Seminar: ‘Legal’and ‘legally’ – Robert Mullins (Oxford)


A proper account of adjectives like “legal” and adverbs like “legally” is an indispensible component of the explanation of normative language in the law. What does it mean to assert that we have legal obligations, permissions or powers, or that legally, something is, ought or must be the case? Based on a prominent account in linguistics and philosophy of language, I offer a simple model-theoretic semantics drawn from for the adjectives “legal” and the adverb “legally” that treats them as context-sensitive terms that quantify over possible states of affairs. I focus on the interaction between these phrases and deontic modals like “ought” and “must”, as in statements like “legally, you ought to complete your tax return”. First, I introduce the account and apply it to uses of legal and legally. I then go on to consider one important theoretical consequence of the proposed account.

According to a popular semantic account of deontic modals like “ought” and “must”, these verbs are doubly context sensitive: their meaning varies according to speakers’ context, which determines both a relevant domain of worlds, known as the modal base, and an ordering on those relevant worlds, known as the ordering source (Kratzer 1977; Kratzer 1981; Hacquard 2011). In a phenomenon that linguists describe as modal concord, adverbs like legally seem to bring other modals into agreement with the ‘flavour’ of modality that is intended (Geurts and Huitink 2006). In a statement like, “legally, you ought to fill out your tax return”, it appears as though the word ‘legally’ functions as a kind of context-sensitive restrictor of the deontic modal. It refers to a body of laws that is contextually determined. If this account is correct, then the statement “legally, Elmer must inherit” is true just in case the worlds in which Elmer inherits are the best worlds in the modal base according to an ordering provided by the law. In this paper I consider the jurisprudential implications of accepting this account of the meaning of modal adjectives like legal and modal adverbs like legally, especially as they interact with modal auxiliaries like “ought” and “must”.

The proposed semantics of “legal” and “legally” demonstrates that deontic terms like “ought” and must” have a stable meaning across legal and non-legal contexts of assertion (e.g. Raz 1979; Gardner 2012; Hershovitz 2015). This provides some evidence in support of the view that the same can be said of deontic nouns like “obligation”, “right” and “requirement” (cf. Hart 1982; D’Almeida 2011).  This reaffirms the view that one theoretical problem that faces philosophers of law is to explain the use of normative language in the description of law. I do not propose a complete solution of my own, but I suggest that the popular Razian account of “detached” normative statements might need to be remedied in light of the proposed semantics (cf. Raz 1979).

Discussant: Luís Duarte d’Almeida