In Sir P.F. Strawson’s brilliant 1949 paper ‘Ethical Intuitionism’,
I came across a short and seemingly powerful argument for the buck-passing
accounts of value and other ethical words that I haven’t seen elsewhere. Even
if I am a buck-passer, I do think that this argument is too good to be true.
So, what I want to do is to first give the argument in a full quote, then make
three observations about it, and finally sketch out the ways in which opponents
of the buck-passing view could reply to this argument.
Strawson’s paper consists of a dialogue between a defender
of intuitionism, North, and his opponent, West. The argument for the
buck-passing account is made by West during his arguments against intuitionism.
Here it is:
found, you overlooked the logical relations of the ethical words among
themselves. And so you forgot what has often been pointed out: that for every
expression containing the words “right” and “good,” used in their ethical senses,
it is always possible to find an expression with the same meaning, but
containing, instead of these, the word “ought.” The equivalences are various,
and the variations subtle; but they are always to be found. For one to say, for
example, “I know where the good lies, I know what the right course is; but I
don’t know the end I ought to aim at,
the course I ought to follow” would
be self-contradictory. “Right”-sentences, “good”-sentences are shorthand for
“ought”-sentences. And this is enough in itself to explode the myth of
unanalysable characteristics designated by the indefinable predicates, “right”
and “good.” For “ought” is a relational
word; whereas “right” and “good” are predicative.
The simplest sentences containing “ought” are syntactically more complicated
than the simples sentences containing “right” or “good.” And, hence, since the
equivalences of meaning hold, the various ethical usages of “right” and “good” are all definable: variously definable
in terms of “ought.””
able to present the buck-passing account as a generally accepted majority view
which North has merely forgotten about. I wonder when this view exactly went
away so that it was able to be rediscovered later.
think that the words ‘right’ and
‘good’ are analysable but rather all the sentences that contain them or the
uses of these words in these sentences. He seems to allow that the analyses in
terms of ‘ought’ can vary from sentences to sentence just as long as there is
one. This is an interesting version of the network analyses of a given domain.
only does it defend the necessary co-extensiveness of value/right and oughts
but also the idea that it is conceptually contradictory to deny this. This
would rule out various modern views according to which value and ought are
distinct but still co-extensive due to perhaps the fact that same things make
things valuable and create oughts, or the fact that values explain oughts.
buck-passing view could say that the argument is neutral between value/right
being analysable in terms of ought and ought being analysable in terms of
value/right. The contradiction would be created due to either one of these views being true. Perhaps the idea of simplicity vs. complexity in the end points towards
the buck-passing view though – the analyses must go from simple to complex.
that the argument is question-begging. The alleged contradiction is a contradiction only on the condition that the buck-passing view is true. So, West must be assuming the
truth of this view in making an argument for it which obviously is not justified.
that all he is referring to is his pretheoretical semantic intuition about the contradiction
as a competent speaker, and the fact that most speakers under careful
deliberation would have the same intuition. He could then claim that truth of
the buck-passing analyses is the best explanation for why speakers have this
intuition. At this point, the opponent
of the view could challenge whether competent speakers generally think that the
relevant contradictions exist. This would be an interesting debate.
that the relevant contradiction does not suffice to show that the buck-passing
analyses are valid. They could hold that ‘good’ and ‘right’ have a simple
meaning that cannot be decomposed. However, they could argue (in the style of
Barbara Partee) that there is a meaning-postulate attached to the simple
meaning according to which good things ought to be pursued, and so on. And,
they could claim that possessing the concept of ‘good’ requires conformity to
the meaning postulates in the use of the concept. This would be an alternative
explanation for the contradictions of the argument that did not require the
truth of the buck-passing view.