By In Ideas, Metaethics Comments (4)

Normative Necessity and Normative Knowledge

I hope Ralph won’t mind if I piggyback on his post, but I’m just getting started on a paper that’s partly about normative necessity, and I thought I’d get the old juices flowing with some PEA Soup discussion. (Plus it’s February and my name starts with a D!)


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By In Ideas, Metaethics Comments (2)

Is normative necessity distinct from metaphysical necessity?

In “Varieties of Necessity” (in Gendler and Hawthorne, Conceivability and Possibility, Oxford 2002), Kit Fine argued that we need to recognize that certain normative truths are in a sense necessary, and that the kind of necessity in question is sui generis, rather than being a special case of metaphysical necessity.

I shall not dispute Fine’s argument for the conclusion that there are normative necessities. However, I shall dispute his argument for the conclusion that these normative necessities are sui generis. On the contrary, as I shall argue, Fine does not give us a compelling reason to deny that normative necessity is a species of metaphysical necessity.


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By In Applied Ethics, Ideas, Moral Psychology Comments (8)

The Truth about Lying

Lying is an important social and moral category. We react negatively to liars and their lies. But what is it to lie? The standard view in philosophy and social science is that a lie is a dishonest assertion. This view goes all the way back to at least the 4th century, when Augustine wrote, “He may say a true thing and yet lie, if he thinks it to be false and utters it for true.” On this view, lying is a purely psychological act: it does not require your assertion to be objectively false, only that you believe it is false.

About two years ago, my son Angelo came across an expression of the standard view of lying. He wondered whether it fit the ordinary concept of lying. (You might be able to imagine the sort of dinnertime conversations that could lead a twelve-year-old to become curious on this point.) In particular, Angelo was interested in whether, on the ordinary view, lying was a purely psychological act. So we conducted some behavioral experiments to find out.


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By In Ideas, Metaethics Comments (18)

Normative Beliefs and Epistemic Norms

As a part of a paper I am working on (very early stages and so the rest will be very sketchy), I would like to argue that different epistemic norms govern normative beliefs and other beliefs with ordinary, purely naturalist contents. By epistemic norms I mean norms that describe what type of evidence and defeaters are canonically relevant for when you can hold the beliefs in question with warrant. It seems to me that there is an interesting asymmetry between the evidence and defeaters that are relevant for holding normative beliefs with warrant and the ones that are relevant for other beliefs with ordinary, purely naturalist contents. I’ll briefly explain this asymmetry below. I would like some help from the readers of this blog with regards to questions about whether this asymmetry is plausible, whether these norms could be different in some other ways and especially whether there is any literature I could draw from.


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By In Ideas Comments (17)

Ordinary Language or Just Ordinary English?

This is related to the Finlay thread, but I thought it might raise more general questions.

One of the most famous sets of normative statements in Western culture would be the Ten Commandments. These were written in a language that simply does not have a word that behaves like ‘ought’. To say things that in English would invite ‘ought’ you use “needs to”, “must” or “has the obligation to” or, for non-normative use, “is supposed to”. No “shalt” either, by the way. When God forbid lying he takes the future form of “lie” in the second person and puts “not” in front of it. The whole auxiliary verb thing is alien to Hebrew, with the possible exception of “be”.

I am a big fan of appeal to ordinary language and a big fan of hair splitting, but I fear – for my own sake too – that if you mix together hefty doses of both, you might end up with findings that hang on the specifics of the language you (or your research subjects) speak.

More specifically: to say that a certain philosophical position is only ever held as a result of a linguistic mixup sounds weird to me if people can hold the very same position who speak a language that does not allow a parallel mixup to happen.

I am asking this from a position of ignorance of the relevant literature, but… Any thoughts?

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By In Featured Philosophers, Ideas, Metaethics Comments (22)

The Empirical Armchair (by Featured Philosopher, Steve Finlay)

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).


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By In Applied Ethics, Ideas, Normative Ethics Comments (18)

What’s wrong with Torture

It’s been a couple of days since the Senate released the torture report. The discussion in the press seems to concern (a) whether it really might be effective, (b) whether that doesn’t miss the point, that it’s wrong and that we should take the stance “we don’t do that”; (c) whether the partisan bickering about the report–is it accurate? will it hurt us internationally?–will undermine any broader significance it might have; and (d) how other countries might respond to it–with violence, prosecution, admiration, etc.

A few days back I posted on my Facebook page a link to a piece in The New Republic entitled “We Will Never Know Whether Torture Works. That Shouldn’t Matter.” A friend then asked me if it was really true that its effectiveness doesn’t matter. As he put it: “[T]he use of a flamethrower on [a] bunker is to protect the lives of one’s own soldiers [and citizens], while in the classic “ticking bomb” scenario the use of torture is to protect civilian lives. So maybe there’s more symmetry between the two cases than I’ve usually thought. But the difference remains that flamethrowers are effective in clearing bunkers, while torture is of questionable effectiveness at best. Would we consider flamethrowers acceptable were they ineffective, though still horrifying brutal, weapons? I think not. And would we consider torture permissible were it foolproof? Perhaps. So I’m not sure I agree with the article’s conclusion that the question of effectiveness is irrelevant.”


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