If I think Braelyn is a good person, I think this is so in virtue of her having certain descriptive features, like being kind or generous. And similarly, it seems, for other evaluative or normative features (Braelyn being morally required to refrain from injuriously striking Herro when he has minorly offended her, Braelyn having reason to tie her shoes, etc.). Meno-like, we might draw out and precisify our intuitions here.

(1) The ‘in virtue of’ refers to a kind of non-causal metaphysical determination or dependency (sometimes called “grounding” by philosophers). In this, it is in the same broad category as a thing being red in virtue of it being crimson (or it being crimson making it the case that it is red). Such determination or dependency does not happen across time and is not causal (e.g., it is not of the same type as my painting the object red making it red).

(2) Though we might initially take it that the determination here, like in the crimson/red case, is total. But in this we are not being true to the content of our intuitions upon relevant inquiry. To see this, let’s simplify our case and concern ourselves with Braelyn being a good person to some extent or in some particular way in virtue of her being a kind person (maybe overall Braelyn is not a good person because, despite her kindness, she is the world’s worst liar). This way, we have simply Braelyn’s kindness determining her being a good person (in some respect, to some extent). Now: if Braelyn’s kindness (or a person’s kindness generally) were to do its work only when certain background conditions obtain (as lit matches start fires only in the presence of oxygen), would our intuition change to the effect that kindness itself does not do the relevant determining (the determining being total, as in the crimson/red case)? When I think the matter over in this way, my intuition about kindness itself doing the determining does not change. Similarly when I suppose that the kindness does all of the determining work. So our intuition, precisified in an important way, is that Braelyn’s kindness either partially or fully determines her goodness.

It might help to imagine what some of the background conditions might be. Here is a possibility. Perhaps part of what goes into someone being a good person is it being appropriate for others to admire them. And perhaps such appropriateness — itself a normative property — is itself partially or fully determined by certain motivational and functional facts about human psychology. If our brains were wired more like the brains of cats or octopuses, perhaps we would not have the capacity to admire anything and so it would not be appropriate for any given person to admire Braelyn’s for being kind. On this kind of story, a whole, whole lot more than Braelyn being kind does work in determining Braelyn’s goodness!

(3) Do our intuitions here commit us to the view that, if Braelyn’s kindness only partially determines her goodness, her goodness is nevertheless fully determined by some larger set of non-normative or descriptive features or conditions? I think the answer here is ‘No’. Suppose, again, that it being appropriate to admire Braelyn for her kindness, as well as Braelyn’s being kind, is part of what goes into fully determining Braelyn being a good person. We can coherently suppose — against the particular story outlined above — that it being appropriate to admire kindness in another person (or perhaps even in oneself) is a brute feature of the world (and hence not itself determined by anything). I don’t think this view is correct, but the coherence of this scenario shows that: (a) we cannot follow out our intuitions about a case like Braelyn’s being a good person and get to the view that such broadly normative features are fully determined by non-normative or descriptive features (e.g., features of the natural world revealed by observation and science) and (b) we don’t have the same partial-or-full determination intuition that we have in the case of Braelyn’s goodness regarding all normative features (in particular, we don’t have it with regard to normative appropriateness — but maybe as well not with other normative features, especially the features that appear to be basic).

(4) We can abstract from a thesis of full determination of the normative by the descriptive (or non-normative) to a thesis of necessary covariation — i.e., a so-called “supervenience” thesis. But we cannot make a similar move from a partial determination thesis. So we cannot, on the basis of our intuitions about the dependence of (certain) normative features on (certain) descriptive features, justify a supervenience thesis (e.g., “no normative difference without descriptive difference”). Contrary to what most metaethicists believe, our intuitions about (certain) normative features being dependent on or determinated by descriptive features do not support either a full determination or a weaker necessary covariation (or supervenience) thesis regarding the relationship between the normative and the descriptive. What we have is apparent determination, it being open whether partial or full, of some (but not all) normative features by descriptive features. More work is required to determine just which normative features appear to be this way. Once this is determined, we have the relevant bits of “basic intuitive data” that a good metaethical theory should explain (or perhaps explain away with a convincing story about why our initial intuitive data here is inaccurate). 


  1. I will get to the philosophical meat of this post in due course, but first, a preliminary matter: “Braelyn?” “Herro?” Dude. When did you get so trendy about names? What next? Tinsley? Brixton? Calum? Colson? Whatever happened to good old Smith and Jones?

    Do you have exotic name envy because you have such a plain name? An exotic name is a liability, not an asset. Try to order pizza with a name like “Irfan.” They don’t deliver your pizza, they just call the cops on you. No one at work can pronounce my name, so I just let them call me “Vic.” Some of them are like, “Oh, no, let me try to pronounce your name,” and I’m like, “Hell, I can’t even pronounce my fucking name properly. Just call me ‘Vic’.”

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  2. I started out with ‘Bruce’ but that was too plain. Braelyn is the name of the kid who had the ‘why can’t we all get along’ question that ended the Vice Presidential debate the other night. ‘Herro’ is the last name a bad-ass kid playing for the Miami Heat, without whom my sometimes-a-bit-beloved, adopted Celtics would be in the NBA finals (but ‘Herro’ is also, though somewhat infrequently, used as a first name). Both names originate in the British Isles. I was going for topical, somewhat exotic, but still catchy and easy to remember (and not over-the-top politically correct). Your name would have hit those desiderata pretty well and I thought of using it!


    • Well, I misremembered the kid’s name. It is ‘Brecklynn’ (from Utah) not ‘Braelyn’ (from Indiana, I had thought). Oh well. Alea iacta est.


  3. Michael, to a portion of your thoughts here:

    If the descriptive facts looked at were facts about functionality in living systems, particularly its situation in humans, such as in value theory of Rand (or Guyau), would such facts be disqualified for grounding goodness if those facts explain goodness by reducing goodness to teleological causal relations? —by (1). To say the concept ‘value’ presupposes the context of life and the concept ‘life’ (or likewise with ‘chosen value’ and ‘chosen life’) would seem to be not an assertion of non-causal grounding, all the more if we are regarding meanings in those concepts to essentially include their existential extensions.

    I have the book METAPHYSICAL GROUNDING edited by Correia and Schnieder, but from the paucity of my stickies protruding from it, I must have much yet to study in it and learn.

    I rather think that being an occasion of crimson does make it the case that it’s an occasion of being red. Though that would be grounded simply in physical dependencies, including sensory system organizations for pickups and downstream perceptual processing apart from conceptions or names. (And I assume that interpersonal sameness of names for same experiences is not part of grounding.) This inclines me to think that dependency of goodness on any non-physical/non-physiological grounds is an orientation in philosophy that needs specification, sooner or later, in its relation to the physical/physiological grounds and our conceptual rendition of merely the latter.

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  4. Thanks for that, Stephen. I always enjoy the opportunity to get my Objectivist and analytic-philosopher caps on at the same time!

    On a view like Rand’s, I think that facts like [X’s A-ing being right] would be (partially or fully) metaphysically determined by facts like [X’s A-ing being her best option relative to achieving her living and continuing to live a distinctively human life]. Depending on the case, the more-direct determiner might be something like [X’s A-ing being of action-type F that reliably undermines the agent living a distinctively human life]. This is directly analogous to determining roles played by [X’s A-ing being her best option relative to achieving the most happiness in the world] and [X’s A-ing being of action-type F that reliably undermines achieving the most happiness in the world] on relevant versions of hedonic or eudaimonic agent-neutral consequentialism (“utilitarianism”).

    In both cases, it is facts of a form like [X’s A-ing would most effectively promote end E from among her options] are facts about what *would* cause what (‘promotion’ being a causal term) that go into metaphysically determining the normative fact, viz., [X’s A-ing being right]. The metaphysical determination here is not causal even though the metaphysically determining element references causal determination. I think this addresses your main concern…

    However, as with agent-neutral consequentialism, this aspect of what makes it the case that X’s A-ing is or would be right is not the full story. For we need to account for the value (value-to-the-agent) of her living and continuing to live a distinctively human life. What is it for this thing (or any thing) to be valuable in this way? This is more the metaethical question than the high-level normative ethics question (egoism vs. utilitarianism vs. Kantianism vs. etc.). Rand does not explicitly distinguish very general first-order normative questions from metaethical questions. However, her remarks to the effect that, if we were quite a lot like bees, our ultimate end would be something like the flourishing of the hive, are instructive (though probably, to fully flesh out the right kind of value-making, my intelligent bee-like self would have to choose to serve the hive or perform his nature-given role in helping the hive thrive — so let’s throw this in, too). This suggests not only an answer to the question ‘why is this thing the ultimate end?’ (the very general and explanatory first-order normative question) but also an answer to the question ‘what makes it the case that any given thing is the ultimate end for an agent?’ (the metaethical or metanormative question). The full story of what determines [X’s A-ing is wrong] will include the thing that determines that X’s life (or some other thing) is valuable to X in the ultimate-end-for-X sort of way. I think it is pretty easy to tease out what Rand’s answer to this question is (or at least should have been or perhaps would have been).

    Her answer, I take it, concerns things having an inherent function of a particular form or type (though she and her followers focus on biological teleology and function, it is not clear to me that the relevant functional structure could not be replicated in a non-living system — though if it had the right structure we might be apt to call it artificial life; ready, set, go, answer “Rand’s Question” about what our concepts need to do for us simply working off of our present concepts and our intuitions about what falls under them). A thing that has this functional structure has a certain kind of life (like ours, not like an intelligent bee’s life) and, if an item has this functional structure, it not only has a way of living life, but a way of living life such that its actions can be guided or regulated in a systematic, long-term way only by choosing to achieve (and continue to achieve) the instantiation of the functional form that it is (the instantiation of “man’s life qua man” that is itself).

    If one thinks that such a functional structure is simply a structure of complicated, context-bound causal tendencies (e.g., particular manner of activity that, in a wide range of circumstances but not all of them, reliably tends to sustain its physical basis and itself), then one will take this kind of functional-structure story — along with “the choice to live” — to constitute an identity-type form of metaphysical reduction). This seems like the best view for Rand to take. On this view, the full story of the metaphysical determination of facts like [X’s A-ing is right] also involves something like [X realizing a certain sort of functional structure and choosing to govern her actions in accordance with the aim of preserving that structure]. For this is what constitutes, and hence determines, X’s life being her ultimate value. Also, since the determination occurs via constitution (identity, reduction), when there is no need to be neutral between competing metanormative theories, one can drop the general language of metaphysical determination for the more-specific language of metaphysical constitution (reduction, identity).

    If I had the time, I could use the material here to spell out explicitly the full constitution conditions for a specific case of right action (such as my presently calling Kelly to check in about our dinner plans tonight — yikes!). According to Rand as I’ve interpreted her. But I think what I have said indicates the essentials of how such a particular-case story would go.

    Perhaps, contrary to my interpretation, Rand is a non-naturalist about ultimate-end-style value (and hence, I take it, all normative properties). If so, the most natural point for the non-reduction to the natural or descriptive would be at the level of functional properties (and she would still hold that, in a sense, the normative reduces or is identical to some non-normative thing, viz., some complicated functional properties). And there would be no determination of the functional by the “natural” or non-functional descriptive — and hence no full determination of the normative by the “natural.” But I don’t think this is the best interpretation of what she (or her most competent successors) have written.

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