Humean Normativity

March 21, 2010

This is a response to a worry that Richard Chappell raises in the comments to his blog post, Hypothetical Imperatives.  To my Humean proposal for explaining normativity in natural, psychological terms (sketched in the comments), Richard has expressed the worry that, if my proposal is attempting to reduce the normative to the natural, then it might instead end up eliminating the normative.  I remember a PEA Soup discussion on this: Schroeder (who favors reductionism) wasn’t much impressed with Parfit’s articulation of that worry, which seems to rely on an understanding of the “normative” that rules out the conceptual possibility of theoretically identifying normative features with natural ones.  Of course, if one insists on any such understanding that resists reduction, one will see any attempted reduction as misguided elimination.

It seems to me that, in order for non-naturalists and naturalists to avoid talking past one another, we need to arrive at an understanding of normativity that is topic-neutral between non-naturalist and naturalist characterizations (just as we have a concept of phone that is topic-neutral between landline and cellular varieties).  But once we have a topic-neutral characterization in hand, it seems possible that this will allow a functionalist reduction of the normative to features of the natural world.

E.g., one might propose the following (I hope) topic-neutral analysis of normative statements:

S ought to φ iff

  1. Importance Requirement: Some set of possible worlds is designated as important, or as more important than its complement.
  2. Modal Requirement: S must/probably φ-es in the set of possible worlds designated as important.
  3. Failure Requirement: S can not-φ in a set of possible worlds that includes the actual world.

Note: If you think further requirements are applicable, you can replace “iff” with “only if”.  The Modal Requirement is emphasized by linguists like Kratzer and von Fintel, who understand “ought” respectively as either a strong necessity or weak necessity modal.  The Failure Requirement is noted by Kant: the point is roughly that when there is no possibility of failing to φ, we would be inclined to replace the ought-claim with a will- or must-claim.  But what philosophers in ethics and meta-ethics have in mind for the most part when they talk about normativity is the Importance Requirement, and sometimes what they mean by normativity is just importance, not strong/weak necessity or the possibility of failure.  (So let’s call the concept of importance taken by itself as a narrowly normative concept, though I prefer to classify it as an evaluative concept.)

If the analysis is right, we may characterize normativity as the higher-order property of having, in part, the property of meeting the Importance Requirement.  Call this last property Importance.  We may then ask what in the natural world confers Importance.

Humeans would say: passions and desires (and perhaps also other elements of human psychology).  Take desires to be propositional attitudes, and propositions to be sets of possible worlds.  My desire that p selects the set of possible worlds at which p is true as important, or as more important than its complement.  The stronger the occurrent desire that p, the greater the importance assigned to p-worlds, other things remaining the same… but there are other ways of assigning priority available to Humeans (for instance, if the desire that ~p is a disposition that remains stable under critical and consistent reflection, or is integral to S‘s character, whereas the occurrent desire that p is unstable and uncharacteristic, then ~p-worlds are more important than p-worlds).

At this point I may even try to turn the tables on non-naturalists and non-Humeans, and ask them how there can be anything of importance in the world without someone taking it to be important.  Humeans try to account for all the importance assigned to things in the world in terms of what we find to be of psychological importance.  So the onus seems to be on the non-naturalists to explain how there could be things of (free-floating) importance in the world, but my impression is that they tend to set this burden aside by resorting to mysterianism.

Also, what I call “psychological importance” is already narrowly normative, or as I prefer to call it, evaluative.  That I find it psychologically important to φ does not just help explain why I ought to φ; it also helps in justifying why I ought to φ.  So, psychological importance is both a natural and a narrowly normative or evaluative property.  In this sense, my position is a form of non-reductive naturalism, and the kind of project I embrace is a piecemeal, bottom-up approach to identifying various sources of psychological importance and ways of weighting and channeling it.  Having identified the relevant sources and mechanisms (the cement and building blocks of full-blown, all-things-considered normativity), if we can then derive more complex norms that approximate the rich normative structures we already recognize, or come to see as what we ought to recognize, then I would count the project as having succeeded.

Richard may have read my position as a reductive version of naturalism because the stuff about psychological importance is nestled in a teleosemantic account of mental representations, which ultimately appeals to biological fitness to help identify and explain the proper functions of mechanisms that produce/consume representations.  But contribution to biological fitness only explains why it is the proper function of the desire-producing mechanism to produce representations that its consumer finds psychologically important to realize; it does not use (what I will call) the proto-normativity inherent in that proper function to provide justification for or criticism of our actions.  By the way, I think teleosemantics is a limited theoretical resource for identifying and accounting for the proto-norms of our biologically based psychological mechanisms.  We may also use the resources of evolutionary game theory to identify the proper functions of various weighting and channeling mechanisms.


Neo-Confucian Moral Psychology

April 6, 2009

There will be a mini-conference on Neo-Confucian moral psychology later this week (April 8-12), at the APA Pacific Division meeting in Vancouver.  It looks very interesting, and I would love to attend but it’s too far away.  Fortunately the conference organizers have made the papers available here.


Everything Exists

July 21, 2008

According to Quine, the question that ontology asks is: “What is there?”  And the lazy but obvious answer is: “Everything.” 

Now to show my utter ignorance of logic.  I’m trying to rephrase Quine’s answer—i.e., “Everything exists”—in first order logic, but find myself stuck.  Here’s why.

On the one hand, I shouldn’t write: ∀x Exists(x).  For in first order logic, existence is not expressed by means of a predicate, but by means of existential quantification.

On the other hand, this doesn’t seem to work either: ∀xx.  That doesn’t look well formed, since quantified statements have the form ∀x x…, ∃x x…, ∀x y xy…, and so on.

Here’s a third option: ∀x x = x.  Or let me try: ∀x y x = y.  But these are not what I wanted to say.  I want my statement to express the thought that everything exists, not the different thought that everything is identical to itself, or the thought that for anything there’s something identical to it.

So the question is, how do I state “Everything exists” in first order logic?  And while we are at it, how about also: “Something exists”?


Do Absences Exist?

April 3, 2008

Well, do they?  Kevin Boyle gave a stimulating Grue Bag talk yesterday, which in part touched on the question whether absences, omissions and preventions can occupy the role of causes and effects in the causal nexus.  In discussion we found ourselves quantifying over absences, though peer pressure prevailed in denying their existence at the same time.  Such double-talk would have made Quine turn in his grave!

Here’s my proposal on how to admit quantification over absences with a clear conscience: paraphrase talk of absences in terms of relation-talk.  What we need is a three-place relation between: 

  1. an absentee (the entity that’s absent),
  2. locus1 where it’s absent, and
  3. locus2 (that does not overlap locus1) where it’s present.

That’s my basic proposal for explicating absence-talk in terms of relation-talk, eliminating the former in favor of the latter.  Absence-talk in counterfactual and manipulationist accounts of causation will require a more complicated modification of the basic proposal, but you get the idea.

P.S., this basic proposal is inspired by the Nyaya system of philosophy, one of the six Brahmanical systems in India.  The Nyaya philosophers admit absences into their ontology, which I find very curious.  My impression is that they take absence as a binary relation between the absentee and the locus where it’s absent.  But my further impression is that I’m probably misrepresenting and oversimplifying their account, and that a close study of the Nyaya position would be a fruitful, worthwhile endeavor.


Vegetarianism: An Argument from Global Warming

December 2, 2007

Here’s an argument for giving up factory farmed meat products (we may call it the argument from global warming):

Freston writes:

A U.N. report from just this past November found that a full 18 percent of global warming emissions come from raising chickens, turkeys, pigs, and other animals for food. That’s about 40 percent more than all the cars, trucks, airplanes, and all other forms of transport combined (13 percent). It’s also more than all the homes and offices in the world put together (8 percent). Read the rest of this entry »


Contractarianism as a Reductionist Program

November 26, 2007

With respect to natural and social sciences, I am a non-reductive physicalist.  I believe that biological, psychological, and social phenomena supervene on, but quite likely cannot be reduced to, physical facts.  With respect to ethics, though, I favor a reductionist approach.  I believe that morals can be reduced to biological, psychological, and social phenomena. 

To elaborate a bit, we have certain psychological abilities, namely the ability to maximize our utility by striving after what we most prefer, the ability to commit ourselves to long-term plans, and the ability to sympathize with the pains and pleasures that we ourselves do not currently feel.  I expect evolutionary game theory to explain why we have these three abilities.  More importantly for the purpose of this post, I claim that maximization, commitment, and sympathy are norm- and reason-giving faculties, which generate prudential as well as moral norms.  This is why I believe it possible to reduce morality to these psychological faculties without violating the is-ought gap.  For all I am claiming is that we can derive morality from our normative deliberations on morally neutral reasons given by these three psychological faculties.  And the best instrument of this reduction or derivation is the sort of contractarianism that Gauthier has developed. Read the rest of this entry »


Downward Causation III

November 12, 2007

Almost immediately after posting Downward Causation II, I had realized that my response to Objection 2 is flawed.  I will briefly discuss that here.  Then I will present my proposal for resolving the tension between downward causation and causal closure.  Namely, I will argue for the conceptual possibility of downward causation in the same way that Pascal argued for the conceptual possibility of God as a simple and yet omnipresent entity.  If God is simple in the sense of being unextended and hence indivisible, how is it conceivable that God is present throughout space at any given moment? Read the rest of this entry »


Downward Causation II

November 7, 2007

Continued from Downward Causation I.

Does the thought experiment show the possibility of downward causation?  Not by a long shot.  It needs to be bolstered by further considerations.  At least I hope my response to the first objection (which modifies the thought experiment to involve computers playing chess or kness in a Schroedinger’s Cattish setup) removes the worry about any question-begging appeal to the libertarian position on free will.  Let’s now move on to the second objection, which Aaron was quick to raise in his commentRead the rest of this entry »


Downward Causation I

November 4, 2007

Lately I’ve been fiddling with a thought experiment that seems to suggest the causal efficacy of higher-level properties and objects, and have been wondering how such causal efficacy may be compatible with causal closure of the physical (more exactly microphysical) domain.  Since I am gullible and prone to make mistakes I present my half-baked ideas on these matters, in search of further criticism and illumination.    Read the rest of this entry »


Contra Nagarjuna

October 28, 2007

Jay L. Garfield has an excellent translation and commentary of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika (“The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way”).  And this reminds me of a problem I had while reading this book: Nagarjuna’s arguments seem to beg the question.  Below I explain why. Read the rest of this entry »


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