From the comments (at EconLog)

Daniel Klein writes:

The wise man expunges "positive v. normative" from his vocabulary. Ises and oughts are easily and naturally translated into one another, based on the purposes of the interlocutors and the discourse situation.

The words "positive" and "normative" do not mean nothing, but what they mean can always be expressed in better terms. "Normative" often means outspoken, unconventional, strident, etc. It can also mean loose, vague, and indeterminate.

Tell me "positive" or "normative" for each of the following:

(1) The minimum wage ought to be repealed.

(2) I think the minimum wage ought to be repealed.

(3) The minimum wage reduces social welfare.

(4) Wise people oppose the minimum wage.

The primary verb of (1) is an ought, while the primary verbs of (2), (3), and (4) are ises. But all four statements are really the same.

Coase used the term "affectation" for posing as "positive" and not "normative."

You will find varying points of view elsewhere in that same comments section.


Frankly, I find a lot of natural language-based analysis in philosophy to be close to a complete waste of time..

It's very cute that the commenter has demonstrated the difference between a formalist definition of normative vs. positive (i.e. a definition based on the form of the proposition, "A ought B" vs. "A is B") and how normative and positive statements are made in natural language, but I think it's pretty useless since few people are confused by the lack of formalism in natural language (at least on this point).

Formally and in isolation, statements (2), (3), and (4) are positive statements. However, they are typically only uttered with a lot of implicit context. Specifically:

(2) Others ought to follow my opinion.

(3) Social welfare (as defined in the appendices) ought not to be reduced.

(4) Others ought to follow the opinions of wise people.

Now on to the main question... economists, they should utter positive statements. humans, they should utter normative statements.

Since all economists are human, it follows that they should utter both positive and normative statements. Unfortunately, it is ambiguous to some people when a person is speaking as an economist or a human (many times the speaker is to blame for this.)

The more pernicious blending of these two roles occurs when someone selectively utters positive statements in order to alter the perceived total positive situation. Usually this is only done if the manipulator believes that his audience has normative beliefs that are practically effected by the total positive situation. His aim then is to alter those normative beliefs (by changing the hypothetical 'state of the world' they are acting on).

"But all four statements are really the same."

No they aren't - really. And I'd be rich if I was given a penny every time an economist said, "I think that..." and believed he or she was uttering a significant or important assertion.

How is the verb for number (3) an "is"? It's "reduces". Same thing for (4), it's "oppose". What kind of crazy talk is this?


Those are all variations on the same normative statement as "social welfare" and "wise" have no empirical content.

It is fairly simple to make a clear positive statement here. How about, "Increases in the minimum wage raise youth unemployment"?

What Jason Brennan said. What Klein shows is that he is too lazy to make distinctions. And these are not unimportant distinctions -- for example, I would hate to find out that whether I am justified in believing that I think the minimum wage ought to be repealed depends on some argument in moral philosophy, as would be true if my thinking it ought to be repealed is the same as its being such that it ought to be repealed; also for example, one would like to give the effects on the social welfare as evidence for its being such that it ought to be repealed, but nothing can serve as evidence for itself. Lazy, lazy, lazy.


I think you make a very important point, so I hesitate to add anything.

But pushing forward just a tad, while social welfare and wisdom must have some empirical content, don't you believe that to use these terms the way they're meant to be used, that they reflect certain empirical states of the world that we believe should come about?

I mean, we could simply go around saying, "people who value the same kind of society I do, and who are competent in employing instrumentally efficient reasoning, would naturally come to the conclusion that the minimum wage reduces social welfare." But we don't speak that way. Perhaps the utterer of 3 and 4 only means to communicate this relatively awkward statement, but I think the important point is that the way 3 and 4 are uttered, serves to gloss over some of the things that should be more hard earned, (or so it goes) such as what constitutes social welfare. I say "serves to gloss over" because I don't think there is some evil corporate illuminati behind the scenes training economists how to manipulate people. Rather, I think we speak in implicitly normative ways, because we're human. Nevertheless it seems right to bring this out into the light, so we can all get on the same page.

Thanks for comments and criticism. Lots at Econlog, where Larry White and I have gone back and forth. If I write more it will be there.

I agree with the remarks of Jason Brennan and the immediate
ones of Jay J following those. I will only add that one could
state #2 while being open to the idea that what one individually
thinks might not disagree with what the broader society and those
who make moral judgments within it think.

BTW to Daniel. I am not commenting currently on Econlog due
to disapproval of actions and policies of the manager of the
blog, who, I emphasize, is not any of the three bloggers there.

It's a worthy aspiration, even if it cannot be achieved in practice, even in principle.

Oh, I meant to say that one might recognize that one's
opinion might disagree with the broader norms of society
or leading opinion makers in society. So, one might have
their own opinion about what "ought" to be the case, but
recognize that their opinion might be out of line with
a broader societal view, and might even therefore admit
that "what I think" has a non-trivial probability of
being wrong, at least in the sense that one might recognize
some self-doubt about what they think and recognize that
they may be convinced by the arguments/social pressure of
others to change their opinion about what "ought" to be.


Your post is very helpful to me. I do wish to piggy back on what Buck Farmer said though (seems to be a habit) in terms of what makes something positive, but here things are just getting technical.

On the more broad strokes, I'm not sure most educated laypeople do understand what is meant by social welfare, even if it is well-established among economists. So while I agree 100% with your treatment of the important things, I think there is an issue here: who is repnsible for what? Should economists learn to speak like humans, if in fact their use of the term "social welfare" veers in interesting ways from society at large, or are educated laypeople responsible for learing econospeak? I think both are the case, but I lean more toward the former.

As for number 2, it is a statement of fact, and the normativity is embedded, but it doesn't strike me as a very covert way of talking. Maybe I'm idiosyncratic, but when someone says "I think X," I assume that they understand that they are burdened with providing persuasive reasons to the rest of us.

On #4, as I said in my first post in the thread, "wisdom" is the most elusive word we have here. But in the way it's being used, which seems to be "tailoring means to ends" it seems even more straight-forward than social welfare, yes? I mean, the assumption here seems to be that people wish to avoid measures that reduce social welfare, and so here it may be too normatively packed. But the idea that social welfare should be maximized is the normaitive part, not that once one wants maximum social welfare (as defined by economists) that wise people oppose the minimum wage. In other words, it's instrumentally effective to oppose the minimum wage if one values social welfare (so defined).

Anyway, aside from the fact that the differences being ironed out here seem to be getting smaller, I appreciate the spirit of your post, which seemed to me to stick up for a useful, probably necessary distinction, in the face of an interesting but nevertheless hasty dismissal.

Jason_Brennan wins the thread. (positive)

@Daniel_Klein: Good job getting a lot of attention by spouting garbage.

I'm not an analytical philosopher, or any other kind, but I don't understand how (2) and (3), at least, can be considered equivalent.

Let's assume we agree that "social welfare" is a quantitative, measurable, aspect of society.

Then #3 is a positive statement about the effect of repealing the minimum wage on that measure, and only that. It says absolutely nothing about the speaker's opinion. This remains true even if we agree that, all else equal, it is desirable to increase social welfare, because there is nothing in the statement about other effects of repeal.

Item #2, by contrast, is nothing but a description of the speaker's opinion. It tells us what that opinion is, but nothing about its basis.

I think Klein's thinking here is that both statements say "The minimum wage is a Bad Thing," but they don't.

"I think everyone should be a vegetarian."

"Vegetarians are much less likely to become obese than other people."

Are these equivalent?

Gladly. The buggers can't even decide on a proper color accident.

Are you familiar at all with formally undecidable statements in mathematics?

Actually, arguably all mathematical statements may or may not have 'truth value' in the scientific sense as they are not possibly subject to falsification through observation.

What about the precepts of logic? Law of the Excluded Middle and all that?

These seem like necessary underpinning for even crude Baconian scientific enquiry, much less the full-blown paradigmatic scientific programs of the modern world.

Unless you want to say that we receive logical and mathematical truths through revelation or some other non-empirical faculty that allows us to evaluate truth value without observation...then mathematics and logic are by your definition normative statements.

If we allow for special revelation for mathematics...why can't we allow it for more value-laden statements?

I guess what I'm saying is...metaphysical statements (i.e. non-falsifiable ones) can still be relevant without being normative. Metaphysical statements have dubious truth value though, so they're either neither positive nor normative or positive statements are not defined by the aspect of having truth value.

My current definition of normative statement is:

A statement of the form "ought A" or "if P then ought A" where A is an action that can be taken by a person or persons and P is a positive statement

I've completely avoided defining ought since I've no clue how to satisfactorily.

I think it's all a very tricky problem when you dig into the meat of it, but I still like the is-ought distinction.

Is a statement that we can't conceive of a way of testing i.e. establishing truth value, normative?

I'm thinking of "string theory accurately describes the universe" or something along those lines, since as far as I know there are no tests we can perform to falsify/verify this...I'm not even sure if we've thought of a hypothetical test that could be done with non-existent technology.

I still think these statements are positive, but I've almost no philosophical training and am unfamiliar with how almost everything can be normative as some respectable people seem to think/have thought.


I agree that not all positive statements are falsifiable. I'm just arguing that

(1) if you define positive statements as having truth value
(2) and you wish to account for mathematical statements and currently untestable statements as positive


(3) You need to posit an additional way to ascertain the existence or non-existence of truth value (so as to justify the inclusion of mathematical and current untestable statements as positive)

Since I disagree with premise (1) I'm not bound by the conclusion. I think POWinCA does agree with premise (1) and I suspect he agrees with premise (2) so I'm asking him to address conclusion (3).


More generally, I am concerned about the implications of allowing intuitive-type criteria for truth. '2+2=4' can be shown to be necessarily true given a fairly limited number of premises (Off-hand, I don't know if Peano's axioms are enough), but the premises must still be justified on intuitive grounds.

Similarly, statements like, "I should vote for Pat Buchanan", can be justified fairly simply with premises from intuition and only a few positive statements (I can vote, Pat Buchanan is a candidate).

I am not willing to give up mathematical truth or logic as necessarily true, but I am troubled by not being able to consistently distinguish the sources of justification. Falsifiability does involve assuming a lot about the universe, but at least it turns on an unknown bit of information that is externally provided.

Only (2) is completely honest. (1) says the same thing as (2) but is somewhat deceptive since the all important "I" has been removed to make the statement sound authoritative. (4) is a great rhetorical device, only slightly less disguised than (1). (3) is complete poppycock.

Its translation is "Under a bunch of hypotheses we both know to have dubious validity but which for argument's sake we might both assume for intellectual purposes, I am trying to justify one particular Pareto efficient outcome over a multitude of other outcomes each of which, though Pareto inferior to some outcome (not necessarily the outcome of this policy recommendation, of course), are nonetheless strictly, strongly socially superior to this outcome according to even my own, purely hypothetical social welfare function; and, I am making this judgment because I actually have no clue as to what the global optimum of such a function might be or what, for that matter, the function itself might be. I like the policy, though."

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