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In Which My Metaethical Intuitions Have Finally Found a Home

Street, Sharon. "Constructivism About Reasons", in Shafer-Landau, Russ (ed). Oxford Studies in Metaethics, Vol. 3 (Oxford: Clarendon, 2008), pp. 207-245.*

[*] For those interested: The paper should be read along with her important paper, "A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value", Phil. Studies 127:1 (Jan. 2006), pp. 109-166.   Of course, there has been much discussion of Steet's "Dilemma" paper since it first appeared. For an important recent defense of Street's dilemma, see Fraser, Benjamin James. "Evolutionary Debunking Arguments and the Reliability of Moral Cognition", Phil. Studies (forthcoming). The penultimate draft can be found here.


Angra Mainyu said…
Hi, EA

I find Street's constructivism intriguing and some of its features, appealing, though I see some potential difficulties (I'm not saying it's false, though. I'm undecided at this point).

One of the potential difficulties, in my view, is linked to the issue of ideally coherent eccentrics (ICE), as she calls them in her paper "In Defense of Future Tuesday Indifference: Ideally Coherent Eccentrics and the Contingency of What Matters".

Part of Street's reply to the case of the ideal Caligula (Lesson 7 in her paper; I'm considering a Humean type of constructivism) is that one needs to put aside linguistic intuitions about strictly moral reasons, which may not be the same as overall normative reasons. She seems to suggest separating overall reasons from moral reasons.

In her (earlier, 2006) paper "A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value", her argument is against the existence of what she calls "evaluative facts or truths" independent of all our evaluative attitudes, which would include (according to the examples in that paper) what's morally right or morally wrong, or morally good or morally bad, if such facts were so independent.

So, in light of the considerations about ICE, and morality/reasons externalism, I think we may consider the following options:

1. Judgments about what is morally good or bad, immoral, etc., are true or false independently of all of our evaluative attitudes. Those are evaluative facts or truths, so realism about value (as Street defines it in her 2006 paper) is true.

2. Judgments about what is morally good or bad, immoral, etc., are true or false independently of all of our evaluative attitudes. However, moral facts or truths are not evaluative facts or truths.

3. Judgments about what is morally good or bad, morally wrong, morally obligatory, are not true or false independently of all of our evaluative attitudes.

Option 3. has the problem of ICE like the IC Caligula, or the aliens that hunt humans for sport, etc.), who would plausibly not be morally good, regardless it seems of anyone's evaluative attitudes. Whether their actions would be immoral, or they would be non-moral agents (like, say, a shark or a crocodile, but smarter) is another matter, but 3. appears implausible to me.

Option 1. is incompatible with the conclusions of the Darwinian Dilemma, and it seems to me with constructivism.

So, it seems to me we're left with option 2, under constructivism.

That would still seem to (plausibly) suggest a tracking account of morality (leaving aside some kind of skepticism, or some kind of language-relativism about morality), and in any event, moral truths would be independent of anyone's evaluative attitudes, even if normative truths would not. I don't know if this is problematic. maybe in the end it's not a problem at all, but rather elucidating. But I find the matter interesting.
exapologist said…
Hi Angra,

Thanks for your (characteristically) thoughtful comments. I've long had the intuitions that (i) we have objectively weighty prima facie moral reasons for acting, given our fundamental species-indexed evaluative judgements, and that (ii) the proper answer to the further question, "why these fundamental judgements?" is "that's just how we're made". Thus, the core ideas of her account that I find plausible are that (i) our fundamental evaluative judgements are shaped by selective pressures that are contingent. But that (ii) given a set of basic evaluative judgements so selected, categorical reasons for acting (for members of that species) fall out from these. I find this species-indexed account of constructivism -- a Korsgaard-meets-proper functionalism account, if you will -- to be highly plausible. No doubt there is some variation among members of our species regarding fundamental evaluative judgements, and I believe Street agrees. But I find this plausible as well.

Angra Mainyu said…

Thank you for your explanation,

I tend to agree with your intuitive assessments (a few years ago, I wouldn't have agreed with the "species-indexed" part, but I've come to think that only rarely the intra-species differences in our evaluative judgments are fundamental).

So, I too find features (i) and (ii) plausible, and so what Street calls a "Humean" kind of constructivism – and in particular, the species-indexed subtype of constructivism you suggest – looks like a very interesting metaethical alternative to me.

I'm just undecided about a couple of other features of constructivist accounts, but several key ideas look promising to me.

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