Friday, May 28, 2010

What is Contructivism in Metaethics? (Part 1)

In a previous post, I sketched three different metaethical strategies: nihilism, constructivism and realism. The nihilist thinks there is no moral truth; the realist thinks moral truths a like scientific, mathematical or logical truths; and the constructivist thinks we make our own moral truth.

I have made gestures towards non-naturalistic realism in my posts on Wielenberg and Morriston. I now take up the constructivist baton. In doing so, I will rely on the writings of Sharon Street. As far as I can tell, she seems to have the most highly-developed arguments on the metaethical pretensions of constructivism. I will use the following article as my guide:
"What is Constructivism in Ethics and Metaethics?" (2009) Vol. 4 Philosophy Compass
Although I am beginning to appreciate the realist position, I still find constructivism to be the more plausible position (at least from a practical, everyday point of view) and Street does a good job explaining it.

In this post we will do three things: (i) cover a classic, but mistaken, characterisation of metaethical contructivism; (ii) consider Street's preferred characterisation of constructivism; and (iii) describe her taxonomy of constructivist positions.

1. The Proceduralist Characterisation
The mistaken, but influential, characterisation of constructivism comes from a famous article by Darwall, Gibbard and Railton reviewing 20th century metaethics. They suggested that constructivism was all about defining a procedure for creating moral truths.

The most famous account of this procedure comes from John Rawls's Theory of Justice. Rawls argued that if you take a set of inputs -- namely, the attitudes and preferences of rational actors -- and processed them in the appropriate way -- i.e. get the actors to bargain with each other from behind a veil of ignorance -- you would get a set of moral outputs -- in this case, principles of justice.

This is illustrated schematically below.

There are problems with this characterisation. First, there are competing accounts of the correct constructivist procedure. The fact that such a dispute arises, suggests that there are further metaethical questions to be asked.

Second, the proceduralist characterisation seems to equate constructivist with another metaethical position: ideal observer theory. Indeed, some think they are in fact the same thing. Street disagrees, and later in the article she explains why.

2. The Practical Standpoint Characterisation
Street favours an alternative characterisation of contructivism. She calls this the "practical standpoint"-chacterisation. The following is a quick sketch.

We begin in a pre-philosophical state, somewhat puzzled by the concept of value. In this state we don't know what it could mean for something to be morally valuable, but we do know what it means to value something. In other words, we know what it is to value food, security, friendship, education, sex and so on. But we are not sure whether it's worth it.

The ability to value certain things is the distinctive feature of the practical standpoint.

We also know what it is for some actions to be entailed by certain values. For instance, Ann may value the counting of blades of grass. We may think this an appalling waste of her talents but, granting her her idiosyncrasy, we can say that the purchase of a calculator would be a "good" thing.

This sense of entailment is, according to Street, non-normative in the sense that it says nothing about what we should or ought to believe (Steve Maitzen -- if he still reads this blog -- may raise an eyebrow or two at that claim).

In any event, the key constructivist claim is the following: normative truth consists in what is entailed from the practical standpoint.

3. A Taxonomy of Constructivisms
With that basic sketch in place we can proceed to a more fulsome taxonomy of constructivist philosophy. The major distinction to be wrought is that between restricted constructivism and metaethical constructivism.

Restricted constructivists take a set of presupposed normative claims and use these to limit what can be entailed from the practical point of view. Two prominent restricted constructivists are John Rawls and Thomas Scanlon.

Rawls, as mentioned, presupposes the moral virtue of impartiality; Scanlon presupposes the virtue of living with others on terms acceptable to all. Where these presuppositions come from, or what metaethical theory they rely on, is anyone's guess. That is to say: restricted constructivism is consistent with moral realism.

Metaethical constructivism tries to articulate a more complete moral theory. It does so by trying to offer a formal account of what it means to take the practical point of view. There are two classic versions of this.

According to Kantian constructivism, the endorsement of what we normally call "moral" precepts, is part and parcel of being a rational agent. So, a rational agent will always have reason to respect the dignity of others; to refrain from lying, cheating, stealing, killing; and so on.

According to Humean constructivism, we are endowed (by culture or evolution) with a set of natural and artificial evaluative attitudes. Morality is built (constructed) from these attitudes. If they had been different, morality would be different.

Note: Street uses the term "evaluative attitudes" and not "desires". She claims that there is an important distinction but does not say what this is. Instead, she points us to another article where she makes this distinction. I hope to cover that article eventually. For now, I'll accept it.

The taxonomy of constructivist positions is illustrated below.

That's it for this post. In the next part we will follow Street as she distinguishes metaethical constructivism from other metaethical positions.


  1. I've a worry: if Constructivism claims that "normative truth consists in what is entailed from the practical standpoint", then it seems that, at best, a Constructivist account will tell us how to arrive at moral truths, but cannot tell us what the moral propositions actually mean. That does nothing to alleviate our pre-philosophical puzzlement about what moral values are, and since it seems to me the point of a meta-ethics to give a semantic interpretation to moral language, I have doubts as to whether Constructivism isn't a part of Normative Ethics instead.
    But suppose it does tell us what moral propositions mean. Wouldn't doing so amount to giving the truth-conditions of moral propositions? But then Constructivism appears to collapse into Moral Realism or Nihilism, for if we have truth-conditions, then we can determine whether the propositions are sometimes true or universally false, and so one or the other of Realism and Nihilism will be correct.
    So, how is it that Constructivism can be both a distinctive meta-ethical doctrine and successfully elucidate the meaning of moral propositions as a meta-ethical doctrine should?

  2. Hi Tai Chi

    I think some of your questions are answered in part 2. Basically, Street seems to disagree with you, and others, that the fundamental task of metaethics is semantic. She thinks it is ontological (she goes into the semantic v. ontological issue in greater depth than I do in my summary). I tend to agree with her about that. At least, it's the issue I am more interested in.

    I'll be doing more posts on her brand of constructivism in the very near future and they will provide more answers, so if you're interested stay tuned.

    One thing:

    "Realism" (as far as both Street and myself are concerned) means either (a) non-natural realism as propounded by Shafer-Landau, Wielenberg, Nagel, McDowell etc. or (b) naturalistic ideal response realism of the type propounded by Railton, Brink etc..

    It does not mean "thinks moral propositions have truth-conditions". That would be cognitivism. I think you are substituting cognitivism for realism at the end of your comment when you suggest constructivism collapses into realism or nihilism.

  3. Thanks John,
    Yes, I think my questions have been answered in Part 2 - it's almost as though it were addressed to me. As regards the Realism thing: your previous post said that Realists hold moral facts to be 'mind-independent', but the term is ambiguous as between "independent of anyone's say-so or beliefs" and "independent of mental facts altogether". I went for the former, hence my confusion.

    "I'll be doing more posts on her brand of constructivism in the very near future and they will provide more answers, so if you're interested stay tuned."
    Will do. Thanks again.

  4. Hi, John.

    Very sorry to say I haven't been following your blog lately, but only out of ignorance, not apathy! Google Reader failed to notify me that there were any new posts; something went awry with my subscription, which I think I've now corrected.

    I might raise an eyebrow or two at Street's claim if I understood better what the claim meant. I take entailment to be a logical, or maybe semantic, relation holding between propositions, so I'm not sure how an action could be entailed by a value or how a value could do any entailing. I think I should read her article. Maybe it also contains a clue about whether she thinks that one proposition's entailing another is a mind-dependent fact, or whether facts about what counts as good reasoning are mind-dependent.

    Off now to catch up on your other posts. --Steve

  5. John,

    I worry that you are taking the idea of constructivism from people who lack a proper understanding of it. In Kant's use and in Rawls', constructivism is not constructing arbitrary moral systems. Both Kant and Rawls likened the truth resulting from constructivist procedural to "rigorous" theorems of geometry. Rawls is not saying that justice is whatever society wants to construct around the word justice. He believes he has proven justice to be prioritarianism.

    Great blog, by the way. I read often and find your posts highly intelligent and thought proving.

  6. Hi John

    I am aware that constructivism need not be interpreted to involve arbitrariness. I was doing another series on Beyleveld's defence of Gewirth's principle of generic consistency which I have argued is a strong form of Kantian constructivism. I may even finish that series someday.