DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L135-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2001
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

7. Ethical normativity (again)

In ethics, however, it is not obvious how this could be true. What do desire, choice and action aim at, by their very nature? Here it is hard to see how any non-normative answer can suffice. Desire aims at the good in the sense of what we ought to desire; choice aims at the choiceworthy, in the sense of what we ought to choose; and so on. Here we seem to lack any goal, expressible in non-normative terms, that could serve as a source for the relevant norms of desire, choice and action. This makes the problem of the source of normativity particularly acute for ethics.

Finally, the phenomenon of normativity poses a general challenge to our metaphysical picture of the world. On the one hand, we cannot avoid making normative judgements and it seeming to us as if there are normative facts, concerning what we ought to choose, want, fear, avoid, esteem and so on. Whenever we deliberate and choose as agents, we treat certain considerations as normative reasons for acting. Whenever we feel emotions or the prick of desire, it is to us as if something is really to be angry at, or something to be celebrated, or something desirable. From the inside, the world seems to be shot through with normative purport. When we step back from the way things seem from inside our desires, choices and emotions, however, and reflect on the nature of these appearances, it can be baffling what in the world could vindicate them. The problem is not the familiar sceptical problem of a gap between appearance and reality. In the case of visual experience, for example, we may wonder whether what we seem to see really is so, whether an object that, for example, appears triangular really is. Here, however, we have a clear enough idea of what it would be for the world really to contain triangular objects. We may see how we can reliably believe and, for the above reasons, justifiably believe that there really are triangular objects, if the hypothesis that there are such objects is part of a theory that best explains, among other things, the very visual experiences we are having. With the phenomena of ethical normativity, however, the appearance of something as worth desiring, or the thought that an action is what one has most reason to do, or the thought that, lacking excuse, an action would be worthy of blame, we seem to have neither: We seem to lack both a fully satisfactory metaphysical account of what it would be for these normative claims to be true and a satisfying epistemic account of our epistemic warrant in making such claims (Harman 1977: 3–10).

Citing this article:
Darwall, Stephen. Ethical normativity (again). Normativity, 2001, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L135-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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