Monday, April 6, 2020

Deflating particular normative states of affairs?

Some actions lead to a future normative state of affairs. A promise or valid command leads to a future state of affairs of my or someone else’s being obliged to fulfill it. A wrongful action leads to a state of obligation to repent. And so on.

Here are two views of these states of affairs:

  • Deflationary: There is nothing more to these states of affairs than general conditional moral normative facts, such as the facts that you should keep your promises, together with the fact of the triggering action, such as that you’ve promised to ϕ.

  • Non-Deflationary and Causal: These states of affairs are metaphysically irreducible aspects of reality that are caused into existence by their triggering actions.

In fact of the deflationary view is that it’s deflationary, and hence supported by Ockham’s Razor.

But I think there are some reasons to accept the non-deflationary view. First, suppose you now come to the time where the normative state of affairs obtains: you must now fulfill your promise or you must now repent. Then the deflationary view implies an odd sort of “tyranny of the past”. What obliges you is not anything about the present, but something about the past. Your present obligations, on the deflationary view, do not supervene on the present state of the universe. This might especially bother presentists, but I think it’s also a bit worrying to eternalists like me.

Second, the “general conditional moral normative facts” the deflationary approach deals with will have to have extremely complex antecedents. For instance, for a command, there will be a fact of the form:

  • If you were validly commanded to ϕ, and you have not yet fulfilled the command, and the command wasn’t changed by a higher authority, and circumstances have not relevantly changed, and …, then you should ϕ.

My worry about this is that there might be an infinite number of possible ways for a command obligation to disappear that would have to be put in the “…”. But perhaps not. Perhaps all I’ve said above is enough.

However, there is some reason not to be persuaded by this consideration. It is reasonable to think that human beings have normative powers: our actions can create reasons and obligations for ourselves and others. But one way for the obligation from a promise or command to disappear is for the non-normative circumstances to change. For instance, if I promised to do a minor errand, and a giant herd of yaks blocked my way, so that I could only do the errand via an unreasonably large detour, I might be off the hook normatively. But it seems implausible that a herd of yaks has the causal power to annihilate normative facts. So, it seems, even the non-deflationist may want the normative states of affairs to be conditional: “I should do the errand unless it becomes unreasonable.”

Third, the phenomenology of being released from an obligation—say, by being forgiven or a promisee’s releasing you—is an experience as of a load being removed. That “load” felt like a real thing which was annihilated.

Fourth, being forgiven changes your obligations by removing your guilt, at least assuming repentance. But it seems that God could forgive you a sin without announcing the forgiveness in any way, or in any other non-normative way changing the world. In such a case, God’s forgiveness would have a contingent normative effect. But God is simple, and hence all contingent facts about God are grounded in necessary truths about God and contingent facts about creation. But then if there is no non-normative change in creation due to the forgiveness, there must be a normative change in creation due to it.

On the non-deflationary causal view, divine forgiveness consists in God’s destroying the normative state of affairs of your being guilty. On the deflationary view, it’s got to be grounded in something like a divine “I forgive you” speech act, whether specific to your case (e.g., God telling you in your heart that you’ve been forgiven), or general (e.g., God’s announcing that anything the Apostles forgive is forgiven by God in John 20:23). But in the case of our forgiving someone the speech acts are announcements of a contingent state of affairs of forgiveness that goes beyond the announcements. That state of affairs, in the case of a simple God, cannot be internal to God. And it seems like it’s normative.

I find the last two considerations fairly powerful, but not conclusive. Of course, I accept divine simplicity, but the claim that God can forgive without any announcement isn’t completely obvious. Divine forgiveness could be like a Presidential pardon, which must be promulgated.

For us non-naturalists, it would be cool if we could argue for the non-deflationary view. For on this view, naturalism is false: we have causal powers that go beyond those described by the sciences, namely the causal power to produce normative states of affairs.

Update: Here's an argument in favor of deflation. While a particular obligation feels like a something ("a load"), what we cite as reasons for action is often not a resultant normative state but the original triggering action: "You promised!" or "I need to make it up to her given what I did." But on the causal non-deflationary view, the original triggering action is not even a part of the reason for action: it is, rather, a cause of the normative state, and the normative state itself is the reason. Of course, this isn't conclusive, because it could be that we mention the triggering action as evidence for the resultant reason. We likewise say: "I need go home because I left the kettle on." That I left the kettle on is no reason to go back home. That the kettle is still on is a reason to go home, and that I left the kettle on is evidence that that the kettle is still on.

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