Syntax, Semantics, Ethics

How we understand one another in our social interactions is of paramount importance for ethics. Pointing, gestures, and similar cues can get us started, but we cannot get very far without considering linguistic meaning, and we cannot get very far with natural language meaning without considering implicit and explicit inferences.

In concrete utterances, syntax still plays a large role in specifying the overall shape of the inferences a speaker is implicitly asking us to endorse with respect to some content in question. Here we are concerned not with formal definition of syntactic features, but with specific, concrete usage that we implicitly, defeasibly take as specifying definite higher-level inferential connections by virtue of the grammar employed.

By understanding the structure of a speaker’s overall argument from syntactic as well as semantic cues, we get all sorts of nuances like intended qualifications and specifications of scope that can be all-important in assessing the reasonableness of what is being said. How well we do this depends at least partly on us as well as what was said, and also on our familiarity with the speaker’s particular speech patterns, which may vary from what is common or usual. We can also silently compare the speaker’s speech patterns to what is common or usual, and wonder if what they seemed to say was what they actually meant; or kindly point out to them that what they actually said could be misunderstood. (See also Inferential Semantics; Honesty, Kindness.)