Author:Lindeman, Kathryn

Even bad coffee is better than no coffee at all. --David Lynch CONSTITUTIVISTS ABOUT NORMS in metaethics explain the normative standards in a domain by appealing to constitutive features of the members of the domain. (1) So, for example, Korsgaard seeks to explain what it is to be a good person by appeal to what it is to be a person. This is an appealing explanatory strategy because, if successful, it offers a general and comprehensive account of how different normative standards govern distinct normative domains. It could, e.g., explain how moral normative standards govern agents, practical normative standards govern purposive behavior, epistemic normative standards govern beliefs and inferences, artifactual normative standards govern artifacts, and biological normative standards govern organs and biological processes. (2)

A central challenge for normative constitutivism is to account for the connection between an individual's constitutive nature and its normative standards. Critics worry that this kind of explanation is impossible. (3) One prominent objection to constitutivism is the worry that normative standards governing an individual cannot be grounded in its kind in the way constitutivists claim without ruling out the possibility that kind-members could violate those standards. This objection is sometimes called the Problem of Bad Action. (4)

The main lesson of this paper is that current constitutivist accounts face a serious threat, though not from the well-known Problem of Bad Action. Rather, the way in which they take norms to constitute norm-governed kinds commits them to what I call the Threshold Commitment. This, I argue, leads to serious costs for constitutivists that should lead them to reject this commitment and seek another explanation of this connection.


    One naive constitutivist explanation of norms is that the norms themselves are constitutive of individuals in virtue of being satisfied. This account generates norms that are unable to account for what I call Violability.

    Violability: That a norm applies to x and requires p does not logically or metaphysically imply that x satisfies p. Problematically, such explanations cannot be used to account for the obvious fact that there are better and worse things in the world. Railton raises a concern of this form when he worries how we could, e.g., determine whether someone who fails to aim at truth in forming beliefs is defective. He writes that "to discover that the metal in the sample tray on one's laboratory bench has atomic number 82 is not to discover that it is 'defective gold,' but rather that it is not gold at all. A similar problem confronts all constitutive arguments." (5) Clark raises similar worries specific to Velleman: if any action must have the aim of autonomy, but autonomy is a precondition of action, all action necessarily achieves its aim. If constitutive accounts are the only explanation of the normative features of action (including reasons for action), any action that achieves its aim should, it seems, have no reasons that speak against it, making it incapable of being rationally criticized. (6)

    Railton and Clark both highlight specific instances of a more general concern about the role this naive account gives to standards: if what it is to be a member of a norm-governed kind is to meet a certain standard, then that standard seems incapable of simultaneously serving as a way to differentiate good kind-members from bad kind-members. The naive view then is a nonstarter for constitutivists for exactly the reason Railton and Clark highlight. Any successful constitutivist explanation must provide a metaphysical account of the constitutive features of normatively evaluable kinds that is consistent with Violability. This account must show that there is some connection between the kind and the norms tight enough to account for the constitutive explanation, but weak enough to allow for defect and other evaluations according to norms. (7)

    Constitutivists are clearly aware of the need for non-naive constitutive explanations. Velleman, for example, recognizes the importance of distinguishing between the conditions on aiming and actually achieving an aim. He writes that "If autonomy were the constitutive aim of action, then every instance of action... would turn out to be a success." (8) Korsgaard seems similarly interested in leaving room for norms to be constitutively understood while not satisfied. In the specific case of norms constitutive of action, she writes:

    [If] it is the essential nature of [a kind] that it have a certain metaphysical property... but in order to have that metaphysical property it must have a certain normative property... then this explains why the [individual] must meet the normative standard: it just isn't [a member of the kind] if it doesn't. But it also seems as if it explains it rather too well, for it seems to imply that only good [individuals] really [are kind-members], and that there is nothing left for bad [kind-members] to be. (9) There are less naive explanations of how normative standards are related to the constitutive features of kind-members that preserve Violability. Constitutivists might, for instance, take normative satisfaction to be a scalar matter, and claim that some degree of normative satisfaction is constitutive. So long as the metaphysical property can be realized by a number of normative properties, or by having some normative property to some degree, this connection need not rule out Violability. So, constitutivist accounts that permit scalar norm satisfaction as a criterion of kind-membership would be perfectly compatible with violated norms and defective kind-members. Indeed, such views seem to be held by many constitutivists. Korsgaard and Velleman, for example, hold that constituting oneself and aiming at agency are activities that agents can do in better and worse ways. Neither accounts for the relationship between individuals and kinds on the naive model that would make them natural targets for Railton's objection.

    So, for example, Korsgaard, in Self-Constitution, explains the constitutive feature uniting kinds as a matter of having an internal teleological organization or form, which is a matter of minimally satisfying some constitutive standards or norms. Though you must be in the practice of constituting yourself to be evaluated according to the constituting-oneself standards (i.e., practical norms), there are better and worse ways of doing this, and so better and worse agents. (10) The norms of self-constitution are, therefore, scalar; there are ways of violating the norms and still being an agent, because you are still constituting yourself, just doing so badly. (11) Velleman introduces similar teleological features in his account by making it a criterial feature of agency that one constitutively aim at self-knowledge, where that aiming can be done more or less successfully. (12) Katsafanas has recently defended a Nietzschian constitutivist account of agency in which the constitutive aims of action are coherence and the will to power. On this view, one can be more or less coherent and thus be a better or worse agent." Michael Smith has developed his account of idealized agency into a constitutivist explanation of practical normativity that seems best accounted for on a scalar model. On his view, for example, it is constitutive of the ideally rational agent that they have the desire to help and not harm, but in order to be an agent--and thereby be governed by the norms that the ideally rational agent necessarily satisfies--individual agents need not fully have these desires. (14)

    Of course, there are worries about these scalar accounts and whether they can provide genuine normative assessments or standards. Clark, for example, considers a variant of Velleman's view on which some amount of autonomy, short of perfect autonomy, is required for action. Clark worries that this move would not fully account for the standard normative assessment for actions because the goal of autonomy up to a threshold cannot serve as a standard of assessment for action. Setiya objects that the constitutive normative requirements on these accounts do not provide sufficient material to fully account for practical norms or their scope. (15) Though the scalar accounts do not yet amount to responses to these worries, they do make progress over the naive constitutivist account that falls to Violability concerns. Here, I want to focus on a problem arising precisely from the feature of scalar accounts that allows them to satisfy Violability.


    Such constitutivists make room for defective kind-members by identifying the metaphysical property essential for kind-hood with some minimal threshold of normative properties, rather than a single bivalent normative property. So, e.g., minimal conformity to the norms of action, rather than perfect conformity, is constitutive of action. This is progress over the naive constitutivist account, which risks identifying the perfect with the real. However, by giving minimal norm satisfaction a criterial role, they maintain an identification of the real with the minimally good. Such views are unsatisfactory because they involve an implicit endorsement of what I call the Threshold Commitment:

    Threshold Commitment: For norm-governed kinds, an individual must at least partially satisfy the constitutive norms of a kind, or partially meet the constitutive aim of a kind, in order to be a member of that kind. (16) In other words, norm-governed kinds are those that have kind-membership conditions constituted by minimally having the normative properties that are good-making for that kind. This is supposed to explain why individual kind-members must meet normative standards in a way that does not, in Korsgaard's words, explain it a little too well. Normative violators risk nonexistence, though there are...

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