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.