Research Project Award Scheme: Normativity-Aberdeen University

Research Project Award Scheme: Normativity-Aberdeen University

Research Project Award Scheme: Normativity

Study Level: Research Postgraduate

Country: All countries

Subject: Law

Brief Description

This project investigates the abiding question of the sources and nature of normative claims and judgments in the fields of law, philosophical ethics and theological ethics and their various junctures.


We invite applications for 4 PhD studentships from high achieving students to join us in pursuing rigorous disciplinary and/or interdisciplinary research into these questions. 

Each award consists of a full fee waiver (three years of full-time PhD study at the Home/EU or Overseas student rate as appropriate) and an annual maintenance stipend of £3,600 in each of three years of full-time study. 

Questions concerning normativity clearly assume a wide variety of forms within the discourses of law, philosophy and theology. We suggest that historical and analytical inquiry can be organized with reference to three terms that designate recurrent foci of debates. The project takes these three terms—nature, narrative and nihilism—as markers which indicate the most interesting and important aspects of the leading arguments in our respective fields, as well as across them. 

‘Nature’ signals the abiding effort to connect the ought with the is, i.e., to relate normative judgments to truth claims about reality itself whether conceived naturalistically, or as involving non-, or supra-natural aspects. Whether in the guise of appeals to a version of ‘natural law’, the invocation of binding transcendental principles—whether revealed or deduced a priori—or identification of the naturalistic imperatives of evolutionary biology, the attempt is regularly made to derive normative obligations in the fields of morals, law and religious practice from indicative descriptions of the character of the world and of human being per se. 

‘Narrative’ designates a range of theoretical attempts to account for normativity by specific appeal to forms of social construction and tradition formation (e.g., Alasdair MacIntyre), or by reference to certain social practices of rational discourse (e.g., Jürgen Habermas, Robert Brandom) out of which normative claims arise. All three disciplines are home to vibrant and influential schools of thought—e.g., legal positivism in law, constructivism in philosophy and post-liberalism in theology—which frame the question of the origin, nature and function of normative claims within such broadly narrative schemes.

Alongside these two rubrics, ‘Nihilism’ further denotes strategies which despair of the possibility—or, less radically, simply deny the necessity—of ultimately accounting for and grounding normative judgments within ethical, theological and legal practice. Whether the motivations are pragmatic, post-modern or otherwise, some suggest that we must simply do without normative standards by which to adjudge the validity of conflicting claims arising from subjective experience. Is such a view viable, and if so, what would be its entailments? 

Taken together, these three rubrics provide an overarching structure to our exploration of potentially quite diverse topics, and provide a useful, albeit provisional, scheme within which to organize our research and conversations. Of course, questioning the validity of these working rubrics themselves, and the search for new and better ones, must be an integral part of any such inquiry. 

The discourse of normativity, and debates about it, plays a crucial role in all three disciplines involved in this proposal: 

First, critical analysis of the idea of normativity is central to the enterprise of moral philosophy. Here, the central questions concern whether evaluative language merely expresses attitudes and preferences—in which case moral claims might be considered to lack truth-values—or whether it in fact corresponds to actual morally charged ‘states of affairs’? If moral claims lack truth values, is there still a sense in which moral descriptions, evaluations and judgments can be better or worse than their competitors? Can constructivist accounts be shown compatible with the belief that some actions and conditions are objectively morally wrong or morally right, or does the very idea of normativity stand or fall with defense of some kind of normative realism? How are we to adjudicate between competing normative claims which all appear to be sufficiently warranted from within their various relevant epistemic and discursive contexts? And what light can the history of moral and political philosophy shed on the problems of objectivity and grounding? 

Similarly, the idea of normativity represents a crucial battleground in legal theory. Jurisprudence has been and remains preoccupied with debating the legal meaning of ‘normative’ and how identified norms might actually be applied in the practice of law. Related to this is the permanent question as to the sources and grounds for justifying normative claims within the body of the law. Many are content to leaving the justification of normative claims strictly ‘hypothetical’, while others consider such a view illegitimate, and demand that the truth value of working notions of legal authority and obligation must themselves be the proper subject of legal philosophising. Here questions abound: Do moral or political considerations have any place in the adjudication of legal obligation, or is there a ‘pure theory’ of law that generates its concept of normativity? Is the notion of normativity / obligation univocal across the various spheres of law, e.g., criminal law, contract law, international law? What questions are raised for legal philosophy by the recognition of exceptions to legal obligation, e.g., freedom of conscience, civil disobedience? Are there better alternatives to thinking out the question of legal normativity than those offered by leading theorists of legal positivism and the ‘new’ natural law?

Finally, theological ethics is a field invested deeply in many closely analogous debates to those mentioned above. To what extent does Christian doctrine, for example, function as a ‘normative science’ for ethical reflection, delivering authoritative accounts of the reality of the world in which moral reflection occurs, and to which it is responsible? To what extent are such accounts publically available, and to what extent are they religiously parochial? Is it possible to understand the normative force of theological claims in a narrative, rather than realist sense, i.e., as distillations of the regulative ‘grammar’ of the traditional patterns and practices of a religious community which are, finally, socially achieved, rather than simply given? To what extent do other non-theological discourses—for instance, those of philosophy, politics or law—prove decisive in the construction of normative judgments by religious believers? What is the role of the idea of normativity in the reception, interpretation and application of authoritative scriptures and other religious texts?

Dr. Philip G. Ziegler (Divinity) (Principal Investigator)
Dr. Beth Lord (Philosophy)
Dr. Nate Jezzi (Philosophy)
Prof. John Paterson (Law)
Dr. Mátyás Bódig (Law)
Dr. Tamás Gyorfi (Law)
Dr. Andrew Simpson (Law)
Dr. Christopher Brittain (Divinity)
Dr. Brian Brock (Divinity)
Dr. Mike Mawson (Divinity)

Application Procedure

A normal application for admission to the PhD programme is required and applicants should make explicit note their interest in being considered for a ‘Normativity Studentship’ in their application materials.

Deadline: 28th of February 2014

Further Info

Informal inquiries may be directed to Dr. Philip G. Ziegler, Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology, School of Divinity, History and Philosophy:

Application Docs

Information about application procedures can be found here: