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10 Theses Concerning the Methodological Foundation

 of Normative Knowledge

1.) Regarding the area of positive (empirical) science there exists a reliable methodological basis, in spite of all special problems and controversies .

2.) The criticism of the illegitimate inference from "Is" to "Ought" is correct. Thereby many traditional approaches to founding norms have become obsolete.

[The fallacy of deriving Ought from Is consists in trying to infer that, what ought to be, from that, what is. Whenever this inference seemingly succeeds, concepts carrying a hidden normative content as e.g. "essence", "nature", "contradiction", "progress" etc. are used.]

3.) If one does not want to regard the existing social norms merely as expressions of power, one should not ignore the normative questions.

4.) Certain reflections by Jürgen Habermas and others on the necessary presuppositions of any argumentation, known as "Theorie des Diskurses", provide a reliable starting point for a methodology of normative knowledge. In normative investigation as in all other areas of knowledge, where assertions with the claim of being correct are made, the following rule applies accordingly: "Strive for the intersubjective validity of your assertions." An assertion is regarded as intersubjectively valid, if a permanent consent by arguments on the assertion is possible.

[Normative sentences as e. g. "Abortion ought to be punished" or "Decisions in matters of x have to be made by voting according to the principle of majority" or "Person A has to stop speaking" may be understood as assertions that are combined with the claim to be correct and intersubjectively valid. This claim of validity can only be justified by demonstrating, that a universal consent by arguments can be reached on the assertion.

The concept of "intersubjective validity" is more comprehensive than the concept of "truth" used in the empirical sciences, because it may be applied not only to positive statements about the observable world but to any kind of assertion, be it of a positive, normative, hermeneutic or some other kind. This is the point of dissent with the Positivists, who regard normative sentences as subjective decisions or as expressions of subjective wishes.]

From the rule stated above: "Strive for the intersubjective validity of your assertions" one can deduce other methodical rules for answering normative questions, e.g. the rule to argue in an understandable way, the rule of using only arguments, which in principle can be accepted and shared by others, or the rule of excludng all means of persuasion other than arguments such as force or manipulation.

Of course, one may reject the aim of intersubjective validity, but only at the expense of excluding oneself from the discussion. If anybody claims correctness and validity for his assertions, without testing at the same time their acceptability by arguments, his assertions are nothing but demands to believe and to obey. Against such claims other means than arguments must be used.]

5.) Whereas positive assertions express an observing relationship to the world, normative assertions express a relationship to the world, which is endowed with a specific will. Normative ought-sentences ("State x ought to be!") express the content of a volition ("Someone wants state x to be") though without relating the will to a specific subject. Whose will is it that is expressed by moral norms? In a simplified way one could say: That what we ought to do as individuals is that what we want collectively. Accordingly, point of reference for normative knowledge is the question: "What is it that we can permanently want all together?" ("We" in this context means all subjects, who ought to accept the correctness of the norm in question.)

[If positive assertions are discussed, the possibility of a consent by argumentsis given in principle by the intersubjectively congruent sensory perceptions: "Convince yourself with your own eyes that my assertion is correct!". "An analog criterion is needed for normative assertions. To get there it has to be clarified in the first place, what actually constitutes a dissent on normative sentences. According to the position defendet here, a dissent about normative assertions expresses a conflict of interest.]

6.) A consent by arguments about the collective interest and thereby about that what ought to be seems to be possible in the case of conflicting individual interests only, if each individual considers the interests of other individuals as if they were his own. According to this "principle of solidarity" the normative valid collective interest can be determined as an impartial und benevolent aggregation of the individual interests. Or expressed in terms of utility theory: The collective utility of an alternative is the result of the impartially aggregated individual utilities.

[From this statement it becomes clear, that there is a link to utilitarian positions, which in the past had a bad connotation in German philosophic tradition –what was an error in my opinion. However, the psychological and ethical hedonism of the early utilitarians is not shared. In addition the rationale of the "Principle of Equitable Consideration of Individual Interests" is not the same.]

7.) Such an equitable determination of the common interest presupposes a knowing and weighing of individual interests, that means an interpersonally comparable measurement of utility. (Here I see the greatest challenge of this approach.)

[Under the influence of behaviourism most of the economists denied the possibility of an interpersonal comparison of utilities. This is correct in so far, as utility is no dimension, accessible by means of ordinary empirical measurement. Attempts of operationalization, e.g. by measuring the relative strength of interests by the individuals readiness to sacrifice a certain amount of time, money or similar goods, can fulfil the demand of  considering interests according to solidarity only in a rather imperfect way, given that the individual endowment with the goods in question may differ interpersonally. Regarding the epistemological status of interpersonal comparison of utilities many issues need still to be clarified.]

8.) You can estimate the kind and weight of a person's interests by identification with him -  at least in principle. Therefore one has to put oneself mentally into the situation of the other individual and to imagine as intense as possible his conditions of life and his personal attributes.

[Such a weighing between one’s own interests and that of others is manifested in practice all the time – with more or less consciousness of it. In spite of all difficulties, to "understand" other human beings in their interests, it does not seem impossible to develop methods, which enable this comparison in an intersubjectively controllable and consensual way.]

9.) The ethically relevant individual interests are not necessarily identical to the interests actually expressed, because one may be mistaken regarding one’s own real interests. Supposed interests are not appropriate for the determination of the general interest, because they are not enduring. To determine the general interest one has to start from individual interests, which are clarified as good as possible. Relevant are those interests, which the individual would express, if his assumptions concerning the range of alternatives, the consequences of actions and the origin of his own motives were correct.

[That the ethically relevant interests must not be the same as the interests expressed, follows already from the fact, that one can regret one’s own former decisions. However, for practical reasons it will often be appropriate, to leave the determination of his interests to the individual himself, as it happens at polls and transactions in the market. Yet, according to the position taken here only qualified and intersubjectively recognizable interests should be considered in determining the collective interest.]

10.) The exchange of all available arguments does not always lead to a consensus in real discussions. For instance, because of lacking knowledge concerning the consequences of actions different opinions may be rationally tenable at the same time. In order to guarantee social coordination in spite of a dissent, special procedures and institutions are needed to set generally binding norms.



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Letzte Bearbeitung 25.06.2012 / Eberhard Wesche

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