Saturday, June 5, 2010

Constructivism about Reasons (Part 3) - Withstanding Scrutiny and More

This post is the third in my series on Sharon Street's article "Constructivism about Reasons". In this article, Street tries to present a systematic statement of the constructivism approach to metaethics.

In part one, we introduced the questions motivating Street's inquiry. We also discussed the topic of restricted constructivism in considerable depth. In part two, we tried move away from restricted constructivism towards a full-blown or metaethical constructivism. In this part we complete that move.

The essence of metaethical constructivism is captured in the following statement: an agent has moral reason to Y if Y withstands scrutiny from the perspective of the agents other normative judgments. This is repeated for each and every moral judgment the agent makes.

In this post we will do two things. First, we will consider what it means for a judgment to "withstand scrutiny". And second, we will offer six general observations on the nature of metaethical constructivism. These six observations reflect similar observations made in part two about the nature of restricted constructivism.

1. Withstanding Scrutiny?
To grasp the concept of "withstanding scrutiny", we need to understand: (i) the constitutive relationships between normative judgments and (ii) the difference between a normative judgment and a desire.

Suppose I judge that I have reason to become a doctor. Suppose further that studying chemistry is a prerequisite for getting into medical school. Now suppose that when you ask me whether I am going to study chemistry I answer "no, I have no reason to do so".

What should you make of my response? Clearly, I am making a normative error of some description. My claim that I have no reason to study chemistry does not withstand scrutiny from the perspective of my reason to become a doctor.

This example illustrates the constitutive relationships that exist between reasons. If you accept that you have reason to do X, and if you accept that Y is a means to X, you cannot turn round and claim that you have no reason to Y. One reason (rX) legislates the standards with which another reason (rY) can be scrutinised.

Reasons that survive the process of scrutiny can be called normative judgments.

Normative judgments are, according to Street, distinct from desires. To draw out the distinction, she imagines the case of someone with a diseased leg. He is told that it will have to be amputated or the disease will become life-threatening. Since (we assume) the man values his life, we can say, unequivocally, that he has reason to amputate his leg.

The conclusion would be different if we referred only to the man's desires. Desires do not have the same constitutive relationships as reasons. So it would be perfectly possible for the man to desire to live at the same time as desiring not to have his leg amputated.

The distinction Street makes turns on a definition of what it means to desire something. Street equates it with mere conscious whim and so her point is clear: a reason-for-action can exist without conscious awareness.

2. Six Observations about Metaethical Constructivism
Okay, now that we have a fairly detailed account of metaethical constructivism, we can turn to some general commentary. In doing so, we will follow the six-observations-motif that was set earlier in this series:
  • (1) According to metaethical constructivism, the correctness of a normative judgment is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of withstanding scrutiny.
  • (2) There may be a worry that metaethical constructivism is circular. This is because it seem grounds one set of normative judgments in another set, thus presupposing what it is trying to explain. But, argues Street, withstanding scrutiny describes what is constitutively involved in making a normative judgment. This does not require us to presuppose other substantive moral judgments because constitutive entailment is not the same as rational entailment.
  • (3) Not all normative judgments will be determinate. The constructivist allows for the possibility of conflict between a persons normative judgments. When conflicts arise, three strategies are available (i) appeal to our often implicit judgments about trade-offs between values; (ii) appeal to the judgment that is more fundamental to our being (this is usually obvious because it is the judgment that covers more aspects of our lives and activities); or (iii) accept that there is an ineliminable contrast or dilemma. On this third possibility, Street argues that although the constructivist is happy with the possibility of moral dilemmas, they should be reluctant to embrace them: many so-called dilemmas are likely to derive from a lack of knowledge.
  • (4) Radical choice may play a role in metaethical constructivism. A radical choice is one that is based on no reason whatsoever. Such radical choices may be required to solve a moral dilemma. But they may also be involved at a much deeper level: in adopting the practical standpoint in the first place (I'm personally sceptical of the possibility of abandoning the practical standpoint).
  • (5) Reflective equilibrium plays a key role in metaethical constructivism. A reflective equilibrium is reached when all of one's beliefs and values are in harmony. The process of "withstanding scrutiny" is designed to help reach reflective equilibrium.
  • (6) This is a fully-fledged metaethical thesis. It explains the ontological status of moral truth and it shows how to gain epistemic access to moral truth.
It would be worthwhile going back to see how these observations compare with those made in relation to restricted constructivism. 

Before we conclude, there are two final worries about metaethical constructivism that need to be addressed.

3. What is a Reason?
Metaethical constructivism explains one set of normative judgments in terms of their withstanding scrutiny from another set. But this explanation could be wholly uninformative.

After all, these normative judgments are simply judgments about what we have reason to do. And in order to have a reason to do X we must first judge that X is valuable. Which is just another way of saying that we must have reason to do X. The concept of a reason, it is argued, is no less troublesome than the concept of normative judgment or value.

In effect, we are shifting the metaethical debate away from the question "what is normative correctness/incorrectness?" to the question "what is a reason?". Street agrees that there may be a problem here. There is a sense in which having reasons-for-action is just a brute fact about being a human being.

Still, it seems plausible to demand some explanatory account of what a reason is. Unfortunately, Street seems to waffle a bit in her response. I think I can distill it to the following:
  • A reason can be explained by taking (a) the primitive experience of valuing something and combining it with (b) an account of the constitutive relations between reasons.
I can't say I'm persuaded by that. It doesn't seem to provide us the understanding we would expect from an explanation. I tend to think that an evolutionary and physiological account could be added to this to show how the primitive experience of valuing came into the world.

This would require some additional explanatory spadework.

4. Where does it all End?
Constructivism maintains that one normative judgment is scrutinised from the perspective of another, and that this other is scrutinised from the perspective of yet another and so on. The end result is a picture of a morality sustained by a web of interlocking normative judgments.

The question is whether, when it comes down to it, there is only one possible set of interlocking normative judgments or many such sets. There are two different constructivist answers to this question.

According to one class of constructivist -- Kantian or Substantive Constructivists -- there is ultimately only one set of values that all practical agents must share. For example, Christine Korsgaard in The Sources of Normativity argues that all agents must value humanity and that every other normative judgment must be consistent with this value.

According to a second class of constructivist -- Humean or Formal Constructivists -- there could be many sets of interlocking values. We have to work with what we've been given.  In other words, substantive moral values cannot be derived from a purely formal account of practical reason.


  1. You're always a pleasure to read when I'm looking for something intelligent to chew on. Thanks.

    Apparently I'm a constructivist. Good to know. However, I have a few questions and issues with all of this, that I hope you won't mind me sharing.

    1. I failed to understand what Street is saying the grounding for metaethical constructivism is. Is it (a) we should examine each reason in light all of our other reasons [this is what Part 2 led me to believe] , or (b) we should we judge a reason from a particular "more fundamental" set [this is what point 4 above led be to believe]. Is there a hierarchy of reasons, or not? And more importantly - why? Why should we adopt whatever options she recommends?

    It seems to me that in real contemplation we do something like a combination of the two approaches, recognizing that some reasons are more primary than others yet also balancing many more-or-less equal final ends (to use the Aristotelian term; I always like to return to Aristotle). Is this the idea?

    2. I fail to grasp the difference between desires and reasons noted in point 1. Surely, for example, we can say the man also values his physical wholeness and has reason not to amputate his leg - it's just that the reason to amputate is stronger. And this is because the desire for life is stronger than the desire to maintain your body in good health and intact. While desires are not quite reasons, they seem to underly them and it seems to me Street's analysis actually works better with desires, rather than abstract reasons for action, in mind.

    3. A question related to question 1 above - suppose a reason for action doesn't withstand scrutiny. It seems to me that this merely shows that it is inconsistent with my other set of reasons for action/desires. It doesn't follow that it needs to be weeded out; perhaps my other reasons for action need to be changed! The situation is not unlike progress in science, where some hypothesis is found to be in contradiction to data; you don't necessarily throw away the hypothesis itself, you may throw away other parts of the theory that cause this hypothesis to be contradicted by evidence. Constructing a holistic, unified framework of scientific or moral positions requires more criteria than mere contradiction.

    4. Finally, but perhaps most critically - what is all of this useful for? Russel Blackford has an analogy, where he compared morality to a hammer. Extending it slightly, I'd say that morality is a tool - different metaethical theories provide different tools, each useful for different tasks. What task is metaethical constructivism good for?

    It seems to me that it is designed to aid in the methodological application of practical reason. Which is great, but is it moral? What is the difference between MORAL reasons for actions and NON-MORAL reasons for action? I can apply the same criteria of reasons for action and withstanding scrutiny to trivial choices like what taste of ice-cream to choose.

    It seems to me that Construtivism is a very useful tool indeed, I'm just not sure that Metaethical Constructivism doesn't need to be more finely restricted if it is to be considered truly a meta-ETHICAL theory. Universal prescriptivism and similar restrictions are what I'm thinking of here.


  2. It would take a while to answer all of those points. I'll have a go at 2 and 4 for now since they seem easier to answer. 1 and 3 are probably more interesting but need a more careful discussion.

    Re: Desires

    I think Street is simply stipulating that desires are fleeting conscious whims and that allows her to make the distinction that she does. If you offer a more expansive definition of desires and incorporate the idea that they come in different strengths, then the distinction becomes unnecessary.

    In saying that, I'm thinking in particular of the Humean theory of motivation discussed by Michael Smith in his book The Moral Problem. His way of defining what a desire really is seems plausible to me, and ends up being close to Street's definition of reasons for action.

    To be fair, Street seems to acknowledge this point. And she would agree that desires underlie reasons (at least, on my reading she does).

    Re: Moral vs Non-Moral

    I get the impression from her articles that she just doesn't think there is a distinction between moral and non-moral reasons for action. That, in a way, is the cornerstone of a truly constructivist metaethics: morality is whatever is generated by practical reason.

    That would seem to be the bullet you have to bite.

    How you palatable that bullet is depends on whether you take the Kantian or Humean route. The Kantian will argue that universalisable values are built into the machinery of practical reason. That might make constructivism more appealing as a meta-ETHICAL view but is, of course, contingent on how credible such Kantian arguments really are.

    When I first started studying philosophy, I thought Kant was right. Now, I'm not so sure.

  3. Thanks John.

    For myself, I'm a Humean in virtually every way, and when I first learned about Kant thought he was wrong about morality and I still do ;)



  4. In answer to points 1 and 3 (which as you say are related) I would say the following, rather unhelpful, things.

    First, the basic method of scrutinising judgments in light of other judgments implies that the primary aim of metaethical constructivism is to achieve a consistent normative constitution (i.e. a reflective equilibrium).

    When an inconsistency arises between two judgments, there would appear to be four basic options:

    (i) Reject one of the judgments
    (ii) Appeal to implicit judgments about trade-offs
    (iii) Appeal to a more primary judgment.
    (iv) Accept that there is an irreconcilable dilemma.

    As you point out, (i) is not that straightforward. Consider the following example.

    Mark is surgeon. At an early age he made a commitment to helping people who were sick. As a result, he has spent his entire life studying and training to become a surgeon. Before some major career-defining operation he is offered a large sum of money to "blow" the operation.

    Assume he can do this with minimal risk of legal repercussions and has been given every assurance and guarantee that the offer of money is real.

    What should he do?

    On the one hand, it seems obvious that he should not accept the offer. It runs contrary to every other judgment he has made in his life. This seems to be the argument Street makes re some judgments being more fundamental.

    But maybe this offer has provided him with an opportunity to fundamentally reshape his normative constitution? Maybe he should ditch everything he has believed in up to this point, take the money and do something else with his life?

    Apart from the fact that the second option requires a more fundamental overhaul, and is therefore more upsetting to Mark's applecart, what can the constructivist say?

    I'm not really sure. All I can say is that the fact that it requires a more fundamental overhaul is not a negligible reason against it. And also that the conditions of this thought experiment (minimal risk etc.) are unlikely to be met in reality.

    But the example of Mark might be too easy since it involves a good person being given the opportunity to go bad (to speak loosely of "good" and "bad"). A bigger problem might arise if we consider an example of a bad person given the opportunity to do good. What do we say to them?

    Street makes a point in her paper, which I didn't mention, about the possibility of an ideally coherent Caligula (who, in case you don't know, was a rather sadistic Roman emperor, who was the subject of a laughable movie penned by Gore Vidal and who now finds himself the subject of a philosophical thought experiment). The ideally coherent Caligula might fit the bill as the bad person with an opportunity to go good.

    Street says that the Humean constructivist would have to accept the possibility of such an individual existing. And then says that if they did exist, there would be nothing we could do to challenge their values.

    However, the Humean can perhaps dismiss the example as an irrelevant distraction, conjured-up by an unrealistic philosophical parlour game.

    The big challenge would be to find a real individual who fits the Caligula-like bill. Is there one?

    That's all I can think of for now.


  5. That's all nice and well, but in my opinion points to the next required step in Constructivist/moral thought: since a coherent Calligula does exist in the form of psychopaths, or more precisely since there does appear to be variance in human nature, moral speech that sharply defines certain things as good or bad needs to be addressed to normative people, or more precisely moral speech needs to be addressed to a range of people whose nature is around the center of the (putative) bell curve (in full recognition of their diversity). In other words, one establishes a type of Humanism, in the sense of a morality based on human nature.

    Regardless, is it that Street espouses all four options (i)-(iv)? That seems reasonable, but again I'm feeling a need for criteria to apply each - as well as tools (psychological and analytic technology) to do so.