Thursday, February 7, 2013

Thoughts on normative vs. positive?

Responding to my comment on the Bryan Caplan post I discussed here, Dan Klein writes:
"I disdain talk of "positive v. normative." You should, too. Such disdain is wise. Such disdain is enlightened."
It's a sentiment I couldn't disagree with more. Taking the same "enlightened"/"disdain" tone (i.e. - I wasn't trying to be a jerk here, just borrowed the lingo), I responded:

Mixing positive and normative is barbaric. You should agree. Path to enlightenment is their segregation. Nothing good comes from treating preferences and values like objective truth that all ought to obey. There's plenty of latitude for disputing truly heinous subjective values without squeezing liberalism down to some minuscule inflexible libertarian creed."
We can see in the Buturovic and Klein articles how mixing positive and normative sorts of claims can get you into analytic trouble. But the other point - which I raise in my comment - is important too: acting like your preferences, values, and priorities have some kind of universal truth to them can lead to some extremely illiberal results. This is not relativism. Saying that we can't make an objective case against someone's normative views is not the same as saying that we can't make a case against them. Of course we can. This is the sort of "libertarian social engineering" I've talked a lot about in the past.

So there are two sides to this - not distinguishing normative from positive can lead to bad scientific investigation of positive questions, and not distinguishing normative from positive can lead to an illiberal (in some cases) or at least anti-subjectivist attitude towards pluralism.

People value different things, period. We may think some of those valuations are more acceptable than others. But that's our valuation of other peoples' valuations - it's not a proof that their valuations are illegitimate.

And certainly no set of positive findings in economics gives you a normative conclusion unless you bring your own values to the table about how to use and apply those positive findings.


  1. "Saying that we can't make an objective case against someone's normative views is not the same as saying that we can't make a case against them."

    If the case is not objective, why should anyone but the person making it care? You prefer not eating babies, I prefer eating them: hey man, it's all just subjective preferences!

    1. re: "If the case is not objective, why should anyone but the person making it care?"

      Because they might be persuaded.

      We also obviously don't need some kind of mathematical proof to take action. We all seem to have basic concerns for infants. Aside from the issue of infants vs. adults we all seem to think that cannibalism is also problematic. One of the most important ways that it is problematic is that it doesn't allow other people to follow their own preferences (which is exactly why opinion is more mixed on assisted suicide and advertisements in newspapers for willing cannibalism victims).

      One doesn't need a proof to not like things like that. We simply don't like it. And when you, me, and several million other people don't like it it doesn't matter what the cannibal thinks - we have the wherewithal to stop him and arguments to justify stopping him that are awfully persuasive.

      I don't deny that baby eaters have their own subjective preferences. But I'm not obligated to privelege that valuation, am I? And honestly when I put him in jail I don't really care at that point whether he's convinced or not. It may very well be neurological and he may never be convinced. Maybe we could take those sorts of things into account in deciding exactly what we do, but it hardly changes the decision to impose our values on him.

    2. But notice the important difference - do we mix up positive and normative and claim some sort of universal truth for the normative values we impose? Or do we impose values that many people together decide are reasonable to be collectively imposed and which is guided by the idea that letting people pursue their own preferred ends is a value we can widely acknowledge as preferable (NOT a value that can be proved)?

      The former strikes me as both unfounded and illiberal. We neither have the grounds to treat normative claims like positive claims nor would treating them that way be a particularly liberal thing to do. The latter strikes me as being both accurate and liberal.


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