Constructivisms: Between Abstraction and Idealization
“Constructivism” has recently become a particularly problematic label to adopt in moral and political philosophy. The later Rawls defines his position as a Kantian form of constructivism, whilst paradoxically conceiving of his normative project in a culuturally loaded and anti-universalist manner. In his critical assessement of Rawls’s enterprise, G. A. Cohen has gone even further than that, and argued that the hallmark of constructivism is the conviction that normative principles gain their validity through “being the output of a privileged selection procedure”, whose appropriateness is itself grounded on certain facts about human nature. Both these presentations, although different in their intentions and in their aim, seem to deny full foundational independence to constructivism. Constructivism seems either to rely on the articulation of already accepted (and culturally parochial) beliefs – and thus to be little more than a form of contextualism -, or to be grounded on the truth of the “facts” it relies on – and thus lack an independent justification for its own method. At the other end of the spectrum, Onora O’Neill’s advocates a particularly radical view about constructivism. Constructivism, in her understanding, lies “in the space between realist and relativist accounts of ethics” and is capable of providing objective justification for normative principles without either relying on or vindicating the actual existence of moral truths. Objectivity in ethics is possible, although normative principles are in no way “real” and independent from human beings: practical reason, not culture or human nature, provides the foundation for constructivism. This paper analyses O’Neill’s enterprise with an approach that is partly sympathetic and partly critical. On the one hand, I argue that O’Neill has the important merit of raising our attention both to the ambition of the constructivist project and to the demandingeness of its constraint. This, I remark, is extremely important because it reminds us of the original aim and motivation of constructivist approaches to justice, as opposed to either realist or relativist accounts of it. On the other hand, I raise some concerns about O’Neill’s own account of constructivism in several directions. The common hallmark of my criticisms, which are independent from each other but inspired by a common idea, is a challenge to her distinction between the notions of abstraction and idealization, and to her contention that constructivism should rely on the former but avoid the latter without compromise. I conclude with some, still very sketchy remarks on how O’Neill’s insights, although not acceptable in their integrity, can help us revive the seminal notion of original position, and conceive of Rawls’s original constructive procedure in a partly new way.