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§5. Two Conceptions of Objectivity

§5. Two Conceptions of Objectivity

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that is true of a prior and independent order of moral values. This order

is prior to the criteria of reasonableness and rationality as well as prior to

the appropriate conception of persons as autonomous and responsible and

as free and equal members of a moral community. Indeed, it is that order

that settles what those reasonable and rational criteria are, and how autonomy and responsibility are to be conceived.

By contrast, in Kant’s doctrine, as we have interpreted it, a correct moral

judgment is one that conforms to all the relevant criteria of reasonableness

and rationality the total force of which is expressed by the way they are

combined into the CI-procedure. Kant thinks of this procedure as suitably

combining all the requirements of our practical reason, both pure and empirical, into one unified scheme of practical reasoning. This is an aspect of

the unity of reason. That procedure’s form is a priori, rooted in our pure

practical reason, and thus for us practically necessary. A judgment supported by those principles and precepts will, then, be acknowledged as correct by any fully reasonable and rational (and informed) person. This is

what Kant means when he says that these judgments are universally communicable.

. Now, a conception of objectivity includes an account of our agreement in judgments and of how it comes about. Kant accounts for this agreement by our sharing in a common practical reason. For this idea to succeed,

we must suppose, as Kant does, that no matter who applies the CI-procedure,

roughly the same judgments are reached, provided that the procedure is

applied intelligently and conscientiously and against the background of

roughly the same beliefs and information. Reasonable and rational persons

must recognize more or less the same reasons and give them more or less

the same weight. Indeed, for the idea of judgment, as opposed to the idea

of simply giving voice to our psychological state, even to apply, we must

be able to reach agreement in judgment, not of course always, but much

of the time, and in the light of what are viewed as publicly recognized

criteria of practical reason.

Moreover—and this is essential—when we can’t reach agreement, we

must be able to explain our failure. We must be able to refer to such things

as the difficulties of the question at hand: for example, the difficulties of

surveying and assessing all the evidence available, or the delicate balance

of competing reasons on opposite sides of the question. In such cases, we

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expect that reasonable persons may differ. Disagreement may also arise

from a lack of reasonableness or rationality or conscientiousness on the part

of one or more persons involved. But if we say this, we must be careful

that the test of this lack of reasonableness or conscientiousness is not simply

the fact of disagreement itself, much less the fact that other persons disagree

with us. We must have independent grounds identifiable in the particular

circumstances for thinking that such causes of the failure to agree are at


. I believe that Kant’s conception of objectivity falls under the following

general characterization of objectivity: namely, moral convictions are objective if reasonable and rational persons who are sufficiently intelligent and

conscientious in exercising their powers of practical reason would eventually endorse those convictions, when all concerned know the relevant facts

and have sufficiently surveyed the relevant considerations. To say that a

moral conviction is objective, then, is to say that there are reasons sufficient

to convince all reasonable persons that it is valid or correct. To assert a

moral judgment is to imply that there are such reasons and that the judgment can be justified to a community of such persons.

Moreover, this is normally sufficient: it is not required that the correctness of the conviction enter into an empirical explanation of how we know

it is correct. In general, this explanation is trivial: we know that it is correct

because we have correctly applied the principles of practical reason.9 Of

course, Kant’s constructivism distinguishes his account of objectivity from

other such accounts. But his view is no less objective for that.

. Finally, to prevent misunderstanding, a further point about constructivism. No such view, including Kant’s, says that the facts relevant for

moral reasoning are constructed, any more than it says that ideas of reason

such as those of person and society are constructed.

To explain: we can distinguish two kinds of facts relevant to moral reasoning. One is appealed to in giving reasons as to why an action or institution is, say, right or wrong, or just or unjust; the other is the kind of facts

about what is unjust, or the nature of the virtues, or of the moral doctrine

9. As noted in the text, we may, however, seek an empirical explanation for the failure to

reach agreement, and this explanation may refer to psychological elements such as prejudice and

bias, or to various situational elements. Usually explanations of failure refer to things that interfere

with our ability to make reasoned and impartial judgments.

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itself. To illustrate the first kind: to argue that slavery is unjust, we appeal

to the fact that it allows some persons cruelly to demean and abuse others.

To illustrate the second: we may appeal straightaway to the fact that deceitful promises are unjust, or to the fact that indifference to the needs of others

is lacking in virtue. Finally, a fact about Kant’s moral doctrine itself is that

it distinguishes between duties of justice and duties of virtue.

With regard to the first kind of relevant facts, a constructivist procedure

is framed to yield the principles and criteria that specify which facts about

actions, institutions, persons, and the social world generally are relevant in

moral deliberation. For the claim that slavery is unjust, relevant facts about

it are not when it arose historically, or whether it is economically efficient,

but that it allows some persons cruelly to demean and abuse others. That

is a fact about slavery.

Moreover, the idea of constructing facts seems incoherent, while the

idea of a constructivist procedure yielding principles and precepts identifying which facts count as reasons is quite clear. Recall how the categorical

imperative procedure accepts some maxims and rejects others. The idea of

constructivism is that, apart from a reasonable constructivist conception,

facts are simply facts. What is wanted is a framework of reasoning within

which to identify which facts are relevant from the appropriate point of

view and to determine their weight as reasons. So understood, a constructivist moral doctrine is not at odds with our commonsense ideas of truth

and matters of fact.

With regard to the second kind of relevant facts—those about the moral

doctrine itself—we say that these are not constructed but rather are facts

about the possibilities of construction.10 When Kant elaborates his doctrine

from the fundamental ideas of reason expressed in the CI-procedure, it is

a possibility of construction, implicit in the family of conceptions and principles of practical reasoning that are the basis of the construction, that slavery

is unjust and that there is a basic distinction between the duties of justice

and the duties of virtue. We may think of these as analogous to the way

in which the infinity of primes is viewed (in constructivist arithmetic) as a

10. The possibilities referred to here are those characterizing the moral or political conception

that meets the tests of objectivity discussed earlier in this section. It is such a conception that

concerns us.

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possibility of construction.11 This analogy does not commit us to a constructivist view of mathematics: instead we use it to clarify the meaning of moral

and political constructivism. For this it suffices to understand the analogy;

the truth of constructivism in mathematics is a separate matter.

§. The Categorical Imperative: In What Way Synthetic A Priori?

. To complete the account of constructivism, I consider what Kant means

in describing the categorical imperative as a synthetic a priori practical proposition (Gr II: []). Doing this will clarify the sense in which the moral

law constructs out of itself its own a priori object. In § we saw that rational

intuitionism also views the first principles of morals as synthetic a priori

propositions. Of course, Kant means something quite different, but what?

You may ask: Why haven’t we done this sooner? After all, this is central

to Kant’s doctrine. The answer is that it’s best to have the constructivist

background already in place.

To begin with, the categorical imperative is a priori in Kant’s most general sense, that is, it is knowledge grounded on principles of (pure) reason.

But might someone discover that there is no a priori knowledge? He says

not (KP :): “There is no danger of this. It would be like proving by reason

that there is no such thing as reason. . . . [K]nowledge through reason and

a priori knowledge are the same thing.”

The CI-procedure is, then, a priori, assuming that it correctly formulates

the requirements of the categorical imperative through which the moral

law (an idea of reason) applies to us as finite persons with needs in the

order of nature.

I remark here that the idea of the a priori is much simpler in the case

of practical reason than it is in the case of theoretical reason. In the first

11. For the idea of possibilities of construction, see Parsons’s account of constructivism in his

article “Mathematics, Foundations of,” pp. f. He says, “Constructivist mathematics would proceed as if the last arbiter of mathematical existence and mathematical truth were the possibilities

of construction,” where the possibilities in question are those of an appropriately idealized procedure. The remark in the text about the infinity of primes rests on the fact that a constructivist proof

of their infinity can be given.

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Critique, we have to distinguish between the a priori in connection with

the understanding and its categories as well as in connection with reason

and the ideas of reason. Understanding and reason (Verstand and Vernunft)

have different roles in the overall structure of knowledge, and the categories

and the ideas of reason have their own distinctive roles. All of this must

be kept track of. And there are also the a priori intuitions of space and time.

By contrast, in the second Critique, there is only the a priori of practical

reason itself.

. Now, for Kant, there are two marks of a priori knowledge: necessity

and universality; and these marks apply to practical as well as to theoretical


(a) Necessity here means practical necessity: that is, what is required

by the principles of pure practical reason. So whatever is required by

the categorical imperative (via the CI-procedure) is practically necessary

for us.

(b) As for universality, this means that the requirements in question

hold for all reasonable and rational persons in virtue of their nature as

such persons, independently of any particular conditions of inclination and

circumstances that mark off one reasonable and rational person from another. Kant insists in the preface of the Groundwork (Pref:– [–] )

that “ ‘Thou shalt lie’ could not hold merely for men, other rational beings

having no obligation to abide by it—and similarly with all other genuinely

moral laws; that here consequently the ground of obligation must be looked

for, not in the nature of man nor in the circumstances of the world in which

he is placed, but solely a priori in the concepts of pure reason.”

So far, all this is quite straightforward. The categorical imperative is a

priori as grounded on pure practical reason; it is both practically necessary

and holds universally for all reasonable and rational persons; and the same

is true of particular categorical imperatives when the persons in question

are, like us, finite persons with needs and hence subject to that imperative.

We must be careful to distinguish, as we have done before, the categorical imperative from the hypothetical. Two differences are these:

First, the hypothetical imperative Kant regards as analytic and not synthetic, and it holds in virtue of empirical rather than pure practical reason.

For Kant, it is simply part of being rational that if we desire the end, we

also desire the (most effective) means. For him, there is no difficulty in

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§5. Two Conceptions of Objectivity

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