Expression and Guidance in Schroeder’s Expressivist Semantics


Mark Schroeder’s expressivist program has made substantial progress in providing a compositional semantics for normative terms. This paper argues that it risks achieving this semantic progress at the cost of abandoning a key theoretical motivation for embracing expressivism in the first place. The problem can be summarized as a dilemma. Either Schroeder must allow that there are cases in which agents are in disagreement with one another, or can make valid inferences, but that these disagreements or inferences are not expressible in natural language; or his version of expressivism must abandon one of the key theoretical advantages expressivist theories seemed to possess over cognitivism, the ability to provide a very straightforward explanation of the action- and attitude-guiding role of normative judgments.

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  1. 1.

    See, for example, Charlow (2014), Baker and Woods (2015), Schwartz and Hom (2015), Alwood (2016) and Shiller (2016).

    Ridge’s (2014) proposal does arguably possess the scope and systematicity of Schroeder’s—but as hybrid expressivist theory, it is less ambitious in how significantly it departs from orthodox semantic theory, a point that Ridge offers in its favor. The earlier, quite detailed expressivist projects of Blackburn and Gibbard have also received defense in Sinclair (2011), and Gibbard (2012: 273–292).

  2. 2.

    Gibbard is clear that ‘rational’ is meant to pick out the thing to do, the act or attitude that would make most sense.

  3. 3.

    Note that this formulation skips over the Wrong Kind of Reasons problem. For some discussion of this problem, see D’Arms and Jacobson (2000), Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen (2004), Hieronymi (2005), Schroeder (2010b), and Sharadin (2013). Issues surrounding the Wrong Kind of Reasons problem will come up later (see footnote 14), but these complications do not affect the main argument.

  4. 4.

    This skips over the formulation in terms of world-norm pairs (Gibbard 1990), and the device of hyper-decided agents (2003: 57). The simplification is not relevant to the argument at this point, which primarily aims to show the motivations for Schroeder’s theory.

  5. 5.

    Dreier’s (2006) solution to this problem is outside the scope of this paper.

  6. 6.

    It would be more correct to say that it has the structure For (ϕ (…, x)). As Schroeder (2012) puts it: “the semantic value of each n-place predicate is an n + 1-place relation.” Interested readers should also see chapter 6 of Being For. The simplification here does not affect the main argument, however.

  7. 7.

    Skorupski (2012) reads Schroeder’s semantics as effectively the same as Gibbard’s, with the being for attitude corresponding to ‘ought’ in the way the planning attitude corresponds for Gibbard. See Schroeder (2012), and Köhler (2012) for arguments that this is a mistake.

  8. 8.

    But see Charlow (2014), and Alwood (2016) for alternatives.

  9. 9.

    This restriction is challenged on various different grounds by Sinclair (2011), Charlow (2014), Baker and Woods (2015), Silk (2015), and Alwood (2016).

  10. 10.

    See the discussion at the PEASoup blog for Schroeder’s denial that he has identified logical relations with psychological ones ( The charge that Schroeder’s account of logic is overly psychologistic is argued for in Baker and Woods (2015).

  11. 11.

    As Schroeder puts it: “So let’s take this as our definition of valid arguments: an argument is valid just in case anyone who accepts its premises is committed to accepting its conclusion, and logically valid just in case it is of a form all instances of which are valid” (2008b: 112).

  12. 12.

    Of course, it is a necessary condition on an argument’s logical validity that it be valid, and a necessary condition on logical inconsistency that the inconsistency be literal. So logical inconsistency will only hold between sentences expressing A-type inconsistent attitudes. But this on this reading, A-type inconsistency is necessary to but not sufficient for logical inconsistency.

  13. 13.

    This is the question of whether an expressivist should hold that normative sentences directly express motives and feelings, or higher-order attitudes towards motives and feelings. See Toppinen (2015) for discussion of this issue. Schroeder’s theory would be an example of a higher-order theory. Also see Ridge (2015) for argument that the expressivist might not be as well positioned to explain the relevant datum as she thinks—and that in fact some form of hybrid expressivism scores better on this issue.

  14. 14.

    Note that the nature of the problem is conditional: if ‘wrong’ expresses a commitment to blame, then ‘Murder is wrong but not blaming for murder makes sense’ expresses a counter-normative commitment. But on Schroeder’s account, there must be some relation ϕ expressed by ‘wrong’, and so there must be a sentence ‘Murder is wrong, but it makes sense not to stand in ϕ toward murder’ that expresses an irrationality. Note also that this statement of the objection passes over conflicts between which attitudes are fitting or warranted, and which attitudes one ought to have all-things-considered (see footnote 3). But we can also construct sentences of the form ‘X is wrong, but murder does not warrant blame’, recreating the problem.

  15. 15.

    None of this should be taken to imply that realists do not explain the connection between ought-judgments and choice. For example, see Smith (1994, 1995), and Wedgwood (2007).

  16. 16.

    The assumption here is that if better than expresses preferring (2008b: 58), then good should express desiring.

  17. 17.

    In their (2015) Schwartz and Hom raise this same problem (or a very similar one) with Schroeder’s semantics. As they put it: “It is important to note that [for Schroeder] ordinary judgments about some activity always correspond to a being for of some relation to that activity. It is thus impossible to simply be for giving to charity…” (839). I have a few points of disagreement with some of their development of this objection, however: two minor and one more significant.

    First, I do not think the text supports the claim that for Schroeder being for giving to charity is impossible. (Schroeder may hold this, but his published work simply leaves the issue open.) Rather, what Schroeder is committed to is the claim that being for giving to charity is not expressible through a declarative sentence that predicates some property or relation of a subject. It could be that such attitudes exist, however; they are simply inexpressible or else expressed through non-declarative sentences with simpler logical structure, such as exclamations or imperatives (Köhler 2012 shares this reading of Schroeder). Schwartz and Hom are correct however that no normative declaration can express simply being for giving to charity.

    Second, Schwartz and Hom argue that Schroeder may be forced to give up one of the standard explanatory advantages of expressivism, “a compelling story on how accepting a moral claim can be motivating” (840). Notice, however, that they assume here that the expressivist wants to tell story on which moral judgments motivate performing or refraining from the morally valenced action. But among Gibbard’s grounds for analyzing ‘X is wrong’ as expressing a plan to feel anger to those who X was a desire to accommodate the possibility of agent’s who hold that it may in some cases be irrational to act morally. (For more discussion of this possibility, see footnote 19). It is arguably an attractive feature of Schroeder’s theory, then, that it does not make all normative predicates favor their objects directly. The problem, I think, is that we should want at least some predicates to favor their objects directly (as on Gibbard’s semantics).

    Third, and most importantly, Schwartz and Hom seem to assume that the primary way in which a normative attitude might favor an object directly is simply for the attitude to have that object as its content, rather than a relation to that object as content (i.e., an instance of being for would directly favor giving to charity if it were an instance of being for giving to charity). I think this overlooks a possibility. I believe there is a way for an instance of being for ψ-ing giving to charity to directly favor giving to charity, in virtue of favoring standing in relation ψ to giving to charity: namely, if being for ψ-ing giving to charity closes off further question about whether to give to charity; or, in other words, if it is irrational to be for ψ-ing giving to charity, but still fail to give to charity. I develop this possibility in the following discussion.

  18. 18.

    Thanks to a referee for raising this point.

  19. 19.

    A referee asks whether ‘Murder is wrong, but it’s wrong to blame for murder’ expresses inconsistency—perhaps of a pragmatic rather than semantic form. After all, the attitude expressed by this sentence would be:

    for (blaming (murder) and blaming (blaming (murder))

    The speaker is expressing an attitude which she is also expressing a commitment to blame.

    The answer, I think, is that it is not inconsistent by itself, precisely because it is an open question whether moral judgments are overriding, or whether a commitment to blaming for X rationally commits one not to X. If moral judgments are overriding, such that Murdering is wrong entails that Not murdering makes sense, then ‘Murder is wrong but blaming for murder is wrong’ is inconsistent. But notice that in this case the speaker is also rationally committed to having attitude (U). This is the source of the inconsistency.

    On the other hand, if moral demands are sometimes superseded by other kinds of considerations, there is no inconsistency. Consider the person who says ‘Murder is wrong, but it’s wrong to blame for murder.’ She is committing to blaming for murder. She is also committing to blaming those who blame for murder (including herself). So she is committed to doing something she is committed to feeling guilty about (assuming the first-person expression of blame is guilt). This may seem weird, and possibly irrational, but remember that if moral requirements are not always overriding there will presumably be cases like this. Take Williams’ (1981) version of Gaugin: one could conclude that Gaugin is doing something morally wrong in abandoning his family to pursue art, and so it is reasonable for him to feel bad about his choice. But values of artistic creation, authenticity, and so on win out in this case, and so it is reasonable for him to make that choice even while he feels bad about it. If cases like this are possible, there should be no necessary irrationality in committing to having attitudes that one will appropriately feel bad about having either.

  20. 20.

    But see Toppinen (2015) for criticism of higher-order attitude versions of expressivism.

  21. 21.

    This is not to say that Köhler would endorse any of this. I mean only to credit him for the good; I take all responsibility for the bad.

  22. 22.

    Schroeder, for example, introduces the FOWR predicate to express the attitude of being for (2008b: 60–64). As we will see, the problem is not with any of the logical or semantic properties of this artificial term, but the question of why we had to introduce it in the first place. Thanks to a referee of an earlier draft for pointing to this issue.

  23. 23.

    This summary skips over major and minor attitudes, the attitude of disbelief, and other complexities. Interested readers should see chapters 7 and 8 of Being For.

  24. 24.

    Thanks to a referee of an earlier version for pointing to this possibility.

  25. 25.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for pointing this out to me.


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Thanks to Jack Woods and anonymous referees for extensive comments and criticism. Research appearing in this paper was partially funded by a grant from the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong, China (LU342612).

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Baker, D. Expression and Guidance in Schroeder’s Expressivist Semantics. Erkenn 83, 829–852 (2018).

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