Metaethics Is Social
Little, Margaret O
Philosophy is in the midst of a social turn. Our community is pouring new energy into fields like social epistemology and social ontology, and across the discipline we have turned our focus toward political and ethical issues involving social identities, social roles, and social positions. One of the central themes of this literature is the relation between our normative and our social understanding of the world. Gender shows up as intimately related to gender norms; race shows up as intimately related to racial norms; etc. Despite this central theme involving normativity, the social turn has yet to have a measurable impact on the subdiscipline of metaethics, which concerns itself with the nature an foundation of normativity.In this dissertation, I begin the work of bringing metaethics into the fold of the social turn in philosophy. I do not provide a comprehensive view. More modestly, I provide a path for those who wish to better understand what relations obtain between our social and our normative understandings of the world and why creatures like us would make sense of the world in this way. This path is composed of two parts. The first is critical evaluation of existing social theories in metaethics. To this end, I argue for multiple subtractions, revisions, and additions to expressivist and Kantian constructivist theories. In the process, I propose two social theories of my own: “differential conformist behavior,” according to which we linguistically and non-linguistically exhibit our normative judgments in our behavior, differentially imitating and censuring others in such a way that re-enforces localized conformity in our patterns of interpersonal attitudes and behavioral dispositions; and co-constitutive “social identities,” which is a social elaboration of Christine Korsgaard’s “practical identities.” The second part of the path is to engage across traditions. To this end, I argue that engaging in what I call “productive comparison” between social accounts offered from different traditions holds the possibility of an emergent understanding of the relations between normativity and sociality that we could not gain from one tradition alone.
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