Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

New Shmagency Worries

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

New Shmagency Worries

Article excerpt

CONSTITUTIVISM is THE VIEW that there are constitutive features of agency, actions, or propositional attitudes, actual or idealized, that explain normative phenomena, such as reasons, values, or moral norms. (1) Constitutivists also usually hold that something about these constitutive features can explain the normative force of the phenomena; because we act, are agents, or have certain propositional attitudes, we are ipso facto required to follow certain norms. While constitutivists disagree about which norms we are required to follow, most have also argued that the constitutive features are inescapable, and that inescapability plays a vital role in the explanation of the normativity of these norms, as well as in replying to objections. (2)

But we may question how inescapable the norm-explaining features are. If we do not instantiate the constitutive features that explain norms, it seems like we can avoid the norms they are supposed to explain. In particular, we can avoid their normative force. Someone who is a shmagent--very much like an agent, but without instantiating the norm-explaining features--is very similar to an agent, but because the shmagent lacks the norm-explaining features, she is not subject to the norms. (3) Hence, it seems like constitutivism is unable to explain the norms that apply to such creatures.

This problem is known as the agency-shmagency problem, or--as I call it--the shmagency objection. My aim is to show that, despite many constitutivist responses, new versions of the problem appear for most forms of constitutivism; in particular, it remains a deep problem for those who attempt to explain practical reasons of normatively forceful varieties (cf. section 1, below, for details). This means that the shmagency objection remains a significant problem for constitutivism. If a form of constitutivism that attempts to explain normatively forceful practical reasons is to be viable, it will have to avoid the new shmagency worries.

To show this, in section 1, I present the original shmagency objection. In section 2, I show how the standard reply to the objection--that the shmagent is self-defeating--seems defensible, despite several arguments to the contrary. But then, in section 3, I extend the shmagency objection by arguing that shmagents can be sophisticated enough to have practical reasons while standing outside agency. This resuscitates the problem. In section 4, I explain how sophisticated shmagency remains a problem for some other recent constitutivist attempts to avoid the shmagency objection.

In section 5, I introduce another major line of response to the shmagency objection, according to which constitutivism is defended by appeal to constitutive features we are under normative pressure to have. I call this view partial constitutivism. Partial constitutivists respond to the shmagency objection by taking our constitutions to be normatively justified, so it does not matter for their purposes if we sometimes fail to live up to them. But in section 6, I argue that partial constitutivists suffer from a second new version of the objection, because they leave the normative phenomena they are supposed to explain underdetermined. I conclude in section 7.


The paradigmatic formulation of the shmagency objection comes from Enoch. (4) The basic point has often been set up using an example. Imagine that you are playing chess. There are certain rules (and maybe aims) constitutive of doing so; if you do not abide by them, you seem to be playing something else other than chess. Call this other game shmess. Why should you stick by the rules (or aims) of chess--rather than shmess--when you are deciding which game to play? A reason seems needed.

By analogy, Enoch thinks, it is unclear why we should care about what is constitutive of action or agency. We can always ask "so what?" and demand a reason for why we should be agents rather than shmagents--something very much like agents, but not quite like agents. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.