Julia returns this week with another post on a very important topic. I hope you'll all join me in welcoming Julia back for a second round!
I’d like to thank everyone who responded to my first post –
I got some helpful comments, and tips, and certainly ideas for things that I
need to expand on. My second post
is about another project, Humean constructivism. I became interested in this project as a result of my
interest in Hume’s moral psychology and his account of virtue. This lead me to an interest in his
account of agency and evaluation, which in turn led me to think about what sort
of meta-ethical views could really be extracted from Hume. So, when I talk about ‘Humean’
constructivism I am not talking about what I think Hume actually believed. I think his texts support a variety of
readings. Rather, I am talking
about a position that is inspired by Hume’s moral philosophy and draws on certain
key features of his understanding of moral psychology. Aside from this, my interest in
constructivism more broadly has developed out of a real concern with the
problem of normativity. Realism in
the form of naturalism doesn’t seem to get at normativity, and non-naturalism,
well, it just seems utterly mysterious to me. Nihilism (of the sort that Richard Joyce develops) seems
really attractive in some ways, but, I
would like it to be the case that
nihilism is false. Nihilism is so
worrisome, however, precisely because it is a view that holds our moral
practices up to a rigorous, naturalistic, scrutiny. The sort of moral norm ‘exceptionalism’ non-natural realist
views are committed to seems, in this light, a sort of wishful thinking. I also
think expressivism has really serious problems. Basically, because I think that there are some moral claims
that are true (in some robust manner), and I am very unhappy with the
alternatives, I’ve been exploring constructivism.
Hume’s brand of constructivism has generally been understood
as formal, that is, as simply
articulating an account of what it is to value or desire, but without making
any substantive commitments about the ‘appropriate’ content of values and
desires. For Hume, it is thought,
that is where the story ends since Hume is non-committal about what people
ought to value or desire. Sharon
Street, for example, has developed a formal version of Humean constructivism. Kant, on the other hand, if one views
him as a constructivist at all, is not neutral on this issue. Kantian constructivism is substantive in that it starts with an
account of valuing and then extracts from that account substantive norms (such
as respect for other rational beings).
My project would develop the Humean picture as a substantive form of constructivism which would be committed to some
substantive norms (of benevolence). This is an alternative to Street’s purely
formal version of Humean constructivism.
It may be that the project I have in mind is best understood as a form
of constitutivism in that I believe that the norms are grounded in agency, but
it is a version of agency that places at its center valuing and evaluating.
to distinguishing Humean moral agency from Kantian is the distinction between
self-regulation of the sort endorsed
by sentimentalism, and self-legislation.
The Humean can accommodate a good deal of the Kantian’s intuitions about the
significance of reason in moral reflection. The sentimentalist holds that self-regulation is crucial to
moral agency and self-regulations of a particular sort – it involves rational
reflection on one’s affective as well as one’s cognitive states and the
acceptance or rejection of those states on the basis of that reflection. But it is not self-legislation since
the agent does not put herself under ‘the moral law’ except in the most
derivative of senses. On the Humean
approach, the norms that regulate reflection are epistemic but also affective. There
is enormous social pressure on agents to regulate their emotions in such a way
that the emotions provide effective motivation, but fall short of being
socially destructive. Effective self-regulation requires empathy and
sympathy. There are varying definitions of these terms in the psychology
literature, but the basic distinction I develop is between empathy as a
sensitivity to the viewpoint of another (and that may involve mere emotional
contagion or a more developed cognitive exercise of putting oneself in the
position of someone else) and sympathy as the tendency to care about the
well-being of others. Both ideas
are found in Hume. On a
substantive reading of Humean constructivism, it is the caring about the
well-being of others that provides substance to moral norms. This is just the briefest sketch of a
view that I’ve developed in some forthcoming papers that go into the importance
of meta-cognitive reflection in Humean accounts of agency.
major worry that the Humean faces is that of the contingency problem.
This is a problem that plagues accounts of moral norms that appeal to
human nature. This is because any
particular feature of human nature arose contingently, as a product of, for
example, blind evolutionary forces.
This means that human nature could have been otherwise. It would seem to follow, then, that
morality could have been otherwise, and this runs up against a very strong
feature of moral phenomenology – the seeming necessity of moral truths. This is the problem for Humean constructivism
that I’ve been thinking about most recently.
way to go is to hold that we, at least in terms of the phenomenology, confuse
metaphysical necessity or semantic necessity with psychological necessity. If I were pursuing a purely Humean
project I might take this alternative more seriously than I currently do. It seems to allow for a very nice
analogy between what Hume does in the first two books of the Treatise and his project in the third
book. Skepticism about moral
truths could be handled in a similar manner by appealing to something like
natural beliefs: beliefs that
cannot be abandoned in the exercise of practical reason.
another way to go (and is not incompatible with the first way), is to abandon
the worry about contingency.
Sharon Street does this in her defense of formal constructivism. I also think that there are ways of
making a strong case that contingency isn’t as big a problem as it has been
made out to be. For example,
non-naturalists view their view to be superior precisely because there is no
contingency worry, and they tend to rely heavily on drawing analogies between
ethics and mathematics. But the
force of those analogies can be challenged, and have been challenged. Some writers such as Alan Baker, Mark
Lange, and Roy Sorensen, in writing on mathematics, have discussed the example
of mathematical accidents and/or coincidences [Alan Baker, “Mathematical
Accidents and the End of Explanation,” unpublished manuscript; Mark Lange,
“What are Mathematical Coincidences (and Why does it Matter)?,” Mind
119 (April 2010), 307-340; Roy Sorensen, “Mathematical Coincidences,”
For example, Baker defines a mathematical accident in the following way
“A universal, true mathematical statement is accidental if it lacks a unified, non-disjunctive proof.” If a proof is purely disjunctive then
it is taken to be shallow – it doesn’t provide a good explanation of the
statement. Putative examples
include the Goldbach Conjecture, the claim that all even numbers greater than 2
are expressible as the sum of two primes.
Support for the claim is provided through “many billions of examples”.
If true, it is necessarily true, but also inexplicably true. In mathematics as
well, explanation seems important to having a satisfactory understanding of the
truths of mathematics. This
insight, it seems to me, can be exploited in meta-ethics to hold that necessity
doesn’t guarantee an end to a satisfactory account: and for non-naturalism, in particular, one of the worries
that I have is that appeals to necessity don’t satisfy – we still are in want
of a deeper understanding. So,
imagine a different sort of case, logical fatalism: there is exactly one
possible world. There is no
distinction between contingent truths and necessary truths. Given logical fatalism, it follows that
if ‘pain is bad’ is true, it is necessarily true, yet this doesn’t settle the
uneasiness or worry. We can still
ask for a richer explanation of why pain is bad. So, if necessity is used to try to stop further inquiry, to
make such inquiry irrelevant, it doesn’t work. It might be that there is a tendency to slip from think of
something as necessary to thinking as ‘essential’ — so if pain is necessarily bad then it is part of pain’s
essence that it is bad. But Kit
Fine’s work shows that this would be a mistake.
of this makes me more likely to view the appeal to necessity as not actually
being all that important, and at least one thing I can stop worrying about. Any thoughts?