Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Are All Normative Judgments Desire-Like?

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Are All Normative Judgments Desire-Like?

Article excerpt

IF I COME TO THINK that I ought to go to Sweden, we might think that this judgment is somewhat appetitive: if I really think this, I must be somewhat inclined to go. But in contrast, if I judge that you ought to go to Sweden, it is far less clear that this involves any kind of inclination on my part: I might really think that you ought to go, but need not be at all in favor of your doing so (indeed, perhaps I would much prefer you to shirk your duties and stay). Other-regarding normative judgments seem to be a matter of mere recognition, not inclination. This casts doubt on noncognitivist views according to which all normative judgments are desire-like. But it fits much better with theories in the vicinity of desire-as-belief, which identify only some normative judgments with desires. So I shall argue.

This paper is split into seven sections. Section 1 describes a natural way of formulating noncognitivism, which I label conativism. Section 2 describes the motivation argument, and presents a version that escapes some standard criticisms of that argument. In section 3, I argue that other-regarding normative judgments present a problem for the motivation argument, and indeed present a problem for conativism itself. Sections 4 and 5 consider two possible replies. Section 6 very briefly describes how the problem relates to the Frege-Geach problem. Section 7 argues that some other theories--such as desire-as-belief--may be able to accommodate the motivational role of normative judgment without falling prey to the same problem.


People have a variety of views about what is good, bad, right, wrong, justified, and so on. It is helpful to think of these as views about normativity (where this may include but is certainly not exhausted by, moral normativity). (1) I follow tradition and stipulatively use the word "judgment" to refer to the state of mind (whatever it is) that such views consist in. With this terminology, we can formulate a theory:

Conativism: All normative judgments are desires.

We can think of conativism as one particular kind of noncognitivist theory. Non-cognitivists deny that normative judgments are beliefs. Conativism adds to non-cognitivism by also making a claim about what normative judgments are: desires. I take it that conativism represents a central strand of the noncognitivist tradition. For example, one classic argument for noncognitivism is the motivation argument, which appeals to the fact that normative judgments motivate us in a way that only desires can. (2) If this moves us to accept noncognitivism, it should move us to accept the conativist kind of noncognitivism, since it establishes the conclusion that normative judgments are desires, not merely the conclusion that they are not beliefs.

In this paper, I object to conativism. I thereby leave open that there might be other noncognitivist views that are plausible and that escape the objection I present against conativism. For example, I shall not discuss noncognitivist views that abandon the motivation argument entirely and treat all normative judgments as states of mind that are neither beliefs nor desires. I shall also not discuss noncognitivist views that claim that whereas some normative judgments are desires, others are some other noncognitive state of mind. I tend to think that conativism captures an important strand of the noncognitivist tradition, and that noncognitivist views other than conativism are likely to lose some of the advantages that noncognitivism is supposed to have over cognitivism. But other than in a brief note, I shall not address such issues. (3) From here onward my focus is simply on conativism: the reader may decide for themselves how my discussion bears on noncognitivism more broadly.

Despite this restriction of focus, my objection to conativism will extend to nearby views in three ways. First, conativism is a view about the nature of a mental state: normative judgment. …

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