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October 28, 2013


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Hi Julia (if I may),

This is super interesting stuff! My initial reaction is that the way your constructivism (as I'm understanding it) places affect and valuing at the center of agency makes it look very promising in a way that is relatively unique to views of this sort.

I was wondering if you would be willing to say a bit more about how such a view as yours will get the substantivity which sets it apart from a view like Street's. So, for example, how does a substantive norm like benevolence fall out of the requirements of agency, regardless of an agent's broader psychology?

Preston, thanks very much for the comment. You have asked *the* tough question, but here goes...I have a view of agency in which a key component is evaluation. I think that early sentimentalists, and Hume, had such a conception because they held that meta-cognitive processes were crucial to agency -- and a particular sort of meta-cognitive process to moral agency. As we move through the word we are assessing things, people, and ourselves. Hume had the idea that in order to do this properly, so as to rule out personal biases and prejudices, we needed to assess from the proper perspective (the general point of view). His arguments for this were not that great, really -- he argued that we needed to do this so that we could effectively communicate our assessments with each other. This seems true, but not enough. It seems to me that as we move through the world making assessment, and some of those assessments involve other people and ourselves, we are engaging in behavior that underlies our 'critical practices.' Those practices will vary between normative domains. In the case of morality, Hume believed that what guided these practices was a norm of sympathetic engagement with others. He did not mean that a morally good person needed to actually feel sympathy with others, rather, a morally good person recognizes that sympathy is called for and that recognition has an impact on her judgements. Now, at this point I thought I might make use of the idea of practical necessity, and draw analogies between Hume's strategy for dealing with skepticism in the early books of the Treatise, and what he could have done in the Third book: there are some beliefs, and maybe some attitudes, that are crucial to effective practical deliberation in different contexts. At a very deep level, skepticism is a problem, just not a practical problem. The same could be said for morality -- be can be skeptical regarding a robustly real basis for moral norms or reasons, yet committed to using them or being guided by them. I confess that I am not really happy with this because it strikes me as not deep enough. But I'm still thinking about it.
Another possible avenue is to make an argument that the general point of view just is the right corrective standard in virtue of the fact that keeps critical practices consistent. This would require much more argument, of course.

Hi Julia,

thanks for these interesting posts. I would like, if I may, to pick up on something you say above in your reply to Preston. Namely, the following remarks:

"In the case of morality, Hume believed that what guided these practices was a norm of sympathetic engagement with others. He did not mean that a morally good person needed to actually feel sympathy with others, rather, a morally good person recognizes that sympathy is called for and that recognition has an impact on her judgements."

As I was reading that bit, the question I was asking was the following: what is the status, the origin, and/or the nature of the norm of sympathetic engagement on this type of Humean view? Is it that we, or the overwhelming majority of us, have a basic attitude, or calm passion, that has as its content the approval of sympathetic engagement with others?

But then you directly go on to write that "at this point I thought I might make use of the idea of practical necessity, and draw analogies between Hume's strategy for dealing with skepticism in the early books of the Treatise, and what he could have done in the Third book: there are some beliefs, and maybe some attitudes, that are crucial to effective practical deliberation in different contexts."

This sounds a little like a line of argument Michael Smith is pursuing in his recent work, according to which being robustly able to fully exercise both (i) sensitivity to evidence in our beliefs and (ii) instrumental rationality in our actions requires having certain "coherence-inducing desires" that are stronger than any rationality-undermining desires might be. Smith then argues (for example in "Agents and Patients") that the content of those "coherence-inducing" desires matches up with what are widely recognized as moral duties. I was wondering if you had a similar type of argument in mind.

And, if so, then my further question would be how you think of the need (so to speak) to be "effective", as you put it, in our practical deliberation. Is that something your account assumes that we all have a basic or innate desire for, or are you thinking in Korsgaardian terms, whereby we are all, in some respect, practically committed to thinking of ourselves as effective practical deliberators?

Again, very interesting posts!

Thanks Sven, those are all great questions. Hume himself thought that sympathy was universal, though it came in varying strengths and degrees amongst individuals. But I don't want to go that way, at least as far as grounding the norms. I *may* rethink this a bit, since one significant worry I had for this approach was that it seemed *very* subject to the contingency worry, and I'm thinking contingency isn't as troubling as I first thought. But, even if I decide to return to this later I would want to develop a deeper analysis and not simply appeal to the universality of sympathy. Further, sympathy is not actually universal -- there may be some very extreme sorts of psychopaths who lack it, for example. So, the project that I see myself engaged in is like Michael Smith's project in that I think that there are certain commitments we have in virtue of desires for effective agency: I talk about effective agency because I believe that someone can be an agent but lack crucial skills that undermine her effectiveness: for example, someone might lack perspective taking skills which make it very difficult to determine the sorts of things that other people desire, or find disturbing. They are unable to perform what I call 'proxy' evaluations, or evaluations from another's perspective. These are crucial to successful practical deliberation. And, along Korsgaardian lines, as you suggest we are practically committed to effective agency.

Many thanks for your reply, Julia! It makes me want to ask a follow-up question, namely this one. And this is, in a way, a sharpening of one of the questions I asked above: What, I am curious to know, is the status and nature of the practical commitment to efficient agency that you have in mind?

It seems to me (and this depends on how I myself think of Hume's view) that depending on what you say about this question, this could either take you away from a Humean view and take you into a more broadly Kantian direction, or else firmly establish your view as being of a clearly Humean kind.

The latter possibility, as I think of things, would be the case in which you'd say that we have a certain feeling or sentiment (which may be calm or violent) that makes us partial to the idea of being efficient agents. Perhaps it is part of our basic feelings or sentiments that we like to think of ourselves as effective agents. On that basis you might then develop an argument, which would remain distinctively Humean, for the requirement to development sensitivity to others' perspectives.

If you said, in contrast, that our commitment to effective agency does not arise out of any feeling or sentiment, and that it is either (i) a basic direction of our "will" - or that (ii) it is perhaps something that thinking of ourselves as agents forces us to accept - then the type of constructivism you're developing would seem to push in the direction of a more Kantian type of view. Kant himself says that some desires arise within a "higher faculty of desire", or "practical reason", and have feelings and sentiments as their effects rather than as their causes. If the desire for effective agency were of this kind, then the view would look much more Kantian than Humean in nature.

Anyway, thanks again.

Hi Sven, thanks for the follow-up -- that's really helpful to me, actually. I don't want to be wedded to all that Hume said, but my picture is the first you mention. The reason is that I don't think that we can actually get much substantive just out of thinking of ourselves as agents. Having said that, there is a lot about Kantian constructivism that I like, and one goal for this project is to sharpen what I see to be the difference between a Humean (broadly speaking) and a Kantian perspective. What I like about the Kantian perspective is that it promises normativity that is free of the contingency that I discussed in the main post. Now, however, I am thinking that contingency really might not be such a problem. But another related virtue of the Kantian approach -- or, at least, as I envision it could be developed -- is that it avoids relativity. And I just don't see that happening with the view that I am proposing. The relativity may be at a fairly high level (what social beings are committed to, for example), but it is still there. And, I take it, the Kantian account can avoid this precisely because there is no reliance on norms that have emerged from desires that we have as social beings. I view this as a major advantage for the Kantian approach...if it were to work in other ways.

Thanks for this second reply, Julia!

Thanks, Julia!

Hi Julia,

What an interesting set of ideas. Thanks to your post I got around to re-reading Korsgaard's stimulating paper on the general point of view and that provoked a(n at best) half baked question: Will your constructivism aim to ground norms of virtue and vice, moral right and wrong, or both?

On Korsgaard's reading, it looks like the general point of view is normative for love/sympathy but that this because love/sympathy constitutively hones in on quality of character (virtue and vice). You might argue, along somewhat similar lines, that our need for emotional regulation pressures us to form *character* judgments that are disciplined by the general point of view.

I guess that thought leaves me with several questions:

(1) Do you plan to run your constructivist account to ground virtue and vice judgments? If so, how would this square with your independent account of virtue and vice? It seems like they might conflict and that you would be left thinking of the constructivist account as something that yields a practical justification for having false views about virtue in some cases?

(2) Do you plan to run the constructivist account to ground judgments of moral right and wrong? If so, will those be partially determined by character judgments?

Hi Brad, thanks for those really interesting questions. My initial idea was to think of it as grounding very basic norms used to justify further judgments of both virtue/vice and right/wrong -- so I didn't view the two as posing a tension. I actually view the Humean approach as supporting norms central to consequentialism -- those of benevolence. Then we work up from there. I don't view the virtues of ignorance material as being incompatible with this. This is because if those traits are really virtues, on my theory the justification is instrumental. Were you thinking of the virtues of ignorance when you raised question #1?

I was thinking more about the context-relative aspect of your view, e.g. the Mutor's example from your book (I am commenting on an APA paper on your work and that has that aspect of your view at the front of my mind).

I guess I was thinking that, in effect, your account of virtue makes a trait's being a virtue independent of facts about contingent human nature (which may well fix what it is actually virtuous for us to do), while the humean constructivist story probably would tell us that we should disapprove of, or despise, people whose virtue traits would be vices in us (e.g. Mutors).

If that is right then the constructivist story could help explain away, and practically justify, intuitons about the Mutors being vicious, but it would not show that those intuitions are true. And this would be an example of how the two accounts of virtue would come apart.

Thanks Brad, that's a good point. To mitigate the relativism what I am going to try to do is make the contingency more general -- with respect to social creatures, not simply human beings. But also, since the constructivist is trying to extract very basic norms, it is those that would be used in any justification -- and any account of what makes a trait a virtue. Even in the Mutors case. So, I don't think that they do come apart. However, I may rethink what I say about that case in the future.

Thanks for the response, Julia. Makes sense, and makes me more interested to see the details when they are in print!

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