Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Problem of Normativity

One of the most fundamental questions of philosophy -- and perhaps the fundamental question in meta-ethics -- is that of how normativity ("ought"-ness) fits into the natural order.

It's clear that any normative facts must supervene on the descriptive facts. And I've previously argued that this connection must be conceptual rather than synthetic, a priori rather than a posteriori. But then we seem to end up with mere "descriptivism", according to which normative claims are just shorthand for certain descriptive claims. Their evaluative aspect seems to have been eliminated in the reduction process.

I think Kit Fine states the problem especially well in his excellent article (which I keep returning to!), 'The Varieties of Necessity' (Modality and Tense, p.251):
If there is a correct analysis of good, say, as what promotes pleasure over pain, then something's being good must consist in nothing more than its promoting pleasure over pain. But we have a strong intuition that it does consist in something more. Here we are not relying on the purported epistemic status of a correct analysis, as Moore does, but on its metaphysical consequences.

This argument, moreover, can be strengthened. For suppose one merely takes it to be a conceptual necessity that something is good if it promotes pleasure over pain. Now, if this is true, then presumably it must also be true that something is good in virtue of promoting pleasure over pain. Indeed, it is only because something is good in virtue of promoting pleasure over pain that there is the conceptual connection between the one and the other. But now what is this in-virtue-of relationship that accounts for the conceptual connection? The only possible answer, it seems, is that it is the relationship of one thing consisting in no more than some other; for this would appear to be the only in-virtue-of relationship capable of sustaining a conceptual connection. But if this is right, then the argument can also be taken to apply to statements of conceptual implication, and not merely to analyses.

Tricky! I'd replace the hedonism with a welfarist account of the good. But even then, aren't we saying two different things when we call something either "good" or "conducive to general welfare"? The former seems to come with an evaluative force that the latter, merely "descriptive" phrase lacks.

If there is a conceptual connection between ethics and ideal rationality -- as seems plausible -- then perhaps this could provide the requisite normative force. Supervenience would then arise because rationality requires treating like cases alike (and identical cases identically). Nevertheless, it is a substantive ('synthetic'?) fact just which values would survive ideal rational reflection. It is still a priori in the sense that an ideally rational agent wouldn't need to know which world he's in in order to come to the right conclusions. But this doesn't seem to be a merely analytic fact about the meaning of the word "rational". So perhaps there can be synthetic a priori truths along these lines. (If so, I should retract my earlier opposition to synthetic ethical naturalism. All my arguments show is that it's not a posteriori. If a priori synthetic statements are possible, then that's fine.)

If we accept this kind of "constructivist non-cognitivism", then it seems we are able to find room for supervening ethics within a naturalistic framework. An act's "rightness" holds in virtue of its promoting welfare, but it does not merely consist in this descriptive fact. Rather, it consists in its being the ideally rational action.

Sound plausible?

13 comments:

  1. I think you've merely moved the problem back a step. If the question is "How can oughts exist?", you can't answer it with "because we rationally ought to do some stuff". That is, saying that we ought to do ethical things because we ought to be rational gets you no further in answering what any "ought" consists in.

    I've previously wondered if searching for an explanation of normative concepts in non-normative (i.e. descriptive) terms is just a bad pursuit in the first place. Analogously, we certainly don't ask for an explanation of descriptive concepts in non-descriptive terms. Maybe we're just assuming that descriptive concepts have some kind of higher status than normative concepts, but I see no reason to accept this claim.

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  2. Hi Alex,

    Yes, I think we need to take some kind of rational normativity as primitive. So I guess that doesn't answer the fundamental question -- which may be inherently ill-posed, as you suggest. Still, I think the proposals in my post at least help to clarify the nature of ethical normativity. (An explanation in terms of rational normativity is better than no explanation at all.)

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  3. How about this,

    if all people got together in an ideal situation and debated they would get a set of rules - in fact each debate we have (in theory) tends ever so slightly closer to this. So we will say that what is good is defined as the ideal final result of the debate. (The only difference between the actual result and the final result being the lack of idealness in the debating procedure and time.)

    Now this ideal debate produces a rational foundation on which basically everyone can agree (maybe utilitarianism). And it has force because
    1) it is the idealized choice of intelligence in the universe or possibly of humanity.
    2) it is the common ground for debate and thus the productive communication in society.

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  4. So we will say that what is good is defined as the ideal final result of the debate.

    That works only inasmuch as what is decided corresponds with what ought to be. In other words, what is decided about what ought to be and what ought to be are logically distinct.

    The only way around this is to stipulate the identity of the two, which would just be question begging.

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  5. Richard - this is just a vague curiosity of mine, but I thought I'd ask to see what your reaction was. In your account, above, you're trying to (in some sense) reduce the normativity of ethics to that of rationality (this seems almost... Kantian). Is there any reason to prefer this sort of move to one going the other direction - ie, reducing rational normativity to ethical?

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  6. Timothy J Scriven3:37 am, May 28, 2006

    Perhaps normative truths are synthetic conceptual truths, like the truths of mathematics. Then we won't get the reduction problem you talk about.

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  7. As far as I understand the problem (I am not sure if I do) it rests upon the intuition that Fine identifies: "If there is a correct analysis of good, say, as what promotes pleasure over pain, then something's being good must consist in nothing more than its promoting pleasure over pain. But we have a strong intuition that it does consist in something more."

    I think we do have such an intuition, but I wonder if the descriptivist can explain this "something more" just by recognizing that the description we make when we describe some things as "promoting pleasure over pain" is an unusually rich and complicated sort of description, and also that it requires a description, not only of facts about the physical world, but also of facts about how people respond to the physical world. Perhaps the anti-descriptivist intuition works only if we imagine that, in describing something as “promoting pleasure over pain”, we are making a brief, simple, impersonal sort of description; and perhaps the anti-descriptivist intuition disappears when we see that descriptions of the pleasure- and pain- promoting abilities of a thing require quite a different sort of description. In other words, normative claims *are* just a shorthand for descriptive claims, it’s just that they are shorthand for a *great number* of *extremely rich* descriptive claims.

    I wonder if there is a worthwhile analogy to be made between the anti-descriptivist intuition here, and the anti-materialist intuition we have regarding things like “life” and “consciousness”. When someone suggests that a “living thing” is just a collection of particles, just like a non-living thing, we have a strong intuition that they are wrong. We can to some extent explain this intuition away, however, if we recognize that the peculiar autonomy/vitality/adaptability of living things may be explained as being the result of particle interactions of an *unusually rich sort* (but particle interactions nonetheless).

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  8. "Is there any reason to prefer this sort of move to one going the other direction - ie, reducing rational normativity to ethical?"

    Rational normativity seems less mysterious to me. But maybe that's just me.

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  9. I don't know. The normativity still has to come from somewhere. If you say that we ought to do X because X is the ideally rational way to accomplish goal Y, then you're still saying that Y has normative force, without explaining where that normative force comes from. I think this is what alex, and maybe others, said, but I'm not sure.

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  10. Fine says:

    If there is a correct analysis of good, say, as what promotes pleasure over pain, then something's being good must consist in nothing more than its promoting pleasure over pain. But we have a strong intuition that it does consist in something more.

    I wonder if Fine is illegitimately gaining from the fact that his sample analysis isn't very plausible (nor would any which is so simple). Suppose I give you as complete description as possible of what the Nazis did without using evaluative or normative terminology. So I describe all the physical and psychological facts, including the suffering and death, the lies, and (we may suppose) the alternatives the agents had at the time of their actions (and all the other relevant counterfactuals). Now I say: but the *badness* is not yet to be found -- it is something beyond all that. Huh? That doesn't sound plausible to me, but completely bizarre. Who would ever say that but a philosopher in the grip of a theory?

    Why should we take the intuition seriously? Obviously there are arguments for it (e.g. Moore's open question argument) which have to be evaluated. But what's the prima facie probative value of this intuition? Value is obviously a very confusing matter, as is proved by the existence of metaethics itself. When such confusions occur, they are often accompanied by intuitions that there is *something more* (ontologically speaking). But surely that doesn't carry much weight. (Consider the intuition that life consists in an elan vital irreducible to the body's chemical processes.)

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  11. pdf23ds - I am emphatically not trying to ground the normativity of ethics instrumentally in such a fashion. (It is not for the sake of accomplishing some other goal Y.) Rather, the conception of rationality I'm invoking here is a substantive one which goes beyond mere instrumentality to allow for the rational assessment of ultimate ends. Compare this post (and the other links in the main post above).

    Anon - I wonder if you're equivocating on the phrase "not yet to be found". The descriptive facts suffice for you to work out ("find") the normative ones. They 'fix' or entail the normative facts -- see my linked post on supervenience. But that doesn't show that our descriptive and normative claims mean the same thing. (Note the distinction between the "in virtue of" and the "consists in" relations.)

    "Why should we take the intuition seriously?"

    Why should we take any of our philosophical judgments seriously? You've got to start from somewhere, and it's surely better to start from somewhere that seems correct. Our initial judgments may need to be refined or rejected in face of contrary arguments, of course. But they shouldn't just be dismissed entirely. (The example of vitalism poses little threat to conceptual analysis, for reasons explained here. In short, vitalism was held on empirical rather than conceptual grounds.)

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  12. Anonymous:

    I think you said something very similar to what I said. Did my comment get published?

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  13. "Rational normativity seems less mysterious to me. But maybe that's just me."

    The things is, once you admit that some forms of normativity are just primitive, it seems odd to bother doing all the hard work in reducing moral to rational. I agree that it feels as though rational normativity is less mysterious, but I see no philosophical reason to think that it is any less, or any more, suspect.

    Further, you say that:
    "An explanation in terms of rational normativity is better than no explanation at all."

    But that's only true if we offer some compelling and relatively complete explanation of whats going on. Merely asserting that grounding normative truths in rational ones would be nice isn't so much of an "explanation", but rather a signpost that might indicate where some work is needed.

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