20th World Congress
    of Philosophy Logo

Philosophy of Action

A Speaker-Meaning Theory of Moral Responsibility

Michael S. McKenna
Ithaca College

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: In this paper I attempt to give an account of the moral criticizability of motive by appeal to some insights in semantic theory. I maintain that the actions for which we hold persons responsible cannot strictly be understood as expressive of semantic meaning. However, I argue that morally responsible actions can be understood on analogy with a basic Gricean distinction between speaker's and sentence meaning. The analogy suggests that morally responsible actions require a competent moral agent to operate from within the confines of an interpretive moral framework of action assessment, a framework analogous to the framework required for sentence meaning.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

I would like to develop a theory of moral responsibility which draws upon some basic insights in the philosophy of language. The theory will build upon an account of moral responsibility which relies exclusively upon the moral quality of the motive with which a person acts. Call this the Moral Quality Thesis.

I. Responsibility for Action and the Moral Quality Thesis

A proper theory of moral responsibility must address three fundamental issues: What it is to be morally responsible for one's doings (1); what it is to be a responsible moral agent; and what it is to hold an individual morally responsible. I shall assume as a working hypothesis that responsibility for action is basic and that responsible moral agency and holding morally responsible are to be explained in terms of responsibility for action. I will therefore restrict my comments to a theory of responsibility for action, but I hope that the emerging theory will be able to account for these other aspects of moral responsibility.

To understand responsibility for actions, I will restrict my discussion to the notion of blame. Consider the following account of morally blameworthy action:

PB:A person A is morally blameworthy for her action X iff X issues in the appropriate manner from:

i. her own morally criticizable motive M; or

ii. a failure to form her own morally expected motive EM.

Call this the Principle of Blameability. (2) A similar principle could be formulated for morally praiseworthy actions. Collectively the two principle would account for all cases in which a person is morally responsible for an action meriting moral praise or blame. These principles will not capture morally neutral actions performed by competent moral agents, but an adequate account of responsible moral agency would make room for this class of actions. (3)

The Moral Quality Thesis, as expressed in PB, features three central notions which require attention: the notion of a morally criticizable motive, the notion of a motive's issuing in action in the appropriate manner, and the notion of a motive being an agent's own. In this paper, I shall focus my attentions upon the first of these notions.

II. Moral Responsibility and Non-natural Meaning

That moral responsibility can be illuminated by examining its affinities with linguistic usage has recently been suggested by several philosophers. In Responsibility J.R. Lucas maintains that actions signify; they are, as he puts it, "carriers of meaning between communicating agents." (4) In "Responsibility and the Limits of Evil: Variations on a Strawsonian Theme," Gary Watson advises the Strawsonian to account for the exempting conditions for responsible moral agency by appeal to limitations upon moral address. (5) More recently, in "Ascriptions of Responsibility," Marina Oshana offers an account of responsibility for action in terms of accountability. A competent moral agent is expected to be able to provide an account of her actions. (6)

All of these suggestions, while provocative, are underdeveloped, inviting an investigation into the similarities between a competent speaker's successful use of a language, and a competent moral agent's behavior. I would like to begin by focussing upon Oshana's and Watson's suggestions more carefully. To this end, let us consider a kind of moral exchange between a wrong doer and another holding the wrong doer accountable. Suppose that Yogi, feeling bearishly hungry, decides to steal Booboo's carefully prepared picnic basket to temporarily relieve his ceaseless hunger. Upon finding Yogi searching through Booboo's picnic basket, Booboo responds to Yogi indignantly, "How could you steal my food Yogi? You know I plan to have lunch with Ranger Rick today!" Booboo expects Yogi to reply, and Yogi honors Booboo's expectation, "Well Booboo, I have been out searching for berries all day and there are simply none to be found. The harder I looked, the hungrier I became. I'm sorry. It was either your picnic basket or a couple of the tourists."

Let us divide the Yogi-Booboo conversational exchange into three parts. Call the first stage Moral Infraction, the second, Moral Address, and the third, Moral Account. Notice that Watson's suggestion focuses upon Moral Address, Oshana's upon Moral Account. Each is either one or two stages removed from the initiating factor, Moral Infraction. There are hopeful prospects for approaches that focus upon these two stages.

Understanding the stages Moral Address and Moral Account as moves within a conversational exchange allows one to focus upon the conventional and conversational implications (7) of specific interactions. For example in the case of the Yogi-Booboo exchange, an obvious conventional implication at the stage Moral Address is that Yogi did steal Booboo's picnic basket. A conversational implication is that Booboo planned to have the prepared picnic for lunch with Ranger Rick. Similar remarks can be made about the stage Moral Account.

Notice also that the stages Moral Address and Moral Account are expressed by way of Gricean nonnatural meanings. Both stages are essentially communication-intention based. At both stages a speaker, A, intends her audience, B, to recognize that p, and for B to recognize that p in virtue of A's intention to convey p by means of utterance U. (8) So, for instance, Booboo expects his audience, Yogi, to recognize that he, Booboo, wants Yogi to explain stealing the picnic basket. And Booboo intends Yogi to recognize this in virtue of Booboo's intention to convey this want to Yogi by means of uttering, "How could you steal my food Yogi?"

Can the stage Moral Infraction be treated likewise? It appears not. To start with nonnatural meaning, at the stage of Moral Infraction, Yogi had no intention that Booboo or anyone else recognize any of his intentions in any way. In fact, had Yogi been smarter than the average bear, he might have gotten away with his little caper without anyone ever knowing. Of course, many instances of moral infractions do occur by means of expressing nonnatural meanings, as when one verbally abuses another. But the crucial point is that many do not occur in this manner and so for purposes of a general theory of moral responsibility, we cannot treat the stage Moral Infraction as essentially expressed via nonnatural meaning. For similar reasons, the stage Moral Infraction cannot be analyzed in terms of conventional and conversational implicatures. All implicatures are upshots of some conversational exchange, and again, in the Yogi-Booboo case, at the stage of Moral Infraction, there is no conversation. Had Yogi been more sly, there would have been no exchange at all, and thus, nothing implicated.

III. Responsibility for Action and Speaker-Meaning

The stage Moral Infraction, it seems, cannot be illuminated, as Moral Address and Moral Account can, by appeal to the notions of conventional and conversational implicature, as well as nonnatural meaning. This casts doubts on Lucas's suggestion that actions signify in the sense that, as Lucas puts it, they are carriers of meaning among communicating agents. (9) Consequently, if the moral criticizability of motive as expressed in PB is to be understood by appeal to semantic theory, it appears as if it must be by way of either the stage Moral Address or Moral Account. While Watson's and Oshana's suggestions are worth pursuing, I am concerned with a more direct route. I am interested in the actions at the stage Moral Infraction.

Is there any way to make the case that the actions for which we are responsible are, in some interesting sense, "carriers of (nonnatural) meaning among communicating agents"? I believe that there might be an illuminating analogy available. Building upon this analogy would not show that the pertinent actions actually convey nonnatural meanings, but it would illustrate a kind of structural similarity between features of language use and features of actions about which questions of moral responsibility can arise. This, I believe, would be the best that one could hope for. The analogy builds upon Grice's semantic distinctions (10) which, for present purposes, can be simplified to the less cautious taxonomy of speaker-meaning and sentence-meaning. (11) The distinction can be illustrated with an example offered by Grice. (12) Consider the sentence:

(GG) "If I shall be helping the grass to grow, I shall have no time for reading."

The sentence-meaning of GG can be construed as:

(S) "If I shall be helping the kind of thing of which lawns are composed, I shall have no time for reading."

Assuming a certain context in which a speaker operates, a speaker might have been taken to express the following as the speaker-meaning of the particular utterance of GG on an occasion:

(SP) "One advantage of being dead is that I shall be protected from the horrors of the world."

As this simple example illustrates, speaker-meaning can come apart from sentence-meaning. It is worth considering how it is possible for a speaker to use GG to express SP as opposed to S. To begin, notice that in many cases speaker-meaning and sentence-meaning do not come apart. Often, in uttering a sentence like GG, a speaker might very well intend to convey on that occasion what is meant by S. But how does a speaker get to SP from GG? The speaker must assume that she and her audience share a set of very specific beliefs. These include the assumption that typically, when people die, they are buried beneath the earth; that being buried beneath the earth, and being a biological item, one's corpse will decompose; that decomposing corpses act as nutrients for plant growth, etc. These beliefs allow a speaker to make the transition from "helping the kind of thing of which lawns are composed," to "being dead." Notice that this transition assumes the speaker's ability to assign GG the sentence-meaning S. Furthermore, for a speaker to successfully convey SP by GG as opposed to S, the context of conversation must be such that it would seem out of place, irrelevant, for the speaker to mention growing grass and leisure time when the conversation was about future crises and how one might not live to learn of them. (13)

I want to treat an action concerning a judgment of responsibility on analogy with a sentence like GG, and treat possible motives which might explain the action as ranging from motive-analogs of S to motive-analogs of SP. This can be brought out by focussing upon excuses. Excuses deny the appearance that one has done morally wrong. Consider an excuse in a variation on the Yogi-Booboo exchange. In possible world Excuse, at the stage Moral Address, Booboo assigns a particular interpretation to the motives which explain Yogi's behavior: Booboo assumes that Yogi knowingly stole his picnic basket and ate his lunch. At the stage Moral Account, Yogi replies to Booboo's demand, speaking truthfully, "Was this your picnic basket Booboo? I'm so sorry, I thought it was my own. I didn't know." By offering this excuse, Yogi invites Booboo to reevaluate the significance of Yogi's action by offering a different interpretation of the motives which explained his action. In order to make clear the point of the analogy, treat Booboo's original interpretation at the stage Moral Address on analogy with an audience member, Booboo, overhearing a speaker, Yogi, uttering GG. Unaware of the context in which Yogi was speaking, Booboo initially interprets Yogi to have meant S. Treat Yogi's appeals at the stage Moral Account on analogy with an invitation by Yogi to provide a context in which Booboo reinterprets Yogi's meaning to be SP, not S.

Just as we asked how it was possible for a speaker to get from S to SP, so too can we ask how it is possible in the world Excuse for Yogi to get from Booboo's interpretation at the stage Moral Address, to the interpretation Yogi offers at the stage Moral Account. Remarks parallel to those made in the case of speaker-meaning can be made here as well. First, in the case of the possible world Excuse, Yogi must make the transition to his preferred interpretation by exploiting a shared set of very specific beliefs between himself and Booboo. For instance, Yogi must assume that Booboo shares Yogi's belief that, if the picnic basket had been Yogi's, it would have been perfectly acceptable for Yogi to consume the contents. Yogi must also assume that they share the belief that the baskets are sufficiently similar in appearance that such a mistake could have been made. Second, in order for Yogi to realize that an account of his behavior is called for, he must be able to acknowledge that his particular action does appear to conform with an action-type which normally is indicative of a morally criticizable motive - namely the motive of stealing and eating someone else's lunch. Third, Yogi must show that the context of beliefs in which he operated at the (putative) stage Moral Infraction would have made the idea that he was stealing Booboo's picnic basket seem misplaced: he was simply eating from his own basket.

The similarities between excuses and justifications on the one hand, and the divergence of speaker's from sentence meaning on the other, suggest that the task of assessing the moral quality of an agent's motive is a matter of interpreting what specific motives explain an agent's particular actions. This interpretive process assumes that an agent's actions take place within a social medium. An agent must understand that within this social medium, an action-type is conventionally assigned a significance normally indicative of a certain kind of motive. This is not to suggest that any one of her particular actions must conform with an interpretation assigned to some action-type. It is only to suggest that if her actions are to diverge from these interpretations, their variations must in some way be a function of the interpretive framework in which she operates. Consequently, in order for an agent to have a particular motive which is subject to moral evaluation at all, the agent must posses a mastery of the conventional interpretations of the action-types expressive of a moral community's understanding of the prohibitions or expectations of morality. Only in this context can a moral agent act from motives which are subject to moral evaluation.

IV. A Speaker-Meaning Theory of Moral Responsibility

An exploration of the analogy between speaker-meaning and the moral evaluation of motive suggests the following principle as a first approximation towards a Speaker-Meaning Theory of Moral Responsibility:

(SMT) An agent A possesses a morally criticizable motive M iff:

1. M is formed within the context of:

i. A's interpretive mastery of the conventions C assigning motive- types to action-types; and,

ii. C embodies a moral community's understanding of the prohibitions or expectations of morality.

2. M violates the prohibitions or expectations of morality;

Notice that condition 2 does not claim that M violates a moral community's understanding of the prohibitions or expectations of morality. It says that M does violate those prohibitions or expectations. Conditions 1 and 2 combined indicate an important subtlety to SMT. Condition 2 requires that the moral criticizability of motive is fixed by the conditions of morality and not by what members of a community take to be the conditions of morality. Condition 1 preserves the conventional and social dimension of an agent's morally assessable behavior. It may be that the moral criticizability of motive should be based upon what morality itself requires, but a person can only make her motives manifest within some interpretive social framework.

One advantage of the Speaker-Meaning Theory is that it exploits the insights of semantic theory without relying upon the stance of holding morally responsible as its explanatory foundation. I believe that an account of holding responsible must be tempered by the conceptually prior question of whether or not an agent is responsible for her actions. The Speaker-Meaning Theory of Moral Responsibility focuses the moral assessment of action squarely upon the agent who acts, and not upon the members of the moral community who are interpreting the agent and her action. Whether or not an agent is morally responsible for her actions will depend upon what her actions signify about her motives, and therefore will not depend upon how others in the moral community interpret her actions.

The Speaker-Meaning Theory maintains that the capacity to act as a responsible moral agent can be understood on analogy with a competent speaker's mastery of a natural language. This suggests, though it certainly is no argument, that if determinism would threaten the capacity to act as a morally responsible agent, it would likewise threaten a speaker's capacity to master and make use of a natural language. Since it seems that determinism would pose no such threat to competent language use, in like manner it might be argued that determinism would pose no threat to moral responsibility.

V. Conclusion

Can the actions for which we hold persons morally responsible be systematically understood as carriers of meaning among communicating agents as Lucas suggests? If what Lucas had in mind was nonnatural meaning, the answer, strictly speaking, is no. There is no reason to think that all such actions involve the complex kind of communication-intentions requisite for nonnatural meaning. Nor is there reason to think that all such actions can be analyzed in terms of their conventional and conversational implicatures. All such implicatures presuppose a conversational context, and many actions for which persons are morally responsible involve no such context. Still, the relevant class of actions can be illuminated by analogy with the distinction between speaker and sentence meaning. Such an analogy suggests that the moral quality of an agent's motive requires that an agent formulate that motive within an interpretive context. This context is fixed by a set of social conventions that structure and maintain an association between types of actions and types of motives. As with a competent speaker's capacity to use a language to express her own thoughts, a competent moral agent is able to frame her own morally assessable motives only if she possess sufficient mastery of conventions assigning interpretations of motive-types to action-types. (14)

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


(1) An adequate account of moral responsibility should treat of responsibility for actions, responsibility for omissions (what one fails to do), as well as responsibility for the consequences of one's acts and omissions. I cannot properly address these topics within the confines of this paper and will restrict my discussion to responsibility for actions. The account offered here is intended to apply to omissions and consequences as well. I am hopeful that my remarks will make clear how this might be done.

(2) This principle has been thoughtfully defended in several unpublished papers by George Thomas. A similar view can also be found in [Note Incomplete].

(3) This classification mirrors John Martin Fischer's and Mark Ravizza's. See "Introduction," Perspectives on Moral Responsibility, ed. Fischer and Ravizza, p. 6.

(4) J.R. Lucas, Responsibility, p.8.

(5) See Gary Watson, "Responsibility and the Limits of Evil: Variations on a Strawsonian Theme," pp.126- 130.

(6) Marina Oshana, "Ascriptions of Moral Responsibility," pp.76-77.

(7) On a Gricean account of conventional and conversational implicature, certain implicatures arise from establish conventions within conversational exchanges; these are conventional implicatures.(H.P. Grice, "Logic and Conversation," pp.25-26) For example, a conventional implicature involved in answering a question, is that a question has been posed. Other implicatures do not arise as an upshot of established convention, but rather as a function of context. For example, if Shaggy says to Scooby, "Where does Thelma live?" and Scooby replies, "Somewhere in the South of France." then Scooby conversationally implies by his lack of specificity that he does not know more precisely where in the South of France Thelma lives.

(8) H.P. Grice, "Meaning," especially, pp. 217. Those familiar with the nuances of Grice's account of nonnatural meaning will recognize that the conditions I mention here are only necessary but not sufficient for an account of nonnatural meaning in Grice's fully developed view. I, however, shall work with this account as it is sufficient to serve my purposes. My only intention is to show that the first stage of the interchange cannot be strictly construed as an instance of nonnatural meaning since it fails to satisfy the Gricean conditions I have presented. Given that it fails for these merely necessary conditions of Gricean meaning, it would fail for the fully fleshed out conditions as well. For a clear presentation of Grice's theory of nonnatural meaning (in particular, speaker's meaning) see Stephen Schiffer's Remnants of Meaning, pp.242-249.

(9) Presumably the notion of meaning Lucas had in mind was not what Grice meant by natural meaning, since any aspect of nature can carry natural meaning, like the way in which the turning of the leaves can mean that Fall is near.

(10) Grice, "Utterer's Meaning and Intentions," pp.88-90

(11) In Remnants of Meaning Schiffer uses the expressions "speaker-meaning" and "expression-meaning." p.242.

(12) Grice, "Utterer's Meaning and Intentions," pp.88-90.

(13) To summarize, there are at least three factors here which allow a speaker to get SP from GG. First, the speaker utilizes a shared set of beliefs that rationalize the move from translation S to translation SP. Second, the speaker relies upon the conventions established for S. Third, the context in which the speaker successfully conveys SP as opposed to S is one in which S would have been out of place.

(14) This paper was written with funding from a 1996 Cornell University Society for the Humanities Summer Research Grant provided by Ithaca College.


Fischer, J.M. and Ravizza, Mark, eds. 1993 Perspectives on Moral Responsibility.

Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Grice, H.P. 1948. "Meaning." in Grice 1989, pp. 213-223.

_____ 1967 a. "Logic and Conversation." in Grice 1989, pp. 22-40.

_____ 1967 b. "Utterer's Meaning and Intentions." in Grice, pp. 86-116.

_____ 1989. Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Lucas, J.R. 1995. Responsibility. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Oshana, M. 1997. "Ascriptions of Responsibility." American Philosophical Quarterly, 34:


Schiffer, S. 1989. The Remnants of Meaning. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Watson, Gary. 1987. "Responsibility and the Limits of Evil." In Fischer and Ravizza, ed.,

1993, pp.119-50.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the

20th World Congress
    of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to
    the WCP Homepage