Thoughts such as ‘It would be wrong for me to PHI’ and ‘You would be wrong in PHI-ing’ seem to be special in that, in addition to having an essential cognitive function as ordinary beliefs do, they seem to have an essential motivating function as well.  (And we might say similar things about other bits of moral thought or moral thought in general, but I’ll focus on ‘wrong’ here.)  So, in this sort of way, the concept ‘wrong’ appears to be essentially motivating as well as essentially descriptive or cognitive.

The broad thesis that the concept ‘wrong’ is essentially motivating as well as cognitive most often takes the following specific form:  sentences, or certain sorts of sentences, involving ‘wrong’ essentially express motivating non-belief attitudes as well as relevant beliefs (and hence the relevant thoughts are not simply beliefs that relevant propositions are true).  This more-specific hypothesis is called hybrid expressivism.  On this view, there is a semantic aspect to ‘wrong’ that is constituted by attitudes other than belief.  Recent work by Mark Schroeder has demonstrated how difficult it is to construct a semantic model of ‘wrong’ along these lines that explains valid argument-forms that have ‘wrong’ in them.  So Schroeder is pessimistic about the prospects for hybrid expressivism.


[Skip this paragraph if you like!  The most recent such problem in hybrid expressivist semantics is that what seems to be the right sort of semantic model cannot explain the validity of arguments like this: (1) What A believes is true, (2) A believes that PHI-ing is wrong, therefore (3) PHI-ing is wrong.  The problem is that the model does not commit the speaker, by accepting the premises, to having the relevant non-cognitive attitude in having the thought that PHI-ing is wrong (as hybrid expressivism construes this thought).  See Schroeder, ‘The Truth in Hybrid Semantics.’ in Having it Both Ways: Hybrid Theories and Modern Metaethics, ed. by Guy Fletcher and Michael Ridge.  New York: Oxford University Press, 273-293, October 2014.  And also his earlier ‘Hybrid Expressivism: Virtues and Vices.’  Ethics 119(2), p. 257-309, March 2009.  See relevant heading, with links, at:  http://markschroeder.net/research/.]


I share Schroeder’s pessimism.  But ‘wrong’ might have essential motivating or non-belief-attitude-involving roles in some way other than thoughts (or relevant sorts of thoughts) involving ‘wrong’ expressing non-cognitive attitudes.  Consider the following thesis:  the descriptive content of the concept ‘wrong’ essentially functions to motivate when it is part of the right proposition or content affirmed in the right context (e.g., ‘My PHI-ing would be wrong’ affirmed in the context of deciding what to do).  On this sort of view, the concept ‘wrong’ is not constituted solely by its cognitive content (and the relation of this to believing).  So, if we restrict the semantic features to those concerning cognitive content (and belief), the semantics of ‘wrong’ does not concern non-belief attitudes at all.


I think this “motivational functionalist” approach is a promising way of articulating motivational and non-belief-attitude essentialism regarding ‘wrong’ (or moral concepts and thought more generally perhaps) because: (a) it avoids the problematic semantics of hybrid expressivism and (b) it provides a constitutive explanation of the motivation-related and non-belief-attitude-related essential elements to ‘wrong’ without positing connections (semantic and otherwise) to actual motivations and non-belief attitudes that are too strong.


  1. I freely admit that I haven’t kept up with the expressivist literature, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why anyone still believes that ‘wrong’ or any other moral terms have an essential motivating function. Foot and Geach’s arguments against that view seem to me to have been decisive (see esp. Foot’s ‘Moral Beliefs’ and ‘Moral Arguments’ (both 1958) and Geach’s ‘Good and Evil’ (1956)). There’s been no shortage of responses to these and similar arguments, but the crux of the issue seems to me to be as follows.

    Foot in particular shows by example that it is perfectly possible to use words like ‘wrong’ in straightforward ways without being motivated in any particular way or seeking to motivate anyone in any particular way; critics respond by insisting that these uses are somehow different from genuinely moral uses of the term (perhaps there is a distinctively ‘moral sense’ of this and related terms, say, and the uses that Foot and company fix on do not use it with this distinctively moral sense; perhaps these uses of the term are ‘parasitic’ on the standard use, not fully sincere, or have implied sneer quotes). Yet no response of this sort that I’ve ever seen successfully dissipates the aura of question-begging that hovers around it. It is of course perfectly true that many ordinary uses of the word ‘wrong’ have a motivating function; I am fairly sure that sometimes the word has no content beyond this function, such that to say that something is wrong is to say nothing more than that it should not be done. But the disputed claim is that this function is essential to uses of the word. While it is perfectly possible that uses lacking any such motivational function are in fact uses of a different word that sounds exactly the same, or the same word with a distinct ‘sense,’ what proponents of this view need to show is that there are independent reasons for thinking that the uses which lack any such motivating function are otherwise different from uses that have such a function. I haven’t seen any such reasons; to me the continued insistence that ‘wrong’ and related terms have an essentially motivating function seems like a continued insistence that human beings essentially have two legs and all the apparent counter-examples are not in fact human beings because, well, they don’t have two legs.

    Since I haven’t seen a convincing case for the essentially motivating function of ‘wrong’ and related terms, I don’t believe that any such function is essential to them. Hence your project here looks like a search for an explanation for something that isn’t true, and the simplest explanation for the difficulties that expressivists have encountered here is that the connection between the semantic and motivating features of ‘wrong’ &c. is contingent (indeed, I’m not sure how the proposed alternative you sketch here is supposed to make the connection non-contingent). I’m sure that there’s a better case than I can think of in the expressivist literature for an essential connection, so if you know what it is please share it (though when I learned that Mark Schroeder, by most people’s lights the leading defender of expressivism, thinks that expressivism is false, I began to think that maybe the mixture of laziness and contempt that has kept me from reading more expressivist literature has in fact saved me a lot of wasted time). Even if the best arguments are successful, though, I would still object to treating the explanandum here as though it were an established feature of discourse. To my mind, if there is an essentially motivational function to terms like ‘wrong,’ that’d be a wildly counter-intuitive discovery, not a truism, and while I recognize that other people’s intuitions differ, no discovery should be presented as a truism.

    Mainly, though, I’m glad to see someone besides myself posting here, and I’ve missed bantering with you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, David! Yes, I miss our discussions, too. I promise to read and comment on one of your upcoming posts…

      What is to be explained here – the connection between motivation and various bits of moral (or more broadly normative) thinking – needs to be described in detail. I was trying to commit to (and bite off) just one chunk of moral thinking: the concept of an action being morally wrong. And to describe just one sort of connection between this concept and motivation: how this concept works in thoughts of the form ‘It would be wrong for me to PHI’.

      I don’t take you to be denying that there is a connection to motivating, functional role in this case. But I do take you to be questioning whether this connection is part of the concept ‘wrong’ itself. So: how do we individuate concepts? Intuitively perhaps, but an explanation/justification would still be nice and we need something like this to handle the tough or borderline cases (for our intuitions will differ between persons or just be fuzzy).

      Here is my intuition. The relevant unified mental thing (and kind of thing) is the descriptive content of ‘wrong’ along with this having the functional role of (and tending to) play certain motivating roles (such as motivating me to PHI when I judge that it would be wrong for me to PHI).

      And here is some theory to back up the intuition. Some concepts are constituted by their inferential roles. Most obviously, logical connectives are very little more than their role in inference. That itself could be just an intuition about concept individuation. But we can explain the relevant unity/essence in a standard causal way (that may be functional as well as causal): it is the linguistic form plus the inferential roles here, not just the linguistic form, that does the heavy explanatory lifting in explaining why relevant sorts of things in our psychologies (inferences) happen as they do. This is how you individuate things scientifically – by reference to causal powers or tendencies.

      The analogous claim for ‘wrong’ would be that it is the relevant descriptive content plus a network of motivating, functional roles (and tendencies) that does the bulk of the causing/explaining of relevant psychological phenomena (belief-formation and non-belief-attitude formation and action). If we cash out these motivating functional roles as tendencies, activated in certain specific circumstances, to be motivated or have relevant non-belief-type attitudes such that a certain end-result tends to get achieved, then these functional roles are the right sorts of things to do causal work. Plausibly, in the case of ‘wrong’, there would be no need for the bare cognitive content to show up at all because all of the inferential work that it could do could also be done just as well by the amalgam of content + motivating functional role (and causal tendency). So: schematically, this is one way to go beyond intuitions in taking motivating, functional roles for ‘wrong’ (and other bits of moral or normative language) to be part of the very nature of the concept.

      (It may be that, in order for ‘wrong’ to be constituted in this sort of way, there needs to be a whole network of motivating or non-belief-attitude-producing tendencies and functional roles. If so, my focus on ‘wrong’ and how it functions in ‘it would be wrong for me to PHI’ is merely a piece of the relevant sort of motivation-related essentialism regarding ‘wrong’. I suspect that, once we bring in more moral language and the slew of associated reactive attitudes and motivations, we will have a much richer set of motivating functional relationships and tendencies for relevant descriptive contents to plug into in order to get the most cognitive/inferential and motivational work done most effectively.)

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      • Hrmmm…I’m not quite sure what to make of some of that. It all sounds plausible enough abstractly, but I’m not seeing how it avoids flying in the face of some apparently obvious facts about the concept ‘wrong.’

        I should clarify to begin with that I am skeptical that there really is a genuinely distinct ‘moral’ sense of ‘wrong,’ or that, if there is, it is anything more than a historically and culturally peculiar thing that we could do just fine without and that we probably need to understand in terms of its historical development from a broader use. To my mind, there seems nothing essentially different about ‘wrong’ in claims like ‘it is wrong to kill innocent people’ from ‘wrong’ in claims like ‘it is wrong to turn the oven up to 450 degrees when you’re just trying to reheat a pizza’; in both cases, to say that an action is wrong is to say that it’s one that a person in the relevant circumstances shouldn’t do. The intuition that there is something fundamentally different involved strikes me as very peculiar and very recent; there is nothing like a distinctly moral concept of ‘wrong’ in ancient Greek or Latin, for instance, and though I’m not enough of an expert in medieval philosophy to say so with confidence, I don’t think there’s any such concept there either.

        But I can waive all that for these purposes, I think. Here are some examples of non-ironic, non-parasitic uses of ‘wrong’ in moral contexts that, it seems to me, have no bearing on motivation: It was wrong for Marc Antony to have Cicero’s hands cut off and his tongue nailed to the rostra in the forum; ancient Greek slavery was wrong; if there are rational beings in a galaxy far, far away who blow up whole planets simply to demonstrate their power, that is wrong; it would be wrong of me to starve my dog to death. All of these claims make use of ‘wrong’ in a straightforward way, but none has anything like a direct connection to my motivations or to the motivations of anyone to whom I would make these claims. It’s true that some people get morally outraged at the past, but I and many others don’t; to claim that a particular action (Marc Antony’s murder of Cicero) or a whole institution (Greek slavery) was wrong does not as such guide my action or motivate me to do anything. So too with claims about hypothetical death stars in regions of the universe far too distant to have any bearing on my action. So too with claims about what it would be wrong for me to do when I have absolutely no countervailing motivations whatsoever (I’m more likely to starve myself than my dog). Of course we can perhaps identify some actions that I would be motivated to perform in the appropriate circumstances if I sincerely assert such propositions and I am practically rational; but those circumstances are remote and counter-factual, and there is no guarantee that I am practically rational. These claims all use ‘wrong’ in a straightforward way but have no straightforward motivational function. Therefore there is no essential motivational function to the concept ‘wrong.’

        Your view perhaps looks more plausible because you conflate the concept ‘wrong’ with sentences like ‘it would be wrong for me to phi” or “it would be wrong for you to phi.” Certainly it is harder to see how sincere utterances of those sentences could lack a motivational function, but that doesn’t seem to be because ‘wrong’ has an essentially motivating function, but because the circumstances in which I sincerely make claims of those forms are ones in which I happen to be interested in doing what is right and/or getting you to do what is right. Even so, it’s not obvious to me that even claims of this sort need to have a motivational function. Whether or not they do seems to depend in part on what the person making the claims believes about ‘morality’ and its relationship to rationality. A contractualist or a consequentialist might readily believe in all sincerity that the morally right thing to do is to pay his taxes or donate to Oxfam, and yet have no motivation whatsoever to pay his taxes or donate to Oxfam; since he believes that what makes an action wrong is that it violates the terms of a rational social contract or that it fails to maximize welfare, he can sincerely and without contradiction say that what he’s about to do is wrong and that he doesn’t care and is going to do it anyway. Independent of some substantive moral theory and assumptions about rationality, there’s no apparent guarantee that sincere moral judgments must be motivating, and to build such a constraint in to substantive moral theorizing seems to put the cart before the horse. It’s one thing to say that an adequate moral theory must issue in claims that can motivate; it’s quite another to say that an adequate moral theory must issue in claims that necessarily motivate, even ceteris paribus.

        Judgments that something is wrong, and in particular that something would be wrong for me to do, typically motivate. But that doesn’t show that motivation is essential to the concepts. Judgments that some proposition is true typically motivate us to believe those propositions and to try to get other people to believe them, but expressivism about truth is considerably less popular than expressivism about moral and practical discourse. I can, after all, desire not to believe something that I think is true on the grounds that it’s just too awful to believe; perhaps if I could take a pill that would prevent me from believing it, I would. In the right context, pretty much any concept can have a motivating role. What we need is good reason to believe that ‘wrong’ &c. necessarily play that role, and I don’t see how abstract considerations about concept individuation help to show that when it is apparently quite easy to construct examples, both banal and thought-experiment-y, in which it plays no such role.

        One of these days I’ll write a post as interesting as yours, and that will compel you to respond as you compel me to respond. (The good, rational kind of compulsion!)

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        • Some brief replies (and, at least for now, without much editing!).

          (a) If an option is wrong that denotes more than that option simply ranking slightly below others. In this, it is similar to ‘incorrect’. So, if you should do something else if an option is wrong, this is not the ‘should’ of what you have most reason to do relative to the options. I agree that there is a more generic concept of ‘wrong’. It is at least tempting to say that ‘wrong’ denotes something like breaking the (formal or informal) rules in a practice. But maybe it simply denotes any way in which an option might be decisively worse than the others. (I’m wondering about your case of trying to heat a frozen pizza by setting the oven at 450 degrees F.)

          (b) Perhaps there is a generic concept of ‘wrong’ that functions, in various contexts, to motivate behavior (say adherence to rules) both first-personally (when it is part of the right thought) and second-personally (when another sort of thought is communicated to the target). We might think of the relevant functional roles in terms of groups of human beings needing to have enough and good-enough adherence to rules of social organization (via internalizing rule-compliance norms and via the induction of guilt or shame across individuals to achieve compliance).

          (c) The connection to motivation need not be direct for any given use of ‘wrong’. Perhaps your cases are simply not cases in which relevant motivating, functional roles are instantiated! I think it is best to focus on such cases as the first-personal ‘my PHI-ing would be wrong’ and the second-personal ‘it would be wrong for you to PHI’ (and also ‘it was wrong for you to PHI). These cases do seem to involve tendencies to motivate (in different ways for different agents, the speaker/thinker and the target who is not the speaker/thinker). If these having these functional roles and causal tendencies is part of the concept ‘wrong’, then there we are – your cases are rendered moot. So it seems to me that we are back to the question of how to individuate ‘wrong’.

          (d) We can imagine, and perhaps there are, concepts of right/wrong (and correct/incorrect) that are not connected to motivation at all. Suppose such concepts denote something like adherence (or lack of adherence) to a pattern or rule. If believing this descriptive content carries with it a motivational tendency, when one thinks to oneself ‘It would be wrong for me to PHI’, to avoid PHI-ing – and if using ‘wrong’ to express to another person ‘It would be wrong for you to PHI’ tends to make the other person be motivated to avoid PHI-ing – then we have a powerful tool for achieving adequate rule-compliance in a group (or in larger groups where other mechanisms, mechanisms that do not involve public norms, do not work well for achieving de facto adherence to a pattern or rule). We get a flexible mechanism of rule-compliance motivation that is independent of the application of instrumental reasoning to antecedent desire or motivation. That’s my just-so functional story. (If ‘wrong’ does its work with the aid of something like a general desire to follow rules we still get unique and important causal powers due to the descriptive content of ‘wrong’ being connected to this particular antecedent motivation in the way that it is. We get a flexible tendency toward immediate rule-following motivation that does not require the application of instrumental reason in anything but a purely formal way. This is the right sort of thing to underwrite the relevant amalgam of descriptive content and context-dependent, relevant-work-doing motivational tendency being its own particular thing and type of thing.)

          (e) Think about you and I doing something – some rule-governed, role-involving practice – together. Maybe we are playing soccer on the same team. We know the rules (and our respective roles). We help each other, keep each other on track. We can employ instrumental reasoning skills to perform our respective jobs well (and help the other guy do his job well). Perhaps we can do pretty well giving each other instrumental information and advice (“I’m open in front of the goal”, “We’ll spread out the defense if you go out wide on the wing”). But I think we would also do something else, something that would help us be more successful in the practice. We would correct each other using the language of right/wrong and correct/incorrect (or, more colloquially, the language of screwing up!). I might say “Hey David, you screwed up that pass!” and you would tend to have an immediate and rather urgent motivation not to do what you did again. And you would probably induce such motivation in yourself with a similar inner dialogue (that would take the form of something like a mild or strong self-berating upon your judging yourself to have screwed up). And the same with you in relation to me and with my inner dialogue (which can be, I’ll admit, sometimes rather sternly self-berating!). This, I take it, is the “phenomenology” of the motivational mechanism of ‘wrong’ in action. For the reasons given, I suspect the motivational role here is part of the relevant concept or concepts.


          • Quick adjudication:

            It seems to me that Michael is taking “Wrong for me to phi” as the basic analysandum, treating “Wrong for you to phi” as parasitic on that basic analysandum in interpersonal cases, but failing to see that an analysis of “Wrong for me to phi” has no clear bearing on cases like those David is bringing up, i.e., of the predication of wrongness to actions that took place in the remote past. Meanwhile David, possibly conceding Michael’s analysis of “Wrong me to phi” in immediate, interpersonal contexts, is disputing the adequacy of Michael’s analysis as an analysis of wrongness tout court, not as an analysis of “wrong for me to phi” in the contexts Michael primarily has in mind.

            I don’t think one needs to share David’s skepticism about the idea of a distinctively moral sense of wrongness to agree with his criticisms of Michael’s analysis (I don’t share David’s skepticism, but do agree with him). It seems to me that Michael is focusing on a very distinctive context, but treating his account of that context as a global analysis of the concept of wrongness. But David is right to say that there are contexts in which Michael’s analysis has no clear application, and it stretches things greatly to insist that those cases must be parasitic on the ones Michael has in mind. I suppose we could analyze the wrongness of Marc Antony’s murder of Cicero by way of some convoluted set of counterfactual conditionals, in order to get Michael’s analysis: “If I were Marc Antony, and I were about to murder Cicero, and Cicero then protested it was wrong, and I agreed with Cicero, I would be inclined to be motivated not to kill Cicero…” Or: “If Marc Antony were alive, and he were about to kill Cicero, and…”

            But the question is why we should have to. The only reason for doing so is prior acceptance of Michael’s analysis of “Wrong for me to phi.” But while the analysis applies well to certain paradigm cases, it’s unclear why it should apply elsewhere. Historical propositions aren’t, after all, subjunctive counterfactual claims about the present. They’re claims about the past. So we’d need a good reason for converting them into strings of present-tense claims in order to insist that what’s true of our present-tense analysis of wrongness applies in the same way to them.

            Michael and I discussed this a bit when he was here (in Jersey) for the “Policing the Police” presentation a few weeks back. It’s worth remembering that our conversation about wrongness grew out of a prior set of conversations (a few days of conversations) about police brutality and (separately) psychotherapy. But recall that the context of those conversation was the social function of predications of wrongness in social contexts where deliberation and social regulation takes place in the present among agents interacting with one another. The specific context was the wrongness of police brutality in Newark, along with the way in which psychotherapists insist on prescinding from claims of wrongness in the consulting room, even in cases where what the client is doing is obviously wrong.

            To combine the two topics and give the flavor of the original discussion: imagine a racist cop who confesses to his obviously racist, brutal on-the-job practices, but in the context of therapy; many therapists would refrain from describing these practices as “wrong,” in part because “wrong” has a social function that the therapist wishes to avoid, at least within therapy. The question is whether doing so is really possible, and if so, how to pull it off.

            But what’s true of “wrongness” in contexts like that won’t necessarily be true of predications of wrongness to the acts of people with whom we’ll never interact, and whose actions we can’t regulate (in any sense of “regulate”). The social function of predications of wrongness to historical figures might be very different from that in present-day contexts like judgments on police brutality or judgments on therapy clients. Absent a good argument, there’s no good reason to assume from the outset that the one case must be parasitic on the other (e.g., to assume that claims about wrongness as ascribed to people in the distant past are parasitic on claims about wrongness as ascribed to people in the present with whom we interact). Even if that turned out to be the case (and it might), it would take a long argument to show it.

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          • Right. I think for me the issue comes down to the difference between what belongs essentially to the concept ‘wrong’ and what belongs, whether essentially or just typically, to statements like ‘it is wrong for me (or you) to phi.’ Though I’m ultimately inclined to doubt that there is a genuinely essential connection to motivation even in the case of such statements, I could grant that there is such a connection without granting that there is any such connection built in to the concept ‘wrong.’ It’s a mistake to treat an analysis of a certain kind of statement as an analysis of one of the concepts that features in that statement, even when that concept is doing the heavy lifting, so to speak.

            I’d be interested in hearing more about the context in which this question became pertinent. My own motivations for resisting the thesis that there’s some essential connection between concepts like ‘wrong’ and motivation are twofold: (i) it seems pretty clearly false for at least many understandings of what words like ‘wrong’ mean, and (ii) this kind of motivational internalism about moral or practical judgments is often a leading premise in arguments for non-cognitivist or otherwise anti-realist views of moral and practical discourse, which strike me as mistaken on other grounds and in at least some forms a threat to a proper understanding of human life.

            That said, it doesn’t seem false or problematic to me at all that often all someone is doing in saying ‘it would be wrong for you to phi’ or ‘phi’ing is wrong’ is urging that something not be done. Certainly some uses of this and related concepts seem to yield readily to an expressivist sort of analysis (indeed, one reason I myself avoid the language of ‘wrong’ is that it too often seems to lack any other content, and hence to be an obstacle to productive moral argument, whereas I think I can say everything I might want to say by relying on other terms instead). But so what? Suppose we succeed in individuating a distinctively moral sense of ‘wrong’ that can only be properly understood via an expressivist analysis; why shouldn’t I just take that as a reason to abandon that concept and rely on others instead? What is at stake for you (Michael) in whether or not the concept ‘wrong’ or statements like ‘it is wrong for me (you) to phi’ have an essential connection to motivation?


  2. I worry a bit that both of you are worried that I am overgeneralizing in some tricky way. Maybe so if there is something wrong with functional roles constituting concepts. But this has to be shown! And I trust that, schematically, it is clear why the sort of view that I am proposing allows cases of ‘wrong’ being used without there being any connection to motivation that is specific to that case?

    I worry also that you guys (and many philosophers) mistake the ability to focus solely on the relevant sort of descriptive content (thus in effect coining or stipulating a purely descriptive concept of ‘wrong’) to prove – in an obvious, intuitive, decisive way – that the ordinary concept ‘wrong’ is not constituted by anything like a motivating, functional role (and corresponding motivating tendency). Maybe this is not what is happening, but for those who think that the relevant motivating, functional roles (and tendencies) are part of the concept ‘wrong’ this is what they will take to be happening.

    I take it that we all agree that roughly the sorts of roles that I cite for ‘wrong’ exist. One fundamental question is whether we do in fact “chunk together” the descriptive content and various associated core motivating, functional roles (and tendencies). Given the above problem, we have to be quite careful in using conceptual methods for settling what ‘wrong’ is probably like. Another, perhaps more fundamental, question is whether we should “chunk” relevant information about mental states, properties and their relationships in this mixing-together-cognition-and-action-motivation way. That functional (inferential, motivational) roles (and context-dependent tendencies) matter a lot for answering this question (and also the first question) is something of a going general theoretical hypothesis. Maybe intuitions can settle the justificatory question (and not in my direction). Maybe there is a better sort of theoretical account – perhaps one according to which there is something wrong with mixing in motivating functional elements in particular (in individuating concepts).

    Is that helpful? (Apologies if, due to time considerations, what I say here has turned out to not to address the concerns that you guys have well – or to be repetitive, stubborn, sloppy or mean. In the interests of getting something down, I’m hitting “Post Comment.”)


    • I still don’t see how that kind of response isn’t question-begging, though it’s better than the common move of simply saying that uses of ‘wrong’ with no motivational component are somehow not uses of the same concept. You appeal to a general account of how to individuate concepts, but I don’t know why we’re supposed to think that that account is true, and I especially don’t know why we’re supposed to have more confidence in that account than we are in our intuitive sense of when the same concept is being used. Minimally, it seems clear to me that the same concept ‘wrong’ is used in “It would be wrong for me to break this promise” and “It was wrong for Marc Antony to kill Cicero,” and I don’t think that’s a remotely eccentric intuition. A theory of concept individuation that makes those turn out to be different concepts seems fishy precisely because it has that result. Of course, intuitions about whether we have one or two concepts might be wrong in particular cases, but if we don’t have a generally reliable grasp on when we are and aren’t using the same concept, then we’d have no basis for a theory of concept individuation in the first place. So what would need to be shown is that the theory succeeds in a wide range of cases in individuating concepts in the right way. Otherwise it’s just a stipulative and revisionary suggestion on how we should use the word ‘concept,’ not a theory of concept individuation.

      But I still don’t see what’s at stake, particularly if your view is perfectly happy to allow that there are some uses of ‘wrong’ that have no connection to motivation.


  3. Since I share your intuitions about ‘wrong’ in these specific cases, and take this intuition to be consistent with the view of concept-individuation that I am proposing, I am a bit perplexed on the specifics of our disagreement, here. In the past-tense case, the concept still would have the present-tense, first-personal motivating job or role or function (as part of its nature, part of what makes it different from other concepts). It is just that motivating the speaker in third-personal cases, past-tense cases would not fall under any of the job-descriptions or functional roles for ‘wrong’. Analogy: it is not the job of fathers to father when they are not dealing with their children (or with things that concern their children). But they are still fathers and that they are is constituted by fathering roles (jobs, functions, etc.). Does that make sense? Are we on the same page, here?

    (My intuition is that if ‘wrong’ did not have its first-personal, present-tense job of motivating action in the speaker, it would not be our concept of ‘wrong’. The broad theory to back this up is the causal theory of individuating types (properties, kinds). More specifically, it is the theory that concepts are properly individuated by reference, in part, to their functional roles in producing relevant patterns of inference and motivation/action. That is my case, in a nutshell.)


    • Ok, so I think one thing that might be going on is that your use of ‘essential’ differs from mine. When you say that the motivating function is essential to the concept X, I take that to mean that whenever the concept X is genuinely deployed, it has that motivating function, since to say that Y is essential to X is to say that if anything is X, it is Y. But instead what you seem to mean by that is not that the concept must always have this function, but that if it couldn’t have that function, it wouldn’t be the same concept. My worry about this is that it’s too weak, because virtually any concept can, in the right context, play a motivating function, and if it couldn’t, it would, plausibly at least, not be the same concept. Take the concepts ‘cake,’ ‘stupid,’ and ‘Christian.’ Obviously all three of these can be used in motivationally neutral, descriptive ways: ‘the thing you’re eating is cake’; ‘moths are stupid’; ‘John Philoponus was a Christian.’ But they can also all be used with a motivational function in the right context. ‘C’mon, come to the party; there’ll be cake!’ ‘No, I can’t do that, that’s a stupid idea.’ ‘I can’t be friends with Maggie; she’s a Christian!’ ‘Cake’ here motivates because the addressee likes cake; ‘stupid’ motivates because the speaker doesn’t want to do something stupid; ‘Christian’ motivates because the speaker dislikes Christians. So they certainly can play a motivational role. Moreover, if they couldn’t, plausibly they wouldn’t be the same concepts; if ‘cake’ somehow couldn’t motivate, then it surely couldn’t name a kind of food with a certain texture and taste that many people enjoy; if ‘stupid’ couldn’t motivate, it couldn’t pick out unintelligent or thoughtless acts or opinions, since people generally have motives for avoiding those; if ‘Christian’ couldn’t motivate, it couldn’t refer to people with a certain sort of belief system that tends to be variously attractive or repulsive to many people. But there’s not any kind of special motivating function at the core of concepts like ‘cake,’ ‘stupid,’ or ‘Christian.’ So if that’s what you have in mind for ‘wrong,’ it seems too weak. I suspect you must have something stronger in mind, but I’m not sure yet what it is, supposing I’m right that you don’t want to say that the motivating function is ‘essential’ to the concept in the strong sense of essential laid out above.

      So here’s a thought: unlike ‘cake’ and ‘Christian,’ part of the point of having the concept ‘wrong’ is to assess both one’s own and other people’s action. In this respect, ‘wrong’ is an essentially practical concept. (So too, part of the point of having the concept ‘stupid’ is to assess one’s own and other people’s thought, and in that respect, ‘stupid’ is an essentially epistemic concept). Its practical character is genuinely essential, because there are no coherent, non-parasitic uses of the concept that do not function to assess action. But whatever we might dream up in thought-experiments about artificial intelligences that assess action without themselves being practical agents, we are in fact practical agents, and so concepts the point of which is to assess action are regularly and non-accidentally, though not invariably, motivating for us, whether we use them first-personally, or are addressed second-personally with them, or even hear ourselves described third-personally with them. So a motivating role plays a central part in the true story about what the concept ‘wrong’ is and does in a way that such a role does not enter into the true story about the concepts ‘cake’ and ‘Christian’ (perhaps a motivating role plays a similarly central role in the story about ‘stupid’?). It’s not just that the concept can motivate and wouldn’t be the same concept if it couldn’t; but it’s also not that a motivational role is strictly essential to the concept, either. Nothing about the concept ‘wrong’ just as such guarantees that it plays a motivational role, but its motivational role is not merely contingent on the desires we happen to have, either, since it is not merely contingent that we, as language- and concept-users, are practical agents and therefore motivated by assessments of our actions.

      Would something like that capture everything you want to say? I don’t find the ‘father’ analogy very useful, because it’s only incidentally that Bob, who is a father, also builds kitchen cabinets for a living or drinks two cups of tomato juice every day; we might happen to describe him as, say, Jimmy’s father when we say that he does those things, but we’re not deploying the concept ‘father’ insofar as we describe him as doing those things. The analogy would hold if you were to say that there are very common non-metaphorical or other sorts of figurative uses of the concept ‘father’ that do not involve predicating male parenthood of a person, yet that predicating male parenthood of a person is the essential role of the concept ‘father.’ I think we’d do better to let this example go.


  4. We are getting closer to being on the same page on what the view is.

    Whenever it is used, ‘wrong’ would have the function (or functional role) of motivating its users when used in ‘It would be wrong for me to PHI’. This function would not be actualized in other contexts (of course). Just like hammers have their nail-driving function always (and essentially) – even when they are used as paperweights or boat anchors.

    Any better/clearer?


    • What is at stake, here? Just explaining why certain concepts, like ‘wrong’ have a non-accidental, motivating, practical potency. That’s all.


    • Hmmm, I don’t think that formulation is going to work. I take the point that ascribing a function to x does not entail that that function is exercised in every use of x. But I see two problems. First, the way you’ve formulated it here seems empty. I think analogies between concepts and artifacts can be misleading, but consider an analogous claim: whenever it is used, a shoe would have the function (or functional role) of keeping a door open when used as a doorstop. In this case, the problem should be apparent: there’s no reason why we should ascribe the doorstop function to a shoe whenever it is used, including non-doorstop uses, and there is no such thing as the function of keeping-doors-open-when-used-as-a-doorstop. I suspect that what you intend is somewhat different, though, something more like saying: a shoe retains its function of stopping doors even when it is not used as a doorstop, and therefore does not exercise that function. That claim would, I assume you’d agree, be false of shoes, but on your view a structurally similar claim is true of ‘wrong’ and motivation. The second problem, though, is that I’m not sure the evidence of actual usage of ‘wrong’ bears this out. Your hammer analogy seems not to fit that evidence. When a hammer is used as a paperweight, it’s not being used as a hammer; there are properties of the hammer that make it capable of serving as a paperweight, and perhaps any hammer will have those properties, but those properties do not belong to it qua hammer, which is why any other object with those properties will serve just as well or better as a paperweight. This is not the kind of relation that non-motivating uses of ‘wrong’ bear to motivating uses. ‘It was wrong of Marc Antony to cut out Cicero’s tongue’ does not use ‘wrong’ for some purpose merely incidental to the meaning or function of ‘wrong.’ Your claim about ‘wrong’ seems more analogous to a claim that hammers essentially have the function of driving steel nails and retain that function even when used to drive iron nails; it doesn’t seem plausible to take the material the nails are made of as entering into the function of a hammer, even though it is by no means merely contingent that hammers are used for driving steel nails, as it is contingent that hammers are used as paperweights (though the analogy is of course imperfect because concepts are in important respects unlike hammers and motivation unlike nails).

      So this is helpful insofar as I understand better what you mean to say, but either I’m still missing part of it or I’m just not convinced that it’s right. It doesn’t help that I’m not even convinced that the first-personal uses must have a motivational role. I see clearly enough that there’s a connection between ‘wrong’ and motivation that isn’t accidental and merely contingent, but I don’t see that it’s so fundamental as you seem to think. In other words, I agree that this concept has a non-accidental, practical motivating potency, but I don’t see that this potency is essential or fundamental to the concept as such.


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