- Lorentz Center
- Lorentz Center
A Constructivist Account
University of Modena
0. The argument in outline
A Cluster of Problems surrounding Normative Authority
What is the authority of moral norms?
Do they bind universally? Rationally? Instrumentally? How so?
A constructivist proposal:
The authority of (moral/cognitive) norms rests on their rational authority
Moral norms are norms of practical cognition (cognition of oneself as a practical subject)
They are also norms of agency and self-constitution
Rational authority is dialogical:
Practical subjects are co-legislators
The practice is governed by respect and the parity-constraint
It preserves the possibility of faultless disagreements
It allows for resolution by change in case of faultless disagreement
It offers a more credible account of normative authority, bindingness and efficacy
Sensitivity to context
Sensitivity fo change over time
Responsive to faultless disagreements
2. Rational Authority
Basic Rationalist Claim: The only genuine form of authority is
promises universal authority of norms
binds all rational agents
corrects bias, and epistemic sources of injustice
Problem: how to assess moral standing/rational agency?
3. The standard rationalist view
The Kantian model of rational agency is designed to address
precisely this question of moral standing
Rational norms bind all rational agents as such.
Autonomous agents share the starting points of morality, in
that they are equally positioned in respect to the object of
practical knowledge and equally capable of determining
what to do.
Rationality takes the form of a self-legislating activity exactly
to represent the equal moral standing of all rational agents.
3.1. In search of a basis
What is the purported basis of moral equality?
The standard interpretation: to ground moral equality on
rational autonomy understood as a metaphysical feature of
Objection: it involves an implausible metaphysics.
The standard constructivist interpretation: to replace the
metaphysical claim with an empirical claim (Rawls 1971: 444,
Hill 2000: 89, Carter 2011).
Objection: empirical capacities are also unequally distributed.
How can they support moral equality? (Williams 1973: 114-115,
3.2. The presumption of moral
The standard Kantian argument:
Rational agents as such have equal moral insight.
They qualify as “perfectly autonomous knowers, each
equipped with access to a fail-safe procedure for deducing
moral conclusions, which operate in the solitude of
conscience” (Skorupski 2010: 180).
3.3. Problems for the standard
It mischaracterizes how moral norms bind.
It is a “moralized” view of practical reasoning: moral constraints
It is unnecessarily demanding. By according sovereignty to
moral reasons such norms become self-defeating (Gauguin-type
It takes morality to represent a special domain of moral objects.
(The myth of the eminent domain).“Morality” is elusive.
proves ineffective in the case of faultless disagreements (e.g.
3.4. The radical mistake
The debate is based on a mistake: the attempt to define
moral standing in terms of a common property that makes us
equal and worthy of equal respect and consideration.
Proposal: Moral standing does not depend on any
metaphysical or empirical property, but it is instituted by a
normative relation of mutual respect and recognition among
peers (Bagnoli 2007, Bagnoli 2011).
3.5. Resetting the debate
A “dialogical” view of rational justification starts with the
recognition of the mutual dependence of finite rational
Mutually dependent, finite beings need to construct reasons
that their interlocutors can address as such.
Claim: For reasoning to have the intended effect (i.e. produce
authoritative norms), we agents ought to relate to others as
4. Epistemic parity
“You count your friend as an epistemic peer with respect to
an about-to-be-judged claim if and only if you think that
conditional the two of you disagreeing about the claim, they
two of you are equally likely to be mistaken” (Elga 2011:179
Parity is a comparative category, which does not require any
input conditions such as equal formal qualifications or equal
It does not imply that two peers always perform equally well;
nor does it imply that they have equal access to the same
epistemic resources or to the same domain of epistemic
4.1. Parity in practical reasoning
Practical peers are capable of their own conception of the good
P’s normative status is not grounded on empirical or
metaphysical properties but established through mutual
recognition and respect of equal standing (Bagnoli 2007).
P does not aim to protect a moral value, e.g. the moral value of
equality or the value of humanity.
P is a general constraint about reasoning in general, not
merely a deliberative constraint about moral reasoning in
It is constitutive of the practice of reasoning with others that we
try to form reasons that our peers could recognize as such.
4.2. Efficacy and agential
Moral norms aim to be efficacious.
They are also norms of rational agency.
Their efficacy is distinctive because it is marked by
reflective consciousness, which establishes a special relation
of the practical subjects to themselves. This is a relation of
Practical knowledge is first of all knowledge of oneself as a
practical subject. Knowledge of what to do importantly
depends on knowledge of oneself as practical subject.
A new approach to the Gauguin-type rational dilemmas
4.3 Reasoning with others as colegislators
Norms are rationally authoritative if they are based on
considerations that could be taken as reasons by our peers.
The role of others in the dialogical account of the practice of
justification is pervasive and basic.
Reasons are defeasible and revisable
It is not restricted to the narrow domain of second-personal reasons
that address the claims of others or respond to their call (Korsgaard
1996: 140, Darwall 2006: 59).
In reasoning with others we build reasons based on
considerations that could have authority for our peers. This is
speaking as a representative of any one moral community
speaking on behalf of any one moral community
speaking as if we were members of the same moral community.
5. The constitutive role of equal
To treat the requirement of parity as governing the practice of rational justification
implies that the whole practice of justification as such is based on respect and mutual
recognition of others as peers.
But then what is the ground of equal respect?
To take up this question leads us back to the debate about the basis of moral equality
and presupposes the “fitting response” view of respect (Darwall 2006).
The question is misconceived: there is nothing to which respect responds. Respect is
not a mere emotional response. It is not the attitude fit to track a specific value property
Respect is constitutive mode of valuing persons as such; it is the practical attitude of
holding each other mutually accountable. There are no properties that make anyone
worthy of respect or entitled to be respected. The normative relation of mutual
recognition is exactly what constitutes equal respect (Bagnoli 2007, Bagnoli 2011).
6. The dialogical view of rational
“Reason must in all its undertaking be subject itself to criticism… Nothing is so
important through its usefulness, nothing so sacred, that it may be exempted from this
searching examination… Reason depends on this freedom from its very existence. For
reason has not dictatorial authority; its verdict is always simply the agreement of free
citizens, of whom each one must be permitted to express, without hindrance, his
objection or even his veto,” (Kant CPR A738-739/B 766-767).
When we reason, we enter an activity whose structure is similar to that of a dialogue
This modality of interaction should not be read simply as openness to criticism, but
more generally as a sensitive disposition to active listening to others.
The dialogical view does not aim to compel and persuade the interlocutor because it
does not recognize any pressure toward convergence. Rather, it encourages the
interlocutors to further engage with their peer in order to mutually address a common
problem; or rather, in order to construct the problem commonly.
6.1. By comparison
The evidential conception of practical reasoning (e.g. model of
The adversarial conception of practical reasoning: there is no
normative fact independent of interaction.
Aim: convergence on truth. the ideal endpoint of effective reasoning is
convergence on some normative facts independent of reasoning.
Aim: persuasion. Reasoning serves to convince and compel the
adversary by force of dialectical argument, pressure of status, or even
The dialogical conception is designed for peers, finite,
interdependent rational agents.
The aim is constructive. to construct common resources to solve
common problems. (It allows for is transformation, and change).
6.2. Normative implications of
Parity has limited
It sets the baseline for justifications to qualify as rationally
It defines the scope of reasons by specifying that the
audience is a co-legislator.
7. Some general advantages
It addresses the issue of rational authority and efficacy
upfront. And, indirectly, different take to compliance.
It avoids the risks of conservativism and dogmatism (e.g. in
contrast to the view that social practices of recognition
provide the ontological ground of respect for persons).
It avoids the risks of inefficacy of the standard RA view
It avoids the myth of the moral domain and dilemmas of
7.1. The false issue of the “moral
Moral norms have no special authority.
The only genuine source of authority is reason.
All forms of cognitive activities must meet the basic
requirement of parity to attain rational authority.
There is continuity between the activity of practical reason
and morality, even though moral principles can be further
Distinction instrumental/categorical does not rest on the
ontological dichotomy moral/non-moral domains
7.2. The false contrast I/Others
Objection: The view is falsely dialogical because others
figure only “ideally” rather than “concretely”.
The requirement of parity is a better device for protecting
fair auditing than it is the concrete others model. There is no
guarantee that we hear the powerless and the weak, since the
powerful have stronger voices and silence the powerless. The
requirement of parity makes the bias explicit, hence
detectable and in principle treatable.
The dichotomy I/Others generate false rationality dilemmas
btw burdensome moral obligations and personal interest.
7.3. Methodological lesson:
more resources for reasoning
There is a large role for imagination and other ordinary
dispositional capacities to play this sort of practical
Rethinking what counts as the result of shared deliberation
(df. of normative change vs. change of heart/change of mind)
Role of improvisation
Improvisation differs from particularism (vs. Rorty 1988,
Nussbaum 1990, pp. 71, 94-97, 141)
Improvisations presumes invariance
Role of invariants
And invariance is formally given by constraints
To sum up
The dialogical view is not driven by idealizations. It recognizes mutual
dependency and the systematic vulnerability of moral knowledge to
power relations, but it construes our constitutive reliance on others so as
to make it a resource rather than a liability.
In the case of faultless peer disagreements, there is no reason to give
priority to one’s own view on the basis of the mere fact that it is one’s
own. This is a form of special pleading that is barred by the requirement
of parity (Elga 2011: 164-165).
The requirement of parity is a constraint designed to block partial
difference to oneself.
Its main implication is that it protects the possibility of faultless peer
disagreements. While it neither presumes a resolution nor leads to
convergence, P is a powerful operative device in the case of faultless
disagreements because it encourages change by interaction.
Anderson, E., 1999, “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics 109 (1999): 287–337.
Bagnoli, C., 2013 “Constructivism about Practical Knowledge”, in Constructivism in
Ethics, Bagnoli ed., Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp. 153-182.
Bagnoli, C., 2011 “Emotions and the Categorical Authority of Moral Reasons”, in
Morality and the Emotions, ed. by C. Bagnoli, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 62-81.
Bagnoli, C., 2012 “Morality as Practical Knowledge”, Analytic Philosophy, Vol. 53 No. 1
March 2012, pp. 60–69.
Bagnoli, C., 2007, ‘Respect and Membership in the Moral Community’, Ethical Theory
and Moral Practice, 10/2 (2007): 113-128.
Carter, I., 2011“Respect and the Basis of Equality”, Ethics 121/3 (2011): 538-71.
Elga, A., “Reflection and Disagreement”, in Goldman, A.I, Whitcombe, D., 2011, Social
Epistemology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 158-182.
Engstrom S. 2012, “Bringing Practical Knowledge Into View: Response to Bagnoli, Hill, and
Reath”, Analytic Philosophy 53/1 (2012): 89-97.
Engstrom, S., 2009, The Form of Practical Knowledge, Harvard University Press.
Fricker, M. 2011, “Rational Authority and Social Power: Towards a Truly Social Epistemology, in
Goldman, A.I, Whitcombe, D., 2011, Social Epistemology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 5470.
Goldman, A.I, “Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?”, Goldman, A.I, Whitcombe, D., 2011,
Social Epistemology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 109-135.
Kölbel M. 2003. “Faultless Disagreement”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 104: 53–73.
Korsgaard, C.M., 1996, The Sources of Normativity, O. O’Neill (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge
Marglin F.A and Marglin S.A. 1990, Dominating Knowledge: Development, Culture, Resistence,
Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Nussbaum, M.C., 1986, The Fragility of Goodness, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rawls, J. 1971, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
Skorupski J., 2010, The Domain of Reasons, Oxford University Press.
Velleman, D., 2009, How We Get Along, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Williams, B., 1965/1973, “Moral Consistency”, in Problems of the Self, Cambridge
University Press, 166-186.
Williams, B., 1969/1973, “The Idea of Equality”, in Problems of the Self, Cambridge
University Press, 230-249.
Williams, B., 1979/1981, “Conflicts of Values”, in Moral Luck, Cambridge 1981, 71-82.
Williams, B. 1981, “Moral Luck”, Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,