Back From The Dead

Hello everyone, I can confirm that I am still alive. I recently realised that it’s been over 3 months since I’ve posted anything, for which I must apologise. The reason for this is the usual – I’ve been trying (unsuccessfully) to finish my thesis. There’ve been several points at which I thought about posting up ideas on the blog, but told myself not to for the sake of getting thesis work done. However, this strategy hasn’t resulted in a great deal of thesis progress, and so I think I’ll take a different tack and see if writing some stuff on here will help speed up my writing elsewhere. As such, I’m going to write up some of the ideas I’ve been having about normativity of late, and hopefully clear up some confusions my earlier writings on the topic may have engendered.

1. Varieties of Deontology

One of the things I’ve realised recently is that I’ve been using the word ‘deontology’ for a long time in a slightly unusual way without really explaining myself (e.g., in the claim ‘deontology is first philosophy’). As such, an explanation of what I mean by talking about deontology and how this differs from the standard use of the word is long overdue. Deontology is ordinarily used to denote a particular kind of approach to ethics, most famously adopted by Kant (though he never used the word, as it was only introduced in the 20th Century). What characterises this approach is that it takes the notions of obligation and permission to be the most basic ethical concepts, and this is why it is called ‘deontology’, because ‘deon’ in greek means that which is binding or obligatory. I don’t endorse Kant’s particular ethics, and although I don’t have anything resembling a complete ethical theory, it would nonetheless be correct to put me somewhere in this deontological tradition, granted that it is defined in this very loose fashion. However, the primary sense in which I use deontology does not pick out this approach to ethics. Instead, what I mean by deontology is not strictly a theory at all, but rather a discipline or area of inquiry analogous to ontology. I find this fairly intuitive, since ‘deonto-logy’ can be understood to mean the science of obligation in much the way that ‘onto-logy’ means the science of Being. But as this isn’t the common usage of the term, it’s important to make this explicit.

So, what is this science of obligation? Well, much like ontology, it can be divided into two parts: regional and fundamental. The former concerns itself with the various different kinds of obligations (or duties) and permissions (or licences) that can be instituted by social practice. Specifying what such deontological regions there are is perhaps more difficult than specifying ontological regions, insofar as the latter are fairly straightforwardly delineated by the fault lines between scientific disciplines (e.g., the physical, the chemical, the biological, the social, etc.), but it’s possible to give some basic examples: the ethical, the legal, the customary, etc. This makes ethics is an aspect of regional deontology. A lot more work needs to be done to make sense of the notion of regional deontology (and the notion of ethics subsumed within it), but for the moment I’m more concerned with the notion of fundamental deontology. This concerns itself with the notions of obligation and permission as such.

There are different ways in which one could articulate such an inquiry. The key question here is what resources one is entitled to use in explaining the deontic notions (obligation and permission). I take it that these notions are to be understood in terms of practical rationality (i.e., in terms of the way they function as reasons for and against action), which itself can only be understood alongside theoretical rationality (i.e., in terms of the notion of reasons per se). However, I also take it that rationality must itself be understood in deontic terms. On the one hand, the force of reasons is a matter of obliging (dispositive reasons) or entitling (probative reasons) one to adopt a conclusion. On the other, there are general obligations one undertakes insofar as one is involved in any reasoning at all (e.g., the obligation to work out the consequences of one’s commitments and the obligation to eliminate any incompatibilities amongst them by retracting some of them). As such, I take it that the deontic notions cannot be explained in non-deontic terms. However, this does not mean that this explanatory strategy locks us into a vicious circle. Instead, we can see this strategy as embodying a virtuous circle, in which, although we do not reduce the deontic to something else, we nonetheless make explicit its structure by way of the specific obligations which constitute the structure of rationality.

So, on my account, the core part of deontology – fundamental deontology – concerns itself with those fundamental obligations that we are bound by insofar as we are counted as rational agents. Insofar as only rational agents can be obligated or permitted to do anything, these are thereby the obligations that one must be bound by insofar as one can be bound by anything. These are what I have elsewhere called the fundamental norms of rationality.

Now, so far I’ve treated the notions of obligation and permission as constituting a single package, but, as you may have noticed, the notion of obligation is most definitely the more important within the order of explanation sketched above. However, both of these choices can be brought into question. The first is usually understood as the question of whether they are interdefinable (I’ve discussed this elsewhere, in the comments here). For instance, a lot of people think that it is possible to define permissability in terms of obligation (so that what is permissable is what one is not obliged not to do), and vice versa (so that what is obligatory is what one is not permitted not to do). This produces a ‘weak’ notion of permission, which can be distinguished from a ‘strong’ notion of permission. This kind of strong permission turns up in jurisprudence, where it is often the case that simply not being prohibited from performing an action does not constitute adequate justification, and what one requires is some kind of positive licence that constitutes a proper reason for action.

Brandom’s account of deontic scorekeeping, which I endorse, requires a form of strong permission. What it is to be entitled to a theoretical or practical commitment must be independent of what it is to be committed to it in order for his account of the various inferential relations (permissive, committive, and incompatibility) that constitute conceptual content to get off the ground. This means that I can’t hold that obligation and permission are straightforwardly interdefinable, and thereby makes it harder for me to uphold the unity of the deontic proposed above. I don’t have a complete solution to this problem, but I have a rough strategy. Although I don’t think that all forms of permission can be simply reduced to a corresponding notion of obligation, I do think that what distinguishes such strong forms of permission can be explained in terms of the ways in which they function as reasons for action. If I can then explain the general structure of this kind of reasoning in terms of the fundamental obligations that underlie it, I will have indirectly explained permission in terms of obligation. This strategy would not only shore up the unity just mentioned, but would also secure the primacy of the notion of obligation discussed above. However, this isn’t so well worked out, so I won’t discuss it further.

Something else I’m guilty of (which Tom from grundlegung has called me out on before) is of equivocating between the deontic and the normative. The issue here is that although everyone agrees that the deontic notions of obligation and permission are normative notions, there are other normative notions that are not obviously reducible to them (Tom suggests “recommendation, beauty, guidance, virtue and value” as examples). In short, the problem is whether or not the deontic notions are the fundamental normative notions in terms of which all others (and thus the normative as such) should be understood. Now, it is my position that these are the fundamental normative notions, and thus that deontology is the science of normativity in general, but this does require a certain amount of justification. There are roughly three issues that need tackling here: i) the relation between ‘ought to be’ and ‘ought to do’, ii) the relation between ‘correctness’ and ‘value’, and iii) the relation between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ normative concepts. In the remainder of the post I’ll tackle issues (i) and (ii). I have a few ideas about (iii), but I haven’t really done enough research to say anything cogent.

2. Explaining the Deontic: Ideal States Vs. Obligations

I’ve discussed (i) before in a couple different places (here and in the comments here). It is essentially a matter of how we should understand the notion of ‘ought’ or ‘should’, whether we should a) take its use in descriptions of what ought to be as explanatorily primary, b) take its use in descriptions of what we ought to do as explanatorily primary, or c) deny that there is any sort of explanatory priority between the two. The dispute is essentially a matter of whether we should think of the principle deontic modal operator which we can apply to propositions (analogous to the alethic modal operator ‘It is necessary that…’) as principally meaning ‘It should be the case that…’ or ‘One should make it the case that…’, or whether there just are two different meanings that cannot be reduced to each other. For ease of use, I’m going to talk about this in terms of whether the deontic (or binding) should be understood principally in terms of ideal states of affairs (or just ideal states), in terms of obligations to act as more ordinarily understood, or neither. It’s important to point out that the notion of ideal state subsumes the more common notion of function, the best examples of which are technical and biological functions (e.g., ‘the heart should pump blood around the body’, and ‘the power cable should conduct electricity’, respectively).

It’s helpful to explain this by way of the history of the philosophy of normativity. The important thinker here is Aristotle, who, through his account of final causation (or teleology), takes things to intrinsically have ways in which they should be, based upon the kinds of things that they are. He then explains what we should do in terms of our own final cause (or telos) as humans, namely, our flourishing as virtuous agents (or eudamonia). This is the original version of strategy (a), and it’s an explicitly metaphysical approach to the nature of normativity. There are a variety of historical successors to this approach, which take it in different directions. First, there are modern variants of natural law approaches, that try to locate what we should do within accounts of biological functions immanent within nature. Interestingly, there are both theistic and atheistic versions of this approach. The former tend to locate the force of natural law within the intentions of the creator, whereas the latter try to naturalise the notion of normativity by deriving it from evolutionary accounts of individual and social behaviour (this naturalistic strategy varies, and can overlap with some other approaches discussed below). Second, there are Spinozistic accounts of normativity, which reject the metaphysical notion of final causation/function/telos entirely. These try to develop a distinction between good and bad that is immanent (and thus relative) to each individual entity (rather than kinds of entities) on the basis of something like a notion of increase of power/capacities, adaptability, or survival. Nietzsche and Deleuze are good examples of thinkers who take this route, but there is also a certain amount of overlap here with the naturalistic approaches mentioned above. Third, there are Hegelian approaches that accept something like a metaphysical notion of telos whilst providing a more dynamic account of how this grounds what we should do. This tradition is more difficult to characterise, particularly because much of the account of what we should do can be characterised in non-metaphysical, Kantian terms (and there are readings of Hegel that completely reject its metaphysical underpinnings, such as those of Brandom and Pippin).

The major reaction against the Aristotelian tradition and its variants is the Kantian tradition, which completely rejects the idea that any form of normativity should be understood in metaphysical terms. Instead, it follows strategy (b), and takes obligations to be primary, explaining supposedly ideal states, such as biological and technical functions as either derivative upon or analogous to them (Kant’s own account is provided in the 3rd Critique). There is, in turn, a deflationist tradition which reacts to the Kantian tradition by adopting strategy (c), and denies that there is any need to prioritise either kind of normativity. What is interesting about this approach is that it follows the Kantian one in rejecting the need to ground obligations in any special metaphysics of normativity (including anything like Aristotelian teleology). Indeed, the general approach is to argue that we are simply faced with both kinds of normative facts (i.e., we take there to be normative claims of both kinds that are true), and that an explanation of the source of either kind of normativity is neither available nor required. This isn’t to say that nothing illuminating can be said about these kinds of normativity, only that there can be no single explanation of their source. The world simply is already normatively articulated and there is nothing we can do about it. The most famous advocate of this sort of approach is John McDowell (who might be characterised as a kind of non-metaphysical Aristotelian virtue ethicist), although there are others.

I’m a fully signed up member of the Kantian tradition. My reasons for this are that, against the deflationist tradition, I accept the need for a full-blooded explanation of these forms of normativity that explains their source (or their bindingness), but, against the Aristotelian tradition, I hold that it cannot be provided in metaphysical terms. As indicated above, I think that it is possible to provide an explanation of the deontic that explains it source without having to explain it in non-deontic terms. This is itself a Kantian approach, which proceeds in terms is of the notion of autonomy. On this account the force of obligations (their bindingness) derives from the way in which we bind ourselves to them (be it individually or collectively). This is a form of what is commonly called constructivism, which attempts to show how norms are instituted by (and thus forceful on the basis of) certain aspects of our behaviour. There are numerous things recommending this approach, but I think the simplest is that it uses the most minimal theoretical resources to achieve the greatest explanatory ambitions. This is amplified if, as I propose, those ambitions are expanded to include a complete explanation of the structure of rationality and of the remaining forms of normativity not already addressed.

3. Explaining the Normative: Value Vs. Correctness

Moving on to (ii), when asked to define the normative, I’ve previously said that something is normative if it is subject to assessments of correctness. This ties into the order of explanation already suggested because we can define acting correctly as acting as one should. We can then understand forms of correctness applicable to things other than action (e.g., the correct way for a heart to beat) as derivative upon or analogous to the correctness of actions, just as ideal states are derivative upon obligations. However, the problem with this definition is that although there are a bunch of normative notions that we might be able to understand as types of correctness (e.g., truth, goodness, justice, appropriateness, etc.) insofar as they distinguish what is correct in a certain context from what is incorrect (e.g., falsity, badness, injustice, inappropriateness, etc.), there are other normative notions that aren’t obviously analysable in such binary terms, such as beauty, which could be opposed either to its absence or to ugliness, and any other notions which permit ranges of ranked values, such as virtue (more or less virtuous), commendation (more or less commended), worthiness (more or less worthy), etc.

A better way of articulating the problem is to understand it as a question of explanatory priority similar to that of the relation between ideal states and obligations. To the notion of correctness, which stands for any distinction between right and wrong, we will oppose the notion of value, which stands for any kind of ranking of better and worse. It should be noted that value need not simply be a matter of degree, because rankings need not be transitive (e.g., think of the ‘value’ of a move in a game of rock, paper, scissors), and can display more complex structure (e.g., the example of beauty above, in which there is not just more or less beautiful but also the absence of beauty (analogous to zero) and ugliness (analogous to negative beauty)). The question is then whether we should a) take correctness to be explained in terms of value, b) take value to be explained in terms of correctness, or c) deny that either needs to be explained in terms of the other. What’s interesting about this debate is that it cuts across the one discussed in the previous section to some extent. It’s possible to adopt a loosely Aristotelian position and to hold to either (a), (b) or (c), and its possible to hold to a Kantian position and hold (a) or (b), although it seems to me that the deflationist position is probably committed to (c), though I could be wrong about this.

I’m not really going to address any of the non-Kantian alternatives available here, but I will briefly address the split within the Kantian tradition on this issue. The Baden school of Neo-Kantians is famous for what it called ‘value philosophy’, in which it tried to unify the three central notions of Kant’s three critiques: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, by subsuming them under the notion of value. They then understood this notion of value in terms of the structure of the act of evaluation. Normativity as such is thus explained in terms of a transcendental inquiry into practices of evaluation, wherein the evaluation of correctness need not be given any specific privilege. This is admittedly a very schematic interpretation of the Baden school, because almost none of their work is translated, and so I’m principally familiar with them through their influence on Heidegger and his reaction to them (as described in his own work and in the literature surrounding it). Nonetheless, they show that there is an alternative Kantian approach to my own, which pursues strategy (b). Unfortunately, in the absence of a more detailed account of this alternative, I can’t really offer any serious criticisms of it. All I can do is to register my belief that this order of explanation isn’t viable, and demonstrate that my own order of explanation is.

I’m going to do this by showing how the ranking relations distinctive of value concepts that can’t straightforwardly be understood as types of correctness can be understood in terms of the structure of practical reasoning, which is itself understood principally in deontic terms, and thus in terms of correctness. All of this is implicit in Brandom’s account of practical reasoning, which I endorse. I’ve explained some of this before (in section 4 of this post, though it’s not completely accurate), but I’ll rehearse it again in order to introduce the relevant features of the account. The important thing to understand is the difference Brandom introduces between theoretical (or doxastic) and practical commitments, which, intuitively speaking, is the same as that between the ordinary notions of belief and intention: in undertaking the former one takes a proposition to be true (e.g., that expressed by the claim ‘Pete has climbed Everest’), whereas in the latter one undertakes a responsibility to make a proposition true (e.g., the practical commitment ‘I shall climb Everest’ makes me responsible for making the former proposition true). This intuitive characterisation isn’t quite adequate, as Brandom thinks the the notion of truth plays no substantial explanatory role, but it will suffice for now.

Brandom takes it that practical commitments stand in inferential relations with one another much in the way that theoretical commitments do: one can entitle us to others (e.g., a commitment to climb one of the world’s highest mountains provides a defeasible entitlement to a commitment to climb Everest) one can commit us to others (e.g., a commitment to climbing Everest implies a commitment to going to Nepal), and they can stand in relations of incompatibility with one another (e.g., a commitment to climbing Everest is incompatible with a commitment to remain in the UK). Brandom takes the ability to undertake practical commitments to be parasitic on the ability to undertake theoretical commitments (and thus takes practical reasoning to be dependent upon theoretical reasoning), because these inferential relations are inherited from the theoretical commitments whose propositional content they share (e.g., my commitment to climb Everest gets its inferential articulation from the corresponding theoretical commitment that I have climbed Everest, which implies that I have gone to Nepal, and that I haven’t stayed in the UK, etc.).

These relations between practical commitments are what underlie the instrumental dimension of practical reasoning (i.e., means-ends reasoning). They determine what would count as a satisfying a given practical commitment, and thus both what one must do (e.g., go to Nepal) and must not do (e.g., stay in the UK) if it is to be satisfied. However, there is more to practical reasoning than instrumental reasoning. There is reasoning about what one is going to do, as well as reasoning about how one is going to do it. We might call this the motivational dimension of practical reasoning, and it is underpinned by inferential relations that connect theoretical commitments to practical commitments, rather than those that connect theoretical to theoretical (and thus, indirectly, practical to practical). The kinds of inferences these correspond to are usually understood as inferences to intentions (i.e., practical commitments) from beliefs (i.e., theoretical commitments) when combined with desires (or other so-called pro-attitudes). What is distinctive of Brandom’s approach to practical reasoning (and the feature which is relevant to our concern with the notion of value) is the way he accounts for the role that desires (and other pro-attitudes) play in these inferences. To explain this I’m going to have to use some of Brandom’s own examples of such inferences:-

a) Only opening my umbrella will keep me dry, therefore I shall open my umbrella.

b) I am a bank employee going to work, therefore I shall wear a tie.

c) Repeating the gossip would harm someone, to no purpose, therefore I shall not repeat the gossip.

What you’ll notice about these examples is that they do not contain anything like an expression of a desire. They are inferences directly from a theoretical commitment (belief) to a practical commitment (intention), and Brandom nonetheless takes them to be good inferences. The usual way to understand the goodness of such inferences is to treat them as enthymemes – as really involving suppressed premises. This would be to say that a desire (or other pro-attitude) is actually involved in each case, but simply not expressed. This is also the usual way of understanding most theoretical inferences, such as:-

d) Newcastle is to the north of Sunderland, therefore Sunderland is to the south of Newcastle

e) Lightning has been seen now, therefore thunder will be heard soon.

The usual way to understand these inferences is to treat them as involving suppressed conditional premises (i.e., ‘if something is to the north of something else, then the latter is to the south of the former’ and ‘if lightning is seen, then thunder will be heard soon after’, for (d) and (e) respectively). To take this approach is to endorse logical formalism, i.e., to insist that inferences can only ever be good in virtue of their form. Brandom rejects this analysis, and takes (d) and (e) to be good material inferences, i.e., inferences that are good in virtue of the content of their premises and conclusions. Theoretical material inferences are good without the addition of conditional premises, but the addition of these conditionals is not thereby inert. Instead, they serve to make explicit the content of the concepts in virtue of which the inferences are good (e.g., of the concepts north, south, lighting and thunder). In other words, the theoretical inferential commitments which constitute our grasp of the inferentially articulated contents of propositions (and the concepts that compose them) are acknowledged by the use of conditional claims. This is the central aspect of the logical expressivism that Brandom opposes to logical formalism.

Returning to the case of practical inference, Brandom thinks that (a), (b) and (c) should be understood in a similar way to (d) and (e). He thinks that desires and similar pro-attitudes are to be understood as practical inferential commitments, which underwrite inferences from theoretical to practical commitments. We can then make assertions that make these commitments explicit in the same way that conditional claims make theoretical inferential commitments explicit:-

(a’) I prefer to stay dry.

(b’) Bank employees should wear ties.

(c’) One should not hurt someone to no purpose.

However, there is an important difference with the theoretical case. This is clear if we look at the subjects of (a’), (b’) and (c’). Whereas endorsing a theoretical inferential commitment means taking it to hold for everyone, the scope of practical inferential commitments can vary. Desires are those practical inferential commitments that only hold for specific individuals (e.g., (a’)), and thus have no force for others. Norms are those practical inferential commitments which hold for groups, which can mean particular communities (e.g., the Jewish kosher laws), those who occupy a particular institutional role (e.g., (b’)), or even everyone (e.g., (c’)). This is what I mean when I say that norms are a kind of collective practical commitment. Brandom thus thinks that terms like ‘prefer’, ‘ought’, ‘should’, ‘may’, and all varieties of normative vocabulary should be understood to be a kind of logical vocabulary (analogous to conditional vocabulary) that makes explicit these features of practical reasoning.

Now, the taxonomy of types of practical inferential commitment just given is fairly rough, but it does indicate that there can be a variety of different types of ‘ought’, at least including the prudential (a’), the institutional (b’), and the unconditional (c’). Brandom admits that these categories aren’t exhaustive, but he doesn’t go into any further detail here. The close link between the ‘ought’ and the notion of correctness means that Brandom’s initial idea provides us with the basis of an account of the types of correctness discussed above, but I think it can be elaborated a little bit. The categories Brandom proposes can themselves be further subdivided, for example, we might distinguish between the legal ought and the customary ought, as subtypes of institutional oughts. However, these subdivisions can’t be accounted for by further variations in the scope of the relevant commitments. Instead, I think that we should individuate them on the basis of the structure of discourse about them, i.e., on the basis of the different ways in which we argue about what we ought to do (or what is correct) in each case.

This ties into the taxonomy of truth I’ve put forward elsewhere (see here, and my TR essay for details), although the fact that truth is itself a kind of correctness makes this a bit complicated, insofar as all arguments about what is correct are simultaneously arguments about what is true (i.e., what is truely correct). The basic idea is that all argument about kinds of correctness (excluding those about objective truth) appeal to claims about our attitudes in some way, thus qualifying them as non-objective forms of discourse. However, how such appeals work differs between cases. For example, the structure of arguments about legality is very complex, in virtue of the intricate nature of the social institutions upon which it is based. Different kinds of privileged authority is granted to the politicians who pass laws and the judges that interpret and extend them, and this means that claims about their attitudes can play special roles within debates about the law. By comparison, arguments about custom have a much less well defined structure, in which privileged authority is either absent or haphazardly apportioned. In short, we individuate the different types of obligation/correctness in terms of where they derive their authority from, or the source of their bindingness.

In addition to the question of how the different types of correctness are individuated, there is the question of how they are related. However, in order to answer this we need to explain one final aspect of practical reasoning, which by happy coincidence is the very same aspect required to address the problem of value. This is the fact that the vast majority of practical reasoning is non-monotonic. Precisely what this means is easier to explain in relation to theoretical reasoning, most of which is similarly non-monotonic. A non-monotonic theoretical inference is one that does not remain good regardless of what additional premises one adds to it, i.e., an inference that is defeasible. To take Brandom’s example, the inference from ‘I’m about to strike this dry, well made match’ to ‘It will light’ is a good one, but this ceases to be the case if we add the additional premise ‘A strong magnetic field is present’. This is known as a defeasor. There can also be counter-defeasors, such as ‘I’m standing in a faraday cage’, and counter-counter-defeasors such as ‘I’m also in a vacuum’. Now, instrumental reasoning can be non-monotonic in precisely the same way as theoretical reasoning, because it is governed by the inferential relations between the corresponding theoretical commitments (e.g., all of the defeasors of the above inference are defeasors of the inference ‘It is too dark to see, therefore I will light a match’). However, it is the non-monoticity specific to motivational reasoning that concerns us.

This kind of non-monoticity derives from the fact that practical commitments can be incompatible with one another. This means that even if our desires and the norms we are bound by (our practical inferential commitments) are not directly incompatible (which they can be), variations in our theoretical commitments can mean that the practical commitments we infer from them are. For example, I may desire both to remain dry, and to remain safe, and these are usually incompatible. But in a lightning storm my desire to remain dry will license me to open my umbrella (i.e., (a)), while my desire to remain safe will compel me not to. In these cases one inference must trump the other. If I prefer safety to dryness, then the theoretical commitment ‘I am in a lightning storm’ thereby counts as a defeasor to (a). The possibility of direct and indirect incompatibilities between our practical inferential commitments is the key to both the nature of value and the relation between types of correctness. It is the key to the former because it reveals the possibility of relational practical inferential commitments:-

f) I prefer safety to dryness

g) It is better for bank employees to wear black ties than blue ties.

h) It is worse to be harmed than to harm.

These relational commitments rank the priority of practical commitments, and thereby assign other practical inferential commitments their respective motivational defeasors. They thus determine how it is correct to act relative to one’s circumstances. When such relational commitments are individual in scope, we simply call them preferences, but when they are collective (institutional or unconditional), we call them values (in the sense of ‘our community’s values’). Since they are one kind of collective practical inferential commitment, it is proper to say that values (in this sense) are a species of norm. We can then understand the values that things possess (as opposed to the values we are bound by), such as the cultural value of a painting, the monetary value of a coin, etc., as normative statuses that are conferred upon them by the roles they play within our norm (or value) governed practices. So, the fact that a painting is beautiful is to be cashed out in terms of certain norms governing how it is correct to act in relation to it, and the fact that it is more beautiful than another painting is to be cashed out in terms of how one should act in relation to both of them given the constraints supplied by ones circumstances. For example, if one is in a burning gallery, and only has time to save one painting, one should (by default) save the more beautiful of the two.

This neatly brings us back to how different types of correctness are related. Say that of the two paintings in the gallery, one is more beautiful yet worth less money, and the other is less beautiful but worth more money. Here we do not simply have conflicting practical inferential commitments (i.e., commitments which imply that we should save both paintings) but conflicting methods for determining correct action (i.e., two different ways of resolving the former kind of conflict). A more classical example of this kind of conflict is that between the ethical and the legal: what if the law requires that one do something unethical, or ethics requires one do something illegal? In these situations there needs to be some sort of interface between the kinds of normativity in play (i.e., some way of comparing apples and oranges). I can’t give a comprehensive account of what would constitute such an interface, but I can make a few provisional comments. Obviously, the easiest way for two kinds of normativity to be related would be for one to always override the other. For instance, one could hold that ethical norms always defeat other kinds of norm (indeed, one could make a case that this is precisely what distinguishes the ethical as ethical, not that I am…). I doubt that such clear cut hierarchical relations hold in most cases, though I think they’re more likely to hold in the case of unconditional norms (e.g., the fundamental norms of rationality discussed earlier, and perhaps the ethical). When it comes to different kinds of institutional norms, it’s most likely a matter of building bridges between them in a piecemeal fashion. For instance, I am certain that there are cases in which legality trumps custom, but I think there might be cases in which the converse holds (i.e., where we are justified in doing something that is customary despite it’s illegality). There is much to be said about such cases, especially about the role that these conflicts play in the revision of law and custom.

4. Conclusion: The Anatomy of the Normative

In the course of this post I’ve tried to clarify my approach to the philosophy of normativity. In doing so I’ve sketched my explanatory strategy for dealing with the various different normative notions and the relations I see them standing in. I’ve tried to show how a Kantian approach to the relation between the two ways of conceiving the ought (in terms of obligations to act and in terms of ideal states) is situated in relation to its historical alternatives, and suggested why such an approach is preferable to these alternatives. I’ve then shown how Brandom’s account of practical reasoning allows us to understand the ought of action, and suggested how this can be used to explain the relationship between the notions of correctness and value.

However, there are plenty of gaps still to be filled in the above account, which I’ve tried to acknowledge as I went along. The biggest omission here is an analysis of so-called ‘thick’ normative concepts. These are concepts which combine both descriptive and evaluative content, such as courage, cruelty, kindness, silliness, etc. The real issue with these concepts is to whether or not these different dimensions of their content can be separated out. My own intuition is that the answer to this is yes and no. I think that it must be possible to use the resources provided above to analyse the specific evaluative content of these concepts, to unpack the norms and values implicit within them. However, at the same time, I don’t think that doing so necessarily amounts to showing that the things they pick out are entirely objectively describable independently of this normative dimension. This might sound contradictory, but I think the crucial additional thing to take into account is the fact that concepts are revisable, that their content can change. I’ve discussed the importance of such revision in securing the possibility of objectivity before (see the TR essay). However, the kind of revision that objective concepts undergo is forced upon them by observation claims about the world (although this isn’t quite true for mathematical concepts, but I’ll ignore that here), whereas these are non-objective concepts whose revision is governed by our own authority (although the way it is so governed may vary). My hypothesis is thus that the inseparability of the descriptive and evaluative dimensions of thick normative concepts stems from the fact that the evaluative dimension plays an important role in the revision of the concept, including its descriptive part. However, this is still a very rough idea, and needs working out in much more detail.

Anyway, that’s all for now. With a bit of luck I’ll be back shortly with a somewhat briefer post on some ideas I’ve had about metaphysics of late. Till then, a happy new year to you all.

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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.

15 thoughts on “Back From The Dead”

  1. Hi Pete,
    really nice post. A quick question: What would you say about incommensurable commitments? You talk about conflicting, incompatible commitments, and you say: “In these cases one inference must trump the other”. But I don’t see how that follows from what you’ve explicitly said here. Sure, if there is a single scale (for instance “beauty” in your example above) which can be used to rank the conflicting commitments, then the worst that can happen is that they come up equal. But is there such a single scale? In practice one must choose, of course, but the question here is about the rationality of the choice. And supposing that we have a single, overarching scale on which to rank the comparative normative weight of our commitments whether aesthetical, ethical, legal, fundamental, and so on, seems rather optimistic.
    Now you don’t say “single, overarching scale”, instead you say “interfaces” which seems much more reasonable, but does it not still presuppose the commensurability of the different kinds of normativity? Could there not be many cases where no “trumping” is possible, where the normative is fatally under/overdetermined because of incommensurability?
    If I can frame this in terms of mathematics, then it seems that for commitments to be commensurable and rankable, they must constitute something like a “strict total order”, in the mathematical sense. Moreover, I suppose they must also be additive, so that two weaker commitments weighing for the same action can trump one stronger commitment pulling in a different direction.
    But what arguments justify ascribing to the set of all our commitments these mathematical properties?

  2. Hi Inregard,

    I wasn’t trying to ascribe to our commitments these particular mathematical properties. That was the point about talking about the problem of ‘interfaces’. With any form of instituted normativity you also have to institute norms governing the ways it interacts with other forms of normativity, and it’s quite possible that we simply don’t do this in some (if not most) cases. Sometimes we run up against incommensurable forms of valuation, and we’ve either got to make arbitrary choices or start creating some principles on the basis of which to adjudicate between them.

    Now, when it comes to non-instituted forms of normativity, we might find that there are already norms in place stipulating the relations between them and other forms of normativity. This was what I was suggesting might hold in the case of ethical normativity. I’m not willing to commit myself to that, but simply showing that this kind of relation seems intelligible.

    Does that help?

  3. Pete, there a lot of things here, and I hope to be able to think through this post more thoroughly later. For now, I would just like to make a quick comment about your gloss of McDowell (I know it’s really peripheral to your text, but since you tagged his name, I would like to briefly comment on it).

    You say that McDowell advocates a kind of position that takes normativity as a brute fact, as if “The world simply is already normatively articulated and there is nothing we can do about it.” I don’t think that’s true, though. First, it’s not the case that McDowell thinks the world is “already normatively articulated”. He thinks the world is already conceptually articulable, not normatively articulated. Secondly, and more importantly, it’s not the case that he takes normativity as a brute fact. On the contrary, the whole point of his introduction of the concept of “second nature” (i.e. acquired nature) is to make intelligible how it can be that we, as natural (in opposition to supernatural) animals, can be responsive to reasons. Even if he does not provides a full-fledged account of how this is possible (in the sense that he does not develop a full-fledged developmental psychology), he does gives a rough sketch of the direction any explanation must take, namely, through the acquisition of a language and the introduction to a tradition. You are right that he does not think it’s philosophy’s task to give the full-fledged account of our becoming rational animals. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any explanation available. There could be a psychological explanation, for example.

    In short, I think McDowell’s work is more interesting than what you make of it in your post.

  4. Hi Dan,

    I must admit that I’m not an expert in McDowell, but I think my characterisation isn’t as problematic as you seem to think (even though it is very brief!). First, I didn’t say that McDowell’s account precluded us from saying anything interesting about normativity, such as giving an account of its role in the structure of practical reasoning, or providing an in depth account of the psychological processes through which we acquire the ability to respond to ‘normative facts’ (i.e., second nature). Second, although I did say that the world was ‘already normatively articulated’ rather than ‘articulatable’, I meant the world as it is given to us, rather than as it is in itself (something that McDowell is decidedly uncomfortable making claims about). McDowell is what I’d call a deflationary realist (or in his terms an anti-anti-realist) and I would never ascribe such heavyweight metaphysical claims to him.

    So, my point was that for McDowell we’re just thrown (to use a Heideggerian term) into a world which is already filled with normative significance for us, and although we might be able to make sense of what it is for this to be the case (e.g., through an account of second nature) this isn’t the same thing as locating the *source* of this significance, i.e., the ground of the normative *force* that the states of affairs we encounter can exert upon us. McDowell gives us an account of the conditions under which we can be sensitive to such force, but this isn’t a complete explanation of its nature.

    All this said, I also didn’t mean to imply that McDowell’s work is uninteresting. It’s certainly more interesting than the brief gloss I’ve given here indicates, and I need to spend a bit more time with it at some point in the future.

    1. Hi Pete,

      I’m not sure I’m understanding the kind of position you’re attributing to McDowell. You say that McDowell gives us no account of “the ground of the normative *force* that the states of affairs we encounter can exert upon us”, further noting that “McDowell gives us an account of the conditions under which we can be sensitive to such force, but this isn’t a complete explanation of its nature”. Now, considering what you say in your text, I suppose this “complete explanation of its nature” could, presumably, take the form of: “a Kantian approach, which proceeds in terms is of the notion of autonomy. On this account the force of obligations (their bindingness) derives from the way in which we bind ourselves to them (be it individually or collectively). This is a form of what is commonly called constructivism, which attempts to show how norms are instituted by (and thus forceful on the basis of) certain aspects of our behaviour.”

      Now, I’m not an expert on McDowell either, but I think there is nothing in that last quotation which McDowell would object to, so I’m curious as to why you think he would find the above, “constructivist” picture objectionable. In particular, giving his well-known sympathy to Kant’s notion of autonomy, and the special role he gives to the acquisition of a language and initiation of a tradition (i.e. the special role of the concept of Bildung in his exposition), I think the above, “constructivist” point is very congenial to McDowell’s approach. Obviously, that doesn’t mean he would agree with the particular way you or Brandom develop the point, but disagreeing with a particular way of developing a point is not disagreeing with the point itself.

      That being said, I don’t think McDowell is uncomfortable with making claims about the “world in itself”. Rather, he is uncomfortable with making the distinction between the “world in itself” and the “world for us” in the first place. That would belong to a “sideways-on” picture of our understanding, as if there were, on the one side of the divide, the world, and on the other, our conceptual systems (or, to put it in another way, on the one hand the “outer” reality, on the other hand an “inner” reality). Part of McDowell’s efforts is precisely to disavow such a picture, by trying to remind us that our “minds” are not some mysterious kind of “para-organs”, definable independently of its relations to the environment. On the contrary: “Talk of minds is talk of subjects of mental life, in so far as they are subjects of mental life; and, on the interpretation I mean, it is only a prejudice, which we should discard, that mental life must be conceived as taking place in an organ, so that its states and occurrences are intrinsically independent of relations to what is outside the organism.” (“Putnam on Mind and Meaning”, in Meaning, Knowledge, and Reality, p. 281)

  5. “So, on my account, the core part of deontology – fundamental deontology – concerns itself with those fundamental obligations that we are bound by insofar as we are counted as rational agents. Insofar as only rational agents can be obligated or permitted to do anything, these are thereby the obligations that one must be bound by insofar as one can be bound by anything. ” Can you spell out this logic a little more fully? I don’t follow.

    1. So, I’m fully committed to the principle that ought implies can, which essentially means that if one cannot fulfil a purported responsibility, then one should not be expected to do so, i.e., there is no such responsibility. What I’m talking about here is what you might call the limit-case of ought implies can, namely, those responsibilities one must be capable of fulfilling if one is to count as having responsibilities *at all*. We could argue about the precise extent of these responsibilities, but I think you must acknowledge that there are indeed some responsibilities like this. If nothing else, we cannot count a causal system as responsible for anything unless it has some capacity to track its responsibilities, and I would suggest further that we cannot count it as responsible unless it is capable of reliably acting upon the responsibilities it is keeping track of. An inanimate object like a chair doesn’t meet the former criteria, and a severely akratic agent whose actions do not match with their avowed intentions doesn’t meet the latter.

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