I understand metaethical constructivism* as the family of theories according to which
1. Our moral discourse is cognitive.
2. Some moral statements are true.
3. Moral statements are true or false in virtue of evaluative attitudes.
If this is right, then here's how constructivism relates to the other big "metaethical families":
1. Expressivism. Constructivism and expressivism agree that evaluative attitudes are what ground morality. But unlike expressivism, constructivism says that our moral discourse is cognitive. So whereas expressivism says that our moral discourse directly expresses evaluative attitudes, constructivism says that our moral discourse describes evaluative attitudes.
Relatedly, constructivism differs from expressivism in that, for expressivists, I always use moral concepts to express my evaluative attitudes, whereas for constructivists, I may also use moral concepts to describe others' evaluative attitudes. (More on this below.)
2. Error Theory. Constructivism and error theory agree that our moral discourse is cognitive. But unlike error theory, constructivism says that some moral statements are true.
3. Realism. Finally, constructivism and realism agree that our moral discourse is cognitive, and that some moral statements are true. But they disagree about the nature of moral truth: whereas realism says that moral statements are true or false in virtue of mind-independent moral facts, constructivism says that moral statements are true or false in virtue of mind-dependent moral facts, namely facts about evaluative attitudes.
Technically speaking, then, constructivism is a kind of antirealism. But since constructivism agrees with realism that moral facts are real (albeit mind-dependent), some constructivists prefer to avoid the potentially misleading label 'antirealism'. Korsgaard, for example, calls her view 'procedural realist' instead of 'antirealist', and she calls her opponents' view 'substantive realist' instead of 'realist.'
I should note that this is a very expansive understanding of constructivism; it makes constructivism a much larger family of theories than we might have thought. For example, it means that constructivists can disagree about:
1. Which evaluative attitudes are relevant to morality?
Constructivists have a lot of options here. They can say that the relevant attitudes are moral intuitions, moral beliefs, desires, preferences, aims, plans, choices, and much more. Some pick even more exotic options than these. For example, Rawls picks considered moral judgments. Korsgaard picks reflective endorsement. Street picks takings-to-be-a-reason. Velleman picks judgments-about-what-it-makes-sense-for-one-to-do-in-causal/psychological-terms. And so on.
2. Does morality depend on actual evaluative attitudes or ideal (i.e., fully informed) evaluative attitudes? And if the latter, what does it mean for one to be fully informed?
Most constructivists opt for the latter option here. Rawls says that the moral facts are determined by our considered moral judgments in reflective equilibrium. And in his political theory he idealizes by making people rational and self-interested and ignorant about who they are. Korsgaard says that morality is normative iff we would still see it as justified if we understood it completely. And she argues that humanity has value not because we actually value it, but rather because we would value it if we learned what our present values commit us to. Street argues that we have reason to do something iff it figures in our maximally coherent set of reasons, i.e. the set of reasons that we would take ourselves to have if we made our current judgments about reasons coherent. (Although she has a complicated justification for not calling this an ideal-judgment theory.) And so on.
Generally speaking, the appeal of ideal-judgment constructivism is that it helps us avoid the unintuitive implications of saying that we should do what we actually value doing. (After all, some of us value some pretty crazy things.) The problem is that constructivists have a hard time specifying the ideal conditions without presupposing any values, e.g., the value of knowledge, or consistency, or simplicity, etc. (As many commentators have pointed out, Rawls is especially egregious on this score, since he presupposes reasonableness in his supposedly neutral political theory.)
Usually, constructivists try to get around this problem by arguing that valuing knowledge, or consistency, or simplicity, etc. is constitutive of rational agency. So for example, Street argues that valuing means-end rationality is constitutive of rational agency: if someone says that (a) she takes herself to have reason to eat tacos, (b) she needs to go to Taco Bell in order to eat tacos, but (c) she has no reason whatsoever to go to Taco Bell, then she is failing to be a rational agent at all (as opposed to merely making a mistake about what her reasons are). Kant, Dreier, Railton, Velleman, and many others make arguments along these lines too. The upshot of these arguments is that every rational agent values knowledge, consistency, simplicity, or whatever, and therefore every rational agent values doing what she would value doing if fully informed (in the relevant sense).
3. Whose evaluative attitudes are relevant to morality?
Most self-proclaimed constructivists are internalists, i.e., they say that you should do something iff you value doing it. But a constructivist could also be an externalist, i.e., she could also say that you should do something iff someone else values your doing it. This means that constructivism includes, e.g., divine command theory, which says that you should do something iff God values your doing it, as well as cultural relativism, which says that you should do something iff your culture values your doing it.
This is mainly what I had in mind when I said that this way of understanding constructivism makes it more expansive than we might have thought. I think most philosophers restrict constructivism to what I call internalist constructivism. And I can understand why: what I call externalist constructivism occupies a strange metaethical middle ground that seems not-quite-constructivist and not-quite-realist. On one hand, these theories share the constructivist intuition that value requires a valuer; but on the other hand, they share the realist intuition that value comes from something external to you. Ultimately, this is a terminological issue, and I could see it going either way. But on balance, I think these middle-ground theories have more in common with internalist constructivism than with realism, so I choose to call them a kind of constructivism too.
4. Is there something that you have to value if you value anything at all? And if so, what is it?
This is the question that separates what Street calls 'substantive constructivism' (or 'Kantian constructivism') from what she calls 'formalist constructivism' (or 'Humean constructivism'). Substantivists say that there is something that you have to value if you value anything at all. For example, Korsgaard says that you have to value humanity if you value anything at all. Formalists, in contrast, say that there is nothing that you have to value if you value anything at all. Street is an example of a formalist. (Well, almost: she thinks that you have to value taking the means to your ends if you value anything at all. She also thinks that you have to value constructivism itself, i.e., you have to affirm constructivism as a metaethical theory, insofar as it has normative implications.)
The virtue of substantivism is that it makes morality objective, in the sense that you have certain moral duties independently of what you value in particular (so long as you value something). The problem is that substantivism is hard to establish, especially a substantivism that gives you a robust set of moral duties independently of what you value in particular. And as a result, most (plausible) substantivisms are still quite formalist in spirit. For example, Sartre and Beauvoir are substantivists in the sense that they say that you have to value freedom if you value anything at all. But arguably, this is compatible with your doing anything at all, e.g. lying, killing, stealing, etc.
(To be clear, I don't mean to imply that Sartre and Beauvoir are full-blown constructivists. They don't seem to take a stand on the semantics of moral discourse, for example. But I do think that they come pretty close, and that we should include them in these discussions far more than we do.)
5. Do you have to value anything at all?
Korsgaard says the answer is no; she says that you can fail to value anything at all (even though she personally doubts that you do). Sartre, on the other hand, says that the answer is yes; he says that everyone has to value something.
Of course, how constructivists answer this question will depend on how they answer these other questions. For example, part of the reason why Korsgaard thinks you can fail to value anything at all is that, for her, the relevant attitude is reflective endorsement, which involves stepping back from your desires, asking if you endorse them, and saying yes. Arguably, this is something that you can fail to do. In contrast, part of the reason why Sartre thinks that you have to value something is that, for him, the relevant attitude is choice (if we can call that an attitude). And for Sartre, this is something that no rational agent can escape.
Notice, by the way, how this question interacts with the previous one: If a substantivist says 'yes' to this question, then she can claim an even greater kind of objectivity for morality than before: she can say that every rational agent has certain moral duties, period. Once again, Sartre and Beauvoir are good examples of this: they say that you have to choose freedom if you choose anything at all, and then they say that you have to choose something. Therefore, they might conclude, you have to choose freedom.
6. What kind of normativity are we talking about here?
Stepping back from constructivism about morality: I think that one of the main sources of confusion in discussions about constructivism is that different constructivists are talking about different kinds of normativity. Rawls is a constructivist about morality and political theory. Korsgaard is a constructivist about normativity and morality (insofar as she thinks that morality is normative). Street and Velleman are constructivists about reasons. And so on. (In this sense it might even be misleading to call constructivism a family of metaethical theories, as opposed to, say, a family of metanormative theories, or even something more general still.)
This is important, because one could be a constructivist about one kind of normativity but not about another. For example, one could be a constructivist about reasons but a realist about morality.
One could also be a constructivist about one kind of normativity and then a different kind of constructivist about another. For example, one could think that one's reasons depend on one's own values, one's moral duties depends on one's culture's values, one's legal duties depends on one's fellow citizens' values, and so on. (I actually think that something like this is closest to the truth.)
* I'm not attempting to capture the way that everybody uses the term 'constructivism' here. (I actually think that this would be futile, since everyone uses it differently.) Instead, I'm merely attempting to capture the way that I use it. I think that at least some philosophers also use it this way; but more importantly, I think that using it this way makes constructivism a clear alternative to expressivism, error theory, and realism, and it also explains why people as different as Kant, Rawls, Korsgaard, Velleman, Street, etc. all count as constructivists. (But see the last section for a qualification about what kind of constructivist they are.)
What do you think? Does this capture the way you use 'constructivism,' or does it at least come close to doing that? Does it make sense? If this is right, what else might constructivists disagree about?
-- Jeff Sebo