Friday, May 19, 2017

Carl Wellman's The Language of Ethics

Carl Wellman is an American philosopher who was born on Sept. 3, 1926, in Lynn, Massachusetts. He grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire. He earned a B.A. degree in philosophy and political science at the University of Arizona (1949), and an M.A. degree in philosophy at Harvard (1951). He did a year of study at Cambridge University (1952) before returning to Harvard to earn his Ph.D. in philosophy (1954). He served as instructor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin from 1953-1957, assistant professor from 1957-1962, associate professor from 1962-1966, and then professor and chairman of the Department of Philosophy from 1966-1968. He served as professor of philosophy at Washington University, St. Louis from 1968-1988, Hortense and Tobias Lewin Distinguished Professor in the Humanities from 1988-1999, and Hortense and Tobias Lewin Distinguished Professor Emeritus from 1999.
      His publications have included The Language of Ethics (1961), Challenge and Response: Justification in Ethics (1971), Morals and Ethics (1975), Welfare Rights (1982), A Theory of Rights: Persons Under Laws, Institutions, and Morals (1985), Real Rights (1995), An Approach to Rights: Studies in the Philosophy of Law and Morals (1997), The Proliferation of Rights (1999), Medical Law and Moral Rights (2005), The Moral Dimensions of Human Rights (2010), Terrorism and Counterterrorism: A Moral Assessment (2013), and Constitutional Rights: What They Are and What They Ought to Be (2016). He has also published articles in such journals as Mind, Ethics, Philosophical Review, Journal of Philosophy, and American Philosophical Quarterly.
      In The Language of Ethics, Wellman asks, “What do ethical sentences mean?” He admits that the term “ethical sentences” may actually be difficult to define, but he explains that the kinds of ethical sentences he’s most concerned with are those that express judgments of value or judgments of obligation. (The term “ethical sentences” may in fact be ambiguous, insofar as it may refer to either sentences that are used in an ethical manner or sentences that are about something ethically right or wrong.) So the question of what is the meaning of ethical sentences is also the question of what is the meaning of judgments of value and judgments of obligation. Wellman says that an adequate answer to this question should explain not only what properties ethical sentences have in common, but also how they differ from other kinds of sentences, how they may differ among themselves, and what kinds of purposes they may have.1
      He describes four basic approaches to understanding the meaning of ethical sentences: ethical naturalism, ethical intuitionism, emotivism, and ordinary language theory. Ethical naturalism is the theory that ethical properties are natural properties, and that ethical sentences describe empirical characteristics. Thus, according to ethical naturalism, the primary use of ethical language is empirical description.2 Ethical intuitionism is the theory that ethical properties are non-natural properties, and that ethical sentences describe direct insights of reason. Thus, according to ethical intuitionism, some ethical truths are knowable by reason, without the need for empirical demonstration. The rightness or wrongness of some actions may be known intuitively, regardless of the consequences of those actions. Emotivism is the theory that ethical sentences are not primarily descriptive, and that they express or evoke emotions. Ordinary language theory is the theory that ethical sentences have their own kind of meaning, and that they cannot be reduced to other kinds of sentences. Thus, according to ordinary language theory, ethical sentences are neither empirical descriptions nor non-empirical descriptions nor emotive utterances.3 Their meaning depends on the linguistic purposes for which they are used. The way to clarify their meaning is to examine their uses as instruments of language.
      According to Wellman, none of these theories (naturalism, intuitionism, emotivism, and ordinary language theory) provides an adequate means of understanding the meaning of ethical sentences. He therefore describes five basic kinds of meaning that ethical sentences may have: descriptive, emotive, evaluative, directive, and critical. Other kinds of meaning may also belong to ethical sentences, but investigation of these five basic kinds of meaning may be necessary in order for us to develop a better understanding of the nature of ethical language.
      Descriptive meaning belongs to sentences that tell us something about a state of affairs. Every description indicates or refers to some thing or things, and is about some thing or things. Descriptions may be of more or less generality, of which there are (at least) four kinds: universality, indeterminateness, abstractness, and applicability.4 They also presuppose that the thing or things they refer to actually exist (at least in some sense).
      Emotive meaning belongs to sentences expressing emotions that we feel or could feel. Emotive sentences are characterized by four main features: emotionality, expressiveness, indicativeness (although indicative meaning may not belong to all emotive sentences5), and partiality6 (they may express positive or negative emotions about or toward certain things, although this may not be true for all emotive sentences, and there may be emotive sentences that express neither positive nor negative emotions about or toward certain things). The strength of the emotionality of an emotive sentence may correspond to the intensity of the expressed emotion.
      Evaluative meaning belongs to sentences that express attitudes toward objects (things, or persons). Every evaluative sentence is about one or more objects, and takes some sort of position on the claim that the attitude it takes is the correct or appropriate one.7 This taking of a position on the claim to correctness or appropriateness may distinguish evaluative sentences from emotive sentences that express emotions but do not necessarily take a position on the claim that the emotions they express are the correct or appropriate ones.8 Evaluative sentences are like descriptive sentences insofar as they take some sort of stand on the claim to objective validity, but they are unlike descriptive sentences insofar as partiality (favorable or unfavorable attitudes) toward their objects is (are) at the core of their meaning.9
     Directive meaning belongs to sentences that direct us to do, or not to do, something. Every directive sentence is addressed to one or more agents who are called upon to perform, or not to perform, some action. Directive sentences presuppose that the agent(s) to whom they are addressed is (are) capable of doing as they are told.10 They also presuppose that at the moment they are spoken or written, there is still time for them to be fulfilled.11
      Critical meaning belongs to sentences that modify, challenge, reject, or reaffirm the rationality of something. By making explicit the claim to rationality that may be implicitly made by someone or something, critical sentences make their own implicit claim to rationality.12 The kinds of things that may be made objects of criticism include statements, actions, emotions, and attitudes.
      Wellman doesn’t mention, however, that the lack of rationality of something may not be the only grounds for ethically criticizing it. The lack of fairness, justice, prudence, practicality, truthfulness, honesty, etc. of something may also be grounds for ethically criticizing it. Wellman says that “To say that an action is right is to assert that its claim to rationality is justified; to say that an action is wrong is to assert that the claim is mistaken.”13 But there are other criteria besides the rationality of an action that may determine whether it’s ethically right or wrong to perform that action in a given situation. For example, a judgment that we have an obligation toward someone in a given situation may be motivated not only by rationality, but also by such principles as beneficence, altruism, civility, generosity, or reciprocity. The absence of these principles of ethical conduct may become grounds for ethical criticism.
      While judgments of value have evaluative meaning, says Wellman, judgments of obligation have critical meaning. He argues that value judgments are without descriptive or emotive meaning, and that judgments of obligation are without descriptive, emotive, evaluative, or directive meaning. But why can’t judgments of obligation sometimes express an emotional sense of obligation toward someone or something, and thus have emotive as well as critical meaning? Why can’t value judgments sometimes be judgments of the comparative rationality of various modes of ethical conduct, and thus have critical as well as evaluative meaning?
      He does explain, however, that a single sentence may have different meanings in different contexts (for example, a sentence may have descriptive meaning in one context, and directive meaning in another context). More than one of kind of meaning may also belong to the same sentence within a given context (a sentence may have both evaluative and emotive meaning within a given context, just as it may have both descriptive and evaluative meaning within a given context).


1Carl Wellman, The Language of Ethics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), p. 8.
2Ibid., p. 25.
3Ibid., p. 130.
4Ibid., p. 174.
5Ibid., p. 205.
6Ibid., p. 202.
7Ibid., pp. 213-214.
8Ibid., p. 219.
9Ibid., p. 220.
10Ibid., p. 242.
11Ibid., p. 243.
12Ibid., pp. 264-265.
13Ibid., p. 270.