Thursday, December 1, 2022

Normative powers

A normative power is a power to change a normative condition. Raz says the change is not produced “causally” but “normatively”.

Here is a picture on which this is correct. We exercise a normative power by exercising a natural power in such a context that the successful exercise of the natural power is partly constitutive of a normative fact. For instance, we utter a promise, thereby exercising a natural power to engage in a certain kind of speech act, and our exercise of that speech act is partly constitutive of, rather than causal of, the state of affairs of our being obligated to carry out the promised action.

There are two versions of the above model. On one version, there is an underlying fundamental conditional normative fact C, such as that if I have promised something then I should do it, and my exercise of normative power supplies the antecedent A of that conditional, and then the normative consequent of C comes to be grounded in C and A. On another version, there there are some natural acts that are directly constitutive of a normative state of affairs, not merely by supplying the antecedent of a conditional normative fact. I think the first version of the model is the more plausible in paradigmatic cases.

But why not allow for a causal model? Why not suppose that a normative power is a causal power to make an irreducible normative property come to be instantiated in someone? Thus, my power to promise is the power to cause myself to be obligated to do what I have promised.

I think the difficulty with a causal model is the fact that in paradigm cases of normative power, there is a natural power that is being exercised, and we have the intuition that the exercise of the natural power is necessary and sufficient for the normative effect. But on a causal model, why couldn’t I cause a promissory-type obligation without promising, simply causing the relevant property of being obligated to come to be instantiated in me? And why couldn’t I engage in the speech act while yet remaining normatively unbound, because my normative power wasn’t exercised in parallel with the natural power?

Maybe the answer to both questions is that I could, but only metaphysically and not causally. In other words, it could be that the laws of nature, or of human nature, make it impossible for me to exercise one of the powers without the other, just as I cannot wiggle my ring finger without wiggling my middle finger as well. On this view, if there is a God, he could cause me to acquire promissory-type obligations without my promising, and he could let me engage in the natural act of promising while blocking the exercise of normative power and leaving me normatively unbound. This doesn’t seem particularly problematic.

Perhaps the real problem for a lot of people with a causal view of normative powers is that it tends to lead to a violation of supervenience. For if it is metaphysically possble to have the exercise of the normative power without the exercise of the natural power, or vice versa, then it seems we don’t have supervenience of the normative on the non-normative. But supervenience does not seem to me to be inescapable.

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