Metaethical constructivism is the view that insofar as there are normative truths, they are not fixed by normative facts that are independent of what rational agents would agree to under some specified conditions of choice. The appeal of this view lies in the promise to explain how normative truths are objective and independent of our actual judgments, while also binding and authoritative for us. Constructivism comes in several varieties, some of which claim a place within metaethics while others claim no place within it at all. In fact, constructivism is sometimes defended as a normative theory about the justification of moral principles. Normative constructivism is the view that the moral principles we ought to accept are the ones that agents would agree to or endorse were they to engage in a hypothetical or idealized process of rational deliberation.
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Metaethical constructivism is the view that insofar as there are normative truths, they are not fixed by normative facts that are independent of what rational agents would agree to under some specified conditions of choice. The appeal of this view lies in the promise to explain how normative truths are objective and independent of our actual judgments, while also binding and authoritative for us.
Constructivism comes in several varieties, some of which claim a place within metaethics while others claim no place within it at all. In fact, constructivism is sometimes defended as a normative theory about the justification of moral principles. Normative constructivism is the view that the moral principles we ought to accept are the ones that agents would agree to or endorse were they to engage in a hypothetical or idealized process of rational deliberation.
Metaethical constructivist theories aim to account for the nature of normative truths and practical reasons. They bear a problematic relation to traditional classifications of metaethical theories. These disagreements are rooted in further differences about the definition of metaethics, the relation between normative and metaethical claims, and the purported methods pertinent and specific to metaethical inquiry. The question of how to classify metaethical constructivism will be addressed in what follows by focusing on the distinctive questions that constructivist theories have been designed to answer.
Section 1 explains the origin and motivation of constructivism. Sections 2—4 examine the main varieties of metaethical constructivism. Section 5 illustrates related constructivist views, some of which are not proposed as metaethical accounts of all normative truths, but only of moral truths.
Sections 6 and 7 review several debates about the problems, promise and prospects of metaethical constructivism. According to Rawls, these debates fail to effectively address the political problem of ethical disagreements because they adopt metaphysical standards of objectivity, which appeal to the independent reality and truth of values.
Rawls is especially concerned with coordination problems that arise in pluralistic contexts, wherein citizens hold different and to some extent incommensurable moral views. The need for objectivity, according to Rawls, is practical : it arises in contexts in which people disagree about what to value and need to reach an agreement about what to do. He attributes to Kant the idea that we ought to approach objectivity as a practical problem and that we can fruitfully address moral disputes by reasoning about them Rawls 34, 39—40, 49— Rawls thus turns to Kant in order to argue for a conception of objectivity that is not metaphysical, that is, a conception of objectivity that avoids claims to universal and fundamental moral truths that are independent of our fully rational judgments.
On this conception, nobody is assumed to have a privileged access to moral truth, but all have equal standing in reasoning about what to do. Kantian constructivism is defended in a variety of ways, but its distinguishing feature is that it understands the nature of moral and normative truths based on considerations about the basic features of rational agency.
On this view, reasons for being moral do not spring from our interests or desires; instead, they are rooted in our nature as rational agents. Insofar as moral obligations are justified in terms of rational requirements, they are universally and necessarily binding for all rational beings.
Because of its claim about the universal authority of reason and obligations, Kantian Constructivism is regarded as the most ambitious form of metaethical constructivism. Kant holds that all previous ethical theories have failed to account for moral obligation because they have failed as theories of practical reason Kant G 4: —; C2 5: 35—41, , They fail to explain how reason plays a role in our life because they misunderstand its practical function and mischaracterize its relation with the ends of choice.
Sentimentalism, championed by Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith, holds that ethical judgments stem from sentiments and regards reason as incapable of moving us to action on its own.
According to the sentimentalist, the role of reason is solely instrumental. This is because sentimentalism treats moral obligations as conditional upon our interests, and thus as having limited authority. Kant raises the same objection against dogmatic rationalism, championed by Christian Wolff and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, which holds that there are real moral truths that we apprehend by rational insight Kant G 4: ; Rawls 50, This view appears to be an intuitionist form of moral realism according to which reason recognizes objective values or moral ends that exist prior to and independently of our reasoning and of the kinds of agents that we are.
In discovering such ends, moral agents do not actively exercise reasoning; they are as passive as in sensory perception. For Kant, dogmatic rationalism fails to secure the conclusion that moral obligations have unconditional authority over us Kant G , 4: This is because, for dogmatic rationalism, moral truths guide us only on the condition that we have a corresponding desire to be guided by what is rational Rawls —46; Rawls — They deny the authority and efficacy of reason, either holding that reason can only recognize objective ends that exist independently of its operations, or claiming that reason can bind agents only with the help of inclination or interest.
For Kant heteronomy is a form of moral skepticism, understood as skepticism about the power of reason to establish moral truths and their authority. Skepticism is avoided only if reason is accounted as autonomous, and its authority does not derive from anything outside it. Reason is autonomous if its authority rests on its proper activity, rather than being derived from elements of the world outside of reason.
Thus, the norm governing the activity of reason must be internal to reason, rather than dependent on any given value, interest, or desire. Kant gives several formulations of the Categorical Imperative, which he regards as equivalent G 4: , , , ; but ultimately, it is the requirement that in deliberating, we test our motives by considering whether the principle they express can be endorsed as a universal law, a principle that applies to and binds all agents endowed with rational capacities.
We will return to this point in section 7. In this dispute, constructivism is generally taken to be a form of antirealism Ameriks , ; Wood , , — There are different ways to argue for this point. The value of humanity is the condition of the possibility of all valuing. The issue revolves around the nature of transcendental arguments, and whether they commit us to moral realism, something that constructivists deny.
Second, critics hold that the constructivist interpretation of Kant heavily rests its case on a text that contains seemingly realist arguments. This immediate consciousness of the moral law also shows that we have an interest in morality, which arises independently of self-interested motives Kant C2 5: 42— In his view, the fact of reason indicates that the deliverances of practical reason cohere with our moral experience.
Rather, it simply confirms that there is no discrepancy between the requirements of practical reason which are expressed by the Categorical Imperative and our ordinary experience of morality Rawls ; Rawls —; Rawls —, , ; Kant C2 , 5: For this reason, some interpreters argue that Kant is constructivist about the authority of moral obligations and practical laws for finite agents, but not about the contents of such laws, which apply to all rational agents as such Engstrom , ; Bagnoli ; Sensen First, critics dispute the force and the target of the objection of heteronomy.
Relatedly, they deny that claims about the autonomy of reason or its practical function commit one to constructivism. The distinctive character of this conception resides in the idea that reason itself should be scrutinized by reason in order for its verdicts to be justified.
Kant embarks on the project of vindicating reasoning, starting from very modest considerations about rational agency.
The anti-metaphysical orientation of constructivism is apparent in early defenses of metaethical constructivism. Korsgaard a: 36—37, see also Korsgaard Substantive realism holds that there are objective criteria of correctness for moral judgments only if such judgments represent matters of fact about the way the world is. By contrast, the constructivist view is that there are objective criteria of moral judgment insofar as there are objective criteria about how to reason about practical matters.
There are objective reasons that prohibit deceiving and manipulating others, but such reasons are the result of practical reasoning, rather than discovered by empirical investigation, grasped by the intellect, or revealed by some god.
By reasoning according to this criterion, we objectively ground moral obligations, which are requirements of practical reason. It starts by objecting that substantive realism fails to respond to the skeptical challenge that there really are no reasons to be moral. This is because realism simply assumes the existence of objective standards for morality without offering a rational basis for them; hence the realist affirms what the skeptic denies. As a consequence, the realist also fails to show why we really ought to do as morality says, and thus fails as an account of the authority of moral obligations Korsgaard a; Korsgaard 30—31, 55—57, 67—68; Stern a; Brady Realists presume that, in order to fend off skepticism, one has to anchor practical reasons in facts that are in themselves normative.
Suppose we agree that it is a normative fact that deception is morally wrong. How does awareness of this fact rationally compel us to refrain from deceiving? This is not only a psychological question about the impact that such a fact might have on our minds, but also, and most importantly, a normative question that concerns its authority.
According to Korsgaard, humans are self-reflective agents, capable of reflecting on themselves and considering their thoughts and desires from a detached perspective. Reflection makes room for raising questions about what there is reason to do or to believe a: 10—11, 17, That is, in reflection, rational agents call into question the legitimacy of particular thoughts and desires and suspend their pull. Because they are reflective, rational agents have ideals about the sort of persons they want to be, and they can guide their minds and actions accordingly.
They are capable of self-governance because they are capable of governing themselves by endorsing universal standards. The appropriate form of self-governance is thus self-legislation Korsgaard a: 36, 91, —; Korsgaard 3. Rational agents are guided by universal principles that they have legislated. On the contrary, the claim is that rational agents are guided by universal principles Korsgaard a: 36, —; Korsgaard —; Reath —, 92— But the moral law obliges us only insofar as it is self-legislated.
That is, one can autonomously act on the moral requirements only if one legislates them. This is because universal principles are the constitutive principles of rational actions, on the Kantian view. Correspondingly, an agent that acts mindlessly or compulsively lacks the sort of integrity that is characteristic of rational agents.
That said, it is possible for rational agents to act in the pursuit of desires, when they have survived due reflection. A canonical objection to the attempt to ground morality on rationality alone is that it fails to account for the special bonds and ties we have with our loved ones and thus fails to capture the nature of integrity and morality Williams chapters 1—2. However, we do not have obligations just because we occupy certain roles as teachers, citizens, or friends.
Reflective endorsement, in turn, requires that we test our loyalties and allegiances according to the principle of universality, which commits us to morality. In order to value ourselves under these specific descriptions, we must value humanity in ourselves and in others Korsgaard Lecture 6, 25— Korsgaard a offers a transcendental argument for the conclusion that what we ought to do is justified by the norms that govern and constitute our rational agency.
She argues that valuing humanity, where humanity is understood as the capacity for rationality, is the condition of the possibility of valuing anything at all Korsgaard a: —; Korsgaard 60— In deliberating, we attribute to ourselves the power to confer value on our ends by rationally choosing them.
According to Korsgaard, in valuing we are also, at the same time, attributing a fundamental kind of value to ourselves. The conclusion is that the value of any objects thus ultimately depends on the rational capacity of evaluators.
Since humanity is embodied in all rational beings, we should value humanity in ourselves as well as in others, on pain of incoherence. Special obligations and bonds that derive from our practical identities are insufficient to sustain our integrity when they are inconsistent with valuing humanity. For instance, the conduct of a Mafioso cannot be coherently justified on the basis of a universal principle. The Mafioso thus fails as a rational agent and leads a life that is not autonomous, because his life is not the product of reflective self-government.
A systematic failure to be guided by universal principles of self-government amounts to a loss of agency. Insofar as agency is inescapable, we are necessarily bound by the norms of rationality and morality.
Korsgaard argues that some kind of integrity is necessary to be an agent and cannot be achieved without a commitment to morality, which is founded on reason. To this extent, her defense of Kantian constructivism does not offer a distinctive reply to skeptical challenges to ethical objectivity. That is to say that humanity may be the condition of the possibility of value and yet lack value itself.
More specifically, unless the object conforms to the standard, it ceases to be the kind of object that it is. A thing that does not serve this purpose is not a house.
Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory: The Dewey Lectures
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Rawlsian Constructivism in Moral Theory
Constructivism in Metaethics
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