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Ethics and Political Philosophy Group Talk (Federica Berdini, University of Bologna)

Wednesday April 18, 2018, 3:00 pm - 5:00 pm

Our department’s Ethics and Political Philosophy Research Interest Group welcomes Federica Berdini, who received her PhD from the University of Bologna’s Science, Cognition, and Technology program. Dr. Berdini’s research is in philosophy of action and philosophy of psychology.

Talk Title

Agency’s Constitutive Normativity: An Elucidation

Talk Abstract

My aim in this paper is to provide a conceptual elucidation of the notion of constitutive normativity, which is central to Constitutivism as a first-order theory of agency, as well as to its metanormative ambitions. After introducing and clarifying the origins and scope of Constitutivism, I focus on Christine Korsgaard’s version thereof, which provides an explicit articulation of the notion of constitutive norms. On Korsgaard’s account, constitutive norms are more than principles regulating a pre-existing activity. Rather, these norms constitute the very activity one is engaged in by conforming to them, while at the same time providing guidance for its being enacted.

Despite Korsgaard’s explicit acknowledgement that the concepts of action and agency come in degree, one problematic consequence of her account is the tension between the simultaneously descriptive and normative character of constitutive norms: they describe what an action is (‘norms for being’), and at the same time sanction as defective instances of actions that do not conform to them (‘norms for action’), up until the exclusion from the kind-membership individuated by the norms themselves. In this contribution I address the conceptual inconsistency generated by the double nature of constitutive norms in conjunction with other components of Korsgaard’s constitutivist account. These are the notion that the distinctive feature of human actions is their being attributable to the agent who has authored them (or Authorship View), along with the claim that the relation between an agent and her action is a relation of self-constitution: there is no agent prior to, and independently of, her actions. Given this claim, defective actions (i.e., less than autonomous actions, in Korsgaard’s Kantian characterization) would somehow ‘transmit’ a kind of ‘failure’ to the agent and render her ineffective qua agent, and eventually deny her agency.

For Korsgaard, the constitutive norms governing agency amount to the norms governing practical reasoning and morality. My contention here is that the constitutive normativity pertaining to human agency is not ‘homogeneous’ in kind. Cases of “disorders of agency” are used to show that while an agent’s individual actions might fail to display Korsgaard’s required pattern of consistency, self-reflection, and self-unification (and often, morality), her agency does not fade nor is disrupted.

I argue that there are more norms governing agency than just the norms for practical reasoning—and, in particular, that agency necessarily involves social norms distinct from any notion of practical reasoning. Specifically, I draw on a theoretical framework on the metaphysics of normativity developed within the philosophy of biology to distinguish two varieties of constitutive normativity (socially-generated and non-practice-based). I end by providing a preliminary articulation of the socially-generated constitutive normativity inspired by the speech-act-theoretical account of the ‘performative’ dimension of language qua social action. The distinction provided helps to single out important aspects of three differing dimensions of human agency: psychological, cognitive, and performative. Being an agent hinges on all of these components, each of which may, however, be developed to different degrees. Accordingly, I suggest a way for Korsgaard’s theory to be expanded so as to account for cases of disorders of agency and resolve the inconsistency delineated above.

About The Ethics and Political Philosophy Group

The Ethics and Political Philosophy Group meets periodically throughout the year to discuss topics in value theory and related fields, including: meta-ethics, normative ethics, applied ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy of law, moral psychology, practical reason, agency, and identity.

View more Event listings on the Department of Philosophy’s Events page.




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