A Primitive Solution to the Negation Problem


It has recently been alleged that expressivism cannot account for the obvious fact that normative sentences and their negations express inconsistent kinds of attitudes. I explain how the expressivist can respond to this objection. I offer an account of attitudinal inconsistency that takes it to be a combination of descriptive and normative relations. The account I offer to explain these relations relies on a combination of functionalism about normative judgments and expressivism about the norms governing them. It holds that the inconsistency of normative judgments is primitive. One potential problem for this view is that the large number of normative primitives that the expressivist will allegedly need to accept will render the view grossly unparsimonious. In defending this thesis, I suggest that it is a mistake to hold the lack of normative parsimony of expressivism against its core psychological claims.

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  1. 1.

    I take it that Gibbard’s term ‘disagreement’ refers to roughly the same phenomenon.

  2. 2.

    See, for instance, Schroeder (2008).

  3. 3.

    The exact set of claims is also likely to be vague.

  4. 4.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out this problem.

  5. 5.

    See, for instance, Loar (1981).

  6. 6.

    How can it be systematically generated while still being primitive? The norms themselves are primitive, in that they can’t be explained in terms of other norms, but they fit into a pattern that allows us to give a concise summary of what norms there are.

  7. 7.

    I think that Lenman (2003) has the right response to it. This response involves denying that expressivists are committed to wishful thinking while agreeing that this would be problematic.


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Thanks to Paul Audi, Jerry Cederblom, Laura Grams, Halla Kim, William Melanson, Andrew Newman, Jack Woods, and several anonymous referees for comments and discussion of earlier versions of this paper.

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Correspondence to Derek Shiller.

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Shiller, D. A Primitive Solution to the Negation Problem. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 19, 725–740 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-015-9670-9

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  • Negation problem
  • Inconsistency
  • Expressivism
  • Parsimony