Ethics Discussions at PEA Soup: Gunnar Björnsson and Stephen Finlay, “Metaethical Contextualism Defended”

We are pleased to present the latest installment of PEA Soup's collaboration with Ethics, in which we host a discussion of one article from an issue of the journal. The article selected from Volume 121, Issue 1 is Gunnar Björnsson and Stephen Finlay, "Metaethical Contextualism Defended."  We are very pleased that Ralph Wedgwood is providing a précis of the article to introduce the discussion.  His commentary begins below the fold.

In their paper, “Metaethical Contextualism Defended”, Gunnar Björnsson and Stephen Finlay defend a contextualist account of normative judgments – that is, of the kind of judgments that we express by making statements what people ought to do, or the like. The account defended by Björnsson and Finlay (henceforth, “B & F”) is contextualist in two ways: first, it interprets normative judgments as implicitly indexed or relativized to bodies of information; secondly, it interprets normative judgments as implicitly relativized to ends or standards.

The first sort of contextualism seems eminently plausible to me. E.g. imagine a speaker on the top of a tower, keeping track of someone on the ground below who is making his way through a maze. It seems that the speaker might quite naturally say both:

(1)   He has no way of knowing it, but he ought to turn left at this point

and also:

(2)   Since his evidence all suggests that turning left would be the wrong thing to do, he ought not to turn left at this point.

We seem to be able to hear both statements as true in this situation, and the easiest way to explain this is to suppose that these different occurrences of ‘ought’ are implicitly indexed to different bodies of information.

The second sort of contextualism, on the other hand, seems much more controversial. Admittedly, it is plausible that there is an “end-relative” use of ‘ought’. In an unpublished lecture Bernard Williams used the following example:

(3)   He ought to be using a Phillips screwdriver to open that safe.

A speaker might quite compatibly make this statement, while at the same time claiming that – in all other salient senses of the term – the agent in question ought not to be trying to open the safe at all. So, this occurrence of ‘ought’ seems to be end-relative – relativized to the end of opening the safe.

Most philosophers, however, would deny that all occurrences of ‘ought’ are end-relative in this way: as Kant would put it, some occurrences of ‘ought’ are categorical rather than hypothetical. The sort of contextualism defended by B & F, on the other hand, implies that all occurrences of ‘ought’ are end-relative or hypothetical in this way.

As B & F rightly see, both forms of contextualism have prima facie difficulties with explaining how different speakers' statements are logically related to each other. The first sort of contextualism (which postulates informative-relativity) faces a prima facie problem that is due to some unpublished work by Niko Kolodny and John MacFarlane.

Suppose that Agent and Adviser are deliberating together about which of four available options – A, B, C, and D – Agent should choose. Both Agent and Adviser know for certain that the objectively best option is either A or B (although unfortunately they do not know which of the two it is), while C and D are certainly no better than second-best. Even though neither Agent nor Adviser has perfect information, Adviser’s information is better than Agent’s. In this case, Agent might ask Adviser what he ought to do, tentatively suggesting that he ought to do C. Adviser might respond “No, you’re wrong! It’s not true that you ought to do C – you ought to do D instead!” Intuitively, it seems, Adviser’s statement could be perfectly true – even if C is what Agent ought to do relative to the body of information that Agent had at the time when he asked his original question.

As Kolodny and MacFarlane point out, the contextualist has a prima facie problem explaining this. Neither Agent’s statement nor Adviser’s statement can involve an objective ‘ought’, relativized to the body of information that contains all relevant truths whatsoever, because they both know that what Agent ought objectively to do is either A or B (and not either C or D). So, perhaps, for example, Agent’s statement is implicitly indexed to the information that he possesses, while Adviser’s statement is indexed to the information that she possesses. However, if the information to which Adviser’s statement is indexed is different from the information to which Agent’s statement is indexed, then Adviser’s statement does not really answer the question that Agent originally asked. Moreover, Adviser’s use of the language of disagreement (“No, you’re wrong!” and the like) is out of place, since strictly speaking the two are speaking past each other.

In response to this objection, B & F first sketch a form of contextualism, “news-sensitive contextualism” (p. 14), which allows both the agent and the adviser to be evaluating the very same proposition. According to news-sensitive contextualism, the information that a statement is indexed to need not be the information that is actually possessed by any of the speakers at the time of utterance; instead, it may be the total body of information that the deliberating agent “will or can acquire by the time by the time he must decide what to do.” This body of information includes not only the information that the agent already possesses, but also all the information that any adviser will give him before he has to decide what to do. So, according to news-sensitive contextualism, the statements of both the Agent and the Adviser can be indexed to the very same body of information.

However, as B & F correctly point out, this sort of “news-sensitive contextualism” cannot be the whole story. We also need to explain why the adviser chooses to introduce new information into the relevant body of information at all.

The key point, B & F claim, is that the aim of advice is not just to enable the advisee to accept true ‘ought’-propositions. The point of advice is to help the advisee with whatever the advisee is trying to do. This is why it is typically helpful for advisers to give their advisees better information. As B & F put it, deliberating agents are aiming to promote certain values; an agent typically prefers fuller information “because it puts him in a better position to promote his values” (p. 16).

In fact, I would quibble with B & F’s claim that the goal of deliberating agents is always to “promote certain values”; but in the interests of brevity I shall not raise these quibbles here. What matters most for present purposes is the point that almost all deliberating agents have an interest in fuller and better information, and this point seems clearly correct.

As B & F rightly point out, however, it is still necessary to explain why it is so natural to use the language of disagreement, even when we are assessing other speakers’ statements that are strictly speaking indexed to bodies of information that are different from the information that we ourselves possess. On this point, they make some very perceptive observations (pp. 19–20) about how the proposition picked out by the demonstrative ‘That’ in statements like ‘That’s not true’ is often not exactly the same as the proposition that the previous speaker has asserted, but the most conversationally salient proposition instead.

Suppose that a speaker S makes a statement of the form ‘x ought to do A’, about the situation of some agent x at some time t. Suppose, moreover, that you possess better or fuller information than the speaker S about the situation that x is in at t. Given that deliberating agents typically have an interest in better or fuller information, it seems easy to explain why the proposition that is most conversationally salient to you is not the proposition that S has asserted, but the proposition that you could make using those words, indexed to the better, fuller body of information that you possess. This is why it would be natural for you to use the language of disagreement, by saying things like “No, S is wrong”, “What S is saying is not true”, and the like.

Overall, the defence of information-relativity that B & F give in the first half of their paper seems to me highly plausible. In the second half of their paper, they argue that essentially the same manoeuvres can be redeployed to defend standard-relativity against the famous objection that standard-relativity implies that speakers who adhere to different standards are not genuinely disagreeing with each other. Unfortunately, it seems to me that B & F’s arguments in the second half of the paper are less successful than the arguments that they gave in the first half.

As we have seen, B & F are defending the strong claim that all instances of ‘ought’ are implicitly relativized to ends or standards. Most other philosophers, as I have already noted in connection with the example (3) above, would be happy to concede that some occurrences of ‘ought’ are relativized to some end or standard. However, the intuition that there are genuine disagreements between the adherents of different standards does not concern the overtly end-relative or hypothetical ‘ought’-statements. They concern instances of the apparently categorical ‘ought’. After all, no one ever thought that there was any sort of disagreement between:

(4)   To get to London, you should catch the train from Platform 5

and:

(5)   To get to Bristol, it is not the case that you should the train from Platform 5.

So to explain away the appearance of disagreement in a satisfactory way, it seems that B & F would have to focus on some special features of the apparently categorical ‘ought’.

In the second half of their paper, when they are discussing standard-relativity, B & F do not develop any analogue of “news-sensitive contextualism”. That is, they do not try to find any subtle set of standards such that both of the apparently disagreeing statements are in fact implicitly relativized to the same set of standards.

Instead, they rely on the claim that in the conversations that seem intuitively to involve a disagreement about what someone (in some apparently “categorical” sense) ought to do, the proposition that is most salient to each speaker in those conversations is the proposition that is implicitly indexed to the standards that he himself endorses. B & F call this feature of normative discourse “quasi-expressivist” (p. 22). But it is not clear how their sort of standard-relativity can explain why normative discourse has this feature. (To be fair, Finlay has defended this claim in more detail in some of the work that he has published elsewhere; but in this paper the point seems to be asserted rather than justified.)

At all events, the arguments of the first half of the paper crucially relied on the fact that deliberating agents have a general preference for better and fuller information. After all, we typically would not voice a disagreement with another speaker about what an agent x ought to do at a time t if we took ourselves to have an inferior body of information about x’s situation at t than that other speaker. It is not clear that what can play this role in the second half of the paper. So it is not clear that the defence that they offer for information-relativity carries over quite so readily to standard-relativity.

19 Replies to “Ethics Discussions at PEA Soup: Gunnar Björnsson and Stephen Finlay, “Metaethical Contextualism Defended”

  1. Thanks everyone! I really loved the paper (great work B&F) and Ralph’s comments are also very helpful and balanced.
    Just a couple of quick comments. I share Ralph’s worries about all ought claims being relative to some ends or standards. I think I’m mainly worried about how this would work for ought over-all. It seems to me that once we have all the information in about what we ought to do relative to all the standards and ends, there still seems to a sensible question about what we ought to do overall given all the standard-relative oughts. And, it’s hard for me to understand what that judgment would be relative to standard-wise.
    I also have a nitpicky point for B&F. In the first half of the paper, a part of the defence of the view seems to be that we should understand the agent’s utterances to be relative to a wider body of information than her own beliefs (including the info of the potential advisors) *because* this is what the speaker intends to be meaning by her claim. This sounds as if the agent’s referential intensions would determine what the contextually salient information is to which the ought claim is relative. So, in effect, the agent’s actual intentions would in part determine the truth-conditions of her claim. Is this right?
    I think I’m slightly sceptical about this idea for broadly Wittgensteinian reasons. It seems odd that, in order to understand what the agent’s utterance means and in what conditions it would be true, we would need to know to what body of information she intends to relativise her claim. For one, the referential intentions seem to be fairly opaque to us as interpreters (and probably to the agent herself too). So, I guess I would want to argue that something more general and public than the agent’s intentions determine what the relevant body of information is in the context.

  2. I’m thinking that B&F’s discussion at page 15 and following might help with Jussi’s question. The idea there is that the basic intentions are practical — to deliberate in such a way as to act well or rightly. Cooperative speakers will be trying to communicate judgments that will be relevant to that task. Generally that will allow listeners to interpret a speaker’s positive judgment about what an advisee ought to do as made relative to all the information that the speaker has, for it would normally be uncooperative if she leaves some out in giving her verdict. (I think a speaker can make a judgement relative to information without having intentions involving reference to that information and that this may be all you need to get reference to that information.)
    If that’s the story, I don’t think these cooperative intentions are that opaque, though I think there might still be considerable vagueness about what besides the speaker’s knowledge should be included in the relevant body of information.
    (BTW, I like the paper and like the move to the practical point of deliberation here.)

  3. Mark,
    thanks. I think that’s how I read the paper too. I am however still wondering about something like the order of explanation. It seems like according to the B&F story we start from the actual referential intentions of the agents, they then determine the contextually relevant body of information, and that finally fixes the meaning/truth-conditions of the utterance. I’m thinking that the story goes the other way round. We intuitively understand the meaning/truth-conditions of the claim, they give us the relevant body of information, and on the basis of those we ascribe referential intentions to agents to make them rational lovers of the good and knowers of the truth (and efficient communicators). But, even if we found out the speakers were bad liars or intending to talk about trees we don’t go back and correct the contextually salient information or the meanings or their claims. This is why I think the contextually salient body of information has to be independent of the actual intentions of the agents.

  4. Many thanks to PEA Soup for selecting our article, to Ralph for his wonderfully clear and challenging precis, to Niko Kolodny and John MacFarlane for their fascinating paper which stimulated ours, and to everyone else for their participation. We’re very pleased and grateful for the attention to our work.
    We’ve agreed to collaborate on our replies as we did on our paper. However, since it’s a busy time for both of us, our replies might not always appear quickly.

  5. Hi, Ralph,
    I had a question about your remark about end-relativity and categorical oughts. Is your thought that holding that all oughts are standard relative is incompatible with holding that some oughts are categorical? Or is your thought that the B&F view, which holds that those standards are always given by ends, is incompatible with holding that some oughts are categorical? The second thought may be right, but the first one seems false to me.

  6. I am still a bit unsure about the the response to Schroeder. It seems to rest on the idea that we should assess beliefs and other attitudes not just in terms of the truth-value of their propositional content but also in terms of the practical significance of our making the relevant assessment.
    This seems plausible if it is read as a claim about which expressions of assessments we should make. It might be true that I should not assert “Huck’s belief is true” because doing so will imply that I approve of his action (for example). But I have a harder time seeing how such pragmatic considerations will bear on what I should think – e.g. the assessments I make but don’t express.
    Schroeder’s inference is presumably good in the cases where I am simply making up my mind – i.e ones in which I am not expressing my attitudes or uttering the relevant sentences. I have trouble seeing how B&F’s account can vindicate that presumption.
    How would they vindicate, for example, the presumption that the following inference (involving assertion not belief) is good, even if I am not going to be arguing with anyone about Huck and what he ought to do?
    (1) Huck asserted that he ought to tell on Jim.
    (2) It is not the case that Huck ought to tell on Jim.
    (3) Therefore, Huck asserted something that is not true

  7. Brad,
    I know it’s not for me to answer to your question, but it does seem like just appropriateness of unuttered thoughts also do depend on pragmatic factors. Imagine I had a really good student who has asked me a letter for reference for her at some point in the future. In this case, it would inappropriate for me to think firstly and/or merely that she’s got a nice hand-writing to myself even if I didn’t utter this to anyone. This would imply that I don’t really think that she is a good student as I should be thinking. But the thought is true, so this inappropriateness cannot be based on falsehood. So, it does seem that in some cases pragmatic factors and rules of conversation govern also mere unuttered thought.

  8. To Ralph (and Jussi):
    One point we’d like to clarify is that the goal of the second section of our paper is relatively modest. We don’t argue there that moral claims ARE standard- or end-relative, but merely that the objections from disagreement can be answered by following essentially the same playbook we employed in solving the disagreement problem for information-relativity. So any independent objections to standard/end relativity are not objections to our paper as such. However, since we do accept a relativistic view, we’re willing to address such objections here.
    Ralph objects that “it is not clear how [our] sort of standard-relativity can explain why normative discourse has [the feature of quasi-expressivism].” The explanation that we tried to offer in the paper goes like this. As Ralph notes, the argument in the first half of the paper (on information-relativity) “crucially relied on the fact that deliberating agents have a general preference for better and fuller information”. Likewise, we argue, moral agents have a general preference for their own moral standards and ends over those of others. So when it comes to the practical question about what to do, just as agents will be interested in ought-propositions relative to fuller information to the exclusion of any others, so too will they be interested in ought-propositions relative to their own moral standards or ends to the exclusion of any others. So far the cases are exactly parallel, we think. Where the parallel breaks down is in the integration of the two parties’ interests. While in advice both parties are interested in the same ends, in fundamental moral dispute each party is interested in a different end. So there’s an added problem of explaining why a speaker would address a proposition to somebody who isn’t interested in it. This is where quasi-expressivism comes in.
    The basic expressivist idea, of course, is that the function of moral discourse is to express the speaker’s own preferences or plans about what to do, in a way designed to push the audience to adopt them too. We think that this is in effect what a speaker does in asserting an ought-proposition that is known to be relativized to the speaker’s own ends or standards. When you hear another speaker assert that you ought to do A, and you understand that this is relativized to the ends that she cares about, then you understand that she wants you to do A, and can infer that she is speaking with the aim of getting you to do A (roughly, and in central cases). So her speech act has the illocutionary role of an imperative. As such, then, it is relevant to reject her imperative by saying “No”, and seeming to evaluate her statement. As Ralph notes, this is a kind of story that SF has defended in more detail in other work. In this paper it is admittedly compressed.
    We should perhaps stress that the expressivist account of disagreement is only needed when the moral disagreement is fundamental. As Ralph points out, we do not develop any analogue of news-sensitive contextualism for the case of standard-relativity, but we do think that many moral disagreements might be understood as relating to some common moral standard. What we find doubtful is that all central cases of moral disagreement can be understood that way.
    To Jussi:
    Jussi asks about how the relevant parameters and truth-conditions are fixed. We are officially uncommitted on this point, beyond saying that conversational purposes OR intentions do the work. If a speaker’s modal statements are fixed by her intentions, there is indeed the problem of how an audience can then identify that content. The answer we would then give is basically the one suggested by Mark van Roojen: interpreters assume that speakers are being cooperative, and therefore that they have the intentions that one can expect them to have in the circumstances in question. (Janice Dowell has carefully worked out a view of this kind; SF develops a detailed pragmatic account in Ch. 6 of his book manuscript). Another problem is the worry that if we found out speakers had crazy intentions we wouldn’t reassess the contents of their claims. In such cases, one might want to distinguish between the proposition expressed by the speaker and the proposition he meant to express, suggesting that the truth-conditions are not fixed by intentions. However, one might also argue that the relevant distinction is between the proposition the speaker expressed and the proposition he could reasonably be taken to have expressed. How best to interpret ‘mismatched’ cases is currently a contentious issue for indexicals in general, but we think that the explanations we offer in the paper are independent of that choice.
    Jussi also asks how to make sense of an all-things-considered “ought” on the end/standard relative view. The answer developed in SF’s book manuscript (Ch. 7) is that the “all-things-considered ought” is just (roughly) the “ought” relative to the information and standards/ends that need not be made explicit because they’re sufficiently salient in the context, being (i) the fullest available information, and (ii) the most preferred standards/ends. What about the deliberative case, where the agent-judge has a decision problem without a determinate preferred end in mind? We think that a contextualist semantics can allow for this given that “ought” often has a practical use. In a way, this is the first-person version of the rhetorical use of talking as if there was a common standard: I ask the question as if I had a ready standard in mind, waiting for an appealing one to emerge, as it were.

  9. Hi Jussi,
    Good point. I see that practical concerns can sometimes justify not thinking something we know to be true.
    I just have trouble seeing how they will justify my judging something to be true even though it is false and perhaps unjustified in evidential terms. For example I take it that the conclusion I mention (that Huck asserted something that is not true) is not justified by the truth of the premises, as they are understood by contextualists. In fact it seems that on the contextualist view the conclusion is false. So we need to believe not just that practical concerns can justify our thinking some things rather than others, but that they can justify our believing false things like that. This is my worry, but I am not sure I understand the account properly.
    Finally, I can see that sometimes (in a far out case) practical concerns can justify making false judgments, but I am not seeing how they defend that view as an account of the relatively common inferences at issue.

  10. Gunnar,
    thanks a lot for the responses. Quick question of clarification: What’s the difference between conversational purposes and intentions? In any case, I’m happy with the assumption of people’s co-operativeness. That seems to come with the principle of charity.
    I agree that the issue about whether all ought claims are end/standard relative is not really in the scope of the paper. Still, I’m not happy at all about the response to the over-all ought issue. If I get this right, one result of the view would be that the claim ‘one ought to over-all follow the most preferred standards’ would be trivially, necessarily true. That strikes me as false. It just seems to me that whatever standards you take (whether they were the most preferred or the sufficiently salient ones) it’s always an open question whether we should follow them all things considered.

  11. To Brad:
    Thanks for pressing this worry, which we think may be the most challenging one we face. To understand our view, you should first think about how expressivists would understand these kinds of inferences and judgments. Our view of moral assent and dissent is basically expressivist, even though we think that moral claims have propositional contents. An expressivist will say that a moral “belief” is really a practical stance of some kind, and to judge a belief “true” is to endorse that stance, while to judge it “false” is to reject it.
    On our view, Huck’s moral “belief” that telling on fugitive slaves is right is really the combination of his believing (in the strict sense) the proposition that (roughly) telling on fugitive slaves is right by standard Y, and his subscribing to standard Y as being authoritative as to what to do, which as a whole constitutes something like a practical commitment to tell on slaves. An important point to note here is that we distinguish in the paper between the truth or falsity of PROPOSITIONS (truth in a strict sense), and how the words “true” and “false” are commonly used. We claim that when people judge others’ moral “beliefs” as “true” or “false” they are not, usually, evaluating the truth of the propositions they believe per se, but rather endorsing or rejecting their practical commitments–EITHER because they reject the propositional component, OR because they reject the subscription component. If one rejects Huck’s practical commitment, the correct thing to say (and not just the felicitous thing to say) is that Huck’s belief/claim is “false”. Similarly, to assess a moral claim as “true” is fundamentally to express endorsement of the practical commitment it constitutes, which need not involve accepting the truth of the proposition asserted, or the subscribed-to standard. (This is the case when someone forms a “true” moral judgment for utterly bad reasons).
    Response to Jussi coming soon…

  12. To Jussi:
    By “intentions” we mean the private (articulate or inarticulate) intentions of individual speakers. By “conversational purposes”, we mean (to quote Grice) “the agreed-upon direction of a conversation or talk-exchange”; i.e. what is the point or goal of the conversation?
    You suggest that one implication of our view would be that
    (1) One ought to over-all follow the most preferred standards
    would be trivially, necessarily true. But, as you say, it seems that
    (2) Whatever standards you take (whether they were the most preferred or the sufficiently salient ones) it’s always an open question whether we should follow them all things considered.
    We want to embrace (2), but reject the claim that (1) becomes trivially true given our brand of contextualism. First, rather than running afoul of (2), we think that our view provides an explanation of why the question whether one ought to follow a certain standard would seem both meaningful and open. For any substantial standard, X, it is always in principle possible to ask whether following that standard conforms to some standard OTHER than X. Moreover, since it would be pointless to ask whether following X would conform to X, conversational pragmatics dictates understanding the question “ought I to follow X” as making reference to some other standard, perhaps yet to be identified. Even if X were the most pragmatically relevant standard prior to asking the question, it would no longer be once the question is asked. We think that this explains the strong appeal of (2).
    We also think that the intuition that (1) cannot be trivially true is natural and correct, but not in conflict with our brand of contextualism. What follows from our view is only that the proposition expressed by (1) is true IF “the most preferred standards” in (1) refers to whatever standards “ought” in (1) relates to in the context of utterance. But this coincidence between the index of “ought” and the referent of “the most preferred standards” is never trivial or guaranteed by the semantics of “ought”: if it holds, it is only provided in a given context by the pragmatics of “ought” and of the definite description “the most preferred standards”. On our view, then, the truth of (1) is no more trivial than the truth of “he is the guy”, which only comes out as true if context makes it the case that “he” and “the guy” co-refer.

  13. Steve,
    Thanks for the response – that makes sense. I guess I am less confident than you that that is the way we, or the “folk”, use ‘true’ and ‘false’ in moral contexts.
    Would you also say that people (e.g. philosophers) who are more persnickety about how they use ‘true’ and ‘false’ should simply not make the inferences in question?
    There is still something in particular that bothers me about the assertion case. Let me take a stab at saying why. If you say “Huck asserted something false” it seems to me that your are representing yourself as expressing an assessment of the proposition asserted. People might express their commitment to a moral standard by making an assertion, but they do not assert that commitment. So when ‘truth’ is used in this context it seems a particular stretch to say they are expressing their assessment of the truth *and* the commitment. But, again, you might be right about my undergrads way of using the term (insofar as ‘assertion’ is a word they use).
    This all makes me wonder what empirical evidence there is for these claims about how people tend to use the words.
    Just some thoughts.

  14. I also wonder whether the experimental results reported by Sarkissian,Park, et al. in their paper on moral relativism raise doubts about your view: philostv.com/papers/Folk_Relativism.pdf
    They had subjects consider sets of people expressing conflicting moral views, some from the same culture and some from different cultures, and then asked whether one of the people “must have been wrong” and whether one “must have been mistaken”. The subjects listed towards the ‘no’ end of the spectrum as the level of intercultural difference increased.
    This suggests that people do use “wrong” and “mistake” track the truth of the relevant propositions (the researcher’s view) or perhaps their ability to provide arguments to settle the dispute (a possibility I think we need to pursue more). In any case, the tendency to shift towards agreeing that “neither is wrong” seems to push against your claim that assessments of beliefs are driven by concern to endorse (or not) the practical commitments in question.
    Just a worry that came to mind.

  15. Brad,
    (First, let us just clarify that all our posts have been cowritten, so that the person posting them is not their unique author.)
    We’re reluctant to offer any prescriptions about how philosophers should use words like “true” and “false”. For theoretical purposes we need pragmatically “neutered” attributions of truth and falsehood, attributions that are not sensitive to conversational pragmatics, and a correspondingly stable notion of propositions expressed. Employing such notions, we do indeed want to deny that the proposition expressed by “Huck believed something that wasn’t true” follows logically from the propositions expressed by “Huck believed he ought to tell on Jim” and “It is not the case that Huck ought to tell on Jim” (p. 30). But we see no in-principle reason why a philosopher ought not continue to use these words in the moral domain as ordinary people do. Indeed, it is part of our account that the everyday tendency to assess moral claims of beliefs as true or false by assessing propositions other than those expressed is well motivated given the pragmatics of moral discussion.
    Thanks for pushing us on the assertion case. We begin with a rehearsal of our account. When a moral judge, M, is confronted with a moral assertion, say Huck’s assertion “I ought to tell on Jim”, the issue at focus is typically a practical one, concerning what to do under various circumstances: whether to tell on Jim in Huck’s circumstances, say. Differently put, the question is whether to accept the sort of attitude or commitment involved in Huck’s thought or expressed by his claim “I ought to tell on Jim”. M agrees with Huck if M shares that attitude, disagrees if he rejects it. Whether M shares or rejects the attitude depends on whether he accepts the proposition that Huck’s telling on Jim would accord or not with S, where S is the moral standards to which M subscribes, since these are the standards that M privileges. What M assesses when M is assessing Huck’s claim is therefore not the proposition Huck expressed or accepted, but the proposition that Huck’s telling on Jim conformed to S. Call this proposition “P”. In saying “what Huck asserted (or said) is false”, M expresses both his rejection of P and his rejection of the commitment to tell on Jim.
    Thus far the story according to our account. The difficulty that you are pressing, if we understand you correctly, is that in saying the latter M is in fact representing himself as expressing an assessment of the proposition expressed by Huck, not of Huck’s commitment (although M might be expressing a rejection of that commitment). We want to stress that this is mostly right even on our view. Like you, we do not want to say that M represents himself as expressing an assessment of Huck’s commitment, for that commitment is not the object of assessment or even part of the object of assessment. And like you, we take him to be expressing an assessment of a proposition. However, we do not think that M is presenting himself as expressing an assessment of the proposition expressed by Huck, but rather of a proposition relevantly related to the proposition Huck expressed. (An option here, although we don’t ourselves favor it, is to posit semantic blindness and say that M may mistakenly represent and understand himself to be assessing the proposition Huck asserted or expressed. Kent Bach has championed this kind of story for an analogous problem about epistemic disagreement .)
    That might seem counterintuitive, but given our pragmatic story there are reasons why our everyday linguistic sensitivities will be insensitive to these shifts from one proposition to another. The shifts take place exactly because the psychological and conversational purposes of moral thought and discourse makes the assessment of propositions expressed relative to inferior contexts irrelevant. Consequently, there is little reason to keep track of differences between these propositions. Given that people are not in general making fine-grained distinctions between propositional contents of a statement, sentences that express it or any illocutionary force it might have, we shouldn’t expect shifts of the sort postulated by our account to be immediately introspectively accessible.
    In general, the question about empirical evidence is a complicated one. For the most part, we concede that people’s practices of assessing moral claims look just as they would if invariantism rather than contextualism were true. But we are arguing that contextualism is fully compatible with those practices too. Our reasons for being contextualists are therefore not really based so much in the data of people’s practices–which we think underdetermine the choice between the rival theories–but in other considerations, like charity (what sort of claims could people be making, such that they are plausibly often true), the germ of truth in motivational internalism (how can the motivational roles of moral judgment be explained in concert with a plausible philosophical psychology?), and semantic parsimony (what semantic theory provides the simplest and most unifying treatment of the various ways people use modal terms like ‘ought’ and ‘must’?).

  16. Brad, to your comment about the Sarkissian et al paper:
    We actually think that this data comports with our account very well. Our quasi-expressivist story is only meant to be a story about what typically happens, in cases where the conversational interest is practical. Other kinds of contexts where the conversational purposes are not so practical have different pragmatic dynamics. When considering moral judgments of those who are both culturally and spatiotemporally very far removed from us there is less reason to engage with people’s practical commitments, and more reason to evaluate their beliefs more theoretically. (See what we say in the footnotes on p. 34 about assessments made with an anthropological, rather than a moral, interest.)
    Also, we suspect that it would make a significant difference whether these subjects were asked “Do you think [the beliefs of culture C] are mistaken?” or rather “Do you think that one of these two cultures must be mistaken?” The former question seems to call more for a moral commitment, while the latter (which is the question Sarkissian et al ask) rather raises a metaethical issue, and can be answered without endorsing or rejecting any particular practical commitment.

  17. Dear Gunnar and Steve,
    Thanks for the generous responses! I missed the footnote you mention in the second reply and think your response is very plausible. Your account of the Sarkisian et al. data is very interesting and I had certainly never thought of it.

  18. Hi Gunnar and Steve,
    I have another worry about your view. Sorry this is a bit long, but it has been bugging me & I wonder what you think.
    (1) Imagine two people: Tooley is an atheist and an act utilitarian who thinks, on the basis of his moral-religious view, that infanticide can be morally permissible. Aquinas is a well-informed Catholic who thinks, on the basis of his moral-religious view, that infanticide is absolutely impermissible.
    Sally is just gave birth to a child who is suffering and will die soon. Tooley thinks it over and says, “Sally ought to kill her child”. Aquinas hears Tooley and says, “Tooley just asserted something false”.
    Now on your view, Aquinas is expressing his assessment of the truth-value of a proposition, but not the one Tooley asserted; instead, it is the one Aquinas would have asserted if *he* had uttered ‘Sally ought to kill her child’.
    In other words, he is expressing his evaluation the truth-value of the following (and his opposition to Sally’s committing infanticide):
    (CI) From the Catholic point of view, Sally ought to commit infanticide.
    You say it might be “counterintuitive” to think of him as expressing an evaluation of that proposition instead of the one that Tooley actually expressed. But you point out that there might be practical/pragmatic reasons that explain, and perhaps justify, why Tooley would use the language that way. I will grant this as a response to the “counter-intuitiveness” worry.
    (2) I want to express another worry. I worry that if Aquinas is doing what you say, then he is not treating Tooley with due respect. In particular, I worry that if Aquinas expresses his assessment of CI by saying “Tooley just asserted something false” he runs the risk of misrepresenting Tooley in a morally objectionable way because of what respect demands in the context of communicative action.
    You don’t need to be a Habermasian to think that in ordinary circumstances we have moral obligations to our interlocutors – even if we fundamentally disagree with them. We should aim to provide respectful criticisms of their views, based on charitable interpretations of their speech and behavior. And we should aim to express these criticisms in clear language that does not deceive or manipulate them in a disrespectful fashion. Generally, we should aim to treat them, their views, and their rational capacities with respect when talking with them.
    Not everyone will endorse those claims or ones like them, but many will.
    So here is my worry: people who embrace and internalize such claims seem to have a reason to not use language in the way you suggest. Using language in the way you suggest would run counter to their values. That might cause and justify them to resist talking in the way you suggest.
    My worry is further provoked by two quotes from your article:
    “In our treatment of information relativity, we denied that integrating deliberation and advice requires identifying a shared interest in any particular ought propositions, because the truth of any ought proposition has only a derivative importance which it owes to agents’ more fundamental interest in the promotion of certain values.” (27)
    “Speakers have a pressing interest in endorsing or rejecting imperatives, an interest in acceding to or defying others’ will, regardless of whether they accept or reject any proposition that the other asserted. A particularly efficient and convenient way of endorsing or rejecting imperatives is by expressing agreement or disagreement with the ought claims that play that conversational role. This is how a contextualist can understand context insensitive moral assessments and explain why we assess Huck’s belief as false.” (32)
    Comment: Your talk of “promotion of values” and “acceding to and defying other’s will” is fine and there are certainly these broadly consequentialist pressures on how we talk, but I do not see you noting the more Kantian pressures on discourse. People talking the way you suggest seems to run against our deep moral interest in working to reach respectful, rational agreements **and disagreements**, an interest that tells against viewing our interlocutors as strategic adversaries in a rather sophistical war of persuasion.
    My questions:
    (Q1) You claim there are practical/pragmatic reasons that *explain* why we would use the language of truth and falsity in the way you suggest. Why not think there are also “Kantian” moral reasons that pressure people to not use the language in the way you suggest?
    (Q2) Do you think the practical/pragmatic reasons you cite *justify* the practice you posit? If so, how would you respond Kantian worries that it can often involve a failure of due respect for persons?

  19. Brad, thanks!
    First, we don’t think that this mode of interaction is necessarily deceptive. Consider the other examples we provide of insensitive assessments, as when A says “I can’t believe how healthy John looks”, and B replies “No, neither can I”. Here too (we think) B assesses a different proposition, but there is nothing deceptive about the practice. Rather, it is normally understood (and expected) in conversation that interlocutors will assess the truth of the most salient proposition. Given the mutually understood purposes of moral exchange, we claim that the first speaker, Tooley, will expect the second, Aquinas, to assess a proposition relative to the standards/ends that matter to Aquinas. (We do not, however, claim that ordinary speakers necessarily understand that this is the proper description of their own practice).
    But the worry that we make moral exchange too manipulative seems more challenging. In response, notice first that your question arises just as much at least on any expressivist theory, so we have good company here. But we think that we can deflect this challenge to our own view (whether expressivists can say something similar is a further question).
    (1) We do accept a limiting case where the attempt at moral persuasion amounts entirely to browbeating. This is what happens when the interlocutors recognize each other to have completely opposing fundamental motivations, and engage in a pure clash of wills. However, we are skeptical that much moral exchange is of this kind. Seldom if ever do we encounter people who are clearly completely morally alien to us, and plausibly if we did we wouldn’t even bother trying to engage in moral exchange with them. (SF has examined these issues in more detail in “The Error in the Error Theory”, AJP 2008). In our paper we emphasize this limiting case, and so give a potentially misleading picture of our understanding of moral exchange. Bear in mind that our goal in that section of the paper is merely to explain how contextualists CAN explain the existence of even fundamental disagreement.
    (2) Note that we also accept that much if not most moral exchange occurs between people who share most fundamental moral concerns or at least believe that they do. Many such exchanges concern what are at base (understood to be) factual disputes, and so are not subject to your worry.
    (3) However, we recognize a range of cases in the middle. One is where we engage in moral exchange with someone who has apparently expressed endorsement of an alien moral standard, but where we hope that by taking our stand on our own preferred standard we might give him reason to try it on for size, and that as a result he might find that he prefers it to his current standard. This amounts to an invitation to look at things from our perspective, and we think that this practice is perfectly respectful. Huck is a case in point. We take it that his subscription to a slavery-tolerant standard is a matter of his unreflectively accepting the standards of his society, and that when presented with a slavery-intolerant standard he would be quite likely to embrace it, as it is more in line with his own personal motivational dispositions (which, after all, are what he acts on in the novel). Less radically, many exchanges might be seen as subtly negotiating the relative weight given to agreed-upon values, and involve similar invitations to try on a given standard. Moreover, such exchanges might well be largely driven by a (defeasible) concern to cooperate based on standards agreed upon under non-coercive conditions.
    So in answer to your questions: we do think this practice is commonly justified and nondeceptive; it can sometimes be manipulative and disrespectful but need not be and ideally is not. However, we reject pure Kantian reasons, in part because we think (following Hume) that there can be no such thing as normative guidance that derives from reason alone.

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