Semantics, moral

In Hugh LaFollette (ed.), International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Wiley (forthcoming)
Semantics is the investigation of meaning, and semantic theories, including semantic theories about moral language, come in two very different kinds. Descriptive semantic theories are theories about what words mean. So descriptive moral semantic theories are theories about what moral words mean: words like ‘good’, ‘better’, ‘right’, ‘must’, ‘ought’, ‘reason’, and ‘rational’. In contrast, foundational semantic theories are theories about why words mean what they do, or more specifically, about what makes it the case that words mean what they do. So foundational moral semantic theories are theories about what makes it the case that moral words mean what they do: words like ‘good’, ‘better’, and so on. Since both kinds of theory are sometimes referred to as varieties of ‘moral semantics’, this article will cover both. Just as semantic theories themselves come in two kinds, descriptive semantics raises two very different kinds of issues. Some issues in descriptive semantics turn on the question of what kind of theory is required, in order to be able to account for the meanings of words – including of moral words, in particular. Such questions are questions about the nature of semantic theorizing. So, for example, according to truth-conditional theories, an adequate descriptive semantic theory needs to provide a recursive and compositional characterization of values for sentences which determine the truth conditions of each sentence. Whereas according to expressivist theories, an adequate descriptive semantic theory does not need to determine truth conditions at all, but does need to recursively and compositionally associate each sentence ‘P’ with a mental state – intuitively, with the state which constitutes what it is to think that P. Truth-conditional and expressivist theories involve very different conceptions of the nature of linguistic meaning, but their contrast is one of the most important issues in moral semantics, and they are not even the only live competitors. In contrast, other issues in descriptive semantics, rather than turning on what kind of theory is required, raise questions about specific properties of the meanings of particular words..
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