Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Friday, March 25, 2005

Normativity is Still Kicking

So here's Tarun's objection to my earlier post on normativity. In my post, I noted that normativity can be broken apart into a factual component and an "aesthetic" component, which includes values for all sorts of things, not just beauty. Tarun claims that this aesthetic part can't itself be factual, because it can't be confirmed or disconfirmed.

A value-function is really an algorithm. Its inputs are facts gained through the senses, or deducted by logic, and its output is my decision-making. Of course, all of this can be described in factual terms, but Tarun says that because the algorithm essentially issues commands, it should be seen as imperative or perhaps still normative.

Maybe. I don't know. Part of my point was that, just as tastes aren't really subject to proof, neither are values. Values are facts about us, derived presumably from evolution and environment. Normative statements, then, are actually factual statements revealing underlying values, as well as beliefs about the world. As such, they are relative; a normative statement won't have much meaning to someone with a different value-function.

Another objection Tarun brought up is that we don't think it's incoherent when someone says, "Lying is wrong, but I enjoy lying." This implies that there's a separation between tastes and moral (normative) judgments. I don't think so. First, trivially, preferences need not be consistent. Secondly, I don't even think these things are contradictory in my theory. We have different orders of volitions; I may want to lie, but want to want to tell the truth. My value functions will somehow resolve this dilemma and I will lie or not, but I can still honestly say that I disapprove of lying but still enjoy doing it. The analogy would be to white chocolate vs. spinach. I might believe that spinach is better to eat, broadly speaking, but still prefer eating white chocolate. These meta-preferences might be conceptually difficult, but I think they exist.

Finally, moral statements have a huge amount of baggage that makes them difficult to analyze under any system (I think). When I say that lying is bad, do I really mean that every instance of lying is blameworthy? Do I mean that the world would be a better place if no one ever lied? I might return to these subjects in the future, but to be honest they interest me less than another notion: that there are several competing algorithms going on in different parts of the brain, and that a person is thus a messy conglomerate of different individuals struggling for control. More soon, hopefully.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Life Update 1

So, I'm in Chicago, but tomorrow I head down to Peoria for a few days. I'll probably play a lot of Star Wars Galaxies, which I'll describe more fully in another post - suffice it to say that it's immersive and distressingly addictive. I'm mulling over some things Tarun told me about my last post (he's apparently too good for the comments section), so I'll be writing a follow-up to that pretty soon. I'll stop by my former place of employment, French Toast, and whip them back into shape. I want to try out Linux, not because Windows isn't working for me, but because Microsoft is really making me angry. Finally, I'm thinking of starting a student group at the University of Chicago law school, to discuss technology and the law. Apparently there are already a "Law and Internet Forum" and an "Intellectual Property and Entertainment Law Society," but I had heard of neither of them before writing this post, and neither really seems on-point. I think it's important to realize that the open-source battle is partly being fought in courtrooms, but of course the group would deal with a lot of other issues.

So, that's my boring life. Sleep, now, and then hopefully a quick stop by the library before we leave for Peoria.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Normativity is Dead

So, here I am in Chicago, trying to make sense of a connection that recently occurred to me. I read somewhere (I'll try to find it, and when I do I'll make note of it) that normativity and aesthetics are somewhat similar. My current thought is that normativity is actually better expressed as aesthetics coupled with positive statements. I'm not sure this matters, or if it is at all original, but it interests me, and it has proved difficult to pin down my thoughts.

First, a few definitions. Normative statements are "ought" statements. Traditionally, they are contrasted with positive statements, which merely report a fact. My conception of aesthetics is broad, at least for my current purposes. It includes all preferences. It would thus include tastes for food and art, but also for health and politics and wealth distribution. I hope to show that normative statements are in fact merely a specific combination of aesthetics with a positive statement about the world, and are thus not fundamentally distinct from aesthetics.

Here's how I think the two interact. Aesthetics determine the optimal state of the world; normativity provides factual statements about how to move toward the desired outcome. To put it another way: any normative statement can be converted into a positive statement with the addition of an expression of preference. "You should do y" is a normative statement, but "Assuming you desire x, you should do y" is a positive statement. It might be false, but it is a factual statement about cause and effect. Thus, once you specify a value system, normative statements are obsolete; they can be replaced by positive statements, the aesthetic part of which might be implicit.

For an individual, then, it's somewhat meaningless to talk about normative statements (it is an open question whether people are individuals in this sense, but that's a post for another time). An individual has a value system and knowledge about cause and effect. Given these, normative statements are superfluous. Similarly, within a community of shared values, normative statements are actually positive statements with implicit aesthetic elements. Within a corporation, for instance, it might be taken for granted that profits should be maximized, so statements like "We should build a processing facility in New York" are actually to be taken as (possibly controversial) factual claims about the world. The only dispute is whether this action is actually profit-maximizing, not whether profits should be maximized.

What about communities without shared values? I think normative statements are not so much meaningless as futile in this context. Why should I care about the preferences of another, except in taking them into account for the purposes of advancing my own preferences? It might thus be valuable for me to know that someone else prefers cheap bananas, but it's hard to see how that fact is somehow binding on me.

Of course, values can be encoded into law, at which point they are reflected in imperative statements that are highly relevant to everyone bound by the law. Imperative statements, though, are really just positive statements about the consequences of particular actions. They should be taken into account no differently from other factual statements about consequences, except that of course they might be more or less credible in different situations. The "normativity" of law, then, comes in with its promulgation, not its exercise, and it is not distinct from the values of its creator (except as distorted by the political process).

So that's where I am: struck by the confluence of aesthetics and normativity, but unable to piece it all together into a coherent idea. I guess my tentative conclusion is that normative statements are generally unhelpful except as shorthand for the two components that are more fruitful to think about: the goals that people have, and the facts about the world that are relevant to the achievement of those goals. Normativiy as a distinct concept is dead.