Metanormative Theory and the Meaning of Deontic Modals

In Nate Charlow & Matthew Chrisman (eds.), Deontic Modality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 395-424 (2016)
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Philosophical debate about the meaning of normative terms has long been pulled in two directions by the apparently competing ideas: (i) ‘ought’s do not describe what is actually the case but rather prescribe possible action, thought, or feeling, (ii) all declarative sentences deserve the same general semantic treatment, e.g. in terms of compositionally specified truth conditions. In this paper, I pursue resolution of this tension by rehearsing the case for a relatively standard truth-conditionalist semantics for ‘ought’ conceived as a necessity modal and proposing a revision to it motivated by the distinctively prescriptive character of some deontic modals. In my view, this puts pressure on a popular conception of one of the core debates of metanormative theory between realists and antirealists. To make good on this claim, I go on to explore two very general ways we might interpret the results of compositional semantics—“representationalism” and “inferentialism”—in order to argue that, contrary to what is generally assumed, both can capture the special prescriptivity of ‘ought’ and both can countenance compositionally specified and informative truth-conditions for ought-sentences. Hence, my main thesis is that the deciding factor between them should not be which of ideas (i) and (ii) we are more impressed by but rather what we think of the relative merits of how representationalism and inferentialism respect these ideas. I’m inclined to favor an antirealist form of inferentialism, but the task I’ve set myself here is mainly to articulate the view in the context of metanormative theory and the semantics of deontic modals rather than try to defend it fully. To this purpose, towards the end I also briefly compare and contrast inferentialism with a third “ideationalist” metasemantic view, which may be an attractive home for some sophisticated versions of metanormative expressivism. Depending on how expressivism is worked out, it may be completely compatible with and so perhaps usefully combined with inferentialism or it may offer a competing way to respect ideas (i) and (ii).


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