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Proper Function and Ethical Judgment Towards A Biosemantic Theory of Ethical Thought and Discourse


This paper employs Ruth Millikan’s biosemantic theory of representation to develop a proposal about the function of ethical claims and judgments. I propose that ethical claims and judgments (or ethical ‘affirmations’) have the function of simultaneously tracking the morally salient features of social situations and directing behavior that coordinates in a collectively beneficial way around those features. Thus, ethical affirmations count as a species of what Millikan labels ‘Pushmi-Pullyu’ representations that simultaneously have a descriptive and a directive direction of fit. This proposal supports a version of motivational internalism that can accommodate a surprising range of actual failures of motivation. I also briefly situate this proposal in the metaethical literature, contrasting it with other hybrid views incorporating elements of cognitivism and expressivism.

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  1. This encompasses both naturalist and non-naturalist versions of moral realism. See e.g. Bloomfield (2001), Boyd (1988), Railton (1986) for defenses of naturalist realism. See, e.g., Enoch (2011); Moore (1903); Shafer-Landau (2003) for defenses of non-naturalism. Error theorists also endorse cognitivism but deny that there are any moral properties or facts. See Garner (2007); Joyce (2001a); Mackie (1977).

  2. See, for instance, Blackburn (1984, 1998); Gibbard (1990, 2003); Horgan and Timmons (2006); Timmons (1998). We might also include emotivism under this umbrella (Stevenson (1937); Ayer (1936))—though, notably, Stevenson admits that there is some descriptive content to moral judgments (see Chrisman (2013) for discussion).

  3. For discussion of hybrid theories in metaethics, see: Fletcher and Ridge (eds.) (2014); Schroeder (2009); Strandberg (2015). Some prominent hybrid theories are articulated in: Boisvert (2008); Copp (2001, 2009, 2014); Ridge (2006, 2014).

  4. The direct applications of Millikan’s view to metaethics I am aware of can be found in Bedke (2008), Bergman (2019, 2021), Bloomfield (2018), Dowell (2016), Harms (2000), Joyce (2001b), Sinclair (2007; 2012), and Wisdom (2017), though among these, Millikan’s work only plays a central role in Harms (2000), Dowell (2016), and Bergman (2019, 2021). I shall note points of contrast between the approach taken here and these other applications where appropriate. A full comparison shall have to await another occasion.

  5. Chrisman (2016, pp. 26–27) identifies at least five different uses of ‘ought’: the moral, the prudential, the teleological, the normative, and the epistemic. (He then goes on to argue, however, for a unified semantic analysis of ‘ought’ applying to each of these uses).

  6. Or to use Millikan’s now preferred term, ‘unicepts’ (2017).

  7. This is a rough gloss of the full definition given in Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories (hereafter: LTOBC) Chapter 1 (p. 28).

  8. Of course, on occasion, false beliefs may aid us (for instance, perhaps some instances of self-deception are beneficial to the one deceived). Though such beliefs may be beneficial, they do not aid the believers in accordance with a Normal explanation. For cases of self-deception do not contribute to the explanation of why beliefs continue to proliferate. (Compare: a broken clock is right twice a day; but the occasions where one learns what time it is from a broken clock do not figure in the explanation of the continued manufacturing of clocks).

  9. Thanks to Robert Audi for alerting me to this important difference between PPRs and besires.

  10. Future research on this topic will consider whether the human capacity to dissect PPRs into discrete descriptive/directive elements might play a role in enabling sophisticated moral inference operating on the descriptive element of ethical affirmation.

  11. The view I shall soon propose makes central use of Millikan’s notion of PPR. However, Millikan’s biosemantics in general, and the idea of PPRs in particular, have not gone without criticism. Artiga’s (2014) challenge to the explanatory motivations for the idea of PPRs in the biosemantic framework is especially relevant in the present context, given my reliance on the notion of a PPR in articulating my view. However, it would go well beyond the scope of the present paper to address such criticisms in full. Interested readers may wish to review Millikan’s (forthcoming) direct response to Artiga’s argument, where Millikan argues that Artiga has misconstrued the core commitments of biosemantics.

  12. By ‘member of the moral community’, I here mean just ‘a potential producer or consumer of ethical affirmation, or appropriate target of moral concern’. Many may judge that only mature humans may be producers and consumers of ethical affirmation. I take no official stand on this issue, but I confess that I suspect that certain sophisticated non-human animals may also be capable of producing and consuming primitive (or perhaps only proto-) ethical affirmations. More on this below. I take ‘member of the moral community’ also to include appropriate targets of moral concern, to account for the intelligibility of ethical thought and discourse concerning obligations to moral patients that are not also moral agents nor (if these categories differ in extension) potential producers or consumers of ethical affirmations (e.g. sentient but cognitively unsophisticated creatures).

  13. Recently, Millikan herself has speculatively suggested that moral truth might be relativistic for the sort of reason discussed above; the effects that account for the proliferation of moral sentences may vary across cultures (2018: pp. 240–241).

  14. It might be complained: what role does the success of such tracking play here? This sort of question is pressed by evolutionary debunking arguments, exemplified in Street (2006) and Joyce (2006). See Vavova (2015) for an overview. This is a real challenge, but not one I can adequately address here. But if debunking arguments pose a challenge, it is not clear that it is specific for the biosemantic account here. Indeed, as Vavova (forthcoming) argues, debunking arguments challenge not just moral realism, but the more general commitment to the idea “that morality is about more than spreading our seed” (5).

  15. Sinclair (2012) also proposes treating ethical judgments as PPRs. The job of ethical judgment, he thinks, is to bring about social coordination that is mutually beneficial (654–656). However, I doubt that the descriptive contents of particular true ethical judgments are, as Sinclair seems to suggest, directly related to what is mutually beneficial. That is, I doubt that the truth-conditions of ethical judgments will themselves advert to mutual benefit.

  16. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this point.

  17. I owe this idea to Dorit Bar-On.

  18. As Bar-On notes, animal expressive signals are ‘Janus-faced’ in that they at once point inward to the expressed mental state, and outward to the intentional object of that state (2019, fn. 32). It is worth considering whether such signals might also be Janus-faced in the PPR way, pointing to features of the environment and what is to be done about them. An expression of fear, for instance, may (i) point inward to the fear state, (ii) point towards the fearsome object, and (iii) direct others to flee (see Bar-On (in-progress) for just such a multi-faceted proposal).

  19. This depends, of course, on the possibility of extending the current proposal of this paper beyond ethical affirmations explicitly involving the concept ‘ought’. For the proto-ethical affirmations I am speculating about would likely lack significant linguistic articulation at all, and cannot be understood to explicitly invoke ‘ought’ thoughts.

  20. See LTOBC: 40 on the notion of ‘adapted function’.

  21. See also Bedke (2008), whose moral judgment purposivism is very much in the spirit of this proposal, and also draws inspiration from Millikan’s biosemantics in articulating it.

  22. This position on the defeasible connection between ethical judgment and motivation enjoys some empirical support from Cima et al. (2010), who argue that psychopaths, like the amoralist, do in fact understand and produce ethical affirmations, but lack any motivation to act on moral considerations. Cima et al. suggest, contrary to the neo-sentimentalism of Haidt (2001) and Prinz (2007), among others, that ethical affirmations are normally causally responsible for the activation of moral sentiments, rather than vice versa. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this support.

  23. See esp. Stevenson (1937), who emphasizes that, concerning ethical statements, “[t]heir major use is not to indicate facts, but to create an influence” (p. 18). See also the more recent psychological literature on the phenomenon of emotional contagion (see, e.g., Dezecache, Eskenazi, & Grèzes (2016); Doherty (1997). The notion of emotional contagion is of special relevance in the present context given that it also figures in some discussions of the evolution of morality (e.g. de Waal 2012)).

  24. For example, if one asserts “As you well know, John was late to work”, one cannot felicitously reject the conventionally implicated content by continuing “Not that you knew that” without retracting the initial assertion. See Grice (1975) for discussion.

  25. A similar distinction can be found in Bar-On’s neo-expressivism, which distinguishes between expression in the ‘semantic’ sense, a two-place relation between a significant linguistic item and its content, and expression in the ‘act’ sense, a three-place relation between a minded creature, a mental state, and an expressive vehicle (see Bar-On 2004: p. 216). See Bar-On and Chrisman (2009) and Bar-On, Chrisman, and Sias (2014) for an application of neo-expressivism to the ethical domain.


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Johnson, D. Proper Function and Ethical Judgment Towards A Biosemantic Theory of Ethical Thought and Discourse. Erkenn (2021).

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