concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011


Normativity is the quality of "oughtness" in ethics, the reason why some attitudes or actions are morally better than others. What is really normative about ethics is one of the big puzzles of philosophy. It has traditionally been solved by making some appeal to a metaphysical 'truth' (such as the commands of God) that provides this universal oughtness, or more recently by appealing only to individual desires or choices, or social conventions - which provide a much more limited oughtness. However, none of these possibilities by themselves offer any answers on normativity. It is always possible to ask "Why should I do that?". Why should I obey God, follow my society's conventions or fulfil my desires? Why should I be rational, or free, or loving, or whatever it is that we are being morally urged to be?

In Middle Way philosophy, no magic metaphysical answers are offered to this question, but nevertheless some answers are offered - of an incremental nature and appealing only to experience. The starting point has to be our experience of what is normative, even though these experiences vary and different people will assert different kinds of normativity. The central argument is that if we integrate whatever it is that we currently take to be normative, our current assumptions about normativity will have to be extended to the effective addressing of as wide a range of conditions as we can manage. Differing moral theories tend to focus only on one type of condition and neglect others - but the desire to address one kind of condition will be more fully satisfied by the addressing of a broader range of conditions.

I will take one example here to illustrate this point - for more examples and parallel arguments for other moral approaches see chapter 7 of the thesis. If our sense of what is normative is based on the fulfilment of desires, as in hedonism or in utilitarianism, then we have a sense of desire-fulfilment as normative. However, apart from our own desires at present, we have also experienced past desires that are not always consistent with our present ones, and we have experienced some identification with the desires of others that are not always compatible with ours. Our desires, in other words, are not integrated. If we were to address desires beyond our immediate desires and try to fulfil them, we would have to not only take into account our other desires and identifications, but also the differing beliefs and differing senses of meaning that accompany those other desires. In other words, to fulfil any more of my desires than the ones I happen to have at present, I will need to integrate my other desires, meanings and beliefs, including those that contain identifications with others. Since my experience is not just of having present desires but also of identification with myself beyond the present moment, any normativity of my desires also implies a normativity of the Middle Way that integrates my desires, meanings and beliefs. 

Links to related discussion

The normativity of the Middle Way (thesis)


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