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Moral Norms and Normativity

An exploration of the points of commonality and difference between moral norms and non-moral norms

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2015. Moral Norms and Normativity, URL = <http://www.rationalrealm.com/philosophy/reflections/moral-norms-and-normativity.html>.

Chess Board Game with King

Introduction

I'm currently engaged in an interesting dialogue with a Moral Eliminativist. Subscribers to this meta-ethical view wish to eliminate all moral discourse as they believe that using moral language involves the speaker in unavoidable error. This error is basically the error that J. L. Mackie purportedly identified in his much referenced book, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, and is the mistake of assuming the existence of the mysterious, non-natural properties of goodness and rightness.

My friend does not want to eliminate all normative language, as he still wants to be able to engage in social and political discussions about what we ought to do. His intention is to replace moral normativity with some type of non-moral normativity in our social discourse.  Our discussions got me thinking about the relationships between moral and non-moral norms and what features they share and how they are distinct. The results of my thinking are below. I think I can best describe my output as a general theory of normativity.

What Is Normativity?

Book cover: Ethics by J. L. Mackie

What is normative is relative to a system. There are a variety of normative system types, including law, etiquette, fashion, game, prudence and moral. Each normative system is defined by an objective, a set of rules that determine allowed and disallowed actions, and positive and negative consequences for certain actions.

Within each normative system, the word 'can' signifies the range of permissible actions within that system, while the word 'should' signifies the action that achieves the system's stated objective.

Consider the game of chess. The objective within the game of chess is to defeat the opposing player by checkmating their King. How do we understand the statement, 'You can move your King one vacant space forward, backward, left or right'?

Using the above example, we analyse the 'can' statement thus:

Given the normative system of chess and given that your King is in any position, it is permissible for you to move your King one vacant space forward, backward, left or right.

Moving now to prescriptions, how do we understand this normative statement: 'You should move your King forward'?

We analyse this 'should' statement thus:

Given the normative system of chess and given that you want to win the game and your King is in position e7 [say] and other pieces are as per diagram Z [say], move your King forward.

Consider another example, this time using the normative system of etiquette. Rules of etiquette function as a social lubricant and to save a person causing offence to others.

Once again, 'can' statements set the range of permitted choices. 'You can serve them from a range of soups for the first course', for example, is understood as:

Given the normative system of etiquette in Australia and given that you have invited guests for dinner [say], it is permissible for you to serve them from a range of soups for the first course.

When a person is asked for advice about the appropriate etiquette in a given social situation, 'should' statements specify best choices. 'You should set the dining table with gold-embossed napkins', for example, is understood as:

Given the normative system of etiquette in Australia and given that you have invited guests for dinner [say] and you want to impress them, set the dining table with gold-embossed napkins.

Moving on to another normative system, prudence-based imperatives serve to satisfy the prudential person's interests. When asking for travel advice from a knowledgeable friend, the answer, 'You should take the train', is understood as:

Given the normative system of prudence and that you want to get into the city as fast and as cheaply as possible [say], take the train.

Each of these analyses within the normative systems considered above can be given in terms of conditional imperatives. Consider, again, the game of chess.

The imperative, 'You should move your King forward', can be analysed as the conclusion of a structured syllogism in which the conditional links the imperative to a specific normative system and which is followed by a set of stated assumptions.

Conditional:
If you are playing within the normative system of chess and if you want to win the game and your King is in position e7 and other pieces are as per diagram Z, you should move your King forward.
Assumption 1:
You are playing within the normative system of chess.
Assumption 2:
You want to win the game.
Assumption 3:
Your King is in position e7 and other pieces are as per diagram Z.
Concluding Imperative:
You should move your King forward.

In terms of logic, it is significant to point out here that the Conditional is analytically true while each of the stated Assumptions is accepted as contingently true.

Moral Norms

Book cover: Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Blackburn

Progressing now to moral norms, these kinds of norm function as social binds to communal behaviour and can be analysed using the same schema given above. For example, imagine you receive a phone call from the local lost dogs' home requesting a donation from you. You ask your partner what you ought to do. They offer the advice that you could donate between ten dollars and ten thousand dollars.

We can analyse your partner's advice thus:

Given the normative system of ethics and given that you have been asked for a donation to help orphaned dogs, it is permissible for you to donate between ten dollars and ten thousand dollars.

Perhaps a ten dollar donation is the minimum permissible for a person in your circumstance to be considered ethical and perhaps a greater than ten thousand dollar donation will impinge on the welfare of your children, for whom you also have a moral obligation. You then press your partner for a more definite amount. On further reflection, they advise that you should donate five hundred dollars. As before, we can analyse their imperative as:

Given the normative system of ethics and given that you want to discharge your moral obligations optimally and that you have been asked for a donation to help orphaned dogs, donate five hundred dollars.

Note that on this analysis, contra Kant, moral imperatives are not categorical imperatives. That is, they are not true a priori. Furthermore, within normative systems of a particular type, there may exist variants. Within the game of football, for example, there are various football leagues, each with their own set of rules, rewards and penalties. A football player is able to choose which football league they will play under. In effect, they can choose the normative system to which they will be held accountable. The same holds for ethical systems. A moral agent adopts the set of moral norms they will live by.

Consider, for example, a Catholic deontological system of ethics. The moral imperative, 'You should tell the truth', can be analysed as the conclusion of the following syllogism:

Conditional:
If you are a moral agent within the normative system of Catholic deontological ethics and if you want to act morally and you are in a position of telling the truth or committing a lie, you should tell the truth.
Assumption 1:
You are a moral agent within the normative system of Catholic deontological ethics.
Assumption 2:
You want to act morally.
Assumption 3:
You are in a position of telling the truth or committing a lie.
Concluding Imperative:
You should tell the truth.

Consider now an alternative system of ethics; a consequentialist utilitarian system. The moral imperative, 'You should tell a lie', can be analysed as the conclusion of the following syllogism:

Conditional:
If you are a moral agent within the normative system of consequentialist utilitarian ethics and if you want to act morally and you are in a position of telling a lie to prevent cataclysmic suffering, you should tell a lie.
Assumption 1:
You are a moral agent within the normative system of consequentialist utilitarian ethics.
Assumption 2:
You want to act morally.
Assumption 3:
You are in a position of telling a lie to prevent cataclysmic suffering.
Concluding Imperative:
You should tell a lie.

Moral Relativism

These examples illustrate how each system of normative ethics comprises a set of axioms of the type shown above as a Conditional and a range of variables in which all of us are designated moral agents acting within its system of norms, commendations and disapprobations. Within each system, Assumption 1 is deemed to apply to all of us.

It may be thought that the kind of analysis given here leads to meta-ethical cultural relativism, where the acceptability of a moral judgement is relative to the norms of the social group to which the speaker belongs. This thinking is mistaken. For a cultural relativist, an axiom of the sort depicted in Conditional above is acceptable or unacceptable relative to a social group. In the analysis given here, although it is true that each social grouping adopts a normative system, the acceptability of a normative system is independent of its adoption by this social group or that social group. In addition, a cultural relativist takes Assumption 1 to be true relative to the social group to which a moral agent belongs. On the analysis given here, though, the acceptability of Assumption 1 is independent of social group membership. The same kinds of considerations apply in rejecting the notion that this analysis leads to meta-ethical subjectivism, where the acceptability of a moral judgement is relative to the norms adopted by an individual.

How then does a moral agent accept or reject the set of axioms (i.e. the set of Conditionals) and Assumption 1 of the various normative systems? In the case of the two ethical normative systems illustrated above, for example, the Catholic deontologist, in practice, rejects the consequentialist utilitarian's normative system and vice versa. On a broader scale, the proponent of each normative ethical system, be they Intuitionist, Divine Command Theorist, Neo-Aristotelian, Rationalist, etc., rejects all other opposing normative systems.

My point here was to show how the norms of morality fit within the wider landscape of normative systems and to analyse moral prescriptions in terms of embedded rules and conditions. Do you think this analysis is adequate and useful? What do you see as its drawbacks?

Copyright © 2015, 2016

First published Dec 19, 2015
Minor revision  Feb 28, 2016 (Replaced "moral favour" with "want to act morally")

How are moral and non-moral norms the same? How are they different? Comment on this post at Google+

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