Meta-ethics, essences, and the irreducibly normative: a question from an analytic philosopher

A friend who is an analytic philosopher wrote to me with the following question. I’d like to invite anyone with some expertise or suggestions to kindly say something in the discussions below.

“I’m wondering if there are any figures or traditions that endorse an idea similar to one that is sometimes attributed to Plato and some of the scholastics. The idea is that the nature, essence, or definition of anything and everything includes some reference to value (or some other normative feature). Stated negatively, the idea is that it’s impossible to correctly specify what it is to be x, for any x, without invoking some normative feature (whether evaluative, deontic, aretaic, etc.). On one reading of Plato, this idea shows up in the form of the claim that the characterization of the whole essence of anything must make reference to the Good.

In case it helps to clarify what I have in mind, perhaps I should add that the idea I’m wondering about is antithetical to the naturalist project. At the same time, it goes beyond the comparatively modest thesis, endorsed by G.E. Moore and other moral nonnaturalists, that moral properties are ineliminably essentially normative. The idea I have in mind is much more ambitious: it says that everything is like that. So, not only is moral nonnaturalism true, but the whole of reality is suffused with normativity.

Another way to describe the idea is to note that it’s something of an analogue to the panpsychist view that everything has mentality. The idea I’m looking for says, analogously, that everything is normative (and, indeed, essentially so).

Have you ever come across anything like this idea in Indian philosophy?”

About Matthew Dasti

Matthew R. Dasti is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.

6 Replies to “Meta-ethics, essences, and the irreducibly normative: a question from an analytic philosopher”

  1. Well, we need to think more carefully about ‘value’, but the whole dharma discourse in Sanskrit seems to comparable, but in an elusive way. This might explain why intuitions about dharma-talk collapse around the nature of the cosmos. One direction takes us towards reading the conception of this world view as ‘naturalizing’ even human realities (most potently around varna) as simply given (see, e.g., little interest in the treatment in Sanskritic texts of hierarchies in identifying epistemologically available categories like strength and intelligence that are frequently used in western hierarchic imaginaires; hierarchies simply ‘are’.). The other direction takes us towards thinking of *all* elements of the cosmos, living and inert, as possessed intrinsically of values, and therefore profoundly resistant to naturalization.
    I’d suggest reading Plato through this interpretive challenge of dharma, to probe the presuppositions that go into ‘value’ and it’s relationship to them natural’.

  2. I’m not an expert here, but maybe there’s something like this is idea, if only implicit, in Abhidharma. Some Abhidharmikas seem to think that reality is fundamentally valenced. Certain mental dharmas are inherently wholesome or unwholesome (kusala and akusala). But again, I’m not an expert on Abhidharma.

  3. I think that philosophers who advocated some sort of bheda-abheda or monism with internal distinctions may offer us some footholds here. Rāmānuja’s idea that everything that exists besides God is a śeṣa (auxiliary) to God who is the śeṣin (principal) suggests that to know something properly is to know it in relation to the whole, and that relation involves a normative component of “taking one’s place” so to speak, as governed by the principal.

    This might be augmented by his philosophy of language which holds that everything (e.g., this table I am looking at) is ensouled by God and when terms for anything is understood properly (“table”) it is understood to refer both to God and to the individual thing.

    Maybe Elisa could let me know if she thinks this is a false start?

    And perhaps something similar could be found in the other great holistic realists Utpaladeva or Abhinavagupta.

  4. 1) The concept of Rta as cosmic moral order is one.
    2) Second similar idea that comes to my mind is trigunas – tripartite classification of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas as Prakrti which is the origin of everything. The 24 evolutes which constitutes the universe have the 3 gunas in them. Normative aspects can be ascribed to the gunas.

  5. It seems like Vedāntic traditions have to endorse the claim of ultimate normativity in at least some respect, since they claim everything is ultimately sat, which is goodness as well as truth.

    That’s probably the closest analogue I can think of. I agree that in the abhidhamma many things are irreducibly normative, but I’m not sure that’s the case for everything – some things are neutral in valence, at least. I guess you could say neutral valence is still a valence?

    Less directly answering your friend’s question but potentially still relevant, the Dhammapāda’s “him I call a brahmin” passage has long struck me as being close to Plato’s kind of normative teleological dialectic. Wrote about that a little while ago. That is not about normativity being everywhere, but its analogy to Plato’s approach to value is close enough that it seems worth mentioning in the context of this question.

  6. I was surprised to find recently that * is the square measure of reference in the Vedic sacred geometry: that the same word (with accented .s) translated as Person in Samkhya!
    And cognate in Greek is the *dynamis as square measure, ancestral of *vis Viva in Enlightenment natural philosophy. Plato’s Stranger speaks of the world animal or soul of the world as dynamis of dynamis, which echoes Froude’s Law, reaching down to the square root of velocity, for the efficacy of a beating wing, oar or propeller. A universal scaling principle follows, which is intrinsically absent in pure geometry. I realized recently that it carries to Planck’s units, crafted from three universal constants. So a naturalism of value is not excluded, and indeed you can find it in Aristotle’s *entelechia read as en-telos-echia = de-limit-ation of a power or virtue under natural law, through what is proper, apt or *sat to its purpose or part in the scheme of things.

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