Normativity and Rationality

Over at Grundlegung, Tom has put a few thoughts together on some of what I said in my post on Normativity and Ontology. He’s focused on my somewhat rushed claims about the nature of normativity, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to clear some of my opinions up, not least because they aren’t entirely settled yet. I’ve already put some initial thoughts down in a comment on his post, but I’m going to offer some more detailed thoughts here, some of which overlap with what I said there. First of all though, I’m going to clear up a few things about my approach, before I specifically address Tom’s worries.

1. The Primary Bind

The first thing I must repeat from my old post is what I called there the primary bind. This names the fact that there are some norms, which I have called the fundamental norms of rationality, that we are bound by insofar as we make any claims at all. This is because, although we may indeed argue about how we should argue, this kind of argument has a special structure insofar as we cannot disavow the standards (or norms) which determine what is correct in this case. To put it in a different way, we can neither deny the existence (formally pseudo-existence) of such standards (‘There is no way we should argue’), nor can we posit the existence of divergent standards (‘How I should argue is different from how you should argue’), without invalidating the argument itself, i.e., without ceasing to occupy a position (or make a claim) at all. Tom correctly identified my positing of this primary bind as a properly transcendental claim.

This must be qualified however. All the primary bind indicates is that there are some fundamental norms that we are bound by insofar as we make claims, but this does not of itself determine what these norms are. Not all norms are rational norms, and it might be the case that there are optional norms of rationality, which one can disavow oneself from consistently. For instance, it might be that what we often think of as ‘scientific rationality’ parts ways with rationality in general by accepting certain optional norms governing what counts as an acceptable form of justification. Someone who disavows these norms isn’t necessarily irrational, but their claims can’t count as scientific. I think we’ve all encountered arguments between these two groups. (I should note here that I’m of course not saying that we should treat scientific theories as being on par with things like new age mysticism, far from it). Where we draw the line between fundamental and optional norms is an open question, and indeed, so is how we do so. Nonetheless, I think we can feel safe in holding that there is such a line.

2. Fundamental Deontology

In order to determine precisely what the fundamental norms of rationality  are one has to establish a rigorous methodology which specifies the special structure of the arguments about argument hinted at above. I am developing such a methodology, and it has a certain similarity to Husserlian phenomenology, insofar as there is a kind of bracketing involved (although the bracketing is somewhat different). Roughly, we find that there is a kind of bracketing implicit in the structure of argument itself:

For example, if we have an argument about whether homosexuality is morally wrong, I might justify the claim that it is wrong through appeal to the fact that Pope personally speaks for God, and that God both exists and is the source of moral authority. At this point the argument can veer off into metaphysical debates about the existence of God, his ability to affect the world and communicate through an individual, and the nature of moral authority. These debates can be practically unresolvable. However, we can agree to Bracket off such claims about God, by denying ourselves any appeal to either their truth or their falsity, as well as similar claims about the nature of moral authority and so on. Thinking of this in a Brandomian way, it is as if we take a particular claim (p) and preclude entitlement to both it and its negation (-p).

The relevant question is whether this kind of bracketing can be universalised, i.e., whether we can extend it to all claims. This is precisely what the pyrrhonian sceptics do (indeed they call it an epoche) when they assert the negation of any claim posed to them, so as to produce an equipollence, a state in which we must choose between p and -p. The pyrrhonian sceptics use this to form a general problem for the structure of justification as such – the Agrippan trilemma – namely, how does one justify any claim, against the assertion of it opposite, without (i) bare assertion (simply insisting p is true), (ii) regress (justifying p by appeal to q, which itself must be justified against -q), or (iii) circularity (justifying p by appeal to itself). The pyrrhonians obviously held that one cannot justify anything without falling into one of these traps. I don’t buy into this form of scepticism, but I think that we can use it to do something very similar to what Husserl did with Cartesian scepticism.

If we think about it closely, what we find is that in order to pose the sceptical problem of justification the pyrrhonians must actually describe the structure of justification in some minimal way. We must grasp what a claim is, what a reason is, what negation is, and so on, in order to show that there is an inconsistency involved in them. This suggests that there is a class of claims that is immune to the sceptical epoche (or the universalised argumentative bracketing outlined above). This might well be a class that the sceptics have themselves failed to exhaust, leaving them open to the charge that they have failed to understand the structure of justification before showing it to be inconsistent. As you might have guessed, I take this to be the class of normative claims specifying how it is that argument should proceed (what one is entitled to do, and obliged to do, in arguing). There is a good reason for this though.

The reason is that one is always permitted to correct those who argue incorrectly. One can of course do so implicitly (by say, making a tutting noise or whatever), but I think this license extends to explicitly correcting one’s interlocutor by saying what he has done wrong, or indeed what he should have done. If this is the case, then the license to correct one’s interlocutor overrides the universalised bracketing outlined above, and the class of claims which is immune is the set of normative claims about argument itself. One can always argue about argument even if one can argue about nothing else.

To think of this in a different way, one could even say that the bracketing itself is governed by norms (which specify what we commit ourselves to insofar as we bracket a claim). These norms only make sense in relation to those norms which specify the structure of claiming, challenging and justifying claims (the norms of argument in general) as such. One can at least always correct one’s interlocutor for failing to bracket correctly, and if so, there can always be an argument about whether one has bracketed correctly, and if so, then one will always possibly have need to appeal to explicit statements of the norms governing argument in general, both because one can use them to explicitly correct one’s interlocutor in this argument, but also because they can be deployed as reasons in the argument over how one should bracket (because, for instance, one’s interlocutor may make claims about how one should bracket which are inconsistent with the norms of argument in general). This means that the bracketing of all claims must at least exclude normative claims about the structure of bracketing, and therefore also claims about the structure of argument in general.

This has been quite a long aside, but it showcases in brief the methodology I have been developing for elucidating the fundamental norms of rationality, which I am tentatively calling fundamental deontology (although a friend of mine astutely noted that it is also in its own way fundamental epistemology). This methodology has further similarities to phenomenology, which I won’t go into in depth, but we can at least say that, like phenomenology, fundamental deontology has no real subject matter of its own. It tells us nothing about ‘what is’, only about ‘what we should do’, moreover, it tells us ‘what we should do insofar as we make claims about what is’. It also prevents us from using all kinds of other claims (such as scientific claims about the structure of the human brain, or even metaphysical and ontological claims) as reasons in our argument about the structure of argument (or, alternatively, our discourse upon discourse). It thus has the potential to give us a rigorous and immanent description of the structure of rationality itself.

3. Binding and Selfhood

Now that I’ve set the scene a bit more, I can start to lay out Tom’s major points. These are relate to an additional thesis I put forward on top of what I’ve rehearsed above: that to be a subject is to be bound by these fundamental norms of rationality. Tom framed his problems with my version of this thesis with regard to the following question:

“Does our inability to coherently reject fundamental norms of rationality, insofar as we engage in discursive activity, suffice to secure their authority for us? In other words, is assessment of rational competence dependent on the idea that we do (or cannot but) acknowledge rational norms insofar as we are discursive beings?”

It take it that the answer to both of these questions is in fact yes. I take it that what it is to count as a subject is for one’s behaviour to be subject to assessment in accordance with these norms, i.e., that it is legitimate for someone to hold you to the standards of rationality. As Tom rightly reads me, I think that this does not mean that we necessarily do act in the ways that we should. We are not perfectly rational, even though there is a certain sense in which we should be. The awkward question is this: what makes it legitimate for someone to assess me in accordance with these fundamental norms?

The simple, but partial answer is the one Tom and I agree on: it is our behaving in accordance with those norms which in some way makes us eligible to be assessed in accordance with them. The less easy it is to interpret someone’s behaviour as rational, as in some way according to aspects of the norms of rationality, the less good reason we have for thinking that that person should be held to account in accordance with those standards.

The first point of concern that Tom has about my version of this thesis is that he sees it as implying that subjectivity is just a matter of theoretical rationality, as opposed to practical rationality. This is a very astute point, and I must admit that I am not entirely decided on the issue. For me the question is whether or not the fundamental norms of rationality include those of practical rationality. On this point my intuitions are torn. On the one hand, Brandom has made a good argument for the possibility of the game of giving and asking for reasons as an autonomous discursive practice, of which observational and practical vocabulary are optional additions (there are of course issues with whether claims can have any real content without these optional extras, but that is a much larger kettle of fish). On the other hand, it seems to me that the fundamental norms of rationality are norms governing action, i.e., that theoretical reasoning is a species of action rather than something independent of it, indicating that there is some minimal sense in which even those who only ever engaged in the activity of ‘processing incompatible commitments’ are still agents. Additionally, as I will go into shortly, I take it that to be a rational subject just is to be able to be subject to norms of action in the proper sense, and this would imply that by default subjects should be able to be committed to different kinds of norms governing action, and thus potentially of different actions. There are far more considerations here than I can comfortably go into, and this is a problem which does keep me up at night, so I’m happy to discuss it further. I think I’m leaning more in Tom’s direction of taking subjects to be essentially practical as well as theoretical, but I haven’t developed a suitably coherent position yet.

Tom’s second point is one that I can get a better grip on though, and it helps to clear up my position a bit more. This point latches on to my additional claim that we become subjects insofar as we bind ourselves to the fundamental norms of rationality. The reasons I make this claim is because of the insight into normativity that Brandom finds in Kant, namely, the thesis of autonomy. This is the claim that any authority is binding on us only insofar as we accept that authority. This includes the authority that norms have over us. The problem that Tom has with this is the obvious problem that most people have with it (or at least a more nuanced and developed version than most people). This is that this would seem to make all authority a complete joke: we need only accept correction when we want to accept it, and if we don’t want to accept it then it isn’t really correction. As if a criminal could refuse to accept the judges authority and thereby make his sentence illegitimate.

As Tom rightly notes, in order to get out of this issue one has to make self-legislation, the act of acknowledging some authority, or the binding of oneself to some norm, itself subject to norms. So for instance, there can be certain actions which obligate one to acknowledge a certain authority (automatically binding one to it), and equally, there can be certain conditions which must be met for one to be permitted to revoke that acknowledgement. As Tom points out though, this kind of move leaves us open to regress, as it seems one has to bind oneself to the norms which govern self-legislation. However, one can actually proceed in two ways here:-

(i) One can take the norms of binding to be irreflexive, so that they do not cover one’s binding oneself to them, but only to subsequent norms (or authorities). This is the case of regress, whereby one needs always needs a further set of norms to covering the binding to the norms of binding, and so on, in order to avoid arbitrariness.

(ii) One can take the norms of binding to be reflexive, so that they do cover one’s binding oneself to them. Or, alternatively, one can take one of the regressive chain of norms above to reflexive, thus stopping the regress (there need not be one single set of norms governing binding (e.g., there are specific laws governing how one submits oneself to a certain kind of authority when one enters the military, and under what conditions one can recuse oneself of that), but there does need to be an ultimate one which grounds the others). However, this produces a different paradox. If one can only count as binding oneself to norms insofar as one is bound by the norms of binding how can one ever get off the ground?

Kant has to a similar problem, although it is not understood in the same terms. The transcendental subject (or transcendental unity of apperception) is just the unity of the activity of the subject’s prescribing or binding itself to the categories, which are essentially rules for rules (they provide the very form of concepts). For Kant, the transcendental subject is just a pure form, it has no substance in which such a unity could be grounded. Thus, Kant’s transcendental subject does not pre-exist its binding itself to the categories. It is a kind of immaculate genesis in which it comes to be only in binding itself. I think that the way out of this problem is to develop an account of subjectivity that adopts this Kantian picture of an immaculate genesis of the subject.

The rough strategy is to claim that reflexive norms of binding (and the structure of normativity in general) are to be found among the fundamental norms of rationality, and that as such they are subject to the primary bind. This would mean that one is always already in the position of being bound by certain norms, and that those norms dictate the conditions of one’s binding. This preserves the autonomy thesis, because the we do genuinely bind ourselves to the fundamental norms, it is simply that what we need to do in order to bind ourselves is minimal in the extreme – all we have to do is try to make ourselves understood. There is still a sense in which the norms can be disavowed, the primary bind abandoned, but it is only the sense in which one ceases to count as a subject entirely. This might seem somewhat uneasy, because we associate the kind of self-binding the autonomy thesis posits as being a choice, with all the rational resources that choice properly implies. In truth, binding oneself to the primary bind is like choosing to make choices. One does it implicitly just by making any choices. The only way not to is to not choose at all, which is to count as something which cannot choose. That freedom is something which is essentially constrained is not a new idea, but is present in Kant, Fichte, Hegel and those who follow them. Complete freedom from normative constraint would not be freedom at all.

This whole strategy needs to be fleshed out more, and I’m going to gesture at some ways of developing it further.

4. Authority, Responsibility and Analogy

However, I’m going to take us on a bit of a tangent in order to set this up. One of the central problems of the philosophy of normativity is trying to determine whether ‘ought’ should be understood as primarily affecting applying to actions or states-of-affairs, whether ‘ought to do’ or ‘ought to be the case’ is more fundamental. There are roughly two strategies one can adopt in relation to this problem, the Aristotlean strategy which takes ‘ought to be the case’ as primary (as evidenced in Aristotle’s conception of final causation), and then takes ‘ought to do’ as a species of this genus (as evidenced by Aristotle’s ethics’ preoccupation with the telos of man), or the Kantian strategy, which takes ‘ought to do’ as primary, and then tries to understand ‘ought to be the case’ as derivative upon, or analogous to it. You have probably guessed that I favour the Kantian approach (indeed, I think there is still much in the third critique of great contemporary relevance).

The most important examples of normativity of the ‘ought to be the case’ kind, are functional norms, which cover both organisms (e.g., ‘the heart should beat’) and mechanisms (e.g., ‘When the button is pressed the DVD should play’). There are other more awkward cases of normative terms applied that are applied to things that aren’t subjects, such as beauty (the other major part of the third critique), but I’m not going to deal with them here. Functional norms will serve as our primary example of norms that objects (as opposed to subjects) can be assessed in accordance with.

In the case of subjects, for one’s behaviour to be assessable in relation to a norm is to be responsible to a certain authority. The notion of authority and responsibility are intimately entwined. The Kantian idea of subjectivity I have been peddling is that a subject is a locus of responsibilities. However, a subject is also a locus of authority. A subject always has authority over at least one thing: what commitments it acknowledges. So, for instance, if friends of mine were to have an argument about whether I believe some proposition p, and I walk into the room and join the discussion, I have authority over who is right (there are some weird issues here such as the status of subconscious beliefs and desires and the like, but this is basically correct). However, I do not have authority over my consequential commitments (if p implies q, then I am committed to q, even if I don’t acknowledge it). The fact that my rational obligations may outrun what I take them to be is just an instance of the more general structure of binding we’ve been considering. The autonomy thesis allows that a subject has a certain authority over the obligations it undertakes, not a total authority, because the specific norms of binding in any case may permute its obligations in ways it doesn’t understand, but an authority that only it possesses. This authority is unique to the subject. It is precisely what makes the subject the subject that it is. Other kinds of authority can be added on top of this (e.g., political or legal authority), but they are conditional upon it.

If we take this insight, we can suggest a way to understand how the analogy between the assessment of objects in accordance with functional norms and the assessment of subjects in accordance with norms of action. When we take objects to be assessable with respect to functional norms, we give them a kind of responsibility, one which they can meet or fail to meet in accordance with brute causality. However, this is an analogous form of responsibility, because it involves no corresponding authority. Objects are not autonomous. They have no say in what norms they are bound by. This is because they have no ‘say’ at all, they are not bound by the norms of rationality that make expression possible. I will admit that this story is more complicated with biological norms than mechanical norms, but it can be made to work. There are also other kinds of derivative normativity which we can potentially understand in the same way, such as that we ascribe to animals and pre-linguistic children when we interpret them as having intentional states. The crucial notion is that they do not (yet) count as having authority over whatever interpretative arguments we might be having about them in the same way I have authority over my friends argument about how to interpret me.

5. Conclusion

This is still just an initial sketch of a theory, but it begins to give us some idea as to why being rational and being subject to norms of action (via fundamental norms of binding) are coextensive. As such it starts to back up the claim I made in my other post, that normativity has no real ontological status, that the only answer to the question ‘what are norms’ is itself one couched in normative terms. It is an answer which lays out the fundamental norms of binding that make up a necessary part of the fundamental norms of rationality. In short, it is an answer that can only be given by fundamental deontology.

I will be getting around to posting further about why norms have no being, but it involves rigorously explaining my concept of pseudo-being, which I need to do a little work on. As ever, feel free to comment!

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Appropriate descriptors: (neo)rationalist, left-accelerationist, socratic wanderer, heretical Platonist, computational Kantian, minimalist-Hegelian, heterodox Foucauldian, dialectical insurgent, conceptual mercenary, philosopher of fortune.

9 thoughts on “Normativity and Rationality”

  1. Just beginning to read through some of the stuff on the site and glad to see that some direct engagement with problems of rational normativity are being picked up outside the straight-forwardly analytical circles of philosophy. Nice to see Brandom being discussed too, I thought I was one of the only Deleuzian influenced philosophers who had any interest in that work.

    A couple of brief comments.

    First, I love the smell of Sartre in the morning and there was a clear whiff of the old Frenchman in this post, something that makes me wonder about the position:

    [quote]The only way not to is to not choose at all, which is to count as something which cannot choose. That freedom is something which is essentially constrained is not a new idea, but is present in Kant, Fichte, Hegel and those who follow them. Complete freedom from normative constraint would not be freedom at all.[/quote]

    ‘condemned to be free’ anyone?

    Now when I say this position makes me wonder it’s because of the ‘Ghost in the machine’ nature of this Sartrian looking subjective capacity. If a position I want to develop looks like ending in a Sartrian style assertion of my ‘freedom’ I tend to think I’ve likely made a mistake somewhere and backtrack. Do you think I’m seeing Sartrian spectres where none exist or would it not matter if I was?

    Second, the examples of what looks like a ‘natural normativity’ (eek, next we’ll have a ‘naturalistic normativity’) – specifically the ‘heart should beat’ and the ‘dvd should play’ – seem all too quick and seem to elide the real problems which would be more clearly apparent if we fleshed out the descriptions – so I take it that it is a living heart that should beat, not the one I have on my plate and am about to eat, just as I take it that the dvd button should play a dvd if it’s part of my entertainment system and set up to do that job rather than being part of an Improvised Explosive Device, in which case some other consequence ‘should’ occur. Now you say that these ‘functional norms’ are capable of being thought analogously to the norms of action that we assess a subject with but it just seems like you’re stuck with a ‘scheme dependency’ – which functional account is best and most applicable isn’t decidable. This, in particular, might be thought to be critical in the case of something like a booby-trapped DVD player since the very fact that I can be ‘wrong’ about what the DVD button ‘should’ do is implied in the possibility that the DVD can be a boobytrap. The wrongness, of course, is nothing to do with the object however, simply an inappropriate or incorrect functional scheme. I am wrong about the intentional network within which I find the object, not about the object itself.

    A final point, but too brief perhaps…you talk about ‘the norms of rationality’. Isn’t part of the problem that we might find it viable to talk of ‘a set of norms’ or even of ‘a set of fundamental norms’ but the singularity of ‘fundamental norms’ is precisely the problem. To use a hackneyed example (I’m afraid I’ve been reading Boghossian’s ‘Fear of Knowledge’ recently so blame him for this), isn’t one of the fundamental norms of the Azande the need to consult the oracle about the local witchcraft problem? On your description it seems nothing would stop anything from being part of the ‘fundamental norms of rationality’, just so long as we have some. I take it, however, that you can’t allow any relativism into the nature of the fundamental set of norms if you want to actually have a ‘fundamental deontology’.

  2. Hi Matt, nice to know you’re reading the blog.

    On the point about Sartre, I suppose their is a whiff here, but only insofar as Sartre overlaps with Kant and a bunch of others. The point is that the freedom I’m talking about here has nothing causal about it, indeed it is not an ontological notion at all (as it is for Sartre). I do not think we are a special kind of entity (a for-itself, or Dasein) as opposed to entities which Kant choose, with some special power of self-determination. Freedom here is a normative matter of what one can legitimately undertake to do. I can commit myself to climbing Everest, but whether I actually can do it is another matter, which can only be understood by understanding my causal composition, that of Everest, and a bunch of other real factors. The point about freedom being constrained is simply that there are certain things that we can’t undertake rational commitments to do. On the more substantive ontological issue of freedom I’m far more with Foucault than Sartre – we have a margin of freedom, and it is always a freeom in relation to some potential method for predicting or determining our actions. We can work upon this freedom, and become more free precisely insofar as we may become less predictable and determinable. But this involves an understanding of the real concrete conditions of the world, and is not a matter of normativity.

    With regard to functional norms, I think you might have misunderstood my intent. I’m a Kantian on this matter. I don’t think there is anything like final causation. Put in another way, I don’t think functional norms are real, or that there is an objective matter of fact as to what a heart is supposed to do in any given situation (as opposed to what it will do). I’m simply trying to work out how it is that our talk about functional norms (which has a good regulative use) can be understood in relation to our talk about other kinds of norms, precisely so that we can avoid reifying them. I’d take a look at my posts on Applied Critique and Pseudo-Existence, and Eliminativism and the Real if you want a better idea of where I’m coming from here.

    On the last point, many people have expressed similar worries about fundamental deontology. The important point is that the transcendental argument for the primary bind guarantees the singularity of fundamental norms, even if it doesn’t provide us with precisely what these norms are. Nor does it dictate that all norms of reasoning are thereby fundamental. Now, it is the actual method of working out what these norms are that must disprove that the Azandes’ norm is a fundamental one, but I don’t think this is particularly difficult. I think we could legitimately argue with the Azande about this norm, and if that is the case, then it can’t be fundamental. The fundamental norms are those without which there is no argument, those that we cannot reject without undermining the structure of the argument in principle. Fundamentality is not a matter about how central a given norm is to our form of like, but whether its denial undermines the very process of rational assessment itself.

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