Is Gibbard a Realist?

By Schroeter, Laura; Schroeter, Francois | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, August 2005 | Go to article overview

Is Gibbard a Realist?


Schroeter, Laura, Schroeter, Francois, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


COULD THERE BE PEACE at last in metaethics? Early expressivists like Ayer (1946) and Stevenson (1937) took their semantics for moral terms to be the very antithesis of realism about moral discourse. More recently, however, expressivists have become more conciliatory. Simon Blackburn's quasi-realist program, for instance, aims to show that expressivism has the resources to vindicate many of the apparently realist features of normative discourse (Blackburn 1984, 1993a, 1998). In his new book, Thinking How to Live, (1) Allan Gibbard goes a step further and claims he has now bridged the gap between expressivism and realism. Using only expressivist resources, Gibbard thinks he can show that there is a natural property signified by normative terms. So there is no need to choose between expressivism and realism: Gibbard thinks he can have both.

Gibbard's conciliatory gesture is not just a pious hope. Gibbard develops an ingenious and original version of expressivism which is grounded in a detailed and sophisticated exploration of some of the deepest logical and semantic issues in metaethics. Although the semantic account he provides for normative terms takes a distinctively expressivist form, he argues at length that metaethical realism is a natural consequence of this semantic proposal. There is much to admire and much to be learned from Gibbard's probing discussion of these issues. However, we think realists ought to reject Gibbard's claim that he has vindicated realism. Gibbard's proposal, we will argue, fails to capture what is distinctive of the realist's view. The prospects for peace and reconciliation in metaethics, we believe, are much dimmer than Gibbard suggests.

1. Gibbard's new proposal

People disagree widely about what it takes to fall into the extension of normative terms. Some think that what is right to do is what maximizes personal preference, some that it is what matches objective standards of perfection, while many others simply don't have any definite opinion on the matter. Following Moore (1903), Gibbard thinks that these divergences in our standards for deciding what is right pose a challenge for the semantics of normative terms. On the one hand, the definition of what is right may itself involve normative terms. Gibbard thinks normative definitions may provide an analytic equivalence, but they simply postpone the problem of giving a full specification of what it takes to fall into the extension of normative terms. On the other hand, the definition may provide a genuine naturalistic specification of what it takes to be right. But in that case Gibbard thinks the equivalence--although possibly true--won't qualify as an analytic equivalence between naturalistic and normative terms. Competent subjects may rationally doubt or even reject the putative definition. In effect, Gibbard and Moore are appealing to a familiar Fregean cognitive difference principle for individuating concepts. The concepts expressed by "a" and "b" are distinct if a rational subject can doubt the identity "a=b" or, more generally, can accept a sentence schema which involves one term while rejecting the same sentence schema that involves the other (25).

The lesson Gibbard is inclined to draw from these Moorean observations is that attempting to provide a naturalistic definition of normative terms is the wrong strategy for the semantics of normative terms. He thinks that a more promising approach is to focus on how these terms are tied to motivation. Roughly, to judge an action right is to have some pro-attitude (or attitude of favoring) toward that action. Consider the following claims: "I think this is truly the best thing we can do, but I don't favor it," or "I favor this action but I don't think it is good," According to Gibbard, both of these claims will strike us prima facie as incoherent in much the same way as "He is a bachelor, but he is married" strikes us as incoherent (29). Thus, Gibbard thinks that motivation internalism is a thesis that passes the Moorean test: it is obvious to minimally competent subjects that judging right entails having the corresponding motivation.

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