The meaning of normative statements

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Which best describes the way you read my post:

I read the words in the order you wrote them, oh logical person of above-average intelligence.
21
58%
I read them in some other order, because you do not make the rules here.
11
31%
I started reading, but then realised I was reading a thread in Serious Business and/or just got bored with all the words
4
11%
 
Total votes: 36

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The meaning of normative statements

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Jul 02, 2007 6:11 pm UTC

These words are written in the order in which they are to be read. As usual. However, if you would like to read them in a different order, go ahead. Also, even if you don't have anything to say in response to my specific points, you are more than welcome to reply instead with something about your own interpretation of normative statements.

Far be it from me to try and dictate the terms of the discussion here. :-)

Anyway, I found that, much the same way that someone like Kent Hovind can get me thinking about the real science of evolution, anfury got me thinking a bit about some of the real philosophy behind my own ethical views. I wondered what others thought of something I recently came up with:
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I think it's safe to say that anyone who is in the habit of making ethical claims has at least some core values that the person thinks everyone should have. This is because, if you truly don't care whether someone agrees with anything at all you might say, you probably aren't in the habit of saying anything about what others ought to do. Therefore, I think it is also pretty common (if not universal) that you say something like "you ought to avoid murder" with the underlying assumption that the person you're talking to shares at least enough of your own core values to be potentially convinced of the correctness of your claim. (Even if they don't share all your values at the outset. After all, if you assumed they did, there may not be much point in telling them what you think in the first place.)

When a person makes the ethical claim, "you ought to do A", we can understand that statement to mean,
Based on (those values that I hold so deeply as to think everyone should share them), the consequences of doing A are likely to be more positive overall than the consequences of not doing A.
where the part in parentheses would, in the individual case, actually consist of some of those most fundamental values.

Is this a reasonable interpretation of what normative statements "mean"?

(Note that I am not assuming there is any external or objective basis for the truth of ethical statements. This isn't necessarily because I don't think such a basis exists, but rather because I think the belief in such a basis would be, in the individual cases, contained in the parenthetical part of the above. And what you mean when you tell me what I ought to do would obviously have more to do with whatever you believe is the objective basis for ethics than with whatever I may believe it is.)
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Postby OCR » Mon Jul 02, 2007 6:20 pm UTC

I love norming language. We used it all the time in Residence life!

"In Eagle hall, we don't piss in the water fountains"
"In Eagle hall, we do not throw study lounge furniture out the window."

It really gives you a sense of community there.
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Postby ArchangelShrike » Mon Jul 02, 2007 8:26 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:This is because, if you truly don't care whether someone agrees with anything at all you might say, you probably aren't in the habit of saying anything about what others ought to do.


For the most part I try not to interfere with the thinking processes of others, and instead prefer to be a observer to witness the miracle of logic and reasoning. Sometimes it doesn't work out and I need to introduce myself into the conversation. I also prefer to use only positive statements, leading to a misunderstanding when I'm misinterpreted such as "I'll be hungry in the next hour." I don't mean "I want to eat in the next hour," it's simply a status update if you ask.
gmalivuk wrote:When a person makes the ethical claim, "you ought to do A", we can understand that statement to mean,
Based on (those values that I hold so deeply as to think everyone should share them), the consequences of doing A are likely to be more positive overall than the consequences of not doing A.

where the part in parentheses would, in the individual case, actually consist of some of those most fundamental values.

Is this a reasonable interpretation of what normative statements "mean"?


As to normative statements, I think you have it right. However human beings usually forget to add the parenthetical basis/statement into conversation, leading to problems. We also bring in the discussion of utilitarianism, and what is "more positive overall" is of greater debate which is probably neither here nor there for the moment.

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Postby Pathway » Mon Jul 02, 2007 9:36 pm UTC

Sorry, gmalivuk, I disobediently started reading with "Words these written are," but at least I realized my mistake fairly quickly.

When read in the correct order, your words make sense. :wink:
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Postby Shadowfish » Mon Jul 02, 2007 10:30 pm UTC

Dude, awesome thread idea.

Someone needs to mention emotivism here, I think. As best as I remember, it states "X is wrong" basically means "I find X icky". If one person says X is right and the other says X is wrong, they are both correct, because they are just dissagreeing about their tastes. Emotivism puts normative statements in the same category as "I like chicken".

I think this is probably true, but I find people who use utilitarianism tasty.

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Postby bookishbunny » Fri Jul 06, 2007 6:48 pm UTC

My eyeballs fell on 'normative statements' first. Then I read the beginning of the sentence to clarify what was being said about them.
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Postby anfurny » Fri Jul 06, 2007 7:56 pm UTC

As you probably know, "should" and "ought to" are two of the "bias words" I have addressed on my site and so I've given plenty of thought to this myself. I've been known to drive people mad by responding to many political "questions" with "define should."

One assumption I think we would be incorrect if we made (just caught myself from saying should there...) is that everybody uses the word the same way. This was my initial reaction to emotivism.

I don't believe most people view "should" in the way you do.

The rephrasing you gave
When a person makes the ethical claim, "you ought to do A", we can understand that statement to mean, Quote:
Based on (those values that I hold so deeply as to think everyone should share them),


Doesn't clear anything up, it explains "ought to" in terms of its synonym, "should."


Also, I think it's important to question the assumption that all language has some sense of "meaning." Skinner contended that language was a learned set of reactions, which is mostly false, but consider a statement such as "hello." There is no single fact we are consistently trying to convey with hello, no one unifying meaning (sometimes we may say hello to somebody we hate, somebody we like, somebody who we know sees us and knows we see them, etc). If we view the word "hello" as more of a vocal act (like a yawn or laugh) that is neither true nor false, why not view "should" as a vocal act?

Moreover, since we don't view "should" as only any one thing, I think the truth is some confused mixture depending on circumstance and individual.

Further discussion might require a precise definition of "mean."

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Postby iknoritesrsly » Fri Jul 06, 2007 8:01 pm UTC

Shadowfish wrote:Dude, awesome thread idea.

Someone needs to mention emotivism here, I think. As best as I remember, it states "X is wrong" basically means "I find X icky". If one person says X is right and the other says X is wrong, they are both correct, because they are just dissagreeing about their tastes. Emotivism puts normative statements in the same category as "I like chicken".


darn, someone beat me to it. :(

but yeah, I think emotivism / moral particularism is a decent objection.

edit: there is also virtue ethics, which I'm a big fan of, in which the ethicist asserts that we should move away from the moral ought altogether. id est, statements like "you ought to do X" or "you should do Y" have no real purchase.

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Postby djn » Fri Jul 06, 2007 8:13 pm UTC

Wouldn't "you ought to x" be a shorthand for "given what I know, it looks like it would benefit you/people in general if you did x" , for some suitable definition of "benefit" ?

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Postby iknoritesrsly » Fri Jul 06, 2007 8:15 pm UTC

a virtue ethicist would say no.

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Postby djn » Fri Jul 06, 2007 8:21 pm UTC

iknoritesrsly wrote:a virtue ethicist would say no.

Ok. *attacks wikipedia*

Edit: Let's hope I have a vague idea here.
Wouldn't sentences on the pattern of "you ought to avoid x [because it's more dangerous than you're currently aware of]" and "you ought to x [because it'll benefit you more than you seem to be aware of]" still be useful, if you want to be a benevolent, generous person?
Last edited by djn on Fri Jul 06, 2007 8:32 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.

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Postby Belial » Fri Jul 06, 2007 8:21 pm UTC

iknoritesrsly wrote:a virtue ethicist would say no.


Would he say why?
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Postby ArchangelShrike » Fri Jul 06, 2007 8:24 pm UTC

The beauty, the strength and the downfall of language is it's flexibility. If you'd like to believe that language evolved as a "tool," that earlier species developed grunts and shouts in order to gather food more effectively it's possible. This language/noise making would have to be understood with a limited vocabulary/range, and therefore a innate property of language must be flexibility, to understand when someone says "go" that you must move somewhere. If various parts of language does not have a sense of meaning, for what purpose have we developed it? A wave or nod of head would convey much the same meaning of "hello".

As we have developed language through out the years, it seems that the intellectuals and upper-classes debate and convolute(?) the meaning of language while the workers and lower-classes use language for what it was originally developed for: to survive. Whether moving away from the use of language for basic survival is good or bad I cannot say, but why make life unnecessarily hard with such words?

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Postby iknoritesrsly » Fri Jul 06, 2007 8:52 pm UTC

djn wrote:
iknoritesrsly wrote:a virtue ethicist would say no.

Ok. *attacks wikipedia*

Edit: Let's hope I have a vague idea here.
Wouldn't sentences on the pattern of "you ought to avoid x [because it's more dangerous than you're currently aware of]" and "you ought to x [because it'll benefit you more than you seem to be aware of]" still be useful, if you want to be a benevolent, generous person?


perhaps, but that kind of vocabulary would be completely foreign to a virtue ethicist. Virtue ethics is all about being a good person through being virtuous "all the way down." So a VE wouldn't ever really phrase things like that, instead, they would say, work on instilling prudence within your character and you will naturally avoid those dangerous X things, etc.

I hope that makes sense. :) It's not that a VE doesn't understand the connotation of the moral ought, it's just that one of the fundamental ideas of VE is that talking about morality in those terms isn't the best way to go about things.

In that sense, it goes against the current of the other two well known normative theories, consequentialism and deontology.

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Postby iknoritesrsly » Fri Jul 06, 2007 8:54 pm UTC

Belial wrote:
iknoritesrsly wrote:a virtue ethicist would say no.


Would he say why?


as I mentioned in the post right above this one, I think a standard VE response would be to say that it doesn't make sense to talk about morality or the best way to live in those terms. Instead, we should talk about developing good characters through learning the virtues.

ArchangelShrike wrote:why make life unnecessarily hard with such words?


I'm all for simplicity, but I think that defining terms is important at times. And somethings are hard to say simply.

the pursuit of these semantic games should be, however, wisdom, or truth. :)

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Postby ArchangelShrike » Fri Jul 06, 2007 9:25 pm UTC

Unfortunately, most semantic games I've seen or heard of end with alcohol, and lots of it. :)

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Postby space_raptor » Fri Jul 06, 2007 9:29 pm UTC

All I have to say is, thank God I didn't go into philosophy, because I have no idea what's going on here.

Sorry for not adding to the discussion, which I only *think* is about philosophical terms.
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Postby Brian » Fri Jul 06, 2007 9:59 pm UTC

ArchangelShrike wrote:As we have developed language through out the years, it seems that the intellectuals and upper-classes debate and convolute(?) the meaning of language while the workers and lower-classes use language for what it was originally developed for: to survive. Whether moving away from the use of language for basic survival is good or bad I cannot say, but why make life unnecessarily hard with such words?


I very-much agree with everything said here. The more language is fiddled with by intellectuals, the less (potentially) efficient it becomes.

I'd vote to leave language alone. Let's not make it more complex than it already is, however three and four letter words do tend to become tiresome in long succession.

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Postby ArchangelShrike » Fri Jul 06, 2007 10:04 pm UTC

I come from Hawaii. The reason I bring this up is because it's been called "The Melting Pot of the Pacific," due to the immigrants imported for use in the plantation era. Because of that there are a number of different dialects that eventually condensed into our pidgin, it seems to me that while it would be better to leave language alone as much as possible, we should allow it to evolve naturally and add words of increasing usage when needed, such as "to google" and other various words.

Otherwise, we'd never have memes to enjoy by the scourge of the internet: pre-pubescent teenagers.

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Postby gmalivuk » Sat Jul 07, 2007 1:37 am UTC

ArchangelShrike wrote:As we have developed language through out the years, it seems that the intellectuals and upper-classes debate and convolute(?) the meaning of language while the workers and lower-classes use language for what it was originally developed for: to survive. Whether moving away from the use of language for basic survival is good or bad I cannot say, but why make life unnecessarily hard with such words?

That's right, blue-sky research.


Actually, studies show that most changes to language are more bottom-up than top-down...
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Postby ArchangelShrike » Sat Jul 07, 2007 3:01 am UTC

Ah, okay. It still doesn't explain deontology, etc. It seems as if the more we delve into philosophy the more words we invent for use at one time and then forget about promptly, except to fill textbooks.

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Postby Masily box » Sun Jul 08, 2007 5:06 am UTC

anfurny wrote:Also, I think it's important to question the assumption that all language has some sense of "meaning." Skinner contended that language was a learned set of reactions, which is mostly false, but consider a statement such as "hello." There is no single fact we are consistently trying to convey with hello, no one unifying meaning (sometimes we may say hello to somebody we hate, somebody we like, somebody who we know sees us and knows we see them, etc). If we view the word "hello" as more of a vocal act (like a yawn or laugh) that is neither true nor false, why not view "should" as a vocal act?

Moreover, since we don't view "should" as only any one thing, I think the truth is some confused mixture depending on circumstance and individual.


On the contrary, I think that in general we all agree on a pretty focused meaning implied by the word "should". "You should do this" means, as near as I can tell, "This is the best action you can perform." Where the disagreement/ambiguity arises is in the interpretation of the word "best".

If I may, though, a brief linguistic sidetrack: your argument involving "hello" seems weak to me. For starters, "hello" and "should" are clearly different classes of words, just in terms of their syntactic behavior; "hello" almost always stands on its own, outside of a regular sentence structure, whereas "should" is almost always an integral part of a sentence. The vast majority of words--pretty much everything besides interjections--belongs to the class of "should", so "hello" seems like a bad representative from which to judge all the words of a language. Not to argue that syntax and semantics are entirely the same thing, but here it feels pretty intuitive that "hello" behaves so differently in a syntactic sense because it has such a different kind of meaning from "should" or "man".
(As a normal to my tangent, I'd argue that "hello", too, has a rather well-defined range of meanings. It's a greeting; its basic function is related to my intrusion into another person's consciousness... either trying to cause that intrusion, or acknowledging it. I guess you're right here that our definition of "meaning" (hah) is important, but I say "hello" can mean "I want you to notice me" or "I acknolwedge that you notice me".)



Back to the OP:
I don't like to lock myself into a rigid framework for the meanings of words, 'cause language just doesn't work that way, but I do think that "should" = "best action" is reasonably close to the basic meaning of the word.

Of course, the problem is that we don't agree on what "best" means. Some (very pragmatic) people take it to mean "having the most beneficial results for me", whereas others might say "having the most beneficial results for society as a whole". [[nice, that lines up in the reply box...]] Others will attribute it to God's will, or whatever else, but in actuality I think that most people (nonrationally and perhaps subconsciously) associate every action with an "inherent" value. Some of that value is probably biologically programmed, most of the rest coming from years of experience and conditioning. Whatever; the point is that we disagree on what is "best", and that's an issue that extends beyond ethics.

The other statements you made... I'm not quite sure what you were getting at. Of course I care that you listen to what I say, else why speak? Of course I have some underlying set of values-- my personal definition of "best" must come from somewhere. Of course I think that those values should be held by you, too: that's why I'm saying "should" to you in the first place. Nor am I a pessimist; I have to assume that we have enough in common (including language) that my statement might be effective.

So, I agree with you that the first part of your translation, "based on [ ]" is implied just by the fact that one's making such an utterance. But (like I commented above), I don't think that the second part is necessarily true: evaluating the consequences of X-ing and not X-ing is far more rational than I think the average value judgment is.




On the topic of philosophy and language: there are two points to be made. The endless debate about the definitions of common words is sensible, since we want to be able to understand one another. The problem is that most of these discussions turn into "My meaning for Y is more correct than yours!" rather than "Here's what I mean by Y, what do you mean by it?"
As for philosophy coining (and misplacing) lots of technical words, the motivation is the same as in any field: greater precision. If we can't agree on the precise meanings of basic words, let's come up with new ones that we can all agree to use in a specific way. (eg, in music, does "the note C" mean all C's, maybe even C#'s, or just "middle C", or this or that C?, etc. so we come up with the term "pitch class 0", which unambiguously means "all notes named C-natural", since it's never been used to mean anything else.) But if we can't agree on basic words, what're the chances we'll use one another's made-up ones? Um... I lost the point I was trying to make. But the drive to mess with words in philosophy isn't wholly misguided.

Er, yeah..

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Postby zenten » Sun Jul 08, 2007 5:17 am UTC

In regards to the original post, I have to agree that the interpretation of that statement in the implied context is correct from what I can tell in the majority of people I've met.

That being said, normative statements can be used in other ways, such as instructions, where you're not expecting the other person to agree, just to comply.

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Re: The meaning of normative statements

Postby yy2bggggs » Sun Jul 08, 2007 7:52 am UTC

Normative statements can be used for value systems other than morality. There are questions such as, should I always avoid macros when programming? (Goal being how to produce highest quality code). How should I write the number 0? (Goal being penmanship). A number of goal systems can give rise to normative statements, but generally speaking, they do somewhat derive from values, but I'm not entirely sure "values" is the best way to describe it (general goals may be better in some cases, such as the examples I illustrate--they may suggest particular values, but they would seem to be at the root of what is meant by normative statements).

As for morality itself, I don't quite understand what it is exactly. Every proposed theory I've come across is incomplete; even the suggestion that morality is only illusory seems wrong. Yet, although I'm not sure what morality is, I know a tremendous number of things that it is not. I highly doubt the answer is easy.


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