My Framework

Cameron Harwick has a great write up of his macroscopic framework for thinking about the world. Not only is it insightful and well written, I agree with 90% of it.

Still, that 10% contains some major caveats. I’ll elaborate on our points of disagreement below. But please read his post first.

10. Social norms are generally not rationally justifiable

I disagree.

I think of norms as valid types of reasons that we give to or ask from interlocutors to justify behavior. That makes them inherently rational. When this point is missed, the tendency is to demand for there to be a “why” behind the norm, when the role of norms is to be the “why” behind the action.

Maybe this is what Cameron means when he writes that norms “must be accepted either tout court or on the basis of a mythology.” But you can see why, if norms are rational at their core, this phrasing is misleading.

I have written on this point in a post called Sacred and Profane Reasons. In short, I think the notion that desires, preferences, values, and norms are non-rational or even irrational is not only mistaken, but has perverse consequences. Namely, it makes us instrumentalize imperatives, leading to pareto-inferior social orders.

Nonetheless, I was disposed to this view for most of my thinking life, but after reading the exception book Following the Rules by Joseph Heath I now see that view as untenable. I’ve blogged many excerpts from that book, but a key one on this topic is available here.

I believe coming around to the rationality of norms has made my framework more coherent. To illustrate, consider Cameron’s three opening points:

  1. The universe is intelligible.
  2. The language faculty is the decisive difference between human and animal consciousness.
  3. The fact-value distinction is irreducible.

I fully agree with all of this. But moreover, I think these points, taken together, imply the rationality of norms—especially once norms are conceptualized as [cognitive] moves in a language game. As Cameron writes below point 3:

Perception is filtered and structured by pre-conscious judgements about the significance of various aspects. This judgement (“theory”) is not essentially different from value judgements which operate on the conscious level.

Thus if Cameron really views value judgments as non-rational, then he’s committed to all judgments being non-rational, which contradicts the intelligibility of the universe.

I have also written that calling an imperative or norm a “myth” (as Cameron does for liberal norms and natural rights) amounts to a category error. Assertions and imperatives stake very different types of validity claims. For example, I can assert the non-existence of God while still holding on to the imperative of ritual. Imperatives don’t carry an intrinsic epistemic burden.

The confusion arises because ethical vocabularies using words like “ought to” and “rights” transform imperatives into assertions. But this doesn’t change the fact that the concept of “rights” is at core about expressing certain imperatives. It simply lets us express imperatives in a more flexible, natural way,

In Theory and Practice Reconciled I went so far as to define progress as any process whereby our theoretical assertions come into alignment with our practical imperatives. In other words, progress equals cooperation without the assistance of pious fictions.

This brings us to point 4:

Variation and selection are necessary and sufficient to explain complex order.

Necessary, yes, but not sufficient. This one goes to the importance of language, and its role in normative / cultural reproduction. As communicative animals our societies are subject to much more directionality than can be explained by purely Darwinian types of selection. I came to this view from reading Joseph Heath, as well: The second and final chapters in Following the Rules; and his synopsis / defense of Habermas’ theory of discourse ethics.

Combining Cameron’s points 1 through 3, and amending points 10 and 4, we have basically arrived at the precepts of Hegel’s German Idealism. Or, as Robert Brandom prefers to call it, American Pragmatism.

Which brings me full circle to Cameron’s first point: The universe is intelligible. And yes, “on its face, this is a statement about the mind, not about the universe.”

One thought on “My Framework

  1. Thanks for the reply. Having read your “Sacred and Profane Reasons” post, it sounds like you’re saying very much the same thing I want to say with my #10, so I suspect the language of “rationality” is causing us to talk past each other. To put it in your terms, a profane reason is something which is justified by reference to a further norm, but there’s always a sacred reason at the end of that chain, and it is this sacred reason which does not bear a further “why” – it must be an ultimate end. As you argue in that post, “As soon as one takes a purely instrumental stance towards ritual, its power begins to wane.” I take this to be identical to the statement: “As soon as one tries to rationally justify an ultimate end, its normative force begins to wane.”

    Now that I think about it, #10 is really just a restatement of #3. If you can’t justify “ought” with “is”, then there exists some terminus beneath any norm which cannot be further justified on the basis of anything else. A “myth”, in my usage, is not a norm itself; it’s a hand-wavey way of making it look like you -can- bridge the is-ought gap, which – lest the term sound too pejorative – is probably necessary to get any norm off the ground in a group beyond a certain size.

    On this basis, you’re right, we have no “rational” or foundationalist inside-perspective reason for assuming the universe is intelligible. But I don’t want to relegate it to the status of a mere working assumption either. The best I can do is a sort of outside-perspective argument from the character of the order which gave rise to the human brain: even if causal relationships aren’t directly perceptible, and even if interpretive acts occur entirely within the brain and are conditioned by the structure of that brain, there’s reason to think that that structure would be selected for on the basis of a correspondence to something really existing in the universe. Hence, intelligibility.

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