Executive Summary of: The Normativity Series
This essay is part of my long mission to make sense of normativity, or the idea that we ought to do certain things. Obviously, normativity is a complex topic, so I wanted to distill what I’ve been talking about down to the essentials for reference. This way people can keep track of what is going on from one place, and those who don’t want to read several dozen thousand words will not miss out.
Many words can have hidden connotations that we use as part of the definition of the word without consciously realizing it. This can make us fall easily into fallacies of equivocation which confuse the issue.
Quite often, a philosophical question will hinge on how a word is defined, and different definitions of the word will yield different answers to the question. However, the arguing parties are unaware that the word has multiple definitions, and thus go around in circles forever. (See “Free Will” as a prime example.)
The word “morality” has many contradictory and mutually exclusive definitions that seem to focused around five central questions:
(1) Do moral statements like “Abortion is wrong” actually communicate something that is truth-apt?
(2) If yes, do moral statements communicate something that can sometimes be true?
(3) If yes, are moral statements justified by appealing to descriptions of the world?
(4) If yes, are these descriptions something other than people’s opinions?
(5) If yes, which descriptions should we specifically focus on?
This series will be focused on sorting out the confusion around these five questions and maybe even giving them satisfactory answers too!
- Looking at the way that “good” and “ought” are used semantically shows that they link how something relates to a standard.
- “Good” is an adjective that describes that a noun meets the standard in question (either the common purpose of the noun or implied contextually) and “ought” is a modal verb that describes a probabilistic relationship. Something that ought be the case is something that is likely to be the case.
- This is called ends-relational theory, because “ought” and “good” relate things to ends (or standards to which things are compared).
- While ought statements are semantically about probabilistic end-relations, the end-relation is often not directly stated because it is implied in the conversation.
- Sometimes people may not even consciously recognize that an end-relationship is actually taking place.
- It also can be a rhetorical strategy to not state the end relationship in order to cast a wide net and refer to multiple potential ends at once, or to trick people into thinking that there is a relevant end even when one does not exist.
- Normativity from having an emotive component — not only do people express the end-relationship, but they also express an emotional endorsement of the recommendation in question.
- For categorical imperatives, this emotional endorsement takes the form of a demand.
- In real usage, moral statements sound much more like mere descriptions about what would satisfy a standard. In the previous essay, we showed that they also were expressions of demands.
- This is because language allows statements to not only express a description but also come with extra “linguistic baggage” attached. For example, the sentence “Wang Peng is a chink” not only describes Wang Peng as someone of Chinese descent but also simultaneously expresses condemnation for Wang Peng and Chinese people.
- Following Daniel Boisvert’s Theory of Expressive-Assertivism, we can recognize that normative statements are often not just descriptive (describing how an action relates to a standard), but are also expressive (expressing how the speaker feels about the standard in question), assertive (asserting allegiance to certain standards), and directive (demanding obdience from the listener to these standards).
- The “Is-Ought Gap” is a problem first mentioned by David Hume which states that you can’t get an ought from an is — that is, you cannot derive a conclusion about how the world ought to be merely from a collection of statements about how the world actually is.
- However, end-relational theory — a view that “ought” links proposed actions to what is likely to satisfy a specific standard of evaluation — bridges this “Is-Ought Gap”. It’s a fact that a certain action would satisfy a certain standard, and thus we can derive that we ought (in order to fulfill that certain end) preform that action. Furthermore, the normative command to preform that action exists regardless of whether we want to do it or not.
- While I can evaluate actions according to standards I like (for example, utilitarianism), it’s also possible to evaluate actions by standards we commonly don’t care about, like what would maximize the amount of spaghetti in the universe, or what would maximize sadness impartially. These are standards that can also be used to measure things — there are facts about what is most likely to maximize the amount of spaghetti in the universe and we ought (in order to maximize spaghetti) do these actions, even if we don’t care or want to.
- Normative standards are anything that can be used to evaluate actions. Moral standards are a subset of normative standards, which I personally define as any normative standard that requires one to act with regard for the benefit of others.
- Taken this way, there are many contenders for moral standards, like deontology and utilitarianism. However, since I hold “ought” statements require an end to work, I don’t think there is any way to suggest one moral standard is privileged over the other, unless it is unfit for evaluation. Thus, there is no One True Morality, but rather many, mutually exclusive moralities.
- However, there are common “moralities” that don’t qualify as a moral standard, either because they don’t fit my personal definition (don’t actually require you to act with regard for the benefit of others), cannot actually be used to evaluate actions (because they are too vague), and/or refers to things that don’t exist (like God-based moralities if gods don’t exist).
- Lastly, just because it is a moral standard doesn’t mean you actually have reason to care about it and you may have reasons to care about and act on standards that don’t fit my definition of “moral”. Beware of smuggling connotations.
- An ought simpliciter refers to a statement about what we “just plain ought” to do, without specifying any goal in any way. If all “ought” statements can only make sense by referring to a standard in question, the idea of a standard-less “just plain ought” makes no sense. We should envision some sort of ERROR 404 GOAL NOT FOUND whenever we try to wrap our head around such a concept.
- Whenever writing out the word “ought” in an analytical assessment, we can avoid a lot of confusion by always stating the goal in mind and not letting “ought” have a default goal. This makes sense because there is no privileged “default goal” of normativity — instead, all goals are equally valid from a meta-ethical perspective. However, when we go out into the world of advocacy, we might benefit from abusing normative rhetoric.
- A similar concept is the “ought, all things considered”. However, we cannot consider all possible goals, since goals are easily self-contradicting — how can we simultaneously satisfy a goal to poison someones coffee and a goal to ensure that very same coffee remains free from poison?
- “Ought, all things considered” still makes sense though if taken only from the standpoint of goals the person in question cares about. For example, I ought all things considered do whatever best satisfies all my personal goals (by definition). Thus the ought all things considered is not relative to a certain goal, but rather relative to a certain person (and their set of goals).
This was last updated on October 19, 2012. While originally posted on June 19, it was re-dated to launch on October 19 to match the new approach to the normativity series.
I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.