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Theses Doctoral

Normative Reality: Reasons Fundamentalism, Irreducibility, and Metaethical Noncentralism

Engel, Nicholas Edward

Reasons fundamentalists assert that normative reality is constituted by exemplifications of the normative reasons relation: an irreducible, sui generis relation that strongly supervenes on non-normative reality. In this dissertation, I argue that reasons fundamentalists cannot explain why exemplifications of the normative reasons relation strongly supervene on non-normative reality. Irreduciblists about normativity can avoid this problem by asserting, contra the reasons fundamentalist, that normative reality is constituted by exemplifications of thick properties, which provide material for a conceptual analysis of normative reasons. The theory that results analyzes normative reasons for action as answers to questions why an action promotes a thick property.
Nearly every normative theorist affirms what I call
Additive Normative Supervenience (ANS): Normatively discernible worlds must be non-normatively discernible.
ANS asserts that, if Edward Snowden is morally good, then Snowden's counterparts in worlds that are indiscernible in all non-normative respects must be good. Reasons fundamentalists struggle to explain why ANS is true. I consider and reject potential explanations of ANS that appeal to conceptual entailment and a posteriori necessity. Rosen has recently offered an argument against ANS. Rejecting ANS, however, problematizes irreduciblist accounts of normative explanation and normative epistemology.
Irreduciblists can avoid this dilemma by arguing that ANS is either incoherent or false and adopting an alternative formulation of normative supervenience. Bilgrami's arguments against the intelligibility of normative supervenience doctrines purport to show that ANS is in fact unintelligible, and Merricks' arguments against the supervenience of consciousness on microphysical properties can be extended to show that ANS is false. Neither argument, however, establishes the falsity or unintelligibility of a modified formulation of normative supervenience,
Transformative Normative Supervenience (TNS): Normatively discernible worlds must be descriptively discernible,
where descriptive discernibility is just discernibility with respect to non-normative properties or thick normative properties. Irreduciblists can explain the truth of TNS by adopting non-centralism about normative reasons--that is to say, by maintaining, contra the reasons fundamentalist, that normative reality is constituted most fundamentally by exemplifications of thick properties. This allows the irreduciblist to provide an account of normative explanation and normative epistemology, analyze normative reasons in terms of thick properties, and preserve buck-passing accounts of thin normative properties.
Scanlon has argued that the reasons relation is a four-place relation, relating the facts that are reasons for an agent to perform an action in a given circumstance. I argue that facts are also reasons for an action with respect to a thick property that that action will promote, in contrast to sets of distinct actions that the agent could perform instead. The resulting six-place relation turns out to be an instance of the relation that holds between why-questions and answers. What it is to be a normative reason for an agent to do something is to be a correct answer to a question why that agent's doing that action will promote a thick property.
Decades ago, Anscombe had also suggested that reasons were answers to why-questions of a certain kind. The attractiveness of this position has been relatively underappreciated in the philosophy of normative reasons, in part because Anscombe had offered the reasons- as-answers thesis as a thesis about motivating reasons rather than normative reasons. The reasons-as-answers thesis also provides resources for those irreduciblists about reasons who reject my non-centralist conclusions to avoid the wrong kind of reason problem for buck- passing accounts of normativity: they can distinguish between right and wrong kinds of reasons by distinguishing between answers to distinct kinds of why-questions.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Rovane, Carol
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 13, 2017