Sunday, December 12, 2004

Normativity

One of the biggest philosophical problems I'm struggling to get my head around is that of normativity, or 'ought'-ness. What is it, exactly, and where does it come from?

I can understand it, I think, if it's meant simply to highlight a means-ends relationship. That is, if the normative force of the 'means' is conditional on our desiring some particular 'ends'. That sort of prescription can be readily reduced to mere description, as discussed in my old post on the is-ought gap.

It would be nice (theoretically elegant) if all normativity could be explained in such a way. Take epistemic oughts, for example, which relate to what we ought to believe (as rational, truth-seeking agents). Perhaps we could conditionalize those by understanding "you ought to believe X" as elliptical for "if you want true/coherent beliefs, then you ought to believe X", or something along those lines.

But is that enough - is that all there is to normativity? Or are there some categorical imperatives that we are bound by regardless of our own desires? This is especially challenging when it comes to morality. Torturing children is wrong - something you ought not do. My conditionalizing strategy would see us interpret that as something like "if you want the world to be a better place, then you ought not torture children".

That conditional is surely true, at least, but it also seems a bit insufficient. For what of the amoralist, who doesn't care whether the world is a 'better place' or not? Can he discharge himself of his moral duties so easily? We feel that the obligation remains - the 'ought' still applies - even if the individual doesn't care about achieving moral ends. Are we simply mistaken in our intuitions here? (Is it mere wishful thinking?) If not, how are we to make sense of these new, unconditional, obligations? How can they exist?

One other natural source of normativity I've discussed before is that of a framework of standards. By this view, value can be objectively ascribed from within some framework. Normativity can arise from some set of norms. The problem remains, however, that we cannot achieve any absolute normativity that transcends these frameworks. So what can you say to the amoralist who dismisses your moral norms?

We're in a slightly better position than before, at least, because such norms apply objectively, quite independently of what any individual happens to think of them. We can say: "According to the standards of our community, your action X is objectively wrong and you ought to Y instead." And that's quite true. Of course, the amoralist doesn't care about those standards. But the fact remains that, according to those standards, he has done wrong.

This is a pyrrhic victory at best, however. After all, there are infinitely many possible frameworks to choose from, so why ought we make judgments from within one rather than another? According to some other set of norms, X may be right and Y wrong. Given the incommensurability of the various competing frameworks, and the lack of any 'absolute' ought-ness that overrides them all, the normativity we're left with seems a bit empty. Nothing is really, objectively, binding - we merely pretend it is by embedding ourselves within some arbitrary framework. Swell.

If anyone else has any better ideas, I'd sure love to hear them. I guess my concerns here can be split into two broad questions:
1) Do we need categorical imperatives?
2) Can we have them?

16 comments:

  1. "We can say: "According to the standards of our community, your action X is objectively wrong and you ought to Y instead." "

    I guess my contribution comes under "can we have them?" although is definitely more some comments more than some better ideas.

    I actually think it's surprising how much disagreement, tension, and varied interpretation there is about 'the norms' within any given 'community'. While groups might often appear to be acting along collective lines that suggest firm agreement, in fact this way of conceptualising normativity ignores how radically different each subject's conviction of why and how "X is objectively wrong," and also how people in acts can often be affected by other material/psychological factor that mean they don't need to completely buy normative judgements deep down, so to speak, but can act "as if" they agree.

    Otherwise, I think an excellent piece on this for those who can stand it is Judith Butler's intro to Bodies That Matter [/me hides from balls of paper in flight]. The place of normativity in types of identities and subjecthoods, most notably gender, is a central way in which normativity seems to work, by ways so complex it sometimes seems like stealth, both in the construction of gendered identities and their reception and negotiation in society. Butler raises what I think is a fundamental issue, which we might phrase:
    If there is normativity and identities, how do we conceptualise them being constructed without envisaging a constructor?
    I.e - How does normativity end up how it is without certain theories of how power works?

    I think the central way in which my own thinking is influenced by Butler is the notion that normativity has to be constantly reiterated in acts to make sure it stays afloat. I say "stays afloat" because my own image of a 'cultural norm' is something like a child desperately treading water, but for what seems like infinity. 

    Posted by Rob

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  2. > not buy normative judgements deep down, so to speak, but can act "as if" they agree.

    as William James and Blaise Pascal would say - if you "act as if" then you will come to believe.

    Or more precisely - it would take a pretty strong dynamic to allow you to not believe at the same time as acting as if you were. one that would probably result in you acting as if only at a superficial level. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

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  3. > not buy normative judgements deep down, so to speak, but can act "as if" they agree.

    as William James and Blaise Pascal would say - if you "act as if" then you will come to believe.

    Or more precisely - it would take a pretty strong dynamic to allow you to not believe at the same time as acting as if you were. one that would probably result in you acting as if only at a superficial level. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

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  4. norms seem to be arbitrary lines in the sand that people collectively recognise as points beyond which society will attempt to place pressure on others probably in a "bite my nose to spite my face" sort of a way - in general people do not wish to see this and as such they desire not to breach the lines or to see others breach them so they reinforce those lines - thus the line is a justification for itself (it doesnt matter all that much how it started - although vry bad norms will ten to be eliminated by a sort of natural selection) - and although not everyone may agree it will via this and by the "act as if" principle it will tend to be bought into by most people (except those so different as to be not effected by normal social pressures). 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

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  5. I find the “act as if” suggestion misleading. Instead, I would argue you simply need to distinguish two types of ‘existence’

    Do social norms exist in some kind of objective framework that all can agree on? No.
    Do social norms exist in the sense that they are a fluid and fluctuating part of society? Yes.

    It is not that if you want the world to be a better place you ‘ought’ x. But if you want to be a member of this society you ‘ought’ x. That doesn’t make ‘x’ right, or just and many times it will be inaccurate and generalized (eg. a society that is split down the middle on abortion or capital punishment). But the point of these norms is not to accurately depict an ethical standard but to maintain a loose ethical consensus on how we should act and interact in a society.
     

    Posted by Illusive Mind

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  6. Looking at the Normality of Norms.....

    you could hae a "norm" that was not "normal" if lets say it was "thou shalt not commit adultary". Somthing that is considered somthing one ought not do and 99 out of 100 times one does not but 1 time natural urges leave you doing it.
    This comes down to a matter catergorical as opposed to more percice definition.

    Or you could have a norm created by "those who are allocated legitimacy to make norms" a subset of society and another group that does not accept them as norms on a day to day basis but may call them a norm or feel guilty in a certain context (eg a church). of course the most appropriate thing to call their norm is the thing that they do as a result of the pressure of norms outside the church. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

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  7. It's true that there are many problems of fact that arise here (e.g. what the norms are, who agrees with them, or how many people actually obey them), but I don't want to get sidetracked here.

    My real question is not about facts, but about normative force. What is this force, this 'ought', that we speak of? Philosophy is rife with it, and although it's tempting to simply dismiss it and go all relativistic, such a move is also deeply unsatisfying (philosophically speaking).

    So it'd be nice to learn of some alternatives, or some way we can actually make sense of all this - whilst avoiding postmodernism if at all possible! 

    Posted by Richard

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  8. A normative statement is one which supports a moral imperative. One can easily maintain a relativist position and still believe in the reality of morality.

    Only by denying the value of our own future can we do away with normative statements. Even in a purely amoral world, we still have things we should do in order to achieve goals - it would appear that the definition of normative includes goal-directness, not just moral imperative. Some people might argue there is no distinction.

    One position would be to deny choice, thus making normative statements a linguistic shortcut to our analysis of what must be. In a world without free will, there is no should, just what is and what will be. 

    Posted by Tennessee Leeuwenburg

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  9. Yes, I agree with you about goal-directed normativity. That's basically what I was talking about in the first half of my post. Those 'oughts' are conditional on our desiring particular goals. So that still leaves the two big questions raised at the end of my post... 

    Posted by Richard

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  10. And I thought I answered them.

    1) Do we need categorical imperatives?
    No. It is possible to deny that there is any difference between "ought" and "must" by denying free will. We do not need two categories if they are in fact the same.

    2) Can we have them?
    Yes. By asserting Free Will, one can always choose to do that which is not the most obvious course. What goes up "must" go down, but I "ought" to invest in a house. Physics does not involve my choice, but ought refers to anything involving a choice. 

    Posted by Tennessee Leeuwenburg

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  11. Hmm, I'm not convinced that free will is relevant here.

    For the first question, I guess I meant "need" in a more figurative sense, i.e. do we need them to make sense of the world in a philosophically satisfying way? (This is different from asking what is true. A falsity might be crucial to our conceptual framework.) If 'ought' and 'must' are the same, then an unacceptably large chunk of philosophy goes flying out the window. So that is not a satisfying position.

    Further, I don't see how accepting free will can answer Q2. Choice may be necessary for unconditional obligations to exist, but it surely isn't sufficient. It is possible for free will to exist without any 'categorical imperatives' which demand the choice be made one way rather than another. After all, what's doing the demanding? People demand; the universe doesn't - at least, not as I understand it. That's the problem I've got with categorical imperatives. I don't get where they're supposed to come from. 

    Posted by Richard

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  12. "Hmm, I'm not convinced that free will is relevant here."

    What about my argument is unconvincing? Without free will, the whole concept of a moral imperative is out the window, Kantian or otherwise.

    As for Q2, does free will imply the existence of a CI? Well, I think they kind of do. Choice is what gives rise to normative statements, and surely at least some goals have logically necessary preconditions. CIs seem to be an attempt to ground some kind of consistent ethics in logic, something I think is doomed to failure, but regardless surely some ethics are nonrelative?

    CI's spring from the decision to ground ethics in some kind of logical system. I don't think that a CI demands choice be made in one way or other in a physical sense - otherwise it would be denying free will. It's very objectivist now that I think about it... 

    Posted by Tennessee Leeuwenburg

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  13. Richard,

    Normativity is more than just a problem dealing with moral "oughts" and "ought nots."

    Distinguishing between two opposed positions can create a normative category. The pair is normative because it makes a distinction based upon some criterion/criteria. For example, all of the following qualify as normative categories: the acceptable/unacceptable, recognizable/unrecognizable, sense/senseless (nonsense), or visible/invisible. When S says, "the sentence makes sense," she is making a normative claim. We may presume that, according to S, the sentence makes sense under the rules and grammar of her language, i.e., the standards of deciding whether a sentence makes sense or not.

    I think you're right that the main problem for developing a theory of normativity is the issue of a "framework of standards." But are norms (habits; cultural or individual) norms (standards)? I think I've misunderstood the proposed framework. 

    Posted by Joe

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  14. This is an interesting post. Please forgive me for reading a thoroughly outdated post but it has substance.

    Anyway, I was only going to make a few claims:

    c1: Minimally we are all human and so we must all share some commonly identifiable characteristics (rationality, psychological make-up) that enables us to interpret each others actions and react accordingly.

    c2: Second, according to Chomsky: language is an endemic quality particular to human and this has material epistemic implications. What wxactly they are I cannot say.

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  15. Timothy J Scriven12:20 am, May 09, 2006

    For a long time I thought the idea of normativity was demonstrably meaningless because I couldn't get my head around it. Now however I think that just because I can't get my head around it doesn't mean it doesn't exist, it might be a notion like "true" or "identical" or "implies" or "red" an irreducible basic notion which compound ideas are built up from.

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  16. Yeah, I think that's the view I'm slowly coming around to, too.

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