In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that I found metaethical constructivism to be an attractive position. Unfortunately, I’ve come to find the position less plausible over the past few months. There are several reasons why I no longer find constructivism very plausible. In this post, I’ll explore the problem metaethical constructivism has with moral semantics.
Any metaethical theory has to have a plausible account of moral semantics. Moral semantics deals with the meaning of moral terms and sentences in which they are embedded. Metaethical constructivism needs to provide a plausible semantics of moral terms to be considered theoretically virtuous. Unfortunately, it seems as though the constructivist only has two options, and neither are particularly attractive.
The constructivist gives an analysis of moral terms while employing moral terms. The typical constructivist analysis goes like this:
The fact that P is a reason for agent A to Q is constituted by the fact that the judgment that P is a reason for agent A to Q withstands critical scrutiny from the evaluative point of view.
The evaluative point of view is the perspective from which an agent makes evaluative and deontic judgments. The constructivist will typically take, “withstands critical scrutiny” to mean that the judgment is found in the agent’s belief set after it has reached reflective equilibrium. The problem with this analysis is that it employs normative terms to analyze normative terms, and the same will hold for a more specific analysis that deals with moral terms. The constructivist cannot give a non-circular semantics of “reason for”/”reason in favor of” without employing the term being analyzed, since the term will be analyzed in terms of agents’ judgments about whether something is a reason in favor of something.
The problem cannot be avoided by claiming that the constructivist isn’t really engaged in a circular analysis because she uses the notion of an agent judging that P is a reason to analyze the notion of P being a reason. This merely avoids the problem temporarily, as the constructivist now must explain what it is for a judgment or other cognitive/doxastic act/state to be about a reason in favor of something. Ultimately, the constructivist must employ the notion of a reason in the analysis of normative notions, including reasons.
The constructivist has two options available to her. The first is to employ a primitivist semantics of some basic normative notions like “reasons”. A primitivist semantics takes certain words’ meanings to be unanalyzable in other terms. The primitivist move allows the constructivist to maintain a truth-conditional account of the meanings of normative terms, which is a plus. However, claiming that some concept at the center of an active philosophical debate is primitive in a move to save your theory tends to come off as a bit ad hoc. However, it should be noted that the charge of being ad hoc isn’t necessarily a fatal blow to a theory, as that theory could still be the most virtuous of all competitors, regardless.
The second option available to the constructivist is to disavow the need for a truth-conditional semantics (of at least normative terms), and instead opt for an inferential role semantics. Inferential role semantics takes the meanings of terms to be constituted by the role they play in inferences people make. There are various other kinds of “role semantics” that aim to replace traditional, truth-conditional versions, but their differences aren’t relevant to this post. Suffice it to say that they are all kinds of use-based theories of content or meaning.
The constructivist can say that normative terms are meaningful by virtue of the roles they play in various inferences we make when engaging in moral reasoning. What the constructivist needs to do, if she adopts this strategy, is provide an account of the truth-preserving nature of deductive inferences employing normative terms, as the typical story is parasitic on some sort of truth-conditional account. She must also give a plausible account of the phenomenon of compositionality. Compositionality is the idea that the meaning of a sentence is a function of its syntactic structure and the meanings of the words constituting that sentence. Since the inferentialist takes meaning to be defined in terms of inferential role, she must take sentence meaning as primary, which seems to get things backwards given compositionality. She must give an account of the phenomena that are typically employed in defense of compositional semantics.
Robert Brandom has probably done the most to make inferentialist semantics seem plausible, and he has provided resources that a committed constructivist can draw on to account for compositionality-like phenomena, and truth-preserving inferences. All of this is not to say that constructivism is definitely false, or completely implausible. I just no longer find it plausible in light of the challenge laid out above. Constructivism’s implausibility, to me, derives from the difficulties plaguing the options available to its defenders in light of the problem of giving a plausible moral semantics.
Dale Dorsey: Truth and Error in Morality
Ned Block: Conceptual Role Semantics
Robert Brandom: Articulating Reasons (An Introduction to Inferentialism)