Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On 'Metaethical Contextualism Defended' (Pt. 2)

To review, contextualism about the meaning of 'ought' is the view that...

1. The word 'ought' can mean different things, i.e. make different contributions to the proposition expressed by a sentence.
2. 'Ought's meaning is completed by some features of the context in which it's used.

We can see similarities in the use of pronouns. The word 'I' in the abstract doesn't refer to anyone, but when I say 'I' it refers to me! (And when you say 'I' it refers to you.) The context of its use completes its meaning.

According to Björnsson and Finlay (B&F), the meaning of 'ought' in the abstract is incomplete in two ways:
We believe that normative “ought” claims are doubly relative to context, being relativized both to (i) bodies of information and (ii) standards or ends. On this view, every meaningful normative utterance of a sentence “A ought to φ” will express a proposition to the effect that A ought-relative-to-information-i-and-standard-s to φ, for some i and s determined by the context of utterance.1
My last post was about the information component; this time we'll look at standards contextualism.

General Normative Oughts
Charles, you ought to head east for five miles, then take the first right after the bridge.
Is the above statement true? It depends on the goal implied by context. If this advice is about Charles getting to the nearest gas station — and this is the best way — then it's true. It's like telling a student she ought to read page 15 of the assignment extra carefully; there's a goal (or end) involved with that 'ought.'

Contrast this with the idea of 'just plain ought' (aka ought simpliciter). If we say Charles just plain ought to drive in such-and-so a direction, and the student just plain ought to read a certain page carefully, what are we even claiming? I've never been able to make sense of the notion that a person ought to do something while explicitly refusing to qualify that 'ought.' At best, we might be able to claim a person ought to do something in order to act rationally, or morally, or legally. But these are all standards (or kinds of standards) and this fits neatly into the contextualist view that meaningful 'oughts' are relative to standards, ends, goals, and the like.

The take-home lesson is that we often use qualified 'oughts' without spelling it out. What we mean can usually be discerned from context.

Single and Multi-Standard Morality

Let's suppose there is only one moral standard. When we use 'ought' in various non-moral senses, different standards may be understood from context; but moral 'oughts' are always relative to the same standard. This situation still favors semantic contextualism over invariantism (because the meaning of 'ought' varies by context), but it wouldn't be metaethical contextualism.

Björnsson and Finlay take things one step farther. They believe moral 'oughts' can also vary in meaning by implying different standards. If so, this would explain "why moral beliefs diverge between cultures, and why moral disagreement persists among well-informed competent judges."

Simply put: people can mean different things by superficially identical moral 'ought' claims because they're going by different standards.

Challenge #2 — Moral Disagreement

The second half of B&F's paper defends this view against the objection that it doesn't account for moral disagreement.

Take the example of Huckleberry Finn thinking he ought to tell authorities about the runaway slave, Jim.2 Modern Americans would almost all insist it's not true that Huck ought to tell on Jim. If there were a single moral standard, then at least one of these claims must be false. However, if Huck and modern Americans are using moral 'oughts' which derive their meanings from different standards, then both claims could be true!
According to a contextualist treatment of standard relativity in normative judgment, it is possible that the propositions that Huck accepts and that we reject are different: Huck accepts the proposition that he ought-relative-to-standard-Y to tell on Jim, while we reject the proposition that he ought-relative-to-standard-Z to tell on Jim. So it seems that contrary to appearances we are not really in disagreement with Huck: what he accepts is not what we reject.
But it would be hard to take a moral theory seriously that denies we have moral disagreements. We certainly think we have them!

Two Ways to Disagree

When arguing a moral point, it can be helpful to argue from the other side's values. David Boonin takes this approach in his book A Defense of Abortion, i.e. he argues from the values of pro-lifers that abortion is morally permissible (or at least that the values of pro-lifers don't entail abortion being morally forbidden). To use the above terminology, pro-lifers say one ought not abort relative-to-standard-Z and Boonin disagrees by claiming it's false that one ought not abort relative-to-standard-Z. This is a logical conflict because one side is asserting a proposition (P) and the other is denying the same proposition (not P).

Not all disagreements need to be logical conflicts. We can also have a conflict in attitude that arises from holding different values. We can agree Huck would be acting consistently with the prevailing moral standard of his society if he told on Jim, but still want him not to tell on Jim because of our own valuing of human freedom.

I would characterize moral claims as typically two-pronged: expressing an attitude toward a standard and expressing a belief about an action's relationship to that standard. Moral disagreements can be about either or both of these aspects.

Truth Assessments
[C]ontextualism would seem to bar us from expressing our disagreement with Huck by saying that his belief is false, and force us to say that it is true.
B&F respond to this by granting the truth of "Huck believed that he ought to tell on Jim" while denying "Huck knew that he ought to tell on Jim." They draw a parallel to the story about information contextualism to show that a person in a position to know better can affirm the fact of another person's belief without counting it as knowledge. It would be like the police officer agreeing that the rescue commander believes the child might have gone 'downstream,' but denying that the commander knows the child might have gone 'downstream.'

I have trouble with this analogy because we're not in a position to know Huck is making a true/false kind of mistake (we're actually operating under the assumption that he isn't). Instead, I would grant that Huck both believes and knows that he ought to tell on Jim — where 'ought' is relativized to Huck's standard — but we're still justified in denying that "Huck ought to tell on Jim" because now 'ought' is being relativized to our standard.

In other words, Huck's belief is a filled-in proposition that we must recognize as true. Yet the sentence "Huck ought to tell on Jim" does not necessarily express Huck's belief (thanks to contextualism), so we aren't forced to say it's true.

Concluding Remarks

The main purpose of 'Metaethical Contextualism Defended' was to address a few objections to the view, not so much to explain the positive motivation for accepting it. Nevertheless, B&F take time to highlight three major reasons to prefer contextualism over invariantism:
  • 'Ought' does sometimes seem to require a standard/end/goal/etc. (See my section on General Normative Oughts above.) It's simpler to assume all 'oughts' function in this way.
  • When anthropologists and others are merely reporting on morals, a relative-to-standard-s treatment can become flagrant. So, again, it's simpler to think this is always going on even when downplayed or denied by those making judgments according to the standards they themselves support.
  • Contextualism explains what moral claims mean in a non-mysterious way (promoting standards and judging how actions relate to them), why moral disagreements are such a pain (two types of disagreement in one!), and why moral judgments are typically motivating to those who make them (they're usually relativized to standards one personally supports).
As I mentioned up front, I'm interested because I'm already on board with metaethical contextualism. Writing these posts helped me work through a few of the objections, though I'm sure other criticisms will be put forward as awareness of this view grows.

1. Björnsson, G., Finlay, S. (2010). Metaethical contextualism defended. Ethics 121. pp. 7-36.
2. I'm using the paper's example this time.


  1. The next stage is, of course, a critical examination of your own moral standards - which is inherently problematic, as it can only be based on your own moral standards...

    I hate the term, but I'm on board with "metaethical contextualism". The only point I'd contend is that "standards" is too strong. It implies a coherent moral system, which is often not the case. I prefer the term "values".


  2. Evening Yair,

    I've been having some fun trying to make out what you're saying in your Hebrew blog posts through Google Reader's auto-translate. It…kinda works.

    .."I prefer the term 'values.'"

    I tend to see 'values' as the fundamental standards a person subscribes to. Mostly, though, I've been carelessly switching between standards/values/ends/goals without explaining what difference (or lack of difference) I intend by these terms. Hope that doesn't confuse anyone too much.

    .."I hate the term, but I'm on board with 'metaethical contextualism.'"

    Maybe you could go with 'quasi-expressivism', which is another term accepted in the article as applying to their normative view. Or, heck, Muehlhauser's 'pluralistic moral reductionism' is awfully similar if not a form of contextualism.

    Now I'm thinking about how awful terms in ethics and metaethics are in general. Thanks!

    .."The next stage is, of course, a critical examination of your own moral standards - which is inherently problematic, as it can only be based on your own moral standards…"

    Well, judging my fundamental values outside of assuming any values is obviously not going to work. But I think there's interesting work to be done in identifying my own and other people's fundamental values vs. the values we hold in service to those vs. beliefs which have bearing on moral judgments.

    I'm interested in being able to break down and understand what's going on in real-world moral disputes. At least now I think I've got the (approximately) correct model in hand.

    What I really want to do next is write a one-post introduction for a general audience in seeing moral claims through this lens.

  3. Huh. I can't imagine the mayham the translating algorithm must cause... much of the content is specifically Israeli - addressing Israeli demonstrations, apologists, and so on... but then, you probably know that already....

    I haven't met a term I really like yet. "Metaethical pluralism" might fit, and I'm inclined to use "Toolbox Metaethics" (influenced by Russell Blackford).

    There is definitely interesting projects to be done.
    I have to confess I'm less interested in addressing real-world disputes, though - I'm more focused on finding out "the truth" than in practical applications.