anfurny wrote:Also, I think it's important to question the assumption that all language has some sense of "meaning." Skinner contended that language was a learned set of reactions, which is mostly false, but consider a statement such as "hello." There is no single fact we are consistently trying to convey with hello, no one unifying meaning (sometimes we may say hello to somebody we hate, somebody we like, somebody who we know sees us and knows we see them, etc). If we view the word "hello" as more of a vocal act (like a yawn or laugh) that is neither true nor false, why not view "should" as a vocal act?
Moreover, since we don't view "should" as only any one thing, I think the truth is some confused mixture depending on circumstance and individual.
On the contrary, I think that in general we all agree on a pretty focused meaning implied by the word "should". "You should do this" means, as near as I can tell, "This is the best action you can perform." Where the disagreement/ambiguity arises is in the interpretation of the word "best".
If I may, though, a brief linguistic sidetrack: your argument involving "hello" seems weak to me. For starters, "hello" and "should" are clearly different classes of words, just in terms of their syntactic behavior; "hello" almost always stands on its own, outside of a regular sentence structure, whereas "should" is almost always an integral part of a sentence. The vast majority of words--pretty much everything besides interjections--belongs to the class of "should", so "hello" seems like a bad representative from which to judge all the words of a language. Not to argue that syntax and semantics are entirely the same thing, but here it feels pretty intuitive that "hello" behaves so differently in a syntactic sense because
it has such a different kind of meaning from "should" or "man".
(As a normal to my tangent, I'd argue that "hello", too, has a rather well-defined range of meanings. It's a greeting; its basic function is related to my intrusion into another person's consciousness... either trying to cause that intrusion, or acknowledging it. I guess you're right here that our definition of "meaning" (hah) is important, but I say "hello" can mean "I want you to notice me" or "I acknolwedge that you notice me".)
Back to the OP:
I don't like to lock myself into a rigid framework for the meanings of words, 'cause language just doesn't work that way, but I do think that "should" = "best action" is reasonably close to the basic meaning of the word.
Of course, the problem is that we don't agree on what "best" means. Some (very pragmatic) people take it to mean "having the most beneficial results for me", whereas others might say "having the most beneficial results for society as a whole". [[nice, that lines up in the reply box...]] Others will attribute it to God's will, or whatever else, but in actuality I think that most people (nonrationally and perhaps subconsciously) associate every action with an "inherent" value. Some of that value is probably biologically programmed, most of the rest coming from years of experience and conditioning. Whatever; the point is that we disagree on what is "best", and that's an issue that extends beyond ethics.
The other statements you made... I'm not quite sure what you were getting at. Of course I care that you listen to what I say, else why speak? Of course I have some underlying set of values-- my personal definition of "best" must come from somewhere. Of course I think that those values should be held by you, too: that's why I'm saying "should" to you in the first place. Nor am I a pessimist; I have to assume that we have enough in common (including language) that my statement might be effective.
So, I agree with you that the first part of your translation, "based on [ ]" is implied just by the fact that one's making such an utterance. But (like I commented above), I don't think that the second part is necessarily true: evaluating the consequences of X-ing and not X-ing is far more rational than I think the average value judgment is.
On the topic of philosophy and language: there are two points to be made. The endless debate about the definitions of common words is sensible, since we want to be able to understand one another. The problem is that most of these discussions turn into "My meaning for Y is more correct than yours!" rather than "Here's what I mean by Y, what do you mean by it?"
As for philosophy coining (and misplacing) lots of technical words, the motivation is the same as in any field: greater precision. If we can't agree on the precise meanings of basic words, let's come up with new ones that we can all agree to use in a specific way. (eg, in music, does "the note C" mean all C's, maybe even C#'s, or just "middle C", or this or that C?, etc. so we come up with the term "pitch class 0", which unambiguously means "all notes named C-natural", since it's never been used to mean anything else.) But if we can't agree on basic words, what're the chances we'll use one another's made-up ones? Um... I lost the point I was trying to make. But the drive to mess with words in philosophy isn't wholly misguided.