Expressivism and Constructivism in Metaethics

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For decades, metaethical debates have been mainly about two questions: How metaethical theories fit into a larger naturalistic worldview, and how well they make sense of ordinary moral discourse.

Usually, metaethical theories have prioritised one desideratum at the cost of the other, resulting in different theoretical challenges:

Moral realism, the view that moral judgements refer to objective facts and are (at least sometimes) true, seems to make good sense of how we usually think and talk about these judgements. But it has to account for the fact that “if there were objective values, then they would be of a very strange sort” and would have to be perceived “by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else” (Mackie 1979, 38). And it has to explain how moral beliefs can motivate us to act – why they are, in other words, not “motivationally inert” (Sayre-McCoord 2015, 11) like nonmoral beliefs.

Moral anti-realism, on the other hand, denies one or both of moral realism’s claims and thus sidesteps its challenges. But it has to account for the purported objectivity of moral judgements – it should be able, for example, to show that “it is not because of the way we form sentiments that kicking dogs is wrong [but] wrong whatever we thought about it” (Blackburn 1984, 217). And it needs to prove that it can capture ordinary moral talk in a way that makes sense of its meaning and structure, i.e. account for “the similarities between the semantic function of ethical sentences and descriptive sentences” (Chrisman 2011, 38).

More recently, two metaethical views have claimed to do better than either traditional realism or anti-realism: Expressivism and constructivism both assert they don’t share the ontological, epistemological and psychological vulnerabilities of realism, but nonetheless avoid the objections of relativism and inaccurate understanding of language usually mounted against anti-realism.

The relationship between the two views has been controversial (Darwall et al. 1992, Gibbard 1999, Magri 2002, Korsgaard 2008, Chrisman 2010, Lenman 2012, Ridge 2012, Wallace 2012, Southwood 2018). The positions on the issue have expanded over time, from diagnosing a clear opposition (Darwall et al. 1992; see also Magri 2002, 153) to seeing them as two expressions of essentially the same programme (Gibbard 1999, Magri 2002) to arguing that constructivism as a metaethical doctrine might collapse into expressivism (Ridge 2012, Southwood 2018).

I want to argue for yet another option: According to my proposal, expressivism and constructivism are expressions of two fundamentally different metaethical projects, and as a result, are neither contradictory nor equivalent, but complementary. I will argue that while expressivism aims to explain moral judgement from without, constructivism articulates it from within moral discourse. This reframing sheds new light on metaethical challenges, clarifies the character and relationship of expressivism and constructivism, and enables a reassessment of the traditional distinction of normative ethical and metaethical theories. Connected to a broader context, it can also help clarify the scope and broaden the horizon of metaethics to become a more critical and relevant enterprise than it has been in the past decades.


According to ethical expressivismWith “expressivism”, I refer exclusively to expressivism about moral judgements (statements, utterances – see next footnote), in contrast to expressivism about other areas of discourse, e.g. logic or language in general, as advocated, amongst others, by Brandom (1994 and 2000). Blackburn has also called this position “projectivism” in the past (1984, 1993), although he has since, following Gibbard, also switched to the label “expressivism” (Blackburn 1998, 77).

, moral judgements are not descriptions of facts but expressions of conative, i.e. desire-like attitudes like approval or planning. When I say “Kicking dogs is wrong”, expressivism contends, I am not describing the fact or expressing the belief that kicking dogs is wrong – I am not ascribing the property “wrong” to the act of kicking dogs. What I am really doing is expressing my disapproval of kicking dogs or expressing my plan not to kick dogs.Here and in the following, I am repeatedly switching between “I am expressing an attitude”, “a judgement expresses an attitude”, and “a statement expresses an attitude”. These are shorthands for the following structure: I make moral judgements, and I utter statements that represent these judgements. If a judgement expresses an attitude, then the representing statement gives linguistic expression to this attitude. As the utterer of the statement and the maker of the judgement, in a broader sense, I can also be said to be expressing the attitude in making the judgement and in uttering the statement.

The idea that moral judgements don’t express beliefs, but non-cognitive attitudes goes back to emotivism, the doctrine that moral statements express emotions, advocated, amongst others, by Ayer (1936). According to emotivism, saying “Kicking dogs is wrong” amounts to little more than shouting “Boo!” (Darwall et al. 1992, 146) when someone is kicking dogs – both express a strong negative emotion towards kicking dogs but have no other cognitive content. This makes emotivism a clear case of moral anti-realism – “Boo!” does not describe an objective fact.

Emotivism has two definitive advantages over moral realism. First, it doesn’t refer to any “queer” (Mackie 1979, 38) normative properties – it offers an entirely naturalistic interpretation of moral language and thought. Second, it explains why we are motivated to behave according to our moral judgements – our emotions compel us to do so. This is sometimes called the “Humean Theory of Motivation” (Smith 1987): Desire, i.e. how we want the world to be, motivates us to act, while belief supplies us with options for the necessary action, i.e. with a map of how the world is.

Emotivism’s disadvantage is that by denying that moral judgements express beliefs, it ignores the apparent structure of moral claims – the fact that “ethical sentences function semantically very much like descriptive sentences” (Chrisman 2011, 37). That this is a real issue is highlighted by the so-called Frege-Geach Problem, which shows that emotivism cannot consistently account for the meaning that moral statements contribute to larger, composite statements.

Its structure can be outlined in the following way (Chrisman 2011, 38–40): If a moral statement is to have any meaning, its content has to be stable over the contexts in which it is used. If the statement “Kicking dogs is wrong” expresses a negative emotion towards kicking dogs, then it needs to express this emotion everywhere it is used to have a stable meaning.

Now imagine the statement to be part of an implication:

If kicking dogs is wrong, then making your brother kick the dog is wrong.

One can consistently assert the implication without asserting the antecedent, i.e. one can assert it while staying neutral about whether kicking dogs is wrong. But that means that in the context of the conditional, it is possible for our statement not to express a negative emotion. In other words, the statement’s content can change between its assertion and its occurrence, which means it doesn’t have a (stable) meaning.

More generally speaking, the Frege-Geach problem shows a tension between two different semantic frameworks: the “ideationalist” (Chrisman 2011, 44) semantics of moral statements, whose meaning is said to be determined by the states of mind they express, and the traditional propositional-compositional semantics of descriptive statements, whose meanings we take to be determined by the propositions they express.

Modern expressivism, as advocated by Blackburn (1984, 1993, 1998) and Gibbard (1990, 2003), can be understood as an attempt to solve this problem. Their main innovation is to employ a deflationary or minimalist theory of truth (Blackburn 1998, 77–83; Gibbard 2003, 180–184). According to such a theory,

there is no more to claiming “It’s true that pain is bad” than to claim that pain is bad; the fact that pain is bad just consists in pain’s being bad; to believe that pain is bad is just to accept that it is. Then it’s true that pain is bad and it’s a fact that pain is bad – so long as, indeed, pain is bad. (Gibbard 2003, 182–183)

If we accept minimalism, we are licensed to treat moral claims as truth-apt, just as any descriptive claim – and this means we can take large parts of our ordinary moral discourse at face value.Blackburn emphasises that this is very different from treating moral claims as if they could be true: “I do not say that we can talk as if kicking dogs were wrong, when ‘really’ it isn’t wrong. I say that it is wrong (so it is true that it is wrong, so it is really true that it is wrong, so this is an example of a moral truth, so there are moral truths).” (Blackburn 1998, 319)

Blackburn has termed this programme quasi-realism (Blackburn 1984, 1993). It aims to explain “from a basis that excludes normative facts and treats humanity as part of the natural world […] why we would have normative concepts that act much as normative realists proclaim” (Gibbard 2003, xii).

How does quasi-realism help avoid the Frege-Geach Problem? According to minimalism, “Kicking dogs is wrong” expresses the proposition that kicking dogs is wrong

just like ‘Grass is green’ expresses the proposition that grass is green. They each contribute these propositions – deflationarily construed – to the logically complex sentences in which they figure, thus determining the semantic contents of those sentences as a function of the semantic contents of their parts. (Chrisman 2011, 42–43)

This makes it seem like the quasi-realist expressivist can have their cake and eat it. But there’s a catch – a problem that Dreier (2004) has called “creeping minimalism”: The more features of our moral discourse minimalism helps us recover, the less apparent it becomes what is distinctive about this discourse when compared to its descriptive counterpart. Minimalism “threatens to make irrealism indistinguishable from realism” (Dreier 2004, 26) by treating sentences that should express conative attitudes as expressing “ethical propositions” (Blackburn 1998, 73). Expressivism is thus caught in the even deeper tension between recovering as much of our ordinary moral discourse as possible and maintaining that, on a deeper level, this discourse works differently from what our realist intuitions might tell us (Chrisman 2011, 43).See Schroeder (2009) for more concrete challenges resulting from this tension.

There are different approaches to resolving this tension. Gibbard (2003) shows how descriptive and evaluative components of language are combined in plans. This should explain our quasi-realist use of propositions and how we express attitudes with them. As a “pure expressivist” (Schroeder 2009, 258), he locates the descriptive components outside of moral judgements proper. In contrast, hybrid approaches situate them within moral judgements so that these “consist in both an ordinary descriptive belief and a desire-like attitude” (Schroeder 2013, 286).See again Schroeder (2009) for an overview.

This makes it hard to understand, though, how language can be learned in the first place: a hybrid expressivist “will have to convince us that language learning children do acquire the ability to distinguish ethical bits of language from descriptive bits of language” (Chrisman 2011, 46), even though they have the same surface structure. Yet other proposals try to resolve the tension by either expanding the ideationalist framework to cover descriptive statements as well, leading to a kind of global expressivismThis kind of global expressivism is different from the global expressivism of Brandom (1994 and 2000; cf. fn. 1), as that is built on a fundamentally different semantic paradigm (but see Price 2010 for a proposal on how to combine them). I will explore possible connections between Brandom’s inferentialist framework and the framework proposed in this thesis in section 7 (p. 22–24); Chrisman (2010 and 2011) and Street (2010, 377) suggest a similar inferentialist approach.

(Schroeder 2008), or recasting ideationalist semantics in fundamentally compositional terms (Schroeder 2013).

What all these approaches share, though, is the size and complexity of the technical apparatus they command to deal with expressivism’s fundamental tension. In other words, they all face significant

theoretical costs associated both with attempting to give a non-circular ‘ideationalist’ or ‘psychologistic’ account of semantic content and with capturing the logical continuities between expressivistic language and matter-of-factual language. (Chrisman 2010, 344)

These costs become even more problematic because of the apparatuses’ role in an expressivist account of normativity: As metaphysical naturalists, expressivists maintain that there are no normative properties (Gibbard 2003, 32) and hence no objective normative facts to which moral judgements could be responsible. As a result, they have no direct account of normativity or metaethical moral epistemology (Lenman 2012, 222–224). Instead, they take an indirect approach, looking at our moral practices and explaining how we “project” (Blackburn 1984, 170) normative properties onto the world. Minimalism about truth then licences talk about normativity. As this quasi-realist approach relies on the technical apparatuses just outlined, their high theoretical costs endanger expressivism’s ability to account for normativity at all.


Expressivism’s shift of focus towards moral practices is mirrored in constructivismWith “constructivism” I refer to constructivist positions about moral discourse (judgements, concepts, values etc.), not any other discourses. More specifically, I refer to positions that are rooted in a Kantian understanding of moral judgements (see below), i.e. what has been called Kantian constructivism in a wider sense (see below on Humean vs Kantian constructivism in a narrower sense).

. According to constructivism, moral judgements are “conclusions of practical reasoning” (Korsgaard 2008, 309) and, as such, solutions to practical problems (Rawls 1980, 571–572; Korsgaard 2008, 321; Lenman 2012, 216). When I say, “Kicking dogs is wrong”, I am therefore not describing the world but concluding my reasoning about how to treat dogs. This conclusion can be restated as “One ought not to kick dogs”, – which is (part of) my solution to the problem of how to treat dogs.This is similar to how Gibbard describes his programme of explaining oughts with plans: “If we understand concluding what to do, then we understand concluding what a person ought to do.” (Gibbard 2003, x) See also how, based on this similarity, he assimilates the constructivist programme to the expressivist one in Gibbard (1999).

Constructivism’s status as a metaethical theory is controversial (see, e.g., Darwall et al. 1992, Hussain & Shah 2006, Lenman 2012). Part of the reason is that it has begun as a specific type of substantive ethical theory, i.e. as normative theories about particular domains. The most famous such theory is Rawls’s Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971), in which he proposes a solution to the problem of how to organise society fairly – his principles of justice. This solution is arrived at using a process of construction, the hypothetical decision-making process of rational individuals in an original position.Rawls has restated this argument in a genuinely constructivist form and introduced the label of Kantian constructivism in Rawls (1980). Another example of a substantive constructivist theory is Scanlon’s account of what is morally right, which he conceptualises as “what could be justified to others on grounds that they, if appropriately motivated, could not reasonably reject” (Scanlon 1998, 5).

The process moves from justice, a general concept that “refers to whatever solves the problem”, to a specific conception that “proposes a particular solution” (Korsgaard 2008, 322) – Rawls’s two principles of justice. According to constructivism, this is precisely the task of practical philosophy: “to move from concepts to conceptions, by constructing an account of the problem reflected in the concept that will point the way to a conception that solves the problem.” (ibid.)

As a normative theory about a specific domain, Rawls’s Theory of Justice is a “restricted” constructivist view (Street 2010, 367) – it aims “to give an account of the truth of some limited subset of normative claims” (ibid., 368), not of all normative claims. This also means it relies on other normative judgements as inputs to its process of construction without justifying them – “certain normative judgments implicit in the public political culture of a liberal democratic society” (ibid.).Ignoring that these assumptions are explicitly normative has been one of the key misunderstandings of Rawls’s work, which has led him to make the restricted scope of his theory as one of “Political Liberalism” much clearer in his later work (Rawls 1993).

From a constructivist perspective, this restriction is what distinguishes a substantive ethical from a metaethical theory: Where the former deals with the truth of specific normative claims, the latter gives “an account of what it is for any normative claim to be true” (ibid., 369).Street therefore also calls this version “thoroughgoing constructivism”. (Street 2010, 369)

Metaethical constructivism aims to provide a process of construction that is common to all moral judgements, regardless of their domain. It generalises the central “metaethical insight” (ibid.) of constructivism: that a process of construction can set “standards of correctness in the normative domain” and thus guarantee a kind of objectivity that obviates the need for “an ‘independent order’ that holds apart from the attitudes of valuing creatures” (ibid.). This way, the metaethical constructivist is licensed to talk about moral facts, understood as “complex facts about the solutions to practical problems faced by self-conscious rational beings” (Korsgaard 2008, 325).

Street distinguishes between two versions of metaethical constructivism: A Kantian view, on which some substantive normative truths follow from the standards of correctness themselves, and a Humean one, on which substantive normative truths still depend on normative inputs – the “particular set of values with which one finds oneself alive as an agent” (ibid., 370).In an earlier paper, Street calls the two versions “substantive” and “formalist” constructivism (Street 2008, 243). While potentially confusing in their relationship to the concepts of restricted and metaethical constructivism, these labels avoid obscuring the Kantian foundations of Humean constructivism (see below).

Examples of the former view are Kant’s moral philosophy, which claims to derive the Categorical Imperative from the nature of practical reason, and Korsgaard’s brand of constructivism which claims that the reflective structure of human consciousness entails that “enlightenment morality is true” (Korsgaard 1996b, 123). An example of the latter is Street’s own project, in which she aims to vindicate “the objectivity of ethics […] without metaphysical and epistemological mystery” by showing “that there is a universal problem, faced by every individual agent, to which morality is the universal and best (or only) solution” (Street 2016b, 166).

Even in its Humean version, constructivism’s answer to the challenge of motivation is deeply Kantian: It’s not desire that motivates us to act in accordance with our moral judgements (like in a Humean theory of motivation), but the fact that these judgements are the conclusions of practical reasoning. According to the constructivist, you need no additional motivation to do something you have reason to do (Scanlon 1998, 33): “Normative judgments are […] are by their nature motivating, such that if one judges that one has reason to Y, then one is thereby necessarily at least somewhat motivated to Y.” (Street 2008, 230).

But we are not only motivated to do something if we have reason to do it – we also should do it. This leads to the further question of why moral judgements are binding, i.e. the source of their normativity (Korsgaard 1996a). Metaethical constructivism doesn’t derive the normative force of moral judgements from other, already accepted moral judgements like restricted constructivisms. Their normative force can thus only originate in the process of construction itself. But how can this process be a source of normativity? How is it justified itself? One possible answer that doesn’t “make constructivism collapse into one or other of the standard metaethical views” (Southwood 2018, 363) is a transcendental interpretation of the process. On this view, the process of construction is “constitutive of the attitude of valuing or normative judgement” (Street 2010, 374); it is part of “what a creature must be doing to count as a valuer at all” (ibid., 369). Thus “considerations become normative for us through the commitments that are constitutive of agency” (Wallace 2012, 27–28).

That a specific process of construction should be constitutive of valuing in general seems far-fetched. But this is a problem of the “proceduralist characterisation” (ibid., 364) of constructivism we have used so far, not of constructivism itself. As Street argues,

the notion of procedure is ultimately merely a heuristic device, whereas the philosophical heart of the position is the notion of the practical point of view and what does or doesn’t follow from within it. In Rawls’s theory, for example, the original position is ultimately best understood as a heuristic device whose function is to capture, organise, and help us to investigate what follows from a certain evaluative standpoint on the world – in particular, the evaluative standpoint shared by those of us who accept liberal democratic values such as the freedom and equality of persons. (ibid., 366)

Hence a more helpful characterisation of constructivism states that moral claims are true if they are “entailed from within the practical point of view” (ibid., 367) of a moral agent. Street calls this the “practical standpoint characterisation” (ibid., 366) of constructivism. Restricted constructivisms specify the practical standpoint in a material way as “the standpoint of one who accepts […] some further set of substantive normative claims” (ibid., 368). Metaethical constructivism, on the other hand, gives a purely formal specification of the standpoint – it “merely explicates what is involved in valuing anything at all” (ibid., 369).

This, then, is the constructive challenge for the metaethical constructivist – to provide an explication of the evaluative standpoint that fulfils two competing requirements: On the one hand, it has to be rich enough to generate meaningful standards of correctness that account for errors of moral judgement and avoid that “normative thought becomes peculiarly self-validating” (Wallace 2012, 36), or so-called “bootstrapping” (ibid., 28). On the other, it must be thin enough to accommodate the fact that a valuer can “value virtually anything at all” (Street 2010, 369).Street warns about the dangers of conceptions that are too thick: “Constructivism’s supporters face, and too often give in to, a constant temptation to build too much into their account of what is constitutively involved in the attitude of valuing. The hope of getting morality ‘out’ lures people into packing implausibly much ‘in’, and the resulting account of ‘pure’ practical reason ends up not in fact pure.” (Street 2010, 382)

Whatever the constructivist may identify as constitutive of valuing, though, the answer will be a “high-level claim about the truth-makers of normative assertions” (Wallace 2012, 23). In other words, “constructivist theories are making claims about truths about reasons (i.e. about the world), as opposed to claims about the concept of a reason (i.e. about meaning)” (Southwood 2018, 344). This is a significant difference from expressivism, which is almost exclusively occupied with questions of meaning. And it is the other reason why constructivism’s status as a metaethical theory is contentious (Hussain & Shah 2006, Lenman 2012, Hussain & Shah 2013): In the end, it seems to be a (very general) way of talking about which moral judgements we have reasons to accept – about substantive questions, not metaethical ones (Wallace 2012, 24).


From these reconstructions, it should be clear that expressivism and constructivism share a focus on practice (Magri 2002, 153) – they both start from the insight that “even if we aren’t sure what value is, we do understand the attitude of valuing” (Street 2010, 366). They are also both opposed to traditional moral realism and the interpretation of moral language as descriptive (Wallace 2012, 20). But apart from that, they have very different strengths, and they struggle with almost diametrically opposed challenges.

Expressivist theories were “developed largely to explain the significance of normative judgments for the agent who makes them – to explain how such judgments ‘motivate’ an agent” (Scanlon 2014, 58). They focus on the causal, i.e. “regular connection between one’s ethical judgements and one’s motivation to act in light of them” (Chrisman 2010, 333). This explains why they are strong at giving naturalistic explanations of the attitude of valuing.

But it also means they treat normative judgements “as bits of deliberative phenomenology that are to be explained theoretically, but not really taken seriously in their own right” (Wallace 2012, 32).Here and in the following quotes, “deliberation may be understood as reflection that aims to resolve the question of what one should think or do” (Wallace 2012, 19), i.e. to solve a practical problem.

To capture reasons, i.e. the “apparently rational connection between ethical judgements and actions” (Chrisman 2010, 333), expressivist theories rely on minimalism about truth, which allows them to reconstruct normativity indirectly. But as we have seen, minimalism comes with high theoretical costs in the form of large apparatuses for understanding language. As a result, expressivist theories struggle to “capture the normative grip” (Scanlon 2014, 58) of moral judgements.

Constructivism, on the other hand, is strong in capturing this grip (Wallace 2012, 25–26) by deriving it from commitments constitutive of our agency. As a consequence, constructivist theories don’t have to rely on a specific account of language (Street 2010, 376–377) – they can “endorse a standard account of the meaning of ethical sentences in terms of their truth-conditions” (Chrisman 2010, 344).

However, focusing on these truth-conditions calls into question constructivism’s metaethical character. As we have seen, identifying them is a substantive issue. Expressivists emphatically agree to this – they see claims about the truth-makers of moral judgements as “internal to normative thinking – though arrayed in sumptuous rhetoric” (Gibbard 2003, 186; see also Blackburn 1984, 217–219; Magri 2002, 157; Street 2011, 7–9). And they insist that if constructivism goes on to neglect traditional metaethical questions of meaning and subscribes to the same naturalistic metaphysics as expressivism, then there’s nothing left to distinguish it from other metaethical views (Lenman 2012, Hussain & Shah 2013).

So expressivism delivers on naturalistic metaphysics and fails to complement it with a robust understanding of normativity, while constructivism offers the latter but falls short on the former. Lenman (2012, 224) and Wallace (2012, 25) argue that this is because the two views answer different questions about moral discourse, making them complementary rather than competitors. I think they are correct, but their diagnosis can be given a firmer foundation by making explicit why the different questions are being asked in the first place: because we are concerned either, as observers of moral discourse, with the explanation of moral practices or, as participants, with their articulation. This means expressivism and constructivism are not only different (and differently oriented) theories but expressions of different philosophical projects.

To flesh out this idea, we can introduce “the contrast between ‘first-person’ and ‘third-person’ [as] the contrast between engaged participant and disengaged observer” (Hussain & Shah 2013, 99). The questions are thus asked from different perspectives:

The question how we explain moral behaviour is a third-person, theoretical question, a question about why a certain species of intelligent animals behaves in a certain way. The normative question is a first-person question that arises for the moral agent who must actually do what morality says. (Korsgaard 1996a, 16)These perspectives correspond to the practical and theoretical standpoints of moral agents found in Kant and used by Korsgaard and Street in their characterisations of constructivism: “When we look at our actions from the theoretical standpoint our concern is with their explanation and prediction. When we view them from the practical standpoint our concern is with their justification and choice.” (Korsgaard 1996b, 377–378)

The two perspectives are inescapable for us (Street 2016a, 294): We always take a third-person perspective on the world – we always explain and predict natural phenomena. This is how we as biological systems survive in the world. But we also always take a first-person perspective – we deliberate, we plan, we give and ask for reasons. This is not only a phenomenological fact but can be given a transcendental interpretation: By arguing about questions like this, we always assume that there are reasons, that answers can be justified, that there is normativity.Habermas (2007) makes the same point by saying that “we are incapable of getting around the interlocking perspectives rooted in our cultural forms of communication […]: we cannot abandon the participant perspective, for ‘there is no observation without at least virtual participation’.” (Habermas 2007, 37)

Ontologically speaking, what we articulate from a first-person perspective (norms, reasons, obligations) supervenes on what we describe from a third-person one (attitudes, desires, beliefs): Two situations can differ in how they are judged morally only if they also differ in how they are described or explained, in their “prosaically factual properties” (Gibbard 2003, 90). Whichever perspective we’re taking, we ultimately refer to the same reality, just looked at from different perspectives. This makes sure naturalism isn’t violated.

How, then, do expressivism and constructivism relate to these two perspectives? On the level of concrete moral judgements, they agree about the perspectives’ role: What are merely expressions of attitudes from a third-person perspective take on normative significance from a first-person perspective (Wallace 2012, 20; Korsgaard 2008, 325; Blackburn 1998, 51–59).

On the level of metaethical theory, however, they have very different relationships to the two perspectives. Expressivism agrees that attitudes have normative force from a first-person perspective. But as we have seen, it “consists in a pattern of explanation” that “starts with a state of mind” that can “be characterised naturalistically” (Gibbard 2003, 194–195; see also Blackburn 1998, 49–50).This self-description closely mirrors Street’s description of the theoretical standpoint: “When we occupy this point of view on ourselves and our values, we understand ourselves as beings who are part of the world of cause and effect, and whose normative judgments are subject to causal explanation.” (Street 2016a, 294)

Thus it aims to explain this fact theoretically – from a third-person perspective. This means expressivists look at moral discourse as a whole from a third-person perspective – their view “describes moral language from the outside, as if we were not ourselves the creatures who face practical problems, but only someone else making anthropological observations about them” (Korsgaard 2008, 325, my emphasis).

This also explains, on a structural level, why expressivism struggles to give a robust account of normativity. As we move away from the concrete moral judgement as seen from the first-person perspective, expressivism adopts a perspective that makes normativity invisible:

When we step back from the normative commitments that are constitutive of [the practical] standpoint, and ask whether those commitments do or do not correspond to putatively objective normative facts, then normativity seems to disappear from the scene. (Wallace 2012, 31)

Metaethical constructivists, on the other hand, take the first-person perspective tout court. They give a general account of what makes moral judgements true, which is, as we have seen, a first-order question. Since, as moral agents, we ask and answer first-order moral questions from a first-person perspective, we also ask and answer this general question from a first-person perspective. So in a sense, constructivism is making its claims within deliberation, not offering “a theory about such deliberation” (Wallace 2012, 24).My reconstruction is markedly different from Wallace’s and Street’s own view. Wallace argues for understanding constructivism as a “theory about such deliberation” that offers an explanatory account of it (Wallace 2012, 24). Street likewise claims that constructivism’s “task of saying what is constitutive of the attitude of valuing or normative judgment is an exercise in descriptive philosophical analysis as opposed to a substantive normative one” (Street 2010, 374). My reconstruction is closer to the alternative view Street adopts for the sake of argument elsewhere: that “the traditional metaethical project of reconciling normative discourse with a naturalistic worldview turns out to be a substantive normative one” (ibid., 380). I will answer objections against my reconstruction in section 5 and argue in how far it is theoretically beneficial in section 6.

This means constructivist theorising doesn’t focus on explaining metaethical issues about our moral practices from a third-person perspective but on articulating these practices from within the first-person perspective: uncovering, from within the practical standpoint, the principles that constitute this standpoint and the criteria we use to assess moral judgements.This understanding of articulation is similar to Brandom’s idea of articulation as making explicit the, in his case inferential, structure of a domain, in his case thought and language (Brandom 1994 and 2000). It also resembles Lenman’s “model of self-understanding” of moral inquiry (Lenman 2007).

These principles and criteria range from domain-specific (restricted constructivisms) to general (metaethical constructivism). Understanding this as a practical, first-person task means accepting that articulation will always involve normative judgements – it is not purely descriptive. Constructivism is not only practical but also normative “all the way down”.

So in the proposed framework, constructivism articulates our moral practices from a first-person perspective, while expressivism explains them from a third-person perspective. Notably, the two projects are not only complementary but inherently so: If both perspectives are inescapable for us as rational and moral agents, then any complete account of moral judgements must include both – a theoretical explanation of valuing as well as a conceptual articulation of it. Both expressivism and constructivism are right in their own way, but only taken together do they give a full account of moral judgements.


This proposal is open to two immediate objections. The first is about expressivism’s relationship to the first-person perspective: If expressivism acknowledges the normative force of attitudes when seen from this perspective, doesn’t that mean it implicitly includes an articulation of our practices from it as well? Blackburn indeed proposes an account of the “pervasiveness of normativity” that looks quite similar, outlining a “process of rationalisation” from within a “network of normative considerations” (Blackburn 1998, 53–54). He then contrasts this account with a “functionalist” one that “defuses” the pervasiveness of normativity by offering third-person explanations of the normative considerations (ibid., 58).

The relationship between these accounts can only be understood in one of two ways: Either the normative account is part of expressivism’s naturalistic “pattern of explanation” or external to it. In the former case, normative considerations are merely epiphenomenal because they “are located not by their place in a causal structure, but by their place in a rational structure” (ibid., 53) and thus have no causal efficacy. Blackburn seems to adopt this option, as he acknowledges an “assimilation of the normative and the causal order” (ibid., 58). Expressivism thus doesn’t offer articulation in addition to explanation – it again treats the normative as something “to be explained theoretically, but not really taken seriously in [its] own right” (Wallace 2012, 32).Gibbard discusses the fact that first-person and third-person aspects can be intertwined, without coming to a conclusion on how to deal with it theoretically: “We can say in naturalistic terms what planning consists in, but to conceive planning as planning is, among other things, to plan. Conceiving ourselves as thinkers and planners, then, intertwines naturalistic belief and plan. What plans of mine are involved in thinking of you as a thinker and planner? I don’t have a story along these lines worked out, and I’m quite unsure whether any such story will turn out to be cogent.” (Gibbard 2003, 194)

In the latter case, the result is pretty much the framework presented here – not the integration of a first-person perspective into expressivism, but the addition of an orthogonal second account.For more on such a combination of orthogonal accounts, see the sections below.

The second objection asks the reverse question: Constructivism is (supposed to be) a metaethical theory, so doesn’t it also take a third-person perspective on the world (Wallace 2012, 24–25)? As we have seen, constructivists and expressivists agree that constructivism answers questions about the truth-makers of moral judgements and thus engages in first-order ethics. Therefore it is committed to the first-person perspective. The question, then, is whether constructivism is doing anything beyond that, for which it needs to take a third-person perspective. I can see three reasons for claiming it does – but all three have already been answered or can be denied within the proposed framework.

First, one might require constructivism to account for the source of the normativity it ascribes to moral judgements, i.e. the attitude of valuing. Why do these judgements give us reasons to act in a certain way – why should they obligate us? This question is why, for example, Magri (2002) and Wallace (2012) argue that constructivism needs to go beyond first-order ethics and take an explanatory third-person perspective. It has already been answered, though, by the transcendental argument that normativity is “constitutive of the attitude of valuing or normative judgement” (Street 2010, 374). This is very much in line with constructivism articulating the attitude of valuing from the first-person perspective, which can be seen by restating the constitution thesis in the following way:

The normative force of the conception is established in this way: if you recognise the problem to be real, to be yours, to be one you have to solve, and the solution to be the only or the best one, then the solution is binding upon you. (Korsgaard 2008, 322)

Second, one could probe deeper and ask, as do Hussain & Shah (2006), what the attitude of valuing consists in exactly, again inviting the switch to a third-person perspective for an answer. But once more, the question has already been answered: Constructivism defines valuing as solving practical problems that moral agents are confronted with (Korsgaard 2008, 321; Lenman 2012, 216; Street 2016b, 166–174), thus attaching it firmly to the first-person perspective. And it does so through articulation, not explanation: If we take seriously that “for the constructivist practical philosophy is a practical subject. Its business is to work out solutions to practical problems” (Korsgaard 2008, 325), then the question of understanding the attitude of valuing is also a practical problem, and as such answered from the first-person perspective.Wallace gives the following example of a metaethical question posed from the first-person perspective: “Skeptical questions […], including the question about the authority of basic normative requirements, are posed from the perspective of deliberative agency.” (Wallace 2012, 27)

This leads directly to the third and most far-reaching question, which is whether constructivism counts as a distinct metaethical theory at all if it effectively doesn’t go beyond solving practical problems, i.e. first-order ethics. This is the central question of, for example, Hussain & Shah (2006 and 2013) and Lenman (2012). As constructivists, Korsgaard (2008) and Street (2010) answer that it is not a real question because “the distinction between substantive normative ethics and metaethics breaks down” (Street 2010, 363) when we understand that ethics is “moral practice, all the way down” (Magri 2002, 160).

This is, of course, highly contentious. But it becomes a lot less so once we reframe the constructivists’ point within the current framework: If constructivism is about articulating our moral practices from within the practical standpoint, then it should be practical “all the way down”. Reflection is part of what Lenman (2007) calls “moral inquiry”, from scrutinising particular judgements to examining the very conditions of judging. Other theories, particularly expressivism, can complement this from a theoretical standpoint. In the resulting picture of metaethics, the distinction between looking at ethics from a first-person and a third-person perspective supplants the traditional demarcation between metaethics and normative ethics.


If we are to prefer the proposed framework to any single metaethical theory, it needs to deal at least as well as they do with our metaethical challenges. Does it?

First of all, it fits nicely into a naturalistic worldview. The first-person perspective doesn’t encompass or generate any properties that aren’t supervenient on natural properties – it just offers different concepts for some (combinations) of them, thus expanding what Gibbard claims for expressivism: “a normative and a naturalistic concept might signify the very same property” (Gibbard 2006, 323). Of course, we need a positive theory to flesh out how the first-person perspective is explainable on a third-person account and how the rational structure of third-person accounts can be articulated from a first-person perspective. The obvious candidate for the former is the evolution of the self, an account endorsed by expressivist and constructivists alike (e.g. Gibbard 1990, Street 2011). An inferentialist semantics can prepare the ground for the latter.

Such a semantics can also be part of an account of moral language. Instead of trying to explain normativity, a first-person phenomenon, from a third-person perspective, we can now provide an account in two parts: an empirical explanation of actual language use based on psychological attitudes, and a normative articulation of the “rules of the game”, starting with the rules of inference constitutive for practical reasoning, taking them as the building blocks of an inferentialist semantics (Chrisman 2010, 347–349; Street 2010, 377).See Brandom (1994 and 2000) as an example of such a semantics. Cf. also fn. 6 and the next section.

This normative articulation also accounts for the objectivity of moral judgements. By articulating the rational connections between judgements and action from a first-person perspective, it uncovers correctness criteria that we implicitly always use since they are constitutive of the first-person perspective. From a third-person perspective, these connections show up as empirical regularities (cf. Chrisman 2010, 332–333, Blackburn 51–59).

These rational connections are part of the framework’s story about motivation, too: From a first-person perspective, motivation to act is articulated through reasons with normative force (cf. Scanlon 1998, 33–36). From the third-person perspective, it is explained causally by referring to certain psychological states, e.g. the desires of moral agents (Smith 1987).

Thus the minimum requirement is satisfied – the framework can provide more complete answers than either constructivism or expressivism do on their own. But there are also more specific theoretical benefits: By reframing expressivism as being concerned with the explanation of moral practices from a third-person perspective, and by explicating normativity as an artefact of the first-person perspective, we can get rid of expressivism’s chronic issues around normativity: If we accept that normativity is a property that can only be attributed to attitudes from a first-person perspective, expressivism as a third-person account is relieved from having to explain it.

Furthermore, reframing helps us understand constructivism’s peculiar character. Constructivism straddles the line between metaethics and normative ethics, with worries that it might not be a metaethical theory at all. We can now avoid this question altogether (and with it forcing constructivism into unsuitable categories) by replacing the demarcation between metaethics and normative ethics with the more fruitful distinction between looking at normative ethics from a first-person and from a third-person perspective.


Beyond ethics, this distinction resonates strongly with Sellars’s famous metaphor of the two images (Sellars 1962). Sellars contrasts the “manifest image of man-in-the-world”, our self-understanding as persons, i.e. rational and moral agents giving and asking for reasons, with the “scientific image”, which shows us as biological and physical systems governed by causality. In the terminology of the framework developed here, the manifest image is seen from the first-person perspective, the scientific image from a third-person one.

Sellars himself took the images as complementary and, going further, strove for what he called their “fusion” – an account of how we could “explain our own human nature naturalistically without ‘explaining it away’ altogether” (O’Shea 2007, 3). Such a fusion would provide a third-person explanation of how the first-person perspective comes into the world, i.e. how normativity and rationality evolve, and a first-person articulation of these explanations’ rational and normative structure. Though disconnected from Sellars’s original vision of a fusion, classic candidates of the former are the evolutionary accounts developed by “right-wing Sellersians” like Dennett and Millikan (cf. Brandom 2010, 298).Those tend to treat the normative as an epiphenomenon, though (cf. above). Ismael (2016) develops an equally naturalist, yet less reductionist account.

The latter has been developed by “left-wing Sellersians” like McDowell and, particularly systematically and most relevant to our inquiry, Brandom (1994, 2000).Close to these views is Habermas (2007) who advocates an “epistemic dualism of participant and observer perspectives” (ibid., 13) which tracks the picture developed here very closely. While he acknowledges that a fully naturalistic explanation of our human nature might be possible, he maintains that “there is no ‘view from nowhere’– no observation independent of prior participation in some kind of communication” (ibid. 41). Thus, Habermas emphasises, philosophical inquiry must always include a critical examination of our first-person perspective and how it informs our third-person observations.

To understand how Brandom’s theory connects to the framework developed here, we need another influential concept coined by Sellars: the “logical space of reasons” (Sellars 1956), the normative space in which we give and ask for reasons, which is contrasted to the physical space of causes. (The space of reasons can, of course, be thought of as accessible only from the first-person perspective, while third-person descriptions and explanations illuminate the space of causes.)

Brandom (1994, 2000) articulates the space of reasons as a social space. According to this articulation, sociality is a condition for normativity: Our obligations are realised as commitments we attribute and acknowledge in interpersonal I-Thou relations that structure the social space of reasons. Therefore “the normative and the social are interdependent, such that normativity can only be understood in terms of participation in a social practice” (Weiss & Wanderer 2010, 4). This mirrors and transforms how constructivism understands moral practices as exercised within the practical standpoint: Just as the practical standpoint is constituted by norms of correctness, for Brandom, “the norms that govern thought and discussion […] are implicit in discursive practice” (Gibbard 2010, 17). In a distinctly Hegelian move, Brandom turns a transcendentally into a socially constituted standpoint.

It’s not much of a stretch to read Brandom’s account as the explication of a “plural first-person perspective” (Korsgaard 2003, 55), the perspective of a community engaged in the construction of morality. It is realised by agents holding certain attitudes: “Normative statuses, such as being committed, are only intelligible in a context that includes normative attitudes such as acknowledging or attributing commitments” (Brandom 2010, 298). These attitudes, their causes and effects can, of course, also be described and explained from a third-person perspective (ibid.), e.g. by evolutionary, historical and critical accounts. This means we can use the social space of reasons as a device to recast constructivism while making sure it is still complementary with third-person accounts.

Framing and connecting Brandom’s work in this way serves three critical functions for the framework developed here: First, the social nature it ascribes to normativity defuses any reservations left about constructivism’s capacity to deal with the bootstrapping objection. Second, and more importantly, it provides a blueprint for how an inferentialist semantics can contribute to the understanding of language needed to meet our metaethical challenges. And finally, by following Brandom’s Hegelian move, we can interpret moral truths as socially constructed out of commitments and entitlements we attribute and acknowledge in a social space of reasons. This gives a clear shape to what could be called “Hegelian constructivism” – a constructivism that grounds practical reasoning in social practices.


Hegelian constructivism could be part of a deflationary approach to metaethics that further develops the ideas of the framework presented here.

Such an approach would start with recognising that substantive, first-order claims are what is really interesting about ethics and that everything else should support their discussion. This mirrors Koorsgaard’s contention that we need to “break with the platitudes of twentieth-century ethics – and return to the more substantive ethical theorising of the past” (Korsgaard 2008, 322).

This focus helps us recast metaethics’ jobs in terms of the success criteria laid out at the beginning of this thesis: On the one hand, metaethics should explain (from a third-person perspective) what we as physical, biological and social systems do when we make moral judgements. If we follow Sellars and take science as our best guide to what is really happening in the world, then this is best done by a fully naturalised metaethics (Prinz 2015). Expressivism thus becomes an empirical hypothesis that can be experimentally tested. This part of the approach is deflationary because it says that making moral judgements just is what we are actually, physically and psychologically doing when we assume we are making moral judgements.

On the other hand, metaethics should articulate (from a first-person perspective) how we as moral agents give and ask for reasons when we make moral judgements. If we follow Brandom and acknowledge that normativity is essentially social, this is best captured by what I have called Hegelian constructivism: the view that we construct moral judgements out of commitments and entitlements we attribute and acknowledge in a social space of reasons – which is importantly concrete and historical.This goes beyond Brandom’s abstract conception of the space; an example for such an extension is Kukla & Lance (2010). Haslanger (2020 and 2021) gives an account of social practices that could also inform a historicisation of the space of reasons, as could Manne’s (2013) “intersubjective” metaethics.

This part of the approach is also deflationary because it says that making moral judgements just is what we are actually doing as participants in a game of giving and asking for reasons.

The two perspectives can be fused together by positive theories that show how ethics as a social and normative system has evolved to serve the cooperation needs of humans in a society (Gibbard 1990, 190) and how our first-person perspective has evolved as the vantage point from which a system navigates its environment, including the social and normative systems we are part of or participate in.Greene (2013) provides a theory for the former, Ismael (2016) for the latter question.

From these theories, moral discourse will emerge as part of our “cognitive niche” (Pinker 2010), with normativity as an artefact of our (social) first-person perspective and the objectivity it aspires to as an evolutionary strategy (Joyce 2006, 175–176). In the opposite direction, first-person articulation will clarify these theories’ rational and normative structure, as well as the theoretical commitments and entitlements of their proponents.

In both perspectives, metaethics would be content with giving just enough explanatory or conceptual context to first-order ethics so that it can go on in a clarified way. At the same time, it would prepare the ground for a particular and essential type of substantive normative discourse: that of ideology critique. Haslanger (2017) describes ideology critique as taking two forms:

The epistemic critique of ideology reveals the distortion, occlusion and misrepresentation of the facts. The moral critique concerns the unjust conditions that such illusions and distortions enable. (Haslanger 2017, 150)

A naturalised, third-person account of how and why norms evolve can support an epistemic critique by highlighting the contingent nature of norms and moral judgements. But the evolution of norms is not only a biological but also a social one – “practical reason is socially conditioned” (Haslanger 2020, 69). Therefore our toolkit needs to be supplemented with ways to analyse and critique their social construction (Maclure 2020). This is what a first-person, Hegelian constructivist account of norms and moral judgements can deliver: The metaethical basis for their emancipatory articulation in standpoint epistemology (Haslanger 2021, 28–30) and conceptual ethics (McPherson & Plunkett 2021), which in turn informs and supports any substantive moral critique.

In this way, metaethics would become relevant (again) to current debates in philosophy and – more importantly – to current challenges and struggles in the social world.


Other locations

This essay has, in its original form as a BA thesis, also been published on