Skip to main content

Expressivism, Moral Fallibility, and the Approved Change Strategy


Blackburn’s “quasi-realism” aims to show that expressivism can accommodate the sorts of claims about moral truth, facts, objectivity, and the like that are found in ordinary moral thought and discourse. Egan (2007) argues that expressivists cannot accommodate certain claims about the possibility that one’s own fundamental moral commitments are mistaken. He criticizes what I call the approved change strategy, which explains that judgment in terms of the belief that one might change one’s mind as a result of favored processes such as getting more information. Egan targets a simple version of that strategy; I raise objections to a more sophisticated expressivist alternative. I argue against Horgan and Timmons’ (2015) claim that quasi-realists need not accommodate certain thoughts about moral fallibility on the grounds that they are metaethical rather than first-order moral claims, and that the implied orientation toward others that results is not objectionably smug. I also argue that the sophisticated strategy problematically commits the expressivist to an ideal observer or advisor theory (or coextensive theory) in first-order ethics.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    I use “approval” as a generic term for whatever non-cognitive state the expressivist takes moral judgments to express. Expressivist theories differ among themselves on this matter.

  2. 2.

    For similar remarks, see Blackburn (1981: 174–176, 1993b: 127–128, 1993c: 19–21).

  3. 3.

    Some metaethical realists will deny that moral error is possible after what is in fact one’s ideally best investigative effort. For example, if moral principles are rational principles knowable through a priori reasoning, then perhaps an ideal reasoner could not have mistaken moral beliefs. But these realists can agree that a person’s moral beliefs may diverge from the moral facts in what that person regards as ideal conditions, since that person may be mistaken about which conditions are ideal. The metaethical realists may believe that they themselves could not in fact be wrong in the conditions they regard as ideal, because they are confident in their views about the nature of morality and the reliability with which moral truth so conceived can be discerned in those conditions. But they should agree that the ineliminable-error claim is coherent, though (they think) false in their own case.

  4. 4.

    One difference is that in typical ideal observer/advisor theories, the relevant processes or ideal conditions are specified by the theory, not by each agent. Thus, whether someone’s ideal advisor would have full information does not depend on what they (the non-idealized person) think about the value of full information. But it is easy to imagine subjective analogues of ideal observer/advisor theories according to which the relevant processes or ideal conditions are determined by each person’s current attitudes.

  5. 5.

    See Ridge (2015) for a different response, and Bex-Priestley (2018) for a rebuttal.

  6. 6.

    Bex-Priestley (2018) and perhaps Lenman (2014) embrace the latter route.

  7. 7.

    The specified processes may also lead to changes in which processes one endorses. This is no problem for the approved change strategy, since one’s approval of accepting the moral views that one would accept as a result of the specified processes applies to one’s views about which processes to endorse just as well as one’s other moral views. For simplicity, I assume that the idealized (e.g., fully informed) agent epitomizes the same processes (e.g., getting more information) of which the actual non-idealized agent approves, continues to approve of all and only those processes, and recognizes that they have been fully applied in their own case (e.g., that they are fully informed).

  8. 8.

    To concede that others’ views, different from one’s own, also cannot be wrong, would be to accept a form of relativism, which expressivists are typically keen to reject.

  9. 9.

    Similar concerns are common in the literature on full-information accounts of well-being (e.g., Sobel 1994).

  10. 10.

    In a similar spirit, one might object that if the approved change strategy were correct, then the judgments that “stealing is wrong” and “I would believe that stealing is not wrong after undergoing the specified processes” would seem inconsistent in the same way that the judgments that “stealing is wrong” and “stealing is not wrong” seem inconsistent. The expressivist could respond that the first pair of judgments seem consistent only if one is unaware of the truth of the approved change strategy. Thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting this point.


  1. Beddor, Bob. 2020. Fallibility for expressivists. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 98(4): 763–777.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bex-Priestley, Graham. 2018. Error and the limits of quasi-realism. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 21: 1051–1063.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Blackburn, Simon. 2009. Truth and a priori possibility: Egan’s charge against quasi-realism. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 87: 201–213.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Blackburn, Simon. 1998. Ruling passions. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Blackburn, Simon. 1993a. Essays in quasi-realism. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Blackburn, Simon. 1993b. Moral realism. In Essays in quasi-realism, 111–129. New York: Oxford University Press.

  7. Blackburn, Simon. 1993c. Truth, realism, and the regulation of theory. In Essays in quasi-realism, 15–34. New York: Oxford University Press.

  8. Blackburn, Simon. 1984. Spreading the word. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Blackburn, Simon. 1981. Reply: Rule-following and moral realism. In Wittgenstein: To follow a rule, ed. Steven Holtzman and Christopher Leich, 163–187. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Brandt, Richard B. 1979. A theory of the good and the right. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Egan, Andy. 2007. Quasi-realism and fundamental moral error. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 85(2): 205–219.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Enoch, David. 2014. A defense of moral deference. Journal of Philosophy 111(5): 229–258.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Gibbard, Allan. 1990. Wise choices, apt feelings: A theory of normative judgment. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Horgan, Terry, and Mark Timmons. 2015. Modest quasi-realism and the problem of deep moral error. In Passions and projections: Themes from the philosophy of Simon Blackburn, ed. Robert N. Johnson and Michael Smith, 190–209. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  15. Köhler, Sebastian. 2015. What is the problem with fundamental moral error? Australasian Journal of Philosophy 93(1): 161–165.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Lenman, James. 2014. Gibbardian humility: Moral fallibility and moral smugness. Journal of Value Inquiry 48: 235–245.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Raskoff, Sarah Zoe. 2018. Getting expressivism out of the woods. Ergo 5(36): 947–969.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Ridge, Michael. 2018. Normative certitude for expressivists. Synthese 197: 3325–3347.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Ridge, Michael. 2015. I might be fundamentally mistaken. Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 9(3): 1–21.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Smith, Michael. 1994. The moral problem. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Sobel, David. 1994. Full information accounts of well-being. Ethics 104(4): 784–810.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Woods, Jack. 2014. Expressivism and Moore’s paradox. Philosophers’ Imprint 14(5): 1–12.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


For helpful feedback, I am grateful to Terry Horgan, Mark Timmons, Samantha Yuan, two anonymous referees for this journal, and audiences at the 12th Annual Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress (especially Julia Staffel as commentator) and the Philosophical Psychology Group at Florida State University.



Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael Bukoski.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest


Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Bukoski, M. Expressivism, Moral Fallibility, and the Approved Change Strategy. J Ethics (2021).

Download citation


  • Expressivism
  • Quasi-realism
  • Fallibility
  • Uncertainty
  • Idealization