I was reading the SEP articles on aesthetic judgment and had a really hard time understanding some parts. What it came down to is that they were using a definition of 'normative' I did not know. The dictionary definition makes 'normative' a synonym for 'ethical', but the article never went into Kant's ethical theory.

It seems to me that the article uses 'normative' as the opposite of 'relative' (i.e. a normative value is a value that does not change based on the person judging, while a relative value is dependent on who does the judging):

It is true that some people sometimes express the view that no judgments of taste are really better than others. They say, “There is no right and wrong about matters of taste”... In particular, many intellectuals have expressed dislike of the idea that judgments of taste really have any normative claim, as if that would be uncouth or oppressive.

Is this correct? If so, does this understanding of 'normative' apply in all fields of philosophy, or just to aesthetics?

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    Norm, from latin norma, rule; -ive: being. So, normative = being determined by rules, which is the common usage. Regarding the phrase: there's no accounting for taste. Possible interpretation: judgements of taste are not determined by rules.
    – RodolfoAP
    Apr 19, 2022 at 6:38
  • One way to define normative is pertaining to social norms, or expectations.
    – Michael
    Apr 19, 2022 at 12:07
  • Very broadly, in terms of Hume's is/ought distinction, normative statements are those that fall on the side of what you "ought" to do in a given situation, rather than factual statements that make claims about objective reality. Normative statements aren't limited to morality, they can also include things like how a "reasonable" person ought to try to solve a potentially non-moral problem.
    – Hypnosifl
    Apr 19, 2022 at 16:45

2 Answers 2


To say that "norms" are only or primarily about rules is not accurate. An electron moving in an electric field follows strict rules, but we do not say that these rules are "normative." A Euclidean line follows the axioms strictly, and the axioms are rules, but again we do not say these rules are normative.

Even if we restrict the subject to human behavior, still, there are many rules we would not call norms. Suppose a serial killer, deranged as he is, devises rules for himself about how he will conduct his crimes. For instance, he makes a rule that he will always cover the victim's face before killing him. We would not call this rule a norm. We would also not say the serial killer "ought to" behave that way, a closely related concept.

"You should do this," "you should do that." That's what norms are about. "Don't drive on the sidewalk. Don't shoot the dog. Pay your taxes." That kind of thing. Those are norms.

(Social) norms are specifically rules that groups of people typically follow, that they will censure others for not following. Norms are "the normal way things are done" in a given group.

The word "normative" goes a bit beyond the word "norm," in that the word "normative" often connotes more of a sense that you should or ought to do something. "Norm" can be merely descriptive of a group's customs, without judgment of whether those customs are good or bad. "Normative" is typically used in a prescriptive way. It may be a norm in a certain society that the punishment for stealing is to cut off the thief's hands. But "from a normative perspective," a person could claim that this punishment is wrong; he is prescribing how the group should behave, as distinct from how it does customarily behave.

So, what does "should" mean? To rephrase, when a person says, "You should do X," what state of mind does the speaker have, that motivated him to make the statement?

  • We can reasonably guess that the speaker is trying to get you to do X. He wants you to do X.
  • The speaker thinks, or is trying to convince you, that you doing X is not just a matter of what he wants. He may be trying to convince you that if people in your situation do X, the group as a whole is better off. Or he may be trying to convince you that doing X is customary in your situation, and your peers and superiors would look at you funny if they found out you didn't do X.

In social theory, the term 'normative' implies rules and institutions that are established within a community by tradition, belief, long practice, and/or general assent. They are relatively stable across generational time, and people in the community are implicitly expected to conform to them. They differ from explicit rules (like laws) because they are usually tacit and unexpressed. For instance, people are expected to show deference to authority figures like judges, senators, or school principles without being told; forcing an authority to explain that deference is required is generally viewed as hostility and insubordination.

Habermas broke things down nicely into four reasoning modes (in "The Theory of Communicative Action"):

  • Teleological reasoning: interactions governed by expedience, pragmatism, and goal completion
  • Normative reasoning: interactions governed by pre-established 'norms' and rules of thought and behavior
  • Dramaturgical reasoning: interactions governed by issues of status, prestige, authenticity, and apparent virtue
  • Communicative reasoning: interactions governed by consensus-seeking and deliberative procedures

Habermas preferred the last as most consistent with Liberal democracy, but...

Within aesthetics, the debate often centers on the middle two cases:

  • Social aesthetics, in which societal (normative) values determine what is and is not aesthetically pleasing
  • Artistic self-expression, a dramaturgical (performative) act in which aesthetic value is determined by the authenticity and skill of the artist

the tension between these two is what drives new artistic movements. But the idea is a general philosophical principle, not something restricted to aesthetics. For example, we can see tension between all for modes of reasoning in debates about abortion or immigration.

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    I think "normative" includes laws. It is any reasoning using anything that can reasonably be called a "norm", and laws can be called a norm. Apr 19, 2022 at 16:20
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    A moral statement about what people ought to do in a given situation is automatically normative even if it is breaking with "tradition, belief, long practice, and/or general assent" (as an example, consider the first proponents of utilitarianism in a society where the vast majority grounded moral decisions in traditional religious belief)
    – Hypnosifl
    Apr 19, 2022 at 16:48
  • @DavidGudeman: Eh, that's a debatable matter. Laws (as I see it) are generally teleological: establishing explicit punishments for actions where individuals refuse to follow established norms. In other words, the norm is that people shouldn't steal, but when people steal anyway (violate the norm) we set up a punishment in law so that people have a goal-oriented reason not to steal. It's subtle, obviously...\ Apr 19, 2022 at 16:51
  • @Hypnosifl: Yes, that's true, though generally speaking such moral statements only come from within the established worldview of some group. faith, or philosophy. DIFferent communities have different moral worldviews, and so competing norms sometimes raise when they interact. Apr 19, 2022 at 16:54

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