Constructivism and the normativity of practical reason

In Karen Jones & François Schroeter (eds.), The Many Moral Rationalisms. Oxford University Press (2018)
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Constructivists hold that truths about practical reasons are to be explained in terms of truths about the correct exercise of practical reason (rather than vice versa). But what is the normative status of the correctness-defining standards of practical reason? The problem is that constructivism appears to presuppose the truth of two theses that seem hard to reconcile. First, for constructivism to be remotely plausible, the relevant standards must be genuinely (and not merely formally or minimally) normative. Second, to avoid circularity, the relevant standards must be non-reason-involving, i.e. prior to and independent of practical reasons. From the standpoint of the contemporary philosophy of normatively, this is a surprising combination to say the least. What could these genuinely normative but non-reason-involving standards possibly be? The standard constructivist response is to insist that the relevant standards possess a special kind of necessity inasmuch as we only count as occupying the “deliberative standpoint” or as a “deliberative agent” insofar as we comply with or accept the relevant standards. I offer a different response. My response holds that the special normative status of the relevant standards consists in their exhibiting a distinctive kind of practical necessity that derives from the fact that they determine what I have called elsewhere truths about “the thing to do” – namely, truths about correct answers to the question of what to do. Understanding the norms of practical reason in these terms vindicates the idea that standards of practical reason are genuinely normative since truths about the thing to do plausibly possess the hallmarks of genuine normativity. And it vindicates the idea that the standards are not reason-involving since truths about the thing to do are plausibly prior to and independent of truths about practical reasons.

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Nicholas Southwood
Australian National University


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