Understanding Ecumenical Expressivism

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.


5 Responses to Understanding Ecumenical Expressivism

  1. Vanitas says:

    Great post, and I think your final suggestion is bang-on. I tend to tackle expressivist theories from the direction of moral psychology: if the analysis of moral utterances commits us to an untenable view about what is actually going on in people’s heads, then it has to be rejected. The presumption that a single property must be the focus of all moral attitudes is not a defensible one in light of some rather plain facts about moral psychology. For example, moral responses based on disgust will likely target (as their objects) different kinds of properties than ones based on love, or again ones based on consequentialist-style reasoning.

  2. Mike Ridge says:

    Hi Paul – thanks for giving my work such careful attention and discussion! I have now shifted from the account couched in terms of ideal advisors to one couched in terms of what I call “normative perspectives,” but that may not matter for the main points you raise at the end of your post. I am less worried than you about transparency here simply because I see Ecumenical Expressivism’s account of the nature of normative judgments as getting at the underlying essence of such judgments, and that underlying essence might not be transparent to competent speakers. A useful analogy might be with a plausible functionalism in the philosophy of mind. I doubt anyone defending such a view thinks that the functional role of a given belief is transparent to anyone who has that belief. I say something similar about normative judgment. In the book I’m just finishing on this (and in my published reply to Cuneo), I argue that ‘belief’ is a bit like ‘jade’ in that it purports to pick out a natural kind but fails to do so in that the fundamental nature of descriptive beliefs and normative beliefs is quite different. A kind of semantic externalism about ‘belief’ and cognate terms thus informs my not being as concerned about transparency here as your post suggests I ought to be! [that is all a bit eclipsed but I hope the general strategy is relatively clear]

  3. Mike Ridge says:

    Vanitas: I agree that there is no single property that is the focus of all moral attitudes, where the latter includes our various moral emotions. However, I see moral emotions as playing a crucial role in keeping our moral judgments stable over time, rather than themselves constituting those judgments. We can all the same be directly motivated by those emotions, though, and I agree that each of them will typically “target” a different sort of descriptive property or cluster of properties. I do think all moral judgments are in a sense about what any acceptable moral standard would be like in some respect, but I think that view when properly understood can accommodate the insights from moral psychology you are emphasizing. There will also on my account be certain descriptive features which play a special role in explaining why a given agent judges that no acceptable set of moral standards would allow a given action, say. These can vary from one judgment to the next. In one case, it might be that the action is dishonest, but in another case it might be that it causes suffering, etc.

  4. Mike Ridge says:

    The other concern you raised is how the story can explain how moral judgment can motivate. The idea on the old account was that part of what it *is* to take an advisor to be ideal in the intended sense is to be motivated to act and reason in accord with such an advisor’s recommendations about how to act and reason. I take a similar line now, but through the device of a “normative perspective” which is partly constituted, very roughly, by an *intention* to act and practically reason only in ways compatible with what any standard of a certain kind would favour. This isn’t to rule out simpler forms of motivation, of course, which may be commonplace – direct motivation through a moral emotion, say (see my reply to Vanitas above). But it is to explain how direct motivation by a moral judgment is at least possible on my view. I think it is very much an open question which of those forms of motivation predominate, especially given that we often act out of habit as well.

  5. Mike Ridge says:

    Less roughly, on my view now normative perspectives are partly constituted by the following kinds of attitudes:

    (1) A commitment to perform (or omit) whatever actions (or omissions) would be required by any acceptable set of standards.
    (2) A commitment to deliberate in accord with whatever weights would be assigned by any acceptable set of standards.
    (3) An aspiration to perform (or omit) whatever actions (or omissions) would be most highly recommended by any acceptable set of standards.
    (4) A defeasible propensity, when being sincere (in the Gibbard’s sense) and candid, to encourage others to perform (or omit) whatever actions (or omissions) would be most recommended by any acceptable set of standards.

    The extension of ‘acceptable set of standards’, in turn, is fixed by other elements of the agent’s normative perspective – by the sorts of standards she has not ruled out in the sense of having committed herself to rejecting such standards.

    I don’t know that this level of detail really matters to your original concern, which was more structural. It does, though, highlight that normative judgments on my account are more complex than they might at first seem, making your transparency worry seem more pressing – hence my first post above!

    Thanks again for the discussion of my work.

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