Metanormative Regress: An Escape Plan

Abstract

How should you decide what to do when you're uncertain about basic normative principles (e.g., Kantianism vs. utilitarianism)? A natural suggestion is to follow some "second-order" norm: e.g., "comply with the first-order norm you regard as most probable" or "maximize expected choiceworthiness". But what if you're uncertain about second-order norms too -- must you then invoke some third-order norm? If so, it seems that any norm-guided response to normative uncertainty is doomed to a vicious regress. In this paper, I aim to rescue second-order norms from this threat of regress. I first elaborate and defend the suggestion some philosophers have entertained that the regress problem forces us to accept normative externalism, the view that at least one norm is incumbent on agents regardless of their beliefs or evidence concerning that norm. But, I then argue, we need not accept externalism about first-order (e.g., moral) norms, thus closing off any question of what an agent should do in light of her normative beliefs. Rather, it is more plausible to ascribe external force to a single, second-order rational norm: the enkratic principle, correctly formulated. This modest form of externalism, I argue, is both intrinsically well-motivated and sufficient to head off the threat of regress.

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Christian Tarsney
University of Texas at Austin