Are All Norms Moral Norms?

For the next part of my blog series, “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism,” I am going to discuss metaphysical naturalism’s implications for ethics and moral imperatives. Before that, however, I am also going to discuss the meaning of normative statements and whether all normative claims are specifically “moral” normative claims.

boromir-is-oughtA normative statement is a claim that expresses value, preference, or obligation. Words like “should” and “ought,” or “good” and “bad,” or even “beautiful” and “ugly” are not merely factual descriptions of the world, but also include underlying judgements. It can be a factual statement that a piece of art consists of certain colors, shapes, and patterns, for example, but that is not the same thing as saying whether a piece of art is pleasant to look at or beautiful. Normative statements investigate different properties pertaining to objects and behavior. Their underlying meaning is not merely descriptive, but also preferential. This distinction is often termed the “is-ought problem.”

One of the major objections made against metaphysical naturalism is that it is unable to account for the truth of normative claims. In particular, apologetic moral arguments often levy the charge that naturalism cannot account for the truth of moral values and imperatives, and that naturalist metaphysics thus entails moral anti-realism. Whether this assertion is defensible is a question that I will investigate later in this blog series. Before that, however, I want to make some key distinctions between “moral” normative statements and other types of normative claims. In particular, a response that I often get, from both theists and atheists alike when using words like “should” and “ought,” is that such words inherently possess moral judgements. I do not think that this interpretation is correct, and accordingly, I am going to lay out certain types of normative statements below that do not necessarily relate to moral judgements, despite their normative character.

Hypothetical Norms

Perhaps the most basic kind of normative statement that one can make is a hypothetical imperative. Hypothetical imperatives follow the basic formula of “if-then” conditional statements. Say, for example, that I make the claim that I “should” avoid eating cheeseburgers at McDonald’s every day of the week. Does such a claim involve an underlying moral judgement? It possibly could, but it doesn’t need to in order for the normative statement to be valid. In order for such a statement to be valid, under a hypothetical imperative, it merely needs to fulfill a conditional objective.

If, for example, I am trying to get healthy and lose weight, then I should avoid eating at McDonald’s every day. The latter part of this statement is perfectly valid, provided that it is true that eating cheeseburgers every day is unhealthy and causes weight gain. Likewise, it is possible to empirically observe whether eating cheeseburgers daily has these effects, so that this is not a mere matter of opinion. That said, the apodosis in this statement is only valid under certain protasis conditions.

Say, for example, that instead of trying to lose weight, I am actually testing the results of eating at McDonald’s every day as part of a health study, such as in Super Size Me. If it is true that I am trying to test the health effects of eating at McDonald’s daily as part of a study, then I should, in fact, eat at McDonald’s daily. This hypothetical imperative is likewise perfectly valid; however, due to the change in the conditional goal, the truth of the apodosis consequent has changed. Hypothetical imperatives are thus not categorical imperatives, in that they are purely conditional and do not provide for unconditional normative truths.


One issue that can be raised for hypothetical imperatives is to question the basis upon which the protasis conditional is grounded. It is probably the case that I am trying to get healthy and lose weight in order to satisfy a further regressive goal. For example, I could be trying to get healthy and lose weight in order to live a longer life. And, one could move the goal post back further: why am I trying to live longer life? And, even if I can provide a further answer for why I am trying to satisfy this goal, one could question the basis upon which that answer is also based. And so on ad infinitum.

Historically, a number of philosophers — from Aristotle to Epicurus to John Stuart Mill — have sought to provide for a “final end” upon which all other goals are based. Common examples have included “happiness” or “pleasure.” However, this response raises the further issue of how one defines “happiness” or “pleasure.” For my own part, I do not think that there needs to be a “final end” for hypothetical imperatives to still be valid. It could be the case that I want to live a long life, simply because I enjoy living, and there might not be any further explanation to explain that. The regress would simply stop at what I want and enjoy. But that does not change the fact that it is empirically true that gaining weight through unhealthy eating undermines this goal. The apodosis in a hypothetical imperative can still be valid, even if the protasis is grounded upon no “final end” or ultimate goal, which means that words like “should” and “ought” can still have valid (albeit conditional) meaning.

Whether moral imperatives are a type of hypothetical imperative is another question. Deonotologists like Immanuel Kant would say “no.” Consequentialists like John Stuart Mill would say “yes.” Later in this series I will be discussing the arguments of philosopher Philippa Foot, who argues in “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives” that moral imperatives are a type of hypothetical imperative, in order to expand upon this issue. It should be noted, however, that even if all moral imperatives are hypothetical imperatives, that still does not mean that all hypothetical imperatives are moral imperatives. There can be hypothetical imperatives without any moral judgement at all, which simply follow the logic of “if-then” strategic behavior. For example, if I am playing a game of Jenga, then I should work to avoid my pile of bricks collapsing. This kind of logic, however, requires no ethical component at all. As such, not all hypothetical norms are moral norms, which provides an example of normativity outside of ethics.

Epistemic Norms 

Epistemologies such as science, when you pay close attention to their methodology, frequently involve normative claims. In order to reach the truth, we are told, we should avoid bias and be impartial, we should base conclusions on data and evidence, we should question old assumptions and revise our theories, and we should admit to the limitations and tentativeness of our knowledge. But, on what basis are these normative claims grounded, and how do they validate an epistemology?

One approach is to argue that epistemic imperatives are simply a type of hypothetical imperative. We should avoid bias and partiality, because bias and partially distort our ability to find the truth. And, if you want to find the truth, then you should avoid bias an partiality. But, how do we know that bias and partiality distort our ability to know the truth? The possible answers to this question may be straying further into Philosophy of Science than I am seeking to go in this individual post. One possible answer to this problem, however, is that such methods have been inductively shown to make successful predictions and to avoid unsuccessful predictions. If experience and data has shown that bias and partiality result in predictions that are more often disconfirmed by empirical results than impartial methods (however we wish to define impartiality), then such methods have been inductively shown to be less successful. As such, we should avoid them, in order to achieve our objective of making successful predictions.

Then again, one can always raise further normative problems in epistemology. Why should we trust empirically verifiable results? One could even raise the problem of induction: simply because bias and partiality have skewed our results in the past, why should we expect that they will skew our results in the future? That said, these are problems that perhaps pertain more to epistemology itself, rather than to the hypothetical imperatives that follow from epistemology. Let’s say, for whatever reason, that we have a sound philosophical explanation for why empiricism and induction are the best methods for reaching the truth (it might be worth blogging further on this topic in the future). If so, then science can still make valid hypothetical imperatives for avoiding methods that are not empirically and inductively successful. At least, if we choose to argue that epistemic norms are a type of hypothetical norm.

Then again, as with all hypothetical imperatives, the conclusion will change based on the conditional goal. Is there such a thing as an aim to epistemology? Could the differences between rival epistemologies stem less from their validity and more from the fact that they simply seek different objectives? As I said above, these questions pertain heavily to Philosophy of Science, but I will close off the discussion of this section with some valuable commentary from naturalist philosopher Jack Ritchie (Understanding Naturalism, pp. 91-92) on this issue:

“Aren’t the ends of enquiry subject to evaluation as well? What method or rules do we use to decide what we should be aiming for? … I’m not sure that there is any sort of answer to that question. Perhaps the naturalist might say that the search for true beliefs or at least beliefs that allow us to control and manipulate our environment are aims that we all share to some extent. How could we get by in the world at all if we did not have some beliefs that met these goals? Perhaps we don’t need to worry about it too much. Maybe having aims like these is just what it is to be engaged in any kind of pursuit of knowledge. You could do other things too: write plays, tell jokes, or tease your little sister. Science is an option, not an obligation. But if you are interested in learning something about the world, then you must be committed to something like making sure your beliefs match the empirical data.” 

rabbit holePerhaps “truth” is the loaded term muddling this issue. It may be wrong to say that science is about using empirically verifiable results to seek the truth. It may be the case that science is simply about making successful empirical predictions. It may have no higher goal. “Truth” could be nothing more than a lofty ideal that we are choosing to associate with successful empirical predictions. But, even if we removed this association, that still might not change the nature of science.

Aesthetic Norms 

So far I have been talking a lot about goals and behavior. But what about simple expressions of beauty or taste? Do normative statements about aesthetics have to be objectively true (or, let’s say metaphysically grounded), in order for them to be valid? After all, as I discussed earlier in this series, in my essay “Defining the ‘Natural’ in Metaphysical Naturalism,” metaphysical naturalism predicts a blind, dispassionate, and reductively non-mental cosmos. It is hard to imagine, therefore, that there could be any metaphysical, “big picture” basis for assigning properties such as beauty to individual conglomerations of matter and energy. The physical universe spirals on without any sense of beauty or aesthetics at all. As such, is beauty bunk?

Not if one allows for a subjectivist approach to aesthetics. This is what is meant by the old proverb, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Even if there is no metaphysical, “big picture” basis for beauty in naturalism, we are still human beings with our own tastes and subjective impressions. It is fair to say that certain images, sounds, tastes, and other sensations are more pleasing to us than others. Likewise, some things are pleasing to some of us, while being unpleasant to others. Normative statements, such as “beautiful” and “ugly,” are somewhat relative, therefore, in this sense.

Nevertheless, there are some guiding principles of aesthetics that do not make it completely relative. Symmetry, for example, is the attribute of certain patterns being proportionate and balanced, and it applies to human visual appeal broadly, even if individuals may have different tastes over individual visual objects. Humans notice certain shades of color better, when they are placed next to other colors. There are certain basic tastes, such as sweetness, that virtually all of us find to be pleasing in certain kinds of foods, even if we don’t all like the same kinds of candy.

Aesthetics, therefore, even if it is often relative, can still be normative. It can be normative for individuals, in that we all have individual preferences about certain things that satisfy us. I am a fan of beers, and particularly IPAs, and so I will have certain normative preferences for the types of hops and grains that I like. But, furthermore, there are aesthetic principles that also apply to human experience more broadly. IPAs are a bitter beverage, and not everyone will like them, but bitterness is a basic taste that virtually all of us find to be pleasing in some foods and beverages.

beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholderOne implication for subjective aesthetics, however, is that its norms will be determined by the subjective viewer. Certain images, sounds, and tastes are pleasing to humans on a pretty general basis. If, however, you were to encounter an intelligent jellyfish from an alien world, the tastes of this creature may be radically different. I suppose there would probably still be some shared sense of aesthetics. Given that symmetry is a pattern in nature, even a jellyfish might be drawn towards certain things that are balanced and proportionate. But, it is fair to say that the jellyfish’s norms will probably be more distant from my own than the norms that I share with my human neighbor. Change the subjective viewer, and the norms of aesthetics will change too.


Do words like a “should” and “ought,” or “good” and bad,” always imply moral judgements, therefore? As shown above, there are a number of valid normative statements that do not necessarily involve the ethics of human interrelation, or the other spheres into which we typically associate morality. Some norms simply involve strategic behavior to achieve desirable goals. I should practice shooting baskets, if I want to improve my skills at basketball, which is a valid hypothetical imperative, but that hardly implies that I have a moral imperative to do so. I should use certain methods of testing, if I want to achieve empirically verifiable results, but such epistemic norms do not always imply (or even provide for) moral judgements. I can say that certain images, sounds, and tastes are “good” or “bad” without conveying any moral overtones.

Words like should, ought, good, and bad can still have valid meaning, therefore, even under the staunchest version of moral anti-realism, when they belong to the correct kinds of normative statements. Likewise, as I discuss in my article “Exploring the Implications of Moral Anti-Realism,” these words can even be used in a moral sense under anti-realism with some validity, provided that one makes some meta-ethical qualifications about their meaning. As I move forward in this series, I will be discussing more of the meta-ethical meaning of moral language, as well as systems of grounding normative ethics. From there, I will also be addressing the question of whether metaphysical naturalism can account for any version of moral realism, or whether naturalism is only compatible with anti-realism, and what the implications are for either conclusion.

-Matthew Ferguson


One thought on “Are All Norms Moral Norms?

  1. Reblogged this on Κέλσος and commented:

    I am starting up my blog series “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism” again on Civitas Humana. The first topic that I am writing on is the relation between ethics and naturalism. Ethics is a subject upon which even like-minded secularists and skeptics can disagree. I know that Staircaseghost has been a frequent skeptical commenter on this blog who has disagreed with some of my arguments pertaining to ethics. I hope to expand some of my previous writings on both moral realism and anti-realism as part of the new discussion.

    This first post that I am sharing is about the meaning of normative statements, and whether words like “should” and “ought,” or “good” and “bad,” always involve underlying moral judgements. I argue that normativity is not exclusively an ethical concept, since value judgements can also pertain to hypothetical imperatives, as well as the norms of epistemology and aesthetics. In the next couple posts I will be discussing ethical norms, in particular, but I wanted to preface the discussion with examples of normativity outside of ethics, so that the boundaries of ethical norms could be more clearly defined.

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