Sunday, January 5, 2014

Book Recommendation ♯12: Contractualism and the Foundations of Morality by Nicholas Southwood

(Series Index)

I’ve been meaning to recommend Nicholas Southwood’s excellent defence of metaethical constructivism — Contractualism and the Foundations of Morality — for some time, but held off because I was hoping to do a few substantive blog posts about it. Unfortunately, it looks like I won’t be able to do any substantive posts about it in the foreseeable future. Fortunately, it looks like this is the ideal time to offer a recommendation as it is due for paperback release this month.

As far as I am concerned, the book represents the best recent attempt to defend a constructivist (specifically contractarian) metaethics. Metaethics is the branch of moral philosophy that is concerned with the ontology and epistemology of moral facts. Constructivist metaethical theories hold that moral facts are constructed out of certain fundamental elements of practical rationality. They are distinct from realist theories insofar as they deem moral facts to be mind-dependent, but they are similar to realist theories in that they believe moral propositions to have truth value. Although I have mixed metaethical views, I am generally inclined toward constructivist theories. Consequently, I am a biased reader of Southwood’s book: I would like for it to be successful, though I am not blind to its shortcomings.

Nevertheless, I think I am correct in saying that Southwood’s book is a masterclass in concision and argumentative acuity. It opens with some general reflections on desiderata for a successful defence of contractarian constructivism. Southwood limits his focus to finding a grounding for moral obligations, thereby setting to one side the grounding for moral values. He then proceeds to diagnose the flaws with two well-established contractarian metaethical theories — Hobbesian and Kantian, respectively — before defending his own preferred approach: deliberative contractarianism.

I don’t have much else to say, except: If you have any interest in metaethics, you should get this book.

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