In this post, Laura and François Schroeter discuss their article recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of the article can be found here.
Many metaethicists are attracted to a position Matti Eklund (2017) calls ‘Ardent Normative Realism’. The main motivation behind this position can be illustrated with the help of a couple of examples.
Imagine you are disagreeing with a friend about whether abortion at 20 weeks is morally wrong. Imagine further that the two of you have a very different understanding of what it takes for an action to be morally wrong: you think that morality is determined by God’s law, while your friend does not. Despite this divergence, you two seem to be genuinely disagreeing about the same topic. If we interpreted you as talking past each other, we would be failing to take the normative authority of morality seriously (Enoch 2011). Both of you are interested in what is morally wrong tout court, not what is morally wrong according to the idiosyncratic standards of some individual.
Similarly, if we imagine two separate communities debating the same issue, we would have to say that they are interested in finding out whether abortion at 20 weeks is morally wrong tout court, rather than whether it is wrong according to the normative standards specific to the community. Settling for less would deflate the normative authority of morality.
In order to vindicate these intuitions, proponents of Ardent Normative Realism endorse a strong form of metaphysical realism in the moral domain. According to the Ardent Normative Realist, “reality itself favors certain ways of valuing and acting” (Eklund 2017: 1). If two communities disagree on moral questions, they cannot both be getting it right. At most, one of them is “limning” the normative structure of reality (22).
Now, suppose we grant that reality does indeed favor certain ways of valuing and acting. The Ardent Realist still faces an important problem. Given their radically different understandings of what makes an action morally wrong, how is it possible for individuals and communities to pick out the same reference with their moral terms? Contrast the moral term with the term ‘bachelor’, for example. The term ‘bachelor’ has the same reference, even when used by different individuals, because we all have very similar empirical criteria for who counts as a bachelor: unmarried eligible males. But imagine we introduce a new term, ‘nuba’, and different individuals have radically divergent views about what it takes for something to be a nuba. How can the term ‘nuba’ pick out the same property when it is used by individuals who rely on different application criteria?
To address this problem, many Ardent Realists have been tempted by a thesis Eklund calls ‘Referential Normativity’:
Two predicates or concepts conventionally associated with the same normative role are thereby determined to have the same reference. (Eklund 2017: 10)
Imagine that all it takes to count as competent with our new term, ‘nuba’, is that it plays the same normative role in one’s psychology that English speakers associate to ‘morally wrong’. For instance, if a speaker judges that an action is nuba, they will be disposed to avoid performing that action or to feel guilt if they do perform it. According to Referential Normativity, all it takes for speakers to pick out the same reference is that they take ‘nuba’ to play this normative role; their divergent empirical criteria for classifying actions as ‘nuba’ are strictly irrelevant to fixing its reference.
Obviously, it would be great news for Ardent Realists if Referential Normativity were true. However, we argue that Referential Normativity is just too good to be true. To show what’s problematic about it, we need to step back and ask foundational questions about how reference is determined. There is much controversy in the philosophical literature concerning this topic, but we seek to sidestep those divergences by focusing on points of agreement among theorists of reference determination.
What is the point of referential ascriptions? We suggest that ascribing a specific reference to an adjective like ‘nuba’ must:
(i) help explain the reasoning and actions of subjects using the term ‘nuba’, and
(ii) set truth-conditions for assessing whether assertions and beliefs involving ‘nuba’ are correct.
Suppose, for instance, that we interpret competent speakers’ use of ‘nuba’ as attributing the property of being loud. This interpretation flouts both (i) and (ii). The interpretation is not explanatory because most users of ‘nuba’ will not associate its defining normative role with all and only loud actions, and so attributing this reference will not help to explain their reasoning and actions. And the interpretation does not set a plausible standard of correctness because there is no plausible story why all competent users are failing to live up to their semantic commitments if they fail to apply ‘nuba’ to loud actions. We must conclude that the interpretation of ‘nuba’ as referring to being loud is mistaken.
In the full-length version of our paper, we examine different attempts to reconcile Referential Normativity with constraints (i) and (ii). We argue that these attempts all fail. In a nutshell, Referential Normativity tries to pull a rabbit out of a hat. The mere normative role associated with a term like ‘morally wrong’ is insufficient to ground the ascription of any empirically instantiated property as its reference.
Read the full article at https://journals.publishing.umich.edu/ergo/article/id/1135/
- Eklund, M. (2017). Choosing Normative Concepts. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
- Enoch, D. (2011). Taking Morality Seriously: A Defense of Robust Realism. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
About the authors
Laura and François Schroeter are Associate Professors of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.
Laura received her PhD from the University of Michigan. After that, she took up a postdoctoral fellowship at the Research School of the Social Sciences at the Australian National University. She joined the University of Melbourne in 2008. Her research focuses on the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind, and metaethics. She has written extensively about two-dimensional semantics, concept individuation, and normative concepts.
François received his PhD from the University of Fribourg. He joined the Philosophy Department at Melbourne in 2003, after spending time at the University of Michigan and at the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University. He is interested in normative concepts, metaethics, and moral psychology.