NoR 2.4: Wrong.

This is one of a series of posts setting out my work on the Nature of Representation. You can view the whole series by following this link

In the subseries of posts to this point, I’ve derived local reference-fixing patterns for connectives, quantifiers, and singular concepts. In a moment, I’ll discuss certain descriptive general concepts (an example drawn from the class of primary and secondary qualities). But I’m going to start with a different general concept: the normative concept of moral wrongness. (I’m drawing heavily on material I’ve discussed in much more detail in “Normative Reference Magnets”, Philosophical Review forthcoming).

Two things guide this expositional choice. First, what I have to say about this case fits the general pattern we’ve seen, whereas the focus of my discussion of descriptive concepts will be a little different. Second, there’s an odd split in the literature on the metaphysics of representation whereby the theory of reference for normative concepts is hived off into the separate subdiscipline of metaethics, rather than being one of the parade cases that any adequate theory of representation should have in its sights from the get-go. So I want to emphasize that radical interpretation is just as well-placed to predict and explain how normative concepts get their denotations as any other, and by juxtaposing my story of normative concepts with the story singular concepts and connectives, etc, I emphasize that no special pleading is required.

So the pattern will be as before: I’ll ask you to consider some architectural hypotheses about the patterns of deployment of this concept in our cognitive economy. With that in place, radical interpretation together with first-order normative assumptions will predict that any concept so deployed will denote moral wrongness. The discussion here will introduce two new notes. First, for the first time, practical rather than epistemic normativity with have pride of place in the explanation. And second, we will illustrate how radical interpretation can help explain central puzzles in the literature—in this case, the distinctive referential stability of wrongness.

The three generic architectural assumptions are now familiar, so I won’t repeat them. The final such assumption will again concern the particular inferential role associated with the concept wrong, w. What I’ll be assuming is that when a subject believes that x’s A-ing is w, then this makes them blame x for A-ing, and when they disbelieve this, this prevents them from doing the same. The talk of “making them” or “preventing them” plays the same role as the Peacockian notion of “primitively compelling inferences” did before. Surely a cognitive architecture could be disposed to make an immediate transition from judgement to an intentional state of blame, but it is terminologically odd to call this an “inference”—so I won’t do so.

(One might wonder here if a prior fix on some other kinds of content is presupposed in the articulation off this cognitive role. I think there is. This doesn’t lie in the way that “x’s A-ing” turns up as the thing to which wrongness is ascribed. “x’s A-ing” also turns up as the object of the blame-attitude, we could replace it in both places by a variable for some-content-or-other and run the story. But the judgement that x’s A-ing is unexcused can’t be handled in this way.  Just as in the discussion of singular concepts, there is no structural concern here, since we are not at this stage in the business of attempting a reductive analysis of reference, but rather in articulating and explaining patterns of reference-fixing.)

Turning now to first-order normative assumptions, I add the following:

  • that a substantively rational agent would be such that the judgement that x’s A-ing was wrong and unexcused makes them  blame x for A-ing.
  • that a substantively rational agent would be such that the judgement that x’s A-ing was wrong and unexcused makes them  blame x for A-ing.
  • that no substantively rational agent would be such that the judgement that x’s A-ing was F and unexcused makes them  blame x for A-ing, unless F entails wrongness.
  • that no substantively rational agent would be such that the judgement that x’s A-ing was F prevents them blaming x for A-ing, unless wrongness entails Fness.

These are substantive ties between moral judgments and blame attitudes. Elsewhere, I defend the tenability of these normative assumptions against a variety of challenges—for example, that they mistakenly presuppose that wrongness is a reason, or that they are counterexampled by cases of those with obnoxious moral views. I think these charges can be resisted, but they helpfully emphasize the way that this sort of story depends on contestable normative premises. This is a feature, not a bug.

The derivation of the denotation of w follows the same pattern as previously. First, we have the a posteriori assumption that w plays a distinctive cognitive role in Sally’s cognitive architecture, captured by the w-blame link. Second, we have substantive radical interpretation which tells us that the correct interpretation of w is one that maximizes (substantive) rationality of the agent. We add the “localizing” assumption, conceptual role determinism for w, which says that the interpretation on which Sally is most rational overall is one on which the rules just given for w are rational. Putting these three together we have the following: the correct interpretation of Sally is one that makes the conceptual role associated with w most rational. Dropping in the normative premises just set out, we can derive that it is moral wrongness that makes that conceptual role most rational, and hence, it is moral wrongness that is the denotation of w.

To go back to the aspects of this story that I emphasized at the beginning, the conceptual role for w that I cited is not a link between judgements, or between evidence and judgement, as in the previous cases we have looked at. Rather, it is a link between judgements and emotional attitudes. So the kind of normative premise that becomes relevant is not an epistemological one—it is a thesis in practical normativity about what ought to prompt a specific emotive response. That brings out the significance of the conceptual role determinism in these derivations—why shouldn’t patterns of w-belief formation be as significant here as they were in the case of concepts of quantification? The answer is that such patterns are potentially significant, but we expect a well-run cognitive architecture to hold these aspects in sync. In the other work mentioned, I consider specific cases where an architecture “hardwires” specific w-belief-formation methods in addition to the patterns given above, and claim it as a mark in favour of the radical interpretation framework that it does not continue to predict that w denotes wrongness in cases where the cognitive architecture has these extra elements that produces such overall tension.

The framework also shows the power of radical interpretation to explain long-standing puzzles. One of these is that agents can disagree with one another across vast differences in their first-order theories of what features constitute moral wrongness—the so-called “moral twin earth” phenomenon. A convinced Kantian and a convinced Utilitarian are not speaking past one another—one or other or both has an incorrect theory of morality. That apparently means that they must be thinking (sometimes false) thoughts about the same subject matter. Massive and systematic moral error is possible. This requires explanation, since there are plenty of cases—particularly for descriptive concepts—where concepts embedded in such utterly different theories would be properly interpreted as differing in meaning. Radical interpretation predicts that so long as both agents implement the mentioned conceptual role, then ceteris paribus, they will pick out the same property. The conceptual role, since it concerns a link to emotion, not an embedding within other beliefs, allows for great differences what beliefs the agents have.

Now, there are some limits, according to this framework—if interpreting one or other of the disputants’s w as picking out moral wrongness would be to attribute irrationality not just falsity in their “moral” beliefs, then this is the kind of tension that calls into question conceptual role determinism. A Kantian constructivist who is convinced that utilitarian views are deeply irrational might accept the framework I have been laying out, and draw the conclusion that utilitarians after all are not even talking about morality—or at least that it is indeterminate whether they are. But these are special exceptions to the rule of stability (so even from that perspective the framework would still explain how divergent but broadly Kantian theorists could dispute about a common subject matter).


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