Constitutivism and the Authority of Morality

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Philosophy


Constitutivism - the view that practical reasons are grounded in constitutive standards of action - is one of the leading theories in the explanation of practical normativity. But there is also disagreement about its motivations and ambitions, and challenges to its basic commitments. In view of this, I will argue that constitutivism is both a coherent position, and that it is preferable to competitors - especially realism - because it provides a compelling explanation of the authority of morality.

Notice, we may find it unintelligible when someone admits that torturing animals (say) is immoral but engages in this activity uninhibited. Examples like this support the view that that part of what it means for an action to be immoral is that we always have a reason not to do it - and often an overriding one. Reasons are considerations that can guide and therefore motivate us. The agent's failure to be affected at all by a consideration which she acknowledges to be her reason is what we find strange in the example above. She is either being insincere, or she does not possess moral concepts.

Why expect the mere recognition that an action is immoral to be capable of moving us not to do it? I argue that we cannot make progress with this question if we assume, with realists, that our reasons are conceptually independent of our desires. But now we have a new worry. Moral reasons seem to apply to all agents. How can that be the case if our reasons are always grounded in some antecedent concern of ours? Korsgaard's "Kantian" constitutivism (for example, 1996) is promising here. She argues that distinctively moral standards (indeed, all standards of practical reason) just are constitutive standards of action. This explains why we always care about acting morally, and so why the immorality of an action is always a reason not to do it: having moral aims is a condition of practical deliberation and hence acting for reasons at all.

I will develop this framework in two ways. First, I will defend the claim that constitutive features of action - whatever they are - can be normative. Enoch argues that within the constitutivist framework even if we cannot understand the question "Why be moral?" when asked by someone who wants to be an agent, we can understand the question "Why be an agent?". So, the question of whether we have reason to be agents remains - and with it, the question of how we have moral reasons, since Enoch thinks we only have these if we have reason to be agents. I will show that, properly understood, constitutivism has resources to respond to this objection. Second, I will address recent attempts to show that action has some set of constitutive standards in particular - and importantly, standards that have distinctively moral content. I will give particular attention to Korsgaard's (1996) widely criticized argument that we must care about not only our own "humanity", but the the humanity of all, as a condition of our agency. I will examine which, if any, of Korsgaard's main insights can be preserved and extended as part of a new argument for her original conclusion.


10 25 50