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Home arrow Law arrow Normative subjects : self and collectivity in morality and law

I Construction and Revision

Constructing Subjects


This chapter is part summary, part elaboration of some themes I’ve pursued in the past, and so may feel redundant to old readers and cryptic to new. Even so, it should be useful to both groups in providing a comprehensive if sketchily drawn picture of some foundational matters that bear in more or less direct ways on other parts of the book. The title of this chapter alludes to the book’s title, and so to the subjects of morality and law. But subject is ambiguous. It designates not only these two fields but also the entities addressed by their norms. Who are the subjects of morality and law in this second sense? A straightforward answer points to human beings: we, and we alone, are norm-bound and norm-following beings; we are, in short, normative subjects. Constructing is also ambiguous: it depicts the normative subjects under consideration both as doing the constructing and as the products, as what is under construction. To think about human beings in constructive terms is to apply to them, to us, a variant of an approach that ranges over many other putative constructs as well. One can be, and one or another philosopher quite likely has been, a constructivist about anything, including, at the limit, about everything. Constructivism with respect to humanity is, however, distinguished by the reflexivity involved when we create ourselves.

What is the connection between the view of human beings as normative subjects and as self-creating? On the version of the constructive view

I favor, the connection is quite tight. By pursuing our goals and promoting our projects, and so while abiding by the various norms that guide us in these endeavors, we do another thing as well: we determine the composition of the self and draw its boundaries. The constructive view thus complicates and expands our normative agenda. Absent a stable, antecedently given human subject, subject and norms engage in a dynamic reciprocal relationship in which neither side provides a starting point or a resting place relative to the other. The recognition that we are the products as well as the authors of our practices and norms confronts us with a double challenge: not just what to do, but also what to be. And so in devising our behavior-guiding norms we must glimpse their effects on who we are as well: what subjects will emerge from a system of activity generated by a particular set of norms?

In confronting the constructive enterprise head on, it is natural to resort to the same norms that guide us in regard to the more familiar questions concerning how to act. Just as we choose what to do in light of what best suits our values and serves our interests, so supposedly we can also choose what to be in those terms. But a moment’s reflection reveals the difficulty. It is best seen by considering a cluster of norms (by which I mean values, evaluative attitudes, practices, and the like) that are personal, in the sense that they take human beings as their objects, and so depend for their content and application on the composition and boundaries of the self. Responsibility, autonomy, and dignity are prominent examples. What precisely we’re responsible for, how far our autonomy extends, and what merits respect, all crucially depend on what we take the self to be. Now since personal norms track the boundaries of the self, on the traditional view their scope can be determined by studying those boundaries. The constructive view denies this option: personal norms participate in constituting the self, and thus the boundary they track is in part their own creation. To be sure, specific ascriptions of responsibility or affirmations of autonomy or expressions of respect are supported by a preexisting vision of the subject: she did it, we say, or it’s her own life, or her body. But when we probe such statements, philosophically or in cases in which they prove particularly contentious, it turns out that they rest on the sedimentation of myriads of similar statements in the past. If we wish to go beyond precedent or are forced to do so, what can we appeal to?

The idea of construction, which raises this problem, also provides part of the answer. Building codes in general include imperatives that express the very idea of construction, of creating any structure, rather than those that pertain to the construction of a particular one. A building code for the construction of selves would be no different; it too would include some such general and formal criteria oriented toward what it is for a self to exist. So although the thought that personal norms participate in drawing the boundaries of the self does not by itself tell us where these boundaries ought to lie, one way in which it helps draw them is by introducing an important constraint. Seen as tracking the boundary of one and the same entity, personal norms must be coextensive; they must have the same scope. To see the significance of this point, consider our attitude toward responsibility. Responsibility often carries with it burdens, and so we are tempted to evade it. One way to do so is by enacting a more minimal, narrowly circumscribed self. For example, when we learn that the law applies some of its most draconian measures to what we take to be the operations of will, we may respond by contracting the will’s domain and instead describe various types of actions in a deterministic vocabulary designed to place them at the periphery of the self or even completely outside its boundaries. Awareness of the coextensiveness of personal norms, however, alerts us to the risk inherent in this maneuver. Evacuating regions of the self in order to escape the burdens of responsibility has as corollary the contraction of the scope of our autonomy and dignity as well. The opposite is also true. People may incline to stake out claims to expansive autonomy and to wide-ranging grounds of respect. But here, too, they must recognize the potentially undesirable constructive implications: since these claims involve expanding the self, they entail the assumption of greater responsibility as well.

Returning now to the reflexivity of human construction, we encounter yet another ambiguity: the “we” of the reflexive formula, the subject and so also the product of construction, can be construed distributively or jointly, leading to two contrasting strands in the constructive view.

The distributive interpretation yields self-constitution—the view, associated with modernity’s vision of the autonomous individual, according to which each individual is the author of her own identity. The joint interpretation, by contrast, yields social construction—the view held by intellectual movements critical of modernity— tuch as existentialism, postmodernism, and communitarianism—that social practices, discursive and otherwise, shape our selves. Though much ink has been spilled over these seemingly oppositional trends, we should bear in mind that they signify two modalities of the same underlying idea, that of human self-creation.1 This affinity between the two trends is easy to miss: on the surface, by positing society as shaping the individual self, social construction appears to deny what self-constitution affirms, namely the reflexivity of human construction. However, a peek below this surface discloses a different possibility. Holding the reflexivity of human self-creation constant, we can ask: what kind of thing is the self assumed to be if self-creation, of whatever brand, is to be a significant option? One negative answer follows immediately: when we think of humans as creating themselves we are not thinking of them as creating their organisms, and so we don’t conceive of ourselves directly and primarily in biological terms.[1] A more affirmative answer points to a broad tradition of thought that is congenial to the idea of human self-creation. Many thinkers have alternately spoken of the self in dramaturgical, literary, hermeneutical, or more broadly semiotic terms.2 Relatedly, human life in all its manifestations is seen as the proper subject matter for interpretation. These imageries and metaphors conceive of the self as belonging to a different order from that of physical objects or natural kinds, an order populated instead by such things as novels and stories, plays and roles, and more broadly signs and texts. The common thread is that of content or meaning as constitutive of human beings, and as providing the medium within which self-creation takes place. Now within this system of ideas, the difference between self-constitution and social construction is muted, since the contrast between individual and society, on which this distinction depends, is effaced. Instead, individual and society point to the concatenations of meaning constitutive of human life conceived at different levels of abstraction. On the resulting picture, human self-creation is not exclusively localized in the individual, nor is it exclusively social in any significant way. It rather runs the entire gamut of sites of meaning that define human life, from the individual to the universal, with social vaguely designating the vast and variegated terrain in between.3

The reflexivity of human construction entails a symmetry between the agents of construction and the products. The thought that we create ourselves thus suggests a corresponding ambiguity between a distributive and a joint interpretation of the plural pronoun in regard to the output of construction as well. The result is a division between two categories of normative subjects: individuals, like you and I, and collectivities, such as families, states, corporations, and many others.[2] Furthermore, by reading the reflexivity of construction backward, as it were, from the products to the constructors, this proliferation of potential subjects further complicates the idea of construction: there are now two types of candidates for doing the construction, individual and collective, as well as two types of subjects being constructed. The resulting combinatorial options ramify. For example, one may hold that all the possible permutations are in fact realized, and that individuals and collectivities construct and are also constructed by individuals and collectivities alike. Or one may alternatively entertain a more restrictive picture, say one in which only individuals do the constructing: of themselves, distributively, as well as of the collective subjects in which they participate. Here too, the term society, to which the expression “social construction” alludes, is either a generic reference to all collectivities, or else names just one vaguely defined collectivity among many others, all of which potentially answer to the joint interpretation of the we, and all of which may play a role on both sides, the constructing and the constructed, of human self-creation. The division between self-constitution and social construction thus turns out to mark two particular options within this multifarious matrix.

The distinction between the distributive and the joint senses of we, and the resulting proliferation of subjects of construction (in both their active and passive capacity), points to an age-old preoccupation of philosophers and social theorists: what is the relationship between these types of subjects, individual and collective—or, more grandiosely, what is their ontological status? For the most part the tendency has been to give priority to one type or the other, by opting for one or another version of either individualism or collectivism. Privileging individuals often follows the tattered banner of methodological individualism. Treating collectivities as aggregates of individuals has been subjected to sustained and well-known criticisms, which I need not rehearse here. However, this approach can be criticized not just for its deficient account of collectivities, but also for an inadequate conception of individuals: taking individuals as society’s basic building blocks ignores the role played by various social formations in shaping the self. The contrasting approach—implicit, for example, in communitarian writings—encounters the opposite problem. By giving primacy to collective entities, it threatens to reduce individuals to social or communal artifacts. An apparently easy way to avoid both an individualistic and a collectivist reductionism would be to adopt a dualist approach that treats individuals and collectivities as equally primary and mutually irreducible. Such dualism, however, would seem to foreclose the possibility, urged by communitarians and other collectivists, of a deep connection and indeed an internal relation between the individual self on the one side and at least some collectivities on the other.

We can view these considerations as presenting a challenge that the three approaches I’ve distinguished—individualist, collectivist, and dualist—fail to meet: a conception of human constructivism that maintains an internal relation between individuals and collectivities while avoiding individualist or collectivist reductionism. What’s the alternative? A possible way of meeting the challenge worth exploring is to think of individuals and collectivities as made up of the same materials; as sharing the same building blocks, as it were. What would these materials or building blocks be? Broadly speaking, an answer has already been given in terms of the idea of meaning as constitutive of human life as a whole. We can, however, sharpen our focus, as well as give the idea of construction greater normative traction, by looking more closely at one familiar variant of this theme. Social thinkers of various stripes have long toyed with the idea that the social construction of the individual self can be interpreted in terms of a conception of self as constituted by social roles. In a parallel vein, others have depicted collectivities as structured composites of roles.4 The variant of these approaches that I propose combines these two strands into a unitary account that is not reductionist in either the individual or the collective direction.5

  • [1] For some this by itself may of course be a reason to reject the constructivist approach.
  • [2] This formulation elides the all-important questions concerning the relationship betweenmorality and law in regard to their respective subjects. I say something about these issues inChapters 5 and 8.
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