Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Ambiguous Meta/Normative Theories

Consider Divine Command Theory:
(DCT) An act is right iff (and because) God commands it.

Armed with Parfit's distinction between right-making features and the property of being right, there are two very different ways of reading this:

(1) as a reductive meta-ethical theory, where the right-hand-side provides an analysis of rightness (the property of being right) itself. On this interpretation, DCT claims that what it is for an act to be right just is for it to be commanded by God. (The simplest version of this view would have it be true "by definition". But Robert Adams has also suggested a more sophisticated version, which begins by analysing the conceptual role of 'rightness', and then claims that 'being commanded by God' is the actual property that best fits the role.)

(2) as merely a normative theory, which presupposes an understanding of what rightness is, and instead merely seeks to inform us of what things in the world have this property (and why). For example, suppose one thought that obedience to authority was the sole virtue. Then, if it turns out that God exists as the ultimate authority, then this prior moral principle might lead one to conclude that one ought to do whatever God commands. But this version of the view doesn't entail that God is the source of the moral truths, or anything like that. He merely features in their content.

DCT provides a simple illustration of the distinction, but it is by no means the only theory with this potential ambiguity. Compare Humean desire accounts of normativity, for example, or various forms of "moral relativism" (/"cultural command theory"). These may be interpreted either as reductive meta-ethical theories, or as autonomous first-order normative views. The latter would be rather unmotivated, of course. (If you're going to accept full-blown normativity, you may as well posit a more intuitive account of what things have it.) Though, personally, I don't find the meta-ethical versions all that much more appealing (such alleged "reductions" of the normative always look to me more like eliminations).

Anyway, I figure it's an interesting distinction to make explicit.


  1. So what's normativity when it's at home? What kind of things ought we to look for?

    Presumably, a normative theory should give advantages over normative ignorance. It can't give engineering advantages; it doesn't allow us to do new things. The remaining possibility space is small enough that it can probably be characterized.

    Do you know or have you seen such a characterization?

  2. Alrenous - It sounds like you're asking for a meta-ethical theory, i.e. an account of what the property of rightness is, rather than a normative theory, or specification of which acts are right. (For the record, I think some form of impartial consequentialism is the correct normative theory.)

    I'm sympathetic to the metaethical "quietism" of Parfit and Scanlon, according to which normativity is primitive, and can't be reduced or characterized in non-normative terms. Hopefully you have the concept of a normative reason, and hence can understand what I mean when I say (e.g.) that "suffering is bad" (or that you have reason to avoid it). Alternatively, if you have the normative concept of a correct or fitting attitude, then we can say that just as it is fitting or correct to believe what's true, so it is fitting or correct to desire what's good. But I doubt I could say anything very helpful to someone who lacked all of these concepts.

  3. Normativity does seem fairly fundamental.


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