If people are asked what gives words meaning, the first answer is usually that a word's meaning is what it refers to. For example, 'yellow' means the colour yellow and as illustration we can point out objects which are coloured yellow. This commonsensical view, accepted also by many philosophers, was adopted by a distinguished philosopher of the early part of the 20th century. One consequence of his influence was to put moral philosophy on the wrong path for 20 years.
The philosopher in question was G E Moore and his book was entitled Principia Ethica
(1903). In this book, Moore distinguishes the question: What does good
mean? from the question: What kinds of thing are good
? In the last part of the book, he does tackle the second question but it was the first question which interested philosophers.
Moore assumed that 'good' must refer to a property (as 'yellow' refers to the property yellow). The question therefore arose as to the sort of property which good refers to. He argued that it could not be a natural property, such as pleasure. His argument on this is that if we say that good just means or can be defined as 'what gives pleasure' then we have created a tautology; for the claim that 'pleasure is good' becomes 'pleasure gives pleasure', which is not what we mean when we say that pleasure is good. Moore claimed that any attempted definition of good in terms of any natural property would similarly fail, and he used the term 'naturalistic fallacy' for any attempt to show that good means or refers to any natural property.
Nonetheless, thanks to the persuasive nature of the common sense view that we can identify the meaning of a word by what it refers to, Moore persisted with the idea that good must refer to a property. Since it could not be a natural property such as pleasure, it must refer to what he called a 'non-natural' property which we could identify by moral intuition. A great deal of ingenious moral philosophy after Moore was taken up with the nature of a 'non-natural' property and the required 'intuition' to become aware of it.
When I was a student, a tutor once wrote on one of my essays: A good bark but up the wrong tree. And that seems to me to be what was wrong with much moral philosophy subsequent to G E Moore. The 'wrong tree' was the assumption that words have meaning because they refer to a property.
This 'meaning as referring' theory concentrates on nouns and certain adjectives, but language has many more types of word, and many more uses in addition to referring to properties or states of affairs. Consider a few examples. 'Next year, Covid will still be with us', 'Help!', 'Go on, try it', 'Perchance to dream!'. What are being referred to in these examples, and many similar?
Students often begin essays with: According to the OED, 'X means Y, Z...'. If Moore had followed this simple procedure, his work would have proceeded along more profitable lines, for the OED tells us that 'good' is the most general adjective of commendation. When you call something good, you are not naming a property, natural or non-natural, you are commending it.
Some philosophers subsequent to Moore took this up and argued that words such as good didn't name any properties, they simply expressed someone's emotions about a state of affairs. Out of this approach there developed a very influential theory of moral philosophy during the period 1940-1960 known as the emotive theory of ethics.
Now there is no denying that many people, probably all of us, feel very strongly that certain actions are just wrong. I would never dream of denying the emotional side to moral judgements. But I would want to argue that we feel strongly about certain actions because they are wrong rather than that they are wrong because we feel strongly about them. The question then arises as to what it means to commend something because it has good qualities or deplore it because it has bad qualities.
A philosopher of the 1950s or 1960s, I think it was J O Urmson, wrote an article on grading apples. He imagined a large pile of assorted apples and someone given the task of grading them for different uses. Thus, he supposed categories such as: dessert apples, cooking apples, apples for making jelly, for making cider, etc. In other words, assorted criteria were used to identify the different reasons for which these apples were to be commended for being good. There was no one property they all had.
The same is true of human actions. We commend the actions or the people who perform them for being brave, kind, honest, thoughtful, generous, honourable, and many others. There is no one property, natural or non-natural, which they all possess but they are all fairly recognisable in terms of assorted characteristics, and we commend them as 'good' for having these characteristics. It is the fact that these assorted types of action satisfy certain criteria which lead us to commend them as good.
I have been speaking specifically of what makes moral judgements meaningful, but it is possible to generalise meaning in other spheres. First of all, from a negative point of view, words are not meaningful simply because they name objects. Apples were graded or categorised according to certain criteria or rules. For example, to be suitable for a dessert, an apple would need to be sweet, unblemished, not too large or small, and so on. That is what it means to call an apple a dessert apple. It is therefore tempting to generalise and say that the meaning of a word or an expression consists in the rules for its use.
This approach, central to the later work of Wittgenstein, has many advantages over the 'meaning is referring' approach. For example, it can cover words which don't refer to anything, such as prepositions or conjunctions or verbs. What does 'if' mean? There are rules for its different uses which those familiar with the language obey without thinking.
And when we explain the meaning of words to someone else, we usually provide examples of when and how to use the word. At the present time, there are new words and expressions in common use and I have to ask my family to explain them. For example, I recently learned what 'gas-lighting' meant, and this was done through examples of gas-lighting. Readers might like to consider if they can distinguish between a 'nerd' and an 'anorak'. They have their own rules for use.
Note also that rules for use are not absolute. Indeed, poets often go out of their way to break or bend the usual rules. For example, in his poem The Sick Rose
, William Blake writes:
O Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Blake has clearly broken quite a few rules for use. How can a rose be 'sick'? What kind of creature is an 'invisible worm that flies in the night'? For that reason, some people might dismiss the poem as pretentious nonsense. On the other hand, others may find in the poem a dark and sinister meaning. Benjamin Britten certainly did in his Serenade for Tenor and Horn
. But it is at least clear that the meaning of this poem does not involve referring to any property or set of properties. Of course, it doesn't exactly fit the rules for use approach either. As I said, it gets its meaning by breaking rules for use. But you can't get meaning from breaking rules for use unless there are rules in the first place.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow