Sunday, October 25, 2009

Dimensions of Normative Inquiry

There are a number of different 'dimensions' of normativity that call out for investigation. (Below I'll describe three: the criterial, epistemic, and structural.) These dimensions are largely independent of each other, so to make progress on one dimension we might as well make simplifying assumptions about the others, just for sake of exposition. (One could always restate one's point without making any such assumptions, but the result might be more clunky and long-winded.) It's important for readers to understand these differences, so as to avoid raising "objections" that aren't really relevant to the discussion at hand.

(1) The criterial dimension (as I'll call it) concerns the fundamental goal or objective. So, for example, a criterial 'subjectivist' (or 'instrumentalist') might think that normative facts must be ultimately grounded in the agent's own goals (whatever those might be), whereas objectivists of various sorts think that certain things are good, or worth aiming at, whether we personally happen to like the idea or not.

(2) The epistemic dimension instead concerns how 'ought' facts depend on the available evidence. (Moral philosophers invoke this dimension when they distinguish what one "objectively ought to do", given the actual facts, versus what one rationally or "subjectively ought to do", given one's beliefs or available evidence.)

(3) Finally, questions regarding the structure of normativity arise when considering act vs. rule consequentialism, indirect 'sophisticated' psychologies, etc.

Bad things happen when one confuses these dimensions. For example, one commenter mistakenly dismissed a puzzle about the epistemic dimension on the grounds that he's an instrumentalist. But, as I pointed out in response, that's a wholly independent issue: the same issues arise on the epistemic dimension regardless of whether we're instrumentalists or objectivists on the criterial dimension.

More recently, I've deleted several off-topic comments that sought to respond to my discussions of normative structure by instead raising criterial and/or epistemic objections. Again, it's important to see that such objections aren't really relevant to the point at hand -- it's like objecting to an acronym or abbreviation that you don't like. In this particular case, the author was sufficiently rude and trollish that I doubt he much cares that he was missing the point. But for any non-philosophers out there with a good-faith desire to contribute to a productive discussion, it's important to (i) work out which dimension of inquiry the discussion at hand is centrally concerned with, and then (ii) ensure that one's response doesn't change the topic, e.g. by mistaking expository assumptions for substantive ones.

(More generally, it's good practice to think about whether one's objection really speaks to the heart of the matter, or whether it's a more tangential point that could easily be accommodated without much affecting the rest of the argument.)

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