April 05, 2007

A taxonomy of normative theories

Over the past eight months or so, I've become extremely intrigued by a number of parallels between normative epistemology and normative ethics, both in terms of the content of particular theories and in terms of philosophical methodology. (In some cases, such as Alasdair MacIntyre and pragmatist philosophers of science, there is no sharp line between these two modes, but never mind that for now.) One way to start studying these parallels is taxonomically: group theories into classes which cut across the epistemic/ethical division, and compare and contrast the classes. I hit upon one such scheme of classification the other day, and I'd like to take a few moments to outline it.

The proposal is to examine theories with respect to the way they treat etiology, that is, the causes -- in this case, either the causes of some particular doxastic state, or the causes of some particular action. Call a judgement that either (a) some doxastic state is warranted or (b) some action is ethically permissible a normative judgement (or normative judgement simpliciter). My particular proposal is that we classify theories in terms of what role etiology plays in the account of normative judgement.

In the first category we have theories which emphasise etiology pretty much exclusively, and have a very narrow understanding of what counts as `the right kind' of etiology. Hence, these are theories in which, for example, an action is permissible if and only if it is actually caused by the right sort of motivations, where this latter is a very narrowly defined class. This includes both classical internalism and Kantian ethical theories which emphasise the deontological and `pure practical reason alone' aspects of Kant's ethics.

In the second category are theories where etiology is irrelevant. That is, according to these theories, it doesn't matter at all why you actually did what you did, so long as what you did had the right sort of end result. Consequentialist and utilitarian theories of ethics obviously fall under this heading. I think externalism in general also often falls under this heading. Goldman's reliablism, in particular, seems to be very, very similar to rule-based consequentialism: in both cases, an action/belief receives a positive normative judgement if and only if it is consistent with a good rule, where a rule is good if and only if it yields more goodness (a real, numerically measurable quantity) than not over a sufficiently large class of cases.

The third category is between the first two. These are theories according to which the right etiology is needed, but not sufficient, for a positive normative judgement. Hence, consider Plantinga's proper functionalism: for a belief to be warranted, it needs to actually be caused in the right sort of way (by a properly functioning truth-oriented cognitive faculty), but also needs to be formed in the right sort of environment. On the ethical side, certain species of virtue ethics work in a similar way (those these often reject the permissible/impermissible dichotomy and prefer to focus on whole lives rather than individual acts).

One problem here is that `etiology' is extremely vague, if not downright meaningless. If I pursue this project, the first thing I need to do is sharpen the principles of division. Using teleology instead of etiology might help, since at least the notion of the right sort of end (ethical goodness/truth) is easier to define than the right sort of cause.

At the other end of the project is spelling out the implications of this scheme. Consider the standard divisions between neo-Aristoteleans and consequentialists. Do these divisions also appear between proper functionalism and reliablism? Could a proper functionalist say, for example, that a reliablist has far too narrow and quantitative an understanding of (epistemic) goodness? And do ethical theories have to go along with their epistemic contaxonics? Or could one be a deontologist when it comes to epistemology and a virtue theorist when it comes to ethics, say?

Finally, I'm not sure whether pragmatist and socialist theories fit well into any of these three categories. (Here I have in mind a large group including Quine, Dewey, MacIntyre, Helen Longino, and Bernard Williams.) Perhaps we'd need a fourth and fifth category. Or maybe just a fourth?

1 comment:

Mark Hodges said...

I wonder if it is right to think of Goldman style reliability as ignoring etiology. After all, Goldman claims that beliefs are justified if they are actually generated by reliable - that is truth-conducive - processes.