Humean and Kantian Constructivism

In “Coming to Terms with Contingency Humean Constructivism about Practical Reason” Sharon Street has an intramural debate with her fellow constructivist Christine Korsgaard.  Street is a Humean constructivist, while Korsgaard is a Kantian constructivist.   Street regards Kantian constructivism as antirealist (yet still objective) in the sense that values are attitude-dependent; but Korsgaard sees herself as a procedural realist.

“The procedural moral realist thinks that there are answers to moral questions because there are correct procedures for arriving at them.  But the substantive moral realist thinks that there are correct procedures for answering moral questions because there are moral truths or facts which exist independently of those procedures, and which those procedures track.” (Korsgaard. p. 36.)

Korsgaard thinks that there are objective moral facts that come from what it means to be a rational agent.  By contrast, a Humean constructivist thinks value facts will vary from agent to agent, depending on the agent’s contingent evaluative attitudes.  (For a Humean constructivist, an agent will have value facts, but it’s possible that that agent won’t have ‘moral’ facts, depending on their makeup.)  An easy way to distinguish the two views is that Kantians deny the possibility of ideally coherent Caligula—they deny that there can be an internally coherent agent with a reason to torture—while Humeans accept the possibility.

In constructing her argument, Korsgaard introduces practical identities.  Practical identities are various ways a person would describe himself in ways that he values.  For example, a person’s practical identities could be a philosopher, a father, a Muslim etc.  A douchebag would probably not be a practical identity.  Most of our identities are contingent: we might have been a Christian or a philosopher.   Without these identities, we would not have reasons to act, since these identities are what we value.

But the reason to conform to a particular practical identity must be done for some reason–otherwise we’d do it for no reason at all–and what better candidate than your practical identity of being human qua “a reflective animal who needs reasons to act and live”. (p. 121.)    So, all reasons are grounded in your valuing yourself as a human being and this moral identity is necessary, as opposed to all the other contingent practical identities.  For any reason, we can ask: What reason do you have to act on that reason?  The immediate danger is that this leads to the need for an infinite regress of reasons.  Korsgaard seems to be saying: we have to pick something or we’re off into a regress, so what better than our humanity.

“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. Since you cannot act without reasons and your humanity is the source of your reasons, you must value your humanity if you are to act at all.” (p. 123)

One problem is that it seems question-begging to say “your humanity is the source of your reason”.  For we can imagine an alien bee-like species that acts on reasons but ultimately values the queen and not it’s own bee-ity.

With that aside, Street thinks there is a more serious error when Korsgaard asks “What reason is there for conforming to a practical identity?” or, in reasons-talk, “What reason do I have to take something to be a reason?”  For Street, this is a malformed question, because in being a constructivist “the standards that determine one’s reasons are ultimately set by one’s own judgments about what count as reasons; and there are no standards apart from this: this is the rejection of realism” (Street. p. 8.)  Consequently, the question becomes equivalent to  “Do I have a reason (as judged apart from the standards that determine what counts as a reason) to take anything to be a reason?” (p. 9.), which is malformed.  In other words, Korsgaard is trying to answer a question that is illegitimate for a constructivist to ask.

Street notes that a different answer would be given in the dialectic with the realist, who doesn’t share the constructivist base.  The answer to the realist would be that there is no reason to take something as a reason.  This is because we do not choose our starting set of evaluative attitudes—they are merely given to us through evolution.  “… this starting point cannot itself be chosen for a reason, since there is no standpoint prior to agency from which one could do this. To put it another way, it is only causes, and not reasons, that can catapult one into agency.” (p. 16.)

In her book, Korsgaard tries to move from valuing one’s own humanity to valuing all of humanity.  In this way objectivity can be secured.  Korsgaard builds an analogy from Wittgenstein’s view that language can’t be private to argue that reasons can’t be private .  More specifically, she holds that reasons, by their very nature, must be public.  “To act on a reason is already, essentially, to act on a consideration whose normative force may be shared with others.” (p. 136.)  I’m not clear on how she gets from this view of public reasons to the objectivity of morality.  There seems to be a gigantic missing premise, but the only way I can make sense of it is to say that there can’t be a objective reason unless it is universally shared.  In which case, if the Nazi’s had killed off everyone then we’d have a universal and objective reason to kill Jews.

Korsgaard, Christine.  The Sources of Normativity.

Street, Sharon. Coming to Terms with Contingency.

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