This is the third of a series of posts in which I try to make clear the different embedding difficulties that, as a family, are thought to present the most pressing objection to expressivism and to distinguish the different kinds of expressivism toward which each difficulty is most forcefully directed. The first post explained what I take expressivism to be. The second post distinguished four main kinds of expressivism: Simple non-truth-evaluable expressivism (e.g., Ayer’s emotivism), Simple minimalist expressivism (e.g., Blackburn’s projectivism), Complex minimalist expressivism (e.g., Stevenson’s emotivism), and Complex robust expressivism (e.g., Hare’s prescriptivism, my Expressive-Assertivism). Let’s begin the discussion of the various embedding difficulties by focusing on a rather straightforward difficulty for expressivism, what I call will call the “Objection from Truth Ascriptions.”
The Objection from Truth Ascriptions arises from the fact that we can (and do) embed ethical sentences like ‘Intentionally flying airplanes into tall buildings is wrong’ into truth and fact ascriptions, such as ‘It is true that ______’ or ‘It is a fact that ____’. (I’ll focus on truth ascriptions.) According to expressivism, a proper literal utterance of an ethical sentence is the performance of either a direct expressive illocutionary act or a direct directive illocutionary act, neither of which is an act of describing or representing the world as being a certain way. Now, on a traditionally accepted robust view of truth, we evaluate something (a belief, sentence, proposition expressed, assertive illocutionary act, etc.) as true or false if and only if it (the belief, sentence, etc.) describes or represents the world as being a certain way. Hence, it looks like neither of these acts are truth-evaluable and, by extension, neither are the ethical sentences conventionally used to perform them. However, when we embed ethical sentences into complex truth ascriptions like ‘It is true that _____’, we certainly seem to be evaluating something–a sentence, belief, etc.–as being true or false. So, it looks like expressivism is committed to something that is false.
This objection is quite powerful only when directed toward SNT-expressivism, like Ayer’s emotivism. It seems the only way expressivist theories like Ayer’s emotivism can avoid this problem while retaining the claim that ethical sentences are not truth-evaluable is to hold that such truth ascription embeddings are really a kind of “pretending,” akin to evaluating something in a movie or novel as being true. For example, we often say things like, “It is true that Romeo dies at the end of Shakespeare’s famous play,” though we do not, of course, think that the sentence ‘Romeo dies at the end of Shakespeare’s famous play’ describes or represents the (actual) world as being a certain way. I just don’t see this kind of strategy as being very appealing, for it just doesn’t look at all like, in the case of embedding ethical sentences in truth ascriptions, that we are pretending in a way that we do when we ascribe truth to something that occurs in a movie or play.
The Objection from Truth Ascriptions is not very powerful when directed toward the other kinds of expressivism, since the others accept that ethical sentences are truth-evaluable and, hence, it is not surprising to find that ethical sentences can be embedded within truth-ascriptions. For example, according to Hare’s prescriptivism and expressive-assertivism, CR-expressivist theories, moral utterances and the ethical sentences conventionally used to perform them are robustly truth-evaluable, since they, in part, describe or represent the world as being a certain way. Furthermore, Blackburn’s projectivism and Stevenson’s emotivism, SM-expressivist and CM-expressivist theories respectively, simply reject a robust theory of truth that the objection assumes, leaving these theories immune from the objection–at least until a verdict is rendered in the dispute between robust and minimalist theories of truth.
The Objection from Truth Ascriptions leaves us, I think, with at least one important moral: if an expressivist theory is to avoid the difficulties arising from the possible embedding of ethical sentences within truth ascriptions, yet is not a complex expressivist theory, then this expressivist theory seems to be forced into accepting a controversial view of truth, namely, truth minimalism (or, more cautiously, at least truth minimalism about ethical sentences)–a fit that may not be very comfortable, absent some compelling independent reasons for holding truth minimalism.