Upcoming Ethics review forum: Eklund’s Choosing Normative Concepts, reviewed by Raskoff

We’re pleased to announce our next Ethics review forum on Matti Eklund’s Choosing Normative Concepts (OUP 2017), reviewed by Sarah Zoe Raskoff. Excerpts from the blurb and the review are below, but you can read both in their entirety via OUP’s website and Ethics, respectively. (Though of course, you are welcome to participate in the forum even if you haven’t read either. We get it: You’re busy; you’ve got things to do, places to be, normative concepts to choose.)

The forum will start on the morning of Friday October 12.



The book abstract:

Theorists working on metaethics and the nature of normativity typically study goodness, rightness, what ought to be done, etc. In their investigations they employ and consider our actual normative concepts. But the actual concepts of goodness, rightness, and what ought to be done are only some of the possible normative concepts. There are other possible concepts, ascribing different properties. In this book, the consequences of this are explored, for example for the debate over normative realism and for the debate over what it is for concepts and properties to be normative. In recent years, conceptual engineering—the project of considering how our concepts can be replaced by better ones—has become a central topic in philosophy. The present work applies this proposed methodology to central normative concepts and discusses the special complications that arise in this case. For example, how should we, in the context, understand talk of a concept being better than another?


From the review:

Matti Eklund’s ambitious new book Choosing Normative Concepts opens with a thought experiment called Alternative:

There is a linguistic community speaking a language much like English, except for the following differences (and whatever differences are directly entailed). While their words “good,” “right,” and “ought” are associated with the same normative roles as our words “good,” “right,” and “ought,” their words aren’t coextensive with our “good,” “right,” and “ought.” So even if they are exactly right about what is “good” and “right” and what “ought” to be done, in their sense, and they seek to promote and to do what is “good” and “right” and what “ought” to be done in their sense, they do not seek to promote what is good and right and what ought to be done. (18)

Alternative raises the question whether it is possible for there to be normative concepts with the same normative roles as ours but with different referents. Eklund calls views that allow for this possibility “alternative-friendly” and views that do not “alternative-unfriendly” (19). The scenario Eklund describes in Alternative is similar to the scenario Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons employ in their Moral Twin Earth argument, which is meant to show that a certain brand of metaethical naturalism cannot preserve the intuition that the two linguistic communities genuinely disagree about whether something is good/right/ought to be done (Terrence Horgan and Mark Timmons, “Troubles for New Wave Moral Semantics: The ‘Open Question Argument’ Revived,” Philosophical Papers 21 [1992]: 153–75). Eklund’s concern is different: he wishes to explore the broader metaethical consequences of the theoretical possibility of “alternative normative concepts” raised by such thought experiments (33). Though its title and blurb on the back suggest that it is about how our normative concepts can be replaced by better ones or how we ought to choose between competing normative concepts, this is not a book about conceptual engineering (though it does touch on the topic in a few pages in the last chapter). Rather, it’s about the various “choice points and theses [that] are rendered salient” by reflecting on the possibility of alternative normative concepts (5). The book is centered on a discussion of a particular version of metaethical realism that Eklund calls ardent realism.

Eklund’s primary goal is to defend two theses about ardent realism:

(i) Ardent realism is true only if the reference of normative concepts or predicates can be determined by the “normative role” they play in, for example, “practical deliberation relating to what to do” (38)—that is, “only if there are some possible non-defective referentially normative predicates” (16).

(ii) “There are normative properties only if there are some possible non-defective referentially normative predicates” (16).


To be an ardent realist, according to Eklund, is to accept some cluster of the following: (a) that “reality itself favors certain ways of valuing and acting” (1); (b) that “someone who does bad things and is motivated by bad desires . . . is somehow objectively out of sync with how to conduct one’s life” (1); and (c) that “normative discourse is truth-apt (and not merely in a deflationary sense but in the sense of truth as correspondence), that some atomic normative sentences are true, and that the truth of normative statements is mind-independent” (5). Importantly, the ardent realist rejects error theory, relativism, quasi-realism and other versions of expressivism, and the Humean theory of reasons, each of which cannot do justice to the idea that it is reality itself that undergirds what requires undergirding (3). Eklund does not provide much else beyond this “somewhat table thumping and impressionistic” characterization of ardent realism, nor is he willing to point to a specific example of a view that fits the bill (2). But he is probably right to insist that we all know the type, and he is interested in what would have to be true of our normative concepts and properties if we are to satisfy the ardent realist.

The main argument for thesis (i) comes in chapters 2 and 3, where Eklund presents a detailed version of Alternative. The basic thought is that views that allow for the possibility of alternative normative concepts face a dilemma, and that in light of this dilemma, defenders of ardent realism must be alternative-unfriendly: they must deny the possibility of alternative normative concepts. Consider, for ex- ample, Richard Boyd’s so-called Cornell realism. The Cornell realist subscribes to the view that normative predicates have their reference determined by what their use is appropriately causally linked to. It is compatible with this position that terms can be causally linked to different properties—that is, have different refer- ents—even while they have the same normative role. This much is well known from the work of Horgan and Timmons, as are similar problems for various other naturalistic theories of reference determination (Terrence Horgan and Mark Timmons, “Troubles on Moral Twin Earth: Moral Queerness Revived,” Synthese 92 [1992]: 221–60). But Eklund is not just concerned with naturalistic theories of refer- ence determination, such as those proposed by Boyd and Jackson in particular. He is concerned with any theory of normative semantics—naturalist or non- naturalist—on which the reference of normative terms is determined by some- thing other than normative role. All such views are alternative-friendly.

Eklund claims that ardent realists who wish to adopt alternative-friendly views face a dilemma: on any such view, either there is some further question about which normative term actually “limns the normative structure of reality,” or there is not (22). The trouble with taking the first horn is that any statement of what is at issue between these two communities will itself employ normative terms; there is no way for a member of one community to ask “Well, which one of us is really getting things right?” without employing her own community’s concept of right. Posing the question this way threatens to settle the issue trivially in favor of each member’s own normative terms: it does not get at the question the ardent realist is after, which is about which normative term carves normativity at its joints. So neither member can formulate the question she is after. And if the ardent realist wishes to maintain that there nevertheless is a further question, she must claim that it is “in- effable,” impossible to pose in any language—and this would seem a rather desperate ploy to save the view (23–26). The other horn of the dilemma arises if the ardent realist denies that there is a further question. This yields the unhappy result that neither linguistic community is really getting things right—indeed, that there is no unique way to limn the normative structure of reality after all. This is a problem because it deflates the significance of facts about what is good, right, or ought to be done in a way that is likely to frustrate the defender of ardent realism. After all, what she wants from her view is something to vindicate the sense that the world itself objectively undergirds certain ways of valuing or behaving. She is committed to there being a further question about whose terms are fit for the job.

So ardent realism, Eklund concludes, must be alternative-unfriendly. And this requires defenders of ardent realism to give an account of reference determination on which the reference of normative terms is determined by their normative role. Any other view of reference determination would allow for reference and normative role to come apart, which is precisely what the ardent realist can- not allow. Call a concept or predicate “referentially normative” if it picks out its reference in this way, and call it “nondefective” if its extension is nonempty, non- contradictory, and so on. Thus, we arrive at Eklund’s first thesis: “ardent realism is true only if there are some possible non-defective referentially normative predicates” (16). (The argument for the second thesis, that “there are normative properties only if there are some possible non-defective referentially normative predicates,” proceeds by providing objections to other accounts of what makes a property normative that Eklund claims his appeal to referential normativity avoids.)

A natural question at this point is, how might a normative term’s reference be determined by its normative role? And about this, Eklund has startlingly little to say. As an example of how this might go, Eklund discusses Ralph Wedgwood’s conceptual role semantics for the thin normative predicate occurring in sentences (roughly) of the form “x is a better thing for me to do than y” (Ralph Wedgwood, “Conceptual Role Semantics for Moral Terms,” Philosophical Review 110 [2001]: 1–30, 13). The use of this predicate is governed by the basic rule of practical rationality according to which accepting that x is a better thing for you to do than y commits you to having a preference to do x rather than y. Certain applications of this basic rule are “valid” or “correct”; others are “invalid” or “mistakes.” Valid or correct applications are those that conform to “the goal or purpose that ought to guide one’s practical reasoning,” which only permits one to have certain preferences (Wedgwood, “Conceptual Role Semantics,” 18–19). If an application of the rule is valid, then it commits one to a rationally permissible preference; if it is invalid, then it commits one to a rationally impermissible preference. The referent of the predicate is then determined by whether or not something (in this case, a preference) makes the application of the basic rule valid. So the referent of the normative predicate, x is a better thing for me to do than y, is determined by the normative role that it plays. It picks out only those properties or relations that are rationally permissible and thereby make an application of the basic rule of practical rationality valid.

Although Eklund’s discussion of Wedgwood is in some ways informative, it is not at all clear why the view is meant to be alternative-unfriendly. Wedgwood is only able to show how conceptual role might determine reference by appealing to some further goal of practical reasoning. But presumably, we can imagine alter- native communities that accept alternative goals of practical reasoning; we can imagine communities that accept that there are different goals or purposes that ought to guide their practical reasoning. So either there is a further question about which goal really ought to govern practical reasoning, or there is not. Eklund’s dilemma resurfaces. The lesson seems to be that a satisfying explanation of how normative role determines reference cannot itself appeal to some further normativity.