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

1. Normative judgement

Normative judgements concern oughts: what one ought to do, desire, believe, infer, conclude, think, feel and so on. Equivalently, they concern justification or the support of reasons. What we ought to believe, for example, is what there is reason to believe, those beliefs are warranted or justified; what is desirable is what there is reason to desire; and so on. It does not matter whether we talk of oughts or reasons, since what one ought to do, to take the case of action, just is what there is reason to do and vice versa; similarly for other oughts and reasons.

Normative judgements ascribe normative properties: properties entailing rational support or oughts. ‘Normativity’, as philosophers generally use the term, is what normative properties have in common.

Alternatively, we can speak of norms. Normative judgements express the acceptance of norms (Gibbard 1990: 36–82). When I say that something is desirable, for example, I express my acceptance of a norm that permits or warrants desiring that thing. I do not, it is important to see, say that I accept such a norm. That would be a description of my psychic state, not a normative claim. A normative judgement expresses the state of norm-acceptance without describing or directly referring to it. Similarly, when I say there is reason to believe something, I express my acceptance of a norm for belief.

We must also distinguish between the sociological thesis that a given norm is accepted in a society and normative claims made by those who accept it. Similarly, the judgement that a given norm forbids or requires something may be normative or not, depending on whether we are speaking or thinking from the perspective of those who accept the norm or simply making a descriptive claim, referring to the norm non-committally. There can be a difference, for example, between the non-normative, descriptive judgement that Canadian law forbids going above 80 km/hr on certain highways and the normative judgement that one should not go above that speed or that there is some reason not to do so. One would say the latter only if one accepted the norm or thought there was some reason to follow it.

But is it not possible to think there is a ‘legal reason’ not to go above 80 km/hr without accepting the law or thinking it has any bearing at all on what it makes sense to do? In fact, could one not coherently think that such speeding was both legally and morally prohibited – contrary to legal and moral norms and oughts – while doubting that this is in itself something one should bother with in deciding whether to speed? Indeed all of these are possible, but when people say or think such things, legal and moral oughts lack normativity for them and imply no normative judgement. For them, legal and moral oughts simply locate actions in relation to norms they do not accept and that they identify by some non-normative criteria. However, their judgement that there is no reason not to violate these norms is a normative judgement. Effectively, these people maintain that moral or legal oughts are not really oughts, that moral or legal reasons are not really reasons. For them, saying that legal or moral reasons or oughts are really reasons or oughts is a bit like saying that a decoy duck is really a duck.

The distinction between the normative and the non-normative, between what has normativity and what lacks it, is of fundamental interest in philosophy. The area of philosophy where it is most obviously of interest is moral philosophy or ethics, since normativity characterizes its subject matter as a matter of definition (see Ethics; Metaethics). But ethics is far from being the only philosophical area that is concerned with the normative. Logic can be viewed as concerning ‘laws of thought’, norms that underlie inference. Epistemology, as traditionally conceived, has a normative element also, since it concerns itself with the justification of belief (see Justification, epistemic). In addition, the philosophies of language and mind (see Language, philosophy of; Mind, philosophy of) have been taken up with issues of normativity as well during the past two decades, specifically with Kripke’s and Davidson’s claims that meaning and mental states are irreducibly normative (Kripke 1982; Davidson 1984; see Kripke, Saul Aaron; Davidson, Donald).

Citing this article:
Darwall, Stephen. Normative judgement. Normativity, 2001, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L135-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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