Thanks to Brad Cokelet and the PEA Soup crew for the invitation to join an illustrious line-up!
Earlier this year my first book was published (Confusion of Tongues: A Theory of Normative Language, OUP). In the first part, I offer unifying semantic analyses for central, thin normative terms ‘good’, ‘ought’, and ‘reason’ (an “end-relational” theory). In the second part, I argue that when supplemented with a sensitivity to pragmatics, this theory solves many central problems of metaethics, including puzzles about practicality, categoricity, final value, and disagreement. A general theme is that metaethical puzzles largely result from philosophers’ confusion about our own language.
I’m very happy here to discuss any questions or objections readers might have. However, I thought I’d use the opportunity to focus particularly on meta-metaethical issues about philosophical method, as I’m currently trying to finish a paper for a volume on empirical approaches to metaethics (eds. Cuneo & Loeb), loosely based around a chapter I cut from the book at the last moment. I’m sticking my neck out here, because I don’t have broad expertise in metaphilosophy, so probably some or much of what I say is naive. But it seems an ideal topic for a blog discussion (honoring Sobel’s “plea for half-assedness”). I enthusiastically welcome any suggestions of work I should be reading or citing, including your own.
“The Empirical Armchair”
I argue that a particular kind of armchair, analytic method is at once (i) a viable, and (ii) an empirical approach to answering metaethical questions about the nature of normative properties. I also suggest it is (iii) uniquely apt, and (iv) the dominant actual method, despite what metaethicists may claim to be doing. (Hopefully that rattles a few chains).
The method I support seeks to identify the nature of normative properties (relations, etc.) by analyzing the conceptual meanings of the words we use to refer to them (like ‘good’, ‘ought’, ‘reason’, etc.), hence semantic/linguistic analysis. Because our concepts are often opaque to us in reflection, my method is to gather data about the various contexts in which we would and would not use particular words/sentences—as provided introspectively by our linguistic intuitions—and then reach an analysis of the concept abductively: what theory best explains this extension of use? Although this is done from the armchair I claim it is empirical, as it involves abductive inference from observational data causally connected with the target phenomenon. I also take it to be essentially the established practice in linguistic semantics.
My conception of the analytic method is in at least three ways more expansive than that of many philosophers in the past. First, it looks beyond narrowly moral uses, at the full range of ways the words are used. This includes more broadly normative or evaluative uses (e.g. ‘good’ in talk about good paper airplanes, jokes—in the tradition of Geach, Thomson). It also includes uses that aren’t normative at all, such as epistemic/predictive uses of ‘ought’, and purely explanatory uses of ‘reason’. Many philosophers dismiss these uses as involving homonyms; however, I argue (following linguists like Angelika Kratzer) that unifying accounts turn out to be highly promising. (‘Ought’ in terms of most possibilities, ‘reason’ in terms of explanation why, etc.)
Second, my method looks not simply for synonymy intuitions, but a full range of intuitions about sentential contexts in which these words can be used, and the general meanings of the words they combine with. For example, the way ‘good’ takes complementizers like ‘to φ’, ‘for s’, ‘for φ-ing’, etc., which points towards analysis of logical incompleteness (following Thomson, again), the way features of tense and aspect determine the availability of normative readings of ‘ought’/ ‘must’ conditionals (compare ‘Before I give you a license, you have to have filled out an application’ (normative) with ‘Since I gave you a license, you have to have filled out an application’ (epistemic)). Other results include a surprising analysis of ‘good for its own sake’ in terms of raising its own probability—which is supported by otherwise anomalous intuitions that ‘bad/ better/ best/ worse/ worst for its own sake’ are all peculiar (I’ve posted on this before, here), and identification of significant ambiguity in talk of “having reasons”—in virtue of the general vagueness of the possessive (e.g. ‘I have a master/ slave/ car/ pimple/ question.’)
The third feature is that the abduction is holistic: what counts as the best explanation is in part what is most compatible with our best theories in other domains—linguistics, psychology, epistemology, etc. The armchair philosopher should arm herself with as much of this knowledge as she can.
The second part of the project involves responding to multiple objections to this method; I’m presently counting eight. Some of these turn out not really to be challenges to the analytic method at all; this includes what I call (1) the “primitivist’s challenge”, (2) the “noncognitivist’s challenge”, (3) the “error theorist’s challenge”, (4) the “revisionist’s challenge”, and (5) the “pluralist’s [or perhaps, X-Phi] challenge”. (Hopefully the labels make it relatively clear what these are). The remaining challenges are genuine, but I believe the empirical evidence counts strongly against them. They are:
(6) The “skeptic’s challenge”: our intuitions aren’t sufficiently reliable (theoretical bias, etc.) to be good evidence of our concepts (e.g. Devitt?). I think the evidence lays this fear to rest. For example, empirical studies have found that linguists’ armchair results predicted surveys of the folk with 95% accuracy (Sprouse, Schutze, and Almeida), and philosophers have also been found highly reliable at predicting the results of allegedly surprising X-Phi experiments (Dunaway, Edmonds, and Manley, 2013). Anecdotally, I checked my surprising intuitions about the peculiarity of ‘it is bad/ better/ best/ worse/ worst for its own sake’ with a google usage search, with the following, striking confirmation: almost 5 million hits for ‘it is good for its own sake’, and only 2 hits, total, for all the other strings combined.
(7) The “synthetic realist’s challenge”. Perhaps the essential definitions of normative properties are synthetic rather than analytic? Perhaps, but all the evidence points the other way. (i) Unlike a variety of analytic hypotheses (primitivism, noncognitivism, logical incompleteness), this offers no explanation of the open question phenomena. (ii) Normative properties are evidently abstract/have a “narrow cosmological role” (since even things like ideas can be good), unlike the paradigms of things with synthetic definitions (like water), which causally impact the world in a wide variety of ways, and therefore are often picked out by their accidents. (iii) We demand more for semantic competence with normative words than a mere ability to refer; e.g. knowledge of supervenience, of practical significance, arguably the wrongness of torturing babies, etc. (iv) A little reflection on at least nonmoral uses of words like ‘good’ immediately suggests plausible analytic definitions.
(8) The “phenomenologist’s challenge”: why study normative properties via our language, rather than directly? (“To the things themselves!”) Answer: every inquiry needs to begin from some concept/ way of individuating its object. For some inquiries, it isn’t the quarry’s nature per se that escapes us, but which object is in question. I believe that metaethical inquiry largely begins from puzzlement about our own speech and thought: what do we mean by ‘good’, or ‘reasons’, etc.? In this case, normative language is like a treasure map: it’s our only clue to what properties we’re looking for. I think the evidence—and actual metaethical practice—overwhelmingly supports this diagnosis. (i) It explains the instinct to retire to the armchair (we have no such instinct when confronted with the question, “What is water?”). (ii) The mere fact that expressivism is a contender. (iii) Metaethicists don’t have any (other) uncontroversial ways of identifying the quarry. (iv) Ordinary folk have a competence with normative language that outstrips philosophers’ ability to explain how and why we use it the way we do. All in all, this is the profile for a quest for self-understanding.
I hope this isn’t too condensed to be understandable, and I look forward to your reactions…