Ethics/Political Theory seminar: 'Why Should We Be Constructivists about Justice?''

Miriam Ronzoni (Manchester) will speak to the joint seminar of the Centre for Ethics and Metaethics and the Contemporary Political Theory Group on 'Why Should We Be Constructivists About Justice?'

Miriam Ronzoni is Reader in Political Theory at the University of Manchester. Her research and teaching interests concern contemporary normative theory, with a focus on global and international issues, and span both metaethical problems (e.g. the justification of normative principles) and applied ones (e.g. social and transnational justice in non-ideal circumstances). More information about her work can be found on her website.

This talk will take place in the Social Sciences Building 12.21/12.25.


Constitutivist/constructivist approaches to morality seek to justify universal moral norms by deriving them from uncontroversial, non-moral premises. A very common constitutivist move is to argue that 1) X entails a commitment to treating others with respect/as sources of compelling moral claims; 2) X is inescapable; 3) therefore, we must treat others with respect/as sources of compelling moral claims. First person approaches equate X with agency, arguing that being an agent inescapably commits us to treating other agents with respect/as sources of compelling moral claims on us (e.g. Gewirth); second person approaches, instead, equate X with interaction, arguing that the inescapability of our interaction with others commits us to taking others as moral agents with claims against us (e.g. Habermas, Apel, Korsgaard). A rich literature tries to refute both attempts, arguing either that neither agency nor interaction are inescapable; or that there is an unwarranted jump between their inescapability and the justification of morality (why does my agency or my unavoidable interaction with others commit me to treating others as moral equals?); or a combination of both (e.g. Enoch, De Maagt). 

In this paper, I seek to show that a second person approach can succeed if supplemented by a commitment to a form of agnosticism about the existence of independent moral values/facts. If we are agnostic in this way, we can neither treat others on the basis of a system of values and principles to which we are committed, but which we cannot justify in ways that others are compelled to accept; nor stop caring about morality altogether. Nihilism and entirely self-interested behaviour are just as unjustifiable for agnostics as reliance on independent truths; we ought to remain agnostic towards these options, as well – just like the religious agnostic does with atheism. The moral agnostic, therefore, must treat others as entitled to a justification; yet such justification is not readily available. It must therefore be constructed on the basis of what we can reasonably justify to one another. My claim, therefore, is that a commitment to agnosticism allows both the second person approach to get off the ground, by justifying morality to begin with; and posits that such morality should be constructivist in kind, i.e. constructed on the basis what we can reasonably justify to one another. If, as I think is the case, agnosticism is a plausible position to hold, the constitutivist/constructivist position may thus be rescued. The paper ends by discussing a number of objections to the argument, and by highlighting which questions still remain to be answered.