Saturday, August 17, 2019

Normativity for Value Realists

At the recent Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress (great conference, btw), I was surprised to learn that Alastair Norcross doesn't believe in normative reasons.  He's happy to speak of "moral reasons", "prudential reasons", and even "Nazi reasons", but seems to view these all as objectively on a par. He happens to prefer the morality framework of standards to the Nazi one, and will condemn Nazis accordingly, but not in any way that implies that they are making an objective, framework-independent practical error.  In interpreting this view, since I don't think that framework-relative "reasons" are genuinely normative reasons at all ("Nazi reasons" do not count as providing genuine considerations in favour of genocide), Alastair's view strikes me as a form of normative nihilism.

Interestingly, though, Alastair is a value realist.  He thinks there is intrinsic value (and disvalue), and seems to accepts a traditional hedonistic account of these (the wrong view, IMO, but not our topic for today).  Such Value Realism may naturally lead one to a broader Normative Realism, I think, in a couple of ways.  So I'll address the rest of my post to any readers who share Alastair's starting point of Value Realism without Normative Realism, and see whether either of these arguments is persuasive.

First, we can ask whether you'd like to give up your Value Realism in favour of a relativistic view on which there's "hedonistic value", "desire-fulfilment value", and "Nazi value", all metaphysically on a par.  If not -- if there's really just one correct view of value, regardless of what subjective standards anyone might arbitrarily endorse -- then we can raise the question of why normative reasons don't move in parallel.  Surely an account of reasons for action that is grounded in facts about what's genuinely valuable is superior to an alternative account that bears no connection to the true value facts?

This leaves open a Sidgwickian dualism of practical reason between impartial and prudential reasons, depending on whether you think it appropriate to pursue goodness generally or only as it appears in your own life (and perhaps others that you care about).  But it at least seems to rule out "Nazi reasons" and other candidate frameworks that have no essential connection to what's truly good.  So that's something!  (We might even secure some rational pressure towards impartialism via the idea that responding to all values in proportion to their objective weights is more principled than any more restricted focus.)

My second move is to ask about the significance of value attributions.  When you call pain "bad", to a certain degree, are you just describing another qualitative feature of the world -- like shape or size -- or is there something more to it?  One natural and (I think) appealing answer adverts to the analytic connections between "good" and "desirable", "bad" and "undesirable".  As I previously put the point:
[I]t's a major advantage of the fittingness view that it makes explicit what the normative significance of value facts is to us. A value primitivist might say, "I see that this is good, but why should I care?" The fittingness view closes off such questions: to be of value just is to be something that merits concern (that it's rational to desire, pursue, etc.). The fittingness view makes explicit how abstract normative facts call for certain psychological responses.

This then yields a straightforward connection between the value facts and normative constraints on agents.  It is fitting, justified, or rationally warranted to desire just what is truly desirable (good).  To fail to pursue the good is thus constitutive of a kind of (substantive) rational error, or failure to respond to the genuinely normative reasons that apply to us.

You may be antecedently suspicious that our ultimate ends are rationally evaluable in this way.  But you shouldn't be.  Firstly, you need this implication in order for your claims about intrinsic value to have any normative bite.  (Seriously, what do you even mean by calling one thing 'good' and another 'bad' if not that the first thing is more desirable, or worth pursuing, than the second?  What kind of real value or "worth" would have no implications for what's worth pursuing?)  Secondly, following Parfit, there are intuitive examples of irrational non-instrumental desires, such as those found in the Future-Tuesday Indifferent agent.  If you're on board with those, there's no principled barrier to simply extending the range of ends that you're willing to judge as misguided, to cover all failures to respond appropriately to the objective values.



  1. Isn't Alastair going to try to do it all with better and worse, so it would be better if you chose the better option? I may be wrong, but I think of Alastair as a deontic skeptic (he doesn't believe in the things I think 'right' and 'wrong' pick out)and trying to do most of the work with better than.


    1. Hi Mark! You're right that, as a scalar consequentialist, Alastair rejects threshold deontic notions like 'right'/'wrong' -- a view I push back against elsewhere -- but I see that as separate from the present issue. Even just using degreed notions like 'better' and 'more reason', we can ask the question of what normative significance moral betterness has. (If the most we can say is that it's morally better to choose the morally better option, that would seem a bit limited. I think it's important to also be able to say that the morally better option is better supported by normative reasons, or more choice-worthy, or some such.
      There's no barrier to a scalar theorist making these additional comparative judgments: they don't commit us to any deontic binaries or threshold concepts.)


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