Monday, December 16, 2013

A problem for practical constitutivism

It is widely recognized among philosophers, and non-philosophers alike, that moral demands purport to be authoritative and normative. Accounting for that character of morality proved to be arduous, and has generated long-standing and ongoing debates. One option is to represent moral demands as urges that impel us to certain lines of conduct. Some philosophers have held that moral conduct is driven by passions and have thus represented its normativity as deeply rooted in the social and psychological nature of human beings. Following this route, Hobbes famously derived the compelling push of moral considerations from the desire of avoiding pain and death, which is according to him the most ingrained impulse in human psychology. From a slightly different angle Hume expounded the same point with reference to the sentiment of sympathy: human beings tend to be benevolent to each other and this character of the way in which they interact might well be the cement of civilization. On the other hand, others have acknowledged the significance of rational processes. We do things for reasons, they held, and sometimes the right thing to do is strongly supported by reasons we cannot refuse to take into account on pain of incoherence (among those philosophers typically figures Kant).

Over the years, the two approaches have originated distinct philosophical traditions of thought, now known as Humeanism and Kantianism about practical reason and morality. In the last couple of decades, the Humean view has been widely preferred among philosophers and scientists because it has appeared eminently suitable to account for the recent acquisitions in the field of neuroscience and experimental psychology. But now the pendulum is swinging back.

Some eminent contemporary scholars have proposed a new highly theoretical approach in order to justify the normativity of moral demands, the so called “constitutivism” about practical reason. Taking inspiration from the Kantian conception of the will, Christine Korsgaard points out that free rational agents, capable of reflectively detaching from present drives and urges, constitute themselves by deliberating on what to do. As far as we are committed to act freely, which is an inescapable fact about human condition (we have no choice, we must assess our actions on the base of reasons), we are also committed to the principle of moral agency. The kind of self-constitution achieved by reasoning is based on the principle of reasoning itself: the Categorical Imperative. Therefore, the relation between our constitution as free agents and the necessity to accomplish moral demands is internal and inescapable.

In his groundbreaking and provocative book, Agency and the Foundations of Ethics, Paul Katsafanas argues for placing constitutivism in a Nietzschean framework in order to overcome some pitfalls of Kantian approaches (such as how to account for bad actions, how to deal with the alleged empty formalism of the Kantian principle, and so on). My sketchy remarks point to a problem for constitutivism as it is depicted in Katsafanas’ book.

Inescapability and reason-providing constraints

Constitutivism, as Katsafanas defines it, holds that action has a constitutive aim, a basic structural feature which constitutes events as actions. Moreover, that aim is capable of generating standard of assessment able to play a crucial role in deriving justified normative claims from the standpoint of the agent. In Katsafanas’s words:

The constitutivist maintains that certain aims or standards have a privileged normative status precisely because they are inescapable. I hope to show that this is constitutivism’s core idea: the authority of universal normative claims arises from a certain form of inescapability (47)

If your actions are committed to satisfy an aim, and that aim is inescapable for you, i.e. is for you a practical necessity, it follows that all your actions are committed to fulfil that aim. If all your actions, as is maintained by Christine Korsgaard, are committed to self-constituting yourself as free agent, for example, you have no choice but to act in order to be a unified agent capable of being the author of his action instead of being an anonymous cause in a chain of anonymous natural causes (Korsgaard claims that you can’t act assuming that you’re not free because your actions would turn out to be natural events, that is, your actions would not be yours. It follows that you must presuppose freedom in order to be an author). The first task of the constitutivist strategy is therefore to individuate a conception of action suitable to yield a constitutive aim.

According to Katsafanas, the second step of the strategy is equally crucial. Once defined the constitutive aim of agency, we are still in need to derive normative claims from it. To put it bluntly, constitutivism needs to demonstrate that the constitutive aim is capable of generating reasons for action. This is not a simple task. One line of criticism against this possibility was stressed by David Enoch. He stated that inescapability per se does not provide any reasons. If I am committed inescapably to taking drugs, for example, this does not mean that taking drugs has a reason-providing status or that I can’t cease to take drugs if I decide to do so. However, according to Katsafanas, this criticism missed the point. It is not the bare fact that an agent inescapably does X that provides reasons for doing X, but the fact that he is aiming at X. The reason-providing status is to be find within the intentional character of actions which springs from the agent’s aims. Therefore, Katsafanas concludes,

It isn’t the inescapability that is reason-providing. The aim itself – any aim – is reason-providing. The inescapability is just a point about how ubiquitous the aim is, not about why it is reason-providing (57)

One assumption of such a thesis is that the reason-providing character endowed with normative constraining force is already there (ubiquitous) insofar as the agent aims intentionally at something. In my view, this claim cannot be true of all kind of activity, and certainly cannot be true of free agency.

The problem

One of the central character of intentional action is freedom. The assumption of freedom underlies the way we deliberate about what to do, and is part of the definition of “having a reason to act”. Whenever we deliberate about some course of action, we are committed to the presupposition of freedom, no matter what the concept of “reason” might contain in terms of substantive ends. Whether reasons are construed as desire-based or not, we must assume or endorse some element within the deliberative process (this was particularly emphasized by Kant, but I believe it can be framed to accommodate the Humean theory too), otherwise actions would not count as our own but as merely events, bodily movements guided by some external push or force.  

The thesis was readily accepted by constitutivists because it has appeared to be quite uncontroversial. Kant stressed the same point by saying that “we can act only under the idea of freedom”. However, I believe constitutivists have overlooked an unpleasant consequence of that assumption.

It seems to me that while Katsafanas is right in believing that ordinary aims provide reasons, this is not the case for constitutive aims. Part of the meaning of the fact that agency is inescapable is that we cannot decide not to act because our decision, for example to sit still in the chair, is nonetheless a clear case of action. In fact, playing chess, studying, sticking motionless, etc., are intentional activities in the broad sense that they are preceded by some form of decision, conscious or not. On the ground of the assumption deployed above we cannot regard agency as intentional in the same respect. We cannot deliberate on agency but solely on particular actions. We cannot make a decision that precedes agency because deciding is part of agency itself. This is simply another way to state the fact that the constitutive aim of action is ubiquitous. As a result, desires and reasons for agency do not enter the deliberative landscape: we must act in a way or another, we have no option, so we cannot deliberate about agency itself. And this in turn means that the constitutive aim of action, whatever it might be, cannot directly provide any normative reasons (at least in the relevant construal of “reason” as a consideration in favor of something and reached through deliberation).

If we assume that the distinctive character of aiming at something is part of the meaning of acting intentionally, we cannot derive reasons for action from agency itself intended as an inescapable intentional practice because we cannot address it intentionally. This does not mean of course that normativity cannot possibly flow from constitutive aims in some other relevant ways. In order to show this, constitutivists need to furnish an appropriate conception of “aiming at something” or a modified theory of reasons capable of satisfying the intentionality requirement. One difficulty is that concepts like “aim” and “reason for action” are highly ambiguous. Nonetheless, I believe that reflecting on them in more depth can shed light on how to account for practical normativity.

DELIBERATION by Aegis Strife

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