It is often claimed that there is an explanatory divide between an expressivist account of normative discourse and a realist conception of normativity: more precisely, that expressivism and realism offer conflicting explanations of (1) the metaphysical structure of the normative realm, (2) the connection between normative judgment and motivation, (3) our normative beliefs and any convergence thereof, or (4) the content of normative thoughts and claims. In this paper I argue that there need be no such explanatory conflict. Given a minimalist approach to the relevant metaphysical and semantic notions, expressivism is compatible with any explanation that would be acceptable as a general criterion for realism.
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I will focus here on practical normativity—the space of values and norms governing our actions and action-directed mental states (desires, emotions, plans, etc.)—not more narrowly on morality, nor on a general notion of normativity that includes theoretical or epistemic rationality. For brevity, from here on I will use normative and normativity to mean practically normative and practical normativity.
Function is used here in an etiological, non-normative sense: x is among the functions of a mental or linguistic item, in this etiological sense, if being or doing x plays a role in the best causal explanation of the emergence and proliferation of items of that kind. Tracking is the kind of covariation between mental and linguistic items and features of the world that would causally explain the emergence and proliferation of said items as representational devices. Cf. Gibbard's (1990) concept of natural representation, and his thesis that normative discourse is not naturally representational, or the notion of e-representation articulated in Price (2013, pp. 35–38). See O’Leary-Hawthorne and Price (1996) and Sinclair (2006) for arguments to the effect that this negative functional thesis is the best way to articulate the core negative insight of expressivism in a minimalist framework.
By conative attitudes I mean affective and action-guiding mental states, e.g. mental states of norm-acceptance, planning, or attitudes of approval and disapproval.
I do not want to suggest that all self-described expressivists would accept these three theses. In this paper I am interested in Blackburn's and Gibbard's “quasi-realist” projects, and their relation to realism. Not only the Semantic Thesis, but also the functional theses stated above—or at least close versions thereof—are central to these projects.
In recent years many versions of expressivism have been proposed that abandon the project of offering a psychologistic semantics for normative discourse. Some of these views articulate the expressive function of normative discourse in pragmatic terms, e.g. Bar-On and Chrisman (2009), Bar-On (2012), Bar-On and Sias (2013) and Yalcin (2012). Others restate expressivism as a meta-semantic view, i.e. as an account of why normative expressions have the meanings that they do, or of what it is for a normative expression to have a certain semantic value. See Suikkanen (2009a), Horwich (2010, Essay 9), Silk (2013), Charlow (2014), Pérez Carballo (2014) and Ridge (2014), among others. Moreover, some of these meta-semantic expressivist views allow that the meanings of normative claims are precisely those assigned to them by a standard truth-conditional semantics. It is not my goal here to explore the relation between expressivism in all these different guises and normative realism. My focus is on the idea that there is an explanatory conflict between quasi-realism, as developed by Blackburn and Gibbard, and realism. But I will discuss issues about meta-semantic explanation in Sect. 6, where I examine the possibility of a divide between expressivist and realist explanations of semantic content.
Note that, while certain versions of subjectivism or relativism about normativity (e.g., rigidified subjectivism and assessor relativism) might be able to accommodate the modal robustness of normative judgments by tying their correctness to our actual attitudes and beliefs, such views will be incompatible with normative objectivity understood in the constitutive sense. In this paper I am assuming that Expressivism is compatible with this more robust kind of objectivity. I am also putting aside worries to the effect that Expressivism is in tension with other ways in which the objectivity of normative truths, broadly understood, is manifested in our practice: for instance, that it cannot account for our ordinary reactions in cases of normative disagreement—see Enoch (2011, Ch. 2), Parfit (2011, Ch. 28), Scanlon (2014), Lecture 3—or for the possibility of fundamental normative error, as Egan (2007) argues.
See Ayer (1936) or Stevenson (1944). Gibbard (1990) too argued that normative discourse is not factual or truth-apt, taking natural representationality to be a necessary condition for the factuality of a region of discourse. In what follows I will focus on the more recent version of Gibbard's expressivism, which abandons this narrow conception of factuality and truth-aptness in favor of a deflationary one.
See Blackburn (1993, Essay 8), Blackburn (1998a, Ch. 9); or Gibbard (2003, Ch. 9). Blackburn also offers an internal reading of objectivity claims understood as concerning the constitutive attitude-independence of normative facts: “[W]hat makes cruelty abhorrent is not that it offends us, but all those hideous things that make it do so.” (1993, p. 172).
See, for instance, Blackburn (1999) for a discussion focused on this issue. Schroeder (2014) discusses the arguments cited in fn. 8 and argues that they are all based on the same mistake: they conflate the assertibility conditions of normative claim —which are attitude-dependent, in the same sense in which assertibility conditions are belief-dependent for ordinary descriptive claims—and their truth conditions, which need not be attitude-dependent.
Expressivists have long argued that their view avoids, or has good answers to, traditional problems faced by realism, e.g. epistemological challenges, or explaining the motivational force of normative judgment. If their “quasi-realism” is indistinguishable from at least some versions of realism, then realists could share in these benefits as well.
That is, the kind of realism espoused by Nagel (1986), Dworkin (1996), or Scanlon (2010, 2014), who either reject ontological commitments to normative entities, or claim that such commitments should be understood as first-order normative claims. Blackburn (1996) was among the first to suggest that Dworkin-style realism is indistinguishable from his quasi-realism. Svavarsdottir (2001) also argued that a metaphysically deflated realism like Nagel's, which she characterizes as “a position reached within ethical inquiry” (p. 170), might be compatible with expressivism. Most recently, Dreier (2015) has suggested that Scanlon's realism need not be in tension with expressivism.
Cuneo (2013): “[A] commitment to the deflationary package is an important respect in which expressivist and realist views seem to differ; expressivists accept the package, while realists do not” (p. 227).
Blackburn (2006): “Minimalism denies that some true assertions ‘literally’ correspond with the world, while other true assertions only manage something less.” (p. 160) This, he says, should bring “aid and comfort to the quasi-realist. It means that there are no thoughts about truth that lie beyond his grasp.” (ibid.) In the same spirit, minimal realists often deny the intelligibility of adding any metaphysical weight onto the normative commitments that constitute their realism. For instance, Dworkin (1996) insists that seemingly metaphysical claims about moral facts being out there, or positing the existence of moral properties in the universe, can only be interpreted as benign normative claims, so that his realism “knows no bounds (…) [T]here is no more robust thesis for any realism to deploy or any anti-realism to refute, no more metaphysical a meta-ethics for the former to embrace or the latter to mock.” (pp. 127–128) Similarly, Scanlon (2014) rejects the idea that his realism is “minimalist” in any way: on his view, he says, normative facts are as robust as they can be, and his account gives normative statements “exactly the content and ‘thickness’ that they require when taken literally” (p. 28).
Blackburn (1993, p. 98), his italics. The same Blackburn (1993): “[T]he existence of facts explains the way in which our knowledge expands and progresses: here an explanatory role seems to carry with it an ontological commitment which (…) is surely problematic to the quasi-realist” (p. 18). Anti-realism, he says, explains normative discourse and its role in our lives “while avoiding the view that it exists because it describes a genuine aspect of reality” (p. 7). This understanding of realism was already present in Blackburn (1984), where realists were attributed the thesis that values “are themselves part of the genesis of our beliefs. It would be because values, etc. are distributed in some way around the world, and because we are capable of reacting to them (…) that we moralize as we do.” (pp. 181–182) Expressivists, in contrast, aim to “explain the practice of moralizing (…) in terms only of our exposure to a thinner reality” (p. 169). See also Gibbard (2011): “[The realist] is asking about something he starts out thinking to be a fact (…) Its being a candidate fact is supposed to figure centrally in explaining how to judge it. (…) [Quasi-realists] can't (…) mimic the claim that understanding normative properties and relations as objective matters of fact is basic to explaining how judgments of wrongness work.” (pp. 45–46).
To be clear, I am not assuming that, for there to be an explanatory divide between Expressivism and realism, all realists should accept the same explanation of the relevant facts. It would be enough if, say, naturalist realists offered a causal explanation of our beliefs, while non-naturalists offered a non-causal one, as long as both explanations were incompatible with Expressivism. My thesis is that, for any plausible explanandum, Expressivism is at most incompatible with a narrow set of realist views.
As Wright (1992) put it: “[I]f there ever was a consensus of understanding about ‘realism,’ as a philosophical term of art, it has undoubtedly been fragmented by the pressures exerted by the various debates—so much so that a philosopher who asserts that she is a realist about (…) ethics, has probably, for most philosophical audiences, accomplished little more than to clear her throat.” (p. 1).
Rosen (1998, pp. 397–398), raises a similar worry about defining realism in explanatory terms: we can only state an explanatory conflict between quasi-realism and a realist view according to which the relevant facts causally explain our beliefs about them, but normative realists need not make any such causal claims. Blackburn himself sometimes acknowledges this worry—see the Introduction and Essay 1 in Blackburn (1993). But no comprehensive treatment has been offered yet of potential explanatory criteria for normative realism and why they all fail to draw a divide with Expressivism.
Most if not all of those mentioned in fn. 16 are likely to have this reaction.
This is not to say that I will only argue for the compatibility between Expressivism and “minimal” realism. From a minimalist perspective, the versions of realism that Expressivism is compatible with are as metaphysically weighty as they can intelligibly be. In particular, I will argue that Expressivism is compatible with non-naturalist realism, although self-described “robust” non-naturalist realists might not recognize this convergence due to their rejection of minimalism.
This is in the spirit of Fine's (2001) exhortation to metaphysical innocence in addressing the question of realism: “[T]he existence of an external reality may make it plausible that our linguistic and epistemic contact with that reality is of a certain sort, [but] this is not in what the externality of the reality consists. In thinking about these matters, we need to restore ourselves to a state of innocence in which the metaphysical claims are seen to be about the subject-matter in question (…) and not about our relationship to that subject-matter.” (p. 7) I should note, however, that Fine ultimately offers a criterion for realism that involves explanations of mental and linguistic content, rather than purely the nature of the facts in the disputed domain. I discuss this type of proposal in Sect. 6.
To be sure, Blackburn and Gibbard are not very fond of metaphysical talk. In particular, they often resist expanding their minimalism to claims about normative properties. Gibbard (2003, Ch. 5), prefers to speak of natural properties that realize normative concepts, rather than accept the existence of normative properties as such. Blackburn's attitude to property talk has been more ambivalent. In Blackburn (1984) he claimed that the world does not contain moral properties, while in Blackburn (1993) he adopted a minimalist account of properties. Most recently, in Blackburn (2015), he has reverted to a reluctant attitude when it comes to property talk, preferring to think of himself as inhabiting “a world in which there are only natural properties, including ones to which we often have moral and evaluative attitudes” (p. 844). But, as Blackburn's own changes of mind show, Expressivism does not mandate any position on the existence of normative properties.
Jenkins (2005) defines realism in these terms, as a thesis about what it is for normative facts to obtain. Applied to our example, her proposal is that realists hold that what it is for genocide to be wrong involves the essence of genocide and wrongness, while expressivists claim that something's being wrong is a matter of our taking a negative attitude toward it. Similarly, Asay (2013) proposes that, although realists and expressivists might agree on what the truthmakers for normative claims are, they nevertheless offer conflicting explanations of the truthmaking relations themselves. Realists talk about the de re properties of objects in explaining why the relevant truthmaking relations hold, he says, while expressivists must appeal to our attitudes being projected onto the world when explaining the same facts. Sometimes, Asay switches to semantic facts as explananda: realists and expressivists give different accounts of disagreement, he says, and in particular of what makes it the case that our words are about certain things. As already mentioned, I discuss this option in Sect. 6.
In her discussion, Jenkins assumes not only that expressivism is a form of anti-realism, but also that expressivists are anti-realists in the very sense captured by her proposal: expressivists must accept that what it is for something to be wrong is dependent on our attitudes, she argues, if they are not to contradict their anti-realism. This is a questionable move in the context of defending said proposal as an account of what separates expressivists from realists, especially given the existence of other options, such as Blackburn's and Gibbard's own explanatory criteria for realism. Asay also takes it for granted that expressivists will appeal to projection from our attitudes in explaining truthmaking relations in the normative domain. But, while Blackburn fueled this reading of expressivism by relying on the notion of projection in earlier writings (1984), he has since abandoned this misleading metaphor. In Blackburn (2010, p. 32), he explains that he did so precisely because this metaphor might have raised the suspicion that he ultimately accepts the attitude-dependence of normative facts.
Blackburn (2010): “But what about the metaethicist, trying to understand the Place of Value in the World as a whole? (…) There is (…) a wrong way to proceed, which is to invoke an alleged distinction between an ‘internal’ (…) dependency claim, and an ‘external’ or ‘transcendental’ one. (…) Suppose we don metaethical clothing, and ask in what we hope to be an upper-case, metaethical tone of voice, ‘Do Values as such depend on our Sentiments or our Wills as such?’ We still have to answer by considering examples. So, for instance, does the value of the selfless act of benevolence depend on our sentiments, or does the awfulness of unmotivated cruelty depend on our willing to avoid it (…)? And now the claim is that we can hear these as other than requests for first-order (…) dependency tests. But we cannot (…) There is no external question of dependency. (…) We might be tempted to think that there must be one, that people must be dragged willi-nilly into the halls of metaphysics. But this would only be so if we ignore expressivism.” (pp. 30–32).
Dunaway (2010) makes a similar point: the difference between expressivism and realism cannot simply consist in a disagreement about the meaning of metaphysical claims that they both accept, e.g. that there are normative truths. Rather, he says, the two views must disagree about some “deep or substantive claims” (p. 355).
I have in mind the naturalist realism developed by Sturgeon (1985), and his examples of a revolution being caused by the unjustness of a political regime, or of Hitler's actions being caused by his depravity.
See Wright's (1992) wide cosmological role conception of realism: a domain of facts is objective in this sense if it has a wide influence—not necessarily a causal one—on other domains of facts, excluding our beliefs or linguistic practices.
Here I am using explanation in a broad sense, such that one can explain what it is for something to be the case, even though no claim of the form “p because q” plays a central role in the explanation.
See Scanlon (2010), who holds that normative facts are not “causally active in producing actions. It is an agent's acceptance of a judgment about the reasons he or she has that does this. Such acceptance, whether it amounts to belief or not, is a psychological state, and hence the kind of thing that figures in ordinary psychological explanations.” (p. 12).
See Scanlon (2014, Lecture 3).
Indeed, Scanlon (2014) explicitly focuses on the connection between normative judgment and action (see p. 53).
Note that, in a minimalist-expressivist framework, normative judgments are both desire-like attitudes and truth-apt beliefs. So the mere fact that, for realists, normative judgments are truth-apt beliefs with a mind-to-world direction of fit is not enough to draw a contrast with Expressivism. The question is whether anything in realism as such entails that normative judgments do not also have a world-to-mind direction of fit, or why minimalist expressivists should think of realism as including such a commitment. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting that I address this issue.
Moreover, see Nagel (1970) for an example of a realist who holds that normative judgments do not require the presence of external desires in order to produce motivation and action.
Blackburn (1999, p. 217). See also Blackburn (2007), where he draws a contrast between realism about tables and chairs, manifested in the commitment that we are causally influenced by and sensitive to the properties of tables and chairs, and the normative case, where we can forget about the existence of normative facts and offer an anthropological or genealogical account which does not involve our first-order commitments. This suggests that Blackburn understands normative realism as committed to a genealogical account of our normative beliefs, in which normative facts play a crucial explanatory role.
Gibbard (2003, p. 183).
Williams (1985, pp. 135–136). To be clear, the issue is not how much disagreement there is in ethics, nor whether the methods for settling ethical disagreements are as reliable as those available in science, but rather whether the best overall explanation of convergence in ethical beliefs, to the extent that such convergence happens, involves the idea that our beliefs represent normative facts.
This proposal resembles Crispin Wright's (1992) Cognitive Command conception of realism. They both cash out the question of realism as a question of whether our beliefs in the given domain are best understood as cognitive responses to the facts. But there are some differences. Wright's Cognitive Command consists in the impossibility of cognitively faultless disagreement in the disputed domain, and is only meant to work as a test for realism in epistemically constrained regions of discourse. In contrast, Realism-Bel allows for the existence of unknowable facts, and therefore leaves open the possibility of brute error about said facts—that is, error that cannot be explained by the malfunctioning of some cognitive mechanism. Another respect in which the notion of realism stated above follows Williams' understanding of objectivity rather than Wright's Cognitive Command proposal is its focus on an entire domain of facts and the best overall explanation of our tendencies in forming beliefs about those facts, rather than on explanations of individual beliefs.
This is not to say that expressivists should find all of these ways of speaking appealing. They might find some of them better suited than others for communicating confidence in our normative judgments and belief-forming processes. Blackburn, as a good Humean, is more sympathetic to perception talk and usually dismissive of rationalist approaches to the epistemology of the normative. He argues, for instance, that an agent whose moral judgments are off-track because his psychology is not that of normal socialized human beings should not be diagnosed as displaying dysfunctions of rationality: “We can exhort [him] (…) to share our sentiments. We can try to turn up the volume of his feelings for those whom he exploits. What we cannot do is argue the knave back into upright behavior.” (Blackburn 1998a, p. 209) As for perception talk, this is legitimate, he says, whenever we think of ourselves as properly indicating the truth. But we must be careful to understand such talk in a “low-grade” sense, making it clear that we are not committed to the availability of a naturalistic account of perceptual success in the normative domain (Blackburn 1993, p. 170).
Gibbard (2003, Ch. 5).
Someone might worry that expressivists cannot avoid accepting a tracking account of normative thought, once they allow for causal explanations involving normative properties: if normative properties play a causal role in the explanations of most true normative beliefs, doesn't that entail that normative thought has the etiological function of tracking such properties? The answer is no. A tracking account must be more robust than an explanation that merely points to the effects of normative properties on those who form true normative beliefs. It should account for the representational relations between normative thought and normative facts in any scenario in which there are normative concepts and beliefs. Only such an explanation would vindicate the idea of normative thought as a system of cognitive responses to normative facts. But according to Expressivism, the supervenience bases of normative properties will feature in causal explanations of normative beliefs only in a narrow range of evolutionary pathways: species similar to us in many respects could have developed normative concepts and converged in their beliefs even while responding to all the wrong natural properties.
I focus on linguistic content here, but what I say can be extended to mental content, with minor adjustments.
Blackburn (1993, p. 155). See also Blackburn (2015): even though we cannot do without a notion of representation, he says, “for it is a harmless part of everyday thought (…) representation is nevertheless not the key concept to deploy when the desire for philosophical explanation of our practice (…) is upon us. It is not the way to understand the kind of thought or the part of language in question, whereas a different focus on the function of terms in the lives of thinkers and talkers, is the better option.” (pp. 851–852) Or Gibbard (2012): “[Both expressivism and non-naturalist realism aim] to explain the crucial features of normative thinking. Non-naturalists explain these features by parallels to the plainest cases of property attributions—like, for instance, (…) whether the cat is on the mat. Expressivists recognize these parallels, but think they aren't basic. (…) What's crucial to normative thinking isn't how it bears on the non-natural layout of the world, but how it bears on action and the like.” (pp. 218–219).
Fine (2001), Dreier (2004) and Dunaway (2016) offer proposals along these lines. However, they would likely object to the minimalist framework in which I examine this notion of realism. Again, my focus is on whether thoroughgoing minimalists must see an explanatory divide between Expressivism and realism, so I am only considering construals of realism compatible with minimalism about metaphysical notions and representationalist semantics.
To be sure, minimalist expressivists will not treat all representationalist semantic theses as first-order normative claims. On their account, many such theses hold simply in virtue of the grammar of terms like “truth”, “fact”, or “property”: e.g., “Genocide is wrong” is true if and only if genocide is true, or the claim that the disagreement between Bill and Clara is about whether genocide has the property of wrongness. Such theses are neutral with respect to normative issues.
Rosen (1998) arrives at a similar conclusion in his discussion of Blackburn's quasi-realism: “[Quasi-realism] licenses the whole-hearted assertion of everything the realist has ever wanted to say about the objectivity and factuality of the domain at issue […] At the end of the day we have rather a pair of equally legitimate representations of our thought in the area, with no clear basis for saying that either is more revelatory of its nature than the other.” (pp. 400–401).
Dunaway (2016) offers a proposal along these lines. This idea is consonant with recent attempts to restate expressivism as a view in meta-semantics, which does not offer a psychologistic semantics for normative discourse, but rather explains why normative expressions have the semantic values that they do. See fn. 4 for examples of such proposals. Moreover, Chrisman (2012) has argued that Blackburn's own view is best interpreted as an account of why normative language fits a truth-conditional semantic model, rather than as a semantic project, and that the view thus understood is in conflict with a realist meta-semantic picture. Note, however, that the existence of a meta-semantic divide between expressivism and realism need not depend on whether expressivists abandon the Semantic Thesis or not. Even expressivists who offer an attitudinal semantics for normative discourse may try to locate the conflict between their view and realism at the meta-semantic level. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to consider this meta-semantic option for drawing an explanatory divide between expressivism and realism.
This is not to say that other expressivists may not acknowledge the usefulness of a representationalist metasemantics in other domains of discourse and merely reject its application in the normative domain, drawing thus a divide between their views and realism defined in metasemantic terms. My argument here concerns thoroughgoing minimalists like Blackburn and Gibbard. Here is another way of stating why this metasemantic option for drawing a divide between Expressivism and realism does not work in a minimalist framework: Blackburn and Gibbard do reject an inflationary conception of representationalist metasemantics, on which truth and reference relations play a substantive role in explanations of content, but this is something they reject for any domain of discourse. So this cannot be what they have in mind when they contrast their alleged anti-realism about normativity with their realism about, e.g., physical objects.
An anonymous referee suggests that, even in a minimalist framework, there might be a difference between an expressivist and a realist account of semantic claims such as “‘Genocide is wrong’ is true just in case genocide is wrong”: expressivists will talk about conative attitudes in explaining how we get to make these claims. Realists will offer different explanations, which do not involve conative attitudes. However, I believe we cannot find here a divide between Expressivism and realism. If expressivists explain how conative attitudes get to behave semantically like ordinary descriptive beliefs, why should this explanation be in tension with realism? Given that expressivists also endorse everything that realists want to say about truth and representation in a minimalist framework, there is no reason for realists to reject the additional story about conative attitudes—lest we build the rejection of Expressivism into the definition of realism, which again would be question-begging in this debate.
Compare with the tracking account of normative belief discussed in Sect. 5. These are in effect two dimensions—epistemological and semantic—of the same kind of naturalist realism.
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I am grateful to Martín Abreu Zavaleta, Brian Ballard, Cian Dorr, Hartry Field, Laura Franklin-Hall, Jed Lewinsohn, Colin Marshall, Tom Nagel, Sharon Street, David Velleman, and two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments on previous versions of this paper. I have also greatly benefited from discussions with Max Barkhausen, Harjit Bhogal, Paul Boghossian, Jamie Dreier, Ian Grubb, Dan Waxman, and Mike Zhao. Finally, many thanks to audiences at New York University, the 2015 Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress at the University of Colorado Boulder, and the 2016 British Society for Ethical Theory Conference at Cardiff University for their useful feedback.
An erratum to this article is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11098-017-0879-4.
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Golub, C. Expressivism and realist explanations. Philos Stud 174, 1385–1409 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-016-0764-6