constructivism in ethics and the problem of attachment and loss
This paper explores two questions in moral philosophy that might at first seem unrelated. The first question is practical. While it’s not a truth we like to contemplate, each of us faces the eventual loss of everyone and everything we love. Is there a way to live in full awareness of that fact without falling into anxiety or depression, or resorting to one form or another of forgetfulness, denial, or numbing out? The second question is metaethical. Is it possible to vindicate a strong form of ethical objectivity without positing anything metaphysically or epistemologically mysterious? In this paper, I sketch a partially Buddhist-inspired metaethical view that would, if it could be made to work, give a positive answer to both questions. The overall view is too much to defend in one paper, so I focus on developing one limited part of it. I begin by characterizing the general constructivist strategy for vindicating the objectivity of ethics. After briefly discussing Christine Korsgaard’s Kantian implementation of the strategy, I suggest an alternative implementation. I explore the idea that every agent necessarily faces what I call the problem of attachment and loss. I close with some speculative remarks about why, even though the problem of attachment and loss presents itself in a different substantive guise to each individual agent, it is still possible that the best solutionto the problem is universal, and involves taking up an ethical perspective on the world.
Sharon Street is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Associate Chair of the Department at New York University. She specializes in metaethics and is the author of a series of articles that seek to reconcile our understanding of normativity with a scientific conception of the world. Her articles include “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value” (2006), “Constructivism about Reasons” (2008), “In Defense of Future Tuesday Indifference: Ideally Coherent Eccentrics and the Contingency of What Matters” (2009), “Mind-Independence Without the Mystery: Why Quasi-Realists Can’t Have It Both Ways” (2011), and “Nothing ‘Really’ Matters, But That’s Not What Matters” (2016). She is currently working on a book on metaethics, provisionally titled Mind the Gap: Ethics and the Problem of Attachment and Loss.
objectivity and idolatry
The attempt to vindicate the objectivity of morality tops the list of philosophical obsessions. In this paper I consider the rationality of searching for such a vindication. I argue that the only justification of our efforts lies in our belief in moral objectivity; that this belief can be as well, if not better, explained by wishful thinking and other cognitive biases; that as a research community we have failed to take precautions against such biases; and that as a result we have been making disproportionate and therefore irrational efforts to establish moral objectivity.
Yonatan Shemmer is a senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield. He previously held a fellowship in the Humanities at Stanford University. His main research interests are the philosophy of action, the philosophy of practical reason and the contribution of these two fields to ethics and normative theory. His recent publications include Constructivism in Practical Philosophy (co-edited with Jimmy Lenman, Oxford, 2012).
8 - 10 July 2016
School of English, Communication and Philosophy
John Percival Building
Cardiff CF10 3EU
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