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Expressivism, Moral Fallibility, and the Approved Change Strategy

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Bukoski, M. Expressivism, Moral Fallibility, and the Approved Change Strategy. J Ethics (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10892-021-09377-z

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Keywords

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