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Ethics Discussion at PEA Soup: Jonathan Leader Maynard and Alex Worsnip’s “Is There a Distinctively Political Normativity?” with a critical précis by Alice Baderin

Welcome to what we expect will be a very interesting and productive discussion of Jonathan Leader Maynard and Alex Worsnip‘s “Is There a Distinctively Political Normativity?” The paper is published in the most recent edition of Ethics and is available through open access here. Alice Baderin has kindly agreed to contribute a critical précis, and it appears immediately below. Please join in the discussion!

The last ten to fifteen years have seen a growing number of calls for a reorientation of political theory in a more ‘realist’ direction. Realist critics, many of them drawing on the writings of Raymond Geuss and Bernard Williams, have charged analytical political theory with fundamentally misunderstanding the relationship between political theory and real politics. Leader Maynard and Worsnip’s paper focuses on an important strand of this realist critique, which holds that political theorists inappropriately subject politics to moral standards, when political theory should in fact deal (at least in part) in a distinctively political form of normativity. The authors carefully reconstruct five main arguments for the existence of a ‘distinctive, non-moral form of political normativity’, and they convincingly argue that each is unsuccessful.

A major contribution of Leader-Maynard and Worsnip’s discussion is to place the realist claim about the distinctiveness of political normativity more firmly in the context of the wider contemporary literature on normativity. There is something of a tension in realism here: Whilst realists commonly emphasize the need for a sharper separation between political theory and ethics, many of their arguments implicate political theory more deeply in complex meta-ethical debates. Leader Maynard and Worsnip’s paper helps us to trace these connections when it comes to realist claims about political normativity. In so doing, they give us a better sense of what is at stake in claiming that a particular form of normativity is distinct.

I will start my comments by summarizing the key moves in their argument. Then I offer two critical thoughts. First, I suggest that the authors could do more to draw out the attraction of the broader realist view that political theory is autonomous from ethics – of which the claim that there is a distinctively political normativity is just one form. Second, I think there are also significant costs to the realist view that Leader Maynard and Worsnip’s account does not recognize. Thus I suggest that realism is at once more and less appealing than Leader Maynard and Worsnip’s discussion suggests.

Five arguments for a distinctively political normativity

Leader Maynard and Worsnip begin with some helpful clarificatory remarks about the framing of the debate between realists and moralists over the character of normativity in the political sphere. Here they rightly warn against a pyrrhic victory for either side. Labelling every kind of normativity as moral would not render moralism true in any interesting sense. On the other hand, they caution realists against a ‘content-based’ approach to distinguishing political and moral normativity. The realist position becomes trivial if we claim a different form of normativity any time we find differently salient principles or considerations in different domains.

The paper then reconstructs five potential routes to a distinctively political normativity.

  1. The illegitimacy of enforcing (some) moral claims

First the authors consider whether morality underdetermines the legitimacy of political action, given the impermissibility of enforcing some reasonable or true moral principles. Here they rightly conclude that we do not need to reach for the notion of a distinctively political normativity to explain why it is illegitimate to enforce some moral principles through politics. Rather, ‘[t]his is just a special case of the more general point that it can be true that actor A morally ought to do action X, while also being true that actor B morally ought not to force actor A to do action X. Since this possibility is evidently coherent, even reading both oughts as moral, there is no need to introduce a distinctive political ought to make sense of such a structure’.

  1. The need for politics to resolve disputes

The second argument addresses a key theme in realist thought, concerning the centrality of disagreement in politics and political theory. Specifically, if morality cannot resolve what to do when we face deep disagreement over moral questions in the political sphere, then perhaps we need distinctively political principles to guide us? Here the authors press two responses. First, the problem of disagreement threatens to recur for the realist, insofar as he also advances a normative agenda with his political principles. Second, if the claim is that we need thinner and potentially less controversial normative principles for political decision-making, this seems to put realism on roughly the same terrain as procedural moralism.

Here the authors point to a problematic equivocation in realist writings, between a de facto sense of resolve (to get actual agreement on the correctness of an answer) and a normative sense of resolve (to yield an answer as to which party to the disagreement is right). They emphasize that moralists are committed to the view that their moral principles resolve disagreement in the normative, not the de facto sense. The realist is on dangerous territory if he casts doubt on the coherence of the latter normative sense of resolution, given his commitment to a notion of genuine political normativity.

  1. A metanormative difference?

The third route the authors consider identifies realism with a form of constructivism about political normativity; a view on which ‘while normative political claims can be true or false, they cannot ever be true (or false) in a way that is entirely independent of our minds (including our attitudes, beliefs, endorsements and volitions) and actions’. There is a potential route to distinguishing political and moral normativity here, if only the former is understood in constructivist terms. However, the realist then faces the challenge of justifying a bifurcated view of the metanormative status of political and moral normativity. As the authors point out, debates about constructivism in ethics and political theory have run in parallel, and it remains unclear how and why the arguments for and against constructivism would resist the boundaries between moral and political thought.

  1. A normative difference?

Fourth, the authors consider whether the difference between political and moral normativity might lie at the level of substantive normative principles. Here they reiterate a point they make earlier against content-based ways of distinguishing different forms of normativity: that we cannot move directly from a difference in the content of principles that regulate political and non-political spheres, to a claim about different forms of normativity. They show that efforts to identify a more radical normative difference between political and non-political morality, for example Philp’s claim that the former is systematically more consequentialist, are undermotivated. Why, they ask, would our stance towards side constraints on consequentialist reasoning resist the boundaries between political and non-political spheres?

  1. The relative “priority” of politics and morality

Finally, the authors turn to Bernard Williams’ famous claim about the priority of politics over morality. Here the paper is retreading some familiar ground in the discussion of Williams’ Basic Legitimation Demand: the requirement that some justification of the exercise of political power be offered to each subject. The offering of such a justification is, for Williams, part of what it means for a situation to be one of politics, rather than domination or brute force. Leader Maynard and Worsnip reiterate the objection that Williams’ conceptual move cannot give realists what they want, in terms of a distinctively political source of normativity. Instead Williams pushes the normative question back one step. Rather than asking why we should engage in one rather than another form of politics, we must now ask why we should engage in politics at all.

Two broader themes

By carefully distinguishing a number of different routes to the idea of a distinctively political normativity, Leader Maynard and Worsnip ensure that the realist position does not gain force by remaining vague. I find their analyses of each potential pathway individually persuasive. There are also two important broader themes that emerge from their discussion. First, they show that there are several realist messages that moralists can happily accept, without endorsing the more controversial claim about the existence of a distinctive category of political normativity.  For example, moralists can affirm a sense in which there are political virtues – skills that make someone an instrumentally effective political actor – that are not moral virtues. At the same time, the moralist can maintain that ‘the enjoinment to employ those non-moral skills is still a moral one, derivative of the moral demand to achieve the end’.

A second broader message we should take away from the paper is that, in the effort to carve out a non-moral form of political normativity, realism risks unhelpfully flattening out or restricting the terrain of moral philosophy. In other words, there is a danger of relying on a caricature of morality in order to drive a wedge between moral and political normativity. For example, we should not buy the contrast at the cost of restricting the domain of morality to questions about how we ought to treat family and friends; or by treating morality as ‘conceptually tied up with a rather narrow range of extreme inflexible deontological prohibitions’.

The appeal of discontinuity realism

The claim of a distinctively political normativity is just one route by which realists have tried to move towards a more political form of political theory, distinct from applied ethics or moral theory. I think it is the promise of greater disciplinary autonomy that has underpinned much of the appeal of the realist current in contemporary political theory. As I understand it, the core realist argument is something like this: In order to do normative political theory, we need to theorize about politics; politics is distinct from other domains of life, including the spheres to which ethical thought applies; thus normative theorizing about politics cannot be, or look like, ethical theory.

I agree with Leader Maynard and Worsnip that the discontinuity picture starts to break down, once we seek to specify more precisely where the divide between ethics and political theory is located. However, given the significant appeal of the realist project within contemporary political theory, it is helpful first to understand its central attraction. The pull of realism lies in the thought that by treating political theory as akin to ethics, moralist political theory assumes away the very problem or subject matter of politics that it claims to address. In this form, realism purports to express a plausible principle for any adequate theory: In order to be a theory of, and for, a particular phenomenon, a theory must be consistent with the constitutive features of that phenomenon (Sleat 2016, p. 259).

The costs of discontinuity realism

Leader Maynard and Worsnip welcome the broader methodological turn in political theory as a ‘step forward’ for the discipline. I have more mixed feelings about the increasing focus on methodological issues. In particular, I think there is a risk that concern with problems about how to do political theory takes us further away, not closer, to any meaningful engagement with real world political problems. The methodological turn can also lead to an unproductive kind of disciplinary boundary patrolling: Where we try to determine which kinds of questions and projects have a legitimate role to play in the discipline, and which do not.

Here I want briefly to highlight two potential costs of the methodological turn in its realist form.

First, I want to call attention to a silence within realism, concerning how its demand to address politics from within relates to the feminist insight that politics is deeply intertwined with our personal choices and interpersonal relationships. I worry that the realist drive to identify and shore up the boundaries between political theory and ethics is in tension with some core feminist messages. More generally, discontinuity realism seems to close down productive space for tracing morally salient features of our relationships across political and non-political spheres.

Second, I think that the emphasis on the distinctiveness of politics leads realists to seek to settle, in theoretical terms, some questions that are more productively seen as subject to on-going empirical debate. For example, realism implicates complex empirical issues about the relationship between moral and political disagreement. Given the realist call for sensitivity to context and empirical detail, I think there are reasons internal to realism to worry about broad claims about the distinctive character of politics. A better way forward for the realist project would be to take up the demand for more empirically engaged and contextually sensitive forms of political theory, whilst setting aside the second order claims about the distinctiveness of moral and political thought.


Sleat, Matt (2016) ‘What is a political value? Political philosophy and fidelity to reality’, Social Philosophy & Policy 33: 252-272.

16 Responses to Ethics Discussion at PEA Soup: Jonathan Leader Maynard and Alex Worsnip’s “Is There a Distinctively Political Normativity?” with a critical précis by Alice Baderin

  1. We want to thank Alice Baderin for her careful and generous précis of our article, and for her very interesting remarks on it. This first reply is written by us jointly, but after that we’ll participate in the thread as individuals. We will take her two critical thoughts in turn. (We omit discussion of her feminist criticism of realism’s separation between the political and the ethical, which is included in her second point, since we agree with it and see it as complementing our own critique of realism.)

    Alice’s first thought is that we could do more to draw out political realism’s “central attraction”, which is “the thought that by treating political theory as akin to ethics, moralist political theory assumes away the very problem or subject matter of politics that it claims to address” – features of the political domain that are constitutive of it. We agree that this is a central motivating impulse behind much realist work, but to assess it, more needs to be said about exactly which features of the political domain moralism might be charged with assuming away. Two principal features that some realists have accused moralists of abstracting away from are the presence of disagreement and the presence of (at best) partial compliance with ideal norms. However, since both of these conditions are also present in the moral domain, we see no reason why treating political theory as akin to ethics necessarily involves abstracting from such conditions (and some moralists do not do this). The issue of whether to abstract away from such conditions seems to be closer to the dispute between ideal and non-ideal theory, which is not equivalent to the dispute between realism and moralism; one can think that political theory is akin to ethics, or that political normativity is a kind of moral normativity, while also thinking that both political theory and “pure” ethics are best approached with the tools of non-ideal theory. Of course, realists might instead suggest other features of politics which moralism necessarily abstracts from, which would need to be assessed on their own terms, but we suspect that similar considerations will often apply, in that many of the issues about abstraction in political theory also arise in ethics.

    Alice’s second thought is that there are reasons to feel ambivalent about the turn toward greater discussion of methodology in political theory, of which discussion of realism is a part. As she implies, there is something ironic in the realist movement’s insistence on greater engagement with political realities, given that the methodological disputes with which realists are often preoccupied are not themselves particularly applied, concrete or empirically engaged (though the collection of essays in Matt Sleat’s recent edited volume Politics Recovered offers examples of some more substantive realist writings). Even if this is a fair ad hominem charge against certain realists, however, we ourselves do think that methodological work is an important complement to first-order theorizing. In political theory as in any academic discipline, the appropriate methods of inquiry are neither straightforward nor self-evident – it is important that we be reflective about what we are doing and why; about what counts as a successful argument, and on what grounds. Not only does this help us do first-order theorizing more effectively; clear articulations of one’s methodological presuppositions also help to avoid being misunderstood or misread by those with other approaches. The increasing clarity in the literature about the relationship between ideal and non-ideal theory, and the relative merits of each for different purposes, is a good example of where such progress has been made over the last couple of decades. We also think that questions about the nature and purpose of political theorizing are intrinsically philosophically interesting, just as questions about the nature and purpose of ethical theorizing are; as Alice notes, part of the aim of our article is to connect up what are in effect metanormative questions about the political domain with metaethics and metanormativity more broadly.

    Alice also makes a related but distinct point at the end of her comments, namely that there might be something problematic (internally to realism, but also more generally) about trying to settle questions about the “distinctive character of politics” on theoretical rather than empirical grounds. This too is an interesting suggestion, but it might be possible to mitigate it in part by insisting on the distinction between first-order theorizing and second-order methodological and metanormative discussion. Even if the former (by realist lights) is apt to be settled at least partly by empirical considerations, it doesn’t follow that the latter is too. For example, the second-order claim that first-order theorizing should be settled by empirical considerations might itself not be empirically based. (Compare: metanormative error theorists think that there are no objective facts about first-order normative matters, but they need not think that there are no objective facts about second-order metaethical matters. The claim that there are no objective facts about first-order normative matters might itself be an objective fact.) Whether Alice’s criticism of realism’s internal consistency hits its mark, then, may depend on to what extent claims about the “distinctive character of politics” can be understood as purely second-order, rather than as a part of first-order theorizing – if, indeed, that sharp distinction can be sustained in the first instance.

  2. Brad Cokelet says:

    I have not followed the debates about realism, but I really enjoyed the clear and interesting paper. As someone who enjoys reading Geuss, though, I was left wondering what the authors think about his suggestion, in *Philosophy and Real Politics*, that realism characteristically involves a rejection of a sharp distinction between is and ought. I did not see that idea discussed in the article, but I may have missed it. Well, with that said, I want to float an idea about how his suggestion might shed light on the claim that political normativity is different from ethical normativity.

    Geuss’s views on is/ought are hard to pin down, at least for me, but here is a first gloss from Hurka’s NRPR: “The ethics-first view rests on a sharp distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’: the reason ultimate normative principles can’t be based on facts about particular societies is that they can’t be based on any non-normative facts. Geuss rejects any such sharp distinction, and this gives his realist view a very wide-ranging content.”

    How might we develop this and support the claim that politics has a distinctive form of normativity? I am not sure, but here is one suggestion.

    In ethics, when we are trying to decide what normative view to adopt or trying to justify our normative views, many think that, cp, it would be a mistake to appeal to the value or disvalue of holding the relevant beliefs. Roughly, ethical normativity can’t be grounded in state-given reasons. Obviously hashing out the details is hard (the wrong kinds of reasons problem is hard). But with the indeterminate point in mind consider this: maybe Guess thinks that when we are deciding which normative principles to adopt, or justifying adopting the principles we do, in a *political* context, there is nothing illicit, or even something mandatory, about appealing to the value or dis-value of holding the relevant beliefs.

    Basically my suggestion is that Guess thinks political normativity is different than ethical normativity because in the former context justification of normative views properly involves weighing state-given and content-given reasons but that in the later context normative justification may and perhaps should leave state-given considerations aside.

    Guess complains that “ethics-first” (non-realist) political philosophers don’t take enough interest in ideology, sociology, anthropology, and history and if he is right then my suggestion might explain why, by their lights, they are right to ignore so much of this stuff. If you are a realist and want to justify liberal political views you need to canvas other views and non-normative facts about the effects of people holding liberal views and others ones. For example, you should consider who might benefit from the adoption of liberal views rather than other ones.

    Of course some normative domains of political philosophy themselves lead us to study ideology and history – for example someone might worry that ideological effects undermines legitimacy so debate about which conception of legitimacy to adopt might lead an ethics-first theorist to study ideological effects. But that is different from thinking that when deciding which conception of legitimacy to adopt we should look to the costs and benefits to various parties of people adopting the various conceptions of legitimacy. Those are, roughly, state-given reasons for adopting one conception over another which the realist but not the ethics-first political philosopher thinks we must bring into account when justifying our political normative principles.

    Sorry if this is already well-worn territory. If so, or if I just missed the relevant part of your paper, I would love some pointers. Thanks!

  3. Alice says:

    Thanks both. I agree with much of this! In particular, I think you are right that when we try to specify more precisely which features of politics moralist political theory illicitly assumes away, it isn’t clear that this is going to give us a divide between ethics and political theory. My thought was just that the charge of assuming away the very problem or subject matter of politics is perhaps the most powerful organizing idea or image for realism.

    Just a couple of further thoughts then:

    First, on my general worry about the growing methodological turn in political theory. I have written quite a lot on methodological issues, so this is as much self-reflection as criticism of anybody else’s work! I have come to think that we are probably going to make more progress with the methodological debates by trying to put our stated methodological commitments into practice and seeing how they work out. For example, I have recently been engaged in some interdisciplinary projects in which we identify places where we think political theory is operating with an overly speculative social psychology. We then try to use survey data to replace this speculative psychology with a more empirically informed account. Some of how I now think about what empirical evidence can, and cannot, do in normative political theory stems from these experiences of actually trying to use data to engage with philosophical debates. So I welcome the growing emphasis within realism on putting realist approaches in practice. Maybe this will, in time, help to cast some light back on the more abstract methodological debates.

    As you suggest, I also have some more specific worries about the costs of the methodological turn in its realist form – and particularly in the form that says that political theory should be a more autonomous discipline, more distinct from ethics. One issue, which I raised in my comment, concerns the temptation, if we are committed to marking a general divide between political theory and ethics, to foreclose issues that are best treated as matters of ongoing empirical debate. I suggested that if this is the result of realism, then it would be in tension with the realist’s own commitment to sensitivity to context and empirical detail. In my comment I mention the relationship between moral and political disagreement. Let me give another example here. Realists sometimes suggest that lying plays a distinctive and particularly central role in political (compared to non-political) life. There is a rapidly developing body of work in behavioural economics exploring when, why and how much people lie. This research suggests that in order to understand the role of lying in politics, we need to look beyond politics as a category to consider different types of political situations and interactions. For example, to what extent does a political interaction involve communicating a personal message? Is it a context in which smaller lies can pave the way for bigger lies? By highlighting the place of lying in politics, realism points to a number of interesting empirical questions, which in turn give rise to important normative agendas. But again the empirical issues cannot be settled by broad claims about the distinctive character of politics.

    You suggest that this problem can be avoided, if we think about ‘the distinctive character of politics’ as a claim that lies at the second order of methodological and metanormative discussion. That might be right. But I think that there are several strands of realist critique that do rest on empirical claims about the distinctive character of political versus non-political life. I think about it like this: Realists think there is something special about the character of politics to which properly political political theory must be responsive, and which therefore separates such theory from ethics. My worry then is that this commitment to a separation between political theory and ethics might serve to block fruitful lines of enquiry into the varying continuities and discontinuities within and between multiple different spheres of life.

  4. Alex Worsnip says:

    Hi, Brad! Super interesting post – thanks for contributing!

    It’s never been clear to me what Geuss’ rejection of the is/ought distinction comes to, exactly. Sometimes, it seems to me that all he is saying is that when we do descriptive inquiry about politics – trying to understand and causally explained political events, actions and so forth – to do this effectively we will have to understand the values and normative beliefs of the actors involves. But as I think of things, this is fully compatible with a sharp distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, or between the descriptive and the normative. A fan of that sharp distinction should hold that claims about which normative values and beliefs people hold are themselves to be located on the ‘is’ (or descriptive) side of that divide. The claim that someone holds some particular normative belief is not itself a normative claim in the relevant sense that is at issue when this distinction is being drawn. To be clear, we might call claims that are normative not merely in the weak sense of being *about values and norms that people hold*, but rather in the stronger sense of being about what *really* ought to be done, “robustly normative” claims.

    Sometimes it seems to me that Geuss is simply skeptical about whether robustly normative claims can ever admit of rational or philosophical justification. His business, he thinks, is understanding politics, and while that will take him into examining the values and norms that people hold, he seems disinclined from out-and-out, robust normative theorizing. If that’s so, he turns out to fall outside the target of our paper, since we have in mind those who think there is a distinctively political normativity, where that normativity, though non-ethical, is nevertheless “robust” in the sense I just defined. It also suggests he’d be unlikely to accept your suggestion that while political theory is deeply implicated in anthropology, sociology etc, there is a separate subject matter, ethics, that *isn’t* implicated in these things. (Compare pp. 6-7 of *Philosophy and Real Politics*, where he sounds dismissive of this notion.) His insistence that political theory shouldn’t be “ethics-first” seems borne more of a contempt for or desired elimination of the very discipline of ethics (at least as it is typically conceptualized by contemporary analytic philosophers) than it is of having a developed view about how ethical inquiry should go that distinguishes it from political philosophy.

    Geuss interpretation apart, though, your suggestion is still a highly interesting one. My first reaction is that I would like to hear a bit more about the relationship between two themes of your post, namely (i) rejection of the is-ought distinction, and (ii) the thought that political beliefs can be justified by state-given reasons, whereas this is not true of moral beliefs. I don’t quite yet see how the two link up. If one rejects the is-ought distinction, I would have thought that one rejects it both for ethical and for political normativity, in which case I don’t see how (i) supports (ii), or realism. Is your thought that although *some* is-ought distinction can be drawn, specifically when it comes to political normativity the dichotomy starts to break down? And if so, again, how exactly does that relate to your claims about state-given reasons?

    The idea that political beliefs are justified partly by state-given reasons – namely the value or disvalue of holding the relevant beliefs aren’t – whereas ethical beliefs aren’t, is fascinating. But I would be inclined to push back against it. Let’s start with the uncontroversial: whether we should *express* certain political views will depend on the costs and benefits of doing so. But that is also surely true of certain ethical views. Now, I see that one can make the more radical claim that the justification of the political belief itself depending on the value of holding it. But I don’t yet see why one would accept this claim for political beliefs and not for moral ones. Indeed, in the moral domain, there have been those who thought that we cannot accept a moral theory that would itself recommend that it not be propounded or believed. (This is the “publicity” objection to Sidgwick’s “government house” utilitarian.) That seems pretty close to saying that our moral beliefs are sensitive to state-given reasons. It’s not that I think that this view is correct, but just that *if* I accepted the view with respect to normative political beliefs, I think I’d be inclined to accept it for moral beliefs too.

    Finally, one other thing to mention. Suppose it’s true that whether we ought to accept a political belief depends on the costs and benefits of doing so. Then, figuring out what political beliefs to accept we ought to accept involve a certain degree of empirical inquiry. But it is (or ought to be) uncontroversial that figuring out the answers to *some* normative questions involves empirical inquiry. Finding out the answer to any applied ethical question about what I ought to do in a particular situation partly turns on the empirical facts of the case. What may still be insisted on, though, as reflected in the quotation from Hurka, is that *ultimate* normative principles (as opposed to particular verdicts about cases) don’t turn on empirical facts. (Cohen’s “Facts and Principles” is a paradigm statement of this view.) Now, suppose that it turns out that correct choices of political principles are partly dependent on empirical facts about the consequences of doing so (i.e. state-given reasons). Someone like Cohen would say that if this is true, it is true in virtue of a general principle like “You ought to select the political principles the acceptance of which will have the best consequences”. If it could be maintained that the ‘ought’ in *this* principle was moral, then we would have in fact just shown that the foundation of the whole of political normativity is, after all, moral. *No* political principle would turn out to be an “ultimate” normative principle, because every political principle would be grounded in part by the empirical facts and in part by the (more) ultimate moral principle that you morally ought to accept the political principles the acceptance of which will have best consequences. So I think that, far from supporting realism, this line of thought could lead to its rejection.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Brad – a briefer reply than Alex’s, but I also agree that this is a very interesting line of thinking, but one which I’m not convinced is going to establish a separation between moral and political normativity. Though I’ve never quite articulated the point this way, I’m extremely interested in the relationship between ‘state-given’ reasons and normative theorising, in particular because my really central research interests are on ideology and its political consequences, specifically with respect to violence. This is a field in which I frequently encounter the fact that principles which might appear quite attractive on ‘content-given’ grounds nevertheless, in practice, result in disastrous ‘states’.

    Like Alex, I would suggest that we would need to get a lot clearer on how state-given and content-given considerations relate – to this, I would also add that we need to be clear on whether we are really talking about *beliefs*, or in some similar sense propositions we hold to be true, as opposed to something more like ‘norms’, ‘rules’ or ‘frameworks’ (including cognitive frameworks), i.e. public or private decision-making tools which guide action. ‘Principles’ is rather ambiguous between these.

    It might, for example, be quite plausible to reconstruct what initially appear like *state-given reasons for a belief* as actually reasons to adopt a given norm/rule/framework in light of anterior content-given reasons guiding the principles which govern the design of good frameworks. Again, I don’t think this only applies to public political norms – this line of thinking might apply equally when considering the sort of cognitive-fallibility considerations which might motivate us to think that a certain normative view, though ‘true’ in its content-considerations, is nevertheless not a workable framework for action by real human beings (see, obviously, rule vs. act consequentialist debates). Again, I take these to be very important questions, but can’t see any reason to think that they would only arise in politics or require a distinctive political normativity.

    A final small point on the normative-descriptive distinction in general. Like Alex, I think Geuss’ comments here are pretty vague and hand-wavy. Many declarations that this distinction is in ‘error’ do not, it seems to be, distinguish between the (surely very banal view) that the vast bulk of human language involves both normative and descriptive elements, with the (to my mind extremely implausible) view that there is no distinction between normative and descriptive content *as such*. That seems to apply to most of Geuss’ comments (from my memory!) too.

  6. Brad Cokelet says:

    Hi Alex!

    Thanks for the response!

    First, on Geuss interpretation I think you are right. It’s not like he thinks Moore and Ross show us how to do ethics – one can imagine his scorn for ethical intuitionism might be more biting that his scorn for Nozick.

    My hunch is that he says we should both pursue reflective equilibrium in something like the way that Rawls suggests AND add in “realist” reflection on state-given reasons and questions about what is feasible in our current situation. I don’t have my Geuss books here (moving to new house tomorrow) but I think he says this somewhere.

    In any case, you are right that he might not like the “ethical and political normativity are different view” because he has fairly radical views on both fronts. Maybe we can still use my suggestion as a way of understanding Geuss as proposing that politics has a form of normativity that is different from the sort that ethics-first thinkers presuppose?

    Second, on the connection between is/ought and state-given reasons. Good Q. Yeah the is ought stuff is just very unclear to me. And I wonder if he talks about it elsewhere.

    Maybe: if one adopts a strong is/ought distinction, then one rejects the idea that what we ought to think about justice depends on descriptive, historically contingent, empirical facts about the costs of benefits of thinking various things about justice. What we ought to think about justice should not be beholden to contingent facts about the actual state-given reasons for believing one thing over another.

    Third, on the substantive suggestion I floated. Yeah I am not inclined to endorse the idea that justification of normative views in political philosophy is aptly grounded in state-given reasons. But I still think it might be a good way to understand realist claims that political normativity is either not like ethical normativity or that it is not best understood in the way that ethics-first philosophers assume.

    Fourth, maybe someone who says political justification is at least partially grounded in state-given reasons will need to ultimately need to appeal to some normative claim to defend that view. Like you say it might be “You ought to select the political principles the acceptance of which will have the best consequences”. But I don’t think that undercuts the claim that political normativity is either not like ethical normativity or that it is not best understood in the way that ethics-first philosophers assume.

    What your point shows, I think, is that the realist and ethics-first philosphers (as I am casting them) disagree about the methodlogical or broadly epistemic norms that govern normative political inquiry. Some people thought of as realists like Foucault did seem to try to avoid any normative claims at all but I don’t see why making some sort of normative claims about the methodlogical or broadly epistemic norms that govern normative political inquiry means giving up the realist agenda.

    Here is an analogy that springs to mind:

    If some mad dog Jamesian tells us that we ought to believe what will lead to good results he is making a normative claim — but one that is surprising because it entails that what we ought to believe depends on descriptive, historically contingent, empirical facts about the costs of benefits of thinking various things. What we ought to believe depends in surprising ways on what (contingently) is. Roughly he is an epistemic realist while most of favor truth/knowledge/something epistemic-first views that clash with his.

    Any way thanks for engaging with my suggestion!

  7. Jonathan says:

    Alice – A very brief reply, because I’m basically sympathetic to both your points. The ‘show by doing’ approach to methodology is key, and it’s hard for methodological debates or discussions to get off the ground without it. My view, though, would be that by comparison with most other academic disciplines, political theory has been both pretty narrow and pretty unsophisticated, until recently, in the methodological reflection behind existing practice. In that sense, the methodological turn is welcome – but yes, in no field is methodological discussion without practice very enlightening. Second, in suggesting that the ‘distinctive character of politics’ might be a second-order claim, I don’t think Alex and I in any sense what to suggest that most such claims actually do take such a form. Most are surely not, and remain matters of substantive empirical enquiry which cannot be sweepingly generalized/theoretically imputed to politics a priori. Our point is that the enjoinment to conduct political theorising in a certain kind of way – because of *something* about the distinctive character of politics – might be a second-order claim which, itself, is not justified by empirical claims.

  8. Alex Worsnip says:

    Thanks again, Brad! A couple of brief follow-ups:

    1) On your second point: I think the defender of a strong is/ought distinction will at most be committed to the view that our thinking about the *most ultimate and explanatorily fundamental* claims about justice should not be beholden to contingent, descriptive, empirical facts. These ultimate claims, *together* with the empirical facts, explain more particular or specific verdicts about justice – so the particular verdicts *do* depend on the empirical facts. It may be that the vast majority of our actual thinking about justice is not about the most ultimate and explanatorily fundamental principles. And so it’s misleading to say, in very general terms, that our thinking about justice should not be beholden to contingent, descriptive, empirical facts.

    2) On your fourth point: I don’t completely agree with what you say here, because I think if there are state-given reasons for belief, they are not correctly classified as ‘epistemic’. Rather, they are pragmatic – either instrumental, prudential, or moral. And in particular, I was thinking that the relevant norm that governs choice of political principles would be moral. That’s why I thought that if the correctness of a choice of political principle was grounded in the *moral* preferability of choosing (or believing in) that political principle, then the realist has given the game up to the moralist. (Of course, we could use the term ‘epistemic’ to refer to any reason for or norm on belief, in which case the reasons or norms here are epistemic. I don’t like that usage, but the point is that if we *do* adopt it, then these reasons being ‘epistemic’ won’t rule out their also being moral in character.)

  9. I find myself pretty much in complete agreement with Leader Maynard and Worsnip’s wonderfully thorough and convincingly argued Ethics piece. And I am delighted by the way they are able to employ my “psychological” account of morality’s normativity, as they call it, to shed light on whether there is a distinctively political form of normativity that differs from moral normativity. LM&W contrast “psychological” ways of distinguishing kinds of normativity from “content-based” approaches. According to the former, “different kinds of normativity are distinguished by what is psychologically involved in making a normative judgment, or prescribing a normative ‘ ought’, of the relevant kind” (762). According to my “psychological” account of moral normativity, in their words, “a distinctive feature of moral judgment, as contrasted with other normative spheres, is its association with a particular kind of blame, resentment, and holding accountable.”

    I would like to suggest a friendly amendment to LM&W. This is rooted in a general approach to normativity that one can find in, as I read them, Sidgwick, Broad, Ewing, Gibbard, Anderson (of Value in Ethics and Economics), the “reasons first” approach of Scanlon and the later Parfit, and my own work, among yet others, I am sure. Begin with Sidgwick’s claim that “the fundamental notion represented by the word ‘ought’” is “essentially different from all notions representing facts of physical or psychical experience” (Methods of Ethics, 25), echoing Hume’s famous ‘is’/‘ought’ passage. In Sidgwick’s view this notion is an essential element of all “ethical” ideas and judgments. These days, we might extend this more widely to include all normative ideas and judgments.
    For present purposes, it doesn’t matter whether we take the idea of ought or that of normative reason to be most fundamental—whether we are ought or reasons firsters—or even, for that matter, whether we take fittingness to be the fundamental normative notion. These can all be understood in terms of one another. Ought in terms of normative reasons, or vice versa. And fittingness in terms of reasons of the “right kind”, or vice versa.

    The crucial point underlying the “psychological” approach to distinguishing kinds of normativity is that oughts, fittingness, and normative reasons necessarily regulate attitudes, understanding attitudes broadly enough to include action (intention and choice). Put in reasons terms, all normative reasons are reasons to have some attitude or other (including reasons to act under reasons to intend to choose). Equivalently, only attitudes can be fitting in the relevant sense of proper to the objects they have in view. Finally, oughts regulate attitudes, where attitudes are states of mind agents can have for reasons.

    Different normative notions can then be distinguished, therefore, by the attitudes they differentially involve. The desirable is what there is reason to desire, the esteemable, what there is reason to esteem, the credible, what there is reason to believe, the choiceworthy, what there is reason to choose, and so on. Some normative notions are more complex. For example, if the idea of someone’s welfare, well-being, or good is a normative notion, it is clearly a distinct one from what there is reason for them to desire, even with respect to themselves, since there can be other reasons for desiring such things other than those concerning their own welfare. My suggestion (in Welfare and Rational Care), for what it’s worth, has been that the notion of well-being is that of what there is reason to want someone for their sake (that is out of concern for them) or equivalently, what, if there is reason to care for them, there is reason to want for them.

    Regardless of the details, the general lesson is that different normative notions, and hence different kinds of normativity, are to be distinguished by the ways they differentially involve different attitudes. It follows fairly directly from this general approach that there can be a distinctly political form of normativity just in case there can be distinctive political attitudes, and it seems quite unclear what these could possibly be. If this is right, then, not only can my particular “psychological” account of moral normativity in terms of “reactive” or, as I prefer to say, “holding accountable attitudes” like blame and guilt, be employed to make the issue between “moralists” and “realists” substantive rather than terminological. It can also be used to frame a challenge to realist’s claims of a distinctively political normativity: “Show us the attitude or attitudes in terms of which political normativity might be composed.”

  10. Alex Worsnip says:

    Thanks so much for your contribution, Steve! Here are some thoughts in response.

    It seems to me important to distinguish two ways in which ‘ought’s, and ‘ought’-judgment might be related to or associated with attitudes:
    – First, an attitude might be the *object* of the ‘ought’-judgment – that is, the thing to which the relevant ‘ought’ applies. For example, the ‘ought’-judgment might be about what one ought to hope for, or might be about what one ought to desire, etc, etc.
    – Second, an attitude might be constitutively involved in *making* of ‘ought’-judgment. This is how I’ve always interpreted your claim, for example, that moral ‘ought’-judgments involve (a particular kind of) blame.

    In our article, the idea that we express sympathy with is that kinds of normativity are distinguished or individuated in terms of the attitudes that they are associated with in the *second* sense, not the first. Perhaps that helps to explain why we call the account “psychological”. This view understands kinds of normativity in terms of kinds of normative judgment, where normative judgments are psychological items, and are themselves individuated in terms of attitudes (also psychological items) that they involve. So the thought is, e.g., that making a moral judgment (even if moral judgment is itself a kind of belief) constitutively involves further attitudes such as blame or holding accountable.

    By contrast, I would be hesitant to adopt an account according to which kinds of normativity are individuated in terms of the attitudes with which they are associated in the first sense; that is, in terms of to which attitudes the relevant ‘ought’ *applies*. There are a couple of reasons for this:
    – First, some oughts (or reasons) are reasons for actions, which are not attitudes, so such an account appears to resist full generalization (pace your view that reasons for action are to be understood fundamentally as reasons for intentions or choices).
    – Second (and even if we grant that view), this way of individuating kinds of normativity suggests that there can’t be different kinds of normativity attaching to one and the same attitude, which is at least something I think we should not conceptually rule out at this stage. For example, one might think that there are moral ‘ought’s that apply to actions (or intentions) and also instrumental or prudential ‘ought’s that apply to those very same actions (or intentions). If we say that any two ‘ought’s that apply to the very same attitude must involve the same kind of normativity, we rule this possibility out. We also rule out the possibility of there being e.g. both epistemic normativity as applied to belief and prudential or moral normativity as applied to belief.

    Now, I know you deny that there are any genuine normative reasons that are of the “wrong kind”, so e.g. you don’t think there are prudential or moral reasons for belief, only epistemic ones. More generally, if one is a wrong-kind-of-reason denier, then this gets us closer to the claim that for each attitude there will only be one kind of normativity that applies to it (viz. whatever kind of normative judgment is of the *right kind* to properly apply to that attitude, or to make it fitting). But still, I think you have the problem of allowing for different kinds of normativity (viz. e.g. moral and prudential) that apply to actions (or intentions to perform those actions).

    By contrast, our way of individuating kinds of normativity (which I also originally took to be yours, at least from aspects of your previous work) can nicely explain why moral and prudential normativity are different even when they *apply* to the same kinds of attitudes. For *making* the moral judgment that someone acted wrongly (roughly) involves blame whereas *making* the prudential judgment that someone acted imprudently does not.

    So, in summary, I think that depending upon what we mean by saying that kinds of normativity, or kinds of normative judgment, are individuated by the attitudes with which they are associated – whether we mean the attitudes to which they *apply* or the attitudes that are *involving in the making of the judgment* – we get different views, are I don’t think we can freely move between the two. And given that, I prefer the latter way of going – that they are individuated by the attitudes involved in the making of the judgment.

  11. Alex Worsnip says:

    PS. I probably should have just explicitly drawn out the consequences of my reply to Steve for the question about whether there is a distinctively political normativity! The bottom line is that I agree that (if my favored way of distinguishing different kinds of normativity is correct) political realists face the challenge of showing how there are distinctive political attitudes in the sense of *a distinctive attitude or set of attitudes that normative political judgments involve*. But I don’t think they need to show that there is some distinctive attitude *to which normative political judgments apply*.

  12. Stephen Darwall says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Alex. I don’t know that there is a whole lot to say about your first point. You are right that, like Parfit and Gibbard, I tend to believe that reasons “of the wrong kind” for a given attitude (that are not relevant to whether the attitude is fitting to its object) are not really reasons for that attitude, but, perhaps, reasons to desire to have the attitude. However, I tend to believe this is mostly a “bookkeeping” issue, so let’s put it to one side.

    I would like to say something about your second issue (more precisely, its second part), namely, that if we individuate species of normativity by the attitudes they are normative for, then we cannot countenance different species of normativity with the respect to the same attitude. As you say, we want to distinguish, for example, moral reasons and prudential reasons, or prudential or moral oughts, but it seems that we cannot think of these as involving distinct kinds of normativity on the kind of view I am suggesting.

    This is a very interesting issue and not one that people have focused on sufficiently, I think. Suppose we assume that the concept of reason for acting (whether moral, prudential, or of some other kind) is a distinct normative concept. There are of course different kinds of reasons for acting. The issue is whether these different kinds of reasons themselves involve distinctive forms of normativity in addition to the kind of normativity involved in the general notion of reason for acting or ought to do. In other words, if we assume that a certain consideration is a reason for acting, the issue is whether, when we ask whether that consideration is, say, a prudential reason or a moral reason is that itself a further normative question.

    Suppose we want to say that these are additional normative questions. The challenge for the kind of approach I’ve sketched is that it seems to lack the resources to say this, since there don’t seem to be additional attitudes involved beyond whatever is involved in action (say, intention or choice). But let me try to show why this is not in fact the case.

    I will focus on the case of moral reasons. I have been reading around a paper titled “What Are Moral Reasons?” which argues that the title’s question is interesting, and not purely classificatory, only if something normative hangs on its answer. And I propose an answer that is indeed normatively relevant beyond the fact that moral reasons share the (practical) normativity of all reasons for acting.

    The answer begins with my “psychological” account deontic moral concepts (morally obligatory, right, wrong, morally permissible, etc.). I claim that the distinctive normativity of these deontic moral notions is their conceptual tie to culpability or blameworthiness, that is, to reasons (of the right kind) for the holding-accountable attitude of moral blame. This is the claim that it is a conceptual truth that an act is morally obligatory if, and only if, it is an act of a kind that it would be blameworthy to omit were the agent to do so without excuse. On this view the distinctive normativity involved in deontic moral concepts like moral obligation is for reactive attitudes. Note, by the way, that on this account the moral judgment that an action is wrong, that it is morally prohibited and not morally permissible, can be genuinely normative even though it does not express blame (which seems to be contrary to your preferred way of understanding a promising “psychological” account of moral judgments).

    But what about the idea of a moral reason for acting? We generally believe that there can be moral reasons for doing something even when it is not obligatory. I argue that this idea can be understood in terms of the idea of moral obligation in a different way. It is, I claim, a conceptually necessary truth that something is a moral reason for doing something if, and only, if it is a pro tanto moral obligation-making consideration, that is, a consideration that tends to make an action morally obligatory, whether or not the action is morally obligatory, all things considered.

    If this is right, then something normative does hang on whether an acknowledged reason for acting is a moral reason (beyond the practical normativity involved in the general idea of reason for acting), but this further distinctive normativity is not for action, but rather for reactive attitudes like blame and guilt.

    Similarly, if I am right about the normativity of the concept of well-being, welfare, or a person’s good, namely that it is normative for care in the complex hypothetical way I propose (in Welfare and Rational Care, mentioned in my first post), then whether an acknowledged reason for acting is a prudential reason, will also be settled by a distinctive attitude-based form of normativity that is additional to the attitudes (intention or choice) that are involved in action itself.

    I hope this shows how it is possible for the kind of approach I favor to countenance the kind of complexity you want while maintaining that all normative notions are composed of the general idea of ought or normative reason (or fittingness) put together with different attitudes, sometimes in logically complex ways.

  13. Alex Worsnip says:

    Thanks, Steve, that’s very helpful.

    First, I should of course concede that a moral judgment might not actually involve or express blame, depending on the form of the moral judgment. While a moral judgment of the form “Person X acted wrongly in doing F” (at least usually) involves blaming X, a generalization of the form “F-ing is wrong” might well not involve determinately blaming anyone. Nor, obviously, do judgments about rightness obviously involve blame. To deal with judgments of these forms, we’ll have to go counterfactual about the way that blame is “involved” with the judgment: making the judgment that F-ing is wrong involves being disposed to blame someone if they F, etc. Maybe we’ll even have to do that for claims of the form “Person X acted wrongly in doing F”, in adding the condition that making this judgment involves blaming X if X doesn’t have a relevant excuse.

    Secondly, I recognize that one could hold that the link between moral judgment and blame is not actually a psychological one (i.e. making a moral judgment psychologically *involves* blaming or being disposed to blame) but rather itself a kind of normative one (i.e. there’s some connection between moral judgment and its being *appropriate* to blame). Call the former version of the view the “genuinely psychological” account, and the latter the “appropriateness conditions” account. I actually like the genuinely psychological account, partly because I like the idea that blame of a certain kind actually *reveals* an at least implicit moral judgment, and I haven’t come across decisive arguments against it. But the more normative “appropriateness conditions” account still offers a way of individuating kinds of normativity (viz. in terms of the reactive attitudes that it’s *appropriate to have* alongside different kinds of normative judgment) that contrasts with what we were calling the “content-based” approach in the paper.

    If we made the move to that “appropriateness conditions” version of my view, I’m not sure how far away we’d be from the view you are defending. You say, at least initially: every ‘ought’ has some specific kind of attitude as its object, and kinds of normativity are individuated in terms of which attitudes the relevant ought takes as its object. How does this deal with moral oughts, which seem to take actions rather than attitudes as their object? Your answer seems to be, roughly, that you think that it’s enough that the moral ought *entails* a further ought, or reasons, for a specific and distinctive set of attitudes, viz. blame, holding accountable, etc – again under the right counterfactual conditions (i.e. the ought has been violate without excuse). To that we might add that if these attitudes are in some sense “objectively” appropriate when there has been a violation of a moral ought without excuse, they are also in some sense “subjectively” appropriate when one *takes* there to have been a violation of moral ought without excuse, that is, when makes a moral judgment that someone else has acted wrongly without excuse. And that seems to be pretty close to what I was calling the “appropriateness conditions” version of my view. Does that seem right?

  14. Alex Worsnip says:

    PS (I wish one could edit PEA Soup comments – it doesn’t suit my revisionary tendencies!): that last post may not seem to connect up much with the main theme of your previous one, namely how to distinguish (e.g.) moral and prudential normativity. But the thought was: your answer to the challenge about how to deal with the fact that moral oughts attach to actions is also your answer to the challenge about how to distinguish moral and prudential normativity. In both cases, the idea is to appeal to further oughts or reasons for specific attitudes that accompany or are entailed by the moral ought (but not the prudential ought). And that was what, I thought, brought the account closer to what I was calling the “appropriateness conditions” version of my view.

  15. Stephn Darwall says:

    Yes, that does seem right, Alex. Thanks!

  16. Hello everyone. I know it’s quite a while after discussion has died down, but a comment for posterity is better than nothing, I think!

    I have two points, one small and one slightly larger. They’re both relatively nitpicky, but I think they’re about interesting topics that haven’t come up yet, so hopefully the nitpicking is warranted.

    The first point is that by the end of the article (pages 781-5, especially 784) we’ve shifted from the question “is there a distinctively political normativity?” to “if there is, why should we care about it?” This seems like a very different question than the one the article starts out with, so I wanted to see if I’m missing some way in which the two questions are equivalent.

    Perhaps the idea is that the BLD or something like it can’t be political NORMATIVITY unless we have some reason to do what it says, and thus if we can’t answer the “why should we care about it?” question then this actually gives us a negative answer to the existence question. I don’t find this answer tempting, because I think there are all sorts of clearly normative things (like rules for a game) that we might nevertheless not care about. So maybe there is some other way of understanding how the two questions are linked. But, like I mentioned, I’m not sure what it might be.

    My second point is about a characterization of one of Williams’s arguments. On 770 the paper brings up Williams’s point about how political decisions don’t entail that anyone was right or wrong, they merely entail that there were winners and losers. Moral decisions, meanwhile, entail that someone was right and someone else was wrong. The paper suggests that Williams is confusing de facto resolution and normative resolution, because a de facto answer to a moral question has no implications whatsoever about normative resolution and thus no implications whatsoever about who was right or wrong, morally speaking.

    I read Williams as saying something different and more plausible. I think his point is that for any given question in politics (say, whether to pass some law) the moralist is committed to the following view:

    Morality tells us the right answer to this question, such that anyone who arrives at that answer is morally correct and anyone who does not is morally incorrect.

    This strikes me as something the moralist is definitely committed to. Indeed, the article suggests as much on 770 (“the moralist holds only that the question of how such conflicts ought to be resolved is a moral question”) and 771 (middle paragraph).

    So far so good for Williams. Next, I think that Williams is saying that if we treat political decisions as moral decisions, we will think that anyone who disagrees with us about what political decision to make is morally wrong. They have reached an incorrect moral conclusion. That doesn’t seem like too much of an ask. To think otherwise would be to think either that both parties are right, despite disagreeing, or that we are wrong and the others are right, neither of which are sensible.

    And that, I think, is all Williams wants to say, really. His point seems to be that treating our political rivals as morally incorrect is not a good way to go about things. He suggests that political decisions should be more about reducing the differences between us and others and less about us finding the right answer and plumping for that. We should be willing to compromise and so on, whereas compromising on a moral decision seems like the wrong way to go.

    That’s not to say that any of this saves realism. There’s nothing stopping a moralist from saying that we ought to compromise, reduce differences, and so on when it comes to things like passing legislation. We don’t need a distinct political normativity to recommend political compromise. I think of Rawlsian political liberalism as a way of acknowledging and responding to the same point, which is that in politics we have to live with other people with whom we disagree, and maybe it’s not always a great idea to just take our considered moral convictions and try as hard as possible to make those the law of the land. And that could be a truth of morality, not of political normativity. (Of course, some people think of Rawlsian political liberalism as committing to a distinct political normativity, as the article points out in footnote 2.)

    But, you can sort of see where Williams is coming from. We might think it’s strange for morality to recommend self-effacement in this way, and a separate political normativity spares morality from having to say “take your moral convictions and ignore them when legislating.” We might want to make sense of someone who feels like they’ve compromised on their moral convictions for the sake of politics, and a separate political normativity helps do this, whereas collapsing everything into morality seems to suggest telling this person that they haven’t compromised at all, because they’ve merely done what morality asked them to do. (Recall that Williams is very animated by these sorts of concerns. For instance, he dislikes utilitarianism because it seems to suggest that compromising on one’s moral convictions carries no moral baggage.) We might think that compromise is a bad way to treat one’s moral convictions and thus there has to be a separate normativity that recommends compromise. And so on.