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Expressivism and Normative Realism

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ENR (Expressivism and Normative Realism)

Reporting period: 2019-08-01 to 2021-07-31

Normative thought is both inescapable and puzzling. We cannot help pondering what we have reason to do, whether our acts are permissible, or what makes our lives go well. Moreover, our verdicts often carry objective force: most of us believe that genocide is wrong no matter what anyone thinks about it. Call "realism" the view that there are objective normative facts and many of our beliefs about these facts are true. When we examine normative discourse from a naturalistic perspective, however, we find it cannot easily be construed as representing any part of reality. Within a scientific conception of the world it is hard to find room for objective facts about the good, the right, or the rational. Moreover, our normative beliefs are subject to evolutionary and social influences that seem to have little to do with normative truths: our best science suggests that the function of normative concepts is to allow us to convey our emotions and attitudes in ways that influence other people and promote social cooperation, rather than to enable the discovery of normative truths. Thus, some philosophers have argued that our current scientific understanding of human psychology requires a reinterpretation of normative discourse: according to expressivism, normative claims express desire-like mental states, such as attitudes of approval and disapproval, rather than ordinary beliefs that aim to describe normative facts. These two perspectives on normativity— realism and expressivism—are in tension, yet each seems to capture something essential about normative thought: realism makes good on intuitions about truth and objectivity that seem non-negotiable from the engaged perspective of a deliberating agent, while expressivism accounts for the motivational force of normative thought and for the possibility of radical disagreement on normative matters.

The primary objectives of this project were to produce three research papers arguing that expressivism and normative realism are fundamentally compatible, and exploring the philosophical benefits of this result.
The paper written within this project argue that expressivism and normative realism are compatible, and this result has important philosophical benefits.

First, expressivism allows for commitments to truth, objectivity, and knowledge in the normative domain, at least if combined with deflationism about truth, facts, and other related notions. However, many have claimed that, even if expressivism and realism agree in their claims about truth and objectivity, or even in their attributions of meaning to normative sentences, the two views disagree about how to explain normative meaning. Realists explain meaning by invoking normative facts and properties, or representational relations between normative language and the world, the thought goes, while expressivists appeal instead to desire-like mental states in their explanations of meaning.

The researcher argued that, if we adopt a deflationary approach to representation and other related notions, there need be no such explanatory divide between expressivism and anything recognizable as a plausible notion of normative realism.Therefore in a deflationary framework, expressivism is compatible with genuine realism.

Two research papers were produced in connection with this first objective. One has been published, and another is forthcoming.

Secondly, the researcher argued that expressivism is compatible with naturalist realism about normativity, i.e. with the view that normative properties are objective natural properties, and this combination of expressivism and naturalism (which he calls “quasi-naturalism”) can successfully address epistemological challenges to our normative beliefs.

The researcher produced one paper in connection with this objective, which is under review.

Thirdly, quasi-naturalism can successfully deal with a cluster of challenges to naturalism which focus on whether it can make good on the idea that normative concepts can be used in systematically different ways and yet refer to the same objective properties in all contexts of use.

The researcher produced one paper in connection with this research objective, which has been conditionally accepted (pending minor revisions).

The researcher also disseminated project-related work through regular presentations at the host institution and several other presentations at workshops and conferences in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, he organized two workshops on project-related themes in February 2020 and July 2021, and he also disseminated project outputs through six blog posts on the project website and five videos available on YouTube.
The first original aspect of the project was its goal of bringing together two different strands of philosophical work on expressivism: the nature and prospects of the “quasi-realist” expressivist project, including its relation with normative realism, and the search for an expressivist theory that would avoid problems faced by semantic expressivism while preserving its main philosophical benefits.

In addition to integrating a previously fragmented literature, the project also brought a novel approach to the core question of whether expressivism is compatible with normative realism. The difficulty of articulating a stable divide between “quasi-realism” and genuine realism is typically seen as a problem to be solved, for expressivists in particular and for metaethicists more generally. In contrast, a key motivating thought for this project was that we should try to reconcile the most plausible version of expressivism with normative realism, and explore the benefits of this reconciliation.

Thus, the project refefined the very nature and goals of what has hitherto been known as the “quasi-realist” project: instead of trying to recapture certain parts of realist discourse while avoiding the problems faced by realism, expressivists should aim to make good on realism pure and simple, and focus on how their view can help realism deal with its traditional problems.