Matthew Silverstein


When we make ethical claims, we invoke a kind of objective authority. A familiar worry about our ethical practices is that this invocation of authority involves a mistake. This worry was perhaps best captured by John Mackie, who argued that the fabric of the world contains nothing so queer as objective authority and thus that all our ethical claims are false. Kantians such as Christine Korsgaard and David Velleman offer accounts of the objectivity of ethics that do without the controversial realist assumptions which gives rise to Mackie’s skepticism. They contend that our ethical claims correctly invoke objective authority not by corresponding to some normative pocket of the fabric of reality, but rather by expressing commitments that are inescapable. This Kantian strategy is often advertised as an alternative to traditional but “boring” metaethics. Its proponents promise to vindicate our ethical practices without entangling us in familiar metanormative disputes about the metaphysics, epistemology and semantics of ethics. In this paper, I argue that the Kantian strategy cannot make good on this promise. Considered as an attempt to sidestep traditional metaethics, it lacks the resources to produce the desired normative conclusions. The outlook for the Kantian strategy becomes more promising, though, if we pair it with one of two familiar metanormative theories: expressivism or reductionism. The resulting metaethically-loaded versions of the Kantian strategy can deliver the promised conclusions, but only by plunging straight into the quagmire of traditional metaethics. And there all of the familiar objections to expressivism and reductionism await.