “persuasive definitions,” Hare on prescribing, or Gibbard (from who I am getting the words “express my acceptance of norms”) who has–as always–very sophisticated discussions of these matters.

    Even Ayer, styled an emotivist, also talks about the hortatory aspect to moral langauge.

  8. Steve C. says:

    Hi Sven,
    Like you and Don, I agree that there might not be much pragmatic value in using moral language to express norm-acceptances (or in using language at all!) if doing so had no implications for or effect on one’s audience. We’re agreed there.

    But you seem to be assuming: Purposefully using moral language to express to others one’s own acceptance of norms does not (typically at least) involve implicitly inviting them to consider the merits of the norms.

    That just seems false to me. Consider: I can also express my acceptance of norms by stating the norms. If I accept a norm that says, “Never murder no matter who you are,” I can say to another “Hey! Never murder no matter who you are!” In doing so, I think I express my acceptance of that norm and I implicitly invite him/her to consider the merits of the norm. And I don’t see why things would be any different if one uses normative language to express norm-acceptance. Is there a difference I’m missing?

    [Also, your talk of “announcing” one’s norm-acceptances sounds more like what Ayer called “subjectivism” than expressivism. I certainly don’t consider (self) prescriptive expressivism to be a matter of announcing what norms one accepts if this means *stating* what norms one accepts. (But perhaps you were just using “announce” and “express” synonymously.)]

  9. Sven Nyholm says:

    Well, I was talking about announcing one’s acceptance of norms indirectly by expressing this acceptance. So, I was not meaning to use “announce” and “express” synonymously, and hope I didn’t. I used the term “announce” just to make the point that the whole point of making normative claims, if it is to be worth doing, cannot be to get across in some way or other that you yourself accept, and follow, some norm. If that were the whole of it, then why not instead just come right out and announce this, rather than indirectly doing so by expressing your acceptance of the norms in question?

    So, I was trying to say that for there to be a point of having a separate normative vocabulary normative claims would need to serve some additional function. My thought was not necessarily that the prescriptive expressivist was denying this, but my sense was that these other functions of normative claims, worth preserving, were not sufficiently emphasized in what I could see from quickly reading the discussion that had taken place prior to my comment.

    I was never assuming that it is not a highly likely feature of some piece of language that would intended to express the speakers norm-acceptance states that this would have certain effects on her conversation partners. But, there is a difference between suggesting that we start using certain phrases in ways that have certain foreseeable side-effects and suggesting that we start using this same part of language partly as a way of communicating our sense that something matters and also inviting others to see if these things also, as I put it above, resonate with them.

    That is to say, in case we are in the business of reforming normative language, then that last bit should not–I propose–be a pragmantic side-effect of the newly adopted function(s) of normative claims, but should be kept as an essential part. But, perhaps this in no way is different from what Steve was originally was suggesting?

  10. Steve C. says:

    Fair enough, Sven. I wasn’t giving that emphasis, but, yes, I also think that that should be a key part of the motivation for prescriptive/revolutionary expressivism.

  11. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    Hi Steve,

    I gather that you recommend prescriptive expressivism, but I could only see one argument in its favor:

    “If it is intelligible to address the prescriptive question no matter what one’s descriptive commitments are, and if prescriptive expressivism can be intelligibly combined with any plausible descriptive view, … [p]erhaps all roads lead to prescriptive expressivism.”

    I noted Don’s doubts about the claim that PE can be combined with any descriptive view, but I’ll leave such doubts aside and grant that PE works with any descriptive view.

    Now, suppose I hold some descriptive view or other about how people use moral language (I don’t think I do — I leave that sort of thing to my friendly neighborhood lexicographer). You recommend that I adopt PE. I ask why. Your response: It can be combined with your descriptive view!

    I am unmoved. Am I missing something?

  12. Steve C. says:

    Hi Steve,
    Thanks for the comment. So, to clarify, it wasn’t my purpose to argue for PE here, which is why there isn’t a single argument for it. (I definitely do not take the passage you quoted to be anything close to an argument for PE.) My purpose in the post was only to suggest that, given any descriptive view, there is a “prescriptive” issue to be resolved, to suggest that PE might be the leading prescriptive contender, and to make a first-stab characterization of PE. I haven’t defended the second suggestion, and I’m not yet sure I will want to. I first need to get clearer on what PE is. (Discussion has already shown me that there are two positions where I was initially only recognizing one.)

  13. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for the clarification — I had the feeling I might be either missing or misinterpreting something.

  14. Jon S. says:

    Hi Steve,

    Just an anecdote you might like: in his Paul Carus lectures (published as _The Many Faces of Reason_), Putnam says that Davidson once asked him rhetorically, “What is the point of saying that intentional idioms are ‘second class’ if we are going to go on using them?” The same question can be asked of the error theorist in the case of moral idioms, and perhaps applies some pressure to argue against their retention.


  15. Steve C. says:

    Nice. Thanks, Jon.

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