One persistent problem for philosophy is the tendency of some philosophers to attempt, through reason alone, to uncover the ultimate or hidden structure of reality. Of course few would describe what they do in those words, but as soon as we have things like substances and universals being incorporated into the theory as more than descriptions then we are in trouble. But I have covered this in detail already; there is no need to say the same thing over again. A second problem for philosophy, which is almost as troublesome as the first, is the idea that what we should do, what is normative, can be uncovered through pure reason, and/or that the normative is the sole and central domain of philosophy (the two claims really go hand in hand, because if what is normative involves more than pure reason then questions concerning normativity may fall under other disciplines on occasion, with philosophy simply handling the more abstract cases).
The problem with philosophy and normativity is that the problems surrounding it have been created by philosophers, in other words, they are pseudo-problems, and so attempting to answer them is likely to be a waste of effort. Normativity, as it is found “in the wild” is a relatively simple thing. But when philosophers get hold of it normativity becomes something altogether different. Questions about normativity take on an almost supernatural character; normativity is often treated like something outside of the natural world, but nevertheless something that we should be guided by, and that which reason alone (or at least primarily reason) can reveal.
But instead of tearing down the existing conceptions of normativity, of which there are many, it is more productive just to take a look at normative questions with as few preconceptions as possible. “What should I do?” is the essential normative question, as I see it. Saying what is normative, what we should do, is essentially to form an answer to that question. And this question is basically asked for a single reason, because the person asking it lacks information. In the simplest cases the information missing is simple factual information about the situation. If I am presented with two cups, one of which contains poison, and I ask myself “which should I drink?” I am wondering which one contains the poison. Other times the information missing is about the best strategy for action. If I am playing chess and I ask “what move should I make?” I want to know which move in this situation is likely to lead me closer to victory. And of course some situations contain an element of both, in poker for example asking “how should I bet?” contains curiosity about both the best betting strategy and the cards the other people have, and can be answered in both ways (which leads to answers such as: “given what you knew you should have raised, but given the cards he already had you should have folded”).
At this point some will object, saying that I have avoided discussing the areas in which normativity is dealt with most often in the context of philosophy, namely ethics (and where, presumably, it is different in nature). But I do not think that normativity in ethics is really any different from normativity in the situations discussed so far; it is thinking that it is different which leads to problems. Consider, for example, someone who asks “what should I do?” when choosing between keeping a promise and helping someone in need. I claim that this is like “what should I do?” when asked when playing chess, the person wants to know the course of action that will allow them to best fulfill their joint desires to keep their promises and help those in need. Now philosophy might be able to help them in this situation, for example by getting them to think of why they want to keep their promises and why they want to help those in need, and then evaluate, in that light, which is more important. We can even save some of the idea that ethics is universal. Ethics, I would maintain, is like a successful team strategy, team members should follow the team strategy because they want to win as a team, even if that means sacrificing the spotlight sometimes. Ethics is like a team strategy for society, by playing ethically we help society win (be a better society to live in), and that is what we desire. So telling someone that they should act ethically is, in this sense, to explain to someone how a different pattern of action is best, just as we might explain an alternate poker or chess strategy to someone. And of course there is plenty of room for philosophers to work at developing the best strategy.
But ethics, so described, does not have the kind of super-normativity that some philosophers seem to expect of it. There may be people who, when you explain you chess strategy to them, reply that they are trying to loose. This is, of course, unusual, but there is no point in stamping our foot and insisting that they must follow our chess strategy, and that if they don’t they are playing contrary to reason / nature / the divine will. Similarly if we find someone who doesn’t care about the state of society then there is no point in insisting that they should be ethical, it just doesn’t make sense. The proper reaction is to lock them up or exile them, not to try to explain to them that they really should be ethical. Or so I claim.
The opposing view is that what we should do can be determined by reason, that from certain axioms follow what we should and shouldn’t do (this is how universality can be recovered). But how are we to know that these axioms are the correct ones, because there is no consensus about them (so obviously there is no special access to them)? Well, what we do is apply those axioms to various situations, and if they tell us to do something that we clearly think we shouldn’t do we reject them as flawed. And that is absurd, when you think about it. Rather than the axioms guiding how we are to act, how we choose to act in fact guides the selection of the axioms. One problems with that is that there will never be an agreement as to what the right axioms are, because people simply make different choices in certain situations (such as abortion), and feel strongly about those choices, and so this process will result in not a single axioms set, but rather a different set of axioms for each person. A more serious problem is that if this method of evaluating the axioms is taken seriously then, over time, the axioms will become more and more complex until they agree perfectly with how we think we should act. But then the axioms tell us nothing, we already have opinions about how to act, opinions about which things are important (keeping promises, saving lives, and so on) and their relative importance. Formalizing those innate desires with an axiom system doesn’t add anything to them (except complexity, which is good for getting tenure, but bad in general).
There is, of course, more that could be said about normativity, for example, about how questions such as “what should I want?” or “what should my goals be?” still can be answered on the basis of existing desires/goals, or about how normative language such as “you should be nice to strangers” is occasionally used as a way to change people’s behavior, and not really in a normative sense at all (in fact I think that’s where the philosophical confusions about normativity get started, with the idea that one person can tell another that they should do something without the possibility of them being wrong, an idea entrenched by those in positions of authority who would like to boss people around in this way). But I don’t think I have to say anymore to drive home my central point, that normativity is much simpler than is supposed by many philosophers, and that it is by treating it as more than it is that problems arise. The ultimate test of normativity is this: if someone should do something then, if you explain to them the facts of the situation and the likely consequences of their acting that way (such as explaining why a strategy is likely to be successful), they will follow that advice, or at least admit that it influences their choice (because we must allow for various competing desires). But if they are unaffected then it is not in fact normative, at least for them. To claim otherwise is to deprive the word normative of its force.