Ethics and Philosophy: Ethics are Not Normative

Some time ago, I started reading philosophy. Since then, I have been trying to get a handle on leading philosophical views on ethics and morality. This post is my attempt to sketch out my current views on moral normativity. Everything here is tentative and open to revision. I welcome all argument, especially from people who know way more about it than I do. I have read very little philosophy, and what I have read has been somewhat abridged, so I welcome argument and debate on this topic.

I. The Sources of Normativity

My biggest stumbling block in most ethical philosophy is this: is there a rational reason why I should care about other people? Why is selfishness wrong? I did not find a satisfactory answer to this anywhere in Betrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, so I asked my friend and prominent philosopher [1] Dan Fincke for recommended reading. Dan correctly labeled the subject of my inquiry as “the normative question” and suggested Christine Korsgaard. Korsgaard has published her defense of ethical normativity in her book, The Sources of Normativity. However, because I’m allergic to paying over $10 for a book, I opted to read Korsgaard’s Tanner Lectures on normativity, which provide the source material for her later book.

Korsgaard identifies four sources for normativity, all of which she labels correct. The first is Voluntarism:

According to this view, moral obligation derives from the command of someone who has legitimate authority over the moral agent and so can make laws for her. You must do the right thing because God commands it, say, or because a political sovereign whom you have agreed to obey makes it law. Normativity springs from a legislative will.

According to this view, morality is normative because it is imposed from an outside authority. The second source is realism:

According to this view, moral claims are normative if they are true, and true if there are intrinsically normative entities or facts that they correctly describe. Realists try to establish the normativity of ethics by arguing that values or obligations or reasons really exist or, more commonly, by arguing against the various forms of skepticism about them.

Korsgaard goes on to explain that the realist view simply declares certain thing to be intrinsically normative “by fiat.” The realist decides that something is intrinsically normative, and that’s that. The third source is reflective endorsement:

This view is favored by philosophers who believe that morality is grounded in human nature. The philosopher’s first job is to explain what the source of morality in human nature is, why we use moral concepts and feel ourselves bound by them. When an explanation of our moral nature is in hand, we can then raise the normative question: all things considered, do we have reason to accept the claims of our moral nature or should we reject them? The question is not “are these claims true?” as it is for the realist. The reasons sought here are practical reasons; the idea is to show that morality is good for us.

This view argues that, as we reflect on our decisions, we will involuntarily approve or disapprove of them, so the “moral” action is the one of which, upon reflection, we approve. The fourth source is the appeal to autonomy:

Kantians believe that the source of the normativity of moral claims must be found in the agent’s own will, in particular in the fact that the laws of morality are the laws of the agent’s own will and that its claims are ones she is prepared to make on herself. The capacity for self-conscious reflection about our own actions confers on us a kind of authority over ourselves, and it is this authority that gives normativity to moral claims.

This view argues that it is our own identities and wills which obligate us to perform certain acts and avoid others. These views are fleshed out very well in the linked lecture series, and I encourage anyone interested in the topic to read it. At just over 100 pages, it’s rather short for a work of philosophy, but not what I’d call an easy read.

Korsgaard argues that it is our own practical identities that compel our actions. She defines a practical identity as “a description under which you find your life to be worth living and your actions to be worth undertaking.” She argues that your practical identity is “not merely a contingent conception of your identity, which you have constructed or chosen for yourself or could conceivably reject. It is simply the truth.” Because, upon reflection, we will disapprove of actions inconsistent with our practical identities, then we are obligated to conform to them. The “reflective structure of human consciousness” obligates us to behave in ways that are consistent with our practical identities.

Korsgaard argues that the structure of the human mind makes it impossible for us not to value our identities. To act, we must have reasons, and to have reasons for action, we must see our own actions as worthwhile. We must see ourselves as beings whose actions matter. “Since you cannot act without reasons and your humanity is the source of your reasons, you must endorse your own humanity if you are to act at all.”

Korsgaard goes on to argue that we can obligate others because the act of communication and socializing creates a shared consciousness, that our experiences are not completely private, and that we can involve others in them through communication. We can think and reason together. Therefore, Korsgaard argues, we can obligate one another in the same way that we can obligate ourselves.

II. Morality is Not Normative

Korsgaard’s arguments break down for me in two places. First, I am not convinced by Korsgaard’s description of a practical identity. Second, I do not see the logical connection that Korsgaard draws between shared reasoning and obligating one another.

Korsgaard describes the practical identity as simply a fact, not something that could conceivably be rejected. I think this overlooks the elasticity of identity. Korsgaard claims that when reflection reveals that an action is inconsistent with a person’s practical identity, “she must reject that way of acting, and act in
another way.” This seems self-evidently false. There are two additional options: (1) she can change her identity; or (2) she can change her mind about whether the action is consistent with her identity.

If Korsgaard were correct, and a person’s identity was unable to change in response to threats, there would be no such thing as a religious convert. Many formerly religious people were extremely devout, so much so that “pious” or “faithful” were part of their practical identity in the terms Korsgaard gives. Yet people change this identity, sometimes gradually, sometimes all at once. Similarly, people often begin identifying as nonmonogamous in response to performing an act inconsistent with their practical identity as a faithful, monogamous partner. Rather than reject the action, people often change their identity and/or change what their identity means (i.e. deciding that being “faithful” just means being honest, not being monogamous). There is no such thing as an immutable identity. Once it is acknowledged that practical identity is a fluid concept, Korsgaard’s argument loses its force. Acts cease to be obligatory and merely become optional. Certainly, some people have strong enough identities that they are unchangeable, but that is hardly universal, and thus it is not normative.

The second issue is that the fact that we can reason and think together does not mean that others share our practical identity. Practical identity, as described by Korsgaard, is an incredibly strong concept. It must be so strong that “an agent would rather be dead” than to contradict it. Above, I’ve expressed skepticism about whether this concept applies universally to every individual. However, I can say with near-certainty that this level of devotion to identity cannot be forced on anyone from an outside source. There is nothing I can do to force you to adopt my values on such a fundamental level. While some people are susceptible to that kind of thing, not all people are (and I would argue that most are not), and thus the concept is not normative.

III. Conclusion

Korsgaard’s arguments for normativity are the most convincing that I’ve been able to find, but I still find them unconvincing. Because I can find no evidence for normative morality, I am forced to conclude that morality is purely subjective (although that still leaves room for intersubjective morality). I am forced to conclude that the only coherent moral philosophy is egoism.

I’m planning a future post on the implications of this view, but for now, I’m interested in any comments people have on the sources of normativity, or lack thereof.

1. Not as prominent as he should be. As someone who is repelled by most philosophy, I find Dan’s writing to be equal parts accessible and brilliant. He is also rebelling against out bullshit higher education system by offering independent classes over Google Hangouts. If you’re interested, you can see his class schedule here.

8 responses to “Ethics and Philosophy: Ethics are Not Normative

  1. Wouldn’t biology factor into practical identify?

  2. In poly-culture there is a push to justify via ethics what societies have long frowned upon for practical reasons. Men don’t want to raise genetic material dissimilar to their own. Abuse rates for live-in boyfriends cohabiting with single moms corroborate this (The rates of abuse are insanely higher than for traditional nuclear families). But now we have modern medicine and abortificants, paternal testing, and a more secular legal system. The gods of society have changed, and with them, identity. You don’t have to justify in order to live the lifestyle. Latter-day-saints polygamists would disagree on the legal end, and still that boils down to – cover your own ass. Use protection if you don’t want to be paying child support to multiple baby mamas, etc.

    I say there have always been people who do not put much thought into the ethics of polygamy, polygyny, polyamory. They do not identify with any such movement or culture. Traditionally they’ve been called cads, players, sluts, etc. by the society that disapproves. They go on with their behaviour perhaps without much thought to identifying with the lifestyle.

    • Mack,

      I have a strict policy against evolutionary psychology on the blog. Ok, that’s a half-joke, but seriously, if you want to bring up the legitimacy of evopsych, you’re going to have to come up with better evidence than the fact that live-in boyfriends abuse children at higher rates than bio parents.

      I think most people don’t put much thought into the ethics of most things. I think people are told what’s right and what’s wrong, and usually go with that.

  3. First, Wes, thanks for writing this. I enjoyed reading it. And this is a topic that I am always thrilled to discuss and get others’ opinions on.

    I actually agree with your view of moral egoism. Even if the only reason a person behaves ethically is for the “warm fuzzies”, that’s still a selfish reason. But maybe selfishness isn’t unethical?

    Another thought I had when reading was: are ethics optional, or must they be obligatory in nature in order to be considered ethics?


    • I suppose it depends on what you mean by “ethics.” I’m an attorney. Complying with attorney ethics rules are mandatory for me. If I am discovered violating them, I am sanctioned and possibly disbarred. So in that sense, they are not optional. But really, they are, because getting sanctioned or disbarred is an option, albeit an unappealing one.

      But if we’re talking metaphysically, then I think that any theory of morality which is not prescriptive can’t really be called morality. If there is no discussion of what’s right or wrong, then I think the conversation ceases to be about morality and just becomes about how best to accomplish one’s goals.

      And, of course, I agree that selfishness is not immoral.

  4. Pingback: Ethics Are Important | Living Within Reason

  5. Pingback: Ethics and Philosophy: Well-Being is The Only Thing That Matters | Living Within Reason

  6. Pingback: Ethics and Philosophy: A Defense of Egoism | Living Within Reason

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