One thing I’ve become much more aware of in Leeds is the distinction between semantics and metasemantics. There is a worry that ignoring this distinction is creating some confusion. Metaethicists have traditionally claimed to be doing moral semantics whereas in fact they have mainly been doing metasemantics. Today, there is a new debate in which people also say that they are doing semantics. This time this claim is actually true. However, as a consequence, the new debate is not at the same metasemantic level as the previous debates. I know this is a bit confusing but let me try to elaborate a bit.
Very roughly, semantics investigates what the semantic value of different terms is. Most moral terms (right, wrong, good, evil, kind, cruel…) are used in predicate expressions. On the traditional Fregean views, the semantic value of predicate is a first-level function from objects (in the moral case usually from actions) to truth-values (there are other options too but let me use this simple view as an illustration). So, crudely put, the semantic value of ‘is wrong’ could be the function, F, which gives the value True for murder, the value True for breaking promises, the value False for singing, and so on. Of course, this function would have to be much more specific. It would have to take every possible individual act-token as its argument, and give a value of either True or False for each one of them. In this sense, given the disquotational property of truth, it seems as if moral semantics is closer to normative ethics.
The metasemanticists are, in contrast, interested in the question of in virtue of what does a given term have its semantic value. Thus far, much of the metaethical debates has been about how to answer this question. So, the expressivists might argue that the semantic value of ‘is wrong’ is the previous function F because statements which use this predicate conventionally express certain conative attitudes towards actions. Naturalists, in contrast, might argue that the semantic value of ‘is wrong’ is F because this would best explain our core uses of the predicate or because this best fits the platitudes which relate ‘wrong’ to the network of other moral terms. And, finally, the non-naturalists might claim that the semantic value of ‘is wrong’ is F because there is a class of actions which share the non-natural property of wrongness. The older metaethical debates assumed that these views in metasemantics are fairly neutral about the semantics of ‘wrong’ – i.e., about for which arguments the function gives the value True and for which the value False.
The new debate is between views that could be called invariantism, contextualism, and relativism. As I understand them, these are views about the shape or the structure of the function F. Usually these views are about ‘ought’ but I’ll continue to use ‘wrong’ here instead. According to invariantists, functions like F have a very simple structure like the one described above. All we need to describe this function is a name for each action, and the value True or False (with capitals!) for each one of them.
The contextualists, in contrast, claim that we should add another argument-place to the F for the speakers who are talking about the wrongness of the given actions. This is because whether claims of the form ‘action A is wrong’ is True or False depends not only of the action but also about what information the speaker and/or others in the same context of discourse have. So, the function F* defended by a contextualist, might give the value True for the argument of giving a chocolate bar to a friend if the speaker knows that the bar is poisoned and the value False for the same argument if she lacks any evidence about this being the case. (I should add that there are interesting contextualists debates about who belong to the same context of discourse. Some contextualists also add a third parameter to F to denote the standards that are accepted in the context of the utterance).
Finally, the relativists agree with the invariantists that there is only one argument place in F for the actions that are the arguments of the function. However, they reject the idea that the value of the function for each of its arguments is either True or False. Rather, the relativists believe that the value of the function F** for is for different actions either true-relative-to-the-context-of-assessment or false-relative-to-the-context-of-assessment. And, whether the value of F** is true or false relative to the context of assessment depends on the informational state of those who are assessing the truth of the given utterance. So, if we consider whether Mark’s earlier claim ‘what Ben did was wrong’ is true or false relative to our context of assessment this might depend on whether we know whether the chocolate bar he gave to Ann was poisoned or not. Thus, the very same proposition might get a different truth-value (with small letters) relative to different contexts of assessment.
I hope I got those views at least along the right lines. Anyway, the point I wanted to make was that all these views seem to me to be metasemantically neutral. Whether F, F*, or F** is the real semantic value of ‘is wrong’, it still seems that expressivists, naturalists, and non-naturalists can still have the same disagreement about in virtue of what the predicate ‘is wrong’ has that particular semantic value. This is why I believe that the views in the new debate are metaethically neutral. However, it should be emphasised that these views are not normatively or morally neutral. Whichever function of the type F, F*, or F** is the real semantic value of ‘is wrong’ will determine what it is wrong for me to do in any given situation. So, this means that those who have been working in the moral theory should take an interest on how this debate goes.