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1          Abstract

This metaethical paper deals with moral utterances which are apparently used for asserting something and which the author calls “moral statements”. On the basis of reflections about evaluative utterances in general the author demonstrates how moral statements can be true. Thereby he scetches the theory of Moderate Moral Realism and demonstrates that there is no substantial difference between moral and non-moral evaluation.

2          Evaluative Utterances: Evaluation, Description or both?

Usually, philosophers who maintain that one can use moral statements[1] to assert something as well as philosophers who deny this presuppose that assertions are descriptive. In general, one supposes that with an assertion of a simple declarative sentence of the form “a is F” the object a is ascribed the property F. Some philosophers consider this to be wrong at least for some evaluative utterances. In the moral domain one has to distinguish between two different kinds of evaluative expressions. Expressions such as “good” and “bad” fundamentally differ from other evaluative expressions such as “loyal”, “just”, “brave” and “generous”. The latter are examples of as it is called thick concepts.[2] A duality of evaluation and description is a feature of thick concepts. Thin concepts as exemplified in expressions as “good” and “bad” are in contrast just evaluative and not descriptive. I admit that there is a substantial difference between thick and thin concepts. I deny that there that expressions such as “good” or “bad” are purely evaluative. I maintain that it is possible to make not only with “a is brave” but also with “a is good” a descriptive assertion. In my view expessions of thick concepts as well as expressions of thin concepts are never used just for evaluation alone but also for description. It is a fact that one utterance can be used to commit several illocutionary acts at once. The sincere utterance of a sales assistant “This car has ABS” may be a descriptive assertion. But the same utterance may also be a recommendation in a context in which the customer has articulated his wish for a car with ABS. A speaker can use a simple declarative sentence, which is usually used for descriptive assertions, in order to give a recommendation. I believe the same is true of evaluative utterances which I will focus in non-moral contexts first.

3          Evaluative Utterances in Non-Moral Contexts

In my view a non-moral utterance of “a is good (bad)” is typically an assertion and sometimes a recommendation, too. That evaluative utterances are not always used in order to recommend somethink can be illusrated by means of examples like “The weather is good” oder “That Anna has kept her promise is good”.[3] Doubtlessly, evaluative utterances are often used for recommendation. Let us have a closer look on evaluative utterances in respect to their illocutionary force. Suppose, in the conversation between the sales assistant and the customer it became clear that the customer seeks for a car which satifies the conditions C1, C2 and C3. C1 means for instance that the car has ABS. The sales assistance could point at the car and utter:

  1. “Then take this one!“ or
  2. “This car meets C1, C2 and C3” or
  3. “This car is good.”

Which kind of speechact the speaker typically performs with these utterances? Let us concentrate on the first two cases for the moment. With the utterance of “Then take this one!” the speaker would primarily recommend and with the utterance of “This car meets C1, C2 and C3” the speaker would primarily make an assertion. I use the adverb “primarily” in order to indicate that the recipient following a cooperative principle and conversational maxims in the sense of Grice[4] or a principle of relevance in the sense of Sperber and Wilson[5] would probably understand something in addition in both cases: In the second case the recipient will understand the assertion in the context described above also as a recommendation of the car. In the first case the recipient will understand that the speaker conveys with his recommendation that the car in question satifies the conditions relevant to the context of the utterance, namley C1, C2 and C3. In both cases the speaker seems to perform a double speech act of recommending and asserting. The difference lies in the fact that in case (1) the illocutionary act of recommending is primary and the illocutionary act of asserting is secondary whereas in case (2) the situation is exactly the opposite.

If my diagnoses of a double speech act in both cases is correct there is a simple test which allows to determine that the illocutionary force of asserting is in the first case secondary or latent and in the second case primary or dominant: In the first case it sounds queer to call the utterance true or false whereas the same sounds acceptable in the second case. In the first utterance “Then take this one!” the illocutionary force of recommending is dominant: There is no complete and ipso facto no truthvalueable S-Proposition[6]. What is true or falsce, i.e. that the car meets C1, C2 and C3 , is only asserted indirectly. For this reason we hestitate to ascribe a truth value to the utterance. But in the second utterance “This car meets C1, C2 and C3” the illocutionary force of assertion referring to a truthvalueable S-Proposition is dominant. We do not hestitate to call the uterrance in toto true in spite of the fact that the speaker indirectly performs the speechact of recommending in addition.

Let us consider the third case. Which kind of speechact does the speaker perform uttering “This car is good”? An assertion, a recommendation, or both? If you tend like me to diagnose a double speechact of assertion and recommendation also in this case the question arises whether the third case is analogous to the first or the second case, i.e. whether the assertion or the recommendation is primary or dominant. The answer seems to be controversial. I tend to describe the third case in analogy to the second. Accordingly, the speaker primarily asserts and secondarily recommends.[7] This thesis seems to gain support by the test described above: In analogy to the second but in disanalogy to the first case it does not seem queer to call the third utterance true or false.

Nevertheless, the third case provokes an irritating question which does not arises in respect to the second case: What does the speaker asserts? Which are the truth conditions of his assertion? In the second case the answer is obvious: The speaker asserts that the car satifies C1, C2 and C3 and the utterance is true if an only if the car indeed meets these three conditions. If these conditions are not transparent it should be possible to specify them. But the same procedure is as least difficult with the utterance “This car is good”. It has to be admitted that is true if and only if the car is good. But what does “good” mean in this case? One difficulty one faces trying to determine substantial truth conditions for utterances of the form “a is good/bad” concerns the fact that the expression “good” and its counterpart “bad” can be used extremely flexible. This becomes clear in the light of the heterogenous applications of “good”: Cars can be good as well as actions, humans, pictures, meals and tastes.

That both wines and carpenters and lungs can be good is an example of how diverse good things can be. That ‘good’ sometimes means ‘pleasant to taste’, sometimes ‘skilful’, and sometimes ‘healthy’ is an example of how varied are the forms of goodness. (von Wright The Varieties of Goodness, 12 f.)

The morpheme “good” appears in several contexts of meaning and use. What do the different uses of “good” have in common? Von Wright speaks of the multiformal nature of goodness. In contrast I argue that an analysis of goodness is possible that can cope with all these heterogenous uses including the use of “good” in moral contexts. Although I contest expressivst theories which proclaim that “good” does not denote any property[8] I agree with expressivists that “good” is no adjective which denotes a specific property which all good things have in common. Which relevant intrinsic property have a good book and a good carpet in common? Instead I favour the view that “good” used as an adjective expresses a common relational property. I think that the non-moral evaluative utterances of simple declarative sentences have the following truth conditions:


A non-moral utterance of “x is good (bad)” is true iff

x satifies the contextually relevant conditions (requirements, demands, desires, expectations, standards, criterions, etc.) to a high (low) degree

Let us apply this characterization on the evaluative utterance of the sales assistant “This car is good”. His utterance is true if and only if – and now the relational character becomes crucial – the car meets the contextually relevant conditions to a high degree. In the example in question these conditions are primarily C1, C2 and C3 but perhaps some further requirements, demands, desires, expectations, standards, criterions, etc.[9] Which conditions for a x are relevant varies with the respective object referred to (car, dog, rose, book, etc.) as well as with the context of the utterance. Note that generally the relevant conditions do not include conditions that are relevant to be a x. Conditions of the latter kind are not communicationally relevant since their satisfaction is usually presupposed by the speaker and the recipient.

It is a striking feature of the analysis proposed that the determination of the truth value of an evaluative utterance is highly contextually sensitive. This is due to the vagueness of the phrase “to a high (low) degree” on the one hand and due to the identification of the referent of the definite description “the contextually relevant conditions” on the other hand. The definite description is vague in itself because it is presented with an open list of expressions as possible substitutes for the term “conditions”. The vaguesness of the analysans is justified since it corresponds with the vagueness of the analysandum which is the other side of the coin of the impressive flexibility in the use of evaluative expressions such as “good”. Note that the phrase “to a high (low) degree” includes the extremes that something satisfies the relevant conditions entirely and not at all respectively. I emphasize this aspect because an utterance of the form “x satisfies the conditions in question to a low degree” goes in some contexts hand in hand with the conversational implicature that is not the case that x meets none of these conditions. But this implicature does not occur in all contexts. Imagine an amazing personnel manager who has ordered that applicants who satisfiy the employment conditions just to a low extent should not attend an assessment center when he recognized that there are not only persons who meet the employment conditions to a high extent under the participants but also persons who meet none of the employment conditions. As long it is unclear to which conditions it is (imlicitly)[10] referred to the expressed S-proposition is not determined and the utterance cannot ipso facto be classified as true or false in a decisive respect. This fact may be one cause for disagreements about the truth of evaluative utterances in general and moral utterances in particular.

It might be objected that the ascription of truth or falsity would be either arbitrary or extremely difficult if this picture were correct. But in our communicative practice speaker do merely see fundamental difficulties to ascribe a truth value to an evaluative utterance. In the expample from above other sales assistants who know the product would be able answer the question whether the utterance of their colleague “This car is good” is true. They might assert that the utterance is true since the car has ABS and needs less fuel than comparable cars, etc. The assessment of truth is commonly not problematic because it is usually clear in the context of the utterance which conditions constitute the background if the speaker follow conversational maxims in the sense of Grice or a principle of relevance in the sense of Sperber and Wilson[11] and due to a shared set of background assumptions[12]. In the present case the expectations and demands of a prototypical customer or the expectations and demands of the real customer which has become apparent in the conversation as well as his ability to pay constitute the relevant conditions. In view of the high extent of vagueness and subjectivity which occurs e.g. in rescpect to the selection and weighting of possible conditions the number of disagreements and misunderstandings in our conversational practice appears remarkably low.

4          Evaluative Utterances in Moral Contexts

Sometimes the contextually relevant conditions do not allow to call an object a, e.g. a car, good without reservation. Generally, it is possible in these cases to specify the conditions under certain respects so that a true utterance of the form “a is in so-and-so respect good” results. For instance, the sales assistant could qualify his utterance as follows: “This car is technically good, but not bood in price.” The car is technically good since it satisfies to a high extent the conditions in technical respect, e.g. to be save, durable, and comfortable. In price it may not be good if it is significantly more expensive than comparable cars. As it is possible to oppose goodness and badness in heterogenous non-moral dimensions under reference to different respect the equivlanent is possible between a non-moral and a moral dimension. If Anna judges an action she could differentiate between a non-moral and a moral dimension, e.g. “This action is good in respect to your carrier, but morally bad”. Utterances like this indicate that the speaker classifies in different respects and with reference to different sets of conditions. The question how moral evaluative utterances differ from non-moral evaluative utterances can be sharpened against this background as follows: How do the perspectives of classification differ in the case of moral evaluative utterances on the one hand and in the case of non-moral qualified evaluative utterances on the other hand?

In the case of unrestricted non-moral evaluative utterance of the form “a is good” the conditions are determined by assumptions about the expectations and desires of the people who a directly concernd. In the case of restricted non-moral evaluative utterance of the form “a is so-and-so good” the meaning of “good” is modified by an adverb in a way that, metaphorically speaking, there occurs a deepening as well as a widening in perspective. The demand on a technically good car is higher in technical respect than on a good car whereas the demand on a good car might be higher on the whole than on a technically good car. Why should this be different in the case of moral evaluative utterances? It is tempting to see an analogy. The adverb “morally” in an assertion of the sentence “a is morally good” is used for a restriction just as the adverb “technically” in an assertion of the sentence “a is technically good”. Analogous to the explications of “technically good” as “satisfies the conditions in technical respect” the phrase “morally good” has to be equivalent to “satisfies the conditions in moral respect”. What is the feature of the moral respect? From my opinion the moral perspective concerns the social life or the social existence of man or sentient beings. Although I consider a condition of this kind necessary in order to distinguish the moral dimension from other I doubt that it is sufficient. Otherwise morality would include clusters of norms such as etiquette, traffic regulations, or linguistic conventions. Perhaps, the relevant conditions in moral respect concern the social life of all men and not only of a subgroup as in the case of etiquette, traffic regulations, or linguistic conventions. If we suppose that the moral perspective is sufficiently determined by reference to the social life of all sentient beings the truth conditions of an assertion of “a is morally good” can be specified as follows:


A moral utterance of “x is morally good (bad)” is true iff

x satifies the contextually relevant conditions (requirements, demands, desires, expectations, standards, criterions, etc.) for a social life of all sentient beings to a high (low) degree

Let us apply this analysis on an example: Accordingly, the assertion “Cloning of human embryos is wrong” is true if and only if cloning of embryos satisfies the contextually relevant condtions for a social lif of all sentient beings just to a low extent. If this analysis is correct speaker who make an evaluative statement implicitly appeal to conditions they consider to be relevant. Which conditions they consider to be relevant depends on the speaker, his socialization, the context of the utterance and other factors. Speaker will appeal to heterogenous conditions due to their individual socialization, experiences, reflections, emotions, conclusions, etc., for instance “maximizes the wellbeing of man” or “is in the sense of God”. The fact that a speaker may take different conditions as the relevant background for the evaluation explains from my point of view the widespread disagreement in moral questions to a high extent.

Note that the Moderate Moral Realism – as I call the theory described – is not affected by a problem which many naturalist realists face. It has been objected that according to naturalism there could not exist genunin moral disagreement. For instance, there could be no real moral disput between for Kantian and an utilitarist because they express with the term “good” different notions so there is no moral disagreement. Moderate Moral Realism enables not only genuine moral disagreement – two disputants base their evaluations on exactly the same conditions but diverge in their view to which extent the question or the object in question satisfy these conditions – but also other sources of moral disagreement e.g. the case of two disputants described above who disagree which conditions are relevant. Moderate Moral Realism does not presuppose that a dispute between a Kantian and an utilitarist concerning the truth of a moral statement grounds in a disagreement in respect to which notion is expressed by “good”. Moreover, Moderate Moral Realism is immune against an Hare’s objection putting forward against naturalist realists. Hare stresses the fact that the evaluative function of utterances of the form “a is good” is usually constant over contexts whereas the properties which are ascribed to a with such utterances are heterogenous and vary with the context of the utterance.[13] Naturlist realists have at least a lot ov explaining to do in order to deal with this observation whereas Moderate Moral Realism is compatible with it due to the relational character of the proposed analysis.


5          Moral versus Non-Moral Evaluative Utterances

Perhaps there are reservations against the proposed analyses because they proclaim a high similarity between moral and non-moral evaluative utterances. Wittgenstein for instance distinguishes two senses in which expressions such as “good” could be used: A relativ and a absolut sense. Wittgenstein describes the absolute sense in a way which fits with my characterization of evaluative expressions in non-moral contexts:

In fact the word good in the relative sense simply means coming up to a certain predetermined standard. Thus when we say that this man is a good pianist we mean that he can play pieces of a certain degree of difficulty with a certain degree of dexterity. And similarly if I say that it is important for me not to catch cold I mean that catching a cold produces certain describable disturbances in my life and if I say that this is the right road I mean that it’s the right road relative to a certain goal. (Wittgenstein “Lecture on Ethics”)

And this use of evaluative expressions should be not problematic:

Used in this way these expressions don’t present any difficult or deep problems. […] Every judgment of relative value is a mere statement of facts and can therefore be put in such a form that it loses all the appearance of a judgment of value: Instead of saying “This is the right way to Granchester,” I could equally well have said, “This is the [right][14] way you have to go if you want to get to Granchester in the shortest time”; “This man is a good runner” simply means that he runs a certain number of miles in a certain number of minutes, etc. (Wittgenstein “Lecture on Ethics”)

Wittgenstein maintains that these unproblematic evaluative utterances of relative value do not occur in ethics. In ethics expressions such as “good” were used in an absolute sense. In order to illustrate the distcinction between relativ and absolute judgments of value Wittgenstein cites the following example:

Supposing that I could play tennis and one of you saw me playing and said “Well, you play pretty badly” and suppose I answered “I know, I’m playing pretty badly but I don’t want to play any better,” all the other man could say would be “Ah, then that’s all right.” But suppose I had told one of you a preposterous lie and he came up to me and said, “You’re behaving like a beast” and then I were to say “I know I behave badly, but then I don’t want to behave any better,” could he then say “Ah, then that’s all right”? Certainly not; he would say “Well, you ought to want to behave better.” Here you have an absolute judgment of value, whereas the first instance was one of relative judgment. (Wittgenstein “Lecture on Ethics”)

Wittgenstein’s conception of absolute evaluative judgements is not transparent for me. I believe that his example is inappropriate to demonstrate that evaluative utterances in the area of morality have to be analyzed fundamentally different than in non-moral contexts. According to my analysis of moral and non-moral evaluative utterances both utterances in Wittgenstein’s example “You play pretty badly” and “You’re behaving morally badly”[15] are both relative in the sence that they implicitly refer to a standard or criterions. And this thesis is not undermined by the difference between moral and non-moral utterancances which emerges in the example in question.

If one wants to find a difference between moral and non-moral utterances on the basis of the examples above this difference will not be adequately described in terms of the dichotomy “absolute versus relative” as Wittgenstein means but perhaps in terms of the dichotomy “categorical vs. hypothetical”[16] or “prescriptive versus non-prescriptive”. Wittgenstein’s examples indicate that moral utterances can be prescriptive in a way non-moral evaluative utterances cannot. This makes clear why the speaker in Wittgenstein’s second example is not content with the explanation of the recipient he was aware of his morally wrongdoing but does not want to behave any better. It is charactaristic of moral conditions that it is not up to the individual whether it acts in accordance with them or not. However, it is up to every indivual to decide how far it strives for satisfying the conditions of playing tennis – at least as a rule. In fact, there are contexts in which satisfying these conditions comes with an obligation which is typical of moral contexts. Suppose that a coach utters “You play pretty badly” towards a tennisprofi whom he trains. The tennisplayer replies as in Wittgenstein’s example: “I know, I’m playing pretty badly but I don’t want to play any better.” In this case the persumably astonished coach would not react with “Ah, then that’s all right” as in Wittgenstein’s first example, but probalby in way of the second case “Well, you ought to want to play better.” The standard of goodness may be the same[17] but is now accompanied by a normative dimension. There seems to exist an explicit or implicit contract between the trainer and the player which forms the basis for a binding norm system. This system contains in respect to the player inter alia norms such as “You should train at least six hours a day” and “You should strive for improving your performance”. Such a normsystem seems to become obligatory if two persons take over the roles of a trainer and his trainee. I presume an analogy for the case of the compulsory nature of a moral normsysem. Perhaps it is an essential feature of moral normsystems that we cannot prevent us from considering its norms as obligatory.

Possibly, the admission of an individual in society goes hand in hand with a system of moral norms becoming obligatory via something like an implicit social contract. The validity of a training norm system from the example above depends on the roles of trainer and trainee and dissolves if the two persons quit their relationship of training. In contrast, one cannot (so easily) withdraw the validity from a moral normsystem. A moral normsystem diverges from other normsystems such as the one behind the trainer-player-relationship. The norm telling you to make an effort playing tennis is usually not a moral one. But this norm will become morally obligatory if the coach and the player reach an agreement in respect to a forthcoming competition. In this case norms concerning the training become morally obligatory, too. The player is morally obliged to a certain degree to make an effort playing tennis.

6          Conclusion

According to Moderate Moral Realism moral evaluative utterances can be used for assertion. The truth conditions are quite similar to the truth conditions of nonmoral evaluative utterances. Reflections on Wittgenstein’s examples support the thesis that moral as well as nonmoral evaluative utterances are relative. Moreover, it becomes clear that the classification of an evaluative utterance as moral or nonmoral depends strongly on the context. Finally, it turns out that there cannot be identified any sharp dermarcationline between the moral and the nonmoral dimension of an evaluative utterances – at least in some cases. Modifying Wittgenstein’s example it has be shown that an initially doubtlessly nonmoral evaluative utterance gets a moral character. All in all, the considerations inspired by Wittgenstein’s examples above support and do not undermine the analyses of Moderate Moral Realism.

7          References

Grice, Herbert Paul (1975). “Logic and Conversation”. In: Syntax and Semantics 3, ed. P. Cole und J.L. Morgan; reprinted in Grice, Studies in the Way of Words: 22-40 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, London: Harvard University Press, 1991)

Hare, Richard M (1952). The Language of Morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Radtke, Burkhard (2009). Wahrheit in der Moral. Ein Plädoyer für einen moderaten Moralischen Realismus. Padderborn: mentis Verlag.

Railton, Peter (1998). “Aesthetic Value, Moral Value, and the Ambitions of Naturalism”. In: Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection, ed. Jerrold Levinson, (Cambridge, 1998), reprintet in Railton, 2003, Facts, Values, and Norms. Essays torwads a Morality of Consequences, 85-130. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Schaber, Peter (1995). “Moralische Tatsachen”. In: Zum moralischen Denken, ed. Christoph Fehige and Georg Meggle, 313-335. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Searle, John R (1969). Speech Acts. An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Searle, John R (1979). “Literal Meaning”. In: Expression and Meaning, 117-136, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Searle, John R (1980). “The Background of Meaning”. In: Speech Act Theory and Pragmatics, ed. J. R. Searle, F. Kiefer, and M. Bierwisch, 221 – 232, Dordrecht.

Sperber, Dan und Deirdre Wilson (1996). Relevance. Comunication & Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

Stevenson, Charles L. (1937). “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms”. Mind 46, 14-31.

von Wright, Georg Henrik (1963). The Varieties of Goodness. London.

Williams, Bernard (1985). Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. London.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1965). „Lecture on Ethics“, Philosophical Review lxxiv, 3-12; URL =

Ziff, Paul (1960) Semantic Analysis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[1] I call an unterance of a sentence S moral if and only if S contains an expression such as „should“, „good“, „bad“, „right“, „wrong“ or other which is morally used. I am unable to specify the conditions under which an expression is morally used and simply presuppose that the examples I deal with belong to widely accepted cases of morally used expressions. I define moral statements as moral utterances of declaritive sentences which express apparently a trivially true oder false proposition and which are apparently used for the illocutionary act of asserting.

[2] See e.g. Williams Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, chapter 8 and 9, „Truth in Ethics“, 25 p.

[3] See Ziff Semantic Analysis, 219 and Schaber „Moralische Tatsachen“, 320

[4] See Grice “Logic and Conversation”

[5] See Sperber and Wilson. Relevance. Meaning & Cognition

[6] A proposition p ist the S-proposition of an Utterance U of a sentence S «df It is possible to determine p solely with recourse to (a) the knowledge of the linguistic sense of S realised in the context of U, (b) the knowledge of the contextually adequat specification of vague expressions in S and (c) the knowledge of the intended referents of possible indicators in S.

[7] Prescriptivists as Hare (e.g. in The Language of Morals, 7.4.) support the opposed view. Also Stevenson holds that the descriptive use is secondary towards the „dynamic“ use. (See “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms”)

[8] See Radtke Wahrheit in der Moral. Ein Plädoyer für einen moderaten Moralischen Realismus, 86-136.

[9] For the reason of simplicity I will use only the term „condition“ for the rest of this paper.

[10] A definite desricptions explicitly occurs only in the analysans.

[11] See footnotes 4 and 5

[12] Searle argues in his reflections on literal meaning that senteces have truth conditions and literal meaning only in respect to background assumptions. (See Searle “Literal Meaning” and “The Background of Meaning”)

[13] See Hare The Language of Morals, Part II

[14] I think that this “right” does not fit Wittgenstein’s intention since the aim of this passage is the substitution of an evaluative utterance by an non-evaluative utterance.

[15] I have modified Wittgensteins example „You’re behaving like a beast“ in order to eliminate the similie and henceforth the problem of figurative language and in order to highlight the moral character of the utterance.

[16] This is the view of Railton “Aesthetic Value, Moral Value, and the Ambitions of Naturalism“, 120 pp.

[17] Doubtlessly, the classification of playing tennis as „good“ will be more demanding in the case of the professional player than in the case of the persumably amateurishly playing Wittgenstein.