Understanding Ecumenical Expressivism

January 8, 2013

Call a metaethical view a hybrid if it allows that moral sentences sometimes express cognitive states of mind and sometimes non-cognitive states of mind. Then one kind of hybrid view is an ecumenical one, which requires that moral sentences always express both cognitive and non-cognitive states of mind. I’ve been interested in hybrid theories for a while now, so it’s been a pleausure to find Michael Ridge’s ecumenical expressivism (EE), which is  subtle and deftly defended. However, I’ve got some reservations about how it’s cashed out.

The basic idea of EE is that the non-cognitive attitudes expressed by a moral sentence have priority in that the cognitive beliefs which are also expressed do not determine the truth-conditions of the sentence. To color things in a bit, it’s much as if we thought that speakers had hazy necessary and sufficient conditions in mind for “good”, but we also stipulate that the meaning of “good” doesn’t commit a speaker to using that term whenever those conditions are satisfied (hence preserving the Open Question intuition).

Now here’s a first development of EE, which Ridge calls Plain Vanilla EE (concentrating just on the notion of a reason for action):

(PV)   “There is a moral reason to X” expresses (a) an attitude of approval of a certain kind toward actions insofar as they have a certain property and (b) a belief that X has that property. (Ridge, 2006)

Note that in PV Ridge intends there to be a unique property I approve of in all my assertions about reasons, though this property may be disjunctive. Ridge (2006) argues that this feature of PV excludes particularists and pluralists, so he suggests the following dispositional account instead:

(D)   “There is a moral reason to X” expresses (a) an attitude of approval of a certain kind towards actions insofar as they would garner approval from a certain sort of subject and (b) a belief that X would garner approval from that sort of subject (Ridge, 2006),

where it’s understood that the subject in mind is of the ideal observer variety.

But the curious thing about (D) is that Ridge (2006, n. 47) denies a very natural interpretation: that (D) is just (PV) coupled with a first-order normative view, i.e. that in talk of moral reasons I’m expressing a certain pro-attitude toward actions with the property that the ideal observer would approve of them (as well as a belief that this particular action has that property). One problem Ridge raises for this view is that it doesn’t really avoid the problem of monism above. But there are others as well. For instance, while dispositional theories might say something important about certain normative concepts, I doubt they can plausibly be folded into the contents of the associated states of mind. 

Consider the attitude of belief towards a proposition P. Suppose I believe P; if I were to learn that my epistemically-ideal self does not believe P, it seems I would ought to drop belief in P. But that normative relationship does not imply that my belief was all along about what my epistemically-ideal self believed. The content of my belief was just P. And if it wasn’t just P, then the content of my belief must be even less accessible to me than I thought, and presumably can’t play the kind of role in guiding conduct that many expressivists think states of mind do play.

Now suppose I have a pro-attitude toward all actions which are φ. Once again, were I to learn that my normatively-ideal self wouldn’t approve of all φ-ing, it seems I would ought to modify my attitude. But I don’t think this means that my pro-attitude was all along towards what my normatively-ideal self approved of. I just approved of actions that were φ – or so it seems. Once again, if I’m in the dark about my own states of mind, how can states of mind guide my actions?

I’m skipping a bunch of steps here, but I want to suggest another reason for agreeing with Ridge on how not to interpret (D): that it might make the notion of a moral state of mind so anti-transparent that it (a) strains credulity and (b) may not do a lot of the simple work in explaining behavior expressivists want it to. But, that done, I’m not sure how to interpret it in a way that avoids these problems. It can’t be that moral sentences express the ideal advisor’s approving state of mind. I am not my ideal advisor, and I cannot express another’s state of mind unless I am acting, or perhaps quoting that individual. But in those contexts I generally don’t mean to endorse those attitudes. Everyone finds Hitler reprehensible, but no one finds actors who play Hitler reprehensible. (At least, not for that reason.)

At this point I wonder whether the solution is to drop the uniqueness requirement in (D). Why not think that some moral sentences express approval of property φ and others of property ψ, for ψ ≠ φ?


Ridge, M. (2006). “Ecumenical Expressivism: Finessing Frege”. Ethics 116, pp. 302-336.

Ridge, M. (2007). “Ecumenical Expressivism: The Best of Both Worlds?”. Oxford Studies in Metaethics, Vol. 2, pp. 51-76.