Many normative judgments play a practical role in our thought. This paper concerns how their practical role is reflected in language. It is natural to wonder whether the phenomenon is semantic or pragmatic. The standard assumption in moral philosophy is that at least terms which can be used to express “thin” normative concepts – such as good, right, and ought – are associated with certain practical roles somehow as a matter of meaning. But this view is rarely given explicit defense or even articulation. I’ll consider several versions of the view, and argue that even the most promising among them are problematic. Terms like ought are often used in ways where their customary practical role is absent. Such cases give us a choice: either offer some plausible explanation of why the relevant practical upshots don’t show up in these cases despite featuring in our semantic theory for these expressions, or else don’t build them into that theory. I argue that plausible explanations of the requisite sort aren’t forthcoming in either descriptive semantics or metasemantics for normative language. In closing I briefly consider the prospects for a pragmatic account of the phenomenon and some broader ramifications for metaethics and the philosophy of normativity.
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