Saturday, June 4, 2011

On 'Metaethical Contextualism Defended' (Pt. 1)

In this paper, Gunnar Björnsson and Stephen Finlay (B&F) defend a form of metaethical relativism called contextualism against arguments that it fails to make sense of common practices like giving advice and expressing moral disagreement. This may seem rather niche, but I'm interested because I think contextualism is the best explanation of moral language.

Metaethical Contextualism Defended — Gunnar Björnsson and Stephen Finlay (search link)

The focus here is on the word 'ought.' Three views of 'ought' sentences are contrasted:

Invariantism. The 'ought' in ought sentences always contributes the same meaning to the proposition it expresses. Propositions have objective truth value.

Relativism. Like invariantism as far as 'ought's contribution to the proposition is concerned, but propositions themselves have subjective truth values.

Contextualism. The 'ought' in ought sentences is 'semantically incomplete' and so its meaning can vary. This in turn can produce different propositions with correspondingly different objective truth values.

Note: The above relativism is semantic relativism. Both contextualism and semantic relativism can be used in metaethical relativism. I think 'metaethical contextualism' is just a shortcut for saying 'metaethical relativism with contextualist semantics.'

Challenge #1 — Deliberation and Advice

The contextualist theory B&F support says that normative 'ought' claims are "doubly relative to context, being relativized both to (i) bodies of information and (ii) standards or ends." In this post, we're going to look at information relativity, the idea that 'ought' can take on different senses depending on which body of information is salient in the context of the claim.

A Rescue Story

Suppose there is a report of a child entering a storm drain and heavy rainfall is on the way.1 The rescue commander can choose to send her full search team 'upstream' from where the child entered, 'downstream,' or split the team in half. Based on the information she has, she estimates the chances of locating the child before the team has to evacuate as follows:

Upstream — 80% if child went that way; 40% overall
Downstream — 100% if child went that way; 50% overall
Split Up — 60% whichever way the child went

The commander concludes that since 60% is the highest overall chance, she ought to split the team. Seems like the correct judgment, right?

Agent's Information vs. Full Facts

In fact, the child went 'upstream.' If the commander splits the team, the child has a 60% chance of being rescued, but if the full team were sent 'upstream,' the chance would rise to 80%. It seems wrong now to say the commander ought to split the team. Instead, she ought to send the whole team 'upstream.'

What caused the shift in what the commander ought to do? Let's look back at our three semantic options:

Under an invariantist interpretation, both 'ought' judgments can't be true; the commander's judgment is just plain incorrect. Even though splitting the team seems the best strategy, given her information, the only true 'ought' is that she ought to send the whole team 'upstream'...the worst strategy from what she can tell!

Under a relativist interpretation, the judgment that she ought to split the team and the judgment that she ought not split the team are in direct contradiction, but both are true from different standpoints.

Under a contextualist interpretation, these two judgments are not in direct contradiction. Instead, the 'ought's take on different senses. Given only the commander's information, it's true that she ought to split the team; given the additional fact of which direction the child went, it's true that the commander ought not split the team.

I hope you agree the contextualist interpretation comes off looking pretty good. However, there is a significant puzzle for contextualism here.

Correcting the Commander

Before the search team enters the drain system, a police officer arrives and interrupts: "I heard you want to split up the rescue team. Don't do that! Instead, you ought to send the whole team 'upstream' from here, because I just came from that direction and I saw the child down through a small grate."

Sounds like a natural enough thing to say. But remember, according to B&F's contextualism the police officer's 'ought' is in a different sense than the 'ought' used by the commander when she decided she ought to split the team.

So how does the new advising 'ought' even address (let alone disagree with) the original 'ought'?

Maybe the relativist interpretation is correct after all, since the two of them would at least be talking about the same sense of ought! ...or so the argument goes.

Contextualism Defended

Let's look at two ways the commander could deliberate:

1. She could ask, "What ought I do, given the information I now possess?"
2. She could ask, "What ought I do, given the information we all possess?"

The second option is a more accurate picture of what goes on in a shared deliberation, but it still doesn't help with the police officer's unsolicited advice. He showed up after the commander concluded she ought to split up the team. This is the "problem of advice from unexpected sources."

Here's the dilemma:

If the police officer was included in the original group referred to in "the information we all possess," then the commander was wrong to ever think she ought to split the team...even if she never heard from the police officer.

If the police officer was not included in this group, then we're back to 'ought' having different senses with "apparently no common question with which both are concerned, and deliberation and advice come apart in a puzzling way."

One solution is to add another option to the list above:

3. She could ask, "What ought I do, given the information I have now, plus what I gather while there is still have time to decide?"

This is news-sensitive contextualism. Instead of indicating a fixed group of other people who can contribute information, the agent is really interested in whatever information she can get from expected and unexpected sources. Why? Because she's not primarily motivated by the abstract question of what she ought to do relative to what some fixed group of people believe, but what she can do to have the best chance of rescuing the child.2

An Alternative Defense

My own response to this puzzle would be to drop B&F's 'bodies of information' contextualism while retaining the 'standards or ends' contextualism. The sense of correctness about the commander's original judgment that she ought to split the team can be understood as her drawing the most justified belief from her information. However, it was always true that she ought to send the whole team 'upstream.'

Why not let general epistemology take care of all the concerns about limited information, deliberation, and advice? Whether we deliberate internally, or in a group, or stay open to unexpected sources, it seems we're always trying to find out what we ought to do given the facts.

EDIT: In the comments below, Stephen Finlay points out a critical problem with this answer. I now accept contextualism rather than invariantism about information, for the word 'ought' anyway.

In the next post, we'll look at contextualism about standards rather than contextualism about information.

(...continued here...)

1. Story adapted from the somewhat more complex story about miners in the paper. (Ethics vol. 121.)
2. I'm mixing B&F's answers to both horns of the dilemma.


  1. Hi Garren,

    Thanks for the attention to our paper. Your summary seems accurate as well as succinct.

    Your preferred solution is invariantism (with regard to information), correct?

    The problem for this solution is that in your original scenario, the commander is already in a position to know that given all the facts, either he ought to send the whole team upstream (80%), or he ought to send the whole team downstream (100%). The one claim that he can definitely know to be false is that he ought to split the team (60%). But how can "the most justified belief" be the only one that the commander knows to be false?

  2. That's a very good point. (Darn.)

    Given her information, the commander is equally justified in thinking she ought (given the facts) to send the whole team upstream or downstream, but not justified in thinking she ought (given the facts) to split the team no matter which way the child went.

    So the sense of correctness about splitting the team can't be what the commander ought to do given the facts or what the commander is most justified in thinking that is. We can't just use general epistemology with information invariantism after all.

    The non-deviant usage of 'ought' in the story appears to be concerned with the best strategy for achieving the commander's goal, given her information. Now I understand why you and Gunnar saw the need to complicate things with a second variable in the meaning of 'ought.'

    This also ties into the news-sensitive thing because the best strategy to achieve any goal — given some starting information — will always include improving that information and revising the strategy when there's opportunity to do so.

    Thanks for the response, Steve!