Norms, Rationality and Communication

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Over at his new blog Deontologistics, Pete has an interesting post called ‘Normativity and Ontology’ which (amongst other things) picks up some of the issues concerning normativity arising from recent discussions of speculative realism. He addresses these ideas from a distinctive position which combines metaphysical themes from Deleuze and Heidegger alongside contemporary pragmatist approaches to language in the vein of Brandom and Habermas. I’ll be interested to see how this project pans out.

Since my reply is a little long for a blog comment, I am going to respond to some of Pete’s claims here. On the whole, I am sympathetic to many aspects of his approach, though occupying some shared ground also helps to emphasise our points of contrast more sharply too. In what follows, I’ll take each point — whether critical or appreciative — as they appear. Finally, I have avoided discussing some of the more metaphysical issues raised here, since these will, I hope, feature in an upcoming post on Latour.

(i) Firstly, one relatively minor misgiving concerns the terminology of ‘deontology.’ Pete talks about “the philosophy of normativity (or deontology),” and this suggests that they amount to the same thing. But I think we have good reason for keping these terms distinct. Deontology is often understood to address duties, which its etymology suggests, with ‘deont’ being the Greek for that which binds. Some approaches to normativity, such as the one underlying the Brandomian incompatibility semantics, take obligation and permission as its key normative concepts. (In fact, these concepts appear to be interdefinable: what is permitted is what is not obligated not to do, and what is obligated is what is not permitted not to do.) These are manifestly deontological notions: they concern what one rationally must do. But normativity is a richer vista than deontology alone, even for Kant, whose moral philosophy provides the classic analysis of deontological concepts. Normativity can extend to notions like recommendation, beauty, guidance, virtue and value, none of which are most fruitfully thought in terms of a sphere of rightful action understood in a distinctly deontological way. In other words, the vocabulary of obligation and permission is too restrictive to capture many features of the normative domain. So, I am wary of talking of normativity and deontology as if they amounted to the same thing, especially as people like Brandom tend to elide the distinction.

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(ii) I think there is something right about Pete’s idea that we cannot escape “fundamental norms of rationality” and that — in a great phrase — we must accept this as a “primary bind.” But there is scope for disagreement between us here, though I am not sure how deep it goes. I agree that there is something self-defeating about explicitly rejecting norms constitutive of discourse and argumentation whilst one is engaged in that very practice. The thought is that we meet a kind of self-contradiction here: I implicitly endorse these norms (by entering into discursive practice), but then I explicitly deny them (once engaged in discursive activity). If you have to accept the authority of rational and discursive norms to qualify as denying their authority, there is a problem. We hit a kind of transcendental wall: it is a necessary condition of the possibility of explicitly rejecting the authority of these norms that we first accept or presuppose that self-same authority. Someone who tries to do so — who says, “Rationality has no claim on me!” — would best be described as confused, and not really understanding the concepts they are using, rather than making a substantive mistake.

This all assumes that we must at least implicitly presuppose some norms in order to qualify as sapient communicators (which I agree is a plasuible claim). In other words, my communicative activity must be guided by assumptions about what counts as a legitimate speech act. It will also be a further matter describing what such norms are — whether the principle of non-contradiction, modus ponens, substantive decision procedures, and so on.

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(iii) I think these issues go somewhat deeper though. So, whilst I am partial to some versions of the kind of linguistified transcendental argument outlined above, my more fundamental commitments differ from many of its advocates. One way to frame this difference is in a question: Does our inability to coherently reject fundamental norms of rationality, insofar as we engage in discursive activity, suffice to secure their authority for us? In other words, is assessment of rational competence dependent on the idea that we do (or cannot but) acknowledge rational norms insofar as we are discursive beings?

Pete gestures in an anti-realist direction on these matters, but then says something a little more ambiguous, which could be read in two ways. So, he begins with a rather Davidsonian claim:

One could potentially abandon such norms [of rationality], but one could only do it by becoming entirely irrational, by becoming such that we could not legitimately ascribe contentful beliefs to you.

Here, I agree. Our actual behaviour can come loose from fundamental norms of rationality, and when it does so substantially or consistently it becomes more and more difficult to frame it as the actions of an agent with a view upon the world. He continues:

The crucial idea that follows from this is a Brandomian/Kantian one: that what it is to be a subject is to be rational, i.e., to be bound by the fundamental norms of rationality. The subject is (just as the Kantian transcendental subject) just the unity of its responsibility in relation to such norms (which are analogous to Kant’s categories, as the fundamental rules governing cognition).

I find this a little more problematic — there is more to subjectivity than processing incompatible normative commitments, at least I hope so, for all our sakes! But this is a minor point insofar as I agree that this is an integral part of the picture. Next comes the more contentious idea:

The additional Kantian point is that the subject is only insofar as it binds itself to these norms, insofar as it makes itself responsible for its actions in accordance with them.

This, with its language of ‘binding oneself’ to norms, has an anti-realist tenor to it. In the background appears to be a nominally Kantian conception of the self-legislative activity of the subject, who institutes norms through its use of concepts in forming judgements and practical maxims. Normative authority, so understood, becomes attitude-dependent: we become responsible because (and only because) we make ourselves responsible. This is an approach to normativity which I think veers into incoherence.

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Problems with the self-legislative conception of normativity, where agents bind themselves to norms, arise when we ask whether the legislative process is itself subject to the authority of norms. It seems that there both must be and cannot be such norms. If there were no such norms, then the legislative process will be arbitrary: legislating in one way rather than another will be no more than caprice (and this would not seem to be enough to really put ourselves under obligations). But if there are norms for legislating one way rather than another, we will want to know their status. If they are self-legislated, we simply push the problem back because the question then becomes, on what basis were they legislated? If they are not self-legislated then we do not have self-legislation ‘all the way down.’ But in this case, if we end up embracing some form of realism about these norms, then it is natural to ask, why not be realists about other sorts of reasons? The advocate of self-legislation is not without reply here (indeed, they might appeal to something like the linguistified transcendental argument above to set basic criteria for legislation) but I think this dialectic ultimately forces them down the path to ruin.

Is this Pete’s approach though? Perhaps not, since he goes on to say:

However, one can only be responsible, i.e., one can only bind oneself to other norms, insofar as one is bound to the fundamental norms of rationality. This is to say that the structure of normativity in general is grounded in the norms of rationality.

If these fundamental norms of rationality are vindicated, then some sort of self-binding model might be rescued. But this, I think, would only at the price of redundancy, since it would not be us but the fundamental norms which determined how we ought to legislate which would be doing all the heavy-lifting. I think it is better to drop talk of self-binding or self-legislation and zero in on whatever underlies it. Obviously, there is more that can be said about this, but I’ll stop here for now.

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4 thoughts on “Norms, Rationality and Communication

  1. Thanks for responding to the post! There is some really interesting stuff here, and I don’t think I can respond to all of it straight away. I will make a couple of points though.

    1) I completely understand that there is more to the normative than just notions of permission and obligation. I don’t have a worked out theory of the wider realm of the normative, but I do have a few intuitions on the matter. I at least think that permission and obligation (along with the notion of correctness, which I take to be intimately related to them) are the central normative notions, and that even if the others are not definable in terms of them, that they are perhaps not intelligible without them. This has to do with the last of my claims that you quoted (which I admit is still more of an intuition than a demonstrated thesis), namely, that the structure of normativity in general is grounded in the norms of rationality. If this latter claim is correct then I do believe it is legitimate to take treat my ‘fundamental deontology’ as handling the philosophy of normativity, not because ‘deontology’ and the ‘philosophy of normativity’ are synonymous, but because deontology would carry out in full the philosophy of normativity, insofar as the structure of normativity is to be found in those norms that we are primarily bound by.

    2) If one takes on board the Brandomian view of the norms of rationality, then permission and obligation are not necessarily inter-definable. Brandom’s notions of commitment and entitlement are most definitely not inter-definable, they are two different dimensions that cut across eachother. I understand that these aren’t the same as obligation and permission in general, but it should give us pause for thought, because it implies that in some cases there is a notion of permission which swings free of not-being-obligated-not-to. The interesting thing (which I haven’t had too much time to look into) is that in the philosophy of jurisprudence they talk about such a positive kind of permission in terms of the reasons offered in justification for the permitted act. The idea is that conclusive reasons obligate one to act in a certain way, whereas probative reasons permit one to act in a way different to merely not-being-obligated-not-to. This is fascinating for anyone who knows Brandom, because it is as if they have reversed his order of explanation. He explains the difference between dispositive and probative reasoning in terms of this difference between obligation and positive permission.

    This just scratches the surface of the things I need to say, but hopefully I’ll get time to sit down and put out something more thorough shortly.

  2. Pingback: Normativity and Rationality « Deontologistics

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