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§3. The Constructivist Procedure

§3. The Constructivist Procedure

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going through the correct procedure correctly and rely only on true premises. In Kant’s account of moral reasoning, the procedural representation

is given by the categorical imperative procedure, which incorporates the

requirements that pure practical reason imposes on our rational maxims.

In arithmetic, the procedure expresses how the natural numbers are generated from the basic concept of a unit, each number from the preceding.

Different numbers are distinguished by their place in the series thus generated. The procedure exhibits the basic properties that ground facts about

numbers, so propositions about numbers that are correctly derived from

it are correct.

There are also important constructivist elements in Kant’s account of

the basis of Newtonian mechanics.3 The roots of constructivism lie deep

in Kant’s transcendental idealism, but these parallels I shall not consider


. Our aim is to see the way in which Kant’s moral doctrine has features

that quite naturally lead us to think of it as constructivist, and how this

connects with the themes of the supremacy and the unity of reason and

with the moral law as a law of freedom. To this end, let’s consider three


First, in moral constructivism, what is it that is constructed? The answer

is: the content of the doctrine.4 In Kant’s view, this means that the totality of

particular categorical imperatives (general precepts at step []) that pass the

test of the CI-procedure are seen as constructed by a procedure of construction

worked through by rational agents subject to various reasonable constraints.

These agents are rational in that, subject to the reasonable constraints of the

procedure, they are guided by empirical practical reason or the principles of

rational deliberation that fall under the hypothetical imperative.

A second question is this: Is the CI-procedure itself constructed? No, it

is not. Rather, it is simply laid out. Kant believes that our everyday human

understanding is implicitly aware of the requirements of practical reason,

both pure and empirical; as we shall see, this is part of his doctrine of the

3. For this, see Michael Friedman, “The Metaphysical Foundations of Newtonian Science,” in

Kant’s Philosophy of Physical Science, ed. R. E. Butts (Dordrecht: Reidel, ), pp. –.

4. It should be noted that this content can never be specified completely. The moral law is

an idea of reason, and since an idea of reason can never be fully realized, neither can the content

of such an idea. It is always a matter of approximation, and always subject to error and correction.

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fact of reason. So we look at how Kant seems to reason when he presents

his various examples, and we try to lay out in procedural form all the conditions he seems to rely on. Our aim in doing this is to incorporate into that

procedure all the relevant criteria of practical reason, so that the judgments

that result from a correct use of the procedure are themselves correct (given

the requisite true beliefs about the social world). These judgments are correct because they meet all the requirements of practical reason, both pure

and empirical.

Third, what more exactly does it mean to say, as I said a while back,

that the form and structure of the CI-procedure mirrors our free moral

personality as both reasonable and rational? The idea here is that not everything can be constructed. Every construction has a basis, certain materials,

as it were, from which it begins. While the CI-procedure is not, as noted

above, constructed but laid out, it does have a basis: the conception of free

and equal persons as reasonable and rational, a conception that is mirrored

in the procedure.

We discern how persons are mirrored in the procedure by noting what

powers and abilities, what kinds of beliefs and wants, and the like, they

must have as agents who are viewed as implicitly guided by the procedure

and as being moved to conform to the particular categorical imperatives it

authenticates. We look at the procedure as laid out and we consider the

use Kant makes of it, and from that we elaborate what his conception of

persons must be. This conception, along with the conception of a society

of such persons, each of whom can be a legislative member of a realm of

ends, constitutes the basis of Kant’s constructivism.

Thus we don’t say that the conceptions of person and society are constructed. It is unclear what that could mean. Nor do we say they are laid

out. Rather, these conceptions are elicited from our moral experience and

reflection and from what is involved in our being able to work through

the CI-procedure and to act from the moral law as it applies to us.

. To illustrate: that we are both reasonable and rational is mirrored in

the fact that the CI-procedure involves both forms of reasoning. We are

said to be rational at step (), and indeed at all steps, since the deliberations

of agents within the constraints of the procedure always fall under the rational. We are also said to be reasonable, since if we weren’t moved by the

reasonable, we would not take what Kant calls a pure practical interest in

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checking our maxims against the procedure’s requirements, nor when a

maxim is rejected would we have such an interest in revising our intentions

and checking whether our revised maxim is acceptable. The deliberations

of agents within the steps of the procedure and subject to its reasonable

constraints mirror our rationality; our motivation as persons in caring about

those constraints and taking an interest in acting in ways that meet the

procedure’s requirements mirrors our being reasonable.

The conception of free and equal persons as reasonable and rational is

the basis of the construction: unless this conception and the powers of moral

personality it includes—our humanity—are animated, as it were, in human

beings, the moral law would have no basis in the world. Recall here Kant’s

thought that to commit suicide is to root out the existence of morality from

the world (MdS :f.).

Note here—what is perhaps obvious—that not only does the CIprocedure exhibit the principles of practical reason, both reasonable and

rational, but also its form and structure are drawn from the conceptions

of person and of the public role of moral precepts within what Kant calls

the systematic whole of ends of a realm of ends. It is the union of the

principles of practical reason with those conceptions that shapes the procedure’s form and structure. The principles of practical reason, both the reasonable, as exhibited in the conditions imposed on the agents going through

the CI-procedure, and the rational, as exhibited in their ways of reasoning,

select the precepts of morality.

§. An Observation and an Objection

. The observation about constructivism concerns the relation of priority

between the order of moral values and the conceptions implicit in our practical reason. By contrast with rational intuitionism, constructivism sees the

substantive principles that express the order of moral values as constructed

by a procedure the form and structure of which are taken from the conceptions and principles implicit in our practical reasoning. As already stated,

the union of practical reason with conceptions of society and person is complete and independent. For moral purposes, this union needs no grounding,

and the principles of practical reason rely on nothing prior to it.

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Another way to state the relation of priority is to say that it concerns

the order of explanation.5 Rational intuitionism says: the procedure is correct because following it correctly usually gives the correct (independently

given) result. Constructivism says: the result is correct because it issues

from the correct reasonable and rational procedure correctly followed.6

Both views use as the fundamental criterion what we think on due reflection. Our judgment as to the correct view of moral or political reasoning

depends on which seems soundest after full consideration and judgment.7

Both ways of stating the contrast between moral constructivism and intuitionism are right and come to the same thing: the first, we might say, is

more vivid; the second is clearer and more rigorous.

. The objection to constructivism is this: what we think on due reflection is itself something prior to and independent of practical reason and

the conceptions of person and society.8 After all, we revise our formulation

of a constructivist procedure according to whether its ideas, procedures,

and principles yield judgments that fit with our convictions after full consideration. But surely, the objection continues, these convictions, whether general or more particular, are intuitions! So why isn’t constructivism simply

a form of intuitionism?

In reply, both constructivism and intuitionism must rely on due reflection. Otherwise, constructivism cannot check its formulation of the correct

procedure. The contrast with intuitionism lies in the order of explanation:

in whether we say the judgment is correct because it followed a procedure

that usually gives the correct result determined independently, or whether

we say, as in constructivism, that the judgment is correct because it issues

5. This way of putting it was suggested to me by Thomas Nagel.

6. To illustrate the contrast thus stated, the following statement of Christine Korsgaard: “The

point I want to emphasize here is that the Kantian approach frees us from assessing the rationality

of choice by means of the apparently ontological task of assessing the thing chosen: we do not

need to identify especially rational ends. Instead, it is the reasoning that goes into the choice itself—

the procedures of full justification—that determines the rationality of the choice and so certifies

the goodness of the object. Thus, the goodness of rationally chosen ends is a matter of the demands

of practical reason rather than of ontology.” From “Two Distinctions of Goodness,” Philosophical

Review (April ), ; reprinted in Creating the Kingdom of Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, ).

7. This means that, as reasonable and rational, the best criterion we have at any given moment

of whether a conception of right and justice applies to us is whether it is the one most acceptable

to us on due reflection.

8. I am indebted to Gregory Kavka and David Estlund for discussion on this point.

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§3. The Constructivist Procedure

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