Confusion of Tongues: A Theory of Normative Language, by Stephen Finlay (Oxford University Press), $65/£42
Stephen Finlay has made an indispensable contribution to our understanding of normative, evaluative, and moral language. In Confusion of Tongues, he focuses mostly on the semantics and pragmatics of the words “good” and “ought,” and what it means to have or provide a reason. His account is, as he puts it, end-relational. On this approach, the word “good,” used in its general (not solely moral) sense, means something like: “with such properties as conduce to conversationally salient ends.” This can, in turn, be interpreted probabilistically, giving something more like: “with such properties as to increase its probability of contributing to conversationally salient ends.” For example, a hammer can be evaluated as a good one if it is effective for the purpose of driving in nails (or nails of a contextually relevant type).
Finlay offers similar interpretations of “ought,” “should,” and “must” – showing how they relate means to ends. He then analyses reasons as various kinds of “explanations why”: for example, an explanation why someone acted in a certain way (perhaps it was the one most likely, on the information available to her, to achieve an end that she desired), or an explanation why I might have a certain belief (I hold the belief on the basis of testimony that I consider trustworthy, or perhaps I hold it on the basis of more direct evidence that is available to me).
This end-relational approach has numerous precursors, of course, but Finlay’s arguments in support are unusually comprehensive, detailed, and persuasive. His accounts of the meanings of “good,” “ought,” and “has a reason” seem to me to be on just the right track, and he deals adroitly with a wide range of examples, including many potential counterexamples. Problems arise, however, when the theory is applied to distinctively moral language. It is one thing to claim that a good hammer is, roughly, one that is suited to our (tacitly agreed) ends, but another to say that there is no more than this involved when we judge human actions as morally “good.” Doesn’t it seem that actions are morally good – or otherwise – whether they suit our ends or not?
Finlay does, of course, have much to say about this. As it appears to me, his broadly relativist approach offers an intellectually appealing alternative to robust forms of moral realism (in which ordinary moral judgements assert propositions about non-subjective moral properties) and to non-cognitivist accounts of moral language (in which ordinary moral judgements do not assert propositions at all, but may, for example, express attitudes or prescriptions). Finlay’s account may also seem to skirt the abyss of moral error theory – understood as the claim that all first-order affirmative moral judgements (e.g. “murder is wrong”) are systematically untrue – but it does so only at a cost. In saving the truth of some ordinary moral judgements, the theory nonetheless attributes a radical metaethical error to many or most people (among both philosophers and the folk), who believe, on reflection, that their moral claims are true in an absolute sense, not merely relative to contingent desires for various ends. At the same time, the theory counts many morally shocking judgements as being technically true. For example, Saddam Hussein may have said something true if, at some point in the 1980s, he uttered to his military planners: “We ought to use our chemical weapons on the Kurds.”
This is not necessarily a criticism of Finlay’s work or his theory, as far as it goes. On the contrary, as Finlay himself suggests, any metaethical theory inevitably “violates many people’s philosophical intuitions.” All of the better-known theories face a bump-in-the-rug problem. That is, none of them seem, at least to me, to be both intellectually supportable and capable of preserving all our naïve assumptions about the nature of morality. An adjustment in one place – for example, to ensure that standard moral judgements can be objectively true – may shift the bump elsewhere, so that standard moral judgements no longer seem to have practical authority. It appears that something has to give, and that morality is not all we ordinarily take it to be. In that case, we may be stuck with selecting the least unsatisfactory metaethical theory.
In a footnote, Finlay acknowledges that he has glaringly not dealt with such terms as “right,” “wrong,” “correct,” “desirable,” “choiceworthy,” and “rational.” As he acknowledges, not all of these might be susceptible to plausible end-relational analyses. I would add the following to his list of terms needing consideration: theologically laden terms, such as “evil” and “sinful”; terms found in the metaphysical-moral systems of other cultures, such as “tapu” (discussed provocatively in Richard Joyce’s The Myth of Morality); and relatively informal terms employed in current, everyday language such as “just wrong!” and “immoral.” The latter, at least as I hear or read it, appears to mean more than “fails to conform to the local mores”; it appears to suggest something rather absolutist, such as the breach of objectively authoritative standards.
Even if something can be morally bad, defined in an end-relational way, I wonder whether anything can really be sinful or immoral. I’d be interested in Finlay’s thoughts, but they’ll evidently have to await another occasion.