Varieties of Normativity

Normative claims aim to tell us how things ought to be or what we ought to do. This, as opposed to claims that just aim to describe how things are. Philosophy may be the only discipline that inquires into the nature of normativity. We don’t just aim to uphold normative standards, as happens in every discipline, nor to describe normative standards as often happens in the social sciences. Philosophers ask what makes normative standards worthy. Two of the main branches of philosophy, Ethics and Epistemology, are wholly devoted to better understanding the two central realms of normativity in human life. Ethics, of course, is concerned with how we should live, how we should treat each other, what we should or shouldn’t do. Epistemology is concerned with how we should or shouldn’t reason, how we should evaluate evidence and how we should form beliefs or degrees of belief.

It can be hard to motivate many people to take inquiry in these areas seriously since conventional thinking at our cultural moment is highly prejudiced towards skepticism, relativism, or subjectivism about normativity. If morality, for instance, is relative to culture, then there is no inquiry to do in ethics beyond figuring out what the ethical standards of a culture are. In matters of belief and knowledge, taking the truth to be unknowable or somehow subjective is often a highly appealing way to avoid conflict, especially when the people who think they know are highly passionate and adamant. So, what to do when faced with these obstacles to inquiry? Ultimately, I think the way to show that inquiry into ethical and epistemic normativity is possible is to do some of it. But some intellectual brush needs to be cleared first. Here I mainly want to clarify the targets of inquiry in ethics and epistemology by way of distinguishing these from other varieties of normtivity.

Philosophers tend to focus on the great big “oughts” of morality and rationality. But this is like walking through an old growth forest and only seeing the big trees. Normativity generally is rich and varied. In our lives and societies, the varieties of normativity are also, like species in a forest, richly entangled and interdependent. But let’s get acquainted with a few other species of normativity before we look into our ecosystems of normativity.

So, here’s a random assortment of normative claims:

  1. The salad fork should be placed to the left of the dinner fork.
  2. Cars should stop at stop signs.
  3. Teachers should grade fairly.
  4. When in Japan, you should bow when you meet people.
  5. The bike tire label should be aligned with the valve.
  6. People should treat other people with respect.
  7. You shouldn’t believe things on the basis of fallacious arguments.

Only one of the above claims (6) is straightforwardly ethical. Though several are, shall we say, morally entangled (2, 3 and 4). Only one of these claims is a straightforward matter of epistemology (7). Though another is epistemically motivated (5, following this rule makes it easier to find the puncture when you get a flat). A few of these claims have nothing to do with morality (1 and 5). And most of them have little to do with rationality.

Quite aside from matters of morality or rationality, normative claims express standards of etiquette, a wide variety of social conventions, cultural norms, professional standards, rules and best practices for games, religious standards of conduct, norms of fashion and style, and the list goes on. Perhaps a good analysis of what it is to be human is just to say that humans are the normative animals. The ways we think and live are structured by normative standards of many kinds. Our various identities are often defined by the normative standards we endorse and live by.

Some of our normative standards are arbitrary matters of social convention. Matter of etiquette or fashion are like this. It doesn’t really matter just how long your pants should be. But some years leg hems are little higher and some years they are a little lower. Dress slacks used to “break” at the shoes, now they don’t. Clearly nothing of moral significance is at issue here.

Matters of social convention are clearly relative to one group or another. Perhaps most cultural norms are like this. Some of the norms that are relative to culture are in some way entangled with morality. So, bowing when you meet people in Japan is a way of showing respect for others. The bowing itself is an arbitrary cultural relative norm. But showing respect for others brings us well into the territory of the moral. But counting respect for others as a moral norm doesn’t determine anything about how respect should be shown in one context or another. A good deal of variation in cultural standards understood as different culturally determined ways of treating others with respect.

There is diversity in the variety of norms we briefly considered here. Some, lie fashion trends, are entirely matters of social convention. Other norms, like rules of the road, are also social conventions, but aren’t pretty much arbitrary like fashion trends. We have a range of options to choose from in setting our normative standards for traveling about town. But any set of rules of the road that fail to make getting around town basically safe and convenient are open to rational criticism. Some of our more arbitrary normative standards remain very important to us since they define some of our assorted identities. Cultural standards are like this. There are a great many equally good ways to prepare lentils, but doing so in certain ways remains important to many since this is how “we” do it, and the ways we do things affirm our identities as members of specific social groups.

Now, where do the big oughts of morality and rationality fit into all of this. A group of people can make something fashionable simply by agreeing that it is fashionable. But a group of people can’t make a conspiracy theory rational simply by agreeing that it is rational. Neither do standards of rationality define any particular identity. Being Indian or Chinese doesn’t make it any more or less rational to believe that the Earth is flat. It could happen that some culture or other social group adopts certain standards of rationality as characterizing themselves. Perhaps some European cultures have aspired to do so with being “scientific.” But any culture with such an aspiration faces the risk of getting rationality wrong (witness Lysenkoism in Soviet Russia). Standards of rationality are things we have to figure out, not things we can simply claim or define. There are built in constraints on what can is rational or not. We found this in the case of rules of the road being constrained by safety and convenience. In the case or standards of rationality, the constraint is truth aptness. Was of thinking that are less reliable means of getting at what’s true are, in virtue of this, less rational. This much would hold for any possible being with a mind capable of representing the external world.

Now how about morality. One tempting way to understand morality is as concerning the normative standards that apply to our broadest identity, persons. Morality is concerned with what persons owe to each other. This is the basic premise of respect for persons moral theory (most prominently developed by Kant). I would worry, however, that this way of thinking about morality fails to account for what I owe to other living beings. My cat isn’t a person, yet it would be wrong for me to neglect or abuse my cat. Perhaps respect for persons capture one fundamental moral value, the one most relevant to what persons owe each other. And yet there may be other fundamental moral values that explain what I owe to my cat, or to the planet, or to communities, etc. Here we are already launched on a kind of inquiry into moral value. The key thing to notice at this point, is that unlike normative standards of fashion or etiquette, when it comes to standards of morality, we don’t get to just make things up.

A Open Letter to Art Goss and the BC Curriculum Advisory Committee

I expect you and the CAC are quite busy approving new Gen Ed ratings for transfer courses as part of our ongoing Pathways work. I can understand the desire for expediency with a workload of this scale. And so I do not relish the role I’m about to take on.

Our world is becoming an increasingly unreasonable place. I don’t think this point requires a great deal of elaboration. Our unreasonableness is manifest in multiple crises from climate change, to racism, to the decline of democracy. People generally are not very amenable to reasoning and this is perhaps what we should expect given an education system that makes no systematic effort to equip people with general reasoning skills. I think of this as a national intellectual health crisis of pandemic proportions. What especially pains me is that we have a decent enough vaccine in well developed Critical Thinking curriculum, we simply lack any sense of urgency about getting into the minds of our students.

Our students arrive at BC and then leave with paltry defenses against the overabundance of manipulative rhetoric and BS their world has to offer. I think it is time for us as educators to take some ownership for this situation. We do not do enough to equip our students with the reasoning skills required to be more reasonable people. Currently, our failure on this front is baked into how we operate the infusion model for Gen Ed outcomes at BC. We do have a reasoning requirement in the DTA, but it is completely dominated by math. Reasoning more generally, beyond the realm of numbers, is covered by our Critical Thinking Gen Ed outcome. But we have no coherent, systematic approach to teaching reasoning skills on the infusion model as we run it. There is no infused Critical Thinking curriculum. Instructors teaching classes that claim Critical Thinking as a Gen Ed outcome rarely talk to each other about just what this means or how to teach it effectively.

Fourteen percent of the courses on campus currently claim Critical Thinking as a Gen Ed outcome. That number is no doubt much higher among transfer courses that serve the DTA. And it will grow higher still with the current push for all transfer courses to claim Gen Ed outcome as part of Pathways work. These claims will be approved by the CAC on the strength of a paragraph or two linking some aspect of Critical Thinking outcomes language to course outcomes language. There is little transparency across campus concerning the curriculum on which claims to teach Critical Thinking are based. We have no measure of how many instructors teaching courses that claim Critical Thinking have ever taken a course in Critical Thinking or engaged in any significant professional development in Critical Thinking. I suspect that number is very small. In short, we don’t appear to be doing what we say we are doing concerning this vital and foundational Gen Ed area.

So at this point, I have two recommendations that could go some ways towards addressing a serious pedagogical failure on our part. First, I’d like to see the CAC ask for more evidence of instruction in Critical Thinking skills for courses claiming Critical Thinking as a Gen Ed outcome. Ideally, programs should be transparent and share their Critical Thinking curriculum. Philosophy already does this as you will see here among other places.

Second, and I suspect this goes beyond the purview of the CAC, the office of Academic Affairs should expect faculty who teach courses claiming Critical Thinking as a Gen Ed to engage in professional development on Critical Thinking. To this end, philosophy has just run a Critical Thinking workshop in the Faculty Commons. A couple of philosophy faculty shared how we teach critical thinking and we heard from other faculty how they teach critical thinking. The conversation was quite fruitful. One key point that emerged is that an eleven week quarter is not really enough time for students to develop and practice the reasoning skills that are central to Critical Thinking. More extended cultivation of reasoning skills will not happen if faculty teaching courses rated for Critical Thinking are not talking to each other, sharing curriculum and methods, and coordinating their efforts.

Critical Thinking is not merely one among 18 Gen Ed outcomes. It is foundational in many ways. For example, philosophy has as much of a stake in Ethics as it does in Critical Thinking. The only reason the campus community hears more about Critical Thinking from the Philosophy Dept. is that doing Ethics requires some well developed critical thinking skills. Similar things could no doubt be said for Critical Thinking and several other of our Gen Ed outcomes.

As long as we have an infusion model for Gen Ed outcomes, I will be committed to making it work. This requires acknowledging its current failures. We currently have no good understanding of how Critical Thinking is taught as an infused Gen Ed outcome, or indeed the extent to which it is taught at all. This is something the CAC can address. And this failure is entrenched by our failure as faculty to communicate with each other about how we are teaching critical thinking in an infused manner across campus. Remedying this will require much broader participation.

The White Replacement Theory

The idea that liberal elites are trying to change the electoral dynamics of America in favor of Democrats by racially diversifying the country has wide currency on the political right. We should note at the outset that the plausibility of this idea on the political right carries with is an implicit admission that the policies endorsed on the right are hostile to people of color and immigrants. More thoughtful people on the right might wonder just why immigrants and people of color would want to vote Democratic and consider how to shape policies that would appeal to these demographics.

At any rate, I have yet to hear white replacement as an electoral strategy endorsed by anyone on the left. The white replacement theory is unhinged, it simply has no basis in reality. But then it is not even aimed at reasonable or true belief. Like the big lies about election fraud, the whole point of the white replacement theory is to stoke hostility towards people on the left, and especially people of color. Dehumanizing hostility that has once again led to violence in Buffalo.

Ideas do matter. Bad ideas motivate some of their adherents to do bad things. Of course, the Buffalo shooter bears the moral responsibility for firing the bullets that killed 10 people. But pinning this responsibility on this individual falls far short of giving a full account how these killings, mostly of people of color, came to happen. There are systemic phenomenon at work here. The propagation of the white replacement theory was a causal factor in this violence. The shooter has told us so. The people who have spread this bad idea don’t bear responsibility for pulling the trigger, but they have served as conduits for hate and that’s a bad thing to do in itself.

There is a hazard in drawing this conclusion, one that needs to be negotiated with care. People are often quick to take offense and quick to feel personally attacked. Bad ideas spread like invasive weeds through the minds of uncritical thinkers. While some of the propagators of the white replacement theory know what they are doing, and bear personal responsibility for their hate mongering, a great many more are simply duped. People who lack the critical thinking skills needed to avoid such intellectual grift are also likely to miss the crucial difference between negatively judging a bad idea and negatively judging them personally. Perhaps they are at fault for failing to think more clearly and failing to pull the toxic invasive weeds from their own intellectual garden. But that’s another matter.

The pattern of racist attacks that have brought us so much grief in New Zealand, Charleston, El Paso and now Buffalo were motivated by bad ideas. So, how do we fight bad ideas without ourselves getting into the business of hate mongering against those infected by them? Perhaps we don’t hate the people who have been duped into embracing and spreading bad ideas, we just hate the bad ideas. But again, there is the high risk that people who aren’t reasonable enough to defend themselves against the bad ideas also won’t be reasonable enough to distinguish hatred of the idea from hatred of them personally. The subtleties of our intentions often don’t alter the impact.

Meeting this delicate challenge on a case-by-case basis is not easy and many of us have tried only to see relationships with friends and family suffer or perish. I’d suggest that what we ultimately need is a systemic solution to the systemic problem of bad ideas spreading unchecked across entire populations of people. We need to understand this phenomenon as an intellectual public health crisis.

In fact, I think we already have a fairly effective intellectual vaccine. There is nothing reasonable about racial hatred. What we lack is a collective sense of urgency when it comes to getting the critical thinking skills that can help to inoculate people from bad ideas like the white replacement theory into the minds of students and the public at large. To be clear, I don’t think critical thinking is a complete solution to the spread of hate. As educators, we do attack bad racist ideas head on, as we should. But this will not be enough to stop the spread of bad racist ideas among people who lack the endemic intellectual immune response that only well-developed critical thinking skills can provide. Indeed, it hasn’t been enough.

To be clear, I don’t think critical thinking is a complete solution to the systemic aspects of racial hatred. Hatred is not entirely an intellectual problem. But poor critical thinking is exploited in spreading hatred. And the critical thinking skills that can provide some protection against this are in desperately short supply.