Intuitions about Bare Normative Modal Statements

Right now I’m thinking about the proper descriptive semantics for bare, normative modal statements, statements that use expressions like “must”, “ought”, and “may” normatively but don’t contain explicit restrictor phrases like “legally”, “morally”, or “given what I know”. I’m developing my own account of their semantics and my plan is to discuss the issues raised in at least two separate posts. Right now I’d just like to hear other people’s intuitions about possible assertions in different cases. Since the ideal would be responses unpolluted by theory, I want first to present the two cases that now most interest me and just elicit reactions, holding off my own theory of these uses for a second post. (Some of you may recognize these cases as similar to others that arise in discussions in linguistics and philosophy of language, others in the ethics literature. I’m hoping that in your comments, you just address the question of your intuitions, holding off your comments on the theoretical issues raised until my second post, since I’m hoping that the comments also won’t pollute the reactions of later commentators. I’m also hoping yours aren’t polluted by knowledge of others’ reactions, so please post your own before reading the earlier comments. Sorry to be so fussy!)

Here’s the first case:
You’re sitting in an audience of people who (including yourself) have some medical knowledge. You’re watching a dramatic reenactment of a discussion between two doctors of a decades-old medical case. The two doctors are called "Doctor" and "Consultant". Doctor is deciding which of three drugs X, Y, or Z to prescribe to his patient to relieve the symptoms of a skin ailment. Here's what Doctor's evidence suggests about each of the three drugs: Each of drugs X and Y have the potential to provide complete relief for Patient, while drug Z can only provide partial relief. In light of that, Doctor asserts "I ought to prescribe either X or Y". Consultant, however, knows more about each of the drugs than Doctor does. In particular, she knows that Patient is already taking drug W and that exactly one of X or Y is lethal in combination with drug W. Each has an equal likelihood of being the cure and of being the lethal drug. She also knows that Z has no negative side effects and does not interact adversely with W. 

In light of this, Consultant says 

(Z) "No, you ought not prescribe either X or Y; you ought to prescribe Z." 

And Doctor replies 

(Z’) "You're right; I ought to prescribe Z." 

So, here you are, watching this reenactment decades after the fact. You and your other audience members now know what neither Doctor nor Consultant could have known then, which is that X is the drug that will kill a patient in combination with W. Drug Y will effect a complete cure, even when taken with W and will have no adverse reactions. 

Q: which of the following would it be ok for you or someone else to say in reaction to (Z) and (Z’)? Which, if any of the following are not ok (sound bad or weird)? If some of the ok possible assertions are less ok than others, how would you rank them? Ditto for bad and worse. 

(Dp) “I disagree. Doctor ought to have prescribed Y.” 

(Fp) “That’s false. Doctor ought to have prescribed Y.” 

(Gp) “That’s a shame. Doctor ought to have prescribed Y.” 

(Sp) “That’s a shame. It’s too bad Doctor didn’t know that Y would have completely cured Patient. But she did the right thing; she ought to have prescribed Z.” 

Consider now a similar case, but one that doesn’t involve a time delay. Imagine that Doctor had planned to teleconference with Consultant II about the case. Consultant II knows that X, but not Y, interacts lethally with W. Just after Consultant has provided the information about Patient’s use of W, but before Consultant II can speak, Consultant II’s electronics give out. He can now see and hear the exchange between Doctor and Consultant, but can’t communicate with them. He overhears Consultant assert (Z) and Doctor assert (Z’). 

How might Consultant II appropriately react? Here again are some options: 

(Dn) “I disagree. Doctor ought to prescribe Y.” 

(Fn) “That’s false. Doctor ought to prescribe Y.” 

(Gn) “That’s a shame. Doctor ought to prescribe Y.” 

(Sn) “That’s a shame. It’s too bad Doctor doesn’t know that Y would completely cure Patient. But she’s doing the right thing; she ought to prescribe Z.”

28 Replies to “Intuitions about Bare Normative Modal Statements

  1. First, a few quibbles. It’s not quite clear to me what the referent of “that” is in “That’s a shame” – clearly it isn’t the same as in “That’s false”! (A more natural thing to say might be “It’s a shame they didn’t/don’t know about Y.”) Also, I take it that that (Dn) is meant to be in the present tense.
    Having said that, my reactions before thinking through the implications are the following:
    I look forward to the analysis!

  2. Thanks, Antti! You’re right about the tense. I’ll try to fix that. About the referents, part of the issue is to see how ordinary speakers understand the assertions; is there a natural understanding that makes them sound fine? So, i leave that to you to decide.

  3. I think Sp and Sn sound right and the other responses sound wrong. If the doctor had just snoozed through class the day they taught that X rather than Y will kill the patient then I can hear the “ought” so that it’s right to say that he ought to have prescribed Y. But I still think it sounds right to say that “given what he knew” he prescribed the right drug.

  4. If I understand the cases correctly, I think all could be OK, except that the present tense “That’s a shame,” reactions seems to me to be off in a case where there must still be some possibility of getting in touch with the people and heading off the bad medicine.

  5. I have Sp in the first case.
    But in the second case, I get the feeling that Dn, Fn, and Gn are appropriate in one sense of ought. My feeling is Fn>Dn>Gn, but it’s not that strong. Sn is appropriate with regard to another sense of ought, which is more like what we’re working with in the first case.

  6. Assuming that I (and others in the audience) don’t believe that either Doctor or Consultant were capable of discovering that Y was the best option, I think only Sp is acceptable in the first case. In the second case, my intuition is that all are acceptable, with Dn, Fn and Gn all on equal footing and Sn being a bit less acceptable.

  7. Thanks!
    Clarification: In both cases, there is no way for Doctor and Consultant to receive the information that X is the lethal drug. In scenario one that is info that “neither Doctor nor Consultant could have known then”. And Mark is right; Consultant II “can’t communicate with them” means ‘no possibility’.

  8. (1) Gp
    (2) Sp
    (1) Dn
    (2) Fn
    I’m assuming that Consultant II didn’t know that his electronics were no longer working. Was that right?
    In the future, you might try embedding a poll into the post. That way, you don’t have calculate the statistics yourself, and also people won’t see how others responded until they take the poll. Leiter has some examples over at his blog. I’ve used See here for an example.

  9. Ah, good question. Consultant II *does* know that he can*not* be heard. Let me know if that changes your reaction.
    And thanks for the poll tip. I’ll try that next time.

  10. And he knows he cannot be seen or in any way communicate with Doctor and Consultant. He knows they will have to make their decision without his information.

  11. The only ones I don’t like are (Dp) and (Dn). The rest seem okay.
    Incidentally, I find Doctor’s reply (Z’) a bit strange. Shouldn’t he ask for some justification before accepting what Consultant says?

  12. My intuitions have been thoroughly corrupted by theory. Fwiw:
    I (now) think (Sp) is the only acceptable response in the first case.
    I also think (Sn) is the only truthful assertion in the second case, but that the others sound better in this case than in the first.

  13. Thanks, Campbell and Errol.
    Errol: I don’t see why we should think your responses are corrupted. A non-philosopher, linguistically gifted friend of mine gave the exact same answers as you.
    Campbell: I was imagining that Doctor replies with (Z’) after Consultant gives his grounds for asserting (Z). In general, I’m kind of tempted to think that this is one problem with relying on intuitions; it’s hard to have a short spelling out of the case in sufficient detail and sufficient detail is needed to ensure everyone’s responding to the same case. Describe it in sufficient details and people start to think “why am i spending so much time on this? screw it!”.
    That said, its better, in general, to have them than not. It’s a starting point. I’ll add that when I write this up.

  14. Incidentally, one bit of data I would find relevant here the status of the following, uttered by Doctor when he finds out the effects of the drugs: “Damn, I ought to have prescribed Y!” (Or: “Prescribing Y would have been the best thing to do.”) Both of these sound extremely natural to me.

  15. Thanks, Antti. That would be good to think about when thinking overall about these issues. But it’s important for me in the first case that Doctor never comes to know that Y is the non-lethal judge.

  16. Sorry – my intuitions about these cases are pretty shaky, veering towards the S options. Would be interesting to get people’s intuitions about the retraction cases. Would it sound ok for people if the agent much later on finds out what the Consultants have said and then says that ‘I was wrong and the Consultant was right – I ought to have given the drug D’. This sounds fine to me, but you could test this also for disagreement, falsehood, and shame.

  17. Good idea. We’ve got retraction in the first case, which sounds natural to me, too. But it’s retraction prior to the point of action and it might be interesting to check whether retraction sounds ok in a case of first-personal hindsight evaluation. It would be hard to have a case of eavesdropping on oneself, I think, tho. 🙂

  18. First case:
    (Sp) – OK; (Gp) – a bit weird, but somewhat OK; (Dp) and (Fp) – completely mistaken (but they sound false to me rather than “bad” or “weird”)
    Second case:
    (Sn), (Dn) and (Fn) – OK; (Gn) – a bit weird, but somewhat OK.
    Part of my answer rests on your statement that “neither Doctor nor Consultant could have known” in the first case, and the fact that no similar statement appears in your telling of the second case. Was that an intentional omission?

  19. Thanks, Simon. Not an intentional omission. In the second case, have no way of having Consultant II’s info, other than from Consultant II, who can’t communicate with them.
    In the first case, do you want to say that “I disagree” is false? or “that’s false” is false? if so, do you think there’s a way that saying that, though false, wouldn’t also be an odd thing to say?

  20. In the first case I think the possible reactions are listed in the order of worse to better. In the second case I am less clear. I would want to know whether it is common knowledge that the communication is only one way at the point Consultant II is responding. I think I would say that again the reactions are listed in worse to best order but the worst responses are less bad in this case than they would be in the first case.

  21. I was thinking that Consultant II knows that he can’t communicate with Doctor or Consultant. Does it change your intuitions if Doctor and Consultant know they can’t get info from Consultant II or not? That does seem relevant to what we want to say about (Z) and (Z’) but it may not be relevant to what you want to say about what to say about what Consultant II may say. What do you think?

  22. Thanks for the clarification, Janice. Then I think I want to change my answer to the second case to match the first: (S) – OK, G – A bit weird, but somewhat OK, (D) and (F) – completely mistaken.
    No, I don’t want to say that the “I disagree” part of (D) is false, just the “Doctor ought to have prescribed Y” part. And both parts of (F). I’m not sure I understand the rest of what you just asked. I think both (D) and (F) to be clear but clearly mistaken opinions, rather than odd sentences.

  23. Simon,
    I think you did understand what I was trying to say. Thanks; that’s really helpful.

  24. In the first case, Sp seems to me the only appropriate thing to say, with Gp being somewhat less inappropriate than Dp or Fp.
    In the second case, all seem appropriate, with Sn seeming somewhat less appropriate (only because it seems odd not to add a qualifying remark like ‘In light of what she knows’ she is doing the right thing.)

  25. Case 1:
    Dp, Fp and Gp all seem like semantically appropriate answers. They each appear to reference the past situation and make the judgment that Doctor made the wrong choice given the available information. Fp adds the wrinkle of talking about truth and falsity, which some reject, but that rejection is really conception-dependent. I don’t know of anyone, though, who actually would make this judgment (I see the 3 as basically the same judgment: Doctor made the wrong call, at the time. But this strikes me as a pretty silly position.). So, the correct response of the 4 I think is Sp.
    Case 2:
    Here the fact that this is a current case does make a difference, because not least Doctor has a moral responsibility to ensure that s/he is aware of the relevant information. So, here, either Dn or Fn look like reasonable responses by Consultant II. Gn is funny in that “That’s a shame” seems to imply that Consultant II is accepting the situation where Doctor prescribes drug Z – the wrong choice given the case. I would think the appropriate reaction would involve trying to intervene so that Doctor does not make the wrong treatment decision by perhaps sending an email, trying to reestablish phone connections, or even sending a text! Gn seems to me to indicate that Consultant II is just throwing up his/her hands and declaring, “Oh well, so be it.” Finally, in this context, Sn is pretty straightforwardly wrong. If Doctor goes ahead and prescribes Z without seeking out the available facts (since it looks like this information is available, and I’m thinking that here it is not unreasonable that Doctor should be held responsible for possessing this information), Doctor has made the incorrect choice, and the appropriate reaction should reflect this.

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