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Metaethics-Fall 2011

PHIL 4310: 20th Century Metaethics

Charlie Kurth                                                                 Class: Tues/Thurs, 1:00-2:30pm

  Email address: ckurth [at] wustl [dot] edu                   Office Hours: Tues, 2:30-4:30pm, and by appointment

  Office phone: 314-935-4753                                       Office Location: Wilson 112

Course Overview

In this course we will explore recent work on metaethical expressivism. Expressivists—philosophers like Allan Gibbard, Simon Blackburn, and Mark Timmons—offer a novel and exiting way of making sense of our moral discourse. The expressivists’ distinctive—and controversial—claim is that moral judgments don’t aim to describe states of affairs (call this standard view ‘descriptivism’), but rather express motivationally laden mental states or attitudes. So, in judging that torture is wrong, one does not make an assertion about the way the world is; rather, one’s speech-act is more like a cry of pain or a command to close the door.

Expressivism is exciting, in part, because it seems well positioned to capture the distinctive action-guidingness of morality—after all, it holds that moral judgments are motivationally laden. Moreover, it appears to get this from a metaphysically and epistemologically modest foundation. But expressivism is also highly controversial. Part of the difficulty lies is getting clear about what exactly the expressivist proposal is: what does it mean to say that moral judgments express motivationally laden mental states? But, as we will see, the expressivist account of what moral judgments do (i.e., express attitudes, rather than describe the world) seems to require us to accept significant revisions to our commonsense conceptions of moral thought and moral objectivity. Are these costs worth accepting?

The aim of the course is to get a better understanding of the details, motivations, and prospects of expressivism. To this extent, we will look at Allan Gibbard’s highly influential expressivist proposal as well as recent critical commentary on his work and the work of other expressivists.


Allan Gibbard, Wise Choices, Apt Feelings (available from the Campus Bookstore)

Selected readings available on the course web site


This course will have three graded components:

  • Short Paper (30% ).
    Gibbard’s expressivism, as we will see, is rich and complicated. The short paper (5-6 pages) asks you to explain the central aspects of the expressivist proposal he develops in the first part of Wise Choices, Apt Feelings. What motivates the view, and what features of our normative lives is it trying to explain? What are the central features of Gibbard’s account and how does he argue for them? How does Gibbard’s account differ from earlier varieties of non-cognitivism and other metaethical positions? This assignment tentatively scheduled to be turned in on Monday, October 3.

    Short paper prompt is HERE
  • Reading Responses and Class Participation (20%).
    In parts 3-5 of the course, you will be invited to write brief response essays (1-2 pages each). These essays should raise a question or objection to some part the assigned reading. Not only will the response essays help prepare you for class discussion, but they should also help you start thinking about possible topics for the long paper. There will be one essay due in each of these sections (for a total of three essays). They are to be emailed to me before noon on the day that the reading in question is assigned. You are free to choose which readings you would like to write response essays for.
  • Long Paper (50%).
    The final assignment will be a longer paper (approximately 15 pages) that invites you to explore some of the topics that we discuss in the course. You will submit a draft of your paper on Thursday, December 8 (our last class). I will provide you with feedback by Monday, December 12. The final version of the paper will be due on the exam date (Tuesday, December 20). I will provide you with possible paper topics in the beginning of November. If you would like to explore a different topic, you will need to talk with me before hand.
        Possible paper topics are available HERE.


In order to help ensure a successful class, please heed the following rules and policies:

  • Due Dates. Baring unusual circumstances, the due dates (especially for the mid-term and final) on the syllabus are non-negotiable. If you think you have reason to miss an assignment, it is best to inform me well in advance.
  • Classroom Environment. Please arrive to class on time. All cell phones must be turned off during class. Texting is not permitted. Abuse of these courtesies may lead to penalties.
  • Statement of Academic Integrity. Students are expected to do their own work, as outlined in the University’s Academic Integrity Policy. Violations will not be tolerated. You are responsible for familiarizing yourself with these policies; ignorance will not be an excuse. If you have any questions about these policies, feel free to contact me.

Tentative Schedule of Readings and Assignments


Tues, Aug 30:

  • Course introduction and overview

Part 1. Expressivism: Motivations, Early Proposals, and Central Challenges

What distinguishes the moral from the non-moral? According to expressivists (and others) the moral is distinctive, at least in part, in that it is essentially action-guiding. In fact, the need to capture this feature of our moral discourse is a primary motivation for expressivism. So we start by looking at why expressivists think their proposal is the best way to capture the distinctive action-guidingness of moral judgment—a line of reasoning that draws heavily on G.E. Moore’s famous Open Question Argument. Stating here will give us an initial understanding of the appeal of expressivism; it will also introduce us to some of the central challenges that expressivism faces.

Reading Questions for Part 1

Thurs, Sept 1:

  • Moore, “The Subject Matter of Ethics” (sections 5-15)

Tues, Sept 6:

  • Frankena, “The Naturalistic Fallacy”
  • Mackie, “The Subjectivity of Values”

Thurs, Sept 8:

  • Hare, Language of Morals Ch 5, 8
  • Darwall, Gibbard, & Railton, “Toward a Fin de siècle Ethics” (pp 115-21 only)

Tues, Sept 13:

  • Ayer, “Critique of Ethics and Theology” (up to p. 114)
  • Miller, Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics, excerpts

Thurs, Sept 15:

  • No Class

Part 2. Gibbard’s Expressivism

Allan Gibbard has developed perhaps the most sophisticated and nuanced expressivist proposal. Here we look at the core of his account. As we will see, it makes significant progress in addressing the limitations of earlier proposals.

Reading Questions for Part 2

Tues, Sept 20:

  • Gibbard, WCAF, Ch 1-2

Thurs, Sept 22:

  • Gibbard, WCAF, Ch 3 & 7

Tues, Sept 27:

  • Gibbard, WCAF, Ch 4

Thurs, Sept 29:

  • Gibbard discussion, continued

Part 3. Endorsements and Sentiments: A Critical Look

In this part of the course, we examine two central features of Gibbard’s expressivism: (i) the claim that to make a moral judgment is to express one’s endorsement of certain norms, and (ii) the claim that moral judgments are judgments about the appropriateness of certain emotional responses or sentiments. But, as we noted earlier in the course, expressivists have struggled to provide an adequate explanation of the distinctive form of endorsement that they associate with moral judgment. Does Gibbard’s proposal really do any better? Turning to his commitment to sentimentalism allows us to raise a different set of questions: What does it mean to say that anger is an “appropriate” response to a wrong act? More generally, why think feelings of anger are the criterion for determining what’s wrong? Might wrongness be better understood in non-sentimental terms—in terms of, say, violations of equal respect?

Reading Questions for critical parts of course are HERE

Tues, Oct 4:

  • Brink, “Externalist Moral Realism”

Thurs, Oct 6:

  • D’Arms & Jacobson, “Expressivism, Morality, and Emotions”
  • [Recommended] Sturgeon, “Review of Wise Choices, Apt Feelings”
Tues, Oct 11:
  • D’Arms & Jacobson, “Sentiment and Value” [section III can be skimmed and appendix can be skipped]
Thurs, Oct 13:
  • Schroeter, “The Limits of Sentimentalism”

Tues, Oct 18

  • Smith, "The Externalist Challenge"
  • Dreier, "Dispositions and Fetishes"

Part 4. Logic and Inference: Expressivism and the Frege-Geach Problem

Perhaps the leading objection to expressivism—often labeled the Frege-Geach problem—is the charge that it cannot make sense of even the simplest logical inferences (e.g., Murder is wrong; therefore, something is wrong). In this part of the course we look at Gibbard’s most recent proposal and an influential criticism of it.

Thurs, Oct 20

  • Review Miller on the Frege-Geach problem (pgs. 40-2);
  • Gibbard, THtL, Ch 3

Tues, Oct 25

  • Gibbard, THtL, Ch 4 [skim/skip pp. 68-71, 79-87] (I will provide you a copy)
  • Schroeder, “How Expressivists Can and Should Solve their Problem with Negation” [through section 2.1 only]

Thurs, Oct 27

  • Finish Schroeder

Tues, Nov 1

  • Ridge, "Ecumenical Expressivism"

Part 5: Can Expressivists Make Sense of Moral Objectivity and Error?
Reflection on our moral discourse indicates that we take morality to be objective. For instance, we believe it’s possible for our moral judgments to be mistaken. We also believe that the correctness of a moral judgment does not depend on our endorsement of it: we maintain that it was wrong for Hitler to enact the final solution even though he didn’t think it was. Can the expressivist accommodate the fallibility and independence that we associate with moral judgment?

Thurs, Nov 3

  • Gibbard, WCAF, Ch 8

Tues, Nov 8

  • Gibbard, WCAF, Ch 9 [pp. 183-8 can be skipped], Ch 10

Thurs, Nov 10

  • Gibbard, WCAF, Ch 11

Tues, Nov 15

  • Gibbard, WCAF, Ch 12

Thurs, Nov 17

  • Gibbard, WCAF, Ch 13

Tues, Nov 22

  • Daskal, “Plan-Based Expressivism and Innocent Mistakes”

Thurs, Nov 24

  • No Class—Thanksgiving Break

Tues, Nov 29

  • Egan, "Quasi-Realism & Fundamental Moral Error"

Thurs, Dec 1

  • Blackburn, "Truth & A Priori Possibility"

Tues, Dec 6

  • Outline

Thurs, Dec 8

  • Timmons, Morality without Foundations, Ch 3 (I'll provide copies)