Suppose you tell someone, "Go to the store or go to the creek." Now, if this person is otherwise predisposed to one option, and your command triggers this predisposition, then by issuing the command, notwithstanding that it is in the form of a choice, you would decide the case (whether and how this command is complied with) without there actually being a choice as such. Yet the semantic viability of the imperative seems to depend on there actually being a choice as such. For let us say you thought instead that it was specifically issuing the disjunctive command that causes specific compliance, whereas if you issued a command just to do the action you seek to cause by issuing the disjunction, this issuing of the command will not cause the target to do what you want them to. (Think: you want this person to do X and not Y, but you think, "If I don't give them a choice, they'll choose Y, but if I give them a choice, they'll choose X." But now you're not really "giving" them a choice, you're giving them an illusion of choice precisely to override whatever other choice they might have in this instance.)

But it doesn't seem to be that we have to use imperatives to subtly manipulate people, so is there a "transcendental" argument from the meaningfulness of imperative sentences to the ability to make choices? Otherwise, it seems as if it would be unreasonable to issue disjunctive imperatives (if no one can choose otherwise, why present some "otherwise" there?---why besides to be manipulative, that is). [Note: I'm interpreting the intended conclusion in terms of strong free will. Going back to the original example, we are not to read this as, "If backgrounds conditions determine you to go to the store, go to the store, but if background conditions determine you to go to the creek, go to the creek." That totally defeats the point of directly giving someone options, doesn't it?]

  • You are using the term "imperative " without telling us how you define it? You are not allowed to put the burden on the reader as if we are already supposed to know how you are using a particular term. Imperative sentences are NOT propositions. Propositions are true or false--- not just any kind of semantics. You are not using terminology correctly & that causes an error in your thinking. Correct terminology makes a difference. Either or propositions are in the inclusive sense. It is not exclusive which means both options are not available. Inclusive means there are other options possible.
    – Logikal
    Sep 28, 2020 at 18:59
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    @Logikal From context, Berry is using imperative in the sense of imperative mood of a statement, and relates to the implicature of the statement which seeks a desired perlocutionary force. Imperative sentences have within them the seed of implicit propositions. "Go away." Can be translated to "(I want you to) go away." In language this is called an elliptical construction.
    – J D
    Sep 28, 2020 at 20:10
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    Of course, the nature of the intention of the agent is necessarily contextual and may be in fact the opposite of what an agent desires, such as in the use of reverse psychology which takes advantage of a resistant agent's oppositional disposition behavior.
    – J D
    Sep 28, 2020 at 20:21
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    Dispositions aren't destiny, "triggering" them does not take away choice, especially under "strong free will". Dispositions can change or be overridden, offering options (especially when indicating pros and cons, appealing to "better angels", etc.) may trigger that instead. One may offer options for an opportunity to make the "right" choice for "right" reasons, and not to manipulate. But even in case of manipulation, why is it irrational to use disjunctive imperatives for their perlocutionary force? Why not use reverse psychology if it works, and recruit language to the task?
    – Conifold
    Sep 28, 2020 at 22:29
  • @JD, I get what you are saying as I took him to use that context. I mentioned terminology in my comment for that reason. Propositions are not sentences as Berry has likely been told. If that is so then his question is about linguistics and usage of words in a language. The Imperative mood is grammar not logic or philosophy. I would think he sees there is a difference by his own question. If he asks why is there a difference then the answer is context matters. I would disagree about imperative sentences. Propositions are not any kind of sentence. Declarative sentences are the closest things.
    – Logikal
    Sep 28, 2020 at 23:54

2 Answers 2


There is a lot to unpack here and I'm not sure I'll answer all of it, so apologies in advance.

It is easy to conflate reason and logic and the OP mentions the disjunctive, which is a logical operator in most classical logics; but classical logics only apply to statements in the indicative mood. The imperative is also a mood, but it's distinct from the indicative mood, and therefore outside the scope of classical logics. Thus the word 'or' in an imperative command is not operating as the disjunctive at all. Thus the OP confuses the disjunctive with its common natural language equivalent 'or' and forgets that there are uses of 'or' that do not function logically.

So no, it is not rational to use a disjunctive in an imperative command, because it's not possible.

That being said there are imperative based logics but I confess I am largely ignorant of them and my understanding is there is little consensus among logicians regarding the syntax or semantics of these systems. Richard Hare (1919-2002) wrote on the logic of imperatives, and free will. A place to start would be his book Freedom and Reason and his article Some Alleged Differences between Indicatives and Imperatives.

Another solution is to make a distinction between reason and logic, but then the references to the disjunctive needs to be removed. The OP moves toward a non-logical reasonableness towards the end when s/he asks if there is a transcendental argument from the meaningfulness of imperative sentences to the ability to make choices? If the OP had a specific author or text in mind, providing that information would be helpful.

I'm inclined to answer that an imperative command necessitates a choice, but it does not require the choice to be an option that is presented in the choice itself. Maurice Blondel hinted at this in his book Action (1893).

Person A presents choice C to person B, as an imperative. B is able to ignore A or ignore C or both. B is able to defy A. Most commands come with a consequence/threat that is either explicitly stated or implicitly implied. Your boss tells you to do tasks X or Y. You chose to watch videos on your phone. You may be fired for insubordination, written up, have hours cut, be denied a raise, etc. But it does not change your ability to chose (and provoke retaliation). Now commands and choices occur in context. There are social, psychological, and economic forces that make it more likely for you to listen to a command but these do not cause you to do so. When presented with a choice, it is necessary, but not sufficient for your response, although it is necessary to respond since even a non-response can be seen as a response, if consciously chosen.

Anyway, I hope this helps, but I suspect I did not fully answer the question of the OP.

  • So when a judge tells a law breaker "Enlist in the army or go to jail", that's not a rational use of mutual exclusion?
    – J D
    Sep 28, 2020 at 20:16
  • Why can't the term 'disjunctive' be used in consideration of illocutionary acts?
    – J D
    Sep 28, 2020 at 20:17
  • When someone who has no authority gives one a disjunctive imperative, can't one simply ignore it? I have a great deal of experience in that matter so I'd be curious on what basis you make that claim.
    – J D
    Sep 28, 2020 at 20:18
  • If given a disjunctive choice, can't one simply do both? What about doing both activities only to an extent?
    – J D
    Sep 28, 2020 at 20:19
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    @JD Thank you! much appreciated :) and yes, making a suggestion to the OP is probably a good idea. I should have thought of that.
    – Rob
    Sep 28, 2020 at 20:58

Short Answer

Depending on context, yes. When a parent gives an imperative in the form of an exclusive disjunction to their child, and is known for following through on enforcement, it is a perfectly viable way to structure consequences so that the parent's will is enforced AND the child takes responsibility for it. In educational psychology, there are some practical schools of thinking built around this fact such as Love and Logic.

Long Answer

Alright, your first example is well known in role-playing game circles where the coordinator of the activity (for instance in Dungeons and Dragons she is called a dungeon master, but let us just use the generic gamemaster (GM)). It is simply called a wizard's choice. A GM often has a specific narrative in mind, and may present the players with a choice which needn't even be mutually exclusive or binary in nature. In the end, however, since the GM is revealing the narrative, the players have no idea if the GM is altering the consequences of the decision. In this case, the players may feel they have a choice, but in reality the cooperative narrative cannot be deviated from because no matter what choices the players make, the GM is ultimately the storyteller and can guide the narrative in any fashion she desires. (This does rankle players, and is a common tactic to deal with players who want to separate from the party thereby causing the GM to have to run two narratives simultaneously, a tremendous amount of work.) If the GM is good, she uses it very sparingly making it difficult for the players to determine when they don't actually have a choice, and then it becomes an act of manipulation.

But a more practical real-world example is when an authority figure gives a subordinate a choice from limited picks. If a judge in sentencing says to the convict "Go enlist or be jailed", then we have a situation in which the choice is binary, mutually exclusive, and the trier of fact has the means to enforce a penalty. As a teacher and a parent, I often used to offer similar choices to my children. "Clean your room or lose your tablet!", "Clean up your Legos or watch them be thrown away!", "Eat your dinner or go without dessert!" are three of my favorite disjunctive imperatives. In this situation an agent has three choices if they are aware of the implicature and implication surrounding the imperative (all implicature connects to implication and vice versa): choose the former, choose the latter, or choose not to choose and see what the reaction is.

In either case, the important lesson here is that when one agent uses the imperative mood to try to induce behavior in the second, it is not the language and logic per se that carry the persuasive force, but the greater context as relates to consequences. That's why a parent who constantly uses and imperatives but does not follow through tends to wind up with children who ignore the imperative. This observation in philosphical circles tends to be attributed to Ludwig Wittgenstein and used the term 'language game'.

But how then do implications and implicature relate? Implication tends to be a verbal representation of causality "(You) Go to your room or (you) suffer the consequences!" and other contextual factors determine the actual implicature. For instance, let's say the sentence is uttered by a mother, but the father (an ex-husband) wants to undermine the authority of the mother. The father can use the same exact sentence when alone the child with a sarcastic tone and facial expression to convey the exact opposite in implicature. So when the father utters the sentence, what is really saying is, "(Don't you) Go to your room (because you won't) suffer the consequences!" In psychotherapy, children often use this lack of agreement in a behavior known as triangulation.

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