Guide Commitment, Value, and Moral Realism (Cambridge Studies in Philosophy)

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Constitutivism aims to justify substantial normative standards as constitutive of practical reason. In this way, it can defend the constructivist commitment to avoiding realism and anti-realism in normative disciplines. This metaphysical debate is the perspective from which the nature of the constitutivist justification is usually discussed. In this paper, I focus on a related, but distinct, debate. My concern will not be whether the substantial normative claims asserted by the constructivist have some elements, which are not constructed, but real, given independently from us; instead, my concern will be more narrowly epistemic — whether those claims can be derived from premises, which are normatively less substantial than the normative conclusions themselves.

I conclude that more work would need to be done, in order for this argument to function as intended. Constitutivism seems to be one of the more promising versions of constructivism. In this way, it can defend the constructivist commitment to avoiding realism and anti-realism in normative disciplines, such as ethics. Standards of action are not already given, independently from us, but they are justified as constitutive of practical reason; yet, they are not the result of arbitrary decisions, but are conditions, which make possible agency. Nevertheless, the nature of the justification, which constitutivism can offer in support of the normative standards it puts forward, is usually discussed from the perspective of the debate between realism and anti-realism, the debate between the view that there are normative standards independently from agents and the view that normative standards are created by the arbitrary decisions of agents.

In this paper, I would like to focus on a related, but distinct, debate. Whether the premises or conclusions are constructed or independent from construction is, in this context, almost irrelevant; what is relevant is the extent to which an argument can enrich normatively its premises, so that we would start from some premises, which are normatively weaker, and end up with conclusions, which are normatively stronger.

Commitment, Value, and Moral Realism

Assuming that such a feat turns out to be possible, we could deal much more easily with sceptical arguments. I have said that my concern is with an issue, which is distinct from the debate between realism, anti-realism and constructivism, but related to this debate.

This relation is easily noticeable in a particular case. Thus, if we start with merely descriptive premises and succeed in deriving normative claims through a constitutivist argument, then those normative claims constructed through the justification provided by the argument could no longer be suspected of secretly relying on some realist ground, on some normative component smuggled in, in the premises of the argument.

In other words, a successful constitutivist argument could help constructivists show that it is possible to justify substantial normative claims in a non-arbitrary manner and without realist premises. Yet, as already mentioned, this is not my concern here. Nevertheless, while a promising approach to this issue is suggested by Korsgaard, this suggestion is not explored further in her texts. But let us begin with the objection to Korsgaard. Constitutivism is the view that we can derive a substantive account of normative reasons for action — perhaps a Kantian account, perhaps a hedonistic account, perhaps a desire-fulfilment account, this is up for grabs — from abstract premises about the nature of action and agency.

Following this definition, therefore, constitutivism claims that we can get to a substantial account of normative reasons for action from an account of the nature of action and agency. Going from a view of action in general to a view of reasons for or against the performance of particular actions seems to involve the creation of something ex nihilo. Wiland : 6. Instead, we should regard reasons for action as connected with our function as agents. If we, with Korsgaard as interpreted by Smith , think that reasons for action are those demands to which we are subject insofar as we are the kind of thing that we are essentially that is, insofar as we share in the respective necessary identity , we will end up with deliberative dilemmas.

At the same time, however, we may also see ourselves as agents who have good reasons to help, and not interfere with, each other. The demands of reproduction, on the one hand, and, on the other, those of helpfulness and non-interference may be in tension or even irreconcilable conflict, in some circumstances. Consider a particular person; as a human being, she will be a biological being necessarily, since, by definition, this identity is essential for human beings. Since the demand of reproduction is part of this identity, the particular person under consideration, as a human being, is, as a matter of fact, subject to this demand.

Yet, according to Smith, this demand may come in contradiction with other demands, for which we may see ourselves as having good reasons. Hence, the starting point for a constitutivist account should not be some essential identity, but an account of ourselves as agents, since it is within the framework of such an account of agency that we can talk about commitments and our reasons for these commitments.

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Hence, according to Smith, the conflicting demands, which seem to be irreducible from the perspective of the presupposition of an essential identity, disappear when the starting point is an account of ourselves as agents and our reasons for commitment. This suggests that there are at least two significant aspects of constitutivism, which must be considered. My paper focuses on this aspect of constitutivism, precisely because it is a significant, and yet not much examined, issue. If this starting point is flawed in Korsgaard, then there is not much interest in exploring further the way in which a substantial normative account could be derived on this basis.

The problem is that demands stemming from this essential identity will be in tension or strong conflict with demands provided by reasons we have, as agents, to act in one particular way or another. She thinks that, as self-reflective beings, we are beings that need reasons to act. This characterisation of human beings as self-reflective beings that need reasons to act asserts the connection between agency and reasons. Hence, if there is some essential identity, which we must necessarily adopt and which forms the starting point for Korsgaard, then this is only an identity as beings who need reasons, since we can question any putative essential identity and try to determine whether to commit to its demand or not.

Hence, Korsgaard begins from an account of human beings, which makes it possible for us to question our identities and roles and to justify our commitments to them. As human beings, as self-reflective beings who need reasons to act, we have an identity, but this identity does not impose specific demands — it questions them by reflecting on our commitments, by evaluating them and by endorsing them, if we have reasons to endorse them.

According to Korsgaard:. Circumstances may cause you to call the practical importance of an identity into question: falling in love with a Montague may make you think that being a Capulet does not matter after all. For unless you are committed to some of your practical identity, you will lose your grip on yourself as having any reason to do one thing rather than another — and with it, your grip on yourself as having any reason to live and act at all. But this reason for conforming to your particular practical identities is not a reason that springs from one of those particular practical identities.

It is a reason that springs from your humanity itself, from your identity simply as a human being , a reflective animal who needs reasons to act and to live. And so it is a reason you have only if you treat your humanity as a practical, normative, form of identity, that is, if you value yourself as a human being. But to value yourself as a human being is to have moral identity. This distinction already suggests that Korsgaard begins with an account of ourselves as agents, as human beings who need reasons for our commitments, but this is not an account, which would regard us as subject to certain demands and reasons for action.

On the contrary, as mentioned before, this account makes possible the process of questioning any specific identities and commitments. Moreover, our identity as human beings can itself become the object of reflection and commitment. It is only when we acknowledge that our identity as human beings as a reflective animal who needs reasons to act and to live, and, hence, as an agent is valuable that we acquire a moral identity.

This moral identity, however, only makes sense from the perspective of reflection and, hence, from the perspective of our humanity. Hence, our humanity is a capacity, which is not always acknowledged as valuable; we may continue our lives without acknowledging the value of reflection. When we treat this human identity as an identity we should be committed to, we acquire moral identity. But this moral identity is not an essential identity either, since not valuing your human identity is still compatible with your capacity for reflection and agency, and it is compatible with your being an agent, a human being.

Thus, to sum up, our identity as human beings, makes it possible for us to question any putatively essential identity, whereas our moral identity is acquired when we do not simply acknowledge our reflective capacity and the need for reasons, but when we value them. Is it really the case that our moral identity is not an essential identity — after all, if we needed our humanity, then should we not value it and, if so, then would moral identity not be a necessary part of our identity as agents? For instance, from an understanding of agents as desire-realisers, we can allegedly deduce the fact that agents who perform their function optimally must have and exercise the capacity to realise their desires, no matter what their content, and know the world, no matter what the world is like.

From this, Smith claims, it follows that agents must possess coherence-inducing desires to help and not interfere, if agents are to perform their function optimally. Smith : Smith offers a complex argument, but, for the purpose in my paper, the important point is the link between an account of an agent as desire-realiser and the substantial normative claims derived as constitutive of agency: how do we get from an account of agency to substantial normative conclusions? As we have seen, there are several steps for the derivation of the substantial normative claims made by Smith, and some are presented explicitly as made analytically.

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The distinction between analytic and synthetic connections has a relatively long history. My attempt here is to work with a minimal conception of this distinction, which would be as uncontroversial as possible. According to Kant:. In all judgements in which we think the relation of a subject to the predicate I here consider affirmative judgements only, because the application to negative judgements is easy afterwards , this relation is possible in two ways. Either the predicate B belongs to the subject A as something that is covertly contained in the concept A; or B, though connected with concept A, lies quite outside it.

In the first case I call the judgement analytic ; in the second, synthetic. I am going to assume that we can regard claims in general as consisting of a subject and a predicate — the subject indicates that to which the claim attributes the predicate. By contrast, the claim that all bodies are heavy does not make explicit a predicate about the heaviness of a body that we think as already contained in the subject the notion of a body ; hence, the claim must connect subject and predicate by linking them through a further element.

This element can, in some cases, be given by experience. Hence, Kant claims, in the case of analytic judgements, the predicate is not different from the subject, in the sense that it is included in the subject. By contrast, in the case of synthetic judgements, the claim attributes to the subject something that does not already exist in the notion of the subject.

One implication of this is that an analytic judgement would not be able to make a substantial claim, a claim asserting about the subject something beyond what is already asserted by the subject. By contrast, a synthetic judgement will assert something beyond what the subject already includes. An analytic claim or judgement is a claim which clarifies the concept of the subject by making explicit at least a part of it — it does not provide anything that is not already included in the concept of the subject although, of course, a particular person may not be aware of the predicate as part of the subject and learns something new through the analytic judgement.

By contrast, a synthetic judgement will assert something new — it will connect the concept of the subject with another concept, which is not already included in the subject. One implication of this is that analytic judgements have a necessity, which is not to be found in synthetic judgements. To deny an analytic judgement is to deny that part of the concept of the subject the predicate is part of the concept of the subject, which is contradictory and, hence, impossible. If to deny an analytic judgement is to commit to impossibility, then the analytic judgement is necessary and, hence, Kant says, a priori.

By contrast, synthetic judgements do not assert a predicate already included in the subject, so denying that the predicate applies to the subject does not commit us to an impossibility. Given the contingency of experience, analytic judgements cannot be based on experience, whereas synthetic judgements can:. Thus the [analytic] proposition that bodies are extended is one that holds a priori and is not an experiential judgement. For before I turn to experience, I already have in the concept [of body] all the conditions required for my judgement.

The idea of a synthetic a priori judgement is what gives Kant hope that substantial judgements can be necessary and, hence, that cognition is possible. Insofar as we take cognition to refer to those claims, which are substantial and necessary, they can only be so if they are synthetic and a priori. Kant thinks the propositions of mathematics are synthetic and a priori. For the purpose of this paper, I cannot review the debates and defend any particular aspect. What I hope to do is to focus on a sufficiently unproblematic version of the distinction, while assuming that the distinction can still be used.

Secondly, there is a claim that, in the case of the analytic propositions, the link between subject and predicate is of identity.

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One implication of this basic account of the distinction is already familiar: analytic propositions are not substantial claims: by linking subject and predicate, they do not assert anything more than what is already presupposed by the subject of the propositions. A second, already mentioned implication is that analytic propositions are necessary: their negation is a negation of a relation of identity and leads to a contradiction. As we know from standard modal logic, it is the negation of necessity that leads to impossibility, so analytic propositions are necessary, given that their negations lead to contradictions.

Finally, given their necessity, analytic propositions are a priori, since a posteriori, experiential propositions are contingent and, hence, cannot be necessary. With this background in place, the worry of an anti-constitutivist, like Wiland, can be expressed more specifically in the following way. The issue is one of performing magic, because, if the premises from which the constitutivist starts already include the substantial account of normative reasons for action that the constitutivist claims to be able to derive for instance, the desires to help and not interfere mentioned by Smith , then these premises are not really abstract, although as we have seen in the definition of constitutivism, they should be so.

If those premises do not already include this substantial account, then a substantial account cannot be derived from them analytically. If it is not derived from them analytically, then it should be derived synthetically and, yet, if it is to be derived synthetically, then the validity of the derivation will be either contingent for instance, when based on experience or necessary in which case it becomes a synthetic a priori derivation. What is specific for a substantial normative account, however, is its necessity: the claim that something should be the case whether ethically, aesthetically or from some normative perspective is stronger than the claim that that thing is the case and implies a specific requirement.

Smith does not examine the nature of the constitutivist argument, which is supposed to take us from some abstract premises about agency to some substantial normative conclusions, although he does present the argument in detail; nor does Korsgaard examine the nature of the constitutivist argument, although she does indicate a promising avenue, which I will investigate in the next three sections. This is the promise of a transcendental argument, which would take us from abstract premises to substantial normative claims. Transcendental arguments have been discussed in the literature and they are still a topic at issue.

There is yet no overall agreement with regard to their role, their structure and how they are supposed to function. They are, therefore, perhaps most appropriate for the task of performing the magic expected from constitutivism. Consider the following discussion of a transcendental argument offered by Christine Korsgaard in The Sources of Normativity We can in this way control our incentives and, generally, any other factors that may prompt us to act. In order for such mental activities to be motivational, that is, in order for them to motivate us, we need to endorse them or at least indirectly to endorse them by allowing them to be determining grounds of our actions.

For instance, I may have a powerful desire to play computer games at the moment; upon reflection, distancing and questioning, I realise that, given an already made commitment to finishing this article by a certain deadline, I should continue to work. Hence, a mental activity, like my desire to play, will motivate me to act and leave my work , if I endorse it or at least if I do not oppose it. The process whereby I decide whether to allow this desire to be a ground for my leaving my work for play may involve reflection on that desire, as well as reflection on other reasons I might have for or against it.

Secondly, let us suppose I act; this happens if the questioning reflective process ends with an answer. I may conclude the questioning process with the outcome that I should act on one of the motivational mental activities that particular desire or some other inclinations or predispositions. Given that I could also have acted on other motivational mental activities, the fact that I acted in this way and not in some other way indicates that I had a reason to endorse this motivation even when this reason was that of illustrating an action which is performed in a particular way for no specific reason.

Hence, the conclusion of the reflective process is meant to provide me with a normative result: the obligation, permission or prohibition, which I have reason to endorse or to allow, is right. My reason provides a justification, which usually makes reference to a principle or value carrying out what one committed oneself to do is good and indicates what seems to me to be what I should do.

Now, if reasons are the result of reflective success, the next question is how I can lead the reflective process to a successful conclusion. This, in its turn, means that the principle functions as my principle of action, and, in this sense, it is expressive of me. That this principle is expressive of me is another way of saying that I take it to be justified, that it is right to act in this way given the kind of person I am and the situation where I find myself. As an implication, we can say that I act based on an evaluative identity or, in other words, based on a view of myself which I value.

For the agent feels that acting in that way would mean abandoning some fundamental principle, a principle without which she would not be the same person and without which perhaps her life would not be worth living. Hence, a person may be capable of sacrificing herself, when the alternative would be conceived as incompatible with the kind of person she is.

We belong to various groups and clubs, and our memberships change periodically, sometimes without any thoroughly considered reasons and sometimes even when, as in the extreme case presented above, they seemed to be aspects of our identities without which we could not exist. To account for such a claim, we can start with some contingent identities: we are born in a certain family or community, and sometimes into a profession or craft, we form ties to other persons, movements and ideas, and, as contingent, many of these identities can be shed.

In answer to this, Korsgaard suggests that what is not contingent is that an agent must be governed by some conception of practical identity, by some project. Without an identity, even a local and contingent one, there is no reason to do one thing, rather than another one and, hence, no reason to act at all. Because such a requirement stems from reasons, which are provided by practical identities, the unconditional obligation will have to stem from a practical identity, which is necessary.

We have seen that, as self-reflective beings, having some practical identity is necessary, if we are to be able to act. Hence, as agents, we are committed to the non-contingent requirement of having some practical identity. This non-contingent requirement is part of our identity as human beings; hence, it is part of our humanity.

Identities which provide reasons whether conditional or not are evaluative, and, in order for them to be evaluative, we need to be committed to their validity. This, according to Korsgaard, can answer the sceptic: if the sceptic is a human being and if he agrees with her argument, then the sceptic must value his humanity, if he is to act at all:. Since you are human, you must take something to be normative, that is, some conception of practical identity must be normative for you.

If you had no normative conception of your identity, you could have no reasons for action, and because your consciousness is reflective, you could then not act at all. If this is a transcendental argument, as Korsgaard claims it would be, then how exactly is it supposed to work? Consider a standard account of explorative or deductive transcendental arguments:.

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She relies on the fact that human beings act and that a necessary condition, which makes possible actions for human beings, is that they be committed to some evaluative identity. Yet, this commitment to some evaluative identity is unconditional. Hence, if the sceptic is an agent if she acts , then she cannot deny practical normativity, that is, she cannot deny the unconditional requirement provided by such an evaluative identity. I might bring that out more clearly by putting it this way: rational action exists, so we know it is possible.

How is it possible? And then by the course of reflections in which we have just engaged, I show you that rational action is possible if and only if human beings find their own humanity to be valuable. But rational action is possible, and we are the human beings in question. Therefore we find ourselves to be valuable. Korsgaard : —4 So Korsgaard does start from our actions as human beings, then identifies the necessary condition which makes action possible and then asserts this necessary condition.

Since this necessary condition is that of being committed to an unconditional standard of action, and since this unconditional standard is part of our evaluative identity as human beings, it follows that we are committed to our humanity. The sceptic, insofar as she is an agent that is, insofar as she acts , cannot doubt that she is committed to an unconditional standard and, hence, cannot doubt that there is normativity. Now, consider the first premise in CA 1 : Human beings act. This is a factual statement and usually the truth of factual statements is contingent.

Necessary conditions depend on the truths for which they are conditions, so the necessary condition of acting will depend on the contingent truth of acting. This also implies that the necessary condition, which makes possible the contingent truth, will be a contingent truth, affected by the contingency of that for which it is a condition. Specifically, the commitment to the unconditional standard of humanity will be made manifest when we act, and if acting is contingent, being committed to the unconditional standard of humanity will also be contingent.

This leaves it open for the sceptic to say that, although acting in the way in which Korsgaard understands it may presuppose a commitment to an unconditional standard, there seems to be no compelling reason to perform actions in that way. The contingent character of the standards associated with my actions is one of the important issues in the literature on Pyrrhonian scepticism. Sextus Empiricus : The extent to which this alternative conception of action is viable is a topic at issue, and it would take me too far away from the topic of this paper to try to explore it here in any depth.

But let us assume that action in the first premise of CA 1 is not contingent: Human beings act, but necessarily — for instance, agency is a necessary condition of humanity, so that, human beings can only act. Let us call this CA 2. One worry about this argument is that the first premise specifies action as a necessary feature of humanity; this is worrying since action may be right, wrong or morally indifferent.

In this case, CA 2 claims that, in order to perform an action whether right, wrong or morally indifferent , a human being must be committed to an unconditional standard. It follows as a result, however, that this standard will not have a specific content — it is a necessary condition of action, irrespective of whether the action is right, wrong or morally indifferent. This suggests the following solution: if the first premise is understood as a statement specifically about right actions, then there is a chance for an argument for normativity and for specific guidance.

I have mentioned above that in some formulations of her transcendental argument, Korsgaard refers not only to action, but to rational action. Thus, since a necessary condition for performing actions in general is a commitment to an unconditional standard, a necessary condition for performing right actions will also be a commitment to that unconditional standard. I will call this version of the argument CA 3. CA 3 seems able to avoid the problems of CA 1 and CA 2 : it asserts a commitment to an unconditional standard as a necessity, and it refers to rational or right actions and their necessary condition.

The problem with CA 3 emerges when we pay closer attention to the response this argument offers in fact to the sceptic.

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For this response does not seem any more able to answer the sceptic and to offer practical guidance than the response offered by CA 2 does. This, however, is not informative, since it seems any principle or value would do. To be sure, the claim made by the unconditional standard is not that it is sufficient to follow a wrong principle in order to perform a rational action — this would be counterintuitive; the claim is only that the performance of a rational action presupposes as a necessary condition the commitment to some standard — and this does not exclude wrong principles and evil values.

Hence, although the conclusion might not be counterintuitive, it is not substantial either. Moreover, as in the case of CA 2 , we might try to argue that, although CA 3 does not conclude with our commitment to a substantial standard, nevertheless it does conclude, against the sceptic, with our commitment to an unconditional even if only formal standard. Yet, once CA 3 is restricted in its first premise to rational or right actions, it can no longer function as an answer to the initial sceptical challenge concerning unconditional normativity.

For the argument seems to presuppose that there is something called right action that human beings necessarily perform, whereas the sceptic doubts unconditional normativity in general. This seems to suggest a serious problem for any attempt to construct such a transcendental argument: if the aim is to show that there is normativity, then the sceptic cannot accept that we necessarily perform right actions, so the starting point must be a necessity of acting in a more general sense, not restricted to the normative domain.

I take this to be problematic. Be that as it may, I would like to argue that constitutivist arguments may still be able to provide results, which are action-guiding, if the necessary condition for the performance of rational actions is formulated as a more substantial moral standard. In fact, this is what Korsgaard eventually plans to show, namely, that we should follow the Categorical Imperative 32 , as a necessary condition for the performance of rational actions.

The constitutivist argument, which is the focus of this paper, becomes:. Let us call this CA 4 ; this seems to be the best version of the transcendental argument offered by Korsgaard, or at least a version which is better than CA 1—3. There is of course a longstanding debate on the extent to which the Categorical Imperative is in any sense a substantial or informative standard. As I have mentioned, there is also a question concerning the extent to which Korsgaard can successfully show that the Categorical Imperative is indeed a necessary condition for the possibility of morally right actions.

I am going to set aside these important issues, in order to focus on the main topic of this paper: assuming the Categorical Imperative is action-guiding and assuming the sceptic does not doubt normativity per se, but the ability we have to formulate specific standards which have justification, does the constitutivist argument offer an answer to the sceptic?

I am focusing on this premise, since it seems to make a very strong claim. It is unclear in what sense we can say that we necessarily perform rational actions. Any case of weakness of will or evil action shows the contrary. We could understand the claim as more limited — say, human beings necessarily perform some rational actions. If the validity of a standard were limited to certain instances, then the standard would no longer be unconditional. To be sure, there are instances where we may not be under the obligation of acting under the Categorical Imperative — say, when we are asleep.

Although this may account for situations where we may be justified in not treating one person as a responsible agent, it is still not enough to make the premise plausible. This is because even in cases where we can legitimately treat a person as morally responsible, it may still be possible for that person to act irrationally or against reason. Nevertheless, the argument might provide a response to the question of moral guidance — it might be that the conclusion could provide an unconditional standard to which human beings, in the evaluative sense of the expression, must be committed.

For recall that the two issues considered here in relation to the skeptical challenge is the commitment to an unconditional standard and the possibility of specifying the standard or standards to which we should be so committed — so while the argument cannot respond to the former issue, it might still be able to respond to the latter. Alexander R. Laurence Bonjour. Howard Robinson.

Amie L. Home Contact us Help Free delivery worldwide. Free delivery worldwide. Bestselling Series. Harry Potter. Popular Features. New Releases. Description This important new book takes as its points of departure two questions: What is the nature of valuing? In Part One, the author develops a theory of value that attempts to reconcile reason with passions. Part Two explores how this theory of value grounds our commitment to moral action. The author argues that rational moral action can neither be seen as a way of simply maximising one's own values, nor derived from reason independent of one's values.

Rather, our commitment to the moral point of view is presupposed by our value systems. The book concludes with a defense of liberal political morality.

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Other books in this series. The Myth of Morality Richard Joyce. Add to basket. A World of States of Affairs D. Virtues of the Mind Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski. Uneasy Virtue Julia Driver. Facts, Values, and Norms Peter Railton. A Combinatorial Theory of Possibility D.

Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert Fred Feldman. Perception, Knowledge and Belief Fred I. Theories of Vagueness Rosanna Keefe. Truth and Truthmakers D. Matter and Sense Howard Robinson. Fiction and Metaphysics Amie L. Table of contents Preface; 1. The nature of the theories; Part I.