On Philosophy

February 19, 2007

Normativity

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Normativity is everywhere. For example, if you want to get a paper out of the file cabinet then you should open the file cabinet. Thus in this situation opening the file cabinet is normative, it is something you should do. But when we say that something is normative in the context of philosophy we usually mean something a little different, we mean universal normativity. If something is universally normative then it is something that everyone should do, no matter what they want. Opening the file cabinet is obviously not universally normative.

Obviously normativity is tied into motivation, and thus to Ends. And this means that in the strictest sense nothing can be universally normative, since a being with no Ends has no reason to ever adopt any Ends, and thus there will never be a case in which they should do something, as dictated by their Ends. However, if we restrict universal normativity to beings with Ends then to say something is universally normative would be to say that if a being has any Ends, no matter what they are, then they should do it.

One example that immediately springs to mind is knowledge. If a being has any Ends at all then they should seek knowledge. This is because knowledge is required to predict the consequences of your actions successfully, and you must be able to predict the consequences of your actions if you want to accomplish your Ends, no matter what your ends are. Now this doesn’t mean that the search for knowledge in general is normative (meaning that you should always be on the lookout for new facts), rather it means that it is normative to ensure that all of your beliefs are knowledge (are as likely to be as true as possible). You might think this would only apply to beliefs that were directly related to your Ends, but this isn’t the case because an unrelated false belief can still prevent you from reaching your Ends. For example, consider the belief that your car can fly when you turn on the rear defroster, a belief you have never tested because you live near the equator. If you have this belief and come to a bridge that has lost a section in the middle you are likely to drive right over it, after turning on the defroster. This will probably lead to your death, and interfere with one of your Ends such as happiness or survival, even though the belief that your car could fly wasn’t directly related to either of those Ends.

Another thing that is also often claimed to be universally normative in this sense is ethics. But the case of ethics is much less straightforward than the case of knowledge. First of all we can only consider whether ethics is universally normative or not if we consider only individuals who want to be part of society, as ethics is irrelevant to the individual that is alone (since there is no one else for them to behave ethically towards). Now it is true that most Ends are better furthered by being part of society, where you can find people with similar Ends, but this is not universally the case. Of course any stable society will have rules of behavior, and will do its best to punish those who infringe upon them, and so obeying the rules might be considered a universal imperative. But we also must consider that our actions may have good or bad consequences for society as a whole. Obviously if you are part of society, because you find it useful, then you will be interested in things going well for it instead of badly, and so this too might be a universal imperative. Here then there are three questions we need to answer. Is one or both of these considerations universally normative? Which of them is ethics? And what which is more important in the case of a conflict between them?

Well the first, to obey the rules of society, is less “universally” normative than the second, to do what is best for society. It is less universal because it is not something that you have a reason to do all of the time. Sometimes there is little chance of being caught. The second is more universal because, as someone who derives some usefulness from society, there is always a reason to do what is best for society. However even though this factor is always an influence on your decisions it too can be occasionally outweighed in some circumstances. As to which is ethical, well that depends on how you define ethics. I would say that it is the second, that doing what is in society’s best interests is what is ethical, but surely there are those who would disagree. Finally, in the case of a conflict between them, I would have to say that which has more force depends on the situation. Which simply highlights an interesting feature of “doing what is best for society” as a universally normative principle. Even though it is universally normative it doesn’t always outweigh all other considerations, and there is the possibility that some will value it more highly than others.

This exhausts the principles that are universally normative, I think. Some may suggest survival, as many Ends become impossible to further when dead, but this is a generalization that isn’t true universally, although it is probably true for most of us. And of course there are many conventional issues, such as the use of language, that are also required if you are to be part of a society, but these fall under following the rules of society, its just that in this case the punishment is the inability to communicate.

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2 Comments

  1. When you say “doing what is in society’s best interests,” do you mean to imply that society has Ends? Are those Ends internal to society or external? In the narrowest senses, societies can have explicit Ends, such as a chess club may want to play exciting chess games or a corporation may want to increase value for its shareholders, but when we speak of “society” in the sense of a nation, it’s less clear what its Ends are. Obviously, pretty much every society wants to continue into the future, but if you have to change the society in order to keep it going, it’s not clear if it’s going to be the same society or not.

    For example, is post-War Japan the same society as pre-War Japan? It clearly has different ends, but since now it’s also less likely to be destroyed in another war, it seems like at least some of the pre-War society’s Ends (non-destruction of the populace) have been preserved.

    Another kind of society is the religious state. They clearly have the End of promoting their religion. But suppose that certain bits of knowledge will discourage the populace from believing the religion (let us further suppose that this is in spite of the religions actual veracity). For example, maybe in this world, a god did plant dinosaur bones to allow people to be tempted into doubt, but the world actually was made by the god more recently. For such a society, would the spread of that knowledge be good or bad?

    Comment by Carl — February 19, 2007 @ 3:28 am


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