Thoughts such as ‘It would be wrong for me to PHI’ and ‘You would be wrong in PHI-ing’ seem to be special in that, in addition to having an essential cognitive function as ordinary beliefs do, they seem to have an essential motivating function as well. (And we might say similar things about other bits of moral thought or moral thought in general, but I’ll focus on ‘wrong’ here.) So, in this sort of way, the concept ‘wrong’ appears to be essentially motivating as well as essentially descriptive or cognitive.
The broad thesis that the concept ‘wrong’ is essentially motivating as well as cognitive most often takes the following specific form: sentences, or certain sorts of sentences, involving ‘wrong’ essentially express motivating non-belief attitudes as well as relevant beliefs (and hence the relevant thoughts are not simply beliefs that relevant propositions are true). This more-specific hypothesis is called hybrid expressivism. On this view, there is a semantic aspect to ‘wrong’ that is constituted by attitudes other than belief. Recent work by Mark Schroeder has demonstrated how difficult it is to construct a semantic model of ‘wrong’ along these lines that explains valid argument-forms that have ‘wrong’ in them. So Schroeder is pessimistic about the prospects for hybrid expressivism.
[Skip this paragraph if you like! The most recent such problem in hybrid expressivist semantics is that what seems to be the right sort of semantic model cannot explain the validity of arguments like this: (1) What A believes is true, (2) A believes that PHI-ing is wrong, therefore (3) PHI-ing is wrong. The problem is that the model does not commit the speaker, by accepting the premises, to having the relevant non-cognitive attitude in having the thought that PHI-ing is wrong (as hybrid expressivism construes this thought). See Schroeder, ‘The Truth in Hybrid Semantics.’ in Having it Both Ways: Hybrid Theories and Modern Metaethics, ed. by Guy Fletcher and Michael Ridge. New York: Oxford University Press, 273-293, October 2014. And also his earlier ‘Hybrid Expressivism: Virtues and Vices.’ Ethics 119(2), p. 257-309, March 2009. See relevant heading, with links, at: http://markschroeder.net/research/.]
I share Schroeder’s pessimism. But ‘wrong’ might have essential motivating or non-belief-attitude-involving roles in some way other than thoughts (or relevant sorts of thoughts) involving ‘wrong’ expressing non-cognitive attitudes. Consider the following thesis: the descriptive content of the concept ‘wrong’ essentially functions to motivate when it is part of the right proposition or content affirmed in the right context (e.g., ‘My PHI-ing would be wrong’ affirmed in the context of deciding what to do). On this sort of view, the concept ‘wrong’ is not constituted solely by its cognitive content (and the relation of this to believing). So, if we restrict the semantic features to those concerning cognitive content (and belief), the semantics of ‘wrong’ does not concern non-belief attitudes at all.
I think this “motivational functionalist” approach is a promising way of articulating motivational and non-belief-attitude essentialism regarding ‘wrong’ (or moral concepts and thought more generally perhaps) because: (a) it avoids the problematic semantics of hybrid expressivism and (b) it provides a constitutive explanation of the motivation-related and non-belief-attitude-related essential elements to ‘wrong’ without positing connections (semantic and otherwise) to actual motivations and non-belief attitudes that are too strong.