Types of Normative Claims: (III) Function Claims

Here’s another example of a normative claim that is distinct from aesthetic claims and rationality claims, but is clearly not a moral claim either:

“Your electrocardiogram test results are normal.”

An electrocardiogram (ECG) measures electrical activity of your heart. It’s used to diagnose chest pain or symptoms of heart disease, and otherwise monitor the health of the heart.

To say that your ECG results are “normal” is to make a normative claim — your heart is functioning the way it SHOULD, the way a healthy heart OUGHT to function.

This is not a purely descriptive claim. It implies that there is a standard or criterion of proper functioning against which the actual functioning can be compared, which characterizes a desirable (“good”) state of the heart.

Other examples that employ this kind of normativity:

  • “The tumor caused severe brain damage.”
  • “If you don’t get treatment for your high blood pressure it could lead to kidney failure.”
  • “There’s a bug in the computer program somewhere. It’s not functioning properly.”

“Damage”. “Failure”. “Not functioning properly”.

We often use normative language like this to describe the intended or proper or normal functioning of natural and artificial systems, and deviations from this functioning.

For the sake of a name, let’s call these “function claims”.

Philosophers have written a great deal about this kind of function talk, especially in the natural sciences, where there has been a struggle to understand the kind of normativity that seems essential to describing biological functions. The issues also cross over into the philosophy of medicine, which is concerned (among other things) with the nature of health and disease and how these concepts are grounded.

It would take us too far afield to follow up on these issues here, and they’re not immediately relevant to moral reasoning, so we’ll leave it at that.

But I still think it’s important to appreciate that normative concepts and categories play important roles in our everyday thinking, and that normative concepts extend beyond the moral domain.

That’s the take-away message of these examples.