Sunday, April 20, 2008

Grasping Normativity

Some people (most commonly, economists) appear to have lost their grasp of the concept of normativity. Their use of the word 'should' is tempered by scare quotes, and appears to refer to mere conventional morality (i.e. whatever norms happen to actually be accepted by society) rather than philosophical morality (i.e. the norms we really ought to have). What do you think is the most effective way to help them reclaim their grasp of the latter concept? Here are a few possibilities...

(1) Reassure them that nothing 'spooky' is required. (I assume such fears are what motivated them to banish the concept in the first place.)

(2) Offer cognate terms. Scrap 'morality'. Try talking about what you really ought, all things considered, to do. What matters. Or consider what would be best, or what you have most reason to do; what's reasonable, or rational.

(3) Quote Sidgwick (1890: 39)
Even, finally, if we discard the belief, that any end of action is unconditionally or "categorically" prescribed by reason, the notion 'ought' as above explained is not thereby eliminated from our practical reasonings: it still remains in the "hypothetical imperative" which prescribes the fittest means to any end that we may have determined to aim at. When (e.g.) a physician says, "If you wish to be healthy you ought to rise early," this is not the same thing as saying "early rising is an indispensable condition of the attainment of health." This latter proposition expresses the relation of physiological facts on which the former is founded; but it is not merely this relation of facts that the word 'ought' imports: it also implies the unreasonableness of adopting an end and refusing to adopt the means indispensable to its attainment.

(4) Go procedural. Consider the possibility that a reflective equilibrium process might lead one to change their values/preferences in ways that could only be described as an improvement. For example, one might iron out any inconsistencies, reduce the number of ad hoc/arbitrary distinctions, add more general principles that enhance the overall coherence and unity of one's desire set, etc.

(5) Offer examples of irrational preferences, e.g. future-Tuesday indifference, only caring about your future self's interests up until 1/1/09, altruistically caring about all and only persons whose names begin with the letter 'A', etc. Intransitive preferences. Failure to pursue the necessary means (ceteris paribus) to some endorsed end. Preferring the acknowledged lesser good to the greater. And so on.

(6) Draw attention to their agency. These skeptics usually presuppose a kind of naive Humeanism, according to which preferences are 'given' and automatically combine with beliefs to yield action. But that can't possibly be right, because it leaves no room for the familiar phenomenon of deliberation. We are agents with the capacity for practical reasoning, i.e. the assessment of reasons that count for or against various courses of action. This is a self-consciously normative process of decision: just as theoretical reasoning addresses the question what should I believe?, so practical reasoning addresses the question what should I do? Insofar as you think of yourself as a rational agent at all, you must be engaging with these normative questions; the alternative is to be a mere automaton, a reflexive stimulus-response machine. Most of us are more deliberative; but deliberation is inherently normative: it addresses a question for which there may be better or worse answers.

(7) Compare epistemic normativity. For some reason, people seem to be more skeptical of practical reason than theoretical (epistemic) reason. Even the most hard-nosed science-cheering skeptic usually thinks that Creationists, say, are going wrong in their beliefs. This is not just to say that their beliefs are likely false, or that they are unsupported by evidence (though this is part of it); in response to someone who invokes practical reasons for belief (say religion makes them happy), the skeptic may make the further claim that they are being unreasonable. (Cf. Sidgwick in #3 above.) Practical normativity is like that, only applied to actions rather than beliefs. Performing bad actions is kind of like believing contradictory things. People manage it all the time, but they're cognitively malfunctioning in doing so.

An additional point of analogy: skeptics may initially be inclined to an inadequately narrow conception of rationality. Deductive logic gives us no reason to believe that the Sun will rise tomorrow, as per the famous problem of induction. But we clearly do have good reason to believe this, and indeed it would be unreasonable not to. This points the way to a broader conception of rationality which invokes considerations of coherence, etc., much as Future Tuesday Indifference and similar examples (#5 above) show the need to go beyond mere instrumental rationality in the practical sphere.

Any other suggestions?


  1. I'm thinking that (1) would not be much of a concern for economists, but if you encounter any logical positivists you might pull that one out.

    (2) and (6) have seemed to get me the furthest with the broadest cross-section of sceptics about 'real' moral norms. The sceptic would have to reject that there is any meaningful sense of 'all things considered ought' and would presumably find the idea of rational deliberation about norms mysterious. It is especially difficult for someone to persist in this attitude when you raise examples like (5) and reflect on what this tells us about (2) and (6). One worry is that you sound as if you are equating 'all things considered ought' with what is rational or reasonable. Is that an equation we want to propagate?

  2. On most theories of rationality, they'll only come apart in cases of ignorance or incomplete information, no? (You ought to do what you in fact have most reason to do; it's rational to do what your evidence suggests you have most reason to do.)

  3. Re #2, is "what I want" an equivalent phrase? I have no problem reflecting on what I want, but I don't really see the problem with future-Tuesday indifference, and don't see that I need to have the "most" reason to want something.

  4. No, "what I want" is purely descriptive. It's possible that what you have most reason to do is, in fact, just whatever you most want. But that's an open question; they certainly don't mean the same thing. (Cf. #3)

    Though, for what it's worth, I give very low credence to the theory that whatever you want is ipso facto what you have most reason to pursue (for reasons 4-6). But if the examples in #5 get no grip on you, it's possible that there's just nothing further I can say here -- just as there's nothing to be said to an epistemological skeptic (#7) who doesn't see anything wrong with inductively bizarre (or even logically contradictory) beliefs.

  5. Sorry, that should have been clear enough. I suppose if having a moral obligation is a reason to act in ways that satisfy said obligation, you are right. My worry is about means-ends reasoning. If all rationality is of this instrumental variety, then it would be easy for being rational and being moral to come apart, but this rests on what is really an independent issue about the nature of rationality.

  6. Richard, I'm sorry, but do you have any arguments as to why economists have lost their sense of normativity?

    What economists have you read that just follow "conventional morality"?

    Most, if they're anything, are following a fairly utilitarian framework. That's what a free market is supposed to be - the most efficient way to improve welfare. When it doesn't succeed in that (market failures), economists try to find ways to make it work better.

  7. Jonathan - you could have simply followed the link under 'economists' for an illustration of what I'm talking about. But first, I should clarify a couple of misunderstandings:

    [1] I never said any economists follow conventional morality. I said that some people (disproportionately economists, which [2] is still not necessary to say the majority of economists -- I don't know enough to judge the larger group) dismiss normative questions altogether on the basis of equating 'should' with some purely descriptive or conventional norms.

    Robin Hanson, above, is a clear example of this.

  8. Richard - I did and do follow all links when commenting on a post :) One example is not a field though!

    Sorry, I think I'm just sensitive to people slagging off the whole field of economics, even if its only an offhand remark, in the same way you care about the improving the public image of philosophy.

  9. Which, I should add, I realise you don't think you did - but it read a little that way.

  10. (6) doesn't seem to me to accurately describe economists, who are often explicitly proposing public policies (or changes to public policies) as a means of achieving ends. I don't think they reject the idea of intentions, plans, practical reasoning, habits of deliberation, or instrumental rationality. Rather, they only push to the side the question of whether any non-instrumental values are objectively better than any others.


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