S T E P H E N  F I N L A Y

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Confusion of Tongues: A Theory of Normative Language. Forthcoming from Oxford University Press, May 2014.

https://global.oup.com/academic/covers/pop-up/9780199347490Can normative words like "good," "ought," and "reason" be defined in entirely non-normative terms? Confusion of Tongues argues that they can, advancing a new End-Relational theory of the meaning of this language as providing the best explanation of the many different ways it is ordinarily used. Philosophers widely maintain that analyzing normative language as describing facts about relations cannot account for special features of particularly moral and deliberative uses of normative language, but Stephen Finlay argues that the End-Relational theory systematically explains these on the basis of a single fundamental principle of conversational pragmatics. These challenges comprise the central problems of metaethics, including the connection between normative judgment and motivation, the categorical character of morality, the nature of intrinsic value, and the possibility of normative disagreement.  Finlay's linguistic analysis has deep implications for the metaphysics, epistemology, and psychology of morality, as well as for the nature and possibility of normative ethical theory. Most significantly it supplies a nuanced answer to the ancient Euthyphro Question of whether we desire things because we judge them good, or vice versa. Normative speech and thought may ultimately be just a manifestation of our nature as intelligent animals motivated by contingent desires for various conflicting ends.

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Papers published/ forthcoming:

“One Ought Too Many,” with Justin Snedegar, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, online version, 2012 [subscription]. -- PREPRINT

Some philosophers hold that ‘ought’ is ambiguous between a sense expressing a propositional operator and a sense expressing a relation between an agent and an action.  We defend the opposing view that ‘ought’ always expresses a propositional operator against objections that it cannot adequately accommodate an ambiguity in ‘ought’ sentences between evaluative and deliberative readings, predicting readings of sentences that are not actually available.  We show how adopting an independently well-motivated contrastivist semantics for ‘ought’ according to which ‘ought’ is always relativized to a contrast set of relevant alternatives enables us to explain the evaluative-deliberative ambiguity and why the availability of these readings depends on sentential grammar. (Updated 9/13/12)

“Explaining Reasons,” Deutsches Jahrbuch für Philosophie, Vol. 4. Hamburg: Meiner, 2012: 112-26. [preprint]

What does it mean to call something a “reason”?  This paper offers a unifying semantics for the word ‘reason’, challenging three ideas that are popular in contemporary philosophy; (i) that ‘reason’ is semantically ambiguous, (ii) that the concept of a normative reason is the basic normative concept, and (iii) that basic normative concepts are unanalyzable.  Nonnormative uses of ‘reason’ are taken as basic, and as meaning explanation why.  Talk about normative reasons for action is analyzed in terms of explanations why acting would be good in some way.  I show how a number of obstacles for this idea—including extending the analysis to normative reasons for attitudes—can be overcome by adopting a reductive, end-relational analysis of the meaning of ‘good’ which I have defended elsewhere.  Finally, I analyze talk of “motivating” reasons in terms of (supposed) normative reasons for which agents act.  [NOTE: this paper is an abbreviated version of a draft Chapter 5 of Confusion of Tongues, and builds on some ideas in ‘The Reasons that Matter’, 2006.] (Posted 12-12-11)

“The Selves and the Shoemaker: Psychopaths, Moral Judgment, and Responsibility,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 49 (Spindel Suppl.), 2011: 125-33. -- PREPRINT

In his contribution to the 2010 Spindel Conference, David Shoemaker argues from (A) psychopaths’ emotional deficiency, to (B) their insensitivity to moral reasons, to (C) their lack of criminal responsibility.  This response observes three important ambiguities in this argument, involving the interpretation of (1) psychopaths’ emotional deficit, (2) their insensitivity to reasons, and (3) their moral judgements.  Resolving these ambiguities presents Shoemaker with a dilemma: his argument either equivocates or it is falsified by the empirical evidence.  An alternative perspective on psychopaths’ moral and criminal responsibility is proposed.

“Errors upon Errors: A Reply to Joyce,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 89(3), 2011: 535-47 [subscription]. –- PREPRINT

In his response to my paper ‘The Error in the Error Theory’ criticizing his and J. L. Mackie’s moral error theory, Richard Joyce finds my treatment of his position inaccurate and my interpretation of morality implausible. In this reply I clarify my objection, showing that it retains its force against their error theory, and I clarify my interpretation of morality, showing that Joyce’s objections miss their mark.

“Metaethical Contextualism Defended,” with Gunnar Björnsson, Ethics 121(1), 2010: 7-36.

We defend a contextualist account of normative judgments as relativized both to (i) information and to (ii) standards or ends, against recent objections that turn on practices of disagreement.  Niko Kolodny & John MacFarlane argue that information-relative contextualism cannot accommodate the connection between deliberation and advice.  In response, we suggest that they misidentify the basic concerns of deliberating agents, which are not to settle the truth of particular propositions, but to promote certain values.  For pragmatic reasons, semantic assessments of normative claims sometimes are evaluations of propositions other than those asserted.  Other writers have raised parallel objections to standard-relative contextualism, particularly about moral claims; we argue for a parallel solution.

“Recent Work on Normativity,” Analysis 70(2), 2010: 331-46.

Survey of some recent literature on normativity, including nonreductionist, neo-Aristotelian, neo-Humean, expressivist, and constructivist views.

“What Ought Probably Means, and Why You Can’t Detach It,” Synthese 177(1), 2010: 67-89. [subscription] -- PREPRINT

Some intuitive normative principles raise vexing ‘detaching problems’ by their failure to license modus ponens.  I examine three such principles (a self-reliance principle and two different instrumental principles) and recent stategies employed to resolve their detaching problems.  I show that solving these problems necessitates postulating an indefinitely large number of senses for ‘ought’.  The semantics for ‘ought’ that is standard in linguistics offers a unifying strategy for solving these problems, but I argue that an alternative approach combining an end-relational theory of normativity with a comparative probabilistic semantics for ‘ought’ provides a more satisfactory solution.

“Normativity, Necessity, and Tense:  A Recipe for Homebaked Normativity,” in Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.) Oxford Studies in Metaethics 5, 2010: 57-85.

Normative concepts have a special taste, which many consider to be proof that they cannot be reductively analyzed into entirely nonnormative components.  This paper demonstrates that at least some intuitively normative concepts can be reductively analyzed.  I focus on so-called ‘hypothetical imperatives’ or ‘anankastic conditionals’, and show that the availability of normative readings of conditionals is determined by features of grammar, specifically features of tense.  Properly interpreted, these grammatical features suggest that these deontic modals are analyzable in terms of conditional necessity with a certain temporal structure.

“The Obscurity of Internal Reasons,” Philosophers’ Imprint 9(7), 2009: 1-22.

Since its publication in 1979, Bernard Williams’ ‘Internal and External Reasons’ has been one of the most influential and widely discussed papers in ethics. I suggest here that the paper’s central argument has nevertheless been universally misinterpreted. On the standard interpretation, his argument is perplexingly weak. In the first section I sketch this Standard argument, and detail just how terrible it is. The badness of the argument itself may not be a very strong reason not to ascribe it even to a great philosopher, but Williams himself seems to point out the very flaws that make it so terrible. The second part of the paper proposes and defends an interpretation on which he offers an Alternative argument, one which is immune to the objections that seem fatal to the Standard argument. On this interpretation, better supported by the textual evidence and the principle of charity, Williams’ conclusion seems to follow validly from defensible premises, including a substantive and interesting analysis of the concept of a normative reason.

“Oughts and Ends,” Philosophical Studies 143(3), 2009: 315-40. [subscription] –- PREPRINT

This paper advances a reductive semantics for ‘ought’ and a naturalistic theory of normativity. It gives a unified analysis of predictive, instrumental, and categorical uses of ‘ought’: the predictive ‘ought’ is basic, and is interpreted in terms of probability. Instrumental ‘oughts’ are analyzed as predictive ‘oughts’ occurring under an ‘in order that’ modifer (the end-relational theory). The theory is then extended to categorical uses of ‘ought’: it is argued that they are special rhetorical uses of the instrumental ‘ought’. Plausible conversational principles explain how this end-relational ‘ought’ can perform the expressive functions of the moral ‘ought’. The notion of an ‘ought-simpliciter’ is also discussed.

“Against All Reason? Skepticism About the Instrumental Norm,” in Charles Pigden (ed.) Hume on Motivation and Virtue. Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.

Some of the opponents of desire-based views of normativity seek to undermine them by arguing that even the existence of instrumental normativity (reasons to pursue the means to your ends) entails the existence of a desire-independent rational norm, the instrumental norm. Once we grant the existence of one such norm, there seems to be no principled reason for not allowing others. I clarify this alleged norm, identifying two criteria that any satisfactory candidate must meet: reasonable expectation and possible violation. Some interpretations meet the first criterion and others meet the second, but there are no interpretations that meet both. After surveying the interpretations of Sidgwick, Hampton, and Korsgaard, I suggest that there is no instrumental norm of reason. The final section offers an alternative, desire-based account of instrumental normativity, on which individual normative requirements to pursue means derives from each individual desire for an end. [Note: accepted for publication in 2003]

“Reasons for Action: Internal vs. External,” with Mark Schroeder, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2008.

Encyclopedia article on internal and external reasons.

“The Error in the Error Theory,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 86(3), 2008: 347-69 [subscription]. -- PREPRINT (AJP Best Paper Award, 2009)

Moral error theory of the kind defended by J.L. Mackie and Richard Joyce is premised on two claims: (1) that moral judgements essentially presuppose that moral value has absolute authority, and (2) that this presupposition is false, because nothing has absolute authority. This paper accepts (2) but rejects (1). It is argued first that (1) is not the best explanation of the evidence from moral practice, and second that even if it were, the error theory would still be mistaken, because the assumption does not contaminate the meaning or truth-conditions of moral claims. These are determined by the essential application conditions for moral concepts, which are relational rather than absolute. An analogy is drawn between moral judgements and motion judgements.

“Motivation to the Means,” in David Chan (ed.) Moral Psychology Today: Values, Rational Choice, and the Will. Springer, 2008: 173-191. [subscription] -- PREPRINT

Rationalists including Nagel and Korsgaard argue that motivation to the means to our desired ends cannot be explained by appeal to the desire for the end. They claim that a satisfactory explanation of this motivational connection must appeal to a faculty of practical reason motivated in response to desire-independent norms of reason. This paper builds on ideas in the work of Hume and Donald Davidson to demonstrate how the desire for the end is sufficient for explaining motivation to the means. Desiring is analyzed as having motivation towards making the end so, which is analyzed as engaging in mental activity aimed at facilitating that end. I conclude that it is constitutive of an agent’s desiring an end that he is motivated towards what he believes to be means.

“Four Faces of Moral Realism,” Philosophy Compass 2(6), 2007: 820-49. [subscription]

This essay explains for a general philosophical audience the central issues and strategies in the contemporary moral realism debate. It critically surveys the contribution of some recent scholarship, representing expressivist and pragmatist nondescriptivism (Mark Timmons, Hilary Putnam), subjectivist and nonsubjectivist naturalism (Michael Smith, Paul Bloomfield, Philippa Foot), nonnaturalism (Russ Shafer-Landau, T. M. Scanlon) and error theory (Richard Joyce). Four different faces of ‘moral realism’ are distinguished: semantic, ontological, metaphysical, and normative. The debate is presented as taking shape under dialectical pressure from the demands of (i) capturing the moral appearances and (ii) reconciling morality with our understanding of the mind and world.

“Responding to Normativity,” in Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.) Oxford Studies in Metaethics 2. Oxford University Press, 2007: 220-39.

I believe that normative force depends on desire. This view faces serious difficulties, however, and has yet to be vindicated. This paper sketches an Argument from Voluntary Response, attempting to establish this dependence of normativity on desire by appeal to the autonomous character of our experience of normative authority, and the voluntary character of our responses to it. I first offer an account of desiring as mentally aiming intrinsically at some end. I then argue that behaviour is only voluntary if it results from such aiming; hence all voluntary behaviour is produced by desire. Full-blooded responses to normativity, I then argue, are voluntary actions: motivation to act arises voluntarily from perception of reasons to act. This fits the desire-based model of normativity but not its rivals. However this argument concludes merely that our responses to normativity are desire-based. I end with some observations about how I think we can bridge the gap from the nature of response to normativity to the nature of normativity itself.

“Too Much Morality,” in Paul Bloomfield (ed.) Morality and Self-Interest. Oxford University Press, 2007. [subscription]

This paper addresses the nature and relationship of morality and self-interest, arguing that what we morally ought to do almost always conflicts with what we self-interestedly ought to do. The concept of morality is analyzed as being essentially and radically other-regarding, and the category of the supererogatory is explained as consisting in what we morally ought to do but are not socially expected to do. I express skepticism about whether there is a coherent question, ‘Which ought I all things considered to obey?’ and suggest that the best substitute is a question about which is more important for me. Importance for a person, in turn, is explained as dependent upon what a person is disposed to care about. I suggest that morality and self-interest are both relatively unimportant for us when compared with our other ends.

“The Reasons that Matter,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 84(1), 2006: 1-20. [subscription] –- PREPRINT

Motivational reasons-internalism (Bernard Williams) fails to capture our first-order reasons judgements, while nonnaturalistic reasons-externalism (Derek Parfit) cannot explain the nature or normative authority of reasons. This paper offers an intermediary view, reformulating skepticism about external reasons as the claim not that they don’t exist but rather that they don’t matter. The end-relational theory of normative reasons is proposed, according to which a reason for an action is a fact that explains why the action would be good relative to some end, where the relevant end for any ascription of reasons is determined by the speaker’s conversational context. Because these ends need not be the agent’s ends, Williams is wrong to reject the existence of external reasons. But contra Parfit, a reason for action is only important for an agent if it is motivationally internal to that agent.

“Value and Implicature,” Philosophers’ Imprint 5(4), 2005: 1-20.

Moral assertions express attitudes, but it is unclear how. This paper examines proposals by David Copp, Stephen Barker, and myself that moral attitudes are expressed as implicature (Grice), and Copp’s and Barker’s claim that this supports expressivism about moral speech acts. I reject this claim on the ground that implicatures of attitude are more plausibly conversational than conventional. I argue that Copp’s and my own relational theory of moral assertions is superior to the indexical theory offered by Barker and Jamie Dreier, and that since the relational theory supports conversational implicatures of attitude, expressive conventions would be redundant. Furthermore, moral expressions of attitude behave like conversational and not conventional implicatures, and there are reasons for doubting that conventions of the suggested kind could exist.

“The Conversational Practicality of Value Judgement,” Journal of Ethics 8(3), 2004: 205-223. [subscription]

Analyses of moral value judgements must meet a practicality requirement: moral speech acts characteristically express pro- or con-attitudes, indicate that speakers are motivated in certain ways, and exert influence on others’ motivations. Nondescriptivists including Simon Blackburn and Allan Gibbard claim that no descriptivist analysis can satisfy this requirement. I argue first that while the practicality requirement is defeasible, it indeed demands a connection between value judgement and motivation that resembles a semantic or conceptual rather than merely contingent psychological link. I then show how a form of descriptivism, the interest-relational theory, satisfies the requirement as a pragmatic and conversational feature of value judgement – thereby also accommodating its defeasibility. The word ‘good’ is always indexed to some set of motivations: when this index is unarticulated in many contexts the speaker conversationally implicates possession of those motivations. [Note: this ‘interest-relational theory’ is superceded by the ‘end-relational theory’ in my subsequent work.]

What Does Value Matter?  The Interest-Relational Theory of the Semantics and Metaphysics of Value.  Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois, 2001.

2001 Ph.D. dissertation, directed by James D. Wallace.

Last Updated 1-18-2014

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