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Ontological-Transcendental Defence of Metanormative Realism


If there is something (P) that every possible agent is committed to value above all else, and certain actions or attitudes either enhance or diminish P, then normative claims about a range of intentional actions can be objectively and non-trivially evaluated. I argue that the degree of existence as an agent depends on the consistency of reflexive-relating with other individuals of the agent-kind: the ontological thesis. I then show that in intending to act on a reason, every agent is rationally committed to value above all else being an agent, what consists in exercising the capacity to act and having the freedom to discriminate between more or less valuable actions: the transcendental thesis. Since the degree of possession of this personal but non-contingent good depends on relating to other agents in a special way, certain actions and attitudes may be objectively right or wrong for all agents.

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  1. 1.

    “...the realist need not maintain even that all genuine moral disputes are resolvable. He can maintain that some moral disputes have no uniquely correct answers.” (Brink 1984)

  2. 2.

    My definition of metanormative realism is therefore weaker than the ‘robust metanormative realism’ defended by Enoch (2010, 414–415).

  3. 3.

    The law of identity is not only that, at time t, ‘x is absolutely identical to itself’ (x = x), but that ‘x is absolutely identical only to itself’: ∀m(∃!x = m) or ∃!x for short. Every individual, by virtue of being identifiable, implies either constitutive or contextual uniqueness, which is to say, the quality of being a one that is differentiable from every other one, “for it is impossible to think of anything if we do not think of one thing; but if this is possible, one name might be assigned to this thing” (Aristotle 1984b, 1006b). Cf. “To single x out is to isolate x in experience; to determine or fix upon x in particular by drawing spatio-temporal boundaries and distinguishing it in its environment from other things and unlike kinds...” (Wiggins 2001, 6)

  4. 4.

    “To be an I, a self, is to have the capacity for reflexive self-reference.” (Nozick 1981, 78); “Reflexiveness (...) is the essential condition, within the social process, for the development of mind.” (Mead 1934, 134);

  5. 5.

    “...subjectivity consists in experiencing oneself as here and now at every moment in every circumstance.” (Peters 2010, 419); “...all subjective experience is self-conscious in the weak sense that there is something it is like for the subject to have that experience. This involves a sense that the experience is the subject’s experience” (Flanagan 1993, 194); For similar views see (Kriegel 2003, 106), (Nagel 1974, 436), (Zahavi and Parnas 1998, 689–92), (Zahavi 2005, 119). If the attribution of intrinsic self-consciousness to subjectivity is unacceptable to some, my metanormative argument will not be weakened by substituting ‘self-conscious subject’ for the term ‘subject’.

  6. 6.

    “...no function can have among its values anything which presupposes the function, for if it had, we could not regard the objects ambiguously denoted by the function as definite until the function was definite, while conversely, as we have just seen, the function cannot be definite until its values are definite.” (Whitehead and Russell 1927, 39)

  7. 7.

    “[Self-identity] is certainly a relation formally or logically speaking, but it also holds trivially, it’s trivially true of everything...” (Strawson 2013); “...the subject without relation to himself would be condensed into the identity of the in-itself;” (Sartre 1956, 77)

  8. 8.

    (Wittgenstein 1933, Par 3.333) I have substituted p for the fx used in the original formulation.

  9. 9.

    A similar line of reasoning is followed by Tarski (1944) in his paper on the semantic conception of truth, where he resolves the liar paradox by showing that any self-referring sentence consists of object- and meta-languages; and by Whitehead and Russell (1927) who resolve Russell’s paradox by means of ‘logical types’.

  10. 10.

    “...the ‘I’ is not ‘me’ and cannot become a ‘me’.” (Mead 1934, 174)

  11. 11.

    This ontological thesis constitutes the foundation of Discourse Ethics developed by Karl-Otto Apel and Jürgen Habermas: “Subjectivity (...) is itself constituted through intersubjective relations to others. The individual self will only emerge through the course of social externalization, and can only be stabilized within the network of undamaged relations of mutual recognition.” (Habermas 2003, 34); “...the self of the practical relation-to-self cannot reassure itself about itself through direct reflection but only via the perspective of others.” (Habermas 1992, 186)

  12. 12.

    Two individuals (a, b) belong to the same kind iff “a has to b the relation of identity as restricted to things that f; or, more formally, \( \left(\exists \mathbf{f}\right)\left(\genfrac{}{}{0pt}{}{a=b}{\mathbf{f}}\right) \)” (Wiggins 2001, 17). Another way, (the same) f is a property or part of both a and b, but a is not b.

  13. 13.

    (Prinz 2012, 54)

  14. 14.

    A similar thesis is central to George Mead’s theory of subjectivity: “...the general conversation which constitutes the process of thinking - is carried on by the individual from the standpoint of the ‘generalised other’.” (Mead 1934, 155) See also (Vandenberghe 2010)

  15. 15.

    If my interpretation is correct, this line of reasoning is compatible with Badiou’s axioms of existence: “the degree of existence of a is equal to its degree of identity to b” (2009, 257), and “the common of degrees of existence is equal to the degree of identity of the terms in question” (2009, 356).

  16. 16.

    Performative affirmation of a fact, hereafter affirmation, consists of actions or attitudes that require, or could not possibly be intended without, the agent’s acceptance of that fact: the relevant fact is presupposed by the affirmative act or attitude.

  17. 17.

    According to Korsgaard (2009, 25), “an action that is less successful at constituting its agent is to that extent less of an action. So on this conception, ‘action’ is an idea that admits of degrees.” The lowest degree of agency is that of a “tyrannized soul” who is no longer an agent but “a mere force of nature, an object, a thing” (2009, 173). Korsgaard deals with the question of action as “an idea that admits of degrees” in a broadly qualitative way and does not develop a general theory of how the degrees of existence could be quantified.

  18. 18.

    I take action to mean possessing causal features that are not fully determined prior to the relevant act or intention being realised.

  19. 19.

    (Hume 1965, 469–70)

  20. 20.

    “Whether the recognition of moral facts provides reasons for action depends upon whether the agent has reasons to do what morality requires.” (Brink 1984, 114); “An account that takes agents to be oriented toward the good will only be adequate if the account of the good is such that it makes sense as a constitutive aim of agency (or better, rational agency). And it will only make sense as a constitutive aim of agency if it is clear how being good (or good for someone), so conceived, could answer the question of what to do, thereby providing the agent with reasons for action.” (Rosati 2003)

  21. 21.

    (Brink 1984, 113)

  22. 22.

    Why be rational? What is so special about rationality to motivate us to act rationally? I understand (minimal) rationality as adherence to the law of identity and the law of non-contradiction - the necessary conditions of sense. We have to act rationally in order to reliably get what we want out of action, and aiming to get what one wants out of action is just what ‘being an agent’ means. A different argument in support of the thesis that one ought to be rational was recently presented by Lord (2017).

  23. 23.

    Brink seems to approve of the kind of normative logic I am pursuing here: “Everyone has reason to promote his own well-being, and everyone has reason to promote the well-being of others at least to the extent that his own well-being is tied up with theirs. Presumably, any plausible theory of human needs, wants, and capacities will show that the satisfaction of these desiderata for any given individual will depend to a large extent on the well-being of others.” (Brink 1984)

  24. 24.

    This account of intentional action, which may be characterised as value internalism about reasons, is defended by Joseph Raz: “...the classical approach, it may be called, can be characterized as holding that the central type of human action is intentional action; that intentional action is action for a reason; and that reasons are facts in virtue of which those actions are good in some respect and to some degree.” (Raz 1999, 22); “...having intentions involves belief in the value of what they intend” (Raz 2015, 1); see also (Raz 2016) (Schueler 2003, 104) (Gewirth 1978, 48–53) (Nagel 1970, 35) (Anscombe 1957, 76) (Kant 2015, 5:58–5:60) (Aristotle 1984a, 431). For arguments opposing the classical view see (Stocker 1979) (Velleman 1992) (Setiya 2003) (Setiya 2007). For an overview of the debate see (Orsi 2015).

  25. 25.

    Much of Setiya’s (2007, 26) argument against the classical view hinges on the premise that ‘trying to do something’ does not constitute action. I am not clear what Setiya means by ‘trying to do’ that isn’t already acting. Aren’t we always only ‘trying to do’ something, with no guarantee of success?

  26. 26.

    On this point I agree with Setiya: “When an agent acts on a reason, he takes it as a reason, but that means he takes it as his reason, not that he takes it to be a good reason on which to act.” (Setiya 2003, 380)

  27. 27.

    Cf. “...if one cares about one’s capacity for agency, then one should (by virtue of consistency) care about how one exercises it.” (Arruda 2016).

  28. 28.

    See Gewirth (1978, 48) and Arruda (2016).

  29. 29.

    “...infection makes penicillin valuable, but infection isn’t therefore valuable, much less intrinsically valuable.” (Markovits 2014, 105); Cf. “...it is not logically necessary for the condition of goodness to be good itself, either conditionally or unconditionally.” (Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen 2000, 48)

  30. 30.

    For a similar argument see Kerstein (2001, 37).

  31. 31.

    Cf. “I must see myself as having unconditional value - as being an end in myself and the condition of the value of my chosen ends - in virtue of my capacity to bestow worth on my ends by rationally choosing them.” (Markovits 2014, 103)

  32. 32.

    Enoch (2011) argues that an attack on the sceptic on the basis of an unavoidable performative contradiction does not alone succeed in refuting the sceptical challenge. The essence of his argument is that we should not mistake finding flaws with the sceptic for vindicating our own position, and so we still need a substantive answer to the sceptical challenge. This may be true in some cases but does not amount to a general principle. If the sceptical challenge involves a performative contradiction then the fault is not just with the sceptic but with the sceptical challenge as well, potentially rendering it false. For example, if the sceptic argues by ϕ-ing that not-ϕ-ing then the argument is self-negating.

  33. 33.

    “If you are already an agent, then any authoritative recommendation you receive - even a recommendation to cease being an agent - owes its authority to agency’s constitutive norm. And so the force of such a recommendation could never undermine the authority of that norm.” (Silverstein 2015); Cf. (Korsgaard 1996, 160–164)

  34. 34.

    These ‘properties’ of agency are consistent with Korsgaard’s (1996, 101) definition of practical identity.

  35. 35.

    Cf. “Choosing not to act makes not acting a kind of action, makes it something that you do.” (Korsgaard 2009, 1)

  36. 36.

    I may be vindicating here Korsgaard’s intuitions about consequences of being a ‘tyrant’. (2009, 173)


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Kowalik, M. Ontological-Transcendental Defence of Metanormative Realism. Philosophia (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-019-00149-6

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  • Metanormative realism
  • Normativity
  • Metaethics
  • Agency
  • Social ontology