Philosophy Ph.D. Dissertations

How to Be (and How Not to Be) a Normative Realist

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Philosophy, Applied

First Advisor

David Shoemaker (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Christian Coons (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

David Copp (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Anne Gordon (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Tristram McPherson (Committee Member)


Broadly and somewhat roughly speaking, metanormative theorists who maintain that there is normative truth fall into one of three camps: non-naturalist, naturalist and expressivist. I am interested in the prospects for normative truth, and thus in which, if any, of these positions offers hope for the discovery of such truth. In each of three chapters, I address one of these views. I conclude that our best hope is a view most closely related to naturalism (though I reject this classification for one that I believe better captures what is at stake in the literature I focus on).

In Chapter 1, I target expressivism, according to which normative thought and language express non-cognitive attitudes. I explain why it will be difficult, if not impossible, for expressivists to account for a kind of commonplace nihilistic doubt that, I argue, is a symptom of the widely accepted “objective” nature of normativity. I conclude that an inability to account for such doubt should be considered a serious problem for expressivism.

In Chapter 2, I address a prominent form of non-naturalism, according to which the normative is “metaphysically autonomous”—neither identical with, nor constituted by, nor constitutive of anything non-normative. I examine several important explanatory challenges non-naturalists face in normative epistemology, metaphysics and semantics. I argue that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to develop their view such that it meets these challenges while remaining plausible.

The Open Question Argument and its contemporary cousin, Normative Twin Earth, are the most prominent objections to naturalism. In Chapter 3, I argue that because these arguments rely on semantic rather than metaphysical intuitions, they should be understood as targeting semantic rather than metaphysical views (e.g., not naturalism). I propose that the appropriate targets are views committed to a particular class of reference-fixing relations for normative terms. I then examine the prospects for developing a view along these lines that does not fall prey to the objections mentioned. I conclude that there is hope for realism of this kind, and close with a rough sketch of how such a view might be developed more fully.