Author:Leffler, Olof

CONSTITUTIVISM is THE VIEW that there are constitutive features of agency, actions, or propositional attitudes, actual or idealized, that explain normative phenomena, such as reasons, values, or moral norms. (1) Constitutivists also usually hold that something about these constitutive features can explain the normative force of the phenomena; because we act, are agents, or have certain propositional attitudes, we are ipso facto required to follow certain norms. While constitutivists disagree about which norms we are required to follow, most have also argued that the constitutive features are inescapable, and that inescapability plays a vital role in the explanation of the normativity of these norms, as well as in replying to objections. (2)

But we may question how inescapable the norm-explaining features are. If we do not instantiate the constitutive features that explain norms, it seems like we can avoid the norms they are supposed to explain. In particular, we can avoid their normative force. Someone who is a shmagent--very much like an agent, but without instantiating the norm-explaining features--is very similar to an agent, but because the shmagent lacks the norm-explaining features, she is not subject to the norms. (3) Hence, it seems like constitutivism is unable to explain the norms that apply to such creatures.

This problem is known as the agency-shmagency problem, or--as I call it--the shmagency objection. My aim is to show that, despite many constitutivist responses, new versions of the problem appear for most forms of constitutivism; in particular, it remains a deep problem for those who attempt to explain practical reasons of normatively forceful varieties (cf. section 1, below, for details). This means that the shmagency objection remains a significant problem for constitutivism. If a form of constitutivism that attempts to explain normatively forceful practical reasons is to be viable, it will have to avoid the new shmagency worries.

To show this, in section 1, I present the original shmagency objection. In section 2, I show how the standard reply to the objection--that the shmagent is self-defeating--seems defensible, despite several arguments to the contrary. But then, in section 3, I extend the shmagency objection by arguing that shmagents can be sophisticated enough to have practical reasons while standing outside agency. This resuscitates the problem. In section 4, I explain how sophisticated shmagency remains a problem for some other recent constitutivist attempts to avoid the shmagency objection.

In section 5, I introduce another major line of response to the shmagency objection, according to which constitutivism is defended by appeal to constitutive features we are under normative pressure to have. I call this view partial constitutivism. Partial constitutivists respond to the shmagency objection by taking our constitutions to be normatively justified, so it does not matter for their purposes if we sometimes fail to live up to them. But in section 6, I argue that partial constitutivists suffer from a second new version of the objection, because they leave the normative phenomena they are supposed to explain underdetermined. I conclude in section 7.


    The paradigmatic formulation of the shmagency objection comes from Enoch. (4) The basic point has often been set up using an example. Imagine that you are playing chess. There are certain rules (and maybe aims) constitutive of doing so; if you do not abide by them, you seem to be playing something else other than chess. Call this other game shmess. Why should you stick by the rules (or aims) of chess--rather than shmess--when you are deciding which game to play? A reason seems needed.

    By analogy, Enoch thinks, it is unclear why we should care about what is constitutive of action or agency. We can always ask "so what?" and demand a reason for why we should be agents rather than shmagents--something very much like agents, but not quite like agents. Or, to put the same point in a more poignant way, we can ask the shmagency question: "Why should I be an agent rather than a shmagent?"

    The question is meant to illustrate that we can avoid being agents by being shmagents instead. We can, so to speak, shirk from the normative requirements that agency is supposed to commit us to. For if we are shmagents rather than agents, we can have all the features that we would take to be constitutive of agency--or even otherwise associated with it--except those that explain the norms that hold for us.

    But as constitutivists attempt to explain normative phenomena by the features that are constitutive of agency (including their inescapability), then if we can be shmagents, it seems like their explanation does not get off the ground. If shmagency is an open option for us, then constitutivists have yet to explain normative phenomena well, for they have not explained the normative force of the phenomena. (5) Therefore, when I mention the shmagency question below, I take its main point to be equivalent to suggesting that agency is not comprehensive enough to explain norms. (6)

    More formally, here is the problem:

    P1. If constitutivism is true, the conditions of agency that explain (normatively forceful) practical reasons for us must be (descriptively) inescapable.

    P2. We can (descriptively) escape instantiating the conditions of agency that explain (normatively forceful) practical reasons for us.

    1. Constitutivism is false.

    The core reasoning behind the different premises is already present in the description of the argument above. The thought behind P1 is that if we can escape the constitutive features of agency that explain norms, then we do not have an explanation of the phenomena these features are supposed to explain. The thought behind P2 is that we indeed can avoid instantiating the properties of agency that explain norms, for we can be shmagents, and then it is unclear why our reasons are normative for us. (Or, equivalently, we can ask the shmagency question.) The conclusion follows immediately.

    Some clarifications are, however, needed before I proceed to discuss the argument. First, I have written "the conditions of agency that explain (normatively forceful) practical reasons." What does that mean? Just what normative force involves is an extremely intricate question. (7) For now, a negative characterization will do: a practical reason, pro tanto or overall, for an agent A to [phi] is normatively forceful iff the reason cannot legitimately be ignored because A arbitrarily desires or wants something else than to [phi]. (8) This means that the argument applies to all constitutivist views that attempt to give positive explanations of such practical reasons--not least of moral reasons. (9) These are the forms of constitutivism most participants in the debate have focused on, and the ones I will have in mind when I write "constitutivism" below.

    I suspect that the shmagency objection mainly is a challenge for constitutivism about practical reasons of this kind. It has often been aimed at all forms of constitutivism, but it is not clear whether all forms of constitutivism are affected by it. For example, constitutivism about epistemic reasons, e.g., where reasons for belief are explained as truth-conducive considerations because truth is the aim of belief, need not be at fault. It is not obviously implausible to think that we do not have reasons for belief unless we have beliefs from the start.

    More examples of forms of constitutivism where shmagency seems unimportant can probably be provided. But how such forms of constitutivism may be affected by the shmagency objection is beyond the scope of this paper. If the reader thinks that her favorite form of constitutivism suffers from the shmagency objection even though it is not one about normatively forceful practical reasons, she should feel free to reinterpret the rest of my discussion in her favored way. For now, I shall focus on constitutivism about normatively forceful practical reasons.

    Second, the notion of inescapability in the argument is fairly complex. The standard interpretation of inescapability is that it is some descriptive form of necessity, not normative necessity. In particular, I am explicit that the form of inescapability involved here is descriptive, because this assumption will be tweaked below. In sections 5 and on, I will discuss normative inescapability, according to which it is normatively desirable to be the kind of agents that can explain norms. But more about that later.

    Instead, for now, assume that the kind of inescapability that is involved in the shmagency argument is dialectical inescapability. (10) Dialectical inescapability is a descriptive form of inescapability, for it is something that an agent has, rather than one that she ought to have. Ferrero characterizes it as "the inescapability of rational agency in the sense of the closure of this agency under the exercise of its distinctive operation." (11) What is inescapable is the agency that an agent already has, and agency is inescapable because it is self-defeating to attempt to escape agency, as acting so as to escape it involves exercising one's agency. This form of inescapability might possibly work to ward off the shmagency objection--I discuss the argument for thinking that it may do so in depth in section 2, below.

    Third and finally, all forms of constitutivism I discuss set out some (inescapable) feature(s) as a condition of agency, actions, or propositional attitudes. It is this feature (or these features) that explains normative phenomena. But, for simplicity, I will refer to all those possible norm-explaining features as "agency."


    The most common reply to the shmagency obj ection is to deny the argument for P2. We cannot, it is claimed, properly ask the shmagency question. This standard response comes from a dilemma based on a distinction between an...

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