Normative versus Positive Statements
Tibor R. Machan
Professor Walter Williams is a very good economists but not so good at moral philosophy, as is demonstrated by his recent column (titled in my local paper, “Don’t Confuse what is with what should be”). In this piece he lays out what can fairly be said is now a widely discredited theory about whether moral judgments, like those in the various sciences, are subject to proof. He states that “Normative, or subjective statements deal with what’s good or bad, or what ought to be or should be” and adds, that “there are no facts whatsoever to which we can appeal to settle any disagreement.” He goes on: “One person’s opinion on [a normative] matter is just as good as another’s.”
It is true enough that this is one theory that has been influential especially in modern philosophy, ever since David Hume is said to have defended it (although there is doubt about that too), but it is by no means the only one. A reason for this is that the theory is self-defeating—it implies that normative statements should not be taken as seriously as scientific ones, yet that statement is itself a normative statement. Indeed, if Williams were correct, the suggestion that superstition is bad but scientific findings are good would be insupportable. All “ought” claims, including the one implicit in Williams’ view would just amount to babble.
Furthermore, his own views on politics, law, economic policy, and so forth would carry no more credence than do those of all the people he criticizes—which are numerous. Then, also, claiming that what deals with “what’s good or bad, or what ought to be or should be” is all subjective—completely up to the subjects who says so, is extremely controversial. After all, if so, then condemning terrorists or students who cheat or dishonest merchants amounts to nothing but arbitrary, unjustified venting. The response, “Well, that’s just what you think but nothing justifies it” could be perfectly adequate.
Those who have been studying the foundation of ethics—who have advanced various arguments on just why acting in certain ways is wrong and in others is right—have had to deal with skeptics like Walter Williams throughout history. Yet that is also true about those who have been studying the foundation of the sciences. There are many, many skeptics about scientific beliefs, those who hold that ultimately science rests on quicksand, that there is nothing concrete, solid supporting scientific findings and they are only true within certain frameworks. If one rejects those frameworks, the science no longer holds.
Skeptics and their critics have been around for a long time and their moves have been fascinating. Suffice it to say here—for this isn’t where such a controversial issues will be treated fully—that plenty of thinkers have proposed plausible views about the objectivity of ethics. (For one, check out my own book, Objectivity [Ashgate, 2006].) Great minds like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and many later ones have advanced ideas that are in direct opposition to Walter Williams’ position on this topic, though many, also, support him. (He himself more often then not writes as if he does not believe what he has said on the issue since he confidently and firmly debunks those who recommend policies and principles of conduct different form those he considers sound. If it’s only subjective, why all the confidence?)
It is true enough that when we come to how people ought to act, agreement is more difficult to reach than about, say, what causes a fire or some medical ailment. But the reason for this could be that people are more stubborn when they deal with what is right or wrong. Answers to that reflect directly upon our own character and self-image, so it is very tempting to feign confusion and skepticism.
Most of us know, however, in our common sense approach to the world that lying and cheating are most often wrong; that wanton torture is evil; that claiming credit for someone else’s academic artistic or indeed any other good work is despicable, and that neglecting to raise one’s children with proper values is malpractice. And the reason we do is that these normative notions have been well considered and found to be true—as true as they can be, which is true enough.