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Can Frege’s Farbung Help Explain the Meaning of Ethical Terms?

1 January 2007


In this paper we reach back to an earlier generation of discussions about both linguistic meaning and moral language to answer the still-current question as to whether and in what way some special non-descriptive feature comprises part of the semantics of identifiably ethical terms. Taking off from the failure of familiar meta-ethical theories, restricted as they are to the Fregean categories of Sense and Force (whether singly or in combination), we propose that one particular variety belonging to Frege’s humble semantic category of Farbung –– what Dummett calls Tone –– holds the key. Specifically, the kinds of expressions that Dummett dubs “expressives”, when properly understood as representing a speaker’s sentiment, solve the mystery not only of moral discourse, but of evaluative language, broadly construed. On this basis we account for moral language’s special relation to action motivation in ways that avoid Moore’s paradox and honor, in unasserted contexts, what Geach calls ‘the Frege point’. Commitments to the public and social character of natural language are also respected.


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