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Hi Marcus,

A few super quick thoughts without having read Graber.

(1) Graber's view is vulnerable to his own argument, no?

(2) You seem to suggest that moral realists are the only metaethicists that would be vulnerable to Graber's argument, but expressivists would be, too.

(3) If Graber was right, then those who hold minority views (say, about morality) would be using moral terms incompetently, right? But no one thinks that (say) expressivists are incompetent moral language users. They just think the view is wrong.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Eugene: Thanks for your comment!

On (1), Graber considers and rejects that objection in section 7 of his paper. His response is that his argument only calls into question philosophical inquiry that involves conceptual or ontological analysis--which he claims his argument isn't doing.

On (2), I didn't mean to imply that moral realism is the only view in meta-ethics vulnerable to Graber's argument. In point of fact, I think almost *all* of meta-ethics is in fact vulnerable to the charge. I think this is a *big* problem for meta-ethics, and that meta-ethics should no longer be done in the way it is done (i.e. on the basis of our intuitions about moral language, facts, etc.). I think it should be done instead on the basis of empirical facts about human behavior (this is something I'm arguing for in the book manuscript I'm working on).

On (3), I don't think he'd say they're using terms incompetently (since meaning can shift, and expressivism might be one way that meaning can shift). I think he'd say instead that when moral realists convince enough people to adopt a realist interpretation of moral language, it makes expressivist interpretations *wrong* (which is exactly what you imply is the right thing to say!).


Thanks for the reply, Marcus.

Re: (1): If Graber can help himself out of his own argument by claiming that he isn't doing conceptual analysis, then I suspect a lot of other people can make this same move to avoid it, which brings me to my next point regarding (2).

Re: (2): It seems to me that even if Graber is right then his argument has very few targets, namely, analytic reductivists. And not even all of them, because some analytic reductivists (e.g. Finlay) take the analytic method to be a kind of empirical method.

More re: (2): Why do you think metaethicists should be carried out on the basis of empirical facts about human behavior, and not empirical facts about linguistic meaning? What makes those facts any more privileged than the other? Maybe things are different in your book, but some of your posts on this stuff have always struck me as targeting a caricature of metaethicists who take linguistic evidence seriously. I mean, there is no intuition pumping going on when metaethicists (again, Finlay, but also Ridge) take the fact that communication would be enormously difficulty to achieve if not impossible as suggesting, against nonnaturalism, that normative terms like 'good' couldn't be lexically ambiguous between natural and nonnatural entities, which suggests further, again against nonnaturalism, that our terms couldn't be about some distinct realm of nonnatural entities. The starting point here in this kind of argument is a linguistic fact and the argument doesn't seem any worse for it.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Eugene: Thanks for your reply.

On (1), I don't think that's being fair to graber. A lot of philosophy involves conceptual or ontological analysis--but not all of it does, and I don't think his argument does. His argument is that on *every* plausible theory of meaning, the problem of "philosophical artifacts" (i.e. Creating truths out of whole cloth) is a problem for conceptual/ontological analysis. Because he is arguing that all plausible theories of meaning have these implications, if his argument is sound, he's on firm ground: *every* serious theory of meaning entails that a specific methodology in philosophy--conceptual/ontological analysis--is problematic. That seems to me a very strong way to argue. How is it cheap, self-undermining, etc? And how could proponents of conceptual/ontological analysis make the same move? (I don't see how!).

On (2): I'm with you. I think meta-ethics *should* be based upon empirical observation of language and concept usage. I just think the *kinds* of facts that are often appealed to in meta-ethics are flimsy (I don't think there's clear evidence that the face value of moral language is realist), and that there are better places to look for more solid evidence (evidence that expressivists, etc. won't be apt to deny). But that's another can of worms. (Maybe some of my critiques have caricatured some views. If so, I'm sorry! My main contention in my book manuscript is a positive argument that there's more stable linguistic/conceptual evidence to appeal to...but I'll have to leave that for the book--hopefully it'll eventually come out!).

Angra Mainyu

Hi Marcus,

I think many philosophical arguments do not pay enough attention to the possibility that the words that they're using are not precise enough for the task at hand - so, there is no fact of the matter about at least some of the issues under consideration, even key ones -, so in a way I'm sympathetic to Graber's argument.
On the other hand, part of your description makes me think I would probably disagree with a number of his points, maybe the central one. Still, I would need to read Graber's argument to assess that better.

That aside, I have a couple of quick points (but I have not read the paper, so there is that):

1. With regard to water and H2O, the vast majority of people are not familiar with the relevant philosophical arguments, and people keep learning how to use "water" as they did before, so probably the way they use the words has not been affected.
That suggests one can still test the theory about the meaning of the word "water" - as the term is used colloquially, at least usually - that holds that the meaning is such that if water is actually composed of H2O here on Earth, it's impossible that water be composed of anything other than H2O.
For example, one might present those scenarios to people who haven't read the relevant arguments, but who know that water is composed of H2O. Perhaps, students of physics, chemistry, medicine, etc., would be good candidates. Maybe even philosophy students who haven't been exposed to those arguments earlier.
If possible, the general public too, as long as they roughly understand the meaning of "water is H2O".

2. On the issue of realism, I think asking students - or anyone else - whether they think moral assessments have realist semantics is a question very different from asking people whether XYZ would be H2O after explaining the scenarios, since in the water case, one is probing [some] people's dispositions to use the word - which, it seems to me, is a way of finding information about the meaning of a word -, whereas in the realism case, one is asking [some] people about their theories about the meaning of a word.

3. Also, on the issue of moral realism, it's intriguing that Graber considers this case as an example, given that he (recently) defends what he calls "mad dog realism", or non-naturalist moral realism. Has he changed his mind on the matter?

4. While I think sometimes there is no fact of the matter until some semantic decision is made, it seems to me that at least the issue of whether some (most, perhaps) metaethical theories are true is not among them.
In particular, it seems very different to describe some feature of the world - mind-dependent or not; "mind-dependent" seems both obscure and imprecise to me -, and to give a command, or express a feeling but without describing the world (as in "boo").
As I see it, if it is the case that some people are describing something (real or not) when they make moral assessments, and some people are expressing some emotion (for example), then they're talking past each other, but in that case, it seems to me that the matter can't be resolved by means of an arbitrary semantic decision, since following such decision would radically alter the use of words by one of the groups - in other words, in a case like that, the meaning of the terms as used by different people would not be close enough for any patching.

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