Metaethics and Its Discontents: A Case Study of Korsgaard

In Carla Bagnoli (ed.), Moral Constructivism: For and Against. Cambridge University Press (forthcoming)
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The maturing of metaethics has been accompanied by widespread, but relatively unarticulated, discontent that mainstream metaethics is fundamentally on the wrong track. The malcontents we have in mind do not simply champion a competitor to the likes of noncognitivism or realism; they disapprove of the supposed presuppositions of the existing debate. Their aim is not to generate a new theory within metaethics, but to go beyond metaethics and to transcend the distinctions it draws between metaethics and normative ethics and between cognitivism and non-cognitivism. In our experience, the differences with traditional metaethics go deep enough that it can feel as if two different paradigms are talking past each other. We attempt to bring clarity and focus to this rather inchoate debate by simultaneously articulating the general issues involved and engaging in a detailed case study of one of the prominent representatives of this discontent, Christine Korsgaard. We argue that Korsgaard fails to go beyond metaethics–indeed, fails even to provide a theory within metaethics. Our strategy for showing this is to argue that her claims are compatible with both cognitivism and non-cognitivism. We have argued elsewhere that her distinctive claims are compatible with realism. Here we focus on the crucial role that claims about agency and the will seem to play her in work and, according to our interpretation, in her attempts to go beyond mainstream metaethics. We show in detail that these claims are actually compatible with non-cognitivism. Though our discussion often focuses on her work in particular, it has clear implications for other attempts to obviate the debates of traditional metaethics.


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