Beyond Moral Twin Earth: Beyond Indology

In The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Indian Ethics. Bloomsbury Academic. pp. 85-102 (2017)
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The Linguistic Account of Thought holds that thought is the meaning of declarative sentences. According to Linguistic Internalism, two languages can share sentential meanings and hence express the same thought. According to Linguistic Particularism, thought content is relative to languages and is not shared. We can contrast these two accounts of thought with a third: the intension of a thought is a common disciplinary use of differing meaningful claims, and the extension of a thought is the collection of sentences or symbols that share a disciplinary use---a view inspired by Patanjali's Yoga, Linguistic Externalism. Having noted that the Linguistic Account of Thought is the defining feature of the Western tradition, underwriting the European philosophical tradition and work in Indology, I consider whether the competing accounts of thought can be tested. I note that the Moral Twin Earth thought experiment by Horgan and Timmons, assumes Linguistic Internalism and attempts to test competing accounts of moral semantics for their capacity to facilitate cross cultural communication on morals across different languages. I propose testing competing accounts of thought to the same end on Planet Ethics: here the moral semantics of a language simply is its national moral theory. So the literal meaning of “good” for Nation Kant would be “a will determined by the categorical imperative,” but for Nation Expressivism Kant it would an internalist semantics that allows speakers to express their minds. Nation Plato is ruled by a philosopher king, and "good" there means "the form of the forms," and for Nation Positive Utilitarians it means "maximal happiness" while for the Negative Utilitarians it means "minimal suffering." The scenario also contains with in it the Thems: they have their own Them language tied to their own moral tradition, but they also participate in the linguistic culture of their adopted homes. Can the citizens of Planet Ethics have a conversation about morals, and can they avoid Anti Thematism? I note that the two Linguistic Accounts of Thought cannot explain how moral conversations occur across languages on Planet Ethics. Each culture will try to use its own language as a frame to understand others, who will be incomprehensible in so far as they depart from the assumed linguistic frame: each culture will view itself as having the moral frame work. Worse, the linguistic accounts of thought render right answers to moral questions analytically true, and criticisms of the dominant moral theory a contradiction in terms. A community who cannot get along with each other can separate and make separate moral communities, each with its own national ethos and corresponding moral semantics, but then they will not be able to conceptualize their prior disagreement especially if both new languages are departures from the earlier shared moral semantics. Also, the Thems will be viewed with suspicion for not wholly and univocally supporting the national ethos of their adopted homes. Linguistic externalism has no problem accounting for moral discourse here or in allowing for intra cultural moral criticism: the common philosophical use of the diverse philosophical sentences is the common proposition on which speakers of the various languages can agree or disagree to. On Planet Ethics it becomes clear there is "right" moral semantics: all will do as well as each other. Whereas the Linguistic Account of Thought leads to an inflationary approach to linguistic meaning, the linguistic externalist option is deflationary with respect to linguistic meaning. Finally I note that the linguistic approach to thought underwrites Indological investigations into Indian ethics and I consider two Davidson inspired tweaks to save the linguistic approach. The upshot is that Orthodox Indologists, in practice, adopt the procedure that Davidson recommends for understanding malopropers, such as Archie Bunker. In short, Orthodox Indologists, in being wedded to the linguistic approach to thought, treat Indian philosophers like malapropers who can't speak Sanskrit, like Bunker cannot speak English without erring. All can be avoided by Linguistic Externalism. This means that the conceptual content of moral vocabulary is not their linguistic meaning, but their philosophical purpose.



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Shyam Ranganathan
York University

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