Constitutivism True


Morality is based neither internally or externally since this would make it either optional or subjective.

Paul Katsafanas. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. LXXXIII No. 3, November 2011, Deriving Ethics from Action: A Nietzschean Version of Constitutivism. Boston University.

Internalism provides a straightforward and relatively uncontroversial way of justifying normative claims. But it faces a potential problem, which can be brought out by asking what happens when an internalist attempts to explain a moral claim, such as ‘‘you should not murder.’’ Moral claims have an important feature: they purport to be nonoptional or categorical. That is, they purport to apply to all agents, independently of the agent’s motives. For example, consider an agent who has a strong desire to murder, and has few or no motives that would be promoted by not murdering. Despite the fact that murdering would fulfill the agent’s desire, I think most of us would hold that the agent should not murder. But internalism has difficulty generating that conclusion; after all, by hypothesis the agent has no motives that would be promoted by not murdering, and has strong motives that would be promoted by murdering. Of course, it is unlikely that very many people have motives in favor of murdering. But the example brings out a highly counterintuitive feature of internalism: if internalism is true, then it will only be an accident that most of us have reason not to murder. For the truth of the claim ‘‘you should not murder’’ will be dependent upon a contingent feature of our psychologies. If we had different motives, we would have reason to murder. And that conclusion will strike most of us as implausible Although internalists have attempted to address this difficulty,11 recognition of the difficulty leads some philosophers to resort to externalism about normative claims. Externalists hold that there can be reasons for action that do not depend on the agent’s psychological makeup. In other words, It can be true both that (i) agent A has reason to , and (ii) A has no desires or aims that are suitably connected to -ing. Thus, a claim such as “murder is wrong” can be true independently of facts about the agent’s psychology. While externalism captures the non-optional status of moral claims, it faces several challenges. I will just mention two of them. First, there is the much-discussed problem of practicality. Moral claims are supposed to be capable of moving us. Recognizing that /-ing is wrong is supposed to be capable of motivating the agent not to /. But how could a claim that bears no relation to any of our motives possibly move us? As Williams puts it, ‘‘the whole point of external reasons statements is that they can be true independently of an agent’s motivations. But nothing can explain an agent’s (intentional) actions except something that motivates him so to act’’ (1981, 107). Williams’ point is this: if the fact that murder is wrong is to play a role in the explanation of a person’s decision not to murder, then the fact that murder is wrong must somehow figure in the etiology of the agent’s action. But this suggests that, if the fact that murder is wrong is to exert a motivational influence upon the person’s action, then the agent must have some motive that is suitably connected to not murdering. And this pushes us back in the direction of internalism. Second, externalism seems susceptible to a version of Mackie’s argument from queerness. Desires and aims are familiar things, so it seems easy enough to imagine that claims about reasons are claims about relations between actions and desires or aims. But what would the relata in an external reasons statement be? Are we to imagine that a claim about reasons is a claim about a relation between an action and some independently existing value? This would be odd: as Mackie puts it, ‘‘if there were objective values then they would be entities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different than anything else in the universe’’ (1977, 38). For if such values existed, then it would be possible for a certain state of affairs to have ‘‘a demand for such-and-such an action somehow built into it’’ (1977, 40). And this, Mackie concludes, would be a decidedly odd property.

Instead, morality is based on the constitutive aims of action since this makes morality both non-optional and universal, capturing the advantages and avoiding the disadvantages of both internalism and externalism.

Paul Katsafanas. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. LXXXIII No. 3, November 2011, Deriving Ethics from Action: A Nietzschean Version of Constitutivism. Boston University.

So what’s special about constitutive aims? The constitutive aim’s standard of success differs from these other standards in that it is intrinsic to the activity in question. You can play a chess game without aiming to enjoy it, and a chess game is not necessarily defective if not enjoyed. But you can’t play a chess game without aiming to achieve checkmate, so a chess game is necessarily defective if it does not achieve checkmate. Thus, the interesting feature of constitutive aims is that they generate intrinsic standards of success. Put differently, they generate non-optional standards of success. So the important point about constitutive aims is just this: if action has a constitutive aim, then that aim will be present in every instance of action. Thus, it will give us a non-optional standard of assessment for action, a standard that applies merely in virtue of the fact that something is an action.15 Constitutivism therefore has several powerful advantages over other methods of justifying normative claims. Constitutivism generates nonoptional normative conclusions by relying on a very spare claim about the connection between aims and standards of assessment (Success). It has the benefits of externalism, namely the capacity to generate non-optional norms; but it avoids the disadvantages of externalism, namely the problems of practicality and queerness.