I'm told it's arguable that when people say, "Water is H20", what they mean is, "The stuff from around here that we call water has the molecular structure H2O." Well, what about ethical claims? When people say "Killing is wrong", do they really mean "Killing is wrong in all circumstances, times and places"? Or are they saying something more like, "According to the normal values from around here, killing is wrong"?

One might ask why people would hedge the original claim, "Water is H2O," and intend to assert only the presumably weaker claim "The stuff from around here that we call 'water' has the molecular structure H2O." Is it that they don't want to identify water with the molecule H2O but merely want to assert that water is constituted by molecules of H2O? Or is it that they want to hedge against possibilities like Hilary Putnam's Twin Earth, where what the residents call "water" is macroscopically just like H2O but is in fact identical to (or constituted by) a different molecule that Putnam abbreviates "XYZ"?

Either of those reasons for hedging the original claim seems to me to be too abstruse to explain the hedging (if any) done by ordinary speakers of the language. But I can't think of a third explanation. So I'm not sure how to compare this case to the assertion "Killing is wrong" or to the hedged version, "According to the normal values around here, killing is wrong."

My hunch about ordinary language is that people who assert "Killing is wrong" mean to assert a proposition that's weaker than "Killing is wrong in all circumstances, times and places" but stronger than "According to the normal values from around here, killing is wrong." So neither the original claim, read literally, nor the hedged claim. Instead, I think they mean to assert that, according to standards that apply not just around here but everywhere, killing a person is presumptively (i.e., all else equal) wrong.

That assertion is weaker than "Killing is wrong in all circumstances, times and places," because it allows that the moral presumption against killing a person can be overcome when all else isn't equal, such as killing a person in defense of one's own life. But it's stronger than "According to the normal values from around here, killing is wrong" because it dares to apply local standards not just locally but everywhere.

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