Early Career Fellowship: The Expressive Role of 'Ought'

Project Details


Moral philosophers typically see ‘ought’ (and its near synonym ‘should’) as a paradigmatically normative term. That is, we see questions such as, ‘How ought I to live?’ as fundamental to ethical theorising. However, philosophical work on understanding the meaning of ‘ought’ is often unsystematic and biased by the specific concerns of morality. The central aim of this research is to develop a systematic account of the meaning of ‘ought’ that avoids this bias. This is important not just as a semantic study but also for its implications for foundational questions in ethics and epistemology.

Layman's description

This project is about the meaning of the word 'ought'.
Ethical theorists are interested in the meaning of this word because general ethical principles and particular ethical conclusions can often be stated with an ought-claim. For example, Utilitarianism can be put as the view that one ought always act so as to maximize overall happiness. And the extreme pro-life position in the abortion debate can be put as the view that one ought never to have an abortion.
However, the word 'ought' is also interesting from a linguistic point of view. This is because it is not a normal verb but a modal verb. Moreover, along with other modal verbs like 'must' and 'may' it exhibits a variety of flavours besides the moral flavor. For example, we can say 'To get to Harlem, you ought to take the A train' which is narrowly instrumental. We can also say, 'You ought to com 'round for dinner sometime' which expresses a speaker's desire or wish. And even more remarkably we say things like 'They left an hour ago, so they ought to be home by now,' which seem to have to do with probabilities and evidence rather than actions in accordance with a rule.
This project seeks an account of the meaning of 'ought' that is sensitive to both sources of interest in this word.

Key findings

• ‘Ought’ is not homologous across deontic and epistemic uses.
• We should strive to give a semantic account of ‘ought’ that is unified across deontic and epistemic uses and systematic within a structure of modal terms.
• Semantically, ‘ought’ is best viewed as a modal operator.
• Realist and expressivist meta-semantic accounts are unsatisfactory when combined with our best linguistic understanding of the semantic properties of ‘ought’.
• Inferentialist meta-semantic accounts offer a more attractive home for our best linguistic understanding of the semantic properties of ‘ought’ and the foundations of a unified and systematic philosophical understanding of the meaning of ‘ought’.
Effective start/end date1/09/1031/05/11


  • AHRC: £85,198.00