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Several months ago I wrote a post defending scholars’ normative (“should”) claims, in response to Craig Martin’s attack on them. Craig responded right away on Facebook with what he described as “initial, provisional responses”. My reply to these replies is considerably more tardy, but here it is. First, Craig’s provisional replies (which he graciously gave me permission to quote):

1) I think you’re wrong that should statements are as intersubjectively verifiable as empirical statements. Even if you hate my politics you can see that, given a shared definition of “cat” and “house,” it’s clear that I have 3 cats in my house. Should they be declawed? How would answers to the latter question be equally intersubjectively verifiable?

2) Of course the methodological principle I advance is itself a normative claim. Two things can be said about this.

a) You point out that this principle which I advanced hasn’t been intersubjectively verified, which seems to support my claim that normative claims are more contested than empirical claims. Thanks for providing me with another great example in support of my argument. :)

b) I don’t think it needs to be intersubjectively verified. As Rorty notes, there’s a bit of ethnocentrism in any worldview or ideology or whatever: at some point the answer to “why this?” is “well, that’s just the way we do things around here.” If my colleagues disagree, they’re welcome to do a different kind of work. The “we” who do agree on this constitutive norm will just be a smaller group.

Now to my responses. I think 2b) is quite problematic for Craig’s own position. It would imply that there is no reason at all to prefer his principle to mine; the issue cannot be determined by intersubjective validation, which is to say rational persuasion. But rational normative persuasion is one of the key tools of the marginalized, as it was for Gandhi or Martin Luther King, and indeed as it must be. For without it, the norm comes down to power: the one whose gang is bigger, the one whose gang can enforce the norm, is the one who really matters. The marginalized lose.

And here is the thing. In this case, within Craig’s and my context of the academic study of religion in North America, my gang happens to be bigger. Normative scholars of religion, as Craig knows, were the dominant force in the American Academy of Religion at its inception. They have continued to exert power in the field, often setting the theme of American Academy of Religion annual meetings to topics like “revolutionary love” or climate change – the latter with the intent that religionists will weigh in not on climatology, but on normative theological responses to climate problems. Craig’s gang really hates this fact, and complains about it a lot. But that gang is marginalized in the field, and knows it: for year after year, the AAR keeps its focus on normative themes (such as this year’s “religion and the most vulnerable”). If 2b were true, normative scholars would be perfectly entitled to tell them: suck it up, buttercup. There is nothing that could make your approach better than ours, so nobody has any reason to prefer your approach to ours or change anything that we’re doing. Your anti-normative “we” is not only small, it could get smaller to the point of disappearing, and there would be nothing wrong with that, by your own standard. There can’t be.

It seems to me that that response would be entirely sufficient to defeat point 2b on its own terms: if norms are relative to a group and nothing more, well, my group is bigger and more powerful than yours, so it wins, end of discussion. But such a response is not at all sufficient to defeat the point on my terms. I do not at all accept the premise that the norms are entirely relative to groups, a premise which leads rapidly to Thrasymachus’s position – the one with awful consequences for the weak and marginalized – that there is nothing more to justice than the interest of the stronger. For me, it is essential to show why my group’s position is actually better, intrinsically, than that of Craig’s group – just as the position advocating for women’s social equality is better than that which advocates literally following the patriarchal injunctions of the Torah. These norms do need to be intersubjectively verified.

But that is not hard to do! For there is a commonly accepted principle of intersubjective verification here which is at least as powerful as anything empirical: namely, self-contradiction is almost certainly a sign that something has gone very wrong with an argument. If you make a normative claim that you shouldn’t make normative claims, that very fact of self-contradiction itself is more than sufficient to intersubjectively falsify the claim. For me to verify the normative claim that scholars should not refrain from normative claims, in this way, is actually easier than for me to verify that Craig has three cats in his house – for I can do the former without needing to make a long trip to Syracuse.

That point of self-contradiction remains the most important response to Craig’s ideas, but let us also examine his other responses in detail. On 2a, it is just not the case that normative claims are always more contested than empirical claims. Some are, some aren’t. The empirical claims that climate change is caused by humans, or that humans evolved by natural selection, are far more contested than the claim that it is wrong to kill an innocent four-year-old child. If the reason for scholars avoiding normative claims is merely that scholars should avoid claims that are highly contested, then scholars – including climatologists and biologists, not just religionists – should stop making claims about climate change and evolution too.

And that brings us to #1. One might note that over the past decade in the US, far more people have been convinced that gay marriage should be legal – a normative claim – than have been convinced by the empirical claims that climate change is human-caused or that human beings evolved by natural selection. As a descriptive point, more people have intersubjectively verified the normative claim than the empirical one. (That verification takes a variety of forms, but most important seems to be being persuaded by the example of knowing a gay person. And while the claim “I know a gay person” is of course empirical and not particularly normative, that is not true of the conclusion or the other premise in “I know a gay person and he’s a decent guy, so gay marriage is probably okay.”)

I find it hard to imagine how one could make a persuasive claim that all normative claims are intersubjectively less verifiable than all empirical claims. It certainly can’t remotely be done with the line of argument that point #1 makes: out of the millions of normative and empirical claims that exist, randomly cherry-picking one claim about cats that happens to be more intersubjectively verifiable than one other randomly cherry-picked claim about cats. (By contrast, “It is wrong for an American cat owner to waterboard his cats” seems to me considerably easier to verify than “The number of cats born in the world today was between 75 000 and 85 000.”)

Moreover, notice the very fact that point #1 itself is Craig making an argument in support of his chosen normative principle. There he is not presenting the claim that empirical claims are more verifiable than normative claims as some sort of mere emotive expression of preference. He claims that empirical claims are more intersubjectively verifiable as part of the project of attempting to convince me rationally to adopt his norm, and likewise I refute that claim as part of the project of attempting to convince him not to – and the ability to convince rationally is exactly what intersubjective verifiability is! Craig has been attempting to make rational arguments on behalf of these (self-contradictory) norms, just as he would on behalf of presumably factual empirical claims. And in just the same way, I have just been making rational arguments against them – arguments which, I submit, are considerably stronger.