New paper completed: “A Genealogical Defense of Normative Nihilism” ; feedback welcome

“One ought not torture for fun.” Few would challenge this norm. But why? A common answer is that norms are “prescriptive”, telling us how we should act. Moreover, such norms are regarded as “authoritative”, possessed with a “binding force” that “governs” rational beings. What is the nature of this “normative force” and its “binding power”? Philosophers sometimes talk about different strengths of normative force, invoking the traditional distinction between hypothetical and categorical norms.

Hypothetical norms are “weakly” binding and exemplified by social conventions e.g. “One ought to use the small fork for salads.” Few people would consider it wrong to use the big fork because this norm only “binds us”if we want to impress high society. The force of hypothetical normativity is thus tied to our individual desires; if my desire to rebel against high society is stronger than my desire to fit in, I am hypothetically bound to not use the small fork.

In contrast, categorical norms such as “One ought not torture for fun” are “strongly” binding in the sense of not being conditional on anyone’s actual or ideal desires. If a psychopath desires to torture others for fun, they are nevertheless obligated to not torture for fun. Unlike their hypothetical cousins, categorical norms are considered “objectively prescriptive” (Mackie, 1977), enjoying what Aquinas calls “the binding force which is proper to a law”.

Suppose categorical force is merely a dressed up version of hypothetical force. How could we tell otherwise? The existence of a “binding” categorical force is not an obvious or trivial truth, nor detectable by any scientific instrument (that I know of). On these grounds alone, a skeptic might propose the “bindingness” of categorical force is merely hypothetical force masquerading as something stronger,a remnant of an old brain disposed for religiosity and magical thinking.

The normative realist claims categoricity is felt as forceful because it really is forceful in virtue of the binding power of “irreducible” normative facts. In contrast, the normative nihilist claims the bindingness of normativity derives its “force”merely from biological and cultural values, but there is no ultimate fact about which values are “better” than any other because, from the physicalist point of view, the universe is cold, uncaring, and ultimately valueless. Nietzsche’s statement of the worldview driving normative nihilism is definitive: “Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature—nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time” (Nietzsche, 1974, p. 242, emphasis added). Nietzsche offers a “physiological” explanation of the source of normativity by tracing the concrete human origins of the concept of categoricity, explaining away the phenomenology of “binding” normative authority as a figment of an over-active brain.

Critics accuse normative nihilists of being either incoherent or hypocritical because in defending the view they “help themselves” to normative concepts, and thus undermine their own attempts at making a meaningful, rational, or intelligible claim. Thus, normativists are doubtful genealogical stories have any revisionary implications for our normative concepts. And even if they did, normativists pull out their trump card tu quoque argument: even if an evolutionary critique of moral norms were successful, it would thereby “prove too much” by casting doubt on all norms, including the epistemic norms that rationally “bind” nihilists to avoid saying “This genealogy both happened and did not happen.” Skeptics have dealt with this “global” challenge creatively, but few have opted to bite the bullet on epistemic nihilism for fear of committing “intellectual suicide” (Sorensen, 2013).Philosophers are by professional reputation defenders of epistemic authority and—not surprisingly—tend to dismiss the prospect of Global Normative Nihilism(GNN)as absurd or self-defeating.

My central thesis is once we distinguish between hypothetical and categorical strengths of epistemic authority the charge of self-defeat rings hollows, for the following reason. If epistemic norms only “bind” us hypothetically with respect to our contingently held desires and/or values, pointing out epistemic nihilists have “binding” hypothetical reasons to avoid holding contradictory beliefs is consistent with the nihilistic claim that acting in accord with epistemic norms is not good in-itself, because nature is valueless. The psychological inevitability of normal humans to feel “bound”by epistemic norms does not entail we are categorically bound to follow them. Naturalists have no beef with hypothetical forms of “binding force” because this locution is understood as a conceptual metaphor. The naturalistic worldview driving normative nihilism predicts that organisms project hypothetically binding values on a valueless world.

Read the full paper HERE: Williams – Genealogy QP 2 version 1.7 8-16-2013


Filed under Philosophy

3 responses to “New paper completed: “A Genealogical Defense of Normative Nihilism” ; feedback welcome

  1. Fantastic paper, Gary. Your writing keeps getting more and more impeccable. Is it my imagination, or are you drifting ever further into the eliminativist fold?
    I wonder if maybe a false dilemma doesn’t haunt the way you set up the contest between the nihilist and the realist. On my own view, the problem turns on the way metacognitive constraints pertaining to deliberative theoretical reflection on the problem of normativity. The pertinent questions are 1) What information is available for theoretical reflection on normativity?
    2) What kind of cognitive resources can be brought to bear? and 3) Are these sufficient to even adequately characterize the problematic, let alone resolve it?
    Since I think I can scare up a pretty good argument (via Blind Brain Theory) to answer ‘very little’ to (1), ‘the wrong ones’ to (2), and ‘not by a long shot’ to (3), I feel the whole of the realist’s position can be served up to the skeptic. But the point is that taking an approach like this transforms the debate from one where the question is whether normativity, value, etc., *exist,* into one of whether they are *what they appear to be* given the extremely limited informatic and cognitive resources available. This not only kneecaps all ‘self-defeat’ arguments (or ‘incoherence arguments’ as Rosenberg terms them) because the nihilist need only appeal to biomechanical constraints, it actually flips the onus onto the realist, essentially challenging them to justify their reliance on their metacognitive intuitions.

  2. Hi Scott,

    “Is it my imagination, or are you drifting ever further into the eliminativist fold?”

    Haha, I don’t think you are imagining things! I have been doing a kind of ontological spring cleaning lately by getting rid of all sorts of entities and properties, for both metaphysical and epistemological reasons. We’ll see how far it takes me.

    I like your blind brain approach to stopping the self-defeat objections. But I think there is considerable material for brains to reflect on when contemplating on normativity e.g. the physical worldview offered up by physics. But you’re right, most people don’t reflect on that to answer normative questions, they rely on their intuitions about how a particular “ought” statement “feels”. If it “feels” binding it must really be binding!

  3. Welcome aboard. It’s been interesting these past few years, how it seemed that I was continually bumping into eliminativists conversationally (mostly neuroscience wonks) but so rarely in the literature. It makes institutional sense, given that we’re transitioning from speculation grounded on scant information to theoretical views attempting to digest enormous amounts of information regarding brain function. You can only try shoe-horning so much before you gotta move on. Normative realists will be ‘flat-earthers’ soon enough, I fear.

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