Ought and agency

Synthese 200 (5):1-40 (2022)
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Abstract

A thorny question surrounding the meaning of ought concerns a felt distinction between deontic uses of ought that seem to evaluate a state of affairs versus those that seem to describe a requirement or obligation to perform an action, as in and, respectively. There ought not be childhood death and disease. You ought to keep that promise. Various accounts have been offered to explain the contrast between “agentive” and “non-agentive” ought sentences. One such account is the Agency-in-the-Prejacent theory, which traces the difference to a particular kind of ambiguity in the prejacent. This theory has been criticized as linguistically unviable. Indeed, I level a few novel complaints against AIP myself in the present paper. But AIP has a kernel of genuine insight which allows us to explain the contrast—that the distinction between agentive and non-agentive ought sentences owes in part to the way natural language encodes information about agency. I develop this idea into a novel account that, like AIP, traces the contrast to an ambiguity in the complement of the modal. However, according to the view I propose, the Coercion View, a linguistically-motivated coercion operation produces the necessary grammatical conditions for agentive ought, which in turn allow a kind of variadic function operator in the style of to produce the semantic effect we see on display in agentive readings of ought. Having explained the mechanism by which we get this structure, I show that it corroborates some of the central intuitions underwriting agentive ought. I submit that the Coercion View offers an explanation of agentive ought to take at least as seriously as any of its competitors.

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Daniel Skibra
Universität Konstanz

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References found in this work

Rationality Through Reasoning.John Broome (ed.) - 2013 - Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Literal Meaning.François Récanati - 2002 - New York: Cambridge University Press.
Moral Luck.B. A. O. Williams & T. Nagel - 1976 - Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 50 (1):115-152.

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