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:
- The salad fork should be placed to the left of the dinner fork.
- Cars should stop at stop signs.
- Teachers should grade fairly.
- When in Japan, you should bow when you meet people.
- The bike tire label should be aligned with the valve.
- People should treat other people with respect.
- 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.