Normative Philosophy: is it acceptable?

On Normative Philosophy

Normative Statements Are Acceptable


Among the categories most familiar to mankind, there reside two broad distinctions known as positivity and normativity. The influence which these two categories have had on society go far beyond anything which can possibly, in entirety, be put in text, though we shall expend ourselves in developing a prototypical model of both, simply for the purposes of our conversation. In addition to developing a prototypical model of both positive and normative philosophy, we shall argue that the deployment of both are entirely legitimate; which might I add, is something frowned upon by some, for reasons we will discuss further down.

A background:

Positive and normative philosophy, being applicable to a great deal of human endeavours, are constantly present in our daily routines. Normative lines of thought can be heard echoing moral sentiments throughout the space between our ears, getting louder with each action which falls out of alignment with our values: the voice of our conscience is deeply normative. Even when we discuss politics, many of us, unknowingly so, use normative language to characterize our deeply normative thoughts about how society ought to develop: i.e., we should have a free market economy; we should have a welfare state; we should commit to the flames any volume of divinity or school metaphysics which contains neither abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number, nor experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact and existence – so says David Hume. In contrast to normative philosophy, there is positive philosophy. Positive lines of thought are used quite frequently in the professional world, like when reporting the matters of fact to a boss. We seldom tell our boss how they should do their job, we present only the facts which we were to acquire and present for the agreed allotted sum of money known as our wage. Likewise, when cooking our daily meals, we rely on descriptions of the concrete and observable world so we can provide for our taste buds the best of meals. Thus, on such account, we evidently have traces of both positive and normative philosophy spread throughout our daily lives.

But positive and normative philosophy have not only influenced the daily activities of the members of our society, they have also shaped the foundations and developments of academic thought. Normative and positive philosophy have been hotly debated in economics, moral philosophy, the philosophy of law, and even psychology. The reason being, there are plenty of disagreements amongst various schools of thought about the following issues, as they relate to positive and normative philosophy: the nature of evidence, theory, knowledge, assumptions, methods, and even the over-arching purpose ascribed to a discipline. These issues have been in constant discussion within each field’s respective literature, having left a notable paper trail from the 1930s to present.

The reason for these disagreements stems from the qualities of each school of thought. The positivists admonish the normative philosophers, and the normative philosophers criticize the positivists.

A positivist often adheres to something more objective, mind-independent, and relating to matters of fact which can be observed and verified. They are oriented towards the description of reality, and how it is we achieve such a description.

A normative philosophy, though not necessarily against the matters of fact, believes we should use our ideals and values to deal with reality; we are in need of a means to navigate reality rather than describe it. Normative philosophy is also more concerned with those things that aren’t necessarily observable, like morals and beliefs.

Moreover, what we have said so far has granted us with an image of positive and normative philosophy as being on a spectrum of sorts. To elaborate, on one end of the spectrum, we have positive statements, and on the other hand, we have normative statements. If we advocate for positive philosophy, we then, in accordance to tradition, cannot also advocate for normative philosophy; at least not if we are concerned with the application of said philosophies to a specific instance. For example, those who argue for normative economics as being the exemplary approach to economic theory cannot likewise argue for positive economics, because positive economics views normative statements as being unrelated to matters of fact. And, in addition to that, positive economists have admonished normative economists before, like when Lionel Robins argued against hedonism. So, with the image of positive and normative philosophies as being on a spectrum, it becomes obvious that to choose one position over the other, a full commitment to said position is necessary; otherwise, we shall commit contradictions.

But, I suspect, and will argue, that this image is faulty, and that positive and normative philosophies have been portrayed as comparable philosophies only because academics sought to reign over their respective disciplines with the philosophies most sound to their minds.

When economics was faced with a crisis of clarity and rigor, the positivists came forth and not only promoted their native tongue of mathematical logic as a means for clarification and methodological rigor, but also argued that there is indeed no need for normative philosophy in economics. Comparatively, a line of argument put forth in response to positive philosophy was that human desire and values are intertwined, inherently, with the economy; no logic or observation shall ever describe these influential qualities; therefore, we require a normative philosophy.

Even furthermore, some economists have argued that we should avoid efficiency sometimes, only because efficiency can lead to inequality of sorts. These economists are using values related to equality and fairness to influence economics, something which positivists seemed to have not cared much for. Positivists ascribe to science the role of describing the facts, and, for positivists, the facts never merit any conclusions that tell us what we ought to do. Quite actually, Ernst Mach, a famous philosopher and scientist, being more in alignment with positive philosophy, argued for an economy of thought in respect to science. This means science benefits from less abstraction and more ideas which succinctly describe the matters of fact, like an equation which can mechanistically explain hundreds of events.

As we have thus far seen, positive and normative philosophy have had an immense role in academic disciplines. The fact that both psychology and economic textbooks teach the difference between positive and normative statements, to me, suggests how impactful these philosophies have been. It is even considered, by most textbooks, that science consists only of positive statements; to be normative is to have nothing more than an obvious bias or agenda, to use science for personal gain.

It is precisely these views to which my arguments are aimed at; I shall argue for the acceptability of normative philosophy in science. In addition to that, I will also argue for a collapse of the current view of normative and positive philosophy as existing on a spectrum, upon the ends of which the two philosophies reside. But, before doing so, I want to make clear what is meant by positive and normative philosophy so we will explain the two philosophes further.

Normative Philosophy Explained

Normative philosophy is any philosophy which makes propositions which are based upon values, ideals, and beliefs. Although there is certainly some overlap in those three distinctions, I shall separate them ever so slightly.


Values become normative insofar as no empirical fact informs someone about what they should value; which is to say, the presentation of information regarding the negative impact upon human health which the smoking of tobacco has, indeed, never entails that one should value health, and, therefore, stop smoking. All that is acquired from the description of the facts is the facts, not the values.

For example, it is often said in western society that being rich is good while being poor is bad. This distinction is laden with judgments of value. Such is obvious when we ask, to what facts can we ascribe the qualities of goodness or badness as being inherent?

Someone might argue, being poor means that we cannot eat nearly as much; therefore, since we need food to live, we should see the lack thereof as a bad thing. Or, as another example, one might argue that the lack of material wealth leads to living conditions of a nature much cruder than the conditions one would otherwise experience if surrounded by an abundance of materials. Thus, being poor is bad.

But if we reflect on those lines of argumentation, it becomes rather apparent that none rise to the challenge of deriving from the matters of fact the valuations ascribed to them; that is to say, values cannot be found in the observable environment. When I look at a starving child, I see no notion of badness.

Now, although we may see no notion of badness in an unsavory image such as a starving child, we do however experience some notion of badness, nonetheless: how ever so elusive the experience may be. If the notion of badness cannot be derived from the matters of fact, then how do we derive such notions, and why do they present themselves in a so reliable fashion, to the point where the values of good and bad present upon our conscious experiences at the same moment in time as a specific sensory object or a collection thereof.

The solution for such a puzzling equation can be found in the realm of psychology and neuroscience; more specifically, in learning and behavior research and social neuroscience. However, as our explanation of normative philosophy is as of yet not finished, we will postpone any presentations of such solutions for another time.

So, values, being beyond the matters of fact, have an influence on how we think about those facts, nonetheless. As such, in those disciplines which notably evoke the human sentiments by virtue of their adjacency to every day human experience, we are more likely to see a normative influence. That is, amongst the men and women who value freedom, the likelihood of a policy which lessens censorship finding support and adornment is remarkably high; only because such a policy aligns well with their values. Thus, the valuing of freedom has a normative influence on political philosophy.


Ideals are the foundations upon which, in the meager window of time we have been so graciously allotted for our existence, we construct our towering legacies. Without these foundations, our every action undergone would have resulted in nothing, amounting to a mere pebble; for monumental creations require the utmost solid of foundations.

Thus, as the foundations of a building determines much of the construction to be done, so too will the direction of one’s legacy be determined by the foundations upon which it is constructed. If I hold dear the ideals of liberty, then my actions and thoughts will be oriented towards those ideals. For example, when an opportunity arises, one which will have great impact on society, libertarians will raise their manifestos and ideas; only in hopes of bringing to reality their ideals. In doing so, they have behaved in accordance with their ideals, either because they were determined to do so or because they sought to mitigate the discrepancy between reality and their ideals. But for whatever the reason, the ideals of liberty shape the behavior and thoughts of those who subscribe to them.

As seen, ideals have a normative influence upon us; indeed, we even have a term for when our behavior fails to align with our ideals: cognitive dissonance. But I will venture even further, ideals not only produce normative thoughts and actions amongst those constituents who hold them, but ideals are also incapable of being positive. There are two reasons why such is the case.

To subscribe to ideals requires of us their enactment; otherwise, we have done nothing more than have fanciful thoughts about them, which is hardly the acceptable threshold for being a follower of them. That is, if one thinks about the ideals of communism, it never logically follows that one therefore subscribes to communism; likewise, simply because one ponders the ideals of liberty does not necessarily mean they subscribe to those ideals: it takes more than mere reflection to become a follower. Thus, ideals have a normative influence by default; only because ideals demand action, so long as we subscribe to them.

The second reason as to why ideals are incapable of being positivistic is due primarily to the inherent nature of ideals. Ideals are a set-theoretical model that we force the world to conform to, regardless of however many failures we experience in doing so. Like with values, we cannot observe ideals in the world, they make no appearance in visual or sensory perception; instead, ideals are abstractions held in the minds of people, projected onto the environment. Thus, ideals are far from being descriptive, they are used to prescriptively organize the world. For instance, if a country is deemed to have an insufficient level of liberty, which cannot be determined through observation alone, but instead must be determined through the process of judging the discrepancy between the world and how we believe it ought to be, then we shall use our ideals to guide the country to a sufficient level of freedom, whatever level that may be. In doing so, we have used as a point of reference our own subjectivity to shape the objectivity of the world. To that extent, ideals are inherently normative given they are a system of assumptions held in the minds of people, and which are used by those people to influence the world around them.


Like the right hand, the left hand has fingers, nails, and is attached to the body. Similarly, ideals have a lot in common with beliefs: namely, beliefs are located in the minds of people and can have a normative influence on thought and behavior. As such, we will limit our comments, focusing primarily on the differences between ideals and beliefs.

Unlike ideals, beliefs are less interconnected amongst one another and, therefore, require of us less action. Meaning, when our ideals call us to action, it is often dispersed into multiple domains of life. For example, those who fight for liberty often fight for free speech, less government, and free markets. The ideals of liberty bring those who subscribe to them into each of these domains, wherein which a lack of liberty can occur. On the other hand, beliefs can confine themselves to specific instances; that is, if I believe coffee is best when black, I am not subsequently dragged into issues of production regarding the coffee grain.  That belief would confine its self to post-brewing decisions, for the most part.

The reason for beliefs being capable of a less systematic approach than ideals is simply because beliefs are capable of being more concrete. To elaborate, beliefs relate themselves to something tangible quite often, they have an object which is at the center of the belief. As a result, the conditions which satisfy that specific object also limit the possible conditions to deploy the belief. For example, if I believed apples were green, then I have a belief about some specific perceptual conditions: namely, round objects with green colors and that are also edible. On the other hand, when we consider ideals, like the love of freedom, there are numerous conditions to which the ideal applies. Freedom is applicable to issues regarding the philosophy of law, the philosophy of ethics and morality, and even the philosophy politics.

Now, let me make the nuance of my position clear. I do believe that there are beliefs which can be used systematically; that is, that there are certain beliefs which, when enacting, drag one into multiple domains of life. However, beliefs are also capable of being specific and contained. That is a quality which ideals lack. Thus, ideals are inherently systematic in their application.

Summary of Normative Philosophy:

Normative philosophy, as I have thus far argued, is the influence we decide to have on the world based not only on the matters of fact but also on our beliefs, ideals, and values. It is the process of judging the discrepancy between the world and how we believe it should be, to which the accompanying consequent is action that mitigates any intolerable distance between our ideals and reality. In essence, normative philosophy concerns its self more with the conduct of people rather than the description of facts.

Positive Philosophy Explained

Positive philosophy can be argued to be many things; for instance, it can be the renunciation of things-in-themselves, the limiting of language to words that relate to intersubjective qualities, or even a literalist approach to language. Since the creation of positive philosophy, there have been numerous variations on what the philosophy attempts to do.

In the realm of law, there has been a school of thought well-known as legal positivism; in psychology, there has been a form of positive philosophy known as logical behaviourism; in philosophy, there have been a great many philosophers who call themselves logical positivists; and, lastly, there are numerous sociologists and economists who adopt the label of positivism as well.

The category of positivism is quite fuzzy around its boundaries; indeed, some positivists believe in social laws and their influence upon institutions, which references mentalism since social laws aren’t observable but are rather artifacts of human thought, whereas others suggest that such a position is devoid of positivist philosophy entirely. Despite this intellectual mess, I believe there are a few central tendencies that best capture the philosophy, even if roughly; those being, syntax, materialism or physicalism, and empiricism. These, we will use to create a prototypical positive philosophy, consisting of the qualities most important to any positivist position.


Syntax is often something used to describe the relationship which exists between words in a sentence, or even functions and variables inside a chunk of code; syntax describes the structural properties and compositions of well-formed-formulae, though it is readily applicable to improperly constructed sentences and formulae as well.

Syntax is something which can characterize nearly all positive philosophy, though only insofar as the mental activity associated with syntax is comparable to the style of mental activity associated with positive philosophy.

When one is doing syntax, they are deriving the empirical relationships amongst objects, and these relationships are placed into categories, of which are predicated on various common features. For example:


In determining the syntactic structure of the sentence, one is doing nothing short of observing the relationships amongst observable entities and placing them into categories based on those relationships. It is precisely this thought process which can be found amongst those positivists who were also well-read in symbolic logic. Symbolic logic takes the position that there are natural categories in the world that have a fixed set of relations; meaning, the category of “zebra” is an objectively existing category, of which has fixed properties and has a finite set of relations to other categories.

Thus, though the comparison between syntax and positive philosophy might at first seem remarkably odd, especially if you have previously read positive philosophy, it is a coherent comparison; only because it characterizes well the way in which positivists think.

Materialism and Physicalism:

1.1 A Preliminary Discussion on Terminology

The difference between materialism and physicalism is so small that we shall, after laying out the differences, conflate the two by using the words interchangeably.

Materialism is the view that all things can be readily characterized by their presenting properties, functions, and motion; there is nothing to be characterized if not through those mediums. Comparatively, physicalism argues that all of reality is purely physical.

Now, these don’t appear all that different at first, but the reason I believe that one can make the distinction between the two is because of both solipsism and virtual reality. In both of those views, namely, virtual reality and solipsism, everything can likewise be characterized by their presenting properties, functions, and movements: a virtual materialism of sorts. Thus, materialism is possible without physicalism.

But from hereafter I shall conflate both materialism and physicalism, as most positivists rely on an objectivist metaphysics that has physicalism disseminated throughout.

1.2 Materialism, Positivism, and Empiricism

Some positive philosophy, when developing theories or ideas, needs to be rooted in something concrete and material, which is something slightly different than empiricism.

An empiricist can construct a concept, of which makes numerous predictions, and can then go forth to measure the accuracy of the concept; for example, partial equilibrium models in economics make explicit assumptions, based on reason rather than observation, and then measure how closely the market fits to the theoretical model; the model would be unusable if not for the explicit assumptions, which serve the purpose of simplifying reality. So, that means, there are pragmatic theories in science that seldom pertain to materialism directly, like partial market equilibriums. They are pragmatic, might I add, because the assumptions have no known truth values, though the theory nonetheless makes accurate predictions.

With the distinction between empiricism and materialism thusly laid, we can now consider why positivism and materialism are often joined together.

If positive philosophy regards description as the utmost important role to which any scientist or philosopher adopts, then it seems to be of perfect sense as to why a positivist would have such a fervor for materialism; that is, when we speak of reality, while lacking any presentation of the precise reality of which we speak, we can muddy up descriptions to a point beyond coherence. For instance, when Kant discusses the “thing-in-itself,” he discusses something which goes beyond intersubjective observation, something that positivists like Ernst Mach disliked; even more so, any philosophy relating to a “self” or “ego” is in precisely the same boat as Kantian philosophy. These kinds of philosophies are describing something not present in the intersubjective world and so have an unclear description.

So, positivists, by rejecting metaphysics and phenomenal philosophy, and by adopting materialism, have increased the clarity of their theories and explanations.

However, with that said, there are nevertheless positivists who, though open to materialism, also welcome those pragmatic theories which are firmly rooted in empiricism rather than materialism. The empirical positivists differ insofar as they are open to pragmatism; meaning, theories and concepts need not necessarily relate to something physical, they just have to be verifiable in or map onto sensory experience.

Summary of Positive Philosophy:

As we have thus seen, positive philosophy is most concerned with sensory-experience, materialism, and clear description. It demands of us to, that all our forms of knowledge have the capacity to be verified up against experience, that, depending on whom we ask, all our knowledge regard nothing beyond physical qualities, and that we use language which describes the matters of fact. In doing so, we will have no room for metaphysics, phenomenal philosophy, or normative philosophy.

On the Compatibility of Positive and Normative Philosophy

We can be both normative as well as positive about some matter of fact; for example, I can describe some health fact regarding avocados, which is a positive position, whilst arguing that one should eat avocados, so long as one has as an axiom the goal of being healthy. In other words, when we have axioms for our behaviors, positive statements can direct us towards behaviors more in align with said axioms; it is likewise the case regarding our beliefs as well. And when we inform our ideals with positive philosophy, we make a judgment of distance between our values and the facts with the hopes of lessening the said distance. So, without positive methodology, our hopes of achieving any mitigation of distance between our values and the facts are utterly useless; meaning, without a fact-based approach, our desire for the utmost healthy lifestyle shall be near identical to a chicken going for a morning jog without its head: impossible.

And this goes both ways; as positive philosophy can inform normative philosophy so too can normative philosophy inform positive philosophy. When someone comes along, like that hairy fellow Karl Marx, for example, and argues that we should help some class of people, a positive methodology can determine whether a said class of people indeed requires assistance or not. We may investigate the economic conditions those class of people finds themselves in, and then develop a threshold of acceptability for that said class of people, which they will either exceed or fall short of. If they exceed, then we can help, though if they fall short, then leave them be. This is likewise the case for legal issues; meaning, when one proclaims for another to be imprisoned, all possible efforts which can be made should be made in the determination of the facts regarding the conditions upon which that person will be imprisoned.

And, normative philosophy has also influenced the theories, of which are positive, in economics that regard consumer behavior. When one supposes that consumers should buy in such a manner that maximizes their utility, then, yet again, a positive methodology can aid in the determination of the facts surrounding the issue, so as to determine whether they are in support of such a prediction or not.

So, it is the case that positive philosophy can help us in our normative tendencies and that normative philosophy can provide for us some phenomenon to describe with a positive methodology. This suggests the following: not only is there not a spectrum to which we must call some portion of our philosophical home and subsequently fend against the opposing side, but that there is an interaction, perhaps as a result of the constitution of the human faculties, and, that is of some necessity, between positive and normative philosophy.

But we have not yet finished our analysis. I think we have thus far demonstrated that positive philosophy can inform normative statements and that normative statements can provide research questions for positive philosophy. However, to demonstrate even further not only the compatibility but also the necessity of the interaction between these two worlds-views, let us consider the nature of presupposition regarding positive philosophy.

If one argues that science and philosophy ought to be positive, then one has done nothing short of projecting onto reality their normative beliefs. The belief that science should be positive is indeed normative, as it is attempting to determine how one should behave, think, and understand. In addition to that, if we were also to simply describe philosophy as being positive as well as normative, we would nevertheless have as a presupposition in our minds that one should simply describe the world. In other words, normative philosophy is transcendental.

Therefore, normative philosophy is entirely acceptable in academic disciplines. The anti-normative sentiments found in economics, for example, are entirely unwarranted and incoherent. Our values and beliefs demand of us normative tendencies, and these values and beliefs can be found in the minds of nearly all positivists; especially of those who argue that philosophy should be descriptive. Humans are deeply normative, so let us stop trying to bite our own tail.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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