Saturday, April 04, 2009

Parfit on Reasons and Normative Facts

From Chp 24 of Parfit's manuscript, On What Matters (lightly edited):
Distinguish facts that are normative and facts that have normative importance in the sense that these facts give us reasons. Two examples would be the facts that
(J) your wine is poisoned; and that
(K) the fact stated by (J) gives you a reason not to drink your wine.

Of these facts, (J) is natural and (K) is normative. But it is (J), the natural fact, which has normative importance, in the sense of reason-giving force... Whenever some natural fact gives us a reason, there is also the normative fact that this natural fact gives us this reason.

It is easy to overlook such normative facts... if we say that natural facts of certain kinds are reasons to act in certain ways, we may be led to assume that, to defend the view that there are normative reasons, it is enough to claim that there are natural facts of these kinds. That is not so. We must also claim that these natural facts have the normative property of being reasons. And this claim, property, and fact might all be irreducibly normative.

In subsequent chapters, Parfit similarly notes the importance of distinguishing right-making features of an act (e.g. maximizing happiness, or whatever) from the property of being right.


  1. I guess the truth value of Parfit's last claim in the snippet would depend on whether or not there are natural facts constituting necessary and sufficient conditions for being a normative property.

    For instance, an important necessary condition for the truth of the claim "A ought to X" is that A could fail to X. Take a statement of the individually necessary conditions that are jointly sufficient for the truth of the normative claim. This will give us an analysis of the normative claim, and we can use the analysis to pick out a natural property in the world that meets all of its necessary conditions.

    E.g., the property of being a proper function, in Ruth Millikan's sense, might be such a natural property. In that case, there would not be non-natural irreducible normative facts in addition to natural facts.

  2. More simply: the disjunction of possible right-making features is a natural property that is necessary and sufficient for an act's being right. Even non-naturalists grant this. But it doesn't follow that this is an analysis of rightness, since (as the non-naturalist insists) there can be necessarily coextensive (but distinct) properties.


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