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

3. Vindicating claims to normativity

Conceptual analysis can uncover the various distinctive kinds of normativity that different ethical notions and categories purport to have, but cannot establish whether they actually have them. This is the second way in which ethics engages issues of normativity: by aiming either to vindicate purported normative claims or to debunk them. Especially prominent in this second category has been the issue of morality’s normativity or, as it is frequently put, ‘Why should I be moral?’ (see Moral justification). Whether or not it is the case that purporting to be authoritative for action is part of the very concept of morality, as some argue, there is a substantive normative question of whether the fact that an action would be morally wrong is always a conclusive reason against doing it.

The question of whether moral norms are categorically binding is actually two different questions: Do moral requirements always give agents to whom they apply some reason to act as they require, and do they always give agents conclusive reasons? Generally, philosophers tend to give the same answer to both questions. Philosophers, like Kant, who argue that moral imperatives are categorical in the sense of invariably giving agents reasons for acting regardless of their aims or interests, usually argue also that they always give agents conclusive reasons (Kant [1785] 1998) (see Kantian ethics). Those, like Philippa Foot, who argue that whether agents have conclusive reason to act as moral norms require depends on their specific aims and interests, also contend that their having any reason to comply with morality depends on their aims as well (Foot 1972).

To defend either position, one must take a stand on what reasons for acting agents have, generally and fundamentally. Followers of Hume argue that reason is the ‘slave of the passions’, incapable of providing substantive direction of its own. All reasons for acting, consequently, must be based in the agent’s desires. Against this, Kantians argue not only that reasons cannot be restricted to the agent’s desires or interests, but that it cannot be assumed that agents’ desires give them any reason for acting whatsoever. Rational agents can step back from any desire and ask why they should follow its promptings. Moreover, from the agent’s perspective, desires seem to be ‘backgrounded’ (Pettit and Smith 1990). To desire something is not generally to take the fact of one’s desire as a reason; it is more to feel that the object of the desire gives one reason or that the object is desirable (Scanlon 1998).

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