Notes on J.J. Thomson’s “Normativity”

Reading Thomson’s ‘Normativity’. I have questions.

Consider the following statement:

[1.] I prefer watching ‘Game of Thrones’ over watching ‘Penny Dreadful’.

Many preferences originate in intuitions, and in that sense, begin their life as [1] or something like it. That’s fine, sort of, but there are better ways of talking about my preference. e.g.:

[2.] I prefer watching ‘Game of Thrones’ over watching ‘Penny Dreadful’, insofar as these are both good dark fantasy shows.

[3.] I prefer… insofar as these are the only good things on television right now.

[4.] I prefer… insofar as they are good dark fantasy shows considering what is on right now.

[5.] I prefer… insofar as their opening themes are good to dance to.

(Each of these involves a different kind of standard for evaluation, ranked roughly from least surprising to most surprising.) [2-5] are reflective preferences, not just intuited ones. Reflective preferences are different from intuited preferences because they are tagged with some evaluative standard by which one thing is to be ranked in relation to another. That standard is laid out after the phrase, ‘insofar as’. Which is more useful for a practical theory of decision-making, intuitive or reflective preferences? Well, taken on face value, the reflective references are more informative and in a sense more rational than [1].

But — not so fast: [2-5] are also potentially inconsistent with each other. So, e.g., maybe I dislike dark fantasy shows, but hate everything else on TV: in that case, [3] would be a false statement, but [2] and [4] would be true ones. And even if [2-4] were true, [5] could be false, just in case Penny Dreadful’s opening theme is actually better to dance to than Game of Thrones’s.

One way to resolve the question in favor of the reflective mode of articulating preferences is to say that each time you introduce a new standard of evaluation (i.e., whatever follows the “…insofar as…”), you’re actually making a brand new list, that is itself eventually broken down into intuited preferences. e.g.:


1. Penny Dreadful

2. Game of Thrones

3. Shakira


1. Game of Thrones

2. Penny Dreadful

3. True Blood

And then you can put these very lists on a global list of preferences that looks like this:





At that point, you will seemingly have given up on the intuited sense of [1], since Game of Thrones doesn’t just exist in some amorphous BETTER THAN relation to Penny Dreadful. Instead you’ll have replaced the intuited preference with something more rational and informative. Indeed, at this point, once we have all these standards of evaluation under our belt, it is tempting to say that [1] is not a rational claim about the state of my preferences at all. But that’s too quick, because [1] could just be an elliptical version of one of [2-5]. And so, one might say, it is only correct to say that [1] is not a rational claim about the state of my preferences at this point so long as there is there is no rational formula for picking out a more precise context of evaluation.

So, one might say that there is always a strict default context, in which we have to interpret sentences like [1] into their least surprising form, e.g., [2]. Will this work? I have my doubts. That is, intuitively, I doubt that charity alone will help us to identify some context-invariant mechanical *formula* that tells us what the most rational default interpretation should look like. I suspect that, at best, when confronted with intuitive preference-statements like [1], we only have *defeasible strategies for interpreting* it in terms of one or more of [2-5].

Moving on to (Chapter IV): “Suppose a person asks us, “Was St. Francis better than chocolate?” What can he mean? In what respect ‘better than’ does he mean to be asking whether St. Francis was better in that respect than chocolate? If he says, “No, no, what I am asking is not for a certain respect R whether St. Frances was better in respect R than chocolate. What I am asking is just whether St. Francis was (simply) better than chocolate,” then he hasn’t asked us any question, so it is no wonder we can’t answer it.” She suggests that there is a bifurcation between attributing simple superiority to something and attributing superiority in some respect.

I do not know why these are incompatible modes of evaluation. Saying that something is simply better than another thing does not seem to imply that there is no respect R in which an evaluation can be made. There are obviously salient respects in which one might compare the value of chocolate and St. Francis (say, when comparing the value of vulgar hedonism vs. asceticism). But when one says one is simply better than the other, they aren’t wiping these respects off the map, denying them up and down and sideways. Instead, it seems to imply that it is not rationally necessary to specify the respect R in the course of answering the question — that the respects are being left implicit and uncommitted. I think what she means to say is that it is meaningless to ask, “Is chocolate worse than St. Francis, given that there is no respect in which they might be compared?” But that’s kind of obvious.

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