Self-validation and internalism in Velleman’s constitutivism


Metaethical constitutivists explain reasons or normativity in terms of what is (putatively) constitutive of agency. In Velleman’s paradigmatic constitutivist theory, that is the aim of self-understanding. The best-known objection to constitutivism is Enoch’s shmagency objection: constitutivism cannot explain normativity because a constitutive aim of agency lacks normative significance unless one has reason to be an agent rather than a “shmagent”. In response, Velleman argues that the constitutive aim is self-validating. I argue that this claim is false. If the constitutive aim of self-understanding structures an agent’s practical deliberation as Velleman describes, then some correctly deliberating agents will regard that aim as normatively arbitrary or unjustified. Moreover, I argue that the self-invalidation of the constitutive aim undermines or significantly qualifies Velleman’s claim that his constitutivism reconciles internalism with a kind of objectivity about reasons. Internalists typically hold that motives from which an agent is alienated do not generate reasons, but in cases of self-invalidation, agents are alienated from the aim of self-understanding in just this way. Thus, the larger cost of the constitutive aim’s possible self-invalidation is that Velleman’s constitutivism does not satisfy a plausible and widely accepted constraint on an internalist account of reasons.

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  1. 1.

    Korsgaard (2009), Smith (2013), and Katsafanas (2013) also defend detailed constitutivist theories. Ferrero (2009) and Silverstein (2012, 2015) defend the general constitutivist approach, or versions of it, without endorsing a particular constitutivist theory.

  2. 2.

    For the former, see, e.g., Velleman (2004a). For the latter, see Velleman (2000a).

  3. 3.

    Velleman (2009, pp. 185–206) describes a second mode of self-understanding that he calls narrative understanding. Narrative understanding is the kind of understanding provided by a good story, which Velleman explains in terms of characteristic patterns of emotional arousal and resolution. For simplicity, in this paper I focus on folk-psychological self-understanding, as Velleman also does.

  4. 4.

    The kind of internalism at issue is what Darwall (1983, p. 54) calls existence internalism. It says that one has a reason to do X only if one would be motivated to do it under specified conditions. Existence internalism contrasts with judgment internalism, according to which, necessarily, if one makes a sincere normative judgment (at least under specified conditions), then one is to some degree motivated to act accordingly.

  5. 5.

    Rosati (2016, p. 202) may be endorsing this approach when she writes that “[i]f, with respect to a particular conception of agency, one can coherently imagine being ‘very similar’ to an agent, while lacking what is claimed to be constitutive of agency, then that would cast doubt directly on the account of agency itself”.

  6. 6.

    Velleman (2009, p. 143) notes that, if we are agents, then the criterion for answering the question “Why be agents rather than shmagents?” is given by the constitutive aim of agency. See also Velleman (2009, pp. 204–206).

  7. 7.

    A qualification is that, if it is possible to become shmagents and we have reason to do so, then we may not in the end (i.e., after the transformation) have reason (or shmreason) to do what the constitutive aim of agency requires. For constitutivists who aim to justify morality (or another set of substantive normative requirements) by showing that it follows from the constitutive aim of agency, this “escapability” of the constitutive aim would be a problem, at least if we assume that the constitutive aim of shmagency does not also justify morality. However, though this result would show that the constitutive aim of agency does not provide the firm foundation for morality that many constitutivists seek, it would not show that the constitutive aim is not normatively significant for agents while they are agents, and that is the claim that the shmagency objection is meant to contest.

  8. 8.

    Unless otherwise noted, subsequent references to “regarding the aim of self-understanding as justified” refer specifically to regarding it as justified qua criterion for reasons, as opposed to regarding it as instrumentally (or otherwise derivatively) justified.

  9. 9.

    As Enoch (2011, p. 221) also remarks.

  10. 10.

    Cf. Velleman (1989, pp. 304–305): “[I]f you think of yourself as a consequentialist, then that component of your self-conception will naturally affect how you deliberate…. [Y]ou will regard nonconsequentialist reasons as making no sense for you to consider, and you will shun them accordingly. You will take only consequentialist considerations into account, as the only ones that make sense for you”.

  11. 11.

    I thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this objection.

  12. 12.

    One might worry that, if the agent regards the aim of self-understanding as unjustified, and if she knows that this aim structures her practical deliberation, then she should regard all of her practical conclusions as unjustified, including her endorsement of her utilitarian and other commitments. If so, then the self-invalidation of the constitutive aim could lead a correctly deliberating agent to general normative skepticism. Whether it does so depends on what it makes folk-psychological sense for someone with her character and circumstances to do in this situation, and that question may have no clear answer.

  13. 13.

    Actually there is a third possibility: you might be deliberating incorrectly. The observed behavior of actual agents is only a heuristic in this context because an agent might mistakenly regard the aim of self-understanding as unjustified even though regarding it as justified would make more sense given her character and circumstances. My earlier argument is not vulnerable to this objection, however, because that argument was based on directly applying the aim of self-understanding to some possible cases. Unless my arguments about what it makes most sense for them to do are mistaken, the agents in my examples are deliberating correctly.

  14. 14.

    Even someone who thinks that an agent's reasons depend on her ends or desires should agree that lazy agents do not always have most reason to be lazy. When laziness interferes with an agent's pursuit of her own more valued ends, it is a form of instrumental irrationality.

  15. 15.

    Velleman (2009, pp. 32–33) also argues that someone in this conflicted state could make her life simpler and therefore more favorable to self-understanding if she eliminated her laziness. But this move does not help against the objection because it leaves intact the objectionable claim that the agent has most reason to be lazy now, given her present character. Moreover, it may not be possible for her to become less conflicted if she is in what Velleman (2009, p. 33) calls a “rational dead end,” in which making the effort required to reform her character does not make folk-psychological sense in light of her present, lazy character.

  16. 16.

    I am not sure whether Silverstein has in mind someone who doubts the normative significance of the constitutive aim or merely someone who doubts that she has reason to remain an agent (which is compatible with recognizing the normative significance of the constitutive aim given that she is an agent). But I take him to be committed to the view that the former sort of doubt is also no threat to constitutivism: “the authority of agency’s constitutive norm does not require the validation of any norm—even itself,” because “it depends instead on the deep metaphysical connection between agency and normativity” (2015, p. 1141).

  17. 17.

    For criticism of the latter claim, see Enoch (2011, pp. 223–227).

  18. 18.

    Other proponents of constitutivism (e.g., Katsafanas 2011, pp. 625–628) as well as critics (e.g., Enoch 2011, pp. 208–209) have cited the reconciliation of internalism and objectivity as an important motivation for constitutivism. Korsgaard’s (1996, pp. 16–18) project of finding a justification for morality that succeeds in addressing every agent by virtue of appealing to considerations related to each agent’s own identity reveals, to my mind, a similar ambition. Korsgaard (2009) develops her view in an explicitly constitutivist direction.

  19. 19.

    Velleman’s accommodation of traditional externalist views is limited insofar as he claims that the aim of self-understanding is “merely pro-moral,” encouraging the development of moral ways of life without guaranteeing that every agent always has reason to act morally (2009, p. 2). See also Velleman (2006b).

  20. 20.

    Some influential early statements of internalism (e.g., Williams 1981; Korsgaard 1986) do not explicitly rule out the possibility that alienated pro-attitudes generate reasons. These authors may have simply not considered this issue, or they may have omitted discussion of it to focus on the larger contrast between internalism and externalism. Williams is moved by concerns about alienation in other contexts (e.g., 1973, pp. 116–117), and Korsgaard (1996, pp. 93–94) is very clear that, at least in her own view, desires not endorsed by the agent do not generate reasons. In any case, what matters is that the non-alienation condition is plausible and widely accepted among contemporary internalists.

  21. 21.

    Velleman’s constitutivism violates the non-alienation condition in a second respect as well. Recall the objection that Velleman’s account of reasons implausibly allows “bad” character traits such as laziness to provide reasons to act in ways that manifest those traits. A version of this objection applies to character traits from which the agent is alienated. For example, although the unwilling addict is alienated from her desire for the drug, it may nevertheless make folk-psychological sense for her to take the drug, because the alienated desire has (what I called) a strong motivation-mediated folk-psychological connection with that action. So even if an agent is not alienated from the aim of self-understanding itself, she may be alienated from other motives that, in conjunction with that aim, generate the reasons that Velleman’s account says she has.

  22. 22.

    As some already do; e.g., Katsafanas (2013, pp. 204–207).


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I am grateful to David Enoch, Connie Rosati, Mark Timmons, and an anonymous reviewer for very helpful feedback on this paper. Any mistakes remain my own.

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Correspondence to Michael Bukoski.

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Bukoski, M. Self-validation and internalism in Velleman’s constitutivism. Philos Stud 174, 2667–2686 (2017).

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  • Constitutivism
  • Velleman
  • Self-validation
  • Internalism
  • Shmagency