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March 12, 2006


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I stated my position poorly above. What I want to suggest is (a) that some sentences of the form If you want it to be the case that p, you should make it the case that q mean only that Pr(p/q) > Pr(p/~q), and (b) that sentence (2) is most charitably interpreted in this way. Perhaps this commits me to saying that the proportion of daycare workers that have sex with children is greater than the proportion of non-daycare-workers that do. But that does not imply that 'most people that want to have sex with children work at day care centers'.


It seems to me that that reformulation costs you the examples that motivated the proposal. What, on the new formulation, does "It should rain" mean? It would have to be of the form, given BLANK, it is more likely that it rain than given non-BLANK, right? But the most familiar formulations where we use "should" predictively (It should rain. The sun should be rising soon. Suzi should get an A.) seem best understood along the lines of your earlier proposal.

I'm with Robert Johnson on is-ought and A.N. Prior. There's a great article by Toomas Karmo in Mind (1988, 252-7), "Some Valid (but no Sound) Arguments Trivially Span the Is-Ought Gap", that provides a proof of a useful version of the is-ought gap. I'm going to post about it in a separate thread, since it's a sufficiently distinct topic.

Jamie, a note about "idiom": "idiom" might be the wrong word for what I intend. I don't mean that there's no connection at all between the meaning of "if you want x, you should A" and the meanings of its component terms, just that the meaning of the sentence isn't what one would expect from putting together those terms in the most straightforward way, or what one would expect from comparing it to sentences like "If you drop the glass, it will break." I don't think that it's a complete coincidence that other languages have equivalents of "if you want x, you should do A".

Again, compare statements like, "There's some ice cream in the freezer, if you want some." The speaker knows there's some ice cream in the freezer whether or not the addressee wants some. (In contrast, the utterer of "If you drop the glass it will break" doesn't think the glass will break whether or not you drop it.) So the intended meaning of the sentence isn't what one would expect from comparing it to sentences like "If you drop the glass it will break." But of course the meaning of "There's ice cream in the freezer if you want some" isn't just totally unrelated to the meanings of its components, nor would it be a total coincidence to find that other languages have similar sentences.

Also notice that you could make the point that there are lots of similar ice cream sentences that use different words: "There's some ice cream in the freezer, if you're hungry." "There's some ice cream in the freezer, in case you were wondering." But hopefully this doesn't make you want to say that these sentences really are conditionals in the normal sense, to be understood on analogy to "The glass will break if you drop it."

Right, I certainly agree (and said in the earlier comment) that there is something funny about the instrumental 'ought' conditionals. I just think it must be some kind of generalization from 'ordinary' conditionals. (And the 'biscuit' conditionals, the "If you're hungry" ones, must also be generalizations from ordinary ones, for the same reason, I say.) So I'm skeptical that they mean nothing more than the 'facilitation' facts, as you were saying. If you (or someone) can explain how those facilitation propositions can be constructed from the conditional sentence's parts by some kind of generalization from the semantics for ordinary conditionals, that would be a lot more convincing.

Hm, to make that paragraph clearer I would have to make it a lot longer and bring examples and claims down from earlier comments, but I assume that (a) practically nobody is still reading, and (b) those who are either remember the examples and claims or are willing to scroll up and find them.

I'm very late weighing in here, but the stuff I'm working on intersects here in lots of ways. My suggestions here reprise those I made in (my only) two earlier posts:

First, I agree with Mike Huemer that hypothetical imperatives are not genuinely conditionals. "If you want... then you ought..." is more perspicuously translated as "In order ought...". "In order that..." functions to qualify the "ought" rather than present conditions for it, which explains why the "ought" is nondetachable.

Second, on the possibility of giving a unified semantics of the "ought" in categorical and hypothetical imperatives: all the suggestions floated so far, I think, try to reduce to hypothetical "ought" to the categorical "ought" (e.g. If you ought to pursue the end, then you ought to pursue the means/ You ought to make it the case that (if you pursue the end then you pursue the means). I'm disposed to try the reduction the other way around - it's the categorical "ought" that I find most suspect. The proposal is this: a "categorical imperative" is a categorical USE of "ought", which consists in rhetorically presupposing the relevant end (or engaging in a practice parasitic upon this rhetorical use). "You ought not to have sex with children" is then elliptical for something like "In order that you do not harm children, you ought not to have sex with them", where the end of not harming children is contextually presupposed and conversationally demanded. This captures an expressivist dimension to categorical judgement. Jamie expresses skepticism that (hypothetical) "ought" statements mean nothing but the "facilitation facts" - I'm saying that this is all the semantic content of both hypothetical and categorical imperatives, but that we communicate more by our use of them, especially categorical imperatives.

Finally, in my previous post I argued (more radically than Campbell, who was as I recall the only sympathetic party) that ALL oughts were "predictive". First, note that at least in the "hypothetical" cases, it is difficult to distinguish the terms for deontic possibility (might, may, can) and necessity (must, have to) from the modal versions: "In order that you do not harm children, you MUST not have sex with them". My hypothesis is therefore that deontic terms are just modal terms under an "in order that..." The predictive and (hypothetical) deontic oughts have at least this much in common: they are both probabilistic. What ought (predictively) to happen is what is most likely to happen; the means one ought to take is (all else being equal) the means that is most likely to bring about the end. There are still some problems I have to solve before I can confidently assert that I have a single semantics for both uses, but I'm optimistic.

Anyway, these are some of the main ideas I'm trying to work out in a paper I'm working on. If anyone's interested, I'd be happy to share.

So how would you understand "You ought not to harm children"? Would that be something like, "In order that you not harm children, you ought not to harm children", with the goal of not harming children presupposed? In general, how would you account for judgements of intrinsic wrongness?

Also, what is it to presuppose an end? (Not, I take it, to assume that the end ought to be pursued.) Usually, I think of propositions as the sort of things that can be presupposed.

In judgements of intrinsic wrongness, I suggest the semantic content is the trivial "In order that p, it ought to be the case that p", as you speculate. The idea is that since the categorically demanding element is pragmatic rather than semantic, uttering such trivialities still has point and force.
By "contextually presuppose" I meant leaving the "in order that p" implicit, while by "rhetorically presuppose" I meant behaving as if there was a shared commitment to the end.


could you unpack this:

'The idea is that since the categorically demanding element is pragmatic rather than semantic, uttering such trivialities still has point and force.'

a little. What is the point of uttering such trivialities? Why is that point, whatever it is, rather implicated and not part of the semantics of the claim?

Sure thing. The main function of uttering categorical imperatives, according to my view, is expressing a demand that certain ends are honored. Suppose the semantic content of my utterance is "In order that children are not harmed, you ought not to have sex with them". The "facilitation fact" (following Jamie) being asserted is here itself informationally fairly trivial (although not logically so) -- but by uttering it categorically, I express the demands (a) that my audience respects/values the end of children not being harmed, and (b) that my audience not have sex with children. (I accomplish this by the following mechanism: by leaving the end implicit, I behave as if it were uncontroversial and shared. Because it evidently is not, I rhetorically communicate by my behaviour my demand that it be so).
Now given this picture, making moral assertions that are semantically trivial, like "[in order that you don't harm children], you ought not harm children", has practically as much conversational point as making nontrivial assertions.
Is this clearer?

That's much clearer, thanks. I guess that I'm again left wondering why would one be pushed to give the predictive account in relation to the assumed end as the linguistic meaning of the categorical claim and leave the demands for sharing the assumed end and complying with this end in action as the implications to be dealt with pragmatics. Why not, for instance, just say that by making categorical claims we make such demands, and that that is what the meaning of such claims is constituted of?

But, I think we've been though this before, and so maybe I'll look up the earlier thread.

Good question, and I don't know that you'll find any answer to it in the earlier thread.
Here are a few motivations for this view:
(1) systematicity of meaning: it is (I claim) able to identify a common semantics for a wide range of uses of "ought".
(2) Intuitive appeal: to me (but perhaps to no-one else) it just seems right.
(3) to identify the expression of a demand as the semantic content of "ought" seems to commit the speech-act fallacy. When "ought" is embedded, it doesn't express such any demands. So it seems we need an account of the semantics that doesn't commit the fallacy, but is capable of explaining how we use "ought" to express demands. This account can.
(4) It is nonmysterious and amenable to naturalism.
(5) Your proposal struggles to accommodate the amoralist; mine (I claim) does not.

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