Types of Normative Claims: (I) Aesthetic Claims

Let’s look at our first example of a normative claim.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, is a better movie than Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace”.

Here we’re making a statement about the relative quality of two different movies in the Star Wars franchise. We’re saying that one movie is better than another movie.

Better how? Better in what respects?

Better in the respects that we commonly use to make judgments about the artistic and aesthetic qualities of film. Better acting, better script, better story-telling better cinematography, better art direction, etc.

These are artistic or aesthetic judgments, and they are a particular type or class of normative judgment.

We make aesthetic judgments when we say that such-and-such piece of music, film, dance, theater, cartoon, fine art, etc. is good or bad, high quality or low quality, successful or unsuccessful, and so on.

We also make aesthetic judgments when we judge the quality of a figure skating performance, or judge the quality of wine or food.

When we make these judgments, we’re making value judgments of a certain kind. These value judgments express norms of quality or excellence within a particular context or domain.

All of us have argued forcefully about such issues.

When we argue about them — when we’re defending our aesthetic judgments and evaluating the judgments of others — it's important to appreciate that we’re not treating them as mere subjective expressions of personal taste, like a preference for chocolate over vanilla.

This is an important distinction. No one argues about whether chocolate is REALLY better than vanilla or vice versa. We all see that there is no point to such an argument, because there is no fact of the matter about the question. There’s no point in arguing “no, you’re wrong — you should prefer vanilla over chocolate”, because we recognize that expressions of personal preference are just that, expressions of personal preference.

But we will argue strenuously about whether one piece of music or film or painting is good or bad, or better or worse than some other piece of music or film or painting.

Why do we do this? Because we believe there is a distinction between good art and bad art that is grounded in principles and values that have an objectivity that goes beyond our purely subjective tastes and preferences. There really does seem to be a fact of the matter about whether a particular work of art is good or bad, better or worse, successful or unsuccessful, as a work of art, that is distinct from the personal preferences of individuals.

Now, what kind of facts these are, and exactly how their objectivity is grounded, is an open question for debate. Actually, that's a basic question for the philosophy of art.

Different people may hold different views on what makes a piece of art good or bad. But what cannot be denied is our almost universal willingness to make such judgments and offer reasons and arguments to defend them.

As it turns out, this widely held intuition about the objectivity of normative judgments is enough to ground normative argument analysis. There's an important lesson here for moral reasoning and moral argumentation, which I'll return to shortly.

But first let’s walk through the remaining types of normative judgments. Then we’ll take a closer look at moral judgments.