What is a "Kantian Constructivist view of the kind Christine Korsgaard favours"?

post by EdoArad (edoarad) · 2020-10-21T04:44:57.757Z · EA · GW · 3 comments

This is a question post.

From https://www.oxfordpublicphilosophy.com/blog/letter-to-a-young-philosopher-dont-become-an-effective-altruiststrong-strong:

EA’s image of moral reflection, as proceeding from a god’s eye view, places constraints on how we can conceive of values. It leaves no room for views on which values are only recognisable as such from engaged standpoints. Among the views excluded are various subjectivist views as well as Kantian constructivist views of the kind Christine Korsgaard favours.

So I googled and found her book Fellow Creatures, whose synopsis is 

Christine M. Korsgaard presents a compelling new view of humans' moral relationships to the other animals. She defends the claim that we are obligated to treat all sentient beings as what Kant called "ends-in-themselves". Drawing on a theory of the good derived from Aristotle, she offers an explanation of why animals are the sorts of beings for whom things can be good or bad. She then turns to Kant's argument for the value of humanity to show that rationality commits us to claiming the standing of ends-in-ourselves, in two senses. Kant argued that as autonomous beings, we claim to be ends-in-ourselves when we claim the standing to make laws for ourselves and each other. Korsgaard argues that as beings who have a good, we also claim to be ends-in-ourselves when we take the things that are good for us to be good absolutely and so worthy of pursuit. The first claim commits us to joining with other autonomous beings in relations of moral reciprocity. The second claim commits us to treating the good of every sentient creature as something of absolute importance.

Korsgaard argues that human beings are not more important than the other animals, that our moral nature does not make us superior to the other animals, and that our unique capacities do not make us better off than the other animals. She criticizes the "marginal cases" argument and advances a new view of moral standing as attaching to the atemporal subjects of lives. She criticizes Kant's own view that our duties to animals are indirect, and offers a non-utilitarian account of the relation between pleasure and the good. She also addresses a number of directly practical questions: whether we have the right to eat animals, experiment on them, make them work for us and fight in our wars, and keep them as pets; and how to understand the wrong that we do when we cause a species to go extinct.

I don't know much about Kantian ethics, so I'm not really sure what is the bottom line here. If I got it right, then this book is a defense of the importance of animal welfare from a Kantian perspective, without necessarily advocating for a Kantian approach over Utilitarianism. 

Is she claiming something unique against consequentialism? Is this stance opposed to EA in a way that is qualitatively different from other deontological theories?

Answers

answer by Lukas_Gloor · 2020-10-21T10:55:04.389Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure I remember this the right way, but here's an attempt: 

"Constructivism" can refer to a family of normative-ethical views according to which objectively right moral facts are whatever would be the output of some constructive function, such as an imagined social contract or the Kantian realm of ends. "Constructivism" can also refer to a non-realist metaethical view that moral language doesn't refer to moral facts that exist in an outright objective sense, but are instead "construed" intersubjectively via some constructive function. 

So, a normative-ethical constructivist uses constructive functions to find the objectively right moral facts, while a metaethical constructivist uses constructive functions to explain why we talk as though there are some kind of moral facts at all, and what their nature is.

I'm really not sure I got this exactly right, but I am confident that in the context of this "letter to a young philosopher," the author meant to refer to the metaethical version of constructivism. It's mentioned right next to subjectivism, which is another non-realist metaethical position. Unlike some other Kantians, Korsgaard is not an objectivist moral realist. 

So, I think the author of this letter is criticizing consequentialist moral realism because there's a sense in which its recommendations are "too impartial." The most famous critique of this sort is the "Critique of Utilitarianism" by Bernard Williams. I quoted the most relevant passage here [EA · GW]. One way to point to the intuitive force of this critique is as follows: If your moral theory gives the same recommendation whether or not you replace all existing humans with intelligent aliens, something seems (arguably) a bit weird. The "human nature element," as well as relevant differences between different people, are all lost! At least, to anyone who cares about something other than "The one objectively correct thing to care about," the objective morality will seem wrong and alienating. Non-objectivist morality has the feature that moral actions depend on "who's here." That morality arises from people rather than people being receptacles for it. 

I actually agree with this type of critique – I just wouldn't say that it's incompatible with EA. It's only incompatible with how many EAs (especially Oxford-educated ones) currently think about the foundations of ethics.

Importantly, it doesn't automatically follows from this critique of objectivist morality that a strong focus on (some type of) effectiveness is misguided, or that "inefficient" charities suddenly look a lot better. Not at all. Maybe it can happen that certain charities/projects look better from that vantage point, depending on the specifics and so on. But this would require further arguments. 

comment by seanrson (seanrichardson@outlook.com) · 2020-12-06T06:26:39.265Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Just adding onto this, for those interested in learning how a Kantian meta-ethical approach might be compatible with a consequentialist normative theory, see Kagan's "Kantianism for Consequentialists": https://campuspress.yale.edu/shellykagan/files/2016/07/Kantianism-for-Consequentialists-2cldc82.pdf

comment by EdoArad (edoarad) · 2020-10-22T06:02:44.413Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks!

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