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October 15, 2009


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Stand up and shout it!



Sorry! Those quotation marks were meant to be scare quotes, not quoting quotes.

The first was just a poor attempt at shorthand on my part; I didn't mean anything by "subjective normative truth" other than the truth about (as you put it) subjective rightness. I realize that it probably read as though I was suggesting you meant something else.

As to the other point: Perhaps I'm biased by my (perhaps poor memory of my) readings of Sepielli and Ross, but their PS theories look very much like decision procedures to me; they tell me how, given uncertainty, to properly weigh my normative beliefs, levels of certainty, etc. to come to the subjectively best action. So I guess I was assuming that, whatever else they are, PS theories minimally offer decision procedures.

I'm finding that it's hard to discuss this further on such an abstract level, a problem I often run into when reading about "meta-ethical" issues. In particular, I'm curious about the following:

1) What is an example of a normative fact? What characterizes such facts?

2) What counts as evidence for or against a normative fact?

3) Are normative facts, facts about our objective obligations? Or about our subjective obligations? Or either?

Without clear answers to these questions, I'm unclear about the original definitions of various types of theories, and fear that I have simply been assuming that there are clear referents to these terms, and that I (& other discussants) have been using such concepts, and others defined via them, consistently; but right now I am not at all sure that this is true.

I've thought a little further about why I'm seeking a clearer definition of "normative fact." The problem is that I believe that subjective moral facts are fundamental, and other kinds of moral facts are derivative from these.

Now, Doug announced in his initial post that he simply believes that there are objective moral duties describable by PO, so he believes there are objective moral facts. I do too, in a sense, but would say that objective moral facts simply describe what our subjective duties would be in the counter-factual situation where we knew all the relevant normative and non-normative facts.

But then, why can't an H-theory supporter just postulate the existence of hybrid moral duties? A hybrid moral duty is the one you would have subjectively if you had access to the full normative evidence, but not the full non-normative evidence. H1 could then be a true theory about such facts, and in turn very interesting. Now one could reject the idea that such facts exist; but this would require an argument. If the argument is that only subjective duty satisfies the condition that the right-making features of our actions are accessible to us in a way that can guide our actions, giving us an opportunity to respond to them, then PO theories face the same problem and should be rejected likewise. So in this sense--which I admit I didn't state clearly earlier, so this discussion has been helpful--PS and H1 theories can both be true, with different senses of "permissible" etc. in each. I am tempted to believe that only subjective permissibility is ultimate or "real permissibility", but then that would lead me to treat both PO and H1 theories as kinds of idealizations, and disagree with Doug that H1 theories suffer from some defect that PO theories escape.

Here's a related problem: it is indeed common to distinguish between objective and subjective obligation, facts, etc., and such appeals have been made throughout this discussion. But Doug's initial message distinguished the theories on how they defined "permissibility." He didn't say "subjective permissibility" or "objective permissibility." If he means either, then this is muddled; for surely PO theories do not say that what is subjectively permissible depends upon objective facts, nor do PS theories say that what is objectively permissible depends upon subjective facts. Nor can he mean just one or the other throughout the post. Perhaps he means objectively permissible when talking about PO theories, and subjectively permissible when talking about PS theories. But if such equivocation is acceptable, then again I see no reason why we can't find it useful to introduce a third concept and talk about hybrid-permissibility for H theories.

Looking over the discussion quickly, I agree with pretty much everything Doug has said. One quick thing:

David Faraci asked whether the theory that (as I would put it) it's most rational, under normative uncertainty, to do the action with the highest expected value is a decision procedure. That's not how I intend it. Rather, I think we need to act on rough-and-ready heuristics in many cases, and perhaps not only because it's difficult to calculate on the fly; it may also be that one or more of the normative theories in which an agent has credence say that calculating expected value prior to action is *bad* in some way; or it may be be that it's "rationally bad" independently of what one's subjectively probable theories say (in the same way that, acc. to people who favor risk aversion over exp. val. maximization, risk is an irrational-making feature of A's actions independently of A's views about risk.)

Anyway -- several not-implausible grounds for not using expected value maximization as a decision procedure. But now we're left with the question, "Which heuristics should we use to guide our behavior?" Some heuristics are such that, when we follow them, our actions will more closely approximate those favored by expected value maximization. Other heuristics are such that, when we follow them, our actions will more closely approximate those favored by the theory in which one has the highest credence. An example may help: In a recent paper in Phil Studies, Alex Guerrero argues that when you're not sure of a being's moral status, you shouldn't kill it. This seems like a good heuristic if expected value maximization is the right norm of rational action under normative uncertainty. But if the right norm is, instead, that it's most rational to act in accordance with the theory in which one has the highest credence, then a more reasonable heuristic will be, "If you think a being probably doesn't have much more status, go ahead and kill it."

Anyway, I hope that makes some sense. Also, I should say that I'm defending my dissertation in early December, and it's all about action under normative uncertainty. If anyone's interested in flipping through it, just e-mail me:; it should be in send-out-able condition in a couple of weeks.

"What possible reason could there be for preferring H1 theories to H2 theories?"

1) You ought to prefer H2 theories
2) It is impermissible for you not to prefer H2 theories.
but according to H2:
3) The permissibility of your not preferring H2 theories is affected by your normative beliefs.
So if
4) Your normative beliefs happen to be the wrong way
5) It is permissible for you not to prefer H2 theories!

Conclusion: Aarguments for H2 theories are self-defeating.

Hi Simon,

First, I'm not totally sure what it is to prefer a theory, or whether the 'ought' in premise 1 is epistemic, or pragmatic, or something else. So I may be misconstruing what's going on here. But I think I want deny premise 1. H1 theories are, roughly, theories of what one should do in the non-normative belief-relative sense of "should". H2 theories are, roughly, theories of what one should do in the normative belief-relative sense of "should". They're theories of different things. Now, it might make sense to prefer a theory of X that is good *as a theory of X* over a theory of Y that is good *as a theory of Y*. Even that I think is contestable. But I can't see what sense it makes to prefer theories of X as a class to theories of Y as a class. Imagine preferring theories of what killed the dinosaurs, as such, to theories of material constitution, as such.

Second, and along the same lines, the argument is valid only if the notion of permissibility is univocal throughout. I suspect that it's not. The permissibility in premise 2, insofar as I understand it, seems to be a kind of objective permissibility, while the permissibility in premises 3, 4, and 5 is permissibility of precisely the sort that H2 theories are about -- what we might call "normative belief-relative permissibility".


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