Friday, August 12, 2022

Two kinds of norms

On a natural law theory of morality, some moral facts are nature-relative, i.e., grounded in the particular kind of nature the particular rational being has, and other moral facts are structural, a part of the very structure of rationality, and will apply to any possible rational being.

Thus, the norm of monogamy for human beings (assuming, as I think, that there is one) is surely be nature-relative—it seems very likely that there could be rational animals to whom a different reproductive strategy would be natural. But what Aquinas calls the first precept of the natural law, namely that the good is to be pursued and the bad is to be avoided, is structural—it applies to any rational being.

I think that evidence for a human norm being nature-relative is that either the space of norms contains other very similar norms nearby or it’s vague which precise norm obtains. For instance, take the norm of respecting one’s parents. This norm implies that we should favor our parents over strangers in our beneficence. However, how much more should we favor our parents over strangers? If there is a precise answer to that question, then there will be other nearby norms—not human ones—that give a slightly different precise answer (requiring a greater or smaller degree of favoring). On the other hand, that the good is to be pursued does not seem to have very similar norms near it—it has an elegant simplicity that a variant norm like “The good is to be pursued except when it is an aesthetic good” does not have.

I used to think the norms involved in double-effect reasoning were structural and hence applied to all possible rational being. I am no longer confident of this. Take the case of pushing a large person in front of a trolley without their permission in order to stop the trolley from hitting five others. We can now imagine a continuum of cases depending on how thick the clothing worn by the large person is. If the clothing is sufficiently thick, the large person has an extremely small probability of being hurt. If the clothing is ordinary clothing, the large person is nearly certain to die. In between is a continuum of probabilities of death ranging from negligibly close to zero to negligibly close to one, and a continuum of probabilities of other forms of injury. It is wrong to push the large person if the chance of survival is one in a trillion. It is not wrong to push the large person if the chance of their being at all hurt is one in a trillion. Somewhere there is a transition between impermissibility and permissibility. Either that transition is vague or it’s sharp. If it’s sharp, then there are norms very similar to the one we have. If it’s vague, then it’s vague which of many very similar norms we have.

In either case, I think this is evidence that the relevant norm here is nature-relative rather than structural. If this is right, then even if it is wrong for us to push the large person in the paradigmatic case where death is, say, 99.99% certain, there could be rational beings for whom this is not wrong.

This leads to an interesting hypothesis about God’s ethics (somewhat similar to things Mark Murphy has considered):

  1. God is only subject to structural moral norms and does not have any nature-relative moral norms.

I do not endorse (1), but I think it is a hypothesis well worth considering.

7 comments:

Zsolt Nagy said...

Not every Swan is White.
Or to say, that some swans are white and some swans are black.
It is a false dichotomy to only consider, that either there are only white swans or there are only non-white/black swans.
And I think, that you, Alexander, are doing that here with moral facts being either natural-relative or structural: "Either there are only natural-relative moral facts or there are only structural moral facts."
Did ever occur to you, Alexander, that maybe some moral facts are natural-relative and some other moral facts are structural?
It is also not particularly difficult to "imagine" or to "conceive" some structural moral facts being natural-relative (- Kant's Categorical Imperative.
The world is simply not either black or white. It has a spectrum of light with only small portion being "visible" (- well known) and the rest big portion being "not visible" (- not well known).
If that's also the case with morality and moral facts, then why portray that to be something different than that, when that's simply not the case?

Dominik Kowalski said...

How did you manage to misread this little blog post this badly? At no point did he deny that there are both nature-relative and structural moral facts

Norm said...

Dr Pruss

Do you have any work or future work covering the double effect reasoning involved in certain cases of pregnancies, i.e the catholic debates over the nature of act and intension
Whether craniotomies would be permissible etc

Alexander R Pruss said...

Zsolt:

The first sentence of the post says that on natural law theory some facts are nature-relative and some others are structural.

Norm:

I have not published on this, but incline to the view that craniotomy need not be an intentional killing, but is nonetheless a murder. Murder does not require intentional killing. If a country shoots down a civilian aircraft as target practice, they need not intend the deaths of the civilians, but they have nonetheless murdered them.

Zsolt Nagy said...

I know, Alexander, what the first sentence of your post says on natural law theory some moral facts being nature-relative - grounded in the particular kind of nature, the particular rational being has - and some other moral facts being structural - a part of the very structure of rationality, and will apply to any possible rational being.

Sure. And also sure that those terms "nature-relative" and "structural" are not mutually exclusive or disjunctive terms - without any overlap like by the terms or properties of "being a bachelor" and "being married". Duh.
So on natural law theory some moral facts are nature-relative AND structural - grounded in the particular kind of nature, the particular rational being has, which is part of the very structure of rationality, and will apply to any possible rational being. Huh, huh, KANT'SCATEGORICALIMPERATIVE, huh. Oh, sorry for my coughs there.
And if that's not included or at least considered on natural law theory, then maybe it should be, since you know, that those terms "nature-relative" and "structural" are not mutually exclusive terms.
Or do you, Alexander, honestly think, that those terms are actually mutually exclusive? Are you then advocating for a false dichotomy here? That's, what, I'm guessing, is happening here.

Besides that, if the hypothesis (1) "God is only subject to structural moral norms and does not have any nature-relative moral norms." is supposedly well worth considering, then I also guess, that it's well worth considering, that it is indirectly suggested with the hypothesis (1), that God is moral because of some structural moral norms, to which God is subjected, and it's not that some structural moral norms are facts because of God, to which those structural moral norms are subjected.
If so, then God isn't really essential for morality. But supposedly according to hypothesis (1) then those structural moral norms are essential for morality.
Isn't that correct, Alexander?!?
At least it appears that way.

Dominik Kowalski said...

No, that last part is incorrect. At no point does the theory require God being subject to these laws, rather due to the convertibility of goodness with being (convertibility of transcendentals), the structural moral norms directly follow from God's nature as the good. Hence rather than being independent from him, the structural moral norms directly follow from what God is

Zsolt Nagy said...

So then the structural moral norms are "good" or they are, what they are, because God says so?!?
They seem then to be quite arbitrary, given that God can make basically any moral norms or facts to be structural moral norms or facts.

Besides that, how does that "convertibility of goodness" exactly work?!?
Is it like in the Bible, first in the beginning there was "nothing", then there was the "word" of God?!?
If there is a fully developed "theory" to it, then that "theory" should at list contain, how that "convertibility of goodness" exactly supposed to work.

It's not like you can just make an unwarranted claim and thesis, then declare it to be a "theorem" or a "theory" of some sort without giving any proof, justification or warrant for that "theorem" or "theory" of yours. That’s not how any proper epistemology works.