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Fundamentals: Normative and Descriptive Claims

Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Kelly] Hi, I'm Kelly Schiffman. I'm a PHD student at Yale University and today I wanna talk about the distinction between normative and descriptive claims. So, people make claims all the time. Someone might say, "The sky is beautiful today." Or, "I just saw a UFO." Or "Chris Rick is hilarious!" Or "The Golden Gate Bridge is in San Francisco." Now, of course, it's important for us to figure out whether claims like these are true or false but before we can do that it's important to understand what sort of claim it is. Philosophers find it useful to distinguish between two different sorts of claims: normative claims and descriptive claims. When you make a descriptive claim, you're describing something. You merely express your understanding of how something is or could be without offering any even implicit evaluation of it relative to a standard, or ideal, or alternative. Examples of descriptive claims include: "The moon is made of cheese." "Dinosaurs used to exist." "Obama's president." "That boys has large ears." "I could have more money." Notice that even if I'm likely to have an opinion about somebody having large ears or the fact that I could have more money this opinion isn't being expressed in the descriptive claim itself. Based just on the claim, you can't tell whether I think the way things are is better or worse than the way they could be. When you make a normative claim you express your evaluation of something. When you evaluate something you're assessing it, often implicitly, relative to some standard, or ideal, or alternative way that it could be. It's to say that something is, well, in some respect, better than or worse than or on par with some standard, or ideal, or alternative. When you make normative claims we often use words like good or bad or better than. For example, "Leonardo Di Caprio's a really good actor." That's a normative claim. Or that "Tomatoes taste bad but ketchup tastes great." Or "My math class is no better than "and no worse than my English class." These are all normative claims. They contain an element of evaluation. Normative claims also include words like should and shouldn't or right and wrong. Example, "You should do your homework." "You shouldn't pick your nose." "It's not okay to steal a candy bar." "Sending a thank you note is the right thing to do." These are also normative claims. But there are many, many more evaluative words that can appear in normative claims. Consider the following, "It's fine to eat "three burgers a day." "The movie was ridiculous." "Broccoli is disgusting." "Video games are awesome." And, "It's not cool to skip school." These are all normative claims as well. Now, once we figure out whether a claim is normative or descriptive that helps us to assess its truth, answer certain questions, settle certain disagreements. Consider a case in which you think our neighbor's car is red and I think it's not. I think it's blue. Here we're disagreeing about a descriptive claim. So, all we need to do to settle the disagreement is to figure out whether that descriptive claim is true or not. We need to figure out how the world is. So, contrast this with a case in which you say that red cars are better than blue cars and I say that blue cars are better than blue cars. Here we're disagreeing over normative claims so what we need to do is sort through that. For example, I might argue that well blue cars are better than red cars because red cars get pulled over disproportionately by the police. Here we're working through a normative issue. Either way, getting clear on whether something's a normative claim or a descriptive claim is the first step towards figuring out and towards settling debates like this.