Conceptual Analysis and Moral Theory



Part of the sequence: No-Nonsense Metaethics. Also see: A Human's Guide to Words.

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Albert: "Of course it does. What kind of silly question is that? Every time I've listened to a tree fall, it made a sound, so I'll guess that other trees falling also make sounds. I don't believe the world changes around when I'm not looking."

Barry: "Wait a minute. If no one hears it, how can it be a sound?"

Albert and Barry are not arguing about facts, but about definitions:

...the first person is speaking as if 'sound' means acoustic vibrations in the air; the second person is speaking as if 'sound' means an auditory experience in a brain. If you ask "Are there acoustic vibrations?" or "Are there auditory experiences?", the answer is at once obvious. And so the argument is really about the definition of the word 'sound'.

Of course, Albert and Barry could argue back and forth about which definition best fits their intuitions about the meaning of the word. Albert could offer this argument in favor of using his definition of sound:

My computer's microphone can record a sound without anyone being around to hear it, store it as a file, and it's called a 'sound file'. And what's stored in the file is the pattern of vibrations in air, not the pattern of neural firings in anyone's brain. 'Sound' means a pattern of vibrations.

Barry might retort:

Imagine some aliens on a distant planet. They haven't evolved any organ that translates vibrations into neural signals, but they still hear sounds inside their own head (as an evolutionary biproduct of some other evolved cognitive mechanism). If these creatures seem metaphysically possible to you, then this shows that our concept of 'sound' is not dependent on patterns of vibrations.

If their debate seems silly to you, I have sad news. A large chunk of moral philosophy looks like this. What Albert and Barry are doing is what philosophers call conceptual analysis.1

The trouble with conceptual analysis

I won't argue that everything that has ever been called 'conceptual analysis' is misguided.2 Instead, I'll give examples of common kinds of conceptual analysis that corrupt discussions of morality and other subjects.

The following paragraph explains succinctly what is wrong with much conceptual analysis:

Analysis [had] one of two reputations. On the one hand, there was sterile cataloging of pointless folk wisdom - such as articles analyzing the concept VEHICLE, wondering whether something could be a vehicle without wheels. This seemed like trivial lexicography. On the other hand, there was metaphysically loaded analysis, in which ontological conclusions were established by holding fixed pieces of folk wisdom - such as attempts to refute general relativity by holding fixed allegedly conceptual truths, such as the idea that motion is intrinsic to moving things, or that there is an objective present.3

Consider even the 'naturalistic' kind of conceptual analysis practiced by Timothy Schroeder in Three Faces of Desire. In private correspondance, I tried to clarify Schroeder's project:

As I see it, [your book] seeks the cleanest reduction of the folk psychological term 'desire' to a natural kind, ala the reduction of the folk chemical term 'water' to H2O. To do this, you employ a naturalism-flavored method of conceptual analysis according to which the best theory of desire is one that is logically consistent, fits the empirical facts, and captures how we use the term and our intuitions about its meaning.

Schroeder confirmed this, and it's not hard to see the motivation for his project. We have this concept 'desire', and we might like to know: "Is there anything in the world similar to what we mean by 'desire'?" Science can answer the "is there anything" part, and intuition (supposedly) can answer the "what we mean by" part.

The trouble is that philosophers often take this "what we mean by" question so seriously that thousands of pages of debate concern which definition to use rather than which facts are true and what to anticipate.

In one chapter, Schroeder offers 8 objections4 to a popular conceptual analysis of 'desire' called the 'action-based theory of desire'. Seven of these objections concern our intuitions about the meaning of the word 'desire', including one which asks us to imagine the existence of alien life forms that have desires about the weather but have no dispositions to act to affect the weather. If our intuitions tell us that such creatures are metaphysically possible, goes the argument, then our concept of 'desire' need not be linked to dispositions to act.

Contrast this with a conversation you might have with someone from the Singularity Institute. Within 20 seconds of arguing about the definition of 'desire', someone will say, "Screw it. Taboo 'desire' so we can argue about facts and anticipations, not definitions."5

Disputing definitions

Arguing about definitions is not always misguided. Words can be wrong:

When the philosophers of Plato's Academy claimed that the best definition of a human was a "featherless biped", Diogenes the Cynic is said to have exhibited a plucked chicken and declared "Here is Plato's Man." The Platonists promptly changed their definition to "a featherless biped with broad nails."

Likewise, if I give a lecture on correlations between income and subjective well-being and I conclude by saying, "And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my theory of the atom," then you have some reason to object. Nobody else uses the term 'atom' to mean anything remotely like what I've just discussed. If I ever do that, I hope you will argue that my definition of 'morality' is 'wrong' (or unhelpful, or confusing, or something).

Some unfortunate words are used in a wide variety of vague and ambiguous ways.6 Moral terms are among these. As one example, consider some commonly used definitions for 'morally good':

  • that which produces the most pleasure for the most people
  • that which is in accord with the divine will
  • that which adheres to a certain list of rules
  • that which the speaker's intuitions approve of in a state of reflective equilibrium
  • that which the speaker generally approves of
  • that which our culture generally approves of
  • that which our species generally approves of
  • that which we would approve of if we were fully informed and perfectly rational
  • that which adheres to the policies we would vote to enact from behind a veil of ignorance
  • that which does not violate the concept of our personhood
  • that which resists entropy for as long as possible

Often, people can't tell you what they mean by moral terms when you question them. There is little hope of taking a survey to decide what moral terms 'typically mean' or 'really mean'. The problem may be worse for moral terms than for (say) art terms. Moral terms have more powerful connotations than art terms, and are thus a greater attractor for sneaking in connotations. Moral terms are used to persuade. "It's just wrong!" the moralist cries, "I don't care what definition you're using right now. It's just wrong: don't do it."

Moral discourse is rife with motivated cognition. This is part of why, I suspect, people resist dissolving moral debates even while they have no trouble dissolving the 'tree falling in a forest' debate.

Disputing the definitions of moral terms

So much moral philosophy is consumed by debates over definitions that I will skip to an example from someone you might hope would know better: reductionist Frank Jackson7:

...if Tom tells us that what he means by a right action is one in accord with God's will, rightness according to Tom is being in accord with God's will. If Jack tells us that what he means by a right action is maximizing expected value as measured in hedons, then, for Jack, rightness is maximizing expected value...

But if we wish to address the concerns of our fellows when we discuss the matter - and if we don't, we will not have much of an audience - we had better mean what they mean. We had better, that is, identify our subject via the folk theory of rightness, wrongness, goodness, badness, and so on. We need to identify rightness as the property that satisfies, or near enough satisfies, the folk theory of rightness - and likewise for the other moral properties. It is, thus, folk theory that will be our guide in identifying rightness, goodness, and so on.8

The meanings of moral terms, says Jackson, are given by their place in a network of platitudes ('clauses') from folk moral discourse:

The input clauses of folk morality tell us what kinds of situations described in descriptive, non-moral terms warrant what kinds of description in ethical terms: if an act is an intentional killing, then normally it is wrong; pain is bad; 'I cut, you choose' is a fair procedure; and so on.
The internal role clauses of folk morality articulate the interconnections between matters described in ethical, normative language: courageous people are more likely to do what is right than cowardly people; the best option is the right option; rights impose duties of respect; and so on.
The output clauses of folk morality take us from ethical judgements to facts about motivation and thus behaviour: the judgement that an act is right is normally accompanied by at least some desire to perform the act in question; the realization that an act would be dishonest typically dissuades an agent from performing it; properties that make something good are the properties we typically have some kind of pro-attitude towards, and so on.
Moral functionalism, then, is the view that the meanings of the moral terms are given by their place in this network of input, output, and internal clauses that makes up folk morality.9

And thus, Jackson tosses his lot into the definitions debate. Jackson supposes that we can pick out which platitudes of moral discourse matter, and how much they matter, for determining the meaning of moral terms - despite the fact that individual humans, and especially groups of humans, are themselves confused about the meanings of moral terms, and which platitudes of moral discourse should 'matter' in fixing their meaning.

This is a debate about definitions that will never end.

Austere Metaethics vs. Empathic Metaethics

In the next post, we'll dissolve standard moral debates the same way Albert and Barry should have dissolved their debate about sound.

But that is only the first step. It is important to not stop after sweeping away the confusions of mainstream moral philosophy to arrive at mere correct answers. We must stare directly into the heart of the problem and do the impossible.

Consider Alex, who wants to do the 'right' thing. But she doesn't know what 'right' means. Her question is: "How do I do what is right if I don't know exactly what 'right' means?"

The Austere Metaethicist might cross his arms and say:

Tell me what you mean by 'right', and I will tell you what is the right thing to do. If by 'right' you mean X, then Y is the right thing to do. If by 'right' you mean P, then Z is the right thing to do. But if you can't tell me what you mean by 'right', then you have failed to ask a coherent question, and no one can answer an incoherent question.

The Empathic Metaethicist takes up a greater burden. The Empathic Metaethicist says to Alex:

You may not know what you mean by 'right.' You haven't asked a coherent question. But let's not stop there. Here, let me come alongside you and help decode the cognitive algorithms that generated your question in the first place, and then we'll be able to answer your question. Then not only can we tell you what the right thing to do is, but also we can help bring your emotions into alignment with that truth... as you go on to (say) help save the world rather than being filled with pointless existential angst about the universe being made of math.

Austere metaethics is easy. Empathic metaethics is hard. But empathic metaethics is what needs to be done to answer Alex's question, and it's what needs to be done to build a Friendly AI. We'll get there in the next few posts.

Next post: Pluralistic Moral Reductionism

Previous post: What is Metaethics?


1 Eliezer advises against reading mainstream philosophy because he thinks it will "teach very bad habits of thought that will lead people to be unable to do real work." Conceptual analysis is, I think, exactly that: a very bad habit of thought that renders many people unable to do real work. Also: My thanks to Eliezer for his helpful comments on an early draft of this post.

2 For example: Jackson (1998), p. 28, has a different view of conceptual analysis: "conceptual analysis is the very business of addressing when and whether a story told in one vocabulary is made true by one told in some allegedly more fundamental vocabulary." For an overview of Jackson's kind of conceptual analysis, see here. Also, Alonzo Fyfe reminded me that those who interpret the law must do a kind of conceptual analysis. If a law has been passed declaring that vehicles are not allowed on playgrounds, a judge must figure out whether 'vehicle' includes or excludes rollerskates. More recent papers on conceptual analysis are available at Philpapers. Finally, read Chalmers on verbal disputes.

3 Braddon-Mitchell (2008). A famous example of the first kind lies at the heart of 20th century epistemology: the definition of 'knowledge.' Knowledge had long been defined as 'justified true belief', but then Gettier (1963) presented some hypothetical examples of justified true belief that many of us would intuitively not label as 'knowledge.' Philosophers launched a cottage industry around new definitions of 'knowledge' and new counterexamples to those definitions. Brian Weatherson called this the "analysis of knowledge merry-go-round." Tyrrell McAllister called it the 'Gettier rabbit-hole.'

4 Schroeder (2004), pp. 15-27. Schroeder lists them as 7 objections, but I count his 'trying without desiring' and 'intending without desiring' objections separately.

5 Tabooing one's words is similar to what Chalmers (2009) calls the 'method of elimination'. In an earlier post, Yudkowsky used what Chalmers (2009) calls the 'subscript gambit', except Yudkowsky used underscores instead of subscripts.

6 See also Gallie (1956).

7 Eliezer said that the closest thing to his metaethics from mainstream philosophy is Jackson's 'moral functionalism', but of course moral functionalism is not quite right.

8 Jackson (1998), p. 118.

9 Jackson (1998), pp. 130-131.


Braddon-Mitchell (2008). Naturalistic analysis and the a priori. In Braddon-Mitchell & Nola (eds.), Conceptual Analysis and Philosophical Naturalism (pp. 23-43). MIT Press.

Chalmers (2009). Verbal disputes. Unpublished.

Gallie (1956). Essentially contested concepts. Proceedings of the Aristotelean Society, 56: 167-198.

Gettier (1963). Is justified true belief knowledge? Analysis, 23: 121-123.

Jackson (1998). From Metaphysics to Ethics: A Defense of Conceptual Analysis. Oxford University Press.

Schroeder (2004). Three Faces of Desire. Oxford University Press.