Irish With A Tan

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Normativity and Obligation



In much of discussion today on various social issues, people tend to take their moral assumptions for granted. So I like to examine what the underlying assumptions are first of all and secondly, if a particular person’s worldview can support those assumptions. I think about these things quite a bit, and have had (and still do have) my own assumptions questioned. I think there are good answers out there, which I hope to learn. I’m no expert on the issues but I do have some thoughts on them, which are developing as time goes down. Writing them down helps me think things through and can also be a good way to measure progress (or regress, depending on ones perspective). In particular I’ll be looking at the issue of normativity in regards to moral issues. In other words, the nature of *oughtness*. Which for me encompasses both normativity and obligation. Normativity being the direction something should go, and obligation being what gives that particular direction force as opposed to another.  In other words, what are some of the criteria required in order for an oughts and obligation to exist? At least that’s how I’m phrasing the discussion.

I’m sure there are plenty of material on this topic. But the following will be a mixture of conversations that I’ve had as well as independent responses to things I’ve read. In particular some of the comments I posted on my friend Tim Stratton’s post An Ought From an Is shared on the Cross Examined website. Anyways, now the the introduction is over with, enjoy!


You can speak of purpose in two senses. And this really is the issue we are having in this dialogue. One is purpose “descriptively” or “prescriptively”. When you describe something, you’re saying how it is. When you prescribe something you’re saying how it “ought” to be. For example, like seeing animals and plants and humans being alive and developing, and deciding to say that this is the *rule*. That is problematic. Because if purpose is only descriptive, then there is no rule or standard that anything *ought* to follow. So just because living things live, it doesn’t mean they have a *right* to live. Or that they should. It doesn’t mean that someone *should* not murder. Descriptions only tell you what *is* the case. The moment someone is murdered, their *death* simply becomes the case and it is no more right or wrong than their life. Both are simply facts that you’re describing.

It’s not enough to just say “follow your heart”. The question is whether or not your “heart” is grounded in reality. That’s what I mean by ultimate reality. If your heart is just your feelings and emotions, then why should yours be normal for all? On the other hand, if you claim your heart is in tune with a higher order and transcendent reality of goodness that all have to follow, then you’ll need to say argue as such. Saying simply “don’t harm, be empathetic” won’t help either. What counts as “harmful and empathetic” in one person’s eyes, won’t be the same in other peoples. The mother who doesn’t say no to her children because she thinks it’s “mean” not to spoil them, and “empathetic” to give them what they want when they’re crying, isn’t right simply because she feels that way. Plus what if there are various “harms” that will be unavoidable, according to what will you give one priority over the other as to what *ought* to be avoided. Now you’ll need to postulate a moral principle *behind* what seemingly already was supposed to be your moral principle.
The other thing is one cannot just assume off hand that harm is in principle morally unacceptable. You must give the grounding for makes this idea prescriptive on humanity as opposed to the notion that harming people whenever you like is okay. In other words, okay or not okay according to what?

And only persons can “prescribe” something. That is because things don’t do anything. Things simply are. Doing requires intentions and volition. So if ultimate reality is simply impersonal nature then you don’t have a basis for prescription or telling people they’re right or wrong about anything. The only thing you have is your feeling you wish to make prescriptive but nothing to base it on which could grant it that authority, since the feeling itself is grounded on and came into being from a non-prescriptive ultimate reality. It is like having a compass but nowhere to go. Having a North arrow in a world where no such reference point exists.

So oughts or rather prescriptions can only be grounded in purpose since a purpose says how something ought to be. But I think what gives a purpose force is obligation which is a property created by ownership/jurisdiction.

In order to make clear, I have a three part distinction of what makes something morally binding. I distinguish between the moral content, the ought/prescription, and the obligation.

I don’t treat oughts and obligation as being the same, since before you have to do something, there needs to be something that someone is committing you to doing. But just because someone commits you to a particular end/purpose, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are obligated to follow it. So an obligation is an accidental property of an ought, given that an ought is first and foremost rooted in purpose. And not all purposes have the property of obligation. In other words, purposes create the oughts, the things to which someone is binding you. But that particular purpose may not carry any weight.

So then what makes up the moral content for humans is human nature. Aka what is good for a thing is determined by its nature. But what’s needed in order to turn this descriptive fact and natural good, into a moral good, is the addition of both a purpose prescribing that human nature ought to be that way, and the obligation which grants this purpose authority.

So, moral content determines what is good for a thing, moral normativity determines that such a thing is obligatory. On this view it follows that something cannot be considered normative or morally binding if it is contrary to the moral content. This is important because people too often confuse the moral ought, with moral content. Conflating them as one. Thus making moral content same as the prescription itself. In which case the prescription, being determined by a persons will makes morality based sheerly on this will and thus ultimately indifferent as to what can count as good. This position is called Voluntarism, and it is often the caricature that some people have in regards to God’s divine commands. Saying that Christians are committed to believing that the only condition needed for a thing is right is for God to say it is right. Making it arbitrary. This ignores the realist view of morality which denies voluntarism by separating moral content from prescription, which allows the Christian to defend a position which says that God’s commands are authoritative, they are not arbitrary. In which case, moral content is person independent but moral normativity is not.

In a naturalistic worldview it is still possible to be realist in a qualified sense and say “what is good for a thing is determined by its nature.” However one couldn’t say that people *ought* to follow what is good for a nature simply because it *is*. Not only does it fall prey to the Naturalistic Fallacy but I think in principle you can’t have oughts in a materialistic world. Oughts which are the base of rights presuppose a purpose for a specific thing. Because if there are no purposes for things then there is no way it *ought* to be. Purpose then presupposes a mind or intelligence which sets it.

Naturalism both denies that immaterial things such as value, rights and purposes can exist. Or that there is a mind or intelligence behind the universe and humanity.

If there is no overarching purpose then there are no morals with the force *obligation*. Even if I were to decide to give myself purpose or if society voted on one (ignoring the fact that it can’t exist in a materialistic world), to act in moral outrage when someone violates or prevents our purpose would be a massive game of pretend. Since in actuality other than our subjective opinions, no such overarching purposes and therefore obligations exist.

Why then would the purpose of the Mind behind the universe have the power of obligation and not just mere opinion? I would argue because of the nature of what an obligation is. Obligation is established by the very fact that the Mind has a purpose and for that purpose made everything that exists. And by virtue of having made everything and therefore owning it, that ownership is the principle of obligation. It seems then to deny that ownership carries obligation is simply to deny the very grounds of there being any rights or obligations at all. In which case one couldn’t even object to the Mind exercising authority over creation, on the basis that “this Mind *can’t* do that, because they have no *right*. Or that the Mind *ought* not do that.

So to re-iterate while it is possible to imagine the basis of moral content existing in a naturalistic worldview, it seems that there is no basis for obligation in such a world. In fact it is the oughtness that takes it from being a mere fact of the matter (humans flourish when living X way) to being moral (it is right that humans flourish by living X way). And to deny that a Mind in having ownership of creation has the power of obligation, one is in fact denying the basis of any obligation whatsoever.

So too I think the argument from from maximally intelligent and good being may suit more the moral content aspect of the argument. While it may be the most rational thing to follow such a being, the question then becomes why is one obligated to do what is rational? Because, the most rational being said you should. But why are we obligated to listen to the most rational being? Because it is rational. One its own it is circular. But combined with the principle of obligation, it makes the *obligation* a rational one. So God’s attributes, his rationality and love, are the basis upon which the moral content Is determined (we are made in God’s image and flourish when living accordingly, so being rational and loving is good for us), his purpose in creating the world give it its objective oughtness (so because the world exists *to be* a certain way, that is as a fact its purpose) but then it is by virtue of God having made all things and having ownership and sovereignty over it that his purpose has the property of obligation. So moral content is not arbitrary but based on who God is, the oughtness stems from the purpose since without such there can be no ought and lastly what separates His purpose from others (besides that His is built into the nature of things making and is a matter of fact) is the obligatory nature of the oughts of His purposes by virtue of His ownership. That’s how I see it.

<<The following then is a response to some of what I posted and my reply to it>>

//That’s very interesting. If theists can use property rights as an axiomatic source to ground God as the source of morals, then equally atheists can refer to property rights too as an axiomatic source of morals. Thus the holocaust clearly contravenes these rights.//

No that doesn’t work. Morality includes, the moral content, the overarching purpose and the obligation. Atheists per a worldview can have the first. Not the latter two. Without the other two morality loses objectivity and collapses into emotivism. And no the holocaust won’t work either as an example. Since God owns all creation, such that even if a lesser authority could be said to have jurisdiction, it loses moral legitimacy when it violates God. So per Christianity, we ought to obey the State, but the State ought to adhere to God. And if the two are in conflict, get what Christians are called to do?

//“It seems then to deny that ownership carries obligation is simply to deny the very grounds of there being any rights or obligations at all”

That sounds fair enough to me. This seems a pretty big hurdle for a theist to jump over if they want to deny that morals would exist without God.//

Again, morals are more than the moral content. Per naturalism you can’t have the principle of obligation + the telos/purpose in relation to what exists needed without falling into the is/ought fallacy. If there is no purpose behind what is, then any that you give it is pretend.

//Note that theists could attempt to argue against the above by claiming that these property rights would only exists if there IS a God who is the source of morals, but then they can’t use those property rights to GROUND God as the source of morals without begging the questions.//

This is mixing a few things. Rights stem from purpose, since without purpose which determines how things *ought* to be, there is no *right*. But what gives the purpose its force is the principle of obligation, which I’m currently arguing for is ownership. That distinguishes the legitimacy of one purpose against another (e.g my design for how my room should be decorated as opposed to a strangers). So the moral content of, the good, comes from God’s nature. And he makes things to function accordingly according to his purpose. And obligation is the rational relation of ownership/jurisdiction between rational persons. It stems from our being creatures to the Creator.

//In other words ‘Property rights flow from God’s morality and God’s morality flows from property rights’.//

That’s not the case. First of all, morality encompasses the whole; moral content, purpose and obligation. Rights are a subset of purposes. And since there is no purpose above God determining him, He does not appeal to rights. So the property of obligation is not something outside of himself that he appeals to. Thus in saying God’s morality, we are not describing something prescriptive of God but only descriptive, aka, this is how God acts.

What makes the moral content of God’s actions is his character, so love + rationality would be included in and He has them without any privation. So everything flows from them two. In other words, morality is content + purpose + obligation. God’s “content” is the basis of the other two. So his purposes will be rational and loving (in keeping with God’s character) and the principle of obligation stems from God’s character (rationality and love) as well. Thus since obligation is a relation based on God’s character, obligation is said to be the loving and rational relational between persons established by the ownership/jurisdiction at play. That’s simply is the meaning of obligation. And using ownership/jurisdiction is not circular here since they are matter of facts. Some either owns X or does not own X. So “ownership” is not a prescriptive principle that God is appealing to, but simply descriptive of what is the case.

//Thus it would be special pleading to allow themselves to use the ‘property rights’ argument and deny atheists to use it too.//

Atheists can’t use it. As I said “obligation is said to be the loving and rational relational between persons established by the ownership/jurisdiction at play.” Atheists could affirm the first part as an active principle of their worldview. But that again is simply to appeal to moral content. Eg, they could say to relate in such a way *is* rational and loving. However obligation isn’t simply to behave in a manner that is rational and loving. Obligation is a rational and loving relation established by the *ownership/jurisdiction”. Per Atheism, there is no matter of fact universal ownership/jurisdiction from which lesser amounts can be delegated and distributed. And even if Bob were to claim ownership of himself, saying he were free, and Sam were to claim ownership of Bob, saying Bob is not free. Neither of them, per atheism could claim that it is their right. Since not only is there no universal jurisdiction of appeal, there is no purpose or end of how things ought be behind Bob and Sam’s existence, so there’s no way that things *ought* to be and thus no *rights*. Atheism could at best appeal to moral content, but has no grounds for purpose or obligation. As such it falls prey to the naturalistic fallacy.



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