Nouwen's Puzzle and a Scalar Semantics for Obligations, Needs, and Desires

Daniel Lassiter


Nouwen (2010a,b) presents a puzzle involving the interaction of degree expressions and modals: a class of apparently unremarkable sentences expressing minimum and maximum requirements, obligations, desires, etc. are predicted to be trivially false or undefined, or receive otherwise incorrect truth-conditions. I suggest that the puzzle can be resolved if we treat the affected modals not as universal quantifiers over possible worlds but instead as scalar expressions which map propositions to points on a scale of expected utility. Independent arguments indicate that these modals are scalar, non-monotonic, and information-sensitive -- facts which are highly problematic for quantificational theories, but predicted immediately by the proposed scalar semantics. With no extra modification, this semantics also predicts the correct truth-conditions for Nouwen's examples, modulo some subtleties involving epistemic interpretations of minimum and maximum operators. These conclusions provide additional evidence in support of previous work arguing that the semantics of obligation and desire should be built around a non-monotonic scalar semantics rather than quantification over possible worlds.


Minimum and maximum requirements; gradability; modality; deontic modals; desire verbs; scalar modals

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