Pragmatics of ‘Ought’

In my post on the semantics of ‘ought’, I intimated that my end-relational analysis of ‘ought’ could also handle categorical uses, but tried to bracket that claim and those uses out of the conversation. Kris has invited me to explain, however, and so here I am pasting the crucial parts of my paper. The strategy is fundamentally the same as the one I have laid out in my JoE and PI papers.

In what follows, by a ‘categorical use’ of ‘ought’ I mean where it is used in giving advice to an agent but not in the form of how that agent might attain some end he or she desires or intends. An ‘instrumental use’ is one where the advice does have this form.

Suppose that my principle OUGHT(e) gives the meaning
of all normative ‘oughts’ (i.e. they all have an ‘in order that…’ operator). How then would we go about identifying which
proposition is expressed by the utterance of an unqualified ought-sentence?
First we look for a relevant end in the context. Does the conversation
preceding the utterance address the realization of some end that is a plausible candidate? By hypothesis, in
the categorical case it does not. Second, does the nature of the subject matter
suggest a plausible candidate? With artifacts and other objects possessing an
obvious function, such as cars, clocks, referees, bombs, and seeing eye dogs,
we can talk about how they ought to behave without explicitly qualifying the
‘ought’. I don’t think this is the case with categorical uses of ‘ought’.

Third, we can observe that categorical uses of ‘ought’ are
characteristically addressed to persons in the mode of practical advice; i.e.  directed to others for the conversational purpose
of influencing those others’ conduct or directing them as to what to do. Does the utterance then presuppose the agent’s ends? Of course not, since by
definition categorical uses of ‘ought’ are not instrumental uses of ‘ought’.

All these possible cues fail us in
the categorical case. Presented with a categorical use of ‘ought’, therefore,
we must move to a higher level of exegesis. Since we cannot identify what the
implicit ‘in order that…’ operator is, can we identify what the speaker is
trying to communicate by uttering an unqualified ought-sentence without an
appropriate ‘in order that…’ operating in the context? The rules of
conversational etiquette dictate that the operator can be left unexplicit just
in case it need not be made explicit: i.e. just in case it is an assumed part
of the context shared by speaker and audience. Our question then becomes: what
are we as audience to make of the fact that an utterance treats an end-operator
as an assumed part of the shared context when it is not?

Speaking as if something were uncontroversially
the case when it is transparently not often has a rhetorical function of
expressing the demand that it be the case. For example, asserting ‘You will
come here!’ where the intended audience has other plans functions as a
demand. Plausibly, therefore, the categorical use of ‘ought’ functions
rhetorically as a demand that the relevant end be an assumed part of the
shared context. Furthermore, since categorical uses of ‘ought’ are made in the
mode of practical advice, directed at determining what to do, they express the
demand that the relevant ends be assumed as ends which the agent him or herself
desires or intends. Categorical use of unqualified ought-sentences would then
function in conversation rhetorically to demand that agents be motivated
towards certain ends. I claim therefore that the categoricity of the assertion of ought-sentences is a
phenomenon of the rhetorical use of the end-relational ‘ought’.

However how can a speech act demand certain
ends if it does not make clear which ends those are? First, categorical uses of
ought-sentences can have rhetorical value even if they fail to communicate to
which end they are relativized. It can be enough that a speaker communicates
this much: there is some end, such that I demand that you desire or intend that
end, and for the sake of which you ought to
φ. In effect,
this communicates the demand that an agent be motivated to
φ. Second, the existence of this kind of rhetorical use of ‘ought’ makes
possible a social institution whereby certain ends are socially expected of
agents: a ‘morality’. Where such an established institution exists, an audience
is able to glean from content and categorical use of an ought-sentence that it
assumes relativization to these moral ends. This, I contend, is what happens
when we make moral assertions.

On the hypothesis that the meaning of the categorical ‘ought’ is given by OUGHT(e) it therefore turns out to be plausible that categorical uses of ‘ought’
function to express demands and attitudes, just as expressivists claim.

6 Replies to “Pragmatics of ‘Ought’

  1. I’m not sure I find this very plausible. I hardly ever use the categorical ‘ought’ to demand that my listener himself or herself would be motivated to do anything. In most discussions, often moral in their content, I talk with someone about what some third party ought to do, or ought to have done, what ought to be done in hypothetical cases, and so on. Many times I even know that myself or the speaker will have no chance to get in to the circumstances where those oughts would come into play. It is rare that I get to say what someone ought to do to that very person in a way that could have an effect on what they are motivated to do. And, given your analysis of the categorical ought none of this would make much sense. So as far as I can see something else must being going on in our ‘ought’ discourse.

  2. Jussi,
    Good point, I erred in focusing exclusively on second-personal cases. But third-personal cases seem to me if anything even simpler, as these are not offered as advice at all. The relevant ends are just assumed. For example, if I say “Jim ought not to have taken a bath with his space heater”, I think that “in order that he not injure himself” hardly need be uttered. Further, the rhetorical function can still be intact: the vital point is that by failing to specify the relevant end, a speaker can express his or her own commitment to the end as beyond critical deliberation. This account can invoke all the same functions for ‘ought’ utterances that expressivists can.

  3. Couple of points. First, it seems like this account of use and pragmatics of ‘ought’ is available for everyone from naive emotivists to most platonic realists. The latter can say that, yes, this is the practical purpose for which ought claims are used even though they are by their linguistic meaning attempts to describe ought facts. So, on those grounds no-one should have a need to worry.
    But I do however worry that this view makes it impossible to discuss the most fundamental ends which one ought to have. That kinds of debates seem to be intelligible and important when we discuss what kind of persons for instance we ought to be. Your account seem to base on the analysis of ought claims on the idea that the context always provides a further end for which the acts described as the ones one ought to do are instrumental. I wonder.

  4. Jussi,
    (1) First, if any view can solve the problem in this way, then it’s not much of a problem. Perhaps the objection is supposed to be: since any theory can be reconciled with the data in this manner, this success doesn’t give any support to my theory in particular. But (a) that objection misses the dialectic here. I’m not claiming that my end-relational theory ought to be accepted BECAUSE it can best explain the categorical use of ought. Rather, I have argued for my theory on the grounds of its ability to account for other uses of ‘ought’, and have appealed to pragmatics merely to show that my theory is compatible with the categorical use. The reason you should accept the theory is rather its ability to unify more of the data than any rival theory. (b) But I also challenge the claim that this account of pragmatics is available to any theory. I’ve attempted to give a detailed account of why, on the basis of well-documented and noncontroversial facts about conversation, the use of nonqualified ‘ought’ sentences in particular contexts can be expected to express attitudes and demands. It’s not just that I’ve CLAIMED that end-relational ‘ought’ judgements are typically used for practical purposes — I would think it is just obvious that they would be. It’s not clear that the platonist is on a par here.
    (2) Your second concern is very well motivated. The FINAL section of my paper (after the section on categorical uses) offers a solution. I’m sure I can’t satisfy you here, but here’s a few quick suggestions. First, it is possible to deliberate over what to do without deliberating over what you OUGHT to do. (Consider Buridan’s Ass). Second, you can always judge ends from the point of view of other ends (which can be coherentist rather than foundationalist in structure). Third, I suggest that it is easy to explain, on the assumption that my semantics and pragmatics are correct, how ‘ought’ can be used as if it expressed a simple property of ‘being the thing to do’. I know this won’t seem adequate, but I don’t think there is an easy answer to this.

  5. the you ought to or else – seems to be by default
    “or else I will not approval of your actions”
    or “you will be the subject of my disapproval”
    and one can extrapolate any further meaning from your knowledge of the person saying it and how they care about the topic and whether you think their aproval is worth anything and whether it signifies anything.
    You dont even have to find out about the event of course.
    For example there are cases where I miht say – “you out to be nice to your pet lizard” but since I dont know you I will never find out if you hurt it. BUT my purpose is to make you think of my disapproval and feel it (despite the fact I am not feeling it myself) if you try to hurt the lizard.

  6. Can you explain us the uses of ought, because we don`t understand why we don`t use the preposition “TO” in negative way.

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