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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By In Applied Ethics, Ideas Comments (8)

Climate Change, Broome and the Third Alternative

I’m preparing a course on climate change ethics and as a part of this I am reading again John Broome’s fascinating Climate Matters – Ethics in a Warming World book. One thing Broome does in this book is to offer a new third alternative in addition to the familiar options of doing nothing and bearing the costs of climate change mitigation and adaptation. He claims that this alternative is not morally ideal, but it is possible and perhaps more likely to gain political support for the efforts that are needed for avoiding catastrophic climate change outcomes. Here I want to quickly explain all of this and then ask a question about this possibility.


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By In Ideas, Metaethics Comments Off on Some thoughts on constructing and justifying semantic and metasemantic theories

Some thoughts on constructing and justifying semantic and metasemantic theories

Hi, everyone.  Meena Krishnamurthy has very generously allowed me to post a few prelimary thoughts on the above topic and I thought I’d shard the link here to maximize the likelihood that I have a chance to benefit from your comments.  Here’s the introduction to the post, as well as the opening paragraph.  For the rest, see here:

Featured Philosop-her: Janice Dowell

These are a few early-stage thoughts on how we might best construct and justify semantic and metasemantic theories.  My own immediate interest in this topic stems from my interest in assessing rival semantic theories for modal expressions in English, especially deontic ones.  But my hope is that these thoughts are of some interest to those interested in semantic and metasemantic theorizing more broadly, including metaethicists interested in understanding the semantics of normative and evaluative expressions in English.  Comments, questions, and suggestions very welcome.

Constructing and Justifying Semantic and Metasemantic Theories

Recently, there’s been a lot of really interesting work done by philosophers of language and linguists on understanding what sorts of meanings a semantic theory for some natural language, L, should assign the expressions of L. Is the content of a sentence at a context a set of worlds, a set ‘centered’ worlds, a set of probability spaces, a structured proposition, or what? In related debates, metaethicists wonder what sorts of meanings such a theory should assign L’s normative or evaluative expressions. How might we best approach these questions? What constraints, if any, do a plausible metasemantic theory place on good answers to them?  Here are some preliminary thoughts about some of the constraints on constructing plausible semantic and metasemantic theories. (NB: Some of these thoughts are expressed in a forthcoming paper, The Metaethical Insignificance of Moral Twin Earth.  The issues here, though, are not narrowly metaethical, but more broadly methodological ones for semantic and metasemantic theorizing.)

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By In Ideas, Normative Ethics, Value Theory Comments (3)

Questions about Supererogation

Supererogatory actions are those which are (1) morally meritorious or praiseworthy, but (2) not the fulfillment of a moral obligation or duty.  I was having a conversation about this with a colleague today and upon reflection, it seems to me that both clauses in the definition are vague.  This means that whether an action is supererogatory is sometimes vague, possibly for more than one reason.  I am curious if others share my intuitions/diagnosis about this.


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