Social Constructionism, Moral Realism, And Injustice

Jamie K.A. Smith wrote on twitter the other day:

We’re told that social constructionism has no resources to stop injustices like racism. But how did moral realism fair in that regard?

I want to briefly discuss where I think this is wrong. Firstly, it is true that people merely professing to be moral realists has not created heaven on earth. This should not be a big surprise to Christians, who believe in original sin, total depravity, and the persistence of indwelling sin in the lives of even regenerated people. But at the same time, I don’t notice that social constructionists, people who believe that all value and meaning is the creation of communities, have become morally perfect either. Except, perhaps, in cases where they have redefined their sin to be righteousness “for their community”. But the rest of us, I think, may not be persuaded. And certainly, communities that believe there is no objective right and wrong could easily, and indeed have, been quite evil and unjust.

Secondly, if the question is: “which view, considered in the abstract, provides more motivation to be good?”, then I think it is moral realism, not social constructionism, that has more resources available towards reaching that end. This is for one main reason. The communities of moral realism and social constructionism can both discipline their communities toward achieving the good and stopping injustices, for moral realist communities are still communities. But only moral realists can offer a principled argument for why people outside of their own community also ought to stop committing injustices. Social constructionists can only offer bare commands or invitations to those on the outside, while moral realists can do both of these things, and provide reasons why others should stop being racists, etc.

Thirdly, social constructionism is, at bottom, a kind of cultural relativism. And when cultural relativism goes missionary, when it tries to recruit from the outside or shape the outside world in its image, it is essentially being Nietzschean. Since it can have no objective right to do this (since, in its own view, there are no such things), any attempt to condemn others for things it considers wrong, or to enforce rules against such behaviour, is an act of sheer will-to-power. There is no trans-communal standard of justice that could make such an act warranted, since there is no trans-communal standard of justice. So it is merely one community trying to impose its will on another, for no more fundamental reason than that the community wishes to do it. At base, it must reduce all moral outrage to socially constructed arbitrary value preferences, and so to wish or will.