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?