Reconstructing Rawls VII: Constructivism+ in relation to other Critiques within Moral Philosophy

Interlude: Constructivism+ in relation to other Critiques within Moral Philosophy (continuing a series of posts)

The constructivist+ interpretation I have been developing is broadly sympathetic with feminist formulations of moral theory (Card 1991, Kittay and Meyers 1987), with post-modern, anti-foundationalist critiques of moral theory (Engelhardt 1989), and with feminist ethical analyses of real life issues (mentioned in the introduction).  Each of these forms of critique incorporates constructivist references to social background.  Feminist moral theory finds male bias in the foundations of conventional theory.  The post-modern argument that moral foundations cannot be universal is primarily made on philosophical grounds, but subsequently interprets claims for universality as privileging some particular social group or moral community.  And, likewise, feminist analysts of real life ethics are being constructivists when they argue that applications of moral principles should be situational, requiring a great deal of attention to social conditions (Purdy 1992).

A thoroughgoing constructivism+ differs, however, from each of these critiques in interpreting moral foundations, principles, and applications to be jointly constructed, in which the content and weight of each level is influenced by the social background of the particular moral philosophical project.  Feminist moral theory has in general been motivated by and drawn critical insight from opposition to the male domination of society and of the profession of philosophy.  But, more than this, its alternative foundations, such as, caring and interdependency among people, has been most plausible to those who have this oppositional orientation and promote the values traditionally or rhetorically associated with women, such as attention to relationships.  The receptivity of post-modernists to pluralism in moral principles and to standpoint relativity of applications, and the emphasis of certain feminists on specific applications rather than abstract foundational argument both invite social interpretation as well, although generalizing about the social background of these projects in more difficult.

A further development in the constructivist perspective follows from the multiplication of connections among foundations, principles, applications, and social background that began to appear in the previous sections (see figure 2).  On one hand, an idea of direct causality of ideas is connoted by the links drawn in figures 1 and 2, the emphasis on society-writ-large, and the language used in my interpretations of Rawls:  Because Rawls wanted, I proposed, to distance his project from fascism and communism he insisted on the Priority of Liberty; liberty could not be foregone or denied in return for greater welfare.  On the other hand, a less direct view of causality of ideas is suggested by the multiplication of connections, by invoking of society at more micro-levels, e.g., of a person making a career in philosophy, and by the tensions displayed among various elements of Rawls’ project.  Developing this second emphasis, constructivists+ might talk less of causes and influences and instead of “heterogeneous resources” (Latour 1987, Taylor 1995) that are harnessed to support a theory of a course of action — citations, reputations of colleagues, authority of the classics, metaphors, logical tightness of argument, funding, rhetorical devices, career considerations, and so on.

My original interpretive proposition, that views of social actions are built into philosophical arguments, can now be re-expressed:  Philosophers are always acting or intervening in multi-levelled social worlds when they construct their representations, and thus views of possible or desired social action are woven into these “representation-interventions.”  The actions facilitating and facilitated by the problems chosen, the categories used, the relations inferred, the evidence required, and so on invites analysis and interpretation.  To propose, in contrast, that the harnessing of resources does not affect the content of theories, becomes a strong claim, obliging the claimant, I believe, to demonstrate that no changes in the resources would have produced a significantly different theory.

The specter of relativism haunts social constructivisms, even though there is nothing in the idea of heterogeneous construction that implies all “networks” (Latour 1987) or “webs” (Taylor 1995) of resources are equally strong or coherent.  It is the case, however, that the greater the complexity one discerns these webs to have, the more difficult the analysis of their causal structure (Taylor 1992, 1995).  No one resource in a construction stands alone; each tends to reinforce or link to others.  Together with the contingency and particularity, sometimes idiosyncracy, of any web supporting a theory or action, this difficulty of analysis invites, for those so inclined, a relativist stance.  However, it is possible to adopt a non-relativist approach to social constructivism, although the practice of this is not well developed.  We can, in a thought experiment or in actuality, consider the practical implications of a critic or opponent attempting to modify or dispute the connections making up a theory/action supporting web (Taylor 1992, 1995).  In this manner we can expose the resources involved, and their relative weight and inter-relations.  The way we are able to conduct the thought experiment or the actual intervention depends on our own web of resources, and once we acknowledge our own standpoint, or take stock of our web (Taylor 1990), we can hardly persist in giving equal credence to all theories or action.  The objection that no one theory or action can be proven decisively to all parties to be strongest or most coherent loses weight, remaining relevant only to the extent that one attempts to discount or deny one’s dependency on particular other social actors for acceptance or implementation of one’s theory or course of action.  I will return to this point in the conclusion, but now let me return to my interpretation of moral theory.

(next post)


Card, C. (ed.) (1991).  Feminist Ethics.  Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas.

Engelhardt, H. (1989).  “Applied philosophy in the post-modern age: An augury.”  Journal of Social Philosophy, 20: 42-48.

Kittay, E. and D. Meyers (eds.) (1987).  Women and Moral Theory.  Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.

Latour, B. (1987).  Science in Action:  How to follow scientists and engineers through society Milton Keynes: Oxford University Press.

Purdy, L. (1992).  In Their Best Interest?  The Case Against Equal Rights for Children.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Taylor, P. (1990).  “Mapping ecologists’ ecologies of knowledge.”  PSA 1990, Vol. 2: 95-109.

—— (1992).  “Re/constructing socio-ecologies:  System dynamics modeling of nomadic pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa,” in A. Clarke and J. Fujimura (eds.) The Right Tool for the Job:  At work in twentieth century life sciences.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

—— (1995). “Building on construction: An exploration of heterogeneous constructionism, using an analogy from psychology and a sketch from socio-economic modeling.” Perspectives on Science 3:66-98.


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