Welcome to our 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 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.


24 Replies to “Matti Eklund: Choosing Normative Concepts. Review by Sarah Zoe Raskoff

  1. Many thanks to Sarah Raskoff for her gracious review. And for doing the review in the first place – writing book reviews can be a thankless task.

    Sarah raises fair points and below I will respond to some of the points she makes. But first let me summarize some main themes of the book, in part with an eye to displaying the intended broader significance.

    The concepts, normative and otherwise, that we use are only some of the possible concepts there are. The properties and relations that we talk about are only some of the possible concepts there are. Even if we figure out the truth about these concepts, properties and relations there may be much else in reality to explore. And there may be concepts, properties and relations more worthy of our attention, and better suited to various tasks, theoretical and otherwise. (I take all this to be part of what has come to be known as conceptual engineering.)

    In the case of the normative, one can ask: are there alternative normative concepts, better for guiding action than the ones we actually employ? This theme can then be developed in different ways. Some might try to discuss the object-level question of which concepts are better for the purpose, our actual concepts or some alternatives. Some might embark on an empirical investigation, looking into actual variability in normative concepts employed. In the book, I discuss the more abstract question: what might “better” come to here? This is itself normative. But that means that it can be that while our concepts are “better” in our sense, some other concepts are “better” in some alternative sense.

    The question of which normative concepts are the best – called the Further Question in the book – seems reasonable. But it also seems to be difficult or impossible to express, due to the fact that when we try to state it we use some normative concepts or other, either our concepts or some alternative concepts.

    In the book, I use this to raise a challenge for what I call ardent realism, the view, impressionistically put, that reality itself favors certain ways of thinking and acting. Here was my thought. Let realism in the broad sense be the view that (actual) normative discourse is truth-apt, and that some atomic normative statements we make are objectively true. Realism in the broad sense is compatible with there being truths about what is right but also about what is right*, right**, where these are alternative concepts. But if there are all of these different truths couched in normative concepts, then unless some of these normative concepts (or what they ascribe) are in some suitable sense better than others, then reality itself still does not favor particular ways of acting even if realism in the broad sense is true.

    One difficulty for Sarah in her review is that I don’t really defend any categorical theses in the book. She first devotes some time to criticizing what I say about what I see as the relatively speaking most promising way out for the ardent realist. Having done this she goes on to discuss what I called presentationalism, an alternative to ardent realism.

    Maybe it would have been wiser of me to pitch the central argument of the book as an argument against ardent realism. If I had written the book that way it had been an easier read. And it would have been easier for commentators like Sarah to do their commentaries if they had a clear and unequivocal target. Probably it would also have been better from a strategic point of view: better to be the philosopher defending a particular categorical thesis than to be someone who just defends conditional claims, and then too often in a hedged manner.

    So why then did I not take that easy route? One reason is that although I am somewhat skeptical of ardent realism, I am genuinely agnostic about many of these matters. More importantly, though, I was more concerned with highlighting the issues that arise once we take the possibility of alternative concepts into regard, and thought, rightly or wrongly, that if I stuck my neck out and rejected the realism at issue, that would distract from the, well, overall theoretical territory I wanted to call attention to.

    My main positive suggestion on the ardent realist’s behalf was that she might say that normative role determines reference. The reason this maybe seemingly strange move comes up (why bring metasemantics into it?) is that it promises to get around the challenge presented for ardent realism. If there are can no concept having the same normative role as our concept right but not coextensive with it, then maybe the challenge is avoided. There are no alternative concepts in the relevant sense; or that would be the idea.

    Sarah says that I have “startlingly little” to say about how normative role is supposed to determine reference. I agree that I have very little to say about this. While it would have been nice to say more, I thought could get away with only saying little, since I could anyway reasonably discuss whether this move would suffice. What I say more about is whether in the end it helps the ardent realist to hold that normative role determines reference. I make some skeptical remarks. Here is one. What about a community using alternative normative concepts associated with different normative roles from our normative concepts? The possibility of such a community can raise a problem much like the original one. (A more complex issue is: might there not also be alternative reference concepts? So shouldn’t we ask: in what sense of “reference” is normative role supposed to determine “reference”?)

    Given the dialectic, I thought it could be ok for an ardent realist to say nothing more than “normative role determines reference so all concepts associated with the rightness role ascribe the same property, for there is a property which is special in such a way that it fits, in a way no other property does, the normative role in question”. This would be lacking in detail, to be sure, but enough would still be said that this is a reasonable hypothesis. (In an ordinary descriptive case, a description can be associated with an expression, and the semantic value of the expression is what fits the description: e.g. what is in a predicate’s extension is exactly what satisfies the description. The thought is that the normative role would determine reference in an analogous way.)

    I did use Wedgwood’s view, primarily as presented in his 2001 Philosophical Review paper, as an illustrative example. I think I can defend the use I made of Wedgwood’s view, but rather than pause on this, let me turn to the lessons Sarah draws from the supposed inadequacy of the view for the ardent realist’s purposes.

    The general lesson Sarah draws is that “a satisfying explanation of how normative role might determine reference cannot itself appeal to some further normativity”. Having drawn this lesson, Sarah states a dilemma: either the ardent realist says that “it can only ever be true that one ought to do something if one is in fact motivated to do so”, or the ardent realist says that some facts or properties themselves are intrinsically motivating or action-guiding. In the first case, the ardent realist is committed to a kind of Humeanism which, Sarah says, the ardent realist wants to avoid. In the second case, the ardent realist runs headfirst into Mackie’s queerness argument. Let me here just focus on the supposed general lesson, and on the second horn of the dilemma.

    About the general lesson. In the book I am concerned with making sense of what ardent realism demands of the world. Is the view even coherent? It would be fine in the context, although perhaps somewhat unsatisfactory, for the ardent realist to just say that she has no informative explanation of how normative role could determine reference – for the intelligibility of her view it can suffice (setting aside the concerns of mine that I briefly mentioned above) that it can determine reference.

    About the second horn. Since I am only concerned with the coherence or intelligibility if the ardent realism, it would be fine, for my purposes, if the ardent realist was committed to the world being, in some broadly Mackiean way, queer. And if I were an ardent realist maybe I would proudly say: so reality is queer – just accept that it is! However, I also have a deeper point to make. Appeal to the kind of queerness that is at issue at this point in Sarah’s discussion wouldn’t cut it for the ardent realist. So what if some facts or properties are intrinsically motivating? Even if they were, what would that show about normativity? One can be motivated by all sorts of things that one ought not to be motivated by.

  2. A central question in this fascinating book is whether, in the end, there’s anything that could even in principle satisfy the ‘ardent realist’s’ demands for an objective and non-deflationary normativity in the ethical domain. Perhaps what we think we want is not only metaphysically or epistemically extravagant or suspect, but actually incoherent, such that nothing could possibly fit the bill. And if not, then there’s a challenge to say more clearly what it is we think we need in the way of real normative properties and facts, and how exactly this delivers what matters to us in the end. This is especially pressing in light of the contingencies there may be in the normative language and concepts people might employ—-hence the book’s title.

    In particular, we need to address the worry that while there may indeed be ways it’s right to live, for example, there may also be ways it’s right* to live, ways it’s right** to live, and so on, where these variant terms or concepts just ascribe different properties to actions, and do so in a way that bottoms out in ultimate parity, with nothing to decide between them—except, of course, trivially for each in its own terms. If that’s how things are, then not even positing a robust, non-natural, objective property of rightness will give us what we were after as ardent realists. Nor will it help to go on to connect rightness to reasons, at least not if rightness* can similarly be connected to reasons*, with parity emerging again. It might then seem impossible even to state what we really wanted in the way of objective normativity, and what we think is missing from rival views, without just sounding mysterian or starting to bang the table.

    In my commentary at the author-meets-critics session with Matti at the Pacific APA last spring, I focused on this central driving issue in the book and tried to show why the ardent realist is not in fact impossible to satisfy: there is indeed a coherent position put forward by the ardent realist, and we can say fairly straightforwardly what it would take for that position to be true and for the ardent realist to be satisfied. What is primarily required is to avoid inapt models for thinking about moral evaluation, evaluative properties, and the way reference works for moral terms. It’s those problematic models that get some realists into the sorts of trouble Matti identifies, and better models avoid these problems. Here is a link to that commentary, providing at least one ardent realist’s response to the main concern of the book (starting at section 1, since the intro duplicates the above comment): http://www.sas.rochester.edu/phl/fitzpatrick/PeaSoup.pdf

  3. Thanks to Sarah and Matti for the exchange, and to Peasoup for hosting it.

    Hi, Matti. Would you mind saying a bit more about what is “desperate” about the alternative-friendly ardent realist claiming, in response to your dilemma, that the answer to the further question is ineffable? I find myself tempted by this option but it doesn’t strike me as so bad as it seems to strike you!

  4. Thanks, Bill.

    There are many things to pick up on in your commentary. I try to address the most important ones in my replies for the Pacific APA session, available here (unless I messed things up):


    (The replies are written in a kind of philosophical shorthand but I hope they are anyway comprehensible, at least for anyone who has read Bill’s remarks. The part that responds to Bill is on pp. 3-4.)

    Let me in this comment just address a couple of things.

    First, one aspect of your comments that makes me especially happy, because of being in accord with things I think, is that you embrace the idea that you, as an ardent realist, should take a stand on metasemantics and say that normative role can determine reference. Others responding to the book – including Tristram McPherson and Stephanie Leary, the other Pacific APA critics – argue that metasemantics isn’t very relevant after all.

    But second, there is one thing about the comments that is potentially really troubling for me, even if you don’t present it that way. As I say also in my remarks on Sarah’s review, what I see as the book’s main accomplishment are the novel questions raised. I also say some things and make some arguments regarding the possible answers to those questions. But I am much more invested in the novelty of the questions raised. Now enter your comments. Simplifying a bit, you present a package of realist ideas you defend already independently, and say that this package of suffices as a response to the issues I bring up. That is potentially really worrisome for me! For then maybe the questions don’t really bring up a lot that’s new and interesting. It’s just old wine in new bottles.

    In my replies – again, see link above – I try to address this, saying where what you say on the realist’s behalf doesn’t suffice to respond to the cluster of problems I bring up . To emphasize a theme that I mentioned already in connection with Sarah’s review: I think that even if normative role determines reference for some normative concepts, there’s a live worry that problems in the general ballpark very much remain. What if many slightly different normative roles determine (different) extensions for normative concepts? Or what if normative role determines reference, but does so in such a way that reference is determined by, intuitively, normatively irrelevant factors?

  5. Thanks, Nick. I have two things to say.

    First, I too feel tempted by the ineffability response! There is something intuitively very attractive about it. But it does feel philosophically naughty.

    Second, I do say a bit more than that this response is desperate, although it is true that I set it aside pretty quickly. The relevant discussion is in section 2.2 of the book, p. 25f. Suppose you hold that the Further Question discussed cannot be expressed in language – that is the ineffability response. Then consider: can one think and understand the Further Question anyway? If you say no, then what you propose is something that by your own lights you cannot think or understand. If you say yes, then for one thing you are postulating that thought works importantly differently from language, and for another, I am going to wonder why the argument that the question cannot be expressed in language doesn’t also show that the question cannot be entertained in thought. I take all this to just mirror issues about ineffability/inexpressibility that have been more extensively discussed in connection with other philosophical questions, such as the concept horse problem, which famously arises for Frege.

  6. I learned a lot from the book, Matti, and I’ve enjoyed this exchange so far w/ Sarah and others. I just wanted to get clear on a couple of things:

    1) What do you mean, exactly, by “determines reference”? On one reading, this means something like “plays a role in a meta-semantic explanation of reference”. On another reading, a normative role might determine reference not so much by helping to explain it, and certainly not meta-semantically, but just by making the concept the concept it is. And then any explanation of reference (or more to the pont, I think, conditions of correct application) would be first-order normative-ethical. This is what most quietists would want to say, I think. At some points in your book, it seems like you intend the first reading. But even if normative role determines reference in (just) the second sense, this would suffice for there being, as you put it above, “no concept having the same normative role as our concept right but not coextensive with it”. But is this second kind of reference determination something that the *ardent* realist can countenance?

    2) And then, re: the “further question” — I forget whether you address this in the book, so forgive me, but what if it’s just the question, from the agential point of view, of what to do? Not of what I should do, but just of what to do. We can *report* the relevant attitude, it seems to me, just by saying “I’m wondering what to do…”. As for expressing it — some people mutter “What to do? What to do?”. And many more face practical conundrums and say, “Hmmm…”. Anyway, curious to hear what you think.

  7. Thanks Matti, Sarah, and Peasoup!

    Matti: If it turns out that that ardent realism is not viable, then what consequences (if any) do you think that has for the viability of metaphysical realism about non-normative questions?

    It depends on what metaphysical realism is, of course. I take it that if ardent realism is the view that reality itself *favors* certain kinds of actions, then metaphysical realism is the view that reality itself just *is* in a certain way (where “itself” means, roughly, “independently of us, etc.”.).

    Now, if the metaphysical realist’s view is cashed out in explicitly normative terms—i.e., that what it means that reality itself is in a certain way is that it is *better* to theorize in some corresponding way, say—then it’s reasonably clear why the problems for ardent realism are also at least potential problems for metaphysical realism. But I think the normative formulations of metaphysical realism seem a bit weird anyway. If anything, the facts about how it’s best to theorize seem to me to be *consequences* of the fact that reality itself is in a certain way, rather than to constitute *what it is* for reality to be in a certain way. So do you think there might be room for formulations of metaphysical realism on which it does not require ardently normative claims about how it’s best to theorize, etc?

    (Sorry if you adress this in the book–it’s been a while since I read it.)

  8. Hi Andrew,

    Great questions.

    Re 1:

    Briefly: for all that I see, determination in the second sense you distinguish may well be fine for the ardent realist’s purposes.

    To elaborate…

    Let me begin by drawing a different distinction, one I think I maybe didn’t emphasize enough in the book. (a) Here’s a thin reading of “normative role determines reference”: any two concepts with the same normative role have the same extension (and intension, for that matter). (b) Here’s a thicker reading: what’s said under the thin reading holds and, moreover, that this holds ibecause of the normative role itself and not any other factors. (To see the difference, suppose that a capricious god for its amusement decides, arbitrarily, to make the semantic facts let all concepts with a certain normative role have a particular intension. Then normative role determines reference in the thin sense but not in the thick sense.)

    Now, the way the whole issue of normative role determining reference comes up in the book is that if it does, then the ardent realist can avoid the dilemma I present. For this purpose, reference-determination in the thin sense suffice. The threat that then remains is that if normative role determines determines reference but for, so to speak, the wrong sort of reason (think capricious God again!) then the ardent realist is again in trouble. But if I understand correctly, the “first-order normative-ethical” considerations you mention needn’t by any means amount to the wrong sort of reason.

    Re 2:

    I suspect that many different ideas can underlie what you ask here. Let me for now give a straight reply to one thing I see suggested. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you find this reply somehow beside the point. If so, try to ask the question again. Anyway, here goes:

    Even if “what to do” is a peculiar sort of locution, it is still part of our normative conceptual repertoire. And if a broadly cognitivist semantics for “what to do” is correct (which I think I can suppose in the context – we are after all concerned with what the ardent realist might say), then sentences of the form “what to do is to phi” or “the thing for X to do phi” are apt to have truth-values. But then the original questions can be asked also regarding “what to do”. Might other communities have their own expressions “what to do”, but such that sentences containing them have different truth-values from our expressions involving the same expression?

    If the thought is that “what to do” is, say, subjectivist or expressivist in a way that sets it apart from other parts of our normative conceptual repertoire, then my immediate question is how appeal to “what to do” can help the ardent realist.

  9. Hi Olle!

    Very interesting questions. I don’t think I address them in the book. (It has also been a while since *I* read the book…)

    These are very big issues, and to some extent I have to punt. But here are some thoughts.

    Questions about whether realism needs to be cashed out partly in normative terms can threaten to be merely terminological: there are many ways to use the label “realism”. But for what it is worth, I don’t really see why realism can’t be understood in entirely non-normative terms. (Despite what is said in, e.g., Shamik Dasgupta’s excellent recent paper “Realism and the Absence of Value”, Philosophical Review 2018.) Making good on this would require a lengthy excursion into proper characterizations of metaphysical realism. But when you mention the suggestion that “what it means that reality itself is in a certain way is that it is better to theorize in some corresponding way”, my reaction is: why on earth should we take it mean that?

    Now, even if indeed metaphysical realism shouldn’t be understood in normative terms, one may still reasonably wonder whether the problem I seek to raise for ardent normative realism mightn’t in some way generalize to metaphysical realism. In very abstract terms, the issue I raise regarding ardent normative realism is that different communities may systematically use different concepts, something seems (at least for the ardent realist) to be at issue between the communities, but if we try to state what is at issue between the communities we fail – for we will use some, so to speak, partisan concepts or other. But this template is very general. It might, in principle, be applied beyond the normative. Maybe problems arise when the concepts are basic metaphysical concepts just as much as when the concepts are basic normative concepts. These questions strike me as extremely interesting. But I have not been able to make much progress on them. Toward the end of my “Variance Theses in Ontology and Metaethics” (forthcoming in Burgess, Cappelen and Plunkett (eds.), Conceptual Engineering and Conceptual Ethics; a draft is available from my personal web site, https://sites.google.com/view/jmeklund) I make some remarks, but they are very sketchy. And the case I there describe may be intertwined with normative issues after all.

  10. In response to Nick, I was going to say what Matti just so elegantly said above. Importantly, it’s even more desperate to force a distinction between thought and language so as to maintain the claim that these questions are ineffable. It seems to me that it also just leads to iterated versions of the problem under plausible conditions.

    The ineffability response is unsatisfying, whether in theories of truth, theories of reality, or theories of value. That’s not to say that it’s not what we’re stuck with, just that it’s a significant cost to have to accept something like ineffability; plausibly so significant that general considerations of theoretical goodness favor non-ardently realistic accounts.


  11. Matti:

    Re: 1 — Thanks, that answers it.
    Re: 2 — I was thinking something like this: The question of what I should do or have reason to do is a theoretical question — albeit, a theoretical *ethical* question. The question of what to do is a distinctly practical question — the kind of question we’re trying to answer in distinctly practical reasoning. FWIW, my thinking about this is influenced by conversations with my colleague Phil Clark and my former graduate student Benjamin Wald, although it’s the kind of distinction that others want to lean on as well. Realists and expressivists should be understood as disagreeing about the truth-aptness or at least the metasemantics of answers to the former sort of question, but it’s consistent with realism to say that answers to the distinctly practical question don’t purport to describe reality or aren’t apt for truth. The realist would want to say that some answers to this sort of question are, nonetheless, correct.

  12. Andrew –

    Many thanks for the clarification. I think the points from my first reply to you stand, even if the practical/normative distinction is emphasized.

    Just to pick up on the last thing you say, “The realist would want to say that some answers to this sort of question are…correct”, even if they are not apt for truth.

    I can see two possibilities regarding how “correct” is being used here.

    One possibility is that “correct” is unequivocally a normative notion. In that case, I am just going to wheel in my argument regarding normative concepts again – might there not be different, non-coextensive notions of “correctness” employed by different communities…?

    Another possibility is that “correct” is a semantic notion, a kind of more general version of the notion of truth. There are different views on the normativity of semantic notions, but if semantic notions aren’t normative the argument just given doesn’t straightforwardly apply. But there is a different problem, and I can still run a version of my argument. Even if “what to do”-sentences don’t strictly have truth conditions, they have correctness conditions. And I can ask: might there be different “what to do”-notions used by different communities, such that the “what to do”-sentences used by these different communities have different correctness conditions? This will be a version of the original question regarding truth conditions.

    You may think that “what to do” has such a direct connection to action that it simply is rather implausible that there can be different “what to do”-notions, making different contributions to correctness conditions. Maybe so. But my reaction is: this view is just an instance of the general view that normative role determines reference. What’s specific about it is the normative role (or maybe better (?): practical role) of “what to do” that is at issue and it isn’t strictly reference or extension we are talking about but contributions to correctness conditions. But it is still a specific instance of the general strategy I discuss.

  13. Super interesting discussion here so far!

    Matti, I have a quick question about what you say about the possibility of intrinsically motivating (“queer”) properties determining reference. If even that won’t cut it for the ardent realist, then what will? What would the ardent realist’s account of reference determination have to look like if it is to avoid this same problem?

  14. Hi Sarah,

    Before turning to your actual question, some seemingly relevant background (perhaps unnecessary, but in case it is useful, either to you or someone else reading this):

    I think that for reasons completely independent of any of the main themes in my book, motivation and normativity must be kept apart. (In the same way that, say, even if God wills certain things that is not, without further ado, enough for there to be normativity in the world. Just because God wills that p doesn’t immediately mean that it ought to be the case that p.)

    The standard normative realist response to points like this, perfectly fine for anything I wish to say, is to say that goodness/rightness/oughtiness is its own thing, not reducible to anything else.

    Now, here is where the questions from my book come in. And let me again just briefly summarize the point. Even if there is goodness/rightness/oughtiness as the realist postulates, what if other communities use different normative concepts and there are other properties (perhaps equally irreducible properties) corresponding to their concepts, and using their normative concepts would guide one differently than using our actual normative concepts does? Then it seems there is a question of which concepts to use, but how can that question be formulated?

    The stuff about reference determination comes in here. If normative role determines reference, then maybe these problematic issues don’t arise – for maybe there aren’t alternative normative concepts in the relevant sense.

    Now, finally, your question, about how the reference-determination works. I don’t have very much to say here, as I said already in my replies to you above. But let me make two points.

    (i) The ardent realist could say that it is in general very hard to say how primitive concepts come to have the semantic values they do. With some concepts whose use is causally related to what the concepts are about we have the beginnings of plausible stories, but not all concepts are like that (think e.g. mathematics and logic) and in those other cases we generally have little to say. It is perhaps only to be expected that normative concepts fall in the latter category. Of course, without saying more about how normative role supposedly determines reference she may not be in a position to make it plausible that it does. But my challenge for ardent realism doesn’t concern its plausibility but how it could even conceivably be true.

    (ii) In the book, I mention Ralph Wedgwood’s account of reference-determination when illustrating now normative role could determine reference. I didn’t mean for anything to hinge crucially upon the acceptability of what Wedgwood says, but thought it could help to relate to it, as it is one of the more worked out accounts of reference-determination for normative concepts in the literature. In your review, you rightly point out that Wedgwood centrally employs normative expressions in the metalanguage. This opens the door to a kind of skepticism: what about those normative expressions? But even if that skeptic’s concerns are unanswered, an ardent realist could adopt Wedgwood’s theory and to her own satisfaction tell an internally coherent and perhaps plausible story about reference-determination.

  15. This discussion has been very helpful and interesting.

    One thing I’d like to hear more about–and my apologies if it’s covered in the book, Matti)–is whether some of the moves made in response to genealogical challenges can carry over to the challenge presented here. Here’s the rough thought. The animating thought in the book is that there’s many possible normative concepts, and it’s unclear why we should think that the ones we happen to have are best (by ardent realist lights). In some discussions of genealogical challenges (esp. in some passages from Street), the animating thought is that there are many historically popular sets of normative beliefs, and it’s unclear why should think that the ones we happen to have due to when and where we are born are the true ones (by realist lights).

    The challenges here are clearly different; I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. I’m just wondering if some of the moves made in one context can help in the other. For instance, some (like Vavova) argue that there are constraints on what can count as sets of *moral* beliefs, and this undermines the force of evolutionary debunking challenges to moral realism. Can similar moves be wielded in to help the ardent realist about normativity? This is a fairly broad and somewhat inchoate question; feel free to just direct me to passages of the book that go over this.

  16. Hi Daniel,

    Many thanks for the question. (As well as for organizing this forum in the first place – this has been very interesting and useful for me!)

    I haven’t thought of the challenges as relevantly analogous, and so haven’t thought of either challenge in the light of the other. I see the challenges as very different. The chief difference is this: I don’t think of the challenge I focus on in the book as an epistemological challenge at all. When you say “The animating thought in the book is that there’s many possible normative concepts, and it’s unclear why we should think that the ones we happen to have are best (by ardent realist lights)”, I want to protest. That is not the animating thought: the animating thought rather concerns what “best” could even possibly mean here. It is not that we have a question whose answer we do not cannot know. Rather, it is unclear what the question might even be.

    Even if there is this difference between the challenges, that doesn’t mean that moves in the one context could be useful also in the other context. But at least until I hear more about a move that appeals to constraints on what can count as moral beliefs, I am skeptical of the usefulness of such a move in the context of the challenge I focus on. First a preliminary point: I focus on the “normative” more broadly, so in the context of my discussion the relevant move would appeal to constraints on what can count as normative beliefs. Then, more substantially: (i) There is the perhaps obvious but still, to my mind, attractive reply: even if some other community’s beliefs aren’t strictly normative, they can still serve to guide action, and the actions those people are led to can be different, and so there’s a question of what kinds of beliefs to have – only now it is the question of whether to have normative or schmormative beliefs. (ii) Moreover, why wouldn’t the other community’s beliefs be normative? Their concepts have the same normative roles as ours (that’s part of the set-up) and so play the same role for them as ours do for us.

  17. Interesting, Matti (re: the last reply). I wonder about a constraint-based move I’ve recently become very attracted to. What do you think of the idea that some concepts, including some basic normative concepts, are so deeply entwined with our very modes of inquiry that worries about whether they might be different can’t be justified on their grounds. That isn’t to say that we can’t make out the possibility of differences from ”within”, so to speak, just that once we recognize that this making out is so dependent on our actual normative concepts that it doesn’t give us any (or, maybe, sufficient) reason to throw them into doubt; in other words, it undermines the force of the question.

    There are some serious limitations on this Wright result, of course, and there’s a danger of mysticism lurking in the way I just expressed it. But if we can make out this kind of argument, while preserving a commitment to ardent realism (which I worry about), it seems to me a way of allowing both Alternative-friendly ardently realist views while skirting the dilemma.

    Maybe you think this is just another way of grasping the triviality horn, but I guess I’d say that even if the answer to which normative system is right gets trivialized, the fact that it’s trivialized isn’t at all trivial. 😀

  18. Hi Jack,

    Thanks – super-interesting.

    But what you present in the first, main paragraph is very compressed. Somehow worries about whether our normative concepts “might be different” are such that they “can’t be justified”. I am tempted just to ask you for some clarification regarding what this means. But let me instead describe two thoughts nearby and say what I think of them. Then you can maybe say whether one of these thoughts was yours, or if you had something different in mind and I am completely off.

    One idea nearby is that we can’t reasonably worry about alternative normative concepts because we cannot make sense of what the alternative concepts might be. There’s a lot to say about this but the thumbnail sketch of my main reaction is: even assuming we cannot make sense to ourselves in any detail what such alternative concepts might be like, we can make sense of the generally described possibility that there are such alternative concepts, and the latter is all I need.

    A second idea nearby is that even if we can make adequate sense of other normative concepts one can respond to the challenge I present by saying that worries about whether our concepts *are privileged* cannot be justified, perhaps for reasons like those you gesture toward. If that’s the thought, then (as with Daniel’s question above) I want to distinguish epistemological challenges to realism from the making-sense-of challenge to ardent realism that I defend. It sounds as if what is addressed is an epistemological how-do-we-know challenge; I am raising the question of what relevant sense can be made of what I here allude to by speaking of what is privileged.

  19. Hi Matti, thanks! It’s something like the second thought I had in mind (though the first isn’t totally off base). Let me try to say it a bit more clearly, though I’m not sure how well I’ll succeed.

    What I had in mind is that there seems to me an ”internal” and an ”external” sense of making sense of the possibility of alternative normative concepts. Maybe it’s helpful to think of the internal sense as explicitly evaluating other normative standpoints from within our own normative standpoint, whereas the external sense is something like trying to evaluate other normative standpoints from ”without”, whatever this would mean.

    In the internal sense, it seems to me that you’re totally right that we can make some sense of the possibility of alternative normative concepts—our actual normative standpoint is going to have lots to say about them! In the external sense, I guess I think we can’t, for reasons much like those you give. So if the ardent realist needs to make sense of the external sense of the question in your dilemma, I guess they’re sunk. But I’m not so sure they have to.

    The reason why I’m worried is that we can make internal sense of the question of why our normative standpoint is privileged and this question has a bit of bite. It’s not trivial, in particular, since it’s not always true that from within a normative standpoint, we can answer such questions—we may have no explanation, etc. And it’s also possible that we can justify, using bits of our normative standpoint that are agreed on by all sides, that a slight modification of other bits of our normative standpoint ought to be revised so as to correspond with reality. But if we really can give an explanation, using our actual normative notions, of why these normative notions are best for guiding action, then that’s no tiny result.

    Of course, such explanations will depend on our actual normative standpoint since we’re using normative notions in that explanation; I fully grant that point. But that doesn’t worry me so much since it’s not trivial even if we use our own normative notions in doing it. (Compare proofs of soundness; these involve our logical concepts, but they’re definitely not trivial since some logics can’t prove soundness of themselves.)

    The external sense is, I guess, the one that corresponds to your first way of interpreting me above. But I worry whether we can make sense of the possibility of alternative norms in something like the external sense I mooted. It seems to me that reasoning about what is and what is not possible will still make use of our actual normative notions, so will really just be another iteration of the internal sense.

    My motivating thought was that the situation as I’ve described it might not be so worrying if we realize that all we can ever do, really, is work from within our actual broadly normative notions. I’m not sure how far I’m willing to defend this thought, really, but it’s a bit closer to what I had in mind. Anyways, maybe that’s better? I find this stuff unbelievably difficult…

  20. Maybe that’s still too epistemic. To be honest, I’m no fan of ardent realism and I have trouble understanding it, so it’s totally possible that I’m not really articulating a view that an ardent realist could reasonably hold.

  21. Hi Jack, and thanks again!

    So I think my (main) reaction is precisely what you describe in the last post: I think it is still too epistemic.

    I still want to distinguish sharply between the epistemic question and the question I focus on mainly (what is supposed to be at stake between us and the users of alternative concepts?) Much of what you say does seem to relate to the epistemic question, and views similar to what you express could be described using Neurath’s boat imagery. Epistemically we do and need to start from somewhere etc. But I want to say: be that as it may – in order for any questions of how we can know that our normative concepts are X to arise to begin with, X must have some content.

    That said, maybe there is a non-epistemic way of understanding what you suggest, and it could be relevant to what I present. The way I think of it, an ardent realist will need to either make sense of what this X could be (and clearly what you are suggesting doesn’t help with this supposed problem) or else say that in some suitable sense there just couldn’t be alternative normative concepts. Some of what you say suggests this second line. The way this second line comes up in my book is that I discuss what view on reference might rule out the existence of alternative normative concepts, not coextensive with ours. The suggestion I see here is different, but (and maybe this is just my failure to see certain other possible routes?) it does seem to be relevantly similar to what I above described as my first interpretation of you. Maybe any attempt to cognitively engage with supposed specific examples of alternative normative concepts forces us to regard them in the light of ours, in a way that rules out seeing them as genuine alternatives. Much more to say about this supposition, but for here let me not pause on qualifications, etc. For me the important point is that even given this, one can describe certain general assumptions from which it follows that there are alternative normative concepts, and I think that is enough for the challenge to arise.

  22. Yeah, good! That’s helpful. And it’s not surprising that it’s a bit too epistemic…for me, the epistemic stuff can’t be cleanly separated from issues of reference, etc. But anyways, this:

    Maybe any attempt to cognitively engage with supposed specific examples of alternative normative concepts forces us to regard them in the light of ours, in a way that rules out seeing them as genuine alternatives.

    is the crucial bit for me; It’s what I was trying to suggest by distinguishing the internal sense from the external sense. In my terms, any attempt to cognitively engage with specific examples can only be done in the internal sense.

    I guess I’m not sure of the last sentence though (as I said above); why aren’t we forced to regard facts about what ”follows from” these general assumptions in the light of our normative standpoint? After all, epistemic normativity is a part of normativity and, presumably, encompasses how we ought to regard the facts that follow from these assumptions.

  23. I should say that I don’t think the story ends even if our concepts of following from are themselves must be understood in the lights of our actual normative concepts…there’s more to be said about whether the ardent realist can tolerage this fact. Following this out would be threadjacking, though, so maybe we can talk about it sometime!

    Thanks Sarah and Matti for a nice discussion and an illuminating exchange!

  24. Hi, Jack. Many thanks, yet again. I have been thinking about what might be useful to say and yet not too long-winded given the format. Here is an attempt.

    I am well aware that what follows isn’t a direct reply to what you say, but it struck me that it might be helpful in our exchange to relate what I say in response to a train of thought that in some way parallels yours. (What follows is adapted from the book, fn46, p. 133.)

    Suppose that an interpretivist theory of meaning is correct: what the expressions of some language mean and refer to is a matter of what an ideal interpreter would take these expressions to mean and refer to. Then note that charity is plausibly an important constraint on good interpretation. But charity sufficiently broadly understood can enjoin that I should interpret someone as meaning wrong by “wrong” and right by “right,” despite certain radical differences between her uses of these words and mine, because any other interpretation would be uncharitable. Any other interpretation would depict her as shaping her emotions and deliberation on irrelevant grounds—grounds not having to do with wrongness and rightness. So given the underlying view on meaning, I should interpret her as meaning wrong by “wrong”. And this is all driven by views on meaning and interpretation, not fancy metaphysics. (The above is simplified but similar to some thoughts found in Robbie Williams’ work.)

    My response: Even granted all these assumptions about meaning and interpretation, there remain questions of whether these concepts would have relatively determinate reference. It is part of the set-up that we and the others associate different descriptive beliefs with the concepts. If the reference of our concept and theirs is the same and it is non-defective, it has to be determined by something that is shared between the concepts; that is, the normative role. So either normative role can succeed in determining relatively determinate reference (that is exactly the kind of thing I discuss early and late in the book), or the concepts are co-referential but radically indeterminate (something which wouldn’t satisfy the ardent realist). So the question is still whether normative role can determine reference.

    The possible relation to what you bring up is this. There is the suggestion that we cannot make sense of some other people using alternative normative concepts not coextensive with ours. But I think something like my original challenge arises anyway.

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