Follow up to: Categorical Ought As Rhetorical Ought
Starting with “Good and Ought as Relative”, I’m tracing a view about what the words “good” and “ought” might refer to, in a quest to understand normativity. This view is Stephen Finlay’s end-relational theory, which suggests that “ought” expresses a probabilistic relationship between something that is evaluated and a standard, and that “good” expresses that something is effective by a certain standard. These standards are also known as “ends”, hence the name “end-relational theory”.
This theory was able to easily analyze hypothetical imperatives, or statements like “If you want to climb a mountain safely, you ought to bring good climbing equipment”. This statement semantically states that having “good climbing equipment” (climbing equipment that is effective at maintaining your safety) is likely to bring about the end goal of “climbing the mountain safely”.
However, the struggle for this theory is to interpret categorical imperatives, which just say things like “You ought not kill people”, full stop. Hypothetical imperatives often (but not always) make nice references to the end in question, whereas categorical imperatives never do. Instead, as I argued, the end in question is either contextually implied, an end unconsciously adopted from society, or hidden for rhetorical effect to apply to a wide variety of possible ends.
Now, we’re going to complete this idea by specifically looking at another way categorically normative language is often used — simply to issue a demand.
The Problem of “Ultimate Ends”
For this next part, I ask you to recall sentences  –  from the previous essay:
: A lot of people cheat on their taxes, even though they all ought not to.
: You ought not believe what you don’t have good evidence for.
: You ought not put your elbows on the table.
: You ought not lie to your mother.
We found that, fully reduced, these statements express the following semantic probability relationships:
[10**]: A lot of people cheat on their taxes, even though all these people are breaking the law.
[11**]: Your beliefs are less likely to be accurate if you believe what you don’t have good evidence for.
[12**]: If you put your elbows on the table, you won’t be displaying proper etiquette.
[13**]: If you lie to your mother, you won’t be meeting moral standards.
Reduced Too Far?
Clearly, the law, having true beliefs, etiquette, and morality are all important ends we use to often prescribe action. But what happens if we prescribe these ends themselves, like so?
: You ought to follow the law.
: You ought to have accurate beliefs.
: You ought to display proper etiquette.
: You ought to meet moral standards.
Now, it’s entirely possible these sentences might be made to appeal to a desire of the agent, like proposing that following such ends might be good for your personal well-being, or avoid you from a threat society might give, like shunning. Indeed, epistemic ends are often followed for direct personal gain, given how much instrumental value there is in knowing what is actually true.
But, they might also just be prescribed for the ends in themselves, like so:
[14*]: You ought (in order that you follow the law) to follow the law.
[15*]: You ought (in order that you have accurate beliefs) to have accurate beliefs.
[16*]: You ought (in order that you display proper etiquette) to display proper etiquette.
[17*]: You ought (in order that you meet moral standards) to meet moral standards.
All these statements are true, in fact — true by definition, tautologically so! But these statements are basically nonsensical.  seems to communicate something genuinely useful, whereas [17*] does not. How can we make sense of such purely categorical imperatives with end-relational theory? How can  = [17*]?
A Brief Interlude With Language
In order to first make sense of this, we need to take a detour through language. So far, we’ve been discussing what sentences mean purely semantically, as in what kind of proposition they put forth, or what the sentence means. But the semantics of a sentence are not all that a sentence can have.
Consider the sentence “I now declare you husband and wife!”, as uttered by a clergywoman during a wedding for which she is officiating. This sentence has a semantic meaning, describing the action taking place. But it also has a separate, declarative meaning — the actual uttering of that sentence creates a legally significant change that makes the couple in question married.
In 1969, John Searle wrote “Speech acts: An essay in the philosophy of language”, where he found five different roles a sentence can play:
- Descriptive: The sentence describes a state of affairs in the world. (The man is tall.)
- Assertive: The statement commits the speaker to a belief. (I believe Jesus is the Son of God.)
- Directive: The statement seeks to cause the listener to act in a certain way. (Please hand me the newspaper.)
- Expressive: The statement seeks to express the speaker’s feelings. (Congratulations! You did so well!)
- Declarative: The statement directly causes the world to change. (You are now husband and wife!)
The semantic meaning of the sentence alone is called the locutionary act. However, sentences have more than just locutionary acts. The fact that the sentence was uttered or the way it was uttered could give rise to additional information, and this additional information is called the illuctionary act. Furthermore, if the sentence actually brings about a change in the action of the listener, it gains a third thing — a perlocutionary act.
Garren Hotchstetler in “Lingo: Locutionary, Illocutionary, and Perlocutionary Acts” explains it better than I could:
John: “Darling, do you want to go out to the show tonight?”
Laura: “I’m feeling ill.”
John: “That’s ok. You stay there and I’ll make soup.”
Notice how Laura didn’t respond to John’s question by saying, “No, I don’t want to go out to the show tonight.” What she actually said — her locutionary act — was “I’m feeling ill.”
An illocutionary act is what a person does in saying something else. Locution is speech. In-locution (in speaking) becomes il-locution through phonetic assimilation. In saying that she feels ill, Laura was telling John that she doesn’t want go out.
Beyond communicating the state of her health and the answer to John’s question, Laura accomplished one more thing through saying “I’m feeling ill.” She got John to make her some soup. A perlocutionary act (per-locutionary, through speaking) is focused on the response others have to a speech act.
So what does all this mean for normative statements? Well, bring us back to  and [14*]:
: You ought to follow the law.
[14*]: You ought (in order that you follow the law) to follow the law.
Here, the locutionary act is the statement  — “You ought to follow the law”. This is a descriptive statement that communicates the semantic content [14*] — “You ought (in order that you follow the law) to follow the law.” But the statement has more than just semantic content. It also contains a illocutionary act — expressing support for following the law — and a perlocutionary act — demanding that the listener also follow the law.
It’s similar to exclaiming the sentence “Wang Peng is a chink!” This sentence has the locutionary, descriptive, semantic content of “Wang Peng is of Chinese dissent”. But this isn’t close to the end of the story. It also has the illocutionary, expressive content of contempt for Chinese people, and Wang Peng specifically. “Wang Peng is a chink!” and “Wang Peng is of Chinese dissent” are sentences that are identical in their locutionary content, but not their illocutionary content.
Consider again the statement “You ought to follow the law!” As a descriptive sentence, it expresses a boring tautology. But it’s also assertive, committing the speaker to believe that following the law is a worthy action. And it’s expressive, showing contempt for those who don’t follow the law. Lastly and most importantly, it’s directive, seeking the listener to follow the law via a demand.
“You ought to follow the law!” is perhaps best understood as “I demand you follow the law!” Thus, - can perhaps be phrased more like this:
[10***]: A lot of people cheat on their taxes, even though all these people are breaking the law, and all these people are horrible because breaking the law is terrible! I demand you follow the law!
[11***]: Your beliefs are less likely to be accurate if you believe what you don’t have good evidence for, and having inaccurate beliefs is terrible! I demand you form accurate beliefs!
[12***]: If you put your elbows on the table, you won’t be displaying proper etiquette, and not displaying proper etiquette is terrible! I demand you display proper etiquette!
[13***]: If you lie to your mother, you won’t be meeting moral standards, and failing to meet moral standards is terrible! I demand you meet these moral standards!
[14***]: By not following the law, you won’t be following the law, and breaking the law is terrible! I demand you follow the law!
This view is Daniel Boisvert’s Theory of Expressive-Assertivism (PDF). Though I prefer to call it the “Quadruple-Function Normativity Theory”, because the normative statements are uttered for four functions — to express a descriptive statement, an expressive statement, an assertive statement, and a directive statement all at once. Boisvert discusses all four, though he only names his theory for two of them!
Not all “ought” claims are made with specific standards, and in fact some of these claims do as much as they can to bury the potential standard — whether this be to cast a wide net to multiple ends, because the end is truly not known to the speaker, or because the speaker intends to employ the “ought” claim as a rhetorical device. Likewise, the listener may be motivated to comply with this standard if its a standard he or she cares about, or if he or she can come up with a different reason to comply, or if he or she is tricked by the rhetoric.
However, sometimes the end really is just a tautology. However, with Quadruple-Function Normativity, it becomes clear that expressing such a statement is no puzzle at all, because nearly all the action happens outside the descriptive component — the statement also seeks to express a feeling about the end in question, assert an allegiance to the end in question, and demand the listener share in this allegiance. Indeed, tautologies can often communicate meaning apart from the trivial semantics — consider statements like “It’s not over ’till it’s over”, “a fact is a fact”, “I believe what I believe”, “It is what it is”, etc.
The ability to account for all of this — (a) a unification of “ought” in all its modes, including modes that are clearly probabilistic; (b) that every “ought” claim can be constructed as a probabilistic relationship of some sort; (c) that “ought” claims often go beyond describing the end relationship to demand obedience to the end in question via a perlocutionary act; (d) being able to account for both hypothetical and categorical “ought” language; and (e) that there is a distinct advantage in burying the standard-relative component of one’s “ought” claim as much as possible — is, as far as I know, unique to end-relational theory. Thus, I officially propose end-relational theory (backed up by quadruple-function normativity theory) as the best account of what “ought” means.
In the next essay, I will proceed onward with end-relational theory and explore more about where the motivation to comply with these standards comes, from a philosophical “reasons for action” point of view. Those with little patience for the philosophy can bear with me for just a few more essays, and we will then explore the more scientific side of things.
Followed up in: The Is-Ought Gap
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