20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Social Philosophy

Constructivist Moral Realism

J. K. Swindler
Wittenberg University

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: We are social animals in the sense that we spontaneously invent and continuously re-invent the social realm. But, not unlike other artifacts, once real, social relations, practices, institutions, etc., obey prior laws, some of which are moral laws. Hence, with regard to social reality, we ought to be ontological constructivists and moral realists. This is the view sketched here, taking as points of departure Searle's recent work on social ontology and May's on group morality. Moral and social selves are distinguished to acknowledge that social reality is constructed but social morality is not. It is shown how and why moral law requiring respect for the dignity and well being of agents governs a social world comprising roles that are real only because of their occupants' social intentions.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

Constructivist Moral Realism

We are social animals in the sense that we spontaneously invent and continuously re-invent the social realm. But, not unlike other artifacts, once real, it obeys prior laws and some of these are moral laws. Hence, with regard to social reality, we ought to be ontological constructivists and moral realists. That is the view I sketch here, taking as points of departure Searles recent work on social ontology and Mays on group morality.

1. Constructivist Social Ontology

I first consider John Searles effort to accommodate both metaphysical and epistemological realism within a constructivist view of society in his recent book The Construction of Social Reality. His thesis is that social realityincluding institutions, collective practices, artifacts, etc.while no less real and no less objective than non-social reality, has the features it has because we declare it to be so. First, Searle distinguishes between mind independent and mind dependent features of reality. The [i]ntrinsic features of reality are those that exist independently of all mental states, except for mental states themselves, which are also intrinsic features of reality. Mind dependent (sometimes observer-relative) facts are those that could not exist without there also being minds. Some chunk of iron could exist mind independently but it could not be a bathtub unless people believed it to be one. On Searles view, all social facts are mind dependent. Second, for Searle social facts derive from attribution of status functions. Since functions are intelligible only against some background teleology, he concludes that they are observer- relative. Social reality is different from nature because it exists only as a result of the assignment of functions. The heart does what it does whatever we think of it but social entities like money just do not exist without our conferring their functions. The general form of a status function is this: X counts as Y in C. Someone, say a teacher, is given authority; something, e.g. money, is endowed with exchange value. So the assignment of status is always deontic, involving as it does distributions of rights, duties, powers, etc. Third, in an elegant move, Searle rejects reductionism while leaving himself the means to reject holism as well. He asks why the content of an intention cannot be just as legitimately we intend as I intend. Although all intentions belong to individuals, some intentions are irreducibly collective in content. Speaking a language, ashing a check, taking a walk together all require such collective intentions. I just we intend; when you do too and our we intentions involve common status functions, we sustain a social reality, play the same music or the same game. Finally, the formula X counts as Y in C expresses the structure of constitutive rules rather than regulative rules. Generally, to confer social status we must communicate that status to others. Consequently, language, itself an institution, is fundamental to social reality. But language enables us to go beyond the physical features of things in assigning status. It licenses symbolic significance by representing things and events as having the status assigned. We simply say, under the appropriate circumstances, John scored six points. Hence, performatives, with which we make something the case just by saying it, are particularly important in creating social facts. I say I quit and I am out of a job; you say, Youre hired and Im working again. In general, if in the formula X counts as Y in C the X term is a speech act, we perform the act by saying it.

Thus, for Searle social reality is constructed via the we intend. We treat money as if it were more than physical; lifting together, we act as if we formed a single body. But its all pretense. The mind independent reality is that money is just paper or computer memory states and a community is just so many willing participants we intending as if they were one. So Searles resistance to individualism leads rightly not to a realist but only to a constructivist holism.

On the other hand, Searles account of the deontic features of social reality is potentially misleading. He assimilates moral rights to the basic pattern of assignment of status functions that generate non-moral rights and powers and I think this is an error. He concludes, We can with this mechanism create all and only those forms of power where the collective recognition or acceptance of the power is constitutive of having it and that evidently includes moral properties as well. So, Searle thinks that moral rights are just as artificial (arbitrary?) as the baseball umpires right to call a strike. Fortunately, such a claim does not follow from Searles basic view of social reality and he provides no argument for it in any case. Assimilating morality to social acceptance involves the same sort of confusion as taking science for nature, a confusion Searle himself argues against quite effectively. The key feature of scientific and,

I want to say, moral judgments, unlike judgments about social powers, is that they are sometimes true without qualification, not just because we think so or within some institutional structure. Hitler can no more be made virtuous by collective agreement than a vote of the legislature can change the value of pi or the charge of an electron. In both science and morality there are brute or mind-independent facts that our judgments should reflect. We need to recognize the moral properties and relations of people as intrinsic. In other words, his realism with regard to the natural world should extend to the moral realm as well. This still leaves the social per se as construct and Searles most important theoretical gains intact. But it also leaves us in a position to understand both individual and collective morality as something more than a fiction.

2. Realist Social Ethics

We turn now to Mays recent books, The Morality of Groups and Sharing Responsibility, which together provide an attractive realist account of social morality, including the ethics of membership, leadership, and empowerment.

Conceiving groups as individuals in relationships, May affirms that relations among group members are real but insufficiently so to make groups real independently of their members. Relations serve to unify groups so that members can act and have interests otherwise impossible to them. But since, like Sartre, he insists that unorganized groups can act, be acted upon, and have interests, May rejects both group structure and awareness of common purpose among members as necessary conditions of group reality. Indeed, in some cases, it is enough that some Other view the members as the same. The resulting solidarity unifies action and interests by collectivizing members intentions much as in Searles account: someone like this counts as king or untouchable. In groups so unorganized that united action is impossible, any harm to the group distributes to every member, since there is no structure to concentrate harm. Since a mob can act but comprises members with only pre-reflective group consciousness, responsibility remains undistributed at the group level, though if there are leaders they will bear greater responsibility. In organized groups like corporations, where members freely take on roles, responsibility is not attributable to the organization as such but resides in officers.

May parses responsibility within groups by deploying his social existentialism. The self he sees as a construct but not in isolation: character is formed as decisions are made but group membership influences choices. In groups we are empowered in ways impossible alone, but we tend to be complacent, acting uncritically as conduits for group interests. For May, since responsibility follows upon choice and choice makes character, we are responsible for our character, particularly our attitudes. In groups attitudes are typically shared, so that members should be considered responsible for harms done by their shared attitudes, as in negative stereotyping. Where attitudinal harms occur, one person can therefore be responsible for the actions of another without doing anything directly harmful himself. Mays antidote to harmful attitudes is sensitivity to the suffering of others, seeing it as like ones own. Thus, just as Searle sees individuals as the repositories of all intentionality, for May, values reside within individuals. Groups are important because our values are transformed as a result of group identity, its policies and practices and our roles.

The benefits we enjoy as members increase rather than diminish our responsibilities and these are typically specific to our roles. Here structure matters. Groups without structure putative groupsare often responsible for not acting when they should. Collective inaction means a group could have formed to prevent a harm. Since members have failed to be even pre- reflectively aware of the harm, the group as a whole is responsible. Though the lack of roles limits expectations, those who could have led are responsible for not having done so. May suggests that guilt is too strong an expression of responsibility in such cases and thinks shame more appropriate. If more of us felt shame for the harm done by our putative groups, less harm would be done. Shame is appropriate to metaphysical guilt, guilt due to who we are rather than what we do. Not only are we all implicated in most of the actions taken by our fellow community members, we are always responsible for who we are individually. Importantly then, unlike communitarians, May thinks it essential to dissociate oneself from the deplorable conduct and attitudes of ones group. Since we all occupy many roles, there will be conflicts among role-based obligations. May proposes to take the common good as the decision principle in such cases, construing the common good as protection of individual dignity and the integrity of pluralistic communities.

Hence, Mays ontology dovetails with Searles but some further reservations are in order. First, May attributes collectivity to the existence of social relations; it is these relations that empower members and enable group identity, interests and actions. But formally, the very existence of such relations argues structure and everything from the military to a mob will be organized while only truly unstructured random collectivities will not qualify. The group exists just in case its members stand in relations, so, formally, every social group forms an organized whole. Second, like some holists, May attributes causal efficacy to group structure. But this would defeat the important vicarious agency thesis which attributes responsibility for group actions (and attitudes) to individuals in their roles. Third, in cases where group identity is due to a stereotyping Other, the sheer arbitrariness of the Other undermines principled or empirically justifiable decisions about who qualifies as a group member. Fourth, often in his account of responsibility in and of groups, May seems utilitarian, taking the duty to prevent harm as basic, championing legal protection for basic rights and condemning individuals and groups harboring attitudes contravening those rights. But perennial utilitarian dilemmas still loom. He needs to show that it is never necessary to sacrifice individual interests and rights to promote the common good. He seems to identify the two, but he does so more as a hope than an argument. In any case, his construal of individual interest as dignity and his social existentialism, which emphasizes the need to avoid being a certain kind of person, both suggest that the moral values he wants to build his theory on are deontological rather than utilitarian.

3. Constructivist Moral Realism

I suggest that constructivist social ontology combines with realist social ethics best by distinguishing two kinds of selves. One is the moral self, which is without material content, but which possesses all the myriad powers of intentionality. The other, borrowing Meads term, is the social self that is constructed out of specific interests, experiences, relationships, choices, etc.

The moral self is as perfect a particular as we know, its particularity confirmed directly by consciousness of its own activity. Although, as I have argued in detail elsewhere, there is far more reason to cast ontological doubt on particulars than on universals, I nevertheless recognize myself as an individual most directly and most adequately in reflecting on my choices and my conduct. For universals can do none of these things. In general, acting is the prerogative of concrete individuals. The social self, by contrast, is not particular at all. It is constituted by the moral selfs self- constructive activity, by choosing from among the items of consciousness those with which to identify. To identify with an item of consciousness is to believe that it is a property of oneself or a norm to which one is subject. The elements of the social self are quite general, so it is nothing but a complex universal exemplifiable by many particulars, a role or system of roles, a script into which any number of individuals may step. This is what makes dispersion and commonality of social identities possible. The social self is, as Marx wrongly said of the whole self, an ensemble of social relations. But at the core lies the autonomous self that makes all self-construction (and hence sociality) possible, which is itself therefore not constructed. Our roles do not exhaust our personal identities since we make the roles. Agency is the power to instantiate our principles of action, just as children invent and play games. Since its fundamental project is construction of a social self, the basic constraint to which the moral self is subject is precisely to select and identify with social selves that respect the dignity and well-being interests of selves as such, i.e., entities with those capacities for rational choice, feeling, association, appreciation, etc., which make selves what they are and place them in the moral context in the first place. If morality were not individualist, there could be no ground for morally valuating collectives since these are the products of the constructive activities of individuals. But, since the self's basic activity is construction of its own social persona(e), moral principles are applicable to social relations, i.e., to constructed roles and the consequences of acting out those roles.

Hence, the contrast between individual and social ethics is just the difference between actions considered as concrete and particular on the one hand and as abstract and repeatable on the other. Right and wrong concern the type and not just the particular act. Actions relevantly alike are of equal moral value. Roles are scripts for repeatable actions and scripted actions are fundamentally important to coordination of the interpersonal ends and means necessary to accomplish what is individually impossible. But more than this, roles as scripts provide just the generalized description of actions needed to evaluate them morally. Kant called these maxims. Hence, individual ethics is already social. Hence, the members of groups as such bear responsibilities of various sorts, both for what's been done and what should be done. Who is responsible for what depends on the structure of the group (a function of members individual intentions) and the background of moral obligations. An intention is a subjective phenomenon and can be owned by only one individual. The closest we can get to sharing intentions mirrors our sharing of beliefs: we may both believe p but this is not literal sharing of the same belief token but only the belief type. Only as types are beliefs or intentions literally shareable. Since all the actions, interests, and responsibilities of social entities are functions of the actions, interests, and responsibilities of their members and these are functions of their choices, social collectivities have no intentional (mental, moral) properties or relations uniquely or irreducibly their own. Both ontology and morality require that responsibility be laid on the least, most concrete and particular entity able to bear it, for only concrete agents choose and act. It is a grave error, entailing systematic evasion of responsibility, inducing apathy, fatalism, and cynicism to think of social collectives as bearing their own intentionality. Rather, they are just as much functions of the intentionalityof their makers as any other artifacts. But how can essentially collective or group-based properties be functions of individual intentions? A social group comes into being when individuals relate themselves (their intentions, acts, interests, etc.) to one another in ways involving commitments. This means that one conceives oneself to enact some structure of roles by enacting one or more of them while others conceive the same structure and commit to enact other, coordinate roles. Roles, once chosen, have imperitival force, i.e., they direct action. Consequently they have the force and feel of obligations, though in truth these are merely conventional. On such a dramaturgical model of social action one chooses roles (constructed social universals) and enacts them. A social intention is an intention to enact a social role. An intention to enact a role is a social intention because it logically subsumes more than one role under the same structure, requiring more than one actor. Since the intentions, interests, responsibilities, actions, etc., are all properties of individuals or relations among individuals, the requirement to respect dignity and well being that governs individuals applies to groups as well.


If Kant is right, perhaps the most remarkable feature of being human is our inveterate and spontaneous production of fictions. His essential insight is that beliefs about the basic or categoreal structure of the world are confirmable only by analysis of the inherent structure of imaginative thought. Whatever one thinks of Kants revolution with respect to nature, here I have pursued a similar strategy regarding society. For here is a realm that is much more definitely the product of human construction. It is not, however, our propositional thought so much as commitments that underpin the categoreal structure of the social world. My thesis, stated baldly, is simply that commitments constitute social reality but are subject to prior moral principle. To paraphrase Kant, moral principles without commitments are empty and commitments without moral principles are blind. Without commitment the social world would neither exist nor would it be ordered. Social would be an empty concept.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


(1) John R.. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1995).

(2) Searle, p. 12.

(3) Note that Searle maintains that behind language is another level of intentionality. He says, Linguistic meaning is a real form of intentionality, but it is not intrinsic intentionality. It is derived from the intrinsic intentionality of the users of the language. The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), p. 79.

(4) the shift from the X to the Y in the move that creates institutional facts is a move from the brute level to an institutional level. That shiftcan exist only if it is represented as existing. But there can be no prelinguistic way to represent the Y element because there is nothing there prelinguistically that one can perceive or otherwise attend to in addition to the X element. Searle, p. 68.

(5) See J. K. Swindler, Social Intentions: Aggregate, Collective, and General, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 26, 1 (1996).

(6) He says, Perhaps the most amazing form of status-function is in the creation of human rights. Prior to the European Enlightenment the concept of rights had application only within some institutional structureproperty rights, marital rights, droit de seigneur, etc. But somehow the idea came to be collectively accepted that one might have a status-function solely by virtue of being a human being, that the X term was human and the Y term was possessor of inalienable rightsLately there has even been a movement for the recognition of animal rights. Both human and animal rights are cases of the imposition of status-function through collective intentionality. Searle, p. 93.

(7) Searle, p. 96.

(8) See Searle, Chapters 7-9.

(9) Larry May, The Morality of Groups: Collective Responsibility, Group-Based Harm, and Corporate Rights (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987) and Sharing Responsibility (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992).

(10) Searle, Collective Intentions and Actions, in Intentions in Communication, eds., Philip R. Cohen, Jerry Morgan, and Martha E. Pollack (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), p. 407. May, Sharing, p. 75.

(11) May, Sharing, p. 177.

(12) See, e.g., Sharing, p. 119 and Groups, p. 167-8.

(13) On the social self see Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).

(14) See J. K. Swindler, The Permanent Heartland of Subjectivity, Idealistic Studies, 25, 3 (1996).

(15) J. K. Swindler, Weaving (Savage, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1991), Chapters 3-5.

(16) Indeed, childs play is simply practice in constructing and enacting social roles.

(17) Cf. Alan Gewirth, Reason and Morality(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

(18) As we have seen, May argues that a weakly unified collectivity may be unified by nothing more than some role imposed by an external power, as in the case of slaves or the homeless. (See also Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, tr. Alan Sheridan-Smith (London: Verso, 1991).) Its members may not even be conscious of their role as a group or how their interests (dignity and well-being) are affected, much less how they might be changed. Another social entity may be constituted by its members commitments to particular persons, as in many families and religious sects. It is notable that, in such a case, changing members, i.e., members changing their roles, may destroy the group, so that such a group will satisfy standard identity conditions for sets (two are the same iff they have the same members). In other cases, members may identify with some social structure, an organization, like a school, church or corporation, instead of particular people. In this case, the group will not satisfy set-theoretic identity conditions. Membership may change without disturbing group identity or jeopardizing the groups existence; the group may outlive any of its members; two groups may share all the same members; etc. Like the Ship of Theseus, its continued existence will depend on formal continuity, continuity of structure, relations among members, purpose, etc. Indeed, failing to satisfy the identity conditions of standard set theory is the best evidence that typical social groups are not to be analyzed as particulars or aggregates of particulars, but as complexes of purely general and formal elements, viz. roles. People's actions are group actions only as enactments of roles they have taken on.

(19) Cf. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1959) and Rom Harr, Social Being (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979).

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage