Monday, July 18, 2005

Introductory Materials

[Guest post by Pat Smith]

Hello, everyone. I’d like to start off by thanking Richard for letting me to guest blog and by pointing out that Richard is totally, totally wrong. But I am getting ahead of myself. We'll get to that later in the week.

In my humble opinion, the rise of Neo-Kantian constructivism is the most exciting development in ethics in the 20th century (and, um, the 21st so far). So, I hope I can convey that excitement as well as what I think is deeply right about it. I also apologize to those more knowledgeable if some of the stuff I start off with is review,

Neo-Kantian constructivism began with John Rawls and his work leading up to and including A Theory of Justice, but his influence in this regard isn’t reducible to his published work on the matter. Rather, it was his role as graduate adviser that lead to his views on Kantian ethics being developed and moved more fully into the academic public eye. Barbara Herman, Onora O’Neil, and Christine Korsgaard were all students of Rawls who have been instrumental in refining (and making their own) the view of Kant you can find in Rawls’ work.

But, as way of introduction, I want to discuss what is required of a moral theory. I think a normative moral theory has at least three responsibilities (Sources of Normativity 12-18):

1. A moral theory must account for the certain facts of our psychology and our moral experience. That is, if a person thinks that something is wrong, they take it as a reason not to do it and are generally motivated not to do it (this isn’t to take sides in internalism/externalism debate, which is an argument over the conceptual connection between being motivated to do X and thinking that X is the right thing to do). Furthermore, morality is often demanding. It asks us to do things we don’t want to do, even unto death. These psychological and conceptual facts require explanation. Let us call this the requirement of explanatory adequacy.

2. A moral theory must also provide justification to those who are actually acting. If a moral theory can explain why we act morally from a third person perspective but are simply unacceptable (or in some way incoherent) to the person who is trying to figure out what to do have to be discarded. We need to not only know what we think the right thing to do is and why we are motivated by that thought, but also that we really ought to do it. By addressing us as agents deciding what to do and justifying our normative beliefs/actions, we can say that an account is normatively adequate.

3. This gives rise to what Korsgaard calls the requirement of transparency. That is, if a moral theory is explanatorily dependent on the source of morality being hidden from us, then it fails as a normative account. Suppose you have a moral theory that says, "Morality is simply a hidden way for those in power to keep power." Well, if we come to believe this account, then our own commitment to acting morally would be weakened. If so, then something has gone very wrong if you want to account for the normativity of morality.

These will be important later on because I think that consequentalism fails on counts 2 and 3, and I hope to demonstrate that later in the week. Next up, Neo-Kantian constructivism defined and defended. I know you all can’t wait.

Recommended Reading:
1. John Rawls: A Theory of Justice and Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy (the Kant chapters)
2. Christine Korsgaard: The Sources of Normativity
3. Barbara Herman: The Practice of Moral Judgment
4. Onora O'Neil: Constructions of Reason


  1. Pat,

    I wonder if you might say a word about what it would take for a theory to fail to satisfy the 2nd point.

  2. Pat,

    That helps, thanks.

    I look forward to the next installation,



Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.