Thursday, July 02, 2009

Normative Moral Concepts

I'm interested in practical normativity, and hence the concept of what we ought or have most normative reason to want and to do. I generally use moral terms in this "all things considered" normative sense. (On this way of talking, it's analytic that we ought to be moral, but a wide open question what this amounts to.) Sometimes people prefer to use words differently, so that 'morality', like 'etiquette', has a fairly transparent (almost stipulative) content -- making it clearer what's morally required, but at the cost of making the concept non-normative. Is there a better way to understand the concept of 'morality', so that it neither collapses into general practical normativity, nor dwindles into normative irrelevance?

One option would be to define 'moral reasons' as a subset of our normative reasons. For example, we might say that some reasons are 'prudential', in the sense that the reason exerts its force for the agent's own sake, whereas all other reasons will count as 'moral'. I guess that's okay as far as it goes, and maybe there are some contexts in which this distinction could be philosophically useful, but for the most part I don't really see the interest in such stunted normative concepts. Why philosophize about a merely "some things considered" ought? To restrict the content of the fundamental normative concept is also to restrict its interest.

A more intriguing possibility is suggested by Parfit: perhaps there is a second primitive (undefinable) normative concept, besides that of a normative reason, for which Parfit uses the phrase "mustn't-be-done". The thought seems to be that certain acts have the primitive feature that they mustn't-be-done, which may create - rather than merely signal - a (decisive?) normative reason against so acting. The question whether this generated reason is decisive is just the debate over whether morality is overriding -- a debate that seems less substantive on alternative conceptions of 'morality'.

Utilitarians (like Egoists) might be best understood as nihilists about 'morality' in this undefinable sense of mustn't-be-done. Rather than offering a 'moral' theory, they offer a normative theory to rival morality. As Parfit writes (On What Matters, chp 7):
These people may be convinced that it matters greatly how well things go, and they may be strongly motivated and often moved to act in ways that prevent or relieve suffering. But they may be doubtful whether any acts are duties, or mustn't-be-done, and doubtful about blameworthiness, and about reasons for remorse and indignation. That is one way in which this form of Consequentialism might be an external rival to morality.

Some questions: Can you make sense of the indefinable, substantive moral concept of "mustn't-be-done"? If so, do you think it is applicable, i.e. that some acts actually possess this feature? Is this the best way to distinguish 'moral' concepts?

I feel like I have a slippery grasp of the intended idea (it seems very deontological), but perhaps it should ultimately be abandoned as senseless, or at least inapplicable. It may be easily confused with the derivative notion of an act that is prohibited on indirect consequentialist grounds -- i.e. an act that we ought to rule out of consideration. But this isn't a new primitive concept. It instead derives from the ordinary normative concept employed by utilitarians, simply applied to decision procedures.


  1. Mmmmmm....taxonomy.....

    My guess is that the standard position about "mustn't be done" is that it's different from "normative reason", but partially definable in terms of it -- e.g. One mustn't do X rather than Y if the balance of reasons favors Y over X, and one is blameworthy for doing X rather than Y, or something like that. That seems much more plausible than saying either:

    a) These concepts don't bear any normative inferential relationship to each other, so that it may be perfectly rational to think that Y is better than X but one must do X rather than Y. Someone who holds this view is clearly working with a different concept of the normative "must" than the rest of us. (Although I think North Americans tend to say "have to" rather than "must" to express it.)


    b) The view you allude to, which is that something's being what you must do is a feature that goes toward explaining the reasons to do it. I mean, if someone came up to me and said, "Hey Andrew, you've got most reason to return your brother's phone call; here's why -- you promised, it'd hurt his feelings if you don't, plus you have to," I'd throw that in the pile with claims like "Animal Collective suck because they're awful."

    Now, if you've got the blameworthiness conception of "must" AND you think that moral judgments are the ones employing the must concept, then it seems absolutely right to regard anyone who denies that actions are blameworthy (b/c of, y'know, the standard arguments) as also denying denying that moral judgments are ever true.

    Anyhow, that's the standard view. There are a lot of these "reasons-plus" kinda views out there -- You must do X if there's more reason and people expect you to do X, you must do X if there's more reason and it'd be rational to regret not doing X, etc. I survey a lot of them in my dissertation. So even if you think the blameworthiness one is a dumb way to separate morality from the rest of the normative realm, maybe one of the other ones will do the trick.

    For my own part, I really doubt that you can characterize the concepts in our heads -- the ones we express with natural language terms -- by giving definitions. I think we should just give their conceptual roles, and then get down to (what seems to me like) the hard work of explaining how differences in conceptual role affect differences in conditions of correct application. One idea I'm surprised I haven't seen in the literature is this: Normative concepts are partly phenomenal, like "phenomenal red" and all the rest. It's this phenomenal aspect that's in part responsible for demarcating them as the normative concepts in the first place, and perhaps tokenings of different normative concepts have different phenomenal qualities. It's part of my judging that I'm required to save a child from drowning that I have this feeling of being, I don't know, *called* to do it. People always try to cash out the normativity of normative concepts by linking them with motivation, or the specifically moral character of moral concepts by linking them with blameworthiness, but what about good old phenomenal feels -- "what it's like" to think something's wrong?

  2. "Why philosophize about a merely 'some things considered' ought?"

    I presume that the answer to that is that different oughts may have different grounds, different explanations, and require things of us in different ways. Consider the different roles that the rational ought and the moral ought play in Smith or Korsgaard's theories, how the explanation of Scanlon's moral ought couldn't possibly make sense of the prudential ought, or how political or ettiquettal oughts may be grounded in societal or cultural facts in ways that moral oughts may not be. By lumping it all together it seems as though you're going to distort discussion of these apparent differences.

    (I need to think more about the mustn't-be-done stuff.)

  3. Andrew - great points. I can definitely see some room for the "reasons plus" approach, as discussed here, but I do think that it ends up making the concept of moral obligation derivative in a pretty important sense, and so not what Parfit seemed to be getting at. (Compare how most everyone accepts that we can't give a simple analysis of 'knowledge', yet only Williamson has the stronger view that knowledge is basic.)

    Your suggestion about the possible role of moral phenomenology is very intriguing -- something I'll need to think about more. But I should note that a concept might be theoretically 'derivative' in my sense even if, as a matter of psychology, our grasp of it is more direct. (This is roughly analogous to the distinction between personal vs. objective justification.)

    Alex - fair enough. But given that the various reasons (despite their diverse grounds) are all making competing claims on our action, it seems to me that the most interesting and fundamental question is just that of what we really ought to do, all things considered. I don't mean to deny that it's also interesting and important to look into the different grounds for various reasons. But talk of what we "X-ically ought" to do strikes me as a kind of false advertising (overblowing the normative significance). If I ought not to phi, whether I "X-ically ought" to or not just doesn't seem much of an issue.

  4. Richard,

    Perhaps you're right that there's really only one genuine ought. (The other option is to say that there are indefinitely many: horticultural oughts, manufacturing oughts, economic oughts, and so on.) But I can think of no better word to name these other requirements other than as kinds of ought.

    (You might be read as implying - though I don't think you mean to - that once we know what we really ought to do, the various things that contribute to that overall ought are of little interest. This is obviously false insofar as we wish to understand not only what we ought to do, but also why we ought to do it.)


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)