Ethics, schmethics, and semantics: Against philosophical language policing
I agree with everything but the section on non-maximal options. I think the question of "Should I block a mineshaft?" can be understood as "What is the deontic status of blocking a mineshaft?", which is an interesting question that I don't think is a merely semantic issue. I see two ways of answering the question, and both call for a serious reunderstanding of morality.
We can say non-maximal options have no deontic status, which (though my preferred view) is far from intuitive and implies that human beings never have any true thoughts about what they ought to do, or
We can say non-maximal options entailed by an optimal maximal option are obligatory, which means we have to reformulate our moral theory (standard moral theory would say you ought to do what's best, but blocking a shaft isn't best if you block the wrong one!).
I agree with you. But would you distinguish the semantic arguments of Geach and Thomson from Foot's general line of argument in 'Utilitarianism and the Virtues'? As I understand the latter argument, it's not concerned with semantics but with relations of conceptual dependence (e.g. she says that the goodness or badness of consequences, or states of affairs, is “found. . .within morality, and forming part of it, not standing outside it as the ‘good state of affairs’ by which moral action in general is to be judged.”).
'Just imagine a linguist trying to intervene in a heated debated between utilitarians and Kantians: “Guys, stop! You don’t need to argue any more: I just did a thorough empirical survey and it turns out that the English term ‘wrong’ picks out both pushing the guy off the trolley footbridge and telling the truth to the murderer at the door. Common sense ethics wins!”
Obviously this is daft. We’re not really interested in the English word ‘wrong’.'
Intuitively there seems to be something right about what your saying here, but it's hard to square disinterest in *all* semantic claims, with interest in the substantive claims we actually care about, given that very basic disquotational principles *seem* to take us from semantic claims to ones that aren't semantic. I.e. if I learn the semantic truth 'The sentence "failing to maximize utility is wrong" is true', then I learn something that entails 'failing to maximize utility is wrong' (given the t-scheme, which doesn't seem in doubt in this context.) Since "correctly noticing the entailments of claims I already know" is a way to get knowledge, it seems I can get knowledge of normative stuff via learning semantic stuff. Of course, you can refuse to speak English, and use the various words in "failing to maximize utility is wrong" in such a way that the sentence comes out false in your idiolect. But that doesn't seem to threaten the inference from the semantic claim about ordinary English to "failing to maximize utility is wrong" read with its ordinary English meaning. And presumably the latter is a normative claim, even if the different claim you make with "failing to max utility is wrong" is also normative and false. So insofar as your write that semantic stuff can't inform you about normative truths, that's actually pretty puzzling.
“If it turned out that I was a brain-in-a-vat and there was no English language—beyond the private language that I speak myself and hallucinate on the part of others—I cannot see how that would (or should) change any of my (fundamental) philosophical views in the slightest.”
Cheeky comment, but it should change your view about whether you’re a brain in a vat, which is a pretty fundamental philosophical view.
Not much relevant to your main point, but surely you've missed the train re Geach and Thomson. It's not about the word 'good,' but the concept/thing that Moore insisted we should maximise—goodness, the good, etc.
And the claim is that goodness is a fundamentally attributive concept—and thus isn't the sort of thing it could make sense to maximise. Compare with the toy view: you ought to maximise the big / bigness. What sense could be made of that view? After all, to make, e.g., a big tennis ball is to make a small object; to make a big mouse is to make a small animal, etc. (Just as to make a good murderer is to make a bad christian, etc.) Bigness just isn't the sort of thing it's even possible to maximise. Geach and Thomson argue that the same goes for goodness.
Of course, their argument might go wrong (indeed, I've argued that it does), but to think it's just about words is confuse the subject of the argument (which does appeal to how we use words), with the subject of conclusion (not about the word 'good,' but about goodness).
What do you think about mereology?
This seems so obvious to me that I am probably missing something.
I resonate with the spirit of this but what other evidence do you think philosophers should appeal to (and how is it non-linguistic)?
I blame Wittgenstein.