Humean Normativity

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.


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