Expressivist view of normative statements

2012-01-30 (Monday) § 5 Comments

Do you feel like this is a coherent statement?  “Personally I don’t approve of wealth redistribution, but I know it’s the right thing to do.”

I’m asking because I want to get a sample of people’s intuitions about whether normative statements (statements involving words like “ought”, “should”, “right”, “wrong”, “good”) are correctly explained as expressions of approving/disapproving attitudes, rather than statements of any kind of objective fact.  If the statement above strikes you as coherent, then normative statements for you don’t even contain expressions of attitudes, let alone nothing but those expressions.



§ 5 Responses to Expressivist view of normative statements

  • jasonburbage says:

    It strikes me as self-contradictory.

    • paginavorus says:

      How about “I approve of it, but I think it’s the wrong thing to do”?

      • jasonburbage says:

        I think the “personally” qualifier in the first one clarifies that the lack of approval is an expression of attitude. Without that, intuitively I can make more sense of either statement if it’s in the context of an executive decision (though I think they both would require further explanation).

        So long as “I approve” or “I don’t approve” is meant to describe a personal conviction, I think both statements are nonsensical.

  • For me, it’s coherent so long as the two clauses each contain a different type of evaluation.

    The first (“Personally I don’t approve”) could be:
    – (1) a normative judgment based on a general moral/ethical system, or
    – (2) an expression of purely personal attitude / inclination / feeling.

    The second (“I know it’s the right thing”) could be:
    – (1) a normative judgment of the same kind as (1) above, or
    – (2) a purely pragmatic evaluation of what will work out most satisfactory, or least unsatisfactory, for everyone or for most people (assuming that the person’s general moral/ethical system is not already based solely on that criterion).

    The sentence doesn’t make sense if the speaker means (1) in both cases, otherwise it does make sense. When I use the expressions “I don’t approve” or “I know it’s the right thing” I generally mean (1) in both cases, so the sentence intuitively sounds wrong to me, but I can see how it can make sense to some.

    I also think the statement can still be considered coherent for someone for whom normative statements are wholly or partly just expressions of attitudes. It’s only incoherent if the two evaluations are identical. For example:

    (1) normative judgment which is in part (or at its root) an expression of a disapproving attitude BUT (2) normative judgment which is an evaluation of other people’s likely attitudes to probable objective outcomes

    (2) judgment which is not normative, or normative only in respect of the speaker, and which is an expression of disapproving attitude BUT (1) judgment which is normative for everyone (at least from the speaker’s point of view), and which is in part (or at its root) an expression of disapproving attitude based on different considerations

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