Monday, October 05, 2009

Conundrum

Imagine that we have embraced modal, global normative skepticism: we have concluded that we never do and never could be aware of the normative facts. We may continue to ask questions about what we ought to do, but we can never properly answer these questions. Proper answers necessitate our knowing what is of value, or what normative reasons there are, or what moral obligations we have—facts to which we have no access.



At this point, we ask a further question: Are there any normative facts? Given our skepticism, asking this question is largely pointless. But, on its face, the question still seems sensible. We might continue to wonder about it, if only out of some morbid obsession with the question itself.

It seems to me, however, that this further question is not, in fact, sensible. It makes no sense to say that something is a reason for me to act in a particular way if it is not possible for me to be aware that it is a reason for me to so act. Similar claims can be made regarding values or obligations. Put simply, normative facts are inherently action-guiding. This is a conceptual claim, one I hope you share. As the primary intention of this post is not to defend this claim, I will not say anything more about why I take this to be the case, though I am happy to argue the point in comments or elsewhere. Rather, my concern is with how to express this claim, a challenge I have found surprisingly difficult.

Consider:
  • X is a normative fact iff X is action-guiding.
This seems a simple way of putting the point. As I've cashed it out, this becomes:
  • X is a normative fact iff X is capable of guiding action. Then,
  • X is a normative fact iff some possible agent is aware that X is a normative fact.
This last highlights the problem: the biconditional generates a paradox. The claim is that something is a normative fact only if someone can recognize this. But, of course, someone can only recognize that something is a normative fact if it is a normative fact. So this will not do.

So, how do I express my claim? I have tried several ways, but all seem ultimately to run into this problem. Yet the intuition does not seem paradoxical: You may not agree with me, but surely my thought is coherent. Surely, for instance, I can create some new concept: 'arglax'. Arglaxes are inherently knowable entities. There is no such thing as an arglax that no one is aware of. Again, this is a conceptual claim, not a metaphysical one; we are not imagining some strange creature that pops out of existence if no one is aware of it. Rather, we are claiming of each thing in the world that it cannot turn out to be an arglax unless it is in principle possible for us to know that it is an arglax.

36 comments:

  1. It seems to me one of your concerns is that if reasons to act are provided by normative facts and it is the case that normative facts, if there are any, are unknowable, then it seems we are without reasons to act. If I'm understanding that correctly, then my question is, what would happen if in this quest for the knowable normative you abandoned the skepticism-laden realism and adopted an anthropocentrically generated quasi-realism that could be ascertained and therefore provide knowable normative facts?

    -lk

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  2. lk,

    I wouldn't put the concern quite like that. I take it that normative reasons are normative facts, though I do not mean to deny that normative reasons can also be provided by other normative entities (e.g., values). Your proposal seems to be that the normative facts, if unknowable, could not provide us with reasons. I take it, rather, that there is simply no such thing as an unknowable normative fact; thus there is no such thing as an unknowable reason, an unknowable value, etc. Of course, your version gets around the paradox; it amounts to (a bit more than) saying that if the normative facts are unknowable then they cannot fulfill their action-guiding role—they cannot provide us with reasons. But in getting around the paradox, we lose the force of the argument, namely a move from skepticism to nihilism; on your view there could still be normative facts.

    Your second proposal is that I abandon realism for quasi-realism. First, let me admit that I know very little about quasi-realism; my vague impression is that it is a move used by non-cognitivists to avoid the Frege-Geach problem and to generally allow for a more intuitive view of moral discourse (allowing for disagreement, assertion, (quasi-)facts, etc.). I take it, further, that quasi-realism and non-cognitivism go hand-in-hand (i.e., that there aren't any cognitivist quasi-realists), but I may be wrong about this. As far as that goes, however, I will just say that I personally find very little to recommend non-cognitivism. I won't rehearse various technical problems with the view here, but simply say that I find the simple fact that the view maintains that we are systematically wrong about what our moral language is doing as sufficient to damn the view. Again, this says nothing against quasi-realism itself, but I have heard nothing to recommend that view beyond its appeal for the non-cognitivist.

    Let me assume, for the moment, though, that you are recommending to me some sort of cognitivist quasi-realism? What does this look like? You have called it "anthropocentrically generated." I'm not entirely sure what this means, though at a naive first pass it smacks of either relativism or some sort of evolutionary view. If I have misunderstood, I apologize. Assuming it is similar to either of those, I simply find such views to be largely a change of subject. Relativism does not appear to be about truth as I understand it, about describing the world. Evolutionary views are not about the normative facts; they are about facts about normative practices. These are, of course, broad generalizations, but that's all I can offer here.

    In any case, if I have betrayed any misconceptions here, or if you can offer more clarification on the view your propose, it would be greatly appreciated. In either case, thanks for the comment.

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  3. David,

    In your example of the arglax, you emphasize the distinction between a metaphysical claim and a conceptual claim, but I admit that argument/example is not completely clear to me. I read your concern regarding an inability to know normative facts as being more a matter of a metaphysical (rather than conceptual) state: i.e., there might be normative facts *out there* but we might never know what they are. So in that manner there is a realism (maybe, if such normative facts indeed exist) but they are unknowable. It seems to me that if it is merely a matter of a conceptual state, then how could it be that 1. the concepts are not knowable or 2. the concepts can't even be known to exist?

    Therefore (based on my understanding of the issue) in contrast I proposed a concept of normative facts based on a quasi-realism that, in my understanding, would be *like* realism but without the otherworldly, metaphysical aspect that to me seems inherent in a concept of this sort of realism.

    As far as I understand (which admittedly could indeed be limited), you are correct to state that a quasi-realism of ethical normatives is linked to moral non-cognitivism. But I wasn't thinking of quasi-realism in those specific terms. Rather, my thought was to extend the concept of quasi-realism beyond matters of normative moral judgments (as quasi-realism is presently applied) to include matters of normative reasons to act; the parallel being we live as though there are normative moral *facts* yet we also live as though there are normative reasons to act (regardless of whether or not those facts or reasons take the form of a realism, are always epistemologically knowable, etc).

    You raise two valid concerns regarding the anthropocentric generation of normative facts via quasi-realism: that such a view smacks of relativism or an evolutionary view. Let me address both - first the concern over relativism.

    I don't see that objective normatives of quasi-realism could any more proffer the case that x is a normative fact for agent A and that y is a normative fact for agent B, and so on, than would objective normatives of realism. Whether stemmed in realism or quasi-realism, I still understand the facts to be objectively normative. The distinction, then, is whether those normative facts are generated or exist as, say, elusive Platonic Forms or Rorty's lost world, or rather as norms and standards of society as we know it (society being broadly defined).

    Now with regard to your concern over the evolutionary view, is it that you are concerned a view of quasi-realism would offer normative facts that would not be static? If that's the case, then I don't necessarily see that as problematic. It's my understanding (and please correct me if that understanding is misguided) that normatives are not necessarily static. For example, has it not been the case that normative concepts of "the good" have indeed altered some through the centuries?

    So I guess my question remains: why couldn't it be the case that there are knowable, accessible, quasi-realist normative reasons to act?

    (Again I admit I don't quite see your distinction between a metaphysical claim and a conceptual claim and much of my response may very well be conflating the two so perhaps more clarification would indeed be helpful.)

    -lk

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  4. OK, I see that I was simply responding to the skepticism issue you initially raised, but your position is actually, based on your comment, that you do not think there to be any unknowable normative facts, reasons, values, etc, so in that regard, my propostition is not at all applicable.

    Now, with regard to your formulation, I guess I see it being more question-begging than paradoxical.

    -lk

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  5. So what about a simple belief logic formulation like this:

    ((N•u:N)triple bar(G•u:G))

    where N = 'x is a normative fact' and G = 'x is action guiding' so the formulation would break down to
    1. "If x is a normative fact and you believe that x is a normative fact then x is action guiding and you believe that x is action guiding"
    and 2. "If x is action guiding and you believe x to be action guiding then x is a normative fact and you believe x to be a formative fact"

    -lk

    ReplyDelete
  6. lk,

    I've got a couple of minutes here, so let me just address the first issue for now, regarding conceptual vs. metaphysical claims. Consider my statement: "Arglaxes are knowable." This can be understood in (at least) two ways. First, I might be "pointing" to the arglaxes in the world and saying, of them, that they are knowable. This would be, I take it, a metaphysical claim about arglaxes. Alternatively, I might be saying something about the concept 'arglax', namely that it is part of the concept that for 'arglax' to properly apply to something in the world, it is necessary that it be knowable that the thing is an arglax.

    What I am saying, more or less, is that "all normative facts are knowable" is analytic. But the "more or less" is important. In my experience, people want to call analytic only those conceptual claims (like "all bachelors are unmarried") that are immediately obvious. Consider something like Ought Implies Can. Surely, if this is true, it is true in virtue of the content of the concepts 'ought', 'imply' and 'can'; but I'm not sure everyone would feel comfortable saying that OIC is analytic. So I'm using "conceptual claim" to refer to those claims—like OIC or like mine in this post—whose truth is not immediately obvious (they don't have that "analytic feel"), yet whose truth derives wholly from the content of the relevant concepts.

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  7. Got it. Thanks!

    -lk

    ReplyDelete
  8. lk,

    Again, a couple of minutes, so let me get to your suggestion in your last post there. I must admit I don't fully understand the notation, but one immediate worry raises itself, namely that I don't think something's being a normative fact and our believing it to be so is sufficient for that fact to be action-guiding. Consider an analogy with knowledge: True belief is not sufficient for knowledge, partly because "lucky guesses don't count." Similarly, it might be that sometimes we believe that something is a reason for us to act in a particular way, not because the actual reason-fact guided us, but because we just "got lucky" in coming to believe this (truly).

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  9. Ah, more time than I thought! So let me finally address your replies to my concerns about relativism and evolutionary theories. First, I think you're right that there's nothing about quasi-realism per se that encourages relativistic thinking. I was thinking more about your suggestion about these quasi-facts being "anthropocentrically generated." Of course if, as you suggest, we cast the anthropocentric net wide enough, we might get a single set of norms. This itself is extremely contentious, given that many think normative disagreement is fundamental, at least on some issues; but we can set that aside for the moment. It still seems to me that your suggestion is a relativistic one. After all, what is the claim that the normative facts are not "static" but rather change over time if not a claim of relativism? Now, you may, as you suggest, assert that such relativism (assuming you agree it to be that) is not objectionable, given that we know that normative practice and theory change over time. But I find this move unsatisfactory; in fact, it is precisely the kind of argument that I was worried about. Questions about how normative practices and theory have changed over time seems to me quite far removed from those about the correct normative theory. Yet these sorts of evolutionary (or otherwise naturalistic) views seem so often to offer answers to the first set of questions as answers to the second.

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  10. I have a little time but my computer is in the shop and quite frankly doing all of this from my phone is a tremendous pain in the arse. So for now, I'll only briefly address your 8:05 post.

    If it is the case that, as you state, "I don't think something's being a normative fact and our believing it to be so is sufficient for that fact to be action-guiding," then why are you wanting, in your original post, to emphasize agent awareness, which to me seems a standard weaker than belief? In other words, if in the scenario you originally present, introduction of belief does nothing to help your cause, how do you propose mere awareness to be of any benefit?

    -lk

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  11. I suspect we're thinking of this differently. Awareness, as I'm envisioning it, entails belief. For me to be aware that X is a reason, it must be that I believe X is a reason and, moreover, that the explanation of my belief is of the right kind—it is explained in some way by (some way that counts as my being aware of) the fact.

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  12. So in the formulation I suggested if x is in fact a normative fact and action-guiding and the agent in fact believes (both truly and with justification) it to be so (so as to eliminate any sort of WKR scenario), then how would that proposed formulation not suffice?

    -lk

    ReplyDelete
  13. Oh, and for further clarification on quasi-realism, I've discovered it does not pertain to only non-cognitive moral applications: "[Quasi-realism] is the name of a research program in which, without supposing an independent reality for a set of judgments to be about, an attempt is made to explain and capture the same inferential relations between these judgments as they would have if they did have such independent truth-values." (The Oxford Guide)

    -lk

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  14. Ok, so let me see first if I really understand the formulation you're offering. The suggestion is: "X is a normative fact and P (some person) believes X is a normative fact iff X is action-guiding and P believes X is action-guiding." Is that correct? If not, I'm sorry I've misunderstood you. I raised my initial worry because it looks as though according to this, if I believe normative claim N and N is true, this is sufficient for N's being action-guiding and for my believing that N is action-guiding. First, I'm hesitant about any claim that entails that I believe something (certainly I might make a mistake and so fail to believe that N is action-guiding, even if it is). Second, it still seems that this makes N action-guiding in too many cases, particularly ones where I just had a lucky guess as to N's truth. Perhaps I'm missing something in your formulation?

    And thanks for the reference on the quasi-realism stuff.

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  15. David,

    You state: "I raised my initial worry because it looks as though according to this, if I believe normative claim N and N is true, this is sufficient for N's being action-guiding and for my believing that N is action-guiding."

    I don't think this is completely accurate a representation because is does not account for the biconditionality of the statement. You seem to be addressing only the anticedent of the formula and in so doing, do not account for the criteria of the consequent that, when combined with the anticedent provides the necessary and sufficient conditions of the statememt.

    In other words, it is not *simply* that N is a normative fact and P believes N to be a normative fact that gives cause to N being action-guiding and P believing N to be action-guiding. It is also that N is action-guiding and P believes N to be action-guiding that gives cause to N being a normative fact and P believing N to be a normative fact. (I think accounting for this biconditionality would address the concerns you raise in your last post.)

    Let's contrast my biconditional with the formula you provide in your original post:

    X is a normative fact iff X is capable of guiding action. Then,
    X is a normative fact iff some possible agent is aware that X is a normative fact.

    If you were to remove the conjuncts from my formula, it would go from this:

    ((N•u:N)triple bar(G•u:G))

    to this:
    (N triple bar G)
    (where N = 'x is a normative fact' and G = 'x is action guiding')

    and that mirrors exactly your first statement:

    X is a normative fact iff X is capable of guiding action

    Now, your second formulation is problematic, as you point out, for being what you term a paradox and what I cite as question-begging:

    X is a normative fact iff some possible agent is aware that X is a normative fact

    Without properly articulating the awareness/knowledge criteria, this formula basically seems to state that X is a normative fact iff X is a normative fact.

    Therefore I simply built in a belief criterion that seems, I think, to work in a non-circular manner:

    ((N•u:N)triple bar(G•u:G))

    -lk

    ReplyDelete
  16. I must admit I'm a bit confused; I don't see how the biconditionality helps. N≡G entails N>G. So what I said still appears to hold—according to this formulation it is true that if X is a normative fact and I believe it to be so then X is action-guiding and I believe it to be so. That the reverse is likewise true seems unhelpful. Am I missing something?

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  17. Is it the case that if x is a normative fact then x is action-guiding and that if x is action-guiding then x is a normative fact?

    -lk

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  18. OK - just checking. And, if I understand you correctly, you also want to say that all normative facts are knowable (or there are no normative facts such that they are unknowable). Is that accurate?

    -lk

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  19. OK. Then I suspect your unease with the biconditional is with regard to the knowledge criteria in the consequent because I could imagine a scenario in which there is a normative fact, an agent knows that the normative fact is a normative fact but the agent does not know that the normative fact is action-guiding (even though it actually is action-guiding).

    So I thought about possibly changing the biconditional into two disjointed conditionals:
    (N•u:N>G)
    (G•u:G>N)

    But the problem with that is, if it is already established that (N>G) and that (G>N), the knowledge criteria adds nothing.

    So now I'm thinking what about something like this:
    For all x, if x is a normative fact then x is action-guiding and x is knowable.

    Without really knowing what it is specifically you are trying to accomplish, I'm not sure if that will suffice either. But the latest version is a plausible statement that is non-circular.

    -lk

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  20. well, possibly plausible

    -lk

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  21. Thanks. I've tried fiddling with similar constructions. First, notice that for my purposes so far, we might just drop "x is action-guiding"; all I wish to get from action-guiding I get from knowable. So for now let's just say that for all x, if x is a normative fact then x is knowbable. My concern is with the analysis of this 'knowable'. Is there a way to explain what it is for something to be knowable without falling back on some relation, such as that X knows Y? If not, then I fear I'll get the same result: to say that x is knowable is to say that some possible agent knows x. Until I can come up with a way to analyze 'knowable' that clearly avoids the circularity problem, I fear my conundrum remains, if only in a different form.

    Second, while I have been talking about knowledge, I'm hoping to avoid doing so in the final formulation. I find knowledge talk useful because I see awareness and knowledge as going hand-in-hand; but many epistemic externalists don't, and I want to avoid confusion—externalist-style knowledge is not sufficient for action-guidingness on my view.

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  22. A distinction between knowledge and awareness, it seems to me, parallels a distinction between x being knowable and x being known; if an agent is aware of something, the agent, it would seem, knows that something. This is a much stronger statement than claiming that a thing is knowable -it seems highly plausible that a reason for action could be knowable yet remain unknown.

    -lk

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  23. That should have began "A distinction between knowability and awareness..."

    -lk

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  24. Yes, sorry, I did not mean to imply the (overly strong) claim that all normative facts are facts someone is aware of (and are therefore known). Rather, I meant to say that I believe that normative facts (in order to fulfill their action-guiding role) are necessarily 'awareable'. For an internalist about knowledge, this might be coextensive with 'knowable'. But there is no reason to think this would be the case for an externalist. Thus, in order to make my point without running afoul of externalism, I prefer ultimately to avoid knowledge talk altogether.

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  25. The process of knowing, or aware-ing, seems to require at its base a relationship between the subject that is knowing and the object that is known. So I don't see how you could avoid circularity by completely avoiding that relation.

    I think some philosophers have attempted to combat their own circularity conundrums by filling in more steps. Depending on how it's executed, I think such an approach has been successful for some in keeping circularity issues at bay. However I've also seen where such a tactic has done little more than make for a larger circle.

    So along the lines of teasing out more steps, what about thinking of awareability in terms of perception; if something is awareable then it must be capable of being perceived. So then what qualifies something as perceivable? Or what qualifies something as imperceptible or unknowable?

    -lk

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  26. Excellent, I think we're on precisely the same page. I believe, as you say, that we are ulimately talking about a connection between subject and object. The connection I've been working with is an explanatory one—in order for A to count as aware of X, it must be that there exists the right sort of explanatory connection between X and A's belief that X. (I think that your suggestion—perceivable—is one such explanatory connection; I prefer the broader category because perception seems too tightly bound to empirical matters, and I want to allow for the possibility that the normative truth is a priori.) So, I could say:

    X is a normative fact only if there is the right sort of connection between X and some possible agent's belief that X.

    Of course, this still has the same circularity problem. So, as you suggest, I can try to answer this question: What characteristics are necessary for X such that it is possible for X to have the right sort of explanatory connection with the 'X-belief' of some agent? I don't have an answer yet, though as I think of things I'd be happy to get feedback. And if you (or anyone) have any suggestions it would be appreciated.

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  27. Rather than defining the knowable as that which can be perceived, what about defining it more along the lines of that which can be conceived? However, given that it is possible to conceive thoughts and ideas of the non-factual and non-existent, you'd have to qualify the applicable conditions.

    -lk

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  28. Or you could do some kind of crazy perception/conception combo because perception isn't necessarily bound within the senses-ideas and impressions can also be perceived. Plus grounding the conceivable within the perceivable (broadly construed) could counter the non-factual/non-existent issue regarding mere conception. (Although I'm not quite sure how well that would fit with a priori knowability.)

    -lk

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  29. Yeah, my main concern is with not ignoring a priori normative knowledge. For instance, how would one ground mathematical knowledge in perception/conception?

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  30. Well... although mathematical knowledge is considered a priori knowledge, that's not equate with stating it's innate; even though it is justifiable independent of experience, the acquisition of mathematical knowledge is still experience-dependent.

    -lk

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  31. Sure, but some people say the same thing about moral knowledge. I recently read a paper by Sarah McGrath on the tension between the ideas that moral knowledge is a priori and that experience plays a role in the acquisition of that knowledge.

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  32. And some deny the possibility of a priori knowledge all together...

    So it seems what matters is how *you* would characterize the a priori. I did happen along something recently in my 'for fun' readings that I think could possibly be a little helpful - I'll copy it and put it in your mailbox.

    -lk

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  33. Another thought (which is now a bit off topic but corrects a side statement I made earlier) - I think it is possible for there to be a normative fact, for that normative fact to be known by the agent, for that normative fact to be action-guiding, but for that normative fact to have been applied incorrectly by the agent as a reason for that action. In other words, I think my earlier comment about my earlier biconditional formulation being safe from a WKR scenario was itself wrong reasoning.

    -lk

    ReplyDelete
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