Moral inferentialism and the Frege-Geach problem

Philosophical Studies 172 (11):2859-2885 (2015)
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Despite its many advantages as a metaethical theory, moral expressivism faces difficulties as a semantic theory of the meaning of moral claims, an issue underscored by the notorious Frege-Geach problem. I consider a distinct metaethical view, inferentialism, which like expressivism rejects a representational account of meaning, but unlike expressivism explains meaning in terms of inferential role instead of expressive function. Drawing on Michael Williams’ recent work on inferential theories of meaning, I argue that an appropriate understanding of the pragmatic role of moral discourse—the facilitation of coordinated social behavior—suggests the kind of inferences we should expect terms with this function to license. I offer a sketch of the inferential roles the moral ‘ought’ plays, and argue that if we accept that the relevant inferential roles are meaning-constitutive, we will be in a position to solve the Frege-Geach problem. Such an inferentialist solution has advantages over those forwarded by expressivists such as Blackburn and Gibbard. First, it offers a more straightforward explanation of the meaning of moral terms. It also gives simple answers to at least two semantic worries that have vexed contemporary expressivists—the “problem of permissions” and the commitment to “mentalism”, both of which I argue are problems that don’t get traction with an inferentialist approach. I conclude by considering ways in which this approach can be expanded into a more robust semantic account

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