Understanding What We Ought and Shall Do: A Hyperstate Semantics for Descriptive, Prescriptive, and Intentional Sentences

In Ladislav Koreň, Hans Bernhard Schmid, Preston Stovall & Leo Townsend (eds.), Groups, Norms and Practices: Essays on Inferentialism and Collective Intentionality. Cham: Springer. pp. 215-238 (2021)
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This essay is part of a larger project aimed at making sense of rational thought and agency as part of the natural world. It provides a semantic framework for thinking about the contents of: 1) descriptive thoughts and sentences having a representational or mind-to-world direction of fit, and which manifest our capacity for theoretical rationality; and 2) prescriptive and intentional sentences having an expressive or world-to-mind direction of fit, and which manifest our capacity for practical rationality. I use a modified version of Allan Gibbard’s hyperstate semantics, employing both maximally determinate possible worlds and maximally determinate plans of action, as a basis for providing a unified understanding of moral judgments and expressions of individual and collective intentionality – they one and all give voice to our ability as rational agents to adopt the perspectives of various individuals within a community and consider how we would behave were we in their positions. In the course of spelling out the view I draw on and criticize ideas that Wilfrid Sellars advanced in the middle of the 20th century, while employing the tools of contemporary modal logic and model-theoretic semantics to give perspicuous formulation to his thought that the moral judgment ‘one ought to do A’ should be understood in terms of the collective intention ‘we shall do A’, where the pronoun denotes the unrestricted class of rational agents and the ‘ought’ is in some sense unconditionally binding.

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Preston Stovall
University of Hradec Králové


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