Expressivism in the NY Times

John Marks tells us why he no longer believes in moral truth. As an atheist, he worked diligently to account for how the moral features of reality could be applied to our particular actions and everyday life. He describes the moment he became an “atheist” concerning objective morality. Here are some key excerpts:

The dominoes continued to fall. I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.


But suddenly I knew [moral truth] no more. I was not merely skeptical or agnostic about it; I had come to believe, and do still, that these [moral claims] are not wrong. But neither are they right; nor are they permissible. The entire set of moral attributions is out the window.

Yet unlike a full-blown error theorist, he still believes he has a recourse to participate in moral discussions.

One interesting discovery has been that there are fewer practical differences between moralism and amoralism than might have been expected. It seems to me that what could broadly be called desire has been the moving force of humanity, no matter how we might have window-dressed it with moral talk. By desire I do not mean sexual craving, or even only selfish wanting. I use the term generally to refer to whatever motivates us, which ranges from selfishness to altruism and everything in between and at right angles. Mother Theresa was acting as much from desire as was the Marquis de Sade. But the sort of desire that now concerns me most is what we would want if we were absolutely convinced that there is no such thing as moral right and wrong. I think the most likely answer is: pretty much the same as what we want now.


Instead I now focus on conveying information: about the state of affairs on factory farms and elsewhere, the environmental devastation that results and, especially, the sentient, intelligent, gentle and noble natures of the animals who are being brutalized and slaughtered. It is also important to spread knowledge of alternatives, like how to adopt a healthy and appetizing vegan diet. If such efforts will not cause people to alter their eating and buying habits, support the passage of various laws and so forth, I don’t know what will.

Hence, moral judgments are really descriptions of non-cognitive emotional states, the kind of life we want to live, commitments we express, or commands we would give to others. For example, the claim “exploiting animals is immoral” amounts to:

(1) Exploiting animals ewwwwwwwww!
(2) Let me live a life free of exploiting animals.
(3) Don’t exploit animals!

In his The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau lists three problems for expressivism due to the fact that it cannot escape moral equivalence. Exploiting animals and protecting animals are on the same “moral” plane, because… well… there is no moral plane. They are all “on par” with one another.

The first is that expressivism makes logical argument about morality impossible. Yet, it seems possible to argue logically about morality. Consider:

(a) All actions that exploit animals are immoral
(b) Consuming animals for food exploits animals.
(c) Therefore, consuming animals is immoral.

The logic is sound and provides a helpful mode of inquiry. Of course expressivism would deny the truth of (a), but what would it replace (a) with?

(a1): Actions that exploit animals–Booooo!
(a2): Don’t exploit animals!

This doesn’t terminate in anything meaningful and hardly represents how we rationally think about morality.

Second, expressivists cannot make sense of an amoralist who asserts moral claims, but does not act according to them. The amoralist may say, “Charity to orphans is good” but has no inkling to help them. There seems to be a disconnect between one’s purported sentiments and the actions that follow. This is a problem for expressivists who think that our utterances closely match our sentiments.

Third, it is hard to make sense of moral judgments representing mere emotional outbursts. When people deploy sentences like:

-No one but John knows how to behave when the kids go crazy.
-There is a difference between an action that is required and an action that deserves praise.
-Action X is permissible, but it may not be the best thing we could do.
-Justice requires the degree of punishment not to exceed the degree of the crime.

People’s intentions behind these statements goes beyond the expression of feelings, life commitments, or the utterance of commands. Thus moral expressivism does not adequately account for our pre-philosophic intuitions about what morality is.


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