in Ethics

Questions of Normativity

Over at Catallarchy, I made what I thought was pretty much just a passing observation on a throwaway comment to a post on diminishing marginal utility. Oddly enough, that comments sparked a spirited (if IMHO hugely misinformed) defense from Constant, a regular Catallarchy commenter. The issue has to do with normativity. Constant mentioned that he finds less value in normative uses of economics, citing “X is efficient” or “X is Pareto optimal” as his examples.

I responded that

Technically, “efficient” and “pareto optimal” are descriptive and not normative terms. It’s often the case that people make statements like “X is efficient” with the suppressed premise “Efficient is good” or “I ought to act efficiently” but the normative force lies in the suppressed premises. Efficiency and Pareto optimality (is that a word?) are purely descriptive terms with set definitions.

I’m pretty sure that it’s actually impossible to use economics to make moral claims, just as it’s impossible to use physics to make moral claims. One can make moral claims by using normative statements in conjunction with scientific ones, but, as Scott argues so frequently, you can’t get an is from an ought. At least not from those is-es (and I know that one’s not a word).

There follows a long exchange that really isn’t all that worth reading as it mostly consists of my making the same point again and again and Constant responding by missing that point again and again. Plus some snark. Finally, though, I received this response:

Joe, a statement can be used to do something other than what it literally states. For example, I can say, “you have gained weight”, and use that statement make someone feel bad.

Let me start by saying that, yes, undoubtedly this is true. Let me also say that it leaves out a whole host of other issues. Like the fact that when I say this sort of thing in casual conversation, I’m actually offering a whole host of other nonverbal clues as to my intentions. Technically, what I am doing in that sort of case is making an argument, one in which I suppress a whole host of other premises, premises that are clear, nonetheless, from the context. If that were all that Constant meant to be saying, I’d completely agree with him. Of course, I’d completely agree with him largely because that was exactly the point that I was making in the first place, namely, that descriptive statements can be used in making normative arguments, but the descriptive claim is not itself a normative claim.

Given, however, that Constant seems to want to deny that point, the alternative interpretation would be something like the following:

  1. X is Pareto optimal is a descriptive claim about X.
  2. A claim that is literally a descriptive claim can be used to do things other than describe things.
  3. One of the other things that I can use a descriptive claim to do is to make a normative statement.
  4. Those normative uses do not require an additional, supporting normative claim.
  5. Thus, even though “X is Pareto optimal” is a descriptive claim, it can be used normatively.

If this really is the argument, though, then I’m not at all sure how it’s supposed to get around the is/ought problem. Indeed, this just is the is/ought problem. Hume’s whole point is that descriptive claims cannot be used normatively, at least not without a normative claim to go along with them.

Now I’m sympathetic to the argument that the naturalistic fallacy isn’t really a fallacy, but I’m pretty unlikely to go along with the idea that Pareto optimality is the sort of brute descriptive claim that has normative value. “X is pleasurable” has, I think, some normative pull to it. There’s something strange about asking, “But why should I value pleasure?” To ask that question, it seems to me, is just to misunderstand what we mean by the word “pleasure.” OTOH, I can ask of the term “Pareto efficiency,” “But why should I value Pareto efficiency?” Even if I fully understand the term, the question makes sense in a way that the pleasure question doesn’t.

What Constant seems to misunderstand is that a descriptive statement might require evaluative elements and still be a descriptive statement. To take a similar example, I might very well claim that “Y is utility maximizing.” That is just a factual claim about Y; it can be true or false, and we could (given time and the proper conditions) determine the truth value of that claim. That doesn’t entail that there are no normative elements involved in the term “utility maximizing.” When we unpack the term itself, we find that it has lots of normative elements: we have to decide what we mean by “utility,” whose utility gets measured, in what units we measure utility, etc. Lots of these are normative questions with normative answers.

None of that changes the fact, though, that “Y is utility maximizing” is purely descriptive. The statement says absolutely nothing about what it is that we ought to do, about what states of affairs should obtain, about what things we ought to value. It is descriptive. You and I can be in perfect agreement that Y is utility maximizing and still disagree about whether that gives us any reason for acting. By definition, then, “Y is utility maximizing” is a descriptive claim. Even though determining that Y is in fact utility maximizing required us to make other normative claims.

Let’s put the point in simpler terms. Determining what “Pareto optimal” really means requires making normative judgments. Given that “Pareto optimal” actually has an accepted definition, determining that “X is Pareto optimal” is a descriptive claim.

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  1. However, the definition of X is Pareto Optimal is that no one can be made better off without making someone worse off. by adopting terms like “better off” and “worse off” you have to admit that economics lends itself to some interpretation and consequently to normativity.