Normativity in Kant

Wikipedia actually has several decent articles on normativity (compare my own capsule account here). Under “Normative” it currently says “Normativity is the phenomenon in human societies of designating some actions or outcomes as good or desirable or permissible and others as bad or undesirable or impermissible. A norm in this normative sense means a standard for evaluating or making judgments about behavior or outcomes….  One of the major developments in analytic philosophy has seen the reach of normativity spread to virtually all corners of the field…. [I]t has become increasingly common to understand normative claims as claims about reasons“. “Normative ethics” is simply ethics as distinct from meta-ethics. Under “Norm (philosophy)” it says “Norms are concepts… of practical import, oriented to effecting an action, rather than conceptual abstractions that describe, explain, and express”.

Kant scholar Christine Korsgaard’s Tanner lectures were published as The Sources of Normativity (1996). Her first sentence says “It is the most striking fact about human life that we have values” (p. 1). She notes that “Plato and Aristotle came to believe that value was more real than experienced fact, indeed that the real world is, in a way, value itself”.

In Korsgaard’s account things begin to turn subtly in a modernist direction, broadly resembling the modernist sentiments in Brandom I occasionally have trouble with. “For Plato and Aristotle, being guided by value is a matter of being guided by the way things ultimately are…. The form of a thing is its perfection, but it is also what enables the thing to be what it is. So the endeavor to realize perfection is just the endeavor to be what you are — to be good at being what you are” (pp. 2-3).

While there is a big boulder of truth here, I think formulations of this sort carry the danger of greatly underestimating the extent to which — even though we grasp things well enough to act with practical confidence — the “way things ultimately are” becomes more problematic the more seriously we consider it, which I think Plato and Aristotle well recognized. Further, while talk about the singular form of a thing is not out of place in Plato, Aristotle’s versatile notion of form (especially in the Metaphysics and the biological works, and in sharp contrast to scholastic “substantial form”) overflows any such simple conception.

Korsgaard presents later emphasis on obligation as a “revolution” ultimately completed by Kant. This emphasis on obligation rather than value per se is what analytic philosophers call deontology, on which I’ve commented several times.

While I fully agree that normative force is real, for serious philosophical purposes it is an error to think it ever has completely univocal meaning. That is why Hegel thought every truth eventually has to make way for some further truth. I agree that Kantian obligation adds something to ethics and makes Kant the next great contributor to ethics after Aristotle, but I see it as a refinement or addition to a basically Aristotelian account along the the lines suggested by Paul Ricoeur, and not a revolution.

I’ve previously mentioned Nancy Sherman’s elaboration of implicit Aristotelian themes in Kantian ethics. Barbara Herman in The Practice of Moral Judgment (1993) argues forcefully against the highly contracted notion of judgment commonly attributed to Kant, and for a positive concept of values in Kant. I’ve referred several times to the outstanding book by Beatrice Longuenesse, Kant and the Capacity to Judge (French ed. 1993), which develops a very rich, multilayered concept of judgment out of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I think Brandom relates Kantian judgment to an entire unity of apperception and its ongoing repair of errors (see Autonomy, Normativity; Brandom on Postmodernity). Hannah Ginsborg in The Normativity of Nature (2015) finds a rich general concept of judgment in Kant’s Critique of Judgment, and concludes that “there is nothing intrinsically objectionable about regarding natural phenomena in normative terms” (p. 345; see Natural Ends; Kant’s Recovery of Ends).

Brandom comes close to identifying deontology with ethics tout court. Initially I found this very unattractive, but Brandom is no advocate of excessive univocity, as his favorable remarks about the “new” notion of determination in Hegel and truth as a process make clear. He uses the language of deontology and modality as a way of combating arbitrariness and indistinction.

In summary, though Kantian obligation is an undeniable contribution, I think a very strong case can be made that the most important element in normativity is really values and not obligation per se.

Incidentally, it is nice to see so many female philosophers at work in this area.