Normative uncertainty for non-cognitivists


Normative judgments involve two gradable features. First, the judgments themselves can come in degrees; second, the strength of reasons represented in the judgments can come in degrees. Michael Smith has argued that non-cognitivism cannot accommodate both of these gradable dimensions. The degrees of a non-cognitive state can stand in for degrees of judgment, or degrees of reason strength represented in judgment, but not both. I argue that (a) there are brands of noncognitivism that can surmount Smith’s challenge, and (b) any brand of non-cognitivism that has even a chance of solving the Frege–Geach Problem and some related problems involving probabilistic consistency can also thereby solve Smith’s problem. Because only versions of non-cognitivism that can solve the Frege–Geach Problem are otherwise plausible, all otherwise plausible versions of noncognitivism can meet Smith’s challenge.

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  1. 1.

    Suppose Calvin and Hobbes are each certain that moderate deontology is right. Then, putting aside weakness of will, they will both be disposed to act in accordance with it. But suppose instead that Calvin and Hobbes are uncertain between utilitarianism and extreme deontology. Calvin might be disposed to act in accordance with the theory in which his credence is higher. Hobbes might take into account the reasons according to each of the theories. These are very different strategies.

  2. 2.

    This was the position of some of the early non-cognitivists. See, e.g., Ayer 1952, Chap. 6.

  3. 3.

    This is essentially the approach adopted in Gibbard (2003), and Horgan and Timmons (2006). On Gibbard’s approach, the states are plans; on Horgan and Timmons’s approach, the states are “ought-commitments”.

  4. 4.

    This is the strategy pursued in Blackburn (1984, Chap. 6).

  5. 5.

    I am imagining that the probabilities here are epistemic probabilities, and that one expresses (rather than reports) one’s credence using the language of epistemic probability. The latter point is discussed in (Yalcin 2011) and (Sepielli 2012).


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Thanks to Rima Basu, Ruth Chang, Phil Clark, Adam Elga, Tom Hurka, Mark van Roojen, Michael Smith, and Sergio Tenenbaum for helpful comments on this paper.

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Sepielli, A. Normative uncertainty for non-cognitivists. Philos Stud 160, 191–207 (2012).

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  • Non-cognitivism
  • Normative uncertainty
  • Frege–Geach Problem
  • Michael Smith
  • Expressivism