The Language of Reasons and 'Ought'

In Daniel Star (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Reasons (forthcoming)
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Here we focus on two questions: What is the proper semantics for deontic modal expressions in English? And what is the connection between true deontic modal statements and normative reasons? Our contribution towards thinking about the first, which makes up the bulk of our paper, considers a representative sample of recent challenges to a Kratzer-style formal semantics for modal expressions, as well as the rival views—Fabrizio Cariani’s contrastivism, John MacFarlane’s relativism, and Mark Schroeder’s ambiguity theory—those challenges are thought to motivate. These include the Professor Procrastinate challenge to Inheritance (the principle that ‘If ought p and p entails q, then ought q), as well as Parfit’s miners puzzle regarding information-sensitive deontic modals. Here we argue that a Kratzer-style view is able to meet all of the challenges we’ll consider. In addition, we’ll identify challenges for each of those rival views. Our overall conclusion is that a Kratzer-style semantics remains the one to beat. With this assumption in place, we then ask how we should understand the relationship between true deontic modal statements and normative reasons. Should, for example, we hold that the truth of such a statement entails the existence of a normative reason for some agent to comply? Here we argue that, in many cases, acceptance of Kratzer’s semantics for deontic modals leaves open for substantive normative theorizing the question of whether an agent has a normative reason to comply with what she ought to do.

Author Profiles

Aaron Bronfman
University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Janice Dowell
Syracuse University


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