Vagueness as Meaning-Inconsistency

For months I’ve been thinking about writing a paper on the suddenly fashionable topic of what vagueness is. One of the most interesting views on the subject is by Matti Eklund who argues that a term is vague iff a tolerance principle is meaning-constitutive for it.

A tolerance principle is basically a Sorites premise. A tolerance principle is something like this, “Whereas large enough differences in F’s parameter of application sometimes matter to the justice with which it is applied, some small enough difference never thus matters.”

A principle is meaning-constitutive for a term if “if it is part of competence with it to be disposed to accept it.” (Both quotes are from Matti’s paper.)

I think that competence (in the sense of meaning the same thing as the rest of the linguistic community, which I think is the relevant sense of competence here) requires accepting very few principles, and certainly nothing as contentious as this. Note that Matti’s definition entails two other competence requirements, both of which I’ll argue against. First, being competent with vague term F requires knowing what F’s parameter of application is. Second, being competent with vague term F requires knowing that F is vague. Both of these might be plausible for tall or rich, but they aren’t true, or even that plausible I think, for vague terms in general.

Consider the plausibly vague term morally acceptable. Imagine three speakers who have some thoughts about what is and isn’t morally acceptable. Tom thinks that an action is morally acceptable iff it is approved of by God. Jack thinks an action is morally acceptable iff produces more utils than any rival action would produce. And Mike thinks that an action is morally acceptable iff it’s an action a suitably virtuous person would perform.

It seems to me that Tom, Jack and Mike can all be competent users of the term morally acceptable. When they debate what things are morally acceptable, as they often do, they aren’t speaking past each other, rather they are genuinely contradicting what the others say. So they’re competent. But they don’t agree even on what kind of magnitude is measured by the term’s “parameter of application”. So the first competence principle is false.

As well as having very different views on what a tolerance principle for morally acceptable should look like, they have very different views on whether such principles are prima facie plausible, let alone meaning-determining. Tom thinks no such principles are plausible, and certainly doesn’t think they are meaning-determining. Jack thinks that whether such principles are true turns on hard questions about the semantics and metaphysics of counterfactuals. But since he thinks hard questions about the semantics and metaphysics of counterfactuals don’t determine what’s meaning-determining for morally acceptable, these principles are not meaning-determining. Mike is more disposed to accept the prima facie plausibility of tolerance principles, though he too doesn’t think they are meaning-determining, since he thinks that if they were Jack and Tom would be conceptually confused (which he thinks they are not) rather than morally confused (which he thinks they are).

So I think Matti’s claim runs into trouble when we try to apply it to vague normative terms. But these are a very large part of the class of vague terms.

UPDATE: Zoltan pointed out to me that Matti’s definition could be interpreted, and perhaps should be interpreted, as not requiring that competence requires knowing F’s parameter of application. Rather, it just requires being disposed to believe that whatever F’s parameter of application is, small changes in that parameter don’t change whether F applies. This seems to be correct, so one of my objections here fails. I still stand by the more general point that Tom, Jack and Mike can deploy the same concept while one believes it is vague and the other not, but my argument needs to be more careful here than I hinted at last night.

SECOND UPDATE: Matti responds at length in the comments. Be sure to read these as well.

One Reply to “Vagueness as Meaning-Inconsistency”

  1. Apologies in advance for the length of this: Brian’s example brings up a host of interrelated issues, all of them interesting.

    (1) Zoltan’s point is entirely correct. That certainly is the way I want to go with respect to that issue.

    (2) Anyone who prefers a broadly Fregean/descriptivist/conceptual role account will for independent reasons want to draw some sort of distinction between competence and full competence. (Roughly, between someone who uses a given expression with the semantic value in virtue of, say, deference to other speakers, and someone who is fully competent.) That distinction alone takes care of some problems.

    (3) The explicit views of speakers on what’s meaning-constitutive are pretty irrelevant; clearly speakers can be completely mistaken about, or entirely lack, such views.

    (4) Besides, the type of problem Brian brings up bears more than a passing resemblance to a familiar, more general problems for moral cognitivism: how can the cognitivist say that speakers with radically different views on what’s moral still have a genuine dispute, and don’t merely talk past each other? There are some different ways the cognitivist can go here. Here are two: (i) Along with the Cornell realists, appeal to some sort of causal theory of reference; (ii) Along with Ralph Wedgwood (“Conceptual Role Semantics for Moral Terms”), say that thin moral terms are governed by simple rules, like [to simplify matters a lot] “x is the best thing to do all things considered if practical reason dictates that x be done” – disagreements like the one Brian describes are then not conceived of as disagreements about the meaning of ‘good’ (or, here, ‘best’) but as about what practical reason in fact dictates. – Given my preference for conceptual role-approaches, I’m more inclined toward (ii).

    (5) Does this last remark suffice for me to get around Brian’s problem? – No, Brian can say: this just serves to raise it. For while other cognitivists can accept (i) or (ii), I cannot, consistently with recognizing that moral terms like ‘good’ are vague. For I say that tolerance principles are meaning-constitutive for vague expressions, and taking either of the above routes means that this cannot hold for ‘good’. In the following, I will, in a rather long-winded way, respond to Brian’s problem.

    (6) Suppose we think that, some way or other, vagueness is a linguistic (as opposed to ontological, or merely epistemic) phenomenon . We can then certainly hold that thick moral terms (those that somehow fuse a descriptive and a normative component – though there are important problems regarding exactly how to conceive of thick terms) are vague: the descriptive component is vague. But how exactly should we conceive of the vagueness of the thinnest value terms (‘good’, ‘…better than…all things considered’,…)? Can such a thin term really be, in any way, semantically indeterminate? Let me briefly indicate why I think not: If (say) ‘good’ were semantically indeterminate, there would be different possible precisifications of it, all equally faithful to the term’s actual meaning. Then we can have two speakers, A and B, using ‘good’ in accordance with different precisifications. A and B are equally within their semantic rights in their different uses of ‘good’. Are they equally within their moral rights, so to speak? Here’s a dilemma. If ‘no’ – if, say, A’s usage better tracks the moral facts – then ‘good’ can’t have been semantically indeterminate as between these precisifications after all. If ‘yes’, then it seems the world is in itself morally indeterminate: something A and B would give different verdicts on is such that the way the world is morally doesn’t settle it. But then, ‘good’ is not semantically indeterminate, but the source of its indeterminacy is ontological. [I’m afraid this is all too brief to make the point convincingly… I should perhaps note that the Collins & Varzi paper “Unsharpenable Vagueness” can be taken as driving home the same point, by a very different argumentative route, for the predicates ‘rationally obliged’ and ‘rationally permitted’.]

    (7) What to conclude? Some possibilities. (i) There is still a way to claim that all intuitively vague moral terms are semantically indeterminate: it is to say that all such terms have some descriptive content; are to some extent ‘thick’. This is for instance what an analytical descriptivist should say. [If even ‘good’ has a descriptive component, there’s a way to get around the above dilemma.] (ii) Or one can say that thin moral terms constitute a counterexample to all accounts of vagueness according to which what vagueness consists in something semantic, and is bound up with semantic indeterminacy. (I would be in trouble, but so would Brian, who equates vagueness with semantic indeterminacy, be.) (iii) Or one can say that although thin moral terms can be bound up with some sort of indeterminacy, this indeterminacy, being ontological (or perhaps merely epistemic), cannot be equated with vagueness, properly so called, given as vagueness is a semantic phenomenon. – To hold on to my view, I must opt for (i) or (iii). But then both of these do seem to me more attractive than (ii). Specifically, I would opt for (iii).

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