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An unstable hybrid - dissolving the metaethical puzzle

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In a series of papers, Laura and François Schroeter (S2) have developed an account of conceptual competence. Recently, they have argued that their account applies also to the semantics of evaluative terms, combining the central insights of two opposing camps while avoiding their pitfalls. Minimalist metaethical theorists such as Alan Gibbard have argued that the only criteria for competence with an evaluative term is using it to express one’s motivational states: no matter what strange substantive criteria an agent has, if she uses ‘right’ to express what she is motivated to do, she is competent with the term. Neo-descriptivists such as Jackson and Pettit, on the other hand, have argued that competence with an evaluative term requires a particular set of substantive criteria. On S2’s solution, what is essential for competence with an evaluative term is, apart from a basic congruence in actual use, participation in a shared epistemic practice: a person is competent with the meaning of an evaluative term if her use of a term is bound together in the right way with other speakers’ use. In particular, she must have a “coordinating intention to use the term in a way that makes best sense of the communal practice.” When this connectedness is in place, the person manages to mean the very same thing with her evaluative terms as other competent persons, in spite of substantial disagreement in actual application.

In my paper, I make two main claims. First, I argue that S2’s account is an unstable hybrid. It contains remnants of neo-descriptivist commitments that are, on closer inspection, inconsistent with the main thrust of their argument. When removing these neo-descriptivist remnants, however, their account, rather than supplying a distinct “third way” in metaethics, is consistent with several (broadly naturalistic) accounts of conceptual competence – including Gibbard’s own.

Secondly, I argue that it is not clear that the “metaethical puzzle” is a puzzle at all. Rather, aspects of the broadly naturalistic account of meaning described above explain the phenomenon. Neither is the phenomenon a specifically metaethical one, but pertains in general – ie also for descriptive terms – on all theories that assigns semantic content holistically.

This talk is part of the HPS Philosophy Workshop series.

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