Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 20, Issue 4, pp 797–811 | Cite as

Expressivism and the Reliability Challenge

  • Camil Golub


Suppose that there are objective normative facts and our beliefs about such facts are by-and-large true. How did this come to happen? This is the reliability challenge to normative realism. As has been recently noted, the challenge also applies to expressivist “quasi-realism”. I argue that expressivism is useful in the face of this challenge, in a way that has not been yet properly articulated. In dealing with epistemological issues, quasi-realists typically invoke the desire-like nature of normative judgments. However, this is not enough to prevent the reliability challenge from arising, given that quasi-realists also hold that normative judgments are truth-apt beliefs. To defuse this challenge, we need to isolate a deeper sense in which normative thought is not representational. I propose that we rely on the negative functional thesis of expressivism: normative thought does not have the function of tracking normative facts, or any other kind of facts. This thesis supports an argument to the effect that it is misguided to expect an explanation of our access to normative facts akin to the explanations available in regions of thought that have a tracking function. We should be content with explanations of our reliability that take for granted certain connections between our psychology and the normative truths.


Expressivism Quasi-realism Reliability challenge Function Tracking 



I am grateful to Brian Ballard, Michelle Dyke, Tom Nagel, Daniel Skibra, David Velleman, several anonymous referees, the editors of this special issue, and especially Hartry Field, Josh Schechter, and Sharon Street, for their helpful comments on previous versions of this paper. Many thanks as well to audiences at New York University, Bilkent University, and the 2016 Conference on Objectivity in Ethics at the University of Utrecht for their useful feedback. I have also greatly benefited from discussions with Max Barkhausen, Harjit Bhogal, Paul Boghossian, Jared Warren, and Mike Zhao, and especially from many conversations with Dan Waxman.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA

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