Sunday, April 27, 2008

Rules, imperatives, and noncognitivism

On Friday, Paul Boghossian gave a talk on epistemic rules. (I think it's the same paper that's in pdf form here.) On the way to discussing the Kripkenstein stuff, he claimed that rules are normative propositions and not imperatives. Being a cognitivist, I was generally sympathetic to his view at the time, though I thought some of his arguments didn't do as much to establish his thesis as he thought.

I've been thinking about rules more, though, and I'm seeing some reason to regard them as imperatives. Here are two ways we talk about rules that resemble the way we talk about imperatives.

-We usually don't say that rules are 'true' or 'false', just as we don't say that imperatives are true or false. Propositions, however, are different.

-It's natural to talk about following rules and following imperatives. It's a little less natural to talk about following propositions.

Even if this and other things convince us to regard rules as imperatives, though, I don't know how much it's going to help noncognitivists in ethics and other domains, because these imperatives might be best regarded as derivative from normative propositions anyway. (It'd be something like this -- accepting an imperative commits one to accepting a normative proposition, and the truth of the normative proposition determines the goodness of the imperative.) All the worries about embeddings, etc, are still out there when you're talking about non-truth-evaluable things. So it's open to the cognitivist to just say, "Well, we're going to need something truth-evaluable to explain embeddings and moral reasoning and the intuition that we need some substantial notion of moral truth to ground moral discourse. So assuming that Gibbard and Blackburn and those guys can't deliver all that, we can concede rules to the noncognitivist and still win."

Against what I've written just above, I suppose the noncognitivist could try to turn the tables by explaining the acceptance of normative propositions in terms of the acceptance of imperatives. This just seems kind of weird, though, because normative propositions are going to require truth-makers, and now the noncognitivist is going to have to posit normative properties or tell some kind of story about why we keep holding on to our normative propositions when there aren't any properties out there. So it looks like the noncognitivist can't have anything to do with genuine normative propositions.

In an amusing but irrelevant side note, one of our first-year graduate students has affectionately nicknamed Boghossian "Bog Hoss".


Michael said...

A passing observation on rule-talk and imperative-talk: One difference is that when we consider some intelligible form of words in the imperative mood (e.g., a command), we suppose it has a determinate and identifiable "source" like a person capable of intentional behavior. We sometimes don't make the presumption with respect to some rules, e.g., etiquette, or other customary rules that came about as a result of the attitudes, behavior, or practices of an indeterminate group of people over a long period of time. (Of course, on the other hand, there can be 'rule-givers' just as there are 'imperative-givers'.) So we can think about rules that are 'free-floating' in a way that does not hold for imperatives. Talking about free-floating imperatives (like Kantian ones) strikes me as an abuse of the term.

Neil Sinhababu said...

That's a good point. I suppose that's part of what motivates things like Korsgaard's Kantian constructivism -- if you can see yourself as the source of your imperative, it has a source, and a source you can't ignore.

Alex B. said...

"We usually don't say that rules are 'true' or 'false', just as we don't say that imperatives are true or false. Propositions, however, are different."

I don't know. We talk about whether there are or aren't certain rules. You might say that this naturally leads us to deem rules true or false. E.g.:

Bill: You should try to save drowning children if you're able. It's a moral rule.
Ted: That sounds true. Actually, I've heard of that rule.

Bill: Bishops should only be captured by pawns.
Ted: False. Bishops can be captured by any piece.

Neil Sinhababu said...

One thing about those examples, Alex, is that they both involve clear normative propositions (not imperatives) which are judged to be true or false. The first example goes a bit further than the second in labeling the thing a rule, but that doesn't change the fact that what's being so labeled is a normative proposition, which obviously can get a T or F.

The sentences I was picking out as defective are things like "That rule is true" or "That rule is false".

Neil Sinhababu said...

The talk about whether there are rules, though, may suggest that rules are like facts, which we don't usually label true or false. That would be helpful to the normative proposition people -- I think it's a fairly plausible account of facts that they're just true propositions.

Alex B said...

"but that doesn't change the fact that what's being so labeled is a normative proposition, which obviously can get a T or F"

Fair enough. I should have written the 2nd example differently:

"Bishops can only be captured by pawns."

That seems to make it non-normative and preserve the force of the example.

Alex B said...

I could also see the rules as propositions person saying this:

Rules are some subset of true propositions. True propositions that govern Chess are rules of Chess. False propositions that purport to govern Chess are not rules.

It's not that "Bishops can only be captured by pawns" is a false rule; rather it's no rule at all.

On this view, there are no false rules, there are just rules and non-rules.

Neil Sinhababu said...

"That seems to make it non-normative and preserve the force of the example."

What I was objecting to wasn't the normativity -- it was the fact that you had a proposition. The relevant example isn't a non-normative proposition. It's a normative non-proposition -- that is, something like:

Bill: Don't move rooks diagonally!
Ted: True.

Ted's utterance looks defective, and that's the problem.

Your proposal that rules are some subset of true propositions, meanwhile, seems quite good to me. I think that's basically the same idea as the rules-as-facts account.