Chapter 5, Part 2a, C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligations, “Constructivism”:

Evans takes constructivism to be a metaethical stance that tries to steer a middle course between realist, cognitivist accounts of the moral life and expressivist views. Like realists, constructivists want to argue that moral judgments have an objectivity such that they can be judged true or false, but they want to hold that such judgments gain that status because of our activities. They thus share the expressivist view that the moral world is a human creation. In this section of the chapter, Evans discusses three different versions of this project. Two of them see moral obligations as the result of a social contract or agreement, while the third is inspired by the Kantian-type view that morality is something that is created by the autonomous self. This post covers the first of these three accounts.


One of the simplest and most natural ways of thinking of morality as a human construction is to see it as the result of a social agreement, for such an agreement would obviously be the result of human activity, yet if morality were grounded in such an agreement, it would appear to have a degree of objectivity. A key question that must be faced by social contract theories of morality concerns the nature of the agreement: Is the agreement supposed to be an actual agreement or is it merely a hypothetical ideal, an agreement that people would make if certain conditions were fulfilled, even if those conditions never in fact hold? The difficulty with a hypothetical agreement is understanding how it could be actually binding.

Both the strengths and weaknesses of the actual agreement model can be seen in the metaethical thought of Gilbert Harman, who’s a metaphysical naturalist. He’s skeptical that moral terms can be defined in terms of non-moral facts, so he instead envisions morality as the result of a human agreement, which can salvage a sort of objectivity. Harman wants to distinguish his own view, which he calls ethical relativism, from the view he terms ethical nihilism, which simply denies that ethical propositions have any truth at all. Moral nihilism would thus logically lead to the view that morality should be rejected altogether, and Harman does not wish to go that far.

Why does Harman commit to ethical relativism? Because actual human social agreements differ significantly. One might of course propose that there would be no relativity if the agreement is an ideal one, an agreement that all humans would agree to if they were fully rational and had the opportunity to make such an agreement. But Harman is skeptical this could be achieved and, even if it could, that it would be binding. Any moral obligations we have must then be grounded in actual agreements made by concrete social groups. Since many such groups exist, there could be many different moral frameworks.

This means, Harman says, that moral claims will be analogous to claims about motion that are made in the context of Einstein’s theory that space and time are relative. There are alternative spatio-temporal frameworks and any claim about whether an object is in motion (as well as how fast it is moving) are always  made relative to some particular spatio-temporal framework. When understood as relative to a particular framework, claims about motion can be true or false, but it makes no sense to see such claims as “absolute.” Similarly, no one moral framework can be correct in the sense of holding for everyone, even though such claims can be made relative to a particular framework. But Evans wants to raise questions about whether Harman’s relativism really differs significantly from nihilism.

Ultimately the problem with Harman’s view is similar to the problem that emerged with expressivism: the authority of morality is undermined. Remember such key features of moral obligation as objectivity and universality. Harman admits his view can’t accommodate universal moral obligations. But consider a Mafiaoso obligated to murder—Harman says it’s a misuse of language to say of the assassin that he ought not to kill, or that it would be wrong of him to do so.

But Evans replies that it’s hardly a misuse of ordinary moral language to say that this employee of Murder, Inc. ought not to kill. Morality has been emptied of its authority otherwise. In particular, our conviction that moral obligations are universal and apply to everyone has been undermined. To say that morality has authority is in part to say that such claims about what people ought to do can be true regardless of what people believe.

Consider too why people adhere to their agreements. If the motivation for the agreement is self-interest, as Harman says it is, it is not clear they it is not sometimes reasonable for a person to fail to keep their moral agreements. Why should a person agree to live by a set of moral rules and yet selectively disregard those rules when it is in the person’s interest? Why should the rules of morality be seen as possessing genuine authority? This is particularly a problem for Harman’s view that says what creates moral obligations is the individual’s decision to accept a particular moral agreement as binding. This means people can walk away when they choose.

Harman anticipates this objection about “free riders” by saying the agreement implies an intention to carry out one’s part of the agreement on the condition others do the same. But this will not do, Evans says, for if we admit that a moral agreement can be tacit and grounded in actions and intentions rather than an explicit promise, it still must involve an element of commitment over time. Harman sees moral obligations as grounded in relative agreements we can always opt out of, but it is easy to see that a moral skeptic might claim that the view that there are such obligations does not differ significantly from the moral nihilist claim that genuine moral obligations do not exist at all.

Harman’s account fails in another way. Since the individual can opt out of morality altogether, there is no reason to believe that all are subject to moral obligations, nor is there any reason to think that any of us has moral obligations that extend to all human persons. Nor does it seem we have any obligations to people in our own neighborhood we may come in contact with, if these are people who can’t benefit us or harm us. But it seems arguable, quite to the contrary, that some of our deepest and most serious moral obligations are precisely obligations towards people who may be in such categories; for example, those who may be senile or handicapped or unable to act towards us in ways that our self-interest should take into account.


Image: "Construction" by A Levers. CC License.