clarifying end-relative meta-ethics

One meta-ethical theory (or cluster of theories) claims that “ought-conditions” are fundamentally related to ends, or goals. I think these approaches are on to something, however there is a need for clarity. While I think the truth values of normative propositions might be conditional on end-relative facts, I don’t think that normative propositions necessarily refer to ends as part of their semantic content.

If normative propositions necessarily referred to ends as part of their semantic content, then all normative propositions would look like the following:

“In order to get to the other side of town, one ought to take the tube.”
“In order to cherish life, one ought to not destroy it.”
“In order to respect the elderly, one ought to give up their seat on the bus for them.”

Or to make it agent-specific,

“In order for Sally to get to the other side of town, she ought to take the tube.”

If all normative propositions necessarily look like this, there are no coherent normative propositions that are simply:

“One ought to X.”
“Sally ought to X.”

There are two problems with this. For one, these propositions sure look coherent. There might be mystery surrounding why any propositions of this kind are true, but that’s not a semantic issue. You’d know, at least roughly, what I meant if I said it. We talk in this manner all the time. Plainly, these propositions are coherent.

The second problem is that the first kind of normative propositions given above do not actually tell us what we ought to do. Imagine approaching a wise moral teacher to ask what you ought do to with your life, and receiving a response like “well, in order to X this, you must Y, and in order to S, you must T. And in order to do…” You’d reply “well yes, there are lots of goals I could pursue. But what should I actually do?” These kinds of propositions just aren’t that instructive morally. A moral theory limited to only those propositions will be rather inadequate.

Therefore while normative propositions might have truth-values that hinge on certain end-relative facts, normative propositions do not refer to such facts out of semantic necessity.


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