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The Nature of NormativityReview - The Nature of Normativity
by Ralph Wedgwood
Oxford University Press, 2009
Review by Jonathan Matheson, Ph.D.
Nov 27th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 48)

The Nature of Normativity is a carefully written and clearly argued piece of metaethics that engages a wide range of philosophical literature across the philosophy of language, metaphysics (including the philosophy of mind), and epistemology.  Wedgwood's treatment of the issues is systematic throughout and the book is a model of good analytic philosophy.

In The Nature of Normativity, Ralph Wedgewood examines our normative discourse.  The book divides nicely into three sections, each of which concerns a particular type of metaethical questions.  The first section focuses on questions in the philosophy of language.  In particular, Wedgwood addresses what our normative claims mean.  When someone says that 'You should do that," what does that claim mean?  Is it the kind of claim that could be true or false?  The second section focuses on metaphysical questions.  Given that our normative claims are truth apt (capable of being either true or false), in virtue of what are the true ones true, and the false ones false?  Upon what does the truth of normative claims depend?  The third section turns to epistemological questions.  Can we know what ought to be the case?  If so, how?  What makes us reasonable in believing a normative claim?

In the first section (chapters 1-5), Wedgwood examines the meaning of normative claims.  In chapter one, he argues for a version of normative judgment internalism: that it is necessarily the case that if one is rational and judges that she ought to X, then she is also disposed to have the corresponding intention to X.  This is an important step, since normative judgment internalism plays a central role in Wedgwood's arguments throughout this section.  In chapter two, Wedgwood scrutinizes expressivism, a leading rival to his truth-conditional analysis of the meaning of normative claims.  Having dispensed with the leading motivations for expressivism, Wedgwood argues that there is a decisive objection to expressivism.  In brief, the argument is that normative claims can succeed and fail in various ways, and the most plausible way to account for the various ways that our normative claims succeed and fail is to maintain that those claims are truth apt.  In chapter three, Wedgwood examines two prominent truth-conditional semantic accounts of normative terms: Cornell moral-realism and the 'Australian' theory.  According to Cornell realists, normative terms are like natural kind terms, and the meaning of normative terms is secured by the way that their use is regulated by the corresponding natural kind.  The 'Australian' theory seeks to give a (non-trival) conceptual analysis of normative terms.  Wedgwood argues that both of these semantic accounts fail since they cannot ground normative judgment internalism and the essential connection between normative judgment and motivation.  In chapter 4, Wedgwood begins to advance his own truth-conditional semantic account of normative concepts -- one that (unlike Cornell realism and the 'Australian' theory) can account for normative judgment internalism.  He argues that the nature of a concept lies in its conceptual role in thought and reasoning, namely that it plays a regulative role in reasoning.  Regarding the 'practical' ought, Wedgwood argues that this role is characterized as follows: acceptance of the first-person proposition 'I ought to X at t' (where t is a present or future time, commits one to making X part of one's ideal plan about what to do at t. (97)  This role of 'ought' is then further explicated and defended against objections in remainder of chapter 4.  This account is then extended to normative concepts in general, showing how it can account for the principles of deontic logic, how 'ought' and 'best' have a conceptually tight relationship, and how this account still accommodates the systematic context-sensitivity of 'ought'.

Wedgwood turns to metaphysical issues regarding normativity in the second section of the book.  He argues that metaphysical properties and relations are both irreducible and causally efficacious while maintaining a broad naturalism.  In this section he begins his explication and defense of the claim that the intentional is normative.  By this claim, Wedgwood means that any adequate account of the intentional must reference the normative -- that the normative at least partially constitutes the intentional (159).  Since intentional states have both a content and a relation to that content, there is an essential role for normativity to play in terms of when that relation to that content is correct.  Wedgwood argues that concept possession is best understood in terms of having certain dispositions, and that those dispositions must include using that concept in a rational way.  So, Wedgwood claims that intentional properties must not be natural properties nor are they reducible to them.  This follows because of the essential interdependence of the normative and the intentional, and the impossibility of a simultaneous reduction of both.  Regarding the latter claim, Wedgwood builds on literature in the philosophy of mind.  He takes the arguments for the irreducibility of the mental to be sound, and argues that parallel arguments apply to the intentional and normative.  Wedgwood then argues that normative facts and properties are causally efficacious.  Since dispositions are causal notions, and possessing normative concepts requires having certain (rational) dispositions, manifesting such a disposition requires responding to a certain stimulus -- namely, a normative fact.  Wedgwood then attempts to reconcile this view with naturalism.  He argues that all contingent facts are necessarily realized in physical facts, so on his picture,

"naturalism is true: at every world, the mental and normative properties are tied down to specific physical properties at that world and at all physically similar worlds.  But reductionism fails: at no world is any mental normative property necessarily equivalent to any physical property." (221)

The third section of The Nature of Normativity turns to epistemological issues.  In this final section, Wedgwood advances a realist explanation of the epistemology of normative beliefs.  Wedgwood assumes epistemic internalism -- that the justification of a subject's belief is determined entirely by states internal to that subject, and then seeks to provide an account of how we can know and have justified beliefs about normative propositions from such an epistemic perspective.  In this section, Wedgwood argues for an analogy between normative intuitions and perceptual experiences.  We think it is rational to take our experiences at face value (absent reasons not to), and Wedgwood argues that the same is true of normative intuitions (and for similar reasons).  One might worry that normative intuitions do not have a suitable truth-connection, but here again the claim that the intentional is normative plays a central role in Wedgwood's argument.  In the second section of the book Wedgwood argued that concept possession required having rational dispositions to move from certain antecedent mental states to a further mental state.  In this third section he extends his account by arguing that these dispositions can serve as reliable indicators of which antecedent mental states make it likely to be correct to be in some additional mental state.  The Nature of Normativity concludes by Wedgwood considering whether his account has the justification of normative beliefs is a priori (and if that is problematic), as well as whether extensive normative disagreement poses a problem for the rationality of normative beliefs.  On Wedgwood's account, normative justification need not be a priori, though it often is, even though it differs from paradigmatic types of a priori justification.  Regarding the problem of disagreement, Wedgwood's discussion surrounds 'moral evil demons' -- something that causes a mistaken moral judgment in a way that is not readily detectable (259).  Moral evil demons pose a greater skeptical threat than the Cartesian evil demon since there is good reason to think that the former is actual and quite prevalent.  Wedgwood argues that it moral evil demons do not have skeptical consequences since it is rational to have an egocentric epistemic bias in favor of one's own normative intuitions.  So, even if the discovery of disagreement rationally requires one to somewhat reduce one's confidence in the disputed proposition, each subject can often continue to have a rational belief.  This defense of this bias comes from the rationality of minimizing epistemic risk and thus minimizing the epistemic sources that one treats as primitive.  So, the fundamental asymmetry between one's own intuitions and the reported intuitions of another at least typically blocks the defeating effect of disagreement.  This turns into a modest defense of normative knowledge as Wedgwood endorses a contextualism about 'rational' and 'knowledge' so that it is often true to claim that 'S knows p' (where p is some normative proposition) even though S's justification for believing p may not be all that strong.  The book then concludes with Wedgwood gesturing at how his arguments might extend to central debates in the philosophy of mind, rational choice theory, philosophy of religion, and normative ethics.

The Nature of Normativity is essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary metaethics.  Wedgwood's rigorous defense of realism and pointed critiques of rival views each constitute significant contributions to the field.

 

© 2012 Jonathan Matheson

 

Jonathan Matheson is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of North Florida. He is the author of “The Case for Rational Uniqueness” (Logos & Episteme), “Epistemological Considerations Concerning Skeptical Theism: A Response to Dougherty” (Faith and Philosophy), “Conciliatory Views of Disagreement and Higher-Order Evidence” (Episteme: A Journal of Social Philosophy, and “Bergmann's Dilemma: Exit Strategies for Internalists” (Philosophical Studies) -- co-authored with Jason Rogers.


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