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Constitutivism and Natural Normativity in Ethics

Gavin, Samuel (2019) Constitutivism and Natural Normativity in Ethics. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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This project reconciles two schools of thought about the foundations of morality and rationality: constitutivism and neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalism. Constitutivism takes inspiration from Kant and Hume and accounts for the demands of morality and reason by identifying them as constitutive of rational agency. Meanwhile, neo-Aristotelianism makes sense of morality and reason by identifying them as part of human nature. However, if rational agency is part of human nature then these two schools need not be divided. In fact, constitutivism in its strongest form can be shown to rely on the same foundational theory of normativity as neo-Aristotelianism. In this dissertation, I articulate and justify that common theory of normativity and the form of constitutivism based upon it.

I begin with constitutivism’s basic concept: constitutive norms. These are norms that concern what it is to be the kind of thing they govern, such as an agent. The very idea of such norms is threatened by the problem of violability: if morality is constitutive of agency, for instance, how is it that agents can in fact violate moral norms? If this question cannot be answered, we cannot explain how constitutive norms are normative in the broad sense of providing any kind of standard of evaluation. I argue that a solution can be found in the neo-Aristotelian theory of natural normativity, which analyzes norms as violable generic generalizations about a species of living thing. I go on to address an important objection that not all generic generalizations are normative. I show that generics pertaining to living things can be formally distinguished from other generics in a way that shows why the former are normative. I conclude my argument by addressing the question of how constitutive norms on my account can be normative in the strict sense of providing an agent with reasons. I show that well-known challenges for strict normativity faced by neo-Aristotelianism and constitutivism are versions of the same challenge and that solutions from both schools can be combined in defense of my combined approach.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Gavin, Samuelspg18@pitt.eduspg180000-0002-7051-5689
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairThompson, Michael
Committee MemberEngstrom, Stephen
Committee MemberWhiting, Jennifer
Committee MemberSchafer, Karl
Date: 26 September 2019
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 30 July 2019
Approval Date: 26 September 2019
Submission Date: 16 September 2019
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 130
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Philosophy
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: Metaethics; Practical Reason; Constitutive Norms; Ethical Naturalism; Neo-Aristotelianism; Generics
Additional Information: Revised according to instructions
Date Deposited: 26 Sep 2019 13:04
Last Modified: 26 Sep 2019 13:04


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