Types of Normative Claims: (II) Rationality Claims

Here’s our second example of a normative claim:

“That was a really stupid thing to do.”

It’s clearly normative in the sense that it’s making a value judgment. To say that you’ve done something stupid is to imply that you shouldn’t have done it.

But what kind of value judgment? It’s not a moral judgment, and it’s not an aesthetic judgment.

Let’s call this a “rationality” judgment.

We can talk about rationality in descriptive ways, like when psychologists study how human beings actually form judgments and make decisions.

But we can also talk about rationality in normative ways, where our interest is in norms of good reasoning. When we violate these norms we invite the charge that we’re acting or thinking “irrationally”.

To call an action “stupid” is just a colloquial way of saying that it violates some norm of good reasoning or rational behavior.

There are lots of different ways that we can judge how people make decisions and form beliefs, that fall under this category of rationality.

For example, if a person is inconsistent in their beliefs, accepting one view and alternately accepting another view which contradicts it, and you point out the contradiction to them, what are you hoping they’ll do? You’re hoping they’ll acknowledge the inconsistency and reassess their beliefs, because contradictory beliefs can’t both be true.

In other words, you’re hoping that they accept as a principle of rationality that one ought not indulge in contradictory beliefs. That’s a normative principle of good reasoning.

There are other kinds of irrationality. Another category is sometimes called “instrumental rationality”, or “prudential rationality”. This is when you have goals you want to achieve, but you choose actions that fail to promote those goals.

Consider our third example of a normative claim:

“If you wanted to pass that test you should have studied harder.”

The “should” here is normative, but what is being described is a failure of instrumental rationality. Given your goals (you want to pass the test), and the assumption that studying harder would have increased your chances of passing, then what is being claimed in this statement is that you failed to choose the action that maximizes your chance of achieving your goals. In this respect you failed to live up to a norm of rational behavior.

There are entire disciplines devoted to the study of norms of rationality, but they aren’t our main concern here. I just wanted to give you another example of how a claim can be normative — it can make a value judgment — but not be a moral claim.