Friday, January 11, 2019

Causal theories of normative statuses

Utterances cause a variety of outcomes. For instance, a request often causes an action by another person, while saying “Alexa, turn on the lights” can cause the lights to turn on. This is not the paradigmatic thing that happens with performatives. With performatives, the outcome is (at least partially) constituted by the utterance. When the Queen utters the words of knighting, the newly created knight’s knightliness is not caused by but constituted by the utterance. One plausible argument for this is that causation has a speed of light limit, but knighting does not: the Queen could knight someone a light-year away, effective immediately.

So we have two kinds of outcome for an utterance: causal outcomes and constituted outcomes. It is plausible that sometimes utterances have both kinds. For instance, knighting someone can both constitute them as a knight and cause them to do knightly deeds.

It is widely, though perhaps often only implicitly, held that the normative statuses involved in marriages, promises and reasons of request are constituted outcomes of performative utterances.

It is, I think, worth thinking about what reasons we have to accept this performative constitution thesis. For here is another possibility: these social statuses are constituted by contingent normative properties that are caused to exist by the utterance. In such a case, the utterances producing these statuses are not performatives, but function causally, like the “Alexa, turn on the light” example.

If naturalism is true, so is the performative constitution thesis. For if naturalism is true, then normative properties supervene on physical properties, and there is no plausible physical property that is caused by uttering a promise on which the relevant normative property could supervene. Here is a quick argument: Any physical property that can be produced by promising can be produced impersonally by random quantum phenomena, but such random quantum phenomena will not result in the relevant normative properties of promise. Hence the physical act of promising must be a part of the supervenience base of the relevant normative properties.

But if naturalism is false, then we have a new possibility. It could be that marrying, promising and requesting non-physically cause relevant normative properties. The quick argument above no longer works, since random quantum phenomena need not have the power to produce these normative properties. In fact, even the speed-of-light argument concerning knighting doesn’t work, because non-physical causation need not have a speed-of-light limit.

Do we have good reason, beyond an incredulous stare, to dismiss the causal theory of these normative statuses?

I think classical theists have some reasons to opposed the causal theory. First, God has the power to directly cause all the kinds of effects we have the power to cause. So if I can cause myself to have the normative property of having promised you a dollar, God can directly cause me to have his normative property. But that’s absurd: for while God can directly cause me to promise you a dollar, it is a contradiction for the state of having promised to be caused by any means other than the making of that promise.

This is, however, only a limited opposition to the causal theory. For while God cannot directly cause me to be in a promissory state, it may well be that God can directly cause me to have the paradigmatic normative property constituting the promissory state, namely an obligation of performance with exactly the kind of weight that the promise carried. Thus, the first argument is compatible with a hybrid causal-constitutive view on which my making a promise causes the obligation but constitutes the obligation as a promissory one. Compare how my carving a statue would cause the statue but constitute it as hand-made.

The second argument against the causal theory is this. By divine simplicity, God’s contingent properties are all constituted by contingent entities outside of himself. But when God promises something, he acquires a contingent obligation. By divine simplicity, that obligation must be constituted by something contingent outside of God. And the most plausible candidate is that the it is constituted by the physical manifestation making up the promise (e.g., the voice that the promisee heard). So in the case of divine promises, neither the original causal theory nor the hybrid theory is plausible.

That said, the second argument is not very strong. For contingent beliefs are internally constituted in us and yet by exactly the same divine simplicity argument externally constituted in God. So while the fact that God’s promissory normative statuses are externally constituted gives us some reason to think ours are, this is far from conclusive. Moreover, what goes for promises may not go for other things. God (qua God) cannot marry. So the argument doesn’t apply to marriage.

In summary, if naturalism is false, then it could be the case that some of the normative statuses that are generally thought to be constituted by performative utterances are in fact caused by utterances, though classical theists have some reason to prefer the performative constitution theory in many cases.

Finally, note that there is a third option besides constitution and causation: something I call quasi-causation. If I pray for an effect, and as an outcome of my prayer, God produces the effect, I don’t want to say that my prayer caused God to produce the effect. It just seems contrary to divine transcendence to suppose we can cause God to do things. Yet there is something like causation going on here. Similarly, it could be that sometimes a normative status is not caused but merely quasi-caused by an utterance.

Catholics, in fact, are liable to think that the quasi-causal theory is at least true of one aspect of one case: sacramental marriage. In sacramental marriage, there is an intrinsic change in the parties entering the marriage as a result of the exchange of the marriage vows. But because the change happens due to God’s gracious activity, it probably cannot be said to be caused by the marriage vows. Rather, the change is quasi-caused by the marriage vows. However, it is not clear whether the relevant intrinsic change is a change with respect to a normative property.

All in all, there are many open questions here.

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