Why Reasons Skepticism is Not Self-Defeating
Abstract: Radical meta-normative skepticism is the view that nostandard, norm, or principle has objective authority or normativeforce. It does not deny that there are norms, standards ofcorrectness, and principles of various kinds that render it possiblethat we succeed or fail in measuring up to their prerogatives.Rather, it denies that any norm has the status of commanding withobjective authority, of giving rise to normative reasons to takeseriously and follow its demands. Two powerful transcendentalarguments challenge this view. First, skepticism is said to be self-defeating: Settling what to accept, and in particular whether toaccept skepticism, appears to be a reason-guided enterprise. Howcan skeptics coherently support their view by citing reasons in theirfavor after they just rejected them throughout? Second, there is thepractical-deliberative version, most recently developed by DavidEnoch: We are essentially deliberative creatures. Yet deliberationappears to require that there are correct answers in the form ofnormative reasons to our practical questions. Thus confidence inthe sensible nature of deliberation should inspire confidence inreasons. The essay undermines both transcendental arguments bydemonstrating, first, how to support skepticism without desertingits tenets, and, second, how to deliberate in skeptical fashion.
Radical meta-normative skepticism is the view that no standard, norm, orprinciple has objective authority or normative force. It does not deny either thatthere are norms, standards of correctness, and principles of various kinds or thatit is possible both to succeed or fail in measuring up to their prerogatives. What itdoes deny is that any norm has the status of commanding with objectiveauthority, the status of giving rise to objective normative reasons to take seriouslyand follow its demands. Standards may have other features that make themattractive to us and explain why we choose to live by them. They may provideuseful tools for facilitating our goals, for coordinating our joint endeavors, forensuring that the bridges we literally and figuratively build will stand.Ultimately, though, no standard ever provides normative reasons for anything,according to radical meta-normative skepticism (skepticism henceforth). This viewstands opposed to all forms of meta-normative realism (realism henceforth),1
which holds that certain norms are authoritative, true, and correct, period, notjust reflectively endorsed as correct or correct according-to-yet-another-norm.
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Skepticism denies the existence of norms that are not just socially accepted andfollowed, but are rightly followednorms that specify what we ought to dosimplicitersans phrase (Darwall 1992: 156).
There are two powerful transcendental arguments that take issue with thiscomprehensive denial of normative authority. Radical meta-normative skepti-cism challenges the authority not only of particular norm-domains, such asmorality, but finds queer the very idea that anythingrationality, instrumentalreason, or epistemologycould ever issue authoritative demands. As aconsequence, skepticism is said to be self-defeating. After all, settling what toaccept, and in particular whether to accept skepticism, appears to be a reason-guided enterprise. And yet skeptics cannot coherently support their view byciting authoritative reasons in their favor after they just rejected themthroughout. What, then, are they doing when recommending their view? Willthey not have to become silent, ushering themselves off the philosophical scene?As Thomas Nagel (1997: 19) puts the point skepticism that is the product of anargument cannot be total.
In addition to this epistemological version of the argument there is the practical-deliberative version, as most recently developed by David Enoch. We areessentially deliberative creatures who ponder what to do. This characteristic ofours is not one we are prepared to abandon. How even could we? Yet a sine qua nonto the very point and purpose of deliberation appears to be that there are correctanswers to our deliberative questions, answers we seek to discover rather thancreate or construct. Deliberation requires reasons, and thus our confidence in thesensible nature of the former should translate into our confidence in the latter.
I will attempt to undermine the effectiveness of both transcendentalarguments by demonstrating, first, how to support skepticism without desertingits tenets, and, second, how to deliberate in skeptical fashion. I start outdescribing the nature of the meta-normative problematic in Section I, present thefirst transcendental argument in Section II, respond to it in Section III, andintroduce and discuss the second transcendental argument in Section IV.
The source of the meta-normative problematic concerns the status of norms andnot their mere existence or employment. The crucial distinction we must keep inmind is between the formal feature of being directive in character and thesubstantive feature of directing with authority. The first distinguishes norms asnorms, including their implicit standards of correctness, but it is the second thatprompts the entire meta-normative problematic in the first place. There is acommon tendency to under-appreciate the meta-normative problematic, and it ispartly to blame on our lack of an established vocabulary to express it. The termnormative itself is ambiguously used, at times denoting the directive element innorms, setting them apart from historical treatises and medical records, at othertimes denoting their authoritative standing, setting them apart from illegitimatenorms (Copp 2007, Rosati 2003).
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Presumably we are all realists about norms. The public arena in which wedebate how to manage our individual and joint affairs is evidently characterizedby a great plurality and diversity of norms and standards directing us what to do.Undoubtedly there are plenty of oughts and shoulds according-to-norm-such-and-such, plenty of opportunities to commit mistakes according-to-norm-such-and-such,and so forth. Language, the law, and etiquette exemplify that indisputable fact best.Whenever we open our mouths to form a sentence we engage in a norm-guidedactivity. And grammaticality is but one witness for our thoroughgoing involve-ment with norms. Another is the law. It is unlawful in the United States to hoistany flag higher than the Stars and Stripes. Yet whether authoritative reasons, notjust officials, decree that I must comply in my own enclosed yard is unclear andrepresents a matter wholly distinct from the recognition that I would act contraryto the law if I do not. Legal theorists debating the authority of the law do notcontest the presence of legal norms, but their authority. An attempt to explain thisnormative, reason-giving aspect of law, writes Andrei Marmor, is one of the mainchallenges of general jurisprudence (Marmor, 2008; Enoch, forthcoming b). Thischallenge presupposes the very distinction mentioned above. The same goes foretiquette, the preeminent example ever since Foots Hypothetical Imperatives (1972:308). The rule that one must answer in the third person to third person invitationsclearly states a demand, but what is its normative force? Rather than finding ananswer in the prevalence of norms, therefore, the normative question actually takesits point of departure in that very fact itself. We live under the pressure of vastassortments of laws, duties, obligations, expectations, demands, and rules, alltelling us what to do, Christine Korsgaard observes, and continues: Some of thesedemands are no doubt illicit . . . just social pressure, as we say. . . . I call thenormativity of a law or a demand . . . the grounds of its authority . . . the way itbinds you (2009: 2). Norms are not the solution, but the problem.2
Often the notion of a normative reason is employed to articulate the crucialpoint about authority. All normative phenomena, Joseph Raz opens a recentaddress (Raz, forthcoming), are normative in as much as, and because, theyprovide reasons or are partly constituted by reasons. Yet the allusion to reasonsdoes not immediately solve our predicament. If reasons are understood asrelevant considerations that favor according-to-some-norm-or-other, all norms shallautomatically entail their particular sets of reasons, and we are thrown back towhere we started. Legal reasons and reasons of etiquette come on the cheap. Thequestion is whether they should hold any sway. The point generalizes. Shouldreasons themselves emerge as inherently norm-based phenomenabecausenorms are needed to explicate the crucial notion of favoringwe obviously couldnot employ reasons to characterize the fundamental idea of the authority ofnorms. David Velleman provides a clear-eyed diagnosis of the difficulty: There isa temptation to think that the norm of correctness for actions is that they shouldbe supported by the strongest reasons. But this thought leads into a vicious circle.What counts as a reason for acting depends on what justifies action; whichdepends on what counts as correctness for action; which cannot depend, in turn,on what counts as a reason (2000: 1516).
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As a consequence, the notion of a normative reason can serve to state the pointabout authority only when itself understood as a norm-independent (primitive?)phenomenon, which does not merely restate some norms formal imperativesapplied to a particular case. Many philosophers are confident there is such anotion (Shafer-Landau 2003, Scanlon 1998, Parfit forthcoming). In this essay Ishall go along with contemporary custom and consider normative reason to be theconcept best suited to express the idea about a norms authority; under theproviso, of course, that there is an intelligible norm-unconditional sense ofnormative reason. Thomas Nagel is keenly aware of the conceptual task: In orderto have the authority it claims, reason must be a form or category of thought fromwhich there is no appeal beyond itselfwhose validity is unconditional (1997:7). Skeptics deny that precisely this sense of unconditionality, characteristic of thenotion of objective authority, can ever be fully discharged. All oughts and shouldsand reasons are norm-internal and norm-relative, they maintain, and there simplyare no further truths about which of those norm-internal oughts, shoulds, andreasons we really ought, should, or have reasons to take seriously, when therelevant normative concepts are construed norm-unconditionally. This completesmy characterization of the notion of authority, emphasizing only that whateverelse may be true of authority, it certainly cannot be a function of what norms wehappen to accept if it is to retain its essential normative capacity of providingreasons for and against acceptance of norms in the first place.
With the meta-normative problematic in clearer view, we can also understandwhy the move from local skepticism towards global skepticism is virtuallyirresistible. The issue of authority applies to norms of all kinds. Once demandsare being stated their authoritative standing inevitably becomes subject fordebate. The normative question has most prominently been raised with regardsto morality. Several authors have sought to expose myths that supposedlysurround moralitys capacity to issue categorical normative reasons (Mackie1977, Joyce 2001). Yet the obsession with morality appears somewhat parochial.The authoritative pretensions of morality, after all, are not fundamentallydifferent, or any queerer, than those of e.g., epistemology, practical rationality,and moral egoism, to name just a few. If moral authority presents deepmetaphysical, epistemological and practical issues, they will be inherited byother normative domains as well.
Compare egoism and morality, for instance. Morality demands that we heedthe interests of others, whereas egoism demands that we never heed the interestsof others unless theres something in it for ourselves. These two sets of normsdiffer in content but share the same authoritative, even categorical, pretension.And that pretension represents no less of a puzzle in the first case than in thesecond. Similarly, the hypothesis that the authority of rationality presents minordifficulties while the authority of morality presents huge ones is common yetusually unexplained (Gert 2004, Kolodny 2005). Darwall expresses it nicely:
Whether there are reasons to act is a normative and thus, in the broadsense, an ethical matter. It concerns what the agent rationally ought to do.
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Moreover, the rational ought is almost never treated by philosophers assimply one ought among others, on all fours with oughts internal to,e.g., etiquette, baseball, or bridge. It is regarded, if only implicitly, asunqualifiedly normativenot just an ought-according-to-the-norms-of-rationality, as there might be oughts-according-to-the-norms-of-eti-quette, or -baseball, or -bridge. What a person rationally ought to do iswhatever he ought to do simplicitersans phrase, as it were. (Darwall1992: 156)
Yet the inherent structure of these respective norms certainly does not explainwhy the instructions of norms not pertaining to rationality supposedly applyonly relative-to-those-other-norms whereas those of rationality apply simpliciterinstead of again just relative-to-norms-of-rationality. As a substantive matter, ofcourse, norms of rationality could be authoritative while others are not. Since Ishall be silent on what norms are more probable candidates for entailing objectiveauthoritative reasons I am in no position to dismiss this possibility. Notice,however, that it would require an equally substantive explanation of why theproblem of authority has a solution vis-a`-vis rationality that it does not have vis-a`-vis other norms. It is not simply something we can take for granted. Theinfluential philosophical program of explaining the authority of morality on thebasis of the authority of rationality has thus two, not only one, success conditions.First, the relevant normative transfer needs to work. Second, and this often goesunnoticed, the authority of rationality needs to be accounted for as well. Nothingcomes from nothing.
As a matter of psychology, of course, certain norms do exert greatermotivational powers than others, or are more firmly engrained in our emotionalrepertoire (Nichols 2004). Most would find it easier to keep in order their ownaffairs than those of others. And norms of practical rationality may enjoy greaterstatistical observance than moral norms. Yet motivational force is not normativeforce. Whether we are under psychological pressure to take seriously what anorm demands and whether we are under normative pressure to do so aredistinct matters. This essays focus lies solely with the latter, and thecorresponding meta-normative conundrum stems from the notion of authorityitself rather than from any particular domain to which the notion is applied. Onecore assumption of this essay, thereforethe thesis of meta-normative parityisthat to the degree to which normative authority appears problematic in any placeit must do so across the board (Cuneo 2007, Bedke 2010, Enoch forthcoming a).Now turn to the first transcendental argument.
Consider the first transcendental argument against radical meta-normativeskepticism: If there are no authoritative reasons, we cannot have such reasons tobelieve in their absence either. If no norm has authority, then neither does the
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norm to believe what is supported by the best available evidence, even if thisnorm turned out to support skepticism. How, then, are skeptics able to maketheir case, if they cannot rely on any norms, even of the most basic epistemic sort?How, more generally, will anyone be able to argue for anything, if skepticismprevails? Aview that appears to put in jeopardy all reason-guided argumentationhad better be well supported, and therein lies the problem. Skepticism appears tobe cutting off the very justificatory branch it sits upon, seeking to engage adialectical enterprise while denying its currency.
Let me quote three authors who have leveled this intuitive charge. Each authorarticulates it in slightly different terms; still, the common thread is quiterecognizable. In The Normative Web, Terence Cuneo claims that normativenihiliststhe tendentious label he uses for skepticsface the following dilemma:
Either epistemic nihilists hold that we have reasons to believe epistemicnihilism or they do not. If epistemic nihilists hold that we do havereasons to believe their position, then their position is self-defeating inthe sense that it presupposes the existence of the very sorts of entity thatit claims not to exist. . . . But there are no rational oughts according toepistemic nihilism; there are no facts that imply that certain propositionsare belief-worthy or that failing to believe something on good availableevidence renders one (all other things being equal) irrational. If, bycontrast, epistemic nihilists hold that we do not have epistemic reasons tobelieve their position, then their position is polemically toothless in thefollowing sense: No one would make a rational mistake in rejecting it andno one would be epistemically praiseworthy in accepting it. (Cuneo 2007:11718)
Cuneo thus concludes that this undesirable result is sufficiently unattractive thatany minimally adequate philosophical position will be at pains to avoid beingcommitted to it.
David Copp writes in Morality, Normativity and Society:
No argument can consistently be viewed as justifying normativeskepticism, if the argument is also believed to be sound. Normativeskepticism is untenable. It would be incoherent to hold that the belief innormative skepticism is justified on the basis of any argument . . . For ifthe belief that no standard is justified is justified, then, since alljustification is relative to some justified standard, it follows that the beliefthat no belief is justified is justified. Hence, the belief is justified that it isnot the case that the belief in normative skepticism is justified. . . . This isa logically consistent position, but it is hardly coherent. . . . Worse, itwould be inconsistent for a normative skepticone who believesnormative skepticism to be trueto hold that this belief is justified, forher skepticism entails that nothing is justified. . . . This means as well thatno one can consistently hold that the belief in normative skepticism isjustified unless he avoids being committed to normative skepticism. . . .
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Paradoxically, if one thinks that an argument proves normativeskepticism to be true, he cannot consistently hold that the argumentjustifies belief in normative skepticism. (Copp 1995: 467)
Richard Joyce writes in The Myth of Morality:
Can we imagine someone questioning practical rationality: Yes, Irecognize that there is a practical reason for me to f, but what is thatto me?Why should I adopt that set of rules?? This, it seems to me, isincoherent (perhaps uniquely among these sorts of questions). Even toask the question Why should I be interested in practical rationality? is toask for a reason. Thus even to question practical rationality is to evinceallegiance to it. After all, what kind of answer could be provided? If thequestioner is already expressing doubts about whether things heacknowledges as his reasons should move him, then there would beno point in providing further reasons. Therefore to question practicalrationality is unintelligibleit is to ask for a reason while implying thatno reason will be adequate. (Joyce 2001: 4950)
Later on, Joyce summarizes the point succinctly: practical rationality is notsomething that we may legitimately question, for to question it is to acknowledgeit (2001: 83).
Cuneo, Copp and Joyce are careful to target their arguments only at thephilosophical defensibility of skepticism and not directly at its truth. Transcen-dental arguments cannot straightforwardly and in a direct manner establish thefalsehood of a position. Skepticism is not logically inconsistent or self-defeating.The statement that denies normative authority does not entail a contradiction asdoes the statement which predicates its own falsity; neither does it undermine itsown criteria for meaningfulness as does the dictum of verificationism, whichasserts that every statement must be empirical or analytical without being either.Transcendental arguments are indirect. As many have pointed out, followingBarry Strouds pioneering essay (1968), transcendental arguments only supportnecessary conditions for our practices and experiences, lacking the resources togo beyond them and to rule out once and for all that our practices andexperiences are systematically mistaken. What they support, in other words,concerns prerequisites of our broad experiential schemes rather than reality itself(making them companions or inferences to the best explanation). Still, this in noway compromises the strategy. In an area where highly indirect argumentation isall we have to go on, and where all parties to the debate share considerableconfidence in our practices and experiences, the demonstration of necessaryprerequisites for those practices and experiences is nothing to be taken lightly.Indeed, if necessary presuppositions of our best theorizing were to carry noweight, since they are said to pertain only to what our theories need rather thanwhat is true, one might wonder what basis would be left for engaging in anymetaphysical reasoning at all. In any case, what we can reasonably expect from a
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meta-normative survey is to score plausibility points that favor a position incomparison to alternatives, not to demonstrate its truth once and for all. In lightof this there is little point in reiterating why meta-normative skepticism will notin principle be disproven even after the most ingenious transcendental argumenthas been presented. I accept transcendental arguments as presenting a challengeof exactly the right kind for the skeptical position as I envision it (Stern 2000).Given the greater confidence we have in the possibility of philosophicalargumentation than in any particular meta-normative conclusions, skepticscannot rest content with scoring logical points but must show how, contrary tothe transcendental argument, their position can coherently be defended.3
This underscores why the skeptic as I envision him cannot be satisfied with onecommon rejoinder to the transcendental strategy deployed against him. To notice,namely, that the skeptic is at liberty to address his opposition in ad hominemfashion, drawing on what his audience accepts even though he does reject it(Enoch 2006: 1834). It is true that the skeptic is formally entitled to employ thisspecies of the reductive strategy and to advance his case on the basis of what heultimately seeks to disprove; to play out norms against themselves by showing thattheir consequent implementation would lead to their own demise. However, whilethis approach would be fine for the skeptic who is content with having no groundof his own to stand upon as long as he can spoil his opponents ground as well, itdoes not work for the skeptic as I envision him. What I want is to be the skepticrather than merely taking up his cause in uncommitted fashion. I want to securefor the skeptic an entry and license into our argumentative practices that is notborrowed without intention to repay. For that purpose my skeptic needs a groundof his own to stand upon instead of parasitically lingering on that of his opponents.What he needs, in effect, is a positive counterproposal for how to sustain hisintended faithful participation in the argumentative enterprise.
Here is how the skeptic can achieve precisely that. He must acknowledge, first,that philosophical argumentation essentially is a norm-driven enterprise, grant,second, that he cannot appeal to authoritative norms to make his case, but he mustthen show how this concession does not compromise his employment of therequisite norms. He must show, in particular, how the norm-guided enterprise ofphilosophical argumentation can be carried out after authority is denied acrossthe board: on the basis, namely, of norms devoid of objective authority. Thisstrategy takes aim not primarily at the validity of the transcendental argumentbut rather at one of its presuppositions: that the issues of which norms to use andwhich to regard as authoritative are identical, where in fact they are not. Rejectinga norms authority, in short, does not amount to rejecting the norm itself! Thissounds paradoxical only under the presupposition just unmasked.
For realists, clearly, the skeptics rejection of authority is tantamount torejecting all norms that turn out alike to be unsupported by reasons, since
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authority is said to be that feature which settles what norms to accept: noauthority, no acceptable norms. The issue, thus conceived, is first and foremost atheoretical one: discovering what norms exemplify a certain meta-normativefeature. If philosophical argumentation is to be carried out in terms ofauthoritative reasonsif skepticisms opponents get their way in setting thesuccess conditions for that enterprisethe skeptic will indeed stand little chance.
Yet for skeptics this entire approach is misguided. They do not believe wemust settle which norms to use in virtue of some mysterious property normspossess, as if certain norms came attached with some quality-seal mandatingacceptance. The question of what norms to accept is essentially a practical oneand is distinct from whether norms are objectively authoritative (FitzPatrick2005). Skeptics reject authority, but also deny that this rejection carries thepractical significance realists assign to it. For skeptics, authority is something weneither have nor need.
To accentuate the contrast in approach, consider the specific version of realismnamed voluntarism, the view that the acceptability of norms consists in theirapproval by the gods. Normative authority and divine approval are not entirelydissimilar as they both purport to provide the ultimate backup for norms. Now,based on the presumed link between divine approval and acceptance, realists ofthis kind must interpret the skeptics atheism as foreclosing the implementationof all norms. But this interpretation is not forced upon us; for skeptics rejectprecisely this link, and consider the questions of what norms are approved by thegods (none) and what norms to accept (some) distinct. The upshot is this: skepticshave no quarrels with norms, but only question certain normative properties theyallegedly may possess. Departing from the crucial distinction between directingand directing with authority, skeptics approach the selection of norms in amanner distinct from those committed to normative realism. Skeptics picturenorms more as tools or strategies for the attainment of our goals, therebyreversing the master-slave relationship inherently suggested by realism. Normsdo not subject us, in virtue of some feature of authority, but are servants for ourpurposes. We use them when, e.g., we engage in philosophical argumentation.
Let me provide some more detail on how I envision philosophicalargumentation to proceed in skeptical fashion. Call the norms guiding rationalphilosophical argumentation basic norms for rational argument, or basic norms. Thelocution norms for rational argument is not intended to distinguish basic norms asauthoritative, but only to characterize their subject matter as dealing with issuesrelated to how to reason and argue (as opposed to how to garden, say). Basicnorms concern cognitive and argumentative landscaping while gardening normsconcern backyard landscaping. The introduction of authority-free basic normsalready challenges one of Cuneos core contentions, namely that there are nofacts that imply . . . that failing to believe something on good available evidencerenders one (all other things being equal) irrational. . . . No one would make arational mistake in rejecting [skepticism]. This would be true only under thecontested sense of rationality where norms of rationality necessarily implyreasons. His contention is false otherwise. Committing a rational mistake
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precisely consists in failing to do what basic norms call for. This is not apossibility skeptics deny. Compare etiquette. Those who scoff at etiquette neednot think no one would make a mistake of etiquette in responding in secondperson to third person invitations. Of course there are mistakes of etiquette; justconsult the recent Emily Post. The tactless are usually aware of their missteps butonly find them inoffensive of anything authoritative (realists) or to be takenseriously (skeptics). Likewise, certain cognitive attitudes and argumentativemoves are plainly irrational, as the inference I wish that p hence p exemplifies.Skeptics embrace basic norms and the possibility of rational mistakes they afford.
The role basic norms play for philosophical argumentation, I suppose, is partlyof a constitutive nature, where they not only facilitate but enable that enterprisein the first place (Searle 1995, Marmor 2009). Moreover, the distinctive mark ofbasic norms, in their constitutive function, appears to be their special regard fortruth, tracing the fact that what they regulate, belief and its management inargumentation, itself bears a constitutive relation to truth. In recent years thecontention that belief constitutively aims at truth has undergone substantialdevelopment, particularly through a fruitful exchange between David Vellemanand Nishih Shah, commencing in various essays by Velleman (2000) subse-quently critiqued by Shah (2003) and ultimately cumulating in a co-authoredreconciliatory piece (Shah and Velleman 2005). Its upshot is briefly summarizedhere, for the plausibility of supposing basic norms to be constitutively truth-regarding is proportional to the plausibility of supposing their subject ofregulation, belief, to be constitutively truth-regarding in the first place.
Beliefs constitutive relation to truth becomes apparent once we notice howbelief differs from conative attitudes such as hope and desire as well as from itscognitive brethren such as assuming, supposing and imagining. What beliefshares with all other cognitive attitudes, in virtue of their common direction of fit,is their acceptance of the proposition involved, regarding it as true rather than asto be made true, using Vellemans phrase. This is an old chestnut, though, andmore illuminating for our present purpose is the difference between acceptance-in-the-belief-way from acceptance-in-the-imagining-, supposing-, or assuming-way, hav-ing to do, according to Velleman and Shah, with the special and immediaterelevance truth holds over belief which it does not also hold for other cognitiveattitudes. What distinguishes belief is that the (first-personal) deliberativequestion of whether to believe p is decisively and exclusively settled by whetherp, whereas whether to imagine, to assume or to suppose p is not decisively andexclusively settled by whether p, rendering belief transparent to truth in acharacteristic manner (using Richard Morans original term, 1988: 146). Seekingto capture transparency, Shah and Velleman arrive at the central thesis thatconceiving of an attitude as a belief, rather than an assumption or an instance ofimagining, entails conceiving of it as an acceptance that is regulated for truth,while also applying to it the standard of being correct if and only if it is true(2005: 497). Supposing with Velleman and Shah, then, that truth-regarding normsconstitutively underwrite belief, we may also suppose that basic norms, stillbelonging to the extended belief-regulatory business, division belief-management
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in argumentation as it were, inherit their constitutive regard for truth from thesame regard distinguishing belief.
This schema presents the most plausible line along which to defend the viewthat the kinds of norms constitutive of argumentation incorporate a special regardfor truth. This alone cannot determine the exact content of basic norms, however, asthere are plenty of different ways of fleshing out the relevant condition of having aspecial regard for truth. To be more specific would force me into taking sides vis-a`-vis controversial epistemological matters somewhat orthogonal to the presenttopic. This is not to deny that further problems might lurk in the background oncethe skeptic is pressed to provide additional details. Yet howmuch help we can, andshould, expect from the skeptic, qua skeptic, in the resolution of contestedepistemological matters concerning the precise content of basic norms is unclear.His generic recipe, to proceed by identifying common ground to argue from, usingpremises and inferential rules acceptable by all relevant parties, can only be takenso far. In any case, how well the skeptic shall face up to these detailedepistemological issues presents a topic for another occasion.
What I need to be clear on, however, is what exactly the constitutive move canand cannot accomplish. It may somewhat help keeping in check the reign ofcontingency, but it cannot eliminate it altogether. The design of basic norms mayreflect various historical contingencies, making certain styles of argument seemmore appealing to us than others, and if so it should simply be acknowledged thatour argumentative practices did not have to turn out as they in fact did. Moreimportantly, basic norms, together with the special regard for truth theyincorporate, are surely escapable. Nobody is compelled to accept them, and inparticular, nobody is compelled to share the special regard for truth characteristicof basic norms. Instead, one may elect to uphold a different system of normsaltogether, shmasic norms governing shmelief, an attitude free of any constitutiverelation to truth, and as a consequence one may choose to engage in some rivalpractice of Shmargument instead of Argument (cf. Enoch 2006). The appeal toconstitutive relations cannot determine whether to be a believer or shmeliever,whether to be guided by basic norms or shmasic norms, whether to engage inArgument or Shmargument. One either is in the business of arguing and believing, abusiness constitutively characterized by the special regard for truth, and in thatcase it is a given that one already exhibits the characteristic regard for truth, or oneis not in that business, and in that case one does not exhibit the characteristicregard for truth. Nobody can be compelled to enter the business of argumentation,though those already inside may be argued into staying (cf. Velleman 2004: 2901).
Should success of the skeptics attempt to accommodate argumentationrequire that he remove all possible alternatives from the picture, he shall fail, butsuccess requires no such thing. True, the skeptic must hope enough potentialinterlocutors share a commitment to basic norms, despite its contingency, so thatthe conversation can keep going. For him, argumentation represents a fragilepossibility presupposing a sufficient degree of convergence in the basicargumentative attitudes of the participating parties. When convergence turnstoo slim, when not enough shared ground is available to rely upon, as might be
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the case with regard to radically discrepant logical systems, the possibility ofargument may disappear. I do not believe thats generally the case in meta-ethicaldebate, but it also seems true that the range of resolvable philosophicaldisagreement is much smaller than many wish, and should the skeptic predictas much it would certainly count in his favor. So while the skeptic does not havethe resources to accommodate every form of apparent argument, perhaps noteven non-question-begging argumentation about the fundamentals of basicnorms, it might all the same be the case that enough convergence is secured, thatenough interlocutors come to share a commitment to basic norms so that theargument can carry on. The skeptics objective of this essay is not to demonstratehow he can guarantee argumentation, but the more modest one of showing it apossibility, however fragile, realized here and there, including, hopefully, in thisdefense of skepticism.
Suppose, then, that basic norms are constitutive of philosophical argumentation;notice, however, that this neither implies nor requires that they have objectiveauthority, securing the consistency of affirming constitutive relations whiledenying authority. Games require constitutive norms yet nobody believes thisnecessitates the presence of objectively authoritative rules. If in chess one startsmoving rooks diagonally one has effectively ceased to play chess. Likewise, if onestops displaying the special regard for truth characteristic of basic norms, e.g., byrefusing to regulate ones assumptions in light of what the evidence supports, onehas effectively ceased to engage in philosophical argumentation. Since nothing inthis constitutive relationship requires the presence of objective normative facts,there is nothing paradoxical or incoherent in the notion that skeptics may use basicnorms in order to advance their position while simultaneously denying theirauthority and affirming their constitutive nature. If they were able to defend theirposition successfullya tall order by anyones admissionwe could say that as faras we can tell their position appears more probably true than not. We would havearrived at this judgment by employing basic norms for truth-seeking to the best ofour abilities. Notice we could even agree on calling the position justified-according-to-basic-norms, so long as all we mean by this is that the faithful employment ofbasic norms has prompted this result.
The relationship between constitutive and authoritative norms warrants onefurther comment, especially in light of the prominence of recent attempts toexplain authority in terms of what supposedly is constitutive for certainfundamental endeavors (Korsgaard 2009, Velleman 2009, Ferrero 2009). Constitu-tion and authority represent rather distinct phenomena, and to equate them is toequate apples and oranges. At the very least, constitution cannot be the wholestory on authority even if it was part of it, which I shall question momentarily,becoming apparent once we realize that many norms held authoritative are notconstitutive of anything, without threatening the corresponding status just byitself. Return to chess. There are rules for how to move the queen that are in partconstitutive of chess. In addition, there are queen-related stratagems, such as thatone ought not to get the queen out too early. This piece of advice clearly is notconstitutive of chess for nobody plays any-less-than-chess for ignoring it.
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Nonetheless, that does not undermine the force or point of the advice.4 If there aresuch things as valid chess-rules, one seems just as good as the other.
More importantly, though, the kind of necessity that underwrites constitutionis not the same as that underwriting normative authority. Constitution concernswhat we cant help doing more than what we should be doing. It belongs more tothe purview of the engineer who designs complex norm-consuming systems thanto that of the ethicist and practical philosopher. Suppose acceptance of norm Nturns out to be constitutive for doing X. In that case you cannot do X whiledisrespecting N. Should you also care about doing X, then you would onlyachieve what you care about so long as you implement N (assuming that you didnot have reasons to care). You gotta do what you gotta do. Yet nothing more seemsto follow. In particular, nothing of the kind follows that you normatively mustcomply with N or that you have any reasons to do so. The impossibility of doing-X-while-disregarding-N could reflect some basic constraints in design-space akin tothat one cannot build stable bridges while disrespecting the laws of gravity.Moreover, the inescapability of doing X itself would not change the normativesituation either, but solely place yet another constraint on your practical options.Thus, even if you absolutely had to do Xa choice you simply could not evadeand further that doing X was required for complying with N, this hardly wouldentail any reasons to comply with N on your part. One constraint would lead toanother, but the fact remains that being constrained is not the same as havingreasons. You merely would find yourself trapped in a tight corner. Might doesnot make right, however, as normative force evidently differs from brute force.Demands do not gain authoritative standing solely in virtue of their possession ofabsolute powers over us.
Now, returning to my counterproposal, I maintained that skeptics are free toemploy basic norms even though they reject their authoritative standing. Perhapsthis is too quick, though. A concern remains: Must the elevation of basic norms toguide philosophical argumentation not seem arbitrary once their objectiveauthority is renounced? The answer is yes and no. It depends on what we meanby arbitrary. If by arbitrary we mean unlicensed by authoritative reasonsarbitrary1 as we may call itthen the answer is yes. If, by contrast, by arbitrary wemean blindly and capriciously chosenarbitrary2 as we may call itthen theanswer is no. The charge of arbitrariness1 simply restates the absence of objectiveauthority and thereby fails to advance an independent argument against theskeptic, who responds to it not by denying it (yes, basic norms are arbitrary1,guilty as charged!), but by attempting to take the wind out of its sails. The chargeof arbitrariness generally speaking has force only against the discriminatorypresumption that some norms may be justified while others are not, the latterdisplaying the comparative blemish of lacking the distinction the formerpossesses, with the implicit recommendation that arbitrary norms be replacedby non-arbitrary norms. Should realism prevail, finding fault in arbitrary1 normsmakes perfect sense as their condition may in principle be rectified. Shouldskepticism prevail, however, then the justificatory presumption associated witharbitraryness1 would lack any discriminatory force, for no norm whatsoever
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could ever stand out against others as superior in this regard, and nothing couldbe done to rectify the unfortunate condition of arbitrariness necessarily shared byall norms alike. In that scenario the criticism of arbitrariness1 would be formallyapplicable yet turn out empty.
Non-arbitrariness2, in contrast, only requires that there is something thatrenders our choices intelligible and sensible, and basic norms may satisfy thatcondition by being intelligible and thus non-arbitrary by our own lights. Thecrucial difference between non-arbitrariness1 and non-arbitrariness2 consists inthe difference between being-justified-simpliciter versus being justified-according-to-our-standards-and-ends. Basic norms are non-arbitrary2 since we use basic normsbecause they enable and facilitate something we care about, namely the discoveryof truths. Our cognitive architecture probably is predisposed to empower rationalreasoning to some extent, for evolutionary and cultural reasons. But beyond that,basic norms represent a social achievement where, through a gradual process ofadjustment, they have been refined and passed on. They survived a toughselection process that was not as kind to many competitors. While skeptics denythat basic norms possess an authority that tea-leaf epistemology lacks, the formercertainly serves our cognitive goals better than the latter. For the skeptic, thecharge of arbitrariness retains critical force when leveled from within ourestablished web of norms, getting its grip against a background of agreed-uponstandards and principles, as when we criticize a hiring-decision as arbitrary forits failure to reflect talent and merit. Our consensus to hire the talented anddeserving defines a critical backdrop against which we can criticize a decisionbased on looks as arbitrary. Arbitrariness-judgments proceeding in a vacuum, incontrast, lack any force.
To admit: the force of this strategy is restricted, diminishing as we approachthe limiting case of choice-situations between radically diverging norm systems,internally sound total norm-packages with no intersections, as it were. Theproponent of each total package may explain to himself why his choice isintelligible and thus non-arbitrary2 given his position in overall norm-space, butwe surely wouldnt expect this to provide a particularly powerful explanation toproponents of opposite total packages. The sense in which the choice of totalnorm-packages counts as non-arbitrary2 may thus turn too thin to be entirelysatisfactory, showing the skeptic mostly capable of sidestepping the arbitrarinessworry but not completely so, burdening him with a theoretical cost thatultimately must be measured against the costs borne by his opponents, all-inmore substantial in the skeptics estimate, a case awaiting examination on anotheroccasion. (We briefly return to a similar issue in the section on commitment).
To sum up, skeptics respond to the charge of arbitrariness by either grantingthe charge while denying its force (arbitrary1) or by granting its force whiledenying the charge (arbitrary2). The two senses must be kept separate, of course,and it would be fallacious to infer non-arbitrariness1 on the basis of non-arbitrariness2, rendering the skeptics response inconsistent as a result. What themeta-normative skeptic subscribes to, then, is nothing but an application ofQuinean holism and the method of reflective equilibrium to the case of norms,
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not as epistemological devices, for there is no epistemology of correct normsaccording to the skeptic, but as the inevitable entry points to all status-questionsregarding norms, as devices of internal modification (Street 2008). We still lack atrue alternative to sailing along in Neuraths famous boat.
Still, a final problem threatens. Truth was among the epistemic goals Iproposed and basic norms are employed in the service of that goal. Am I, whodenies normative authority, entitled to that move? After all, truth andrepresentation seem quintessentially normative notions: Truth is the primaryvirtue of belief and theory, and representation entails the possibility ofmisrepresentation. Must meta-normative skepticism not lose all conceptualtitle to them as a consequence? (cf. Wedgwood 2007).5 The answer is no.Conceptually speaking, truth and representation are normative in the norm-involving sense, but not necessarily in the authoritative sense. And again,whatever norms and standards of correctness conceptually underwrite truth andrepresentation, skepticism need not take issue with those norms. It can freely grantthat only norm-guided systems are capable of forming representational statesthat can be judged true or false. However, being conceptually tied to norms doesnot entail being conceptually tied to norms with any particular meta-normativestatus. Whether we have authoritative reasons to believe whats true is asubstantive matter which cannot be settled by mere conceptual clarification. Thisis so even if, conceptually speaking, to believe is to aim at whats true, and truthis correctness in belief. All this concession entails is that we have reasons tobelieve whats true according-to-the-relevant-norms-that-define-belief. Reasons in therelevant authoritative and unconditional sense, in contrast, are never come by viaconceptual avenues alone.
This concludes my response to the first transcendental argument. What theargument establishes is that we cannot exit the realm of norms altogether and yetcontinue to engage in critical enterprises such as philosophical argumentation.We need something to stand upon to make a move. The skeptic must accept thatour fundamental practices have no internal exit strategy, no route out fromwithin. Yet the skeptic never had any intention to exit the realm of norms in thefirst place. The displacement of norms never was his goal. He embraces them,without conditions of the meta-normative kind. His position only challenges aparticular interpretation of our commitments to norms: that we are free toemploy them only when we can recognize them as objectively correct. All thefirst transcendental argument shows is that certain endeavors require norms, notthat norms have any normative property. Since skeptics have no quarrels withnorms, the argument seems misdirected. With that, let us turn to the secondtranscendental argument against meta-normative skepticism.
David Enoch has recently developed a powerful adaptation of the transcendentalstrategy in support of a version of realism he calls robust normative realism, which
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he defines as the view that there are response-independent, non-natural, irreduciblynormative truths, perfectly objective and universal ones, that when successful in ournormative inquiries we discover rather than create or construct (2007: 21). Robustrealism represents a particularly heavy-weight version of realism, going beyondthe latters mere affirmation of authority in whatever form, employing thetranscendental strategy as one component among others in its larger defense.This does not diminish its congenial appeal to proponents of other forms ofrealism, though; quite the opposite, in Enochs hands the strategy experiences ageneralization from the epistemic case to concern all of practical reasoning. Thecore concept in Enochs argument is deliberative indispensability, which hejuxtaposes to explanatory indispensability. Consider the latter first. Why believein electrons? The answer is that electrons feature in our best (and decent)scientific theories. Electrons seem explanatorily indispensable to science, andwith abduction we are entitled to believe that there actually are electrons.Moreover, as Enoch observes, science is not an enterprise we could easilydispense with. Clearly not all enterprises justify ontological commitments inthose features that cannot be eliminated from them without undermining theirvery point. Indispensability in science carries ontological weight because it is partof an explanatory project that is itself indispensable because it is one we cannotand certainly ought notfail to engage in, it is unavoidable for us; we areessentially explanatory creatures. Enoch concludes: With non-optional projectslike the explanatory one, there is no real option of abandoning them. If somethingis indispensable for such a project, it seems belief is the only rational way to go(2007: 334).6
Turn then to deliberative indispensability. Enoch argues that (robustlyunderstood) normative truths are indispensable for deliberation, anotherenterprise we have no choice but to take seriously, and that this grounds beliefin such truths. He rejects the idea that normative truths are explanatorilyindispensable for deliberation. The progression of thoughts and intentions thatconstitutes deliberation is part of the natural order, and for all we know robustlymeta-normative truths are not required for its explanation. Yet Enoch believesexplanatory indispensability is not the only basis on which we incur justifiedontological commitments. The indispensability of features that provide point andpurpose to deliberation can justify belief in them as well. After all, we are no lessessentially deliberative creatures than we are essentially explanatory creatures. Wecannot and should not avoid asking ourselves what to do, what to believe, how toreason, what to care about. . . . The deliberative project is not one we can opt outof, it is not optional for us (2007: 34). Consequently, if deliberation makes senseonly if there are reasons, and we must deliberate, it seems we are committed toreasons: by deliberating you commit yourself to there being relevant reasons; ifyou also believe there arent any, you are being inconsistent . . . and irrational(2007: 38).
Enochs emphasis on our own deliberative perspective is well placed. Howcould we altogether fail to take seriously our own deliberative engagementtogether with what it entails? We possibly could adopt an uncompromisingly
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cynical attitude towards the deliberative attempts of other people who we coulddeplore as victims of thoroughgoing deception and illusion. But it seems hard toimagine how we could adopt a similar attitude towards our own deliberation.Even when we entertain the terrifying possibility of being subjected to massiveerror, we must at least have some confidence in our ability to reason towards asensible response to that possibility: whether to take it seriously, and in case wedo, what to think and do then. In general, even when we contemplate radicalchallenges to the sensibility of our own deliberation, we must do so quadeliberators who cannot but take seriously at least some of their own deliberativeinclinations. If Enoch could demonstrate that we would be incapable ofrecovering point and purpose in our own deliberative engagement withoutbelieving in (robustly) normative truths, we would be under considerablepressure to form that belief. Indeed, given the essentially deliberative creatureswe are what more convincing case can we imagine for such truths?
Enoch imagines a student contemplating whether to stay in law school orwhether instead to switch into philosophy. The decision is of some consequenceand treated accordingly. Questions are coming up concerning his happiness inlaw versus philosophy, the prospects of succeeding as a lawyer versus as aphilosopher, as well as the two careers potential impact on political issues, andso on. And then There remains the ultimate question. All things considered,you ask yourself, what makes best sense for me to do? When all is said and done,what should I do? What shall I do? (2007: 36). These are fair observations, andhere is how Enoch thinks they support realism:
When engaging in this deliberation, when asking yourself thesequestions, you assume, so it seems to me, that they have answers. Theseanswers may be very vague, allow for indeterminacy, and so on. But atthe very least you assume that some possible answers to these questionsare better than others. You try to find out what the (better) answers tothese questions are, and how they interact so as to answer the arch-question, the one about what makes most sense for you to do. You are nottrying to create these answers. . . . When trying to make up your mind, itdoesnt feel just like trying to make an arbitrary choice. . . . Rather, it feelslike trying to make the right choice. . . . Making the decision is up to you.But which decision is the one it makes most sense for you to make is not.This is something you are trying to discover, not create. (Enoch 2007: 36)
Enoch contrasts deliberation with mere picking. Consider the situation where wehave to choose between two equally decent brands of cereal. Enoch continues:
We can just pick in the face of a known (or believed) absence of reasons.But we cannot, it seems, deliberate in the face of a believed absence ofreasons. Knowing that there is no decision such that it makes most sensefor us to make it, we cannotnot consistently. . .try to make thedecision it makes most sense for us to make. Deliberationunlike merepickingis an attempt to eliminate arbitrariness by discovering
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(normative) reasons, and it is impossible in a believed absence of suchreasons to be discovered. (Enoch 2007: 37)
Call this the argument from correct-answers. It asserts that when we deliberate weincur a commitment to normative reasons that are relevant to our deliberation.7
The argument contains two steps: deliberation requires that there are correct andincorrect answers, and correct and incorrect answers require normative reasons.It begins by capturing something important about the phenomenology ofdeliberation. Figuring out whether to eat at home or to go out is not entirelyunlike figuring out whether the restaurant is still open. There must be somethingto deliberative answers that is not exhausted by the fact that they just happen tobe the answers we choose. Otherwise deliberation indeed collapses into merepicking where no place is left for reasoned decision-making. Step one seems fine.What the skeptic contests is step two. Correctness in deliberative answers doesnot require (robust) normative reasons and in fact represents a phenomenon theskeptic can accommodate, although he must construe correctness as less involvingthan Enoch makes it out to be. The question is whether he can offer an alternativeaccount that still permits point and purpose to what we are doing when we arethinking about what to do.
The contours of the skeptics counterproposal are predictable as they draw onideas developed in the previous section and the epistemic case, generalizing nowto all domains of practical reasoning. Deliberation receives correct answers fromwithin the web of our concerns and antecedent norm-commitments we bringto the deliberative task, the skeptic maintains, accounting for deliberativecorrectness conditionally, relative to the norms we employ, while his opponentinsists on an unconditional reading. We deliberate when, driven by our concernsand norm-commitments, we actively participate in the resolution of practicalproblems, including the selection and development of which norms to live by,searching for common ground for how to coordinate our individual and jointendeavors. The deliberative enterprise is not unconstrained and is answerable tostandards of correctness as it is carried out within a tight web of norms that wedo already accept, a web we continuously spin and expand. The skeptic does nothave the resources to accommodate deliberative correctness outside this web ofnorms, correctness simpliciter as it were, and thus what Charles Taylor (1977)called radical or strong evaluation, an assessment of our most fundamentalcommitments on the basis of some view from nowhere, is not an option theskeptic can countenance; he only has the resources to accommodate deliberativecorrectness from within, his only card to play, which he needs to play well,rendering plausible that what he can offer is indeed most of what we expect fromdeliberation.
Consider the deliberative task of figuring out how to organize the order inwhich students present in class. Suppose we conclude that it is best done bylottery. How did we arrive at that deliberative solution? We found it to becomparatively fair, since it does not flow from the mere swiftness and vigor withwhich students voice their preference, and we also prize the mutual harmony this
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decision procedure engenders. We know students will be more comfortable withtheir slot if they can rest assured that no one was unduly favored. We have, inother words, worked out a solution to a practical problem against a backdrop ofshared standards. What precise content the standards have is hard to pin down.It probably includes a commitment that everyone has an equal shot in choosinghis favorite slot. The point is that in light of those standards, whatever theircontent, the decision we made is recognizably better than many alternatives, andthus can be considered correct in a more profound sense than merely being thelucky one we chose.
The skeptic applies the same account to deliberation about norms andprinciples itself. Norms are addressed to us and we must determine whether totake seriously what is so addressed, and thus we, the unique consumers ofnorms, inevitably face the task of deciding which norms to empower with action-guiding potential and which not, resulting in a division structurally resemblingthe realists division between norms with and without authority. There are noobjectively correct norms and principles that hold unconditionally, the skepticmaintains, but standards of correctness are built right into norms, and thusgranting him some he may commence deliberation about others. In the context ofdeliberation about principles we shall no less rely on a horizon of norm-commitments within which to navigate further norm-selection. Standing uponmore fundamental norms we may judge less fundamental norms, and judge in amanner that permits for correct resultsintending the fundamental/non-fundamental distinction to be drawn contextually, vis-a`-vis concrete norm-choicesituations, with no norm principally enjoying a more fundamental statusthan others. The norms employed to judge others are taken for granted in thesame deliberative context, momentarily suspending the request for justificationin terms of yet further norms, with the possibility of reopening the case atany time.
Should we, in the progression to further and further norms, reach rock bottomat some point, then we would also have reached the end of our deliberative story,where little is left than to mention that this is simply how we are, that this is ourdeliberative way of life. Norms underwriting our planning capacities may besuch an instance, in their pressure towards means-end coordination, meshing ofsub-plans, diachronic stability, etc. (Bratman 1999) It seems irrational to refuse totake the obvious means to an end of major importance (assuming furtherconditions are met), and the norm driving that judgment may simply be builtright into our cognitive design, with no further deliberative because involved,characterizing (most of) us as (mostly) instrumental reasoners, and thats that.Such ultimate norms, should they exist, would probably bear out themselves,unless they are extremely poorly designed, representing a case of some rathertrivial self-certification, for sure, but not a case of bootstrapping to authority,since authority is no posit of the skeptical approach. It is true, then, that theskeptical account entails some limitations concerning the scope of non-trivialdeliberation, but this should be fine so long as enough space is left for the familiarkinds of non-trivial deliberation. Enochs challenge is to explain how there can be
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deliberation at all if the skeptic is right, and that we can explain, namely howthere could be point and purpose to deliberation about where to go given wherewe are. The skeptic and the realist may disagree about the scope of non-trivialdeliberation, but thats an issue for another occasion.
Commitment looms large in this deliberative approach, and I need to say moreabout it, especially how it interacts with norms. Start with a challenge the skepticfaces. The skeptic intends to stay committed to all sorts of norms, yet realists maywonder whether the skeptic is not forced to mischaracterize the nature ofcommitment. Without any confidence in the authority of the relevant norms,realists may complain, the skeptics intention to say committed to them anywaymust emerge as an unsustainable fetish, a sort of rule-worship in its worst form.The skeptics response to the transcendental argument depends crucially uponemphasizing a gap between the purportedly practical question of what norms tocommit to and the purportedly theoretical question of what properties normshave, yet what is commitment if not acceptance in virtue of recognized authority,the realist asks. To this the skeptic responds by contesting the underlyingassumption wedding commitment and authority by suggesting an alternativeinterpretation where commitments are divorced from judgments on normativeauthority. Skeptics say, rather, that commitments are stable psychologicaldispositions endorsed by reflection, to follow some norms dictates, incorporat-ing a readiness and willingness to be guided by it without regret; perhaps alsoaccompanied by a further disposition to find certain features salient, or toexclude certain options from consideration. Commitments further involve somepreparedness to see to it that ones intention to engage [in the relevant norm-practices]persists (Calhoun 2009: 61522, Frankfurt 1988).
Turn, then, to what commitment adds to norms. When we commit to a norm,we endow it with a special kind of motivational force, the only force left afternormative force has been removed from the picture, with the consequence thatwe empower the norm to assume an action-guiding capacity, as a map we steerby. Vis-a`-vis norms met by no commitment we can still work out what they entailis to be done, as a purely intellectual exercise, as when we say: Yes, this is what Iam supposed to do according to etiquette, but hasten to add: but I couldnt careless about etiquette. What we then experience quite immediately is the relativityof the relevant supposed-to-do claim to a standard wanting of all motivationalimpetus, failing to resonate with us entirely. In committing to a norm, in contrast,we allow it to take a more active role in our deliberative economy. The relativityof the demands it issues is still there, of course, but becomes seeminglymotivationally discharged. In conjunction to our cognitive capacity enabling us torepresent norms, supplying conditions of correctness to deliberation, we alsopossess the motivational capacity enabling us to commit, supplying practicalforce to deliberation. Neither capacity can help perform the job of the other, andcommitment, in particular, cannot add further correctness-conditions, given itspurely motivational/dispositional character, and thus whatever correctness-conditions are operative in some deliberative context must be fully accounted forin terms of the norms employed.
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My approach echoes what Mark Timmons (1999) has developed with regardsto moral knowledge: Things get interesting when we judge from within a moraloutlook, a position from which genuine moral assertions and truth ascriptions tomoral statements have a home, as it were. And it is from this morally engagedperspective that talk of moral knowledge becomes interesting and useful.Timmons contrasts this engaged perspective with a detached perspective wherethe proper thing to say about moral truth is that there is none. That is, from astrictly metaphysical perspective from which we are asking about what therereally is, since there are no moral facts or properties, there is no moral truth(1999: 244; cf. also Wright 1992: 2001, Blackburn 1998). This nicely sums it up. Itoo wish to maintain that from without the web of committed normsthemetaphorical view from nowhere (Nagel 1986)deliberation cannot get off theground. If we ever could adopt such a non-perspective perspective, we wouldhave no choice but to notice the thoroughgoing nihilism it engenders.Fortunately, there is no deliberative view from nowhere, and even if, perimpossibile, there were such a view, there would be no reasons to privilege itsresults rather than those generated by our own viewpoint.
It is worth mentioning how norm-commitments contribute to the deliberativeenterprise, and in particular, where and how they enter the deliberative theater,since there is a common concern that views regarding deliberation as norm andcommitment based cannot accommodate the phenomenology of deliberation,which appears to be world-wise and outward-directed rather than inward-directed. Deliberation engages the world and rarely amounts to a mere exercisein navel-gazing. To be norm-committed is to have a stake in things, but what wehave a stake in are things and not commitments. What we should say in responseis that our norm-commitments constitute our deliberative background, and thatthey only rarely, only under especially peculiar circumstances, occupy ourdeliberative foreground (Enoch forthcoming c, Schroeder 2008a, 2008b, Dancy2000, Blackburn 1998, Pettit and Smith 1990). What recommends certain choicesinstead of others first and foremost has to do with how things are. This is not todiminish the important role of our norm-commitments, for without them nosituation by itself does ever recommend anything. Yet as important the role theyplay, the role is better seen as that of a background enabler, which is that of aspotlight operator rather than that of a frontal stage actor. We look at our optionsthrough our norm-commitments instead of paying them more direct attention. Itis in light of our norm-commitments that certain practical options become moreattractive than others, where importantly the light springs from our norm-commitments instead of shining on them, and where what is illuminated inparticularly favorable colors are choices rather than commitments. A deliberativetransition would not take the form because I am committed to X and Y serves X I shallY. Rather, Y serves X (which I am committed to), hence Y. That is why weinfrequently notice the commitments that condition deliberation, and why we areso flabbergasted when, in case of fundamental disagreement, we are thrownback to the bare ways we feel about things. Famously, though, this absence ofevidence is not evidence of absence. We detect the important contribution of our
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norm-commitments when we start philosophizing about deliberation as aphenomenon of the natural world.
Return, finally, to Enochs student. He cares about happiness, success, and theprospects of making a difference in the political world, among other things.Should he stay in law or switch into philosophy? His deliberation will beanchored in his norm-commitments, concerns, and his factual estimates: whatpromises do the two careers hold for his life, and which of the two so projectedlife-paths should he choose? Perhaps success leans towards law, happinesstowards philosophy? The question then is what is more important to him.Initially this may be hard to tell. But after some thought he might reason thatwithout happiness success is unlikely to arise; and that success in law appearsattractive only due to features that are incompatible with his commitment topolitical equality: dominance and showing off riches. Moreover, he may fear themany compromises of an increasingly troubling nature that success in law wouldrequire. Would he not in the end find himself defending big oil and vindictivedivorcees? In contrast, the hardships of finding a job in philosophy when he isyoung are easier to bear than the frustrations as a lawyer when he is old. All inall, he may conclude success loses and happiness and philosophy wins. A varietyof practical norms will condition the deliberative process and explain why thedeciding factors support his ultimate decision. Such as the principle that if,everything being equal, out of two comparable goals only one comports with asignificant third, one should choose that one.
To conclude, I find Enochs argument compelling until its very last step. Thechallenge it presents to skepticism is on the right track. I believe there is someoptimism that skepticism can meet it, but I also want to admit the debate isanything but over. Skepticism faces many other problems, awaiting assessmenton a different occasion, and in large measures is also quite counterintuitive, justas one would expect from a skeptical position. I believe the present deliberation-oriented problematic holds particular prominence, though, and so I wish toreciprocate the sincerity of argumentation Enoch makes a point of stating at thebeginning of his essay: If normative truths robustly-realistically understood arenot after all indispensable for deliberation . . . then I no longer care whetherRobust Realism is true (Enoch 2007: 23). In the same spirit I wish to profess thatif robust normative truths are indispensable for deliberation I shall cease to careabout skepticism. Whether or not deliberation can be made sense of withoutobjectively normative reasons constitutes the philosophical test case for whatmeta-normative theory to accept. My response to Enoch admittedly had aprogrammatic undertone. But this is hard to avoid. A more detailed responsemust ultimately await a more detailed development of the transcendentalarguments themselves. More importantly, however, there is only so much thatcan be said about deliberation in the abstract. I claim deliberation engagesconcrete situations within rich concern-based and norm-commitment-basedcontexts. If so, then what we should expect is that every situation requires its ownsubstantive treatment. From the outside and in the abstract little of use can besaid. Meta-surveys provide at best faint solution-schemas for practical problems.
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What we should not expect, in contrast, is that we can settle first-order issues byexclusively contemplating higher-order problems. A chief goal of this essay isworking towards removing meta-concerns so that substantive deliberation canproceed unhindered.
At the heart of the meta-normative problematic lies our reflective ability tostay indifferent towards the dictates of norms, and to ask why we have to dowhat they say. Many think this is a problem that requires a realistic meta-normative solution that transcends our contingent and escapable commitments:the solution of finding an objective and unconditional authority that providesnormative backup for our norms. I believe it does not require a solution of thatkind. The solution could be purely practical. We may doubt that our norms haveobjective authority and then employ them anyway. If norms make sense to us andfacilitate our goals why should we worry about their objective authority? We dostay loyal to many norm-driven practices in a purely practical manner withoutholding meta-normative beliefs them. What is important for practices to carry onis that people stay loyal; not that they have certain beliefs. In any case, even ifpeople had those beliefs, even if they took utmost confidence in the authority ofour norms, this still might not answer the practical problem. As Foot puts it thequestion remains as to why we should do what we are required to do (1972: 310).Authority would not automatically settle the practical question. We still have todecide whether to go along with norms we take to be authoritative in a robustmeta-normative sense. If we shall be able to shrug this off as easily as wesupposedly can with non-authoritative norms, as I think we can, then how muchprogress have we really made on the practical front by inventing8 objectiveauthority?
Stan HusiDepartment of PhilosophyRice UniversityUSAshusi@rice.edu
1 The terminological choice of skepticism and realism is imperfect, but I know of nobetter alternative. By realism I am going mean simply the affirmation of objective authorityas a feature of norms, including Platonistic, Kantian, or Naturalistic versions. When Idiscuss more specific versions of realism, I will make sure to say so.
2 While the prevalence of norms should be ample documentation for their existence, itis harder to pin down what that existence amounts to. Norms are clearly no mereregularities, since regularities cannot ground incorrectness and inappropriateness, thedistinctive mark of norms. Further norms need to be distinguished from the practices thatimplement them, standards of correctness from the more involving social/psychologicalcomplexes containing enforcement, internalization, or whatever, keeping alive thedistinction between norms having or not having currency in societies or minds, using
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David Copps useful phrase. Further norms are not identified with mental representations,for it would be rather convenient to speak of norms nobody has ever thought of, as whenwe deplore that we did not yet find the best solution to a norm-related question eventhough we are convinced there is one, a perfect norm given others we already accept.Norms, Im inclined to think, are abstract objects, allowing every conceivable norm to existin some sense, utilitarian requiring to maximize pleasure along anti-utilitarian requiring tominimize pleasure, Kantian requiring to never treat persons as mere means along withanti-Kantian requiring to always treat persons as mere means, basic requiring to form true-representations along anti-basic requiring to form false-representations, and so forth.
3 Notice Strouds point applies most forcefully when we presume there is a clear gapbetween what we have to believe and whats true. As I argue in the paragraph, I believeone can acknowledge as much while also acknowledging transcendental arguments tomake a genuine contribution. It is worth further pointing out, however, that not allversions of authority-realism may even presuppose that there is such a gap in the firstplace. With regard to them, the transcendental argument would provide even moreimmediate and powerful support.
4 Notice also that if we were to suppose the point of the stratagem predicated on thegoal of playing chess successfully, it would be equally true to suppose the point of theconstitutive rule predicated on the goal of playing chess in the first place.
5 Wedgwood believes the intentional is quintessentially normative, and that thisprovides the key insight into metaethics.
6 As I understand Enoch, his argument has little in common with the constitutiveprogram discussed above. Not because we cannot help being explainers do we havereasons to take seriously what underwrites that engagement. Enoch has vigorously arguedagainst attempts to ground reasons in what is constitutive for our fundamental projects(Enoch 2006). Rather, I take Enoch to target his case at those who do already take (oracknowledge that they should take) science seriously, (namely us) and wonder whether tobelieve in electrons. To them the explanatory indispensability of electrons must appear asignificant detail. The argument has a pragmatic undertone that Enoch now explicitlyendorses (Enoch, forthcoming a, chapter 3). He also goes into some detail about whatprecisely explanatory indispensability amounts to. The outline at hand is intuitive andfamiliar, though, and suffices for our purposes.
7 Read the assertion with all relevant qualifications in place: that not every deli-berative occasion entails a corresponding commitment, that we need not be consciouslyaware of those commitments, etc.
8 I would like to thank David Enoch, Joachim Horvath, Mark Nelson, PhilipRobichaud, Stefan Sciaraffa, Hanoch Sheinman, George Sher, and an anonymous referee.
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