Moral discourse, speech acts, and the “by” relation

Jamie and Mark have already had some very helpful things to say about this in email correspondence. I wanted to open up the discussion and see what others think.

The proposal is to understand moral utterances along the following lines, what we might call the "layered speech-act model" of moral discourse. There are at least two versions of it:

  • (V1) When you say 'X is good', you assert that X is good by approving (or: expressing approval) of X.
  • (V2) When you say 'X is good', you express approval of X by asserting that X is good.

You perform one speech act by performing another.

Details remain to be worked out, but the initial hope is two-fold. First, that by layering assertion and approval this way, it integrates the intuitive truth-aptness and motivational dimension of moral discourse. Second, that it avoids embedding problems, because it can rely on the logical properties of the propositions asserted.

Any such proposal faces at least three serious questions initially.

  • (Q1) Is it ad hoc?
  • (Q2) Does it reinvent the wheel?
  • (Q3) Can it deliver on the anticipated benefits?

I think the answer to Q1 is clearly 'no'. Elsewhere the "by" relation does indeed layer speech acts as posited here. Answering Q3 will require actually filling in the details, making it clear how either V1 or V2 (or some other layered pair) delivers the goods. I've only indicated in the sketchiest terms how that might go. As for Q2, as best I can tell, no one has explicitly framed matters the way I have here. But perhaps it's appropriate to interpret others as saying basically the same thing in other words.

Anyway, I'd be very pleased to hear what you think about any of the proposals or questions.

12 Replies to “Moral discourse, speech acts, and the “by” relation

  1. Not sure I should be posting a comment without thinking more, but . . .
    In re Q2: I always thought that ordinary descriptivists accepted (V2)as true, at least in normal cases. But I’m not sure that the sense of ‘express’ in the interpretation of (V2) that they thereby accepted was the sense of express that was needed by expressivists to get their account off the ground. For one thing, if you know that I’m an amoralist or just perverse, you won’t take me to be expressing approval if I say “X is good,” even when I do so sincerely. And I won’t be violating norms of proper language usage by saying that even if I do not approve of what is good. (At least that is something that a descriptivist might say, and I think they would be reasonable to say it.) What it looks like expressivists need is something of the latter sort, that the utterance is in some sense contrary to the norms for that sort of utterance if it doesn’t express approval. (Mark S’s chapter/paper on the expression relation is useful on this.)
    Hare, when he postulated a parasitic descriptive meaning for normative terms might have accepted (V1).
    FWIW . . .

  2. It seems to be that, if the idea is that you do one kind of speech-act by doing another kind of speech, then the story between the two speech acts is going to be a pragmatic one; either that of conventional or conversational implicature. And, I thought that there are plenty of so-called hybrid or ecumenical theories of different kinds that just tell that story. So, Copp’s view for instance in the new OSME paper seems to come close to (v2). Likewise, in the same volume, the ‘ethical neo-expressivism’ paper by Bar-On and Chrisman seems to come really close to (v1).

  3. John,
    This is an intriguing proposal and I’d like to see it worked out more. I don’t think there’s any reason, in principle, one cannot perform one speech act by performing another. Here are some initial thoughts:
    • V2 strikes me as increasingly more plausible than V1, as the predicates get thicker. Consider, “he slobbers food all over his shirt.” It is more plausible, in my mind, to say that one disapproves by asserting, here, than that one asserts by disapproving. That’s because you are giving grounds for the criticism in the assertion, and also because the assertion is quite complex while the disapproval is not.
    • The “by” relation between speech acts should hold whether the performatives are explicit or not. That is, if asserting “X is good” is a way of approving, then so is “I assert that X is good,” and if approving of X is a way of asserting that X is good, so is “I approve of X.”
    • In embedded cases, like “If X is good then Y is good too,” one neither asserts that X (or Y) is good, nor approves of X (or Y). If your proposal is intended to unpack the _meaning_ of “X is good”, then you are going to have to understand meaning in terms of speech acts, or in Austin’s terms, locutionary meaning in terms of illocutionary acts, quite generally. Alston tried this and I believe his views are widely considered to have failed.
    • The decision between V1 and V2 would, I think, need to go something like this. You say what it is to assert: e.g. what constitutive and regulative rules or norms or conditions apply. Then you say what it is to approve: what rules apply there. (If “assertion” is just “express a belief” and “approve” is just “express an attitude” then I think we haven’t gotten anywhere. But I would be happy to get this debate out of the philosophy of mind and back into someplace public, where it belongs.) Then you argue that you satisfy some of the assertion conditions/rules “by” satisfying some of the approval conditions/rules, or vice versa. I think the “by” here could mean a number of different things.
    Best wishes. It will be productive even if you decide it won’t work and can say why.

  4. I think my concern here may be partly mirroring Mark’s above. What does “approval” mean? If it’s some sort of reactive attitude then neither V1 nor V2 seem true to me. I can easily imagine a utilitarian, say, who is completely convinced that happiness is the good and that rightness consists in maximizing happiness, yet does not “feel” approval for many of the acts this thereby commits him to and that he sincerely believes are right. But if “approval” doesn’t refer to such an attitude, I start to worry that it means little more than “thinks good.”

  5. Hi John,
    I hope I’m not put too much of my own framework into your questions, but I can only understand talk of “layers” or performing one act “by” performing another in terms of the distinction between direct and indirect illocutionary acts. (If this is what is meant, then Heath is certainly right that we perform indirect illocutionary acts all the time by means of direct illocutionary acts.) So, we could come up with three different possibilities for performing more than one kind of illocutionary act with a single utterance:
    (D1) When you say ‘x is good’, you perform an indirect assertive (illocutionary act) that x is good by means of performing a direct expressive (illocutionary act) expressing approval of x.
    (D2) When you say ‘x is good’, you perform an indirect expressive expressing approval of x by means of performing a direct assertive that x is good
    (D3) When you say ‘x is good’, you perform a direct assertive that x is good and a direct expressive expressing approval of x.
    Mark is certainly right that most cognitivists would hold something like (D2), at least as some means of explaining how noncognitive attitudes are expressed by moral utterances (when they are so expressed). I would certainly hold Steve Finlay’s view to be a well-worked out version of (D2). Some commentators take Stevenson and Hare to be holding something like (D1), though I think their actual views are more like (D3). (D3) is more in line with most current hybrid views, but it loses any sense of the ‘layered’ nature you have in mind, I think. (Perhaps Mike Ridge’s notion of ‘anaphora’ might capture some kind of ‘layering’ in a (D3) kind of view?)

  6. (I should be more clear: For Hare, the non-assertive illocutionary act would be a directive, not an expressive.)

  7. John,
    Can’t I say ‘electrons are good’ without believing it. I just did. So, I think we can say ‘x is good’ without approving of x.
    Perhaps we cannot do this sincerely. But then perhaps that suggests that approval has more to do with sincerity conditions, and less to do with speech conditions.
    V2 sounds good if by ‘express’ you mean ‘convey’ or ‘imply’. Otherwise, I think that by asserting ‘x is good’ you express that x is good. We don’t typically say such things if we don’t approve of x, but that’s to say that we convey our approval.

  8. It seems to me there’s a way of capturing the ‘layering’ intuition that doesn’t rely on the two speech-acts idea. It’s important to note that ‘expression’ can take two different relata: acts of expressing express *states of mind* or attitudes whereas sentences (and sentence-like tokens) express *propositions/thoughts* (and words/phrases express *concepts*). The former is a psychological relation; the latter a semantic one. Once we take this on board, an ethical expressivist can hold that when making an ethical claim (in speech or in thought) one expresses (in the first, ‘action’ sense) e.g. approval, using a vehicle that expresses (in the second, semantic sense) a truth-evaluable proposition. (This, even while remaining neutral on the ‘truth-makers’ of ethical propositions.) Note that one can also express (in the action sense) approval using other vehicles, including ones that do not express (in the semantic sense) propositions — e.g., one can make a gesture — or use a vehicle that does not express use ethical vocabulary — e.g. say “I approve”. This, in a nutshell, is a view presented in Bar-On and Chrisman’s “Ethical Neo-Expressivis” in the recent OSME volume (mentioned by Jussi).

  9. Hi Dorit,
    It’s great to see you here in the Soup!
    There are a number of things to say, but let me focus on one. My main problem comes when I try to understand what, exactly, sentence-expression is supposed to be, which I can only understand in terms of illocutionary acts. For example, for all that I am told about sentence-expression—namely, that it is a relation that takes sentences and propositions/thoughts as its relata–the following sentences will all sentence-express the same proposition/thought that I am amazed (since each sentence will stand in some semantic relation to the truth-evaluable thought or proposition that I am amazed):
    (1) I am amazed.
    (2) Am I amazed?
    (3) Wow!
    So, something more needs to be said about this sentence-expression relation that will distinguish the semantics of these different kinds of sentences. And I don’t know how to do that except by somehow appealing to the illocutionary acts typically performed with their (unembedded) uses. (And, then sentence-expression seems to collapse into act-expression.)
    Can you cash out sentence-expression in a way that doesn’t appeal in some way to illocutionary acts? Or, perhaps, do you think the demand to cash out sentence-expression more explicitly is unjustified?

  10. Setting aside problems that might arise due to indexical terms in the sentence, one way to cash out sentence-expression would be to say that the sentence expresses whatever proposition would be true if the sentence were true. If this works, then it’s only Dan’s (1) which s-expresses the proposition that Dan is amazed. The idea then would be that (2) and (3) aren’t truth-apt and so they do not s-express.

  11. Hi Matt,
    It’s great to see you here again too!
    That doesn’t seem to help much as far as I can tell. We want to know something interesting about this relation, called ‘s-expression’, that obtains between propositions and sentences, so that we have a good grasp or understanding of what this relation is. The response seems to be: this relation, called ‘s-expression’, is whatever the relation is that obtains between propositions and sentences that are truth-apt. I might be misinterpreting your reponse, but if not, then we’re still not told anything significant about this relation that would enable us to understand what it is.
    Here’s a question that should, but doesn’t seem to, be simple to answer: Is this relation that obtains between propositions and truth-apt sentences the same relation as that which obtains between propositions and non-truth-apt sentences? If not, in what significant way do these relations differ? If so, in what important way are these relations similar?

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