“The important point, however, is that there must be some normative principles bearing on PAs [propositional attitudes] to the effect that we ought to modify our PAs because of how they are. Rational normative principles are of the form that if one has such and such PAs then one ought to modify them in such and such ways. Unless there are such principles there is no rationality and no reasoning.” – Nick Zangwill, “The Normativity of the Mental”
This is the simplest, most direct argument for normative ‘realism’ I’ve found. It is refreshingly plain in that it wears its transcendental structure on its sleeve: believing, wanting, and the like must be normatively governed psychological processes if rationality and reasoning are to be possible, and rationality and reasoning are not only possible but abundantly actual. Moreover, it’s a wonderfully, boldly assertive philosophical mouthful, just the way I like it; when it comes to the root philosophical issues (and there is nothing more root than the normativity of the mental; everything of a peculiarly human interest stems from this) they invariably involve at their core simple, stark choice points. Capturing those choice points in simple, direct language takes philosophical talent, and Zangwill brings plenty. But what makes philosophical disputes so thrillingly interminable is that virtually no two philosophers conceive the choice points in precisely the same way: God, the Devil, and each and every Man is bound up in his own peculiar details. More on this presently.
Zangwill’s directness forces us to confront the chasm across which realists and nihilists about normativity self-confidently shake their fists. Hume (spiritually a nihilist though not immune to the normative demands of the flesh) famously claimed that (providing one could actually make sense of ‘ought’-assertions) it seemed “altogether inconceivable” how any assertion of what ought to be could be derived merely from assertions about what is or happens to be (or was or will be). Nor has anyone since managed to make such a derivation uncontroversially conceivable (certainly not in any form that doesn’t cry out to be relativized, contextualized, or personally monogrammed). Yet the normative principles Zangwill is certain exist require that there be such a derivation. Merely from knowing what you believe or desire I can know what else you ought to believe or desire (and without having to know you). The very activity of reasoning and rational interpretation demands we move from is to ought routinely. The corollary is that Hume’s perplexity (and, what’s probably worse, that so many of us persist – more than 260 years and counting – in being impressed with Hume on this matter) is really the altogether inconceivable bit.
When we consider the sorts of examples of normative principles governing PA’s that Zangwill mentions – the very same jejune examples with which the recent scholarly literature on the topic is replete – we might initially think the normative reifier has a point. If we desire to X then (to that extent, at least) shouldn’t we intend to X? If we desire to X and we believe that we can X only if we Y, then (focusing on those two facts) shouldn’t we desire to Y? If we believe that p, and also we believe that if p then q, then (considering those beliefs alone) we ought to believe q, right?
The italics of the preceding paragraph were of course meant to emphasize the intended modality of the forgoing principles, the very modality Hume thought “shou’d be observ’d and explain’d.” We’ve just observ’d it; as for explain’ng it, presently I will do no better than to say that such principles it would be best (is ‘better’ enough?) to conform to but there is no guarantee that we will. In other words, the principles lead us to rationality but they can’t make us think; we can buck at the reigns of rationality and so be irrational. And this is what’s really important, that our theory of the mind allows for and explains how we can be irrational. The raison d’être of philosophy itself is to be found in the fact that we are nature’s irrational animals.
The hitch, however, is that there is irrationality and then there is irrationality. The first kind is familiar enough and seems fairly easy to explain. Sometimes we desire to X but we are feeling so blue that we don’t bother to intend to (obtain) X. Sometimes we desire to X and believe that we can X only if we Y, but find Y to so forbidding or distasteful that we can muster no desire for it. Other explanations of similar examples would follow the same structure, which essentially involves appeal to mental states, conditions, or circumstances other than those specified in the principles (and so going beyond those principles ‘pro tanto’ status). Being so explainable, however, renders ‘irrational’ little more than a label: given the explaining conditions, our ‘failure’ to intend to X or desire to Y is so understandable that we are tempted to say that (pro tanto, of course) we shouldn’t intend to X or that we ought not desire to Y. This sort of irrationality is cheap.
It’s the second kind of irrationality that caused Socrates to cross swords with Protagoras, Kant to reject Hume, and Zangwill to be dissatisfied with Davdison. The latter member of each tandem has no explanation for this kind of irrationality. Neither does Socrates, Kant, Zangwill or anyone else. But what puts these philosophers at odds is the explanation they offer for their lack of explanation. Protagoras, Hume, and Davidson simply don’t acknowledge the possibility of the kind of irrationality so close to the hearts of Rationalists of all stripes, an irrationality that would have us failing to intend to X or desire to Y even in the absence of the sorts of explaining conditions appealed to in the first kind of irrationality (and you wonder why they can’t explain it?). What Zangwill and every ‘realist’ about normative principles bearing on PA’s insists is that it is possible to desire to X but have no intention to Y, or to believe both that p and that if p then q, and yet fail to believe that q, not because some other psychological factors are interfering in these cases of intention formation and belief fixation, but simply because of our…well…naked irrationality.
I’m with Protagoras, Hume, and Davidson (though I don’t think understanding rationality ‘interpretationally’ is required or even the most fruitful way to conceive of it): I don’t believe there are any values for the variables in these putative normative principles that would yield a plausible case of ‘pure’ irrationality. I have yet to encounter any real person – including myself – who self-consciously believed that p, believe that if p then q, but did not believe q, for some univocal values for p and for q. But that isn’t because I run with an especially rational crowd. In any case, consider the question for yourself, and to test whether you find it at all possible to self-consciously violate any of these ‘norms’. If you cannot, then we might well say that the principles in question aren’t normative, in the standard, philosophical sense, but rather capture what takes place in normal circumstances (when there are no other psychological factors sufficient to disrupt and detour ‘reasoning’). The ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ of these principles would then be best explain’d as ‘shoulds and oughts of expectation.’ But if that is so, then the sort of ‘rationality’ Zangwill has in mind – not the cheap and easy sort that we possess (from some perspective) no matter what we do, but one so rich that we have to go out an earn it, that sort of rationality – might well be altogether inconceivable and impossible after all.