sentimentalism and fit

Sentimentalism is an account about the meaning of some evaluative terms in natural language. In general, the sentimentalist about some evaluative term E proposes to analyze E in terms of the notion of fittingness of some emotion. So, for example, ‘x is shameful’ gets analyzed as ‘it is fitting to feel shame at x‘. Fittingness in turn gets analyzed in terms of the truth of the representational content of the relevant emotion. That is to say: shame at x is fitting just in case x-directed shame represents x truthfully. (And, in general, an emotion with representational content p is fitting just in case p.)

The sentimentalist analysis of ‘shameful’ avoids making a mistake that other accounts of the meaning of ‘shameful’ have made. Say that we propose to analyze ‘x is shameful’ as ‘x‘s bearer ought to / should be ashamed of x‘. This is clearly wrong. It is possible that John should be ashamed of smoking — say Osama will blow up India unless John’s ashamed of smoking — even though his smoking is isn’t itself shameful.

This is all seems pretty much correct. Still, the following sentences sound pretty odd to me.

(1) #Smoking is a shameful habit, but it’s not like you ought to be ashamed about it.

(2) #John’s behavior is shameful, and he shouldn’t be ashamed about it.

(3) #That moldy piece of bread is disgusting, but don’t be disgusted by it.

It does not help to observe that it is fairly easy to fill in the conversational context in a way that appears to alleviate the intuitive oddness of these sentences. (For example, it is easy to imagine someone following up an utterance of (1) with the following addition: “After all, shame only makes it harder for you to do what you need to do—quit smoking.”) The oddness is something that needs to be alleviated, and it so it’s still explanandum for the sentimentalist, since his theory seems to predict that a conjunctive utterance like, e.g., (1) should be a perfectly ordinary way of asserting the following claim:

(1’) It’s fitting to feel shame at smoking, but it’s not like you ought to be ashamed about it.

There is no oddness about (1’) once we remember that ‘fittingness’ is a technical notion with a special meaning for the sentimentalist. According to the sentimentalist, it is fitting to feel shame at smoking just in case the representational content of smoking-directed shame is true. It is plausible to understand the ‘ought’ of the second conjunct as something like an all-things-considered, normative-reasons ‘ought’. That is to say: the two conjuncts of (1’) assert different, entirely consistent claims. If we understand the meaning of (1) along the lines of (1’), then we appear to predict that there should be nothing odd about any utterance of (1)—including those that are unaccompanied by some sort of extra “after all…” claim. And this prediction appears to be false.

I think the sentimentalist needs to beat a retreat to the pragmatics to construct a plausible reply. Here’s how that reply might go: the meaning of ‘shameful’ is everywhere what the sentimentalist claims it to be. The oddness of (1) is not a consequence of any sort of lexical or semantic ambiguity, but of a presuppositional confusion generated by the conjunction of the relevant sentences. This is because, in general, an utterance of any claim that invokes any kind of normative language conversationally implicates the relevant all-things-considered normative reasons claim. Conversational implicatures generate pragmatic presuppositions. (Following Stalnaker, it is pragmatically presupposed that p in a conversation C just in case every member of C treats p as true, believes that every member of C treats p as true, and so on.) According to this story, an utterance of (1) first generates a pragmatic presupposition that feeling shame about smoking is appropriate (in the all-things-considered sense), which is immediately canceled by the sub-utterance involving the second conjunct. So the explanation of our intuitive judgment of (1)’s oddness goes like this: though there is, strictly speaking, no contradiction involved in an utterance of (1), it generally generates a pragmatic presupposition that is incompatible with the content of its second conjunct.

I think it is plausible to suppose that there is this sort of conversational implicature in conversations involving the exchange of normative claims. For one, the proposal is able to explain the default intuitive oddness of both (4) and (5). (Note: as with (1)-(3), though it isn’t difficult to alleviate the oddness of (4) and (5), still, something has to be done in order to alleviate it!) [*]

(4) #Yu-chen’s belief that her house is on fire is justified, but she shouldn’t believe that.

(5) #It makes sense for Vanessa to move to New York, but she shouldn’t do it.

For two, there seem to be fairly clear Gricean reasons for supposing that this kind of implicature actually exists. According to Grice’s Maxim of Quantity, a speaker should say no less and no more than required by the demands of conversation. It seems plausible to suppose that, in general, in conversations involving the exchange of normative claims, the conversation demands the dispensation of good evaluative advice by speaker to addressee—that is to say, the best advice that it is possible for the speaker to dispense to his addressee, given his epistemic limitations. A speaker violates the Maxim of Quality by dispensing advice that he does not take to be good advice. If sentimentalism about ‘shameful’ is correct, a speaker’s utterance of ‘smoking is shameful habit’ advises his addressee to feel shame at smoking. If he does not take this to be good advice—perhaps because he thinks that shame only makes it harder for you to do what you need to do—then he should not have dispensed it. In dispensing it, the speaker therefore implicates that he takes it to be good advice. That is to say, he implicates that feeling shame about smoking is appropriate (in the all-things-considered sense).

Note:

[*] The nice thing about conversational implicatures is that they are easily cancelable or defeasible. Thus it should be fairly easy to construct a case where, e.g., there is no feeling that an utterance of (1) would be at all odd. And indeed it is fairly easy. For example, wherever it is common ground that the speaker will follow his utterance of (1) with an explanation of why it is all-things-considered bad to be ashamed about one’s smoking—an explanation that does not bear on the fittingness of feeling shame at one’s smoking—it seems plausible to suppose that the relevant implicature is canceled. It is sufficiently clear to every participant in the conversation that the speaker is not advising anyone to be ashamed of smoking.

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9 Responses to sentimentalism and fit

  1. […] alleviate the oddness of (4) and (5), still, something has to be done in order to alleviate it!) [*] (4) #Yu-chen’s belief that her house is on fire is justified, but she shouldn’t believe […]

  2. Richard says:

    “Say that we propose to analyze ‘x is shameful’ as ‘x’s bearer ought to / should be ashamed of x‘. This is clearly wrong. It is possible that John should be ashamed of smoking — say Osama will blow up India unless John’s ashamed of smoking — even though his smoking is isn’t itself shameful.”

    I’m not sure about that. Osama’s threat certainly provides a reason for action here, but the relevant act is not being ashamed (that’s not an action at all), but rather inducing a state of shame in John. (I discuss the distinction further in this old post.)

  3. nate charlow says:

    I agree that Osama’s threat provides a reason for inducing shame. I don’t see that this affects my point. It seems obvious John should be ashamed of smoking.

    Your reply appears to presuppose that whenever it is claimed that an individual has a reason to have an attitude, that reason is a reason-of-fit for having the attitude. My intuitions are squarely against this.

  4. Richard says:

    *shrug*, it’s obvious that John should get himself to be ashamed of smoking, and that his being ashamed is a good state of affairs. I wonder whether my intuition that he should “be” ashamed is, in part, confused by those other judgments. Probably not, but it’s at least an option that’s open to defenders of the alternative view.

  5. Steve C. says:

    Hmm, would it help if we slightly modified the account that you think gets it wrong and say instead that ‘x is shameful’ is to be analyzed as ‘Ceteris paribus, x’s bearer ought to/should be ashamed of x’? At the moment, this strikes me as getting closer to the meaning of the evaluative term and to making good sense of our discomfort with (1)-(3). After all, they supply no counterbalancing reasons. The ‘and’ of (2) makes it sound as if no such reason is forthcoming, which (I take it) is why I find that one the most bizarre. If someone uttered any of those sentences in isolation, I would be confused or think them confused.

    And I wonder if this wouldn’t also qualify as a sentimentalist analysis of shame.

  6. nate charlow says:

    Richard: I think I’d need to hear more.

    Steve: No ceteris paribus clauses in philosophical analyses, please! It strikes me as a weasel move, and anyone could avoid a particularly “far-fetched” counterexample by deploying it.

    More seriously, your account is incomplete. I take it the “ceteris paribus” should be interpreted as follows:

    (A) x is shameful iff x’s bearer ought to be ashamed of x, if there are no countervailing reasons that together override x’s bearer’s reason to be ashamed of x

    But you’ll want to say something about what kind of reason x’s bearer’s reason to be ashamed of x actually is. I think the only plausible response is that it’s a reason-of-fit.

  7. nate charlow says:

    I should add that if I’m right about that last point (A) just amounts to the sentimentalist analysis.

  8. Steve C. says:

    Well, I don’t have your weasel intuitions about adding a ceteris paribus clause, at least in this case. It’s a way to acknowledge that a thing’s status as something calling for shame is overridable. And even if/when it is overridden, the attribution still seems worthwhile in cases like your (1)-(3) as a way of noting that had the overriders been absent…

    That being said, I agree that the ceteris paribus proposal has significant problems. Your comment about how to flesh out the clause sounds right. And if we didn’t link ‘shameful’ to reasons of fit, the modified account would still seem to allow the wrong sorts of things to be labeled ‘shameful.’ For instance, it might be appropriate to call some unspecified action x of John’s ‘shameful’ if we know that Osama will wreak havoc if John doesn’t feel ashamed of having x-ed (after the fact). But x might be the petting of bunny rabbits. Anyway, that seems to be a devastating problem for the proposal. It seems clear that subsequent events of that sort cannot make something shameful.

    I have some sympathy with Richard on the whole reasons of action vs. reasons of fit issue. But I suspect that my sympathy is a matter of ethics and not semantics. (It seems like one can say “You shouldn’t have gotten angry” for pragmatic reasons while thinking that the anger was no doubt warranted/justified in the situation.) But, of course, then I start to think about the meaning of ‘should’, the room begins to spin, and I wake up three days later naked in a strange place.

  9. GNZ says:

    I presume this is largely a consequentiality / deontological issue (i.e. you could do something bad that does good) show you could use shame in two different senses.

    also in the mix is the free will issue (i.e. you could do something bad but not deserve shame)
    and the way in which we frame the rule making (i.e. you could say “we must feel shame after doing X” or “if Z, then we must feel shame after doing X” etc). Which to aconcequentialist is a pragmatic issue about what rules we think work.

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