The Sources of Normativity. – book reviews

J.B. Schneewind

by Christine Korsgaard. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. xv + 273. 12.95 [pounds sterling], $17.95.

In the expanded 1992 Tanner Lectures that constitute the core of this book, Christine Korsgaard gives a Kantian argument to show (p. 123) that “Enlightenment morality is true”: humans are autonomous agents and hence are to be valued as ends in themselves. Introduced by Onora O’Neill, the lectures are followed by discussions by G. A. Cohen, Raymond Geuss, Thomas Nagel, and Bernard Williams; Korsgaard replies to their main criticisms. The lectures are admirably concise, the comments are acute, and the replies helpful. Korsgaard’s non-reductive naturalized Kantian foundationalism (pp. 160-1) is a major contribution to current debates. The volume as a whole repays the closest study.

Korsgaard wants to reply to the moral sceptic, understood as someone “who thinks that the explanation of moral concepts will be one that does not support the claims morality makes on us” (p. 13). The central question arises when an agent, deliberating about what to do now, asks whether morality’s claims are justified. She wants to know not only why she is moved to some extent by these claims but also whether the claims are justified.

Two traditional answers fail. Voluntarism, as advocated by Hobbes and Pufendorf, leaves us asking why we should do whatever God has ordered. Realism, whether Clarke’s original version of it, or the “non-natural property” sort found in Moore and Prichard, or more recent varieties like Nagel’s, leaves unanswered the question of why I should care that there are certain properties in the world outside me. It does not explain how such entities could be “intrinsically normative” and thus justify a course of action in a way that excludes all doubt as to whether I must choose it:

Korsgaard thinks that theories like Hutcheson’s and Hume’s do better. They base morality on human nature, not on anything external to it. Hume holds that both moral and non-moral motives are natural to us, and that either may give rise to questions about the normativity of the other. He then argues that because moral motives are as deeply rooted as self-interested ones, reflection on our whole nature leads us to approve of it, or to endorse it. We find that we are not pulled in conflicting directions by it. Hume is not merely claiming that virtue pays. He is arguing that from either of the standpoints available to us, the self-interested and the moral, we reflectively endorse our whole nature as including the moral motives that affect the operation of self-interested motives. That is why, for him, these motives give us normative reasons.

The problem Korsgaard finds in Hume’s reflective endorsement theory, and in what she takes to be the relevantly similar views of John Stuart Mill and Bernard Williams, is that it stops too soon. As a deliberating agent I can endorse my active nature as a whole and still ask whether a specific putative reason, in the present situation, is really normative. Hence “what we need in order to establish the normativity of our more particular motives and inclinations is the reflective endorsement of those” (p. 89). But this is exactly the issue that Kant makes central; and Korsgaard argues that he has pointed the way to the best resolution.

To find a source of intrinsically normative reasons, Korsgaard appeals to freedom. Like Sidgwick she avoids Kant’s worries about determinism by claiming that no matter what science shows, we cannot avoid deliberating and deciding. In stepping back from our desires and principles and questioning them, as we always can, we are thinking like beings who possess free will. Hence “within a deliberative perspective” we must take ourselves as free to accept or reject any of our own putative reasons for action. But Kant has shown, Korsgaard says, that as a cause, a free will must have its own law, and that its law must be formal. Consequently “the categorical imperative is the law of a free will” (pp. 98-9). The distinctive human ability to reflect, at work whenever I ask myself whether an impulse of mine is a reason, also shows me the law that controls all my reasons. I am autonomous because the law is imposed by my own will.

Korsgaard’s basic account of the sources of normativity now comes into view. When impulses pass the test of reflective scrutiny, they are reasons to act (pp. 93-4). Obligations arise when I reflectively reject an impulse in order to avoid betraying my identity. If I cannot do something without forfeiting my most important identity, I have an unconditional obligation to refrain from doing it (p. 102). I am an agent when I act because I reflectively endorse my impulses, not because I am moved by whatever desire happens to be upper-most. The categorical imperative (CI) shows in each case what we have to do to avoid the failure to be moved by a law endorsed by our own will–to avoid, that is, the failure to act for reasons. If I value my ends, or have reasons for pursuing them, I must value my identity as a being able to act for reasons, which is what constitutes my own humanity (pp. 122 – 3). Morality requires us also to value the humanity of others. But for Korsgaard, unlike Kant, the CI alone does not give us the moral law (ML) that requires this. We might value our own ability to act for reasons and yet not identify ourselves as members of “the party of humanity” (p. 117). Morality, for Korsgaard as for Kant, is consistency with oneself in action. But the CI yields the ML only for those with the right self-understanding.

We have many “local and contingent identities” which give us most of our own reasons to act and most of our obligations (p. 125). Is there reason to treat the humanity of others as normative, and so to accept the ML? Korsgaard argues that there is. It is, roughly, that all reasons are “public reasons” or agent-neutral reasons (p. 136). The belief that a consideration might be a reason for you without having any normative force for me rests, Korsgaard thinks, on belief in the privacy of consciousness. Wittgensteinian considerations about the inconceivability of a private language should lead us to reject that view; and psychological egoism will vanish with it. Even pain, sometimes taken as a paradigm of a private reason for avoiding something, is not all that private. It is “the perception of a reason” to alter someone’s state–even an animal’s and as such it is public. Animals suffer pain, so they and we have reasons to alter their condition; but they are not aware of these as reasons, nor are they conscious of themselves as having identities. But when we see that we have reason to value our own humanity as reflective reason-givers, the publicity of reasons shows that we have as much reason to value the humanity of other reflective agents. Then the ML binds us, and not only the CI.

Korsgaard has given us a brilliant and powerfully argued restatement of the Kantian claim that rational agency grounds morality. The commentators in the present volume have made an excellent start on what will need to be an extensive discussion of her views. They question, among other things, Korsgaard’s claim that a self-imposed law can have authority (Cohen), her argument from the CI to the ML via considerations of identity (Geuss), and the ways she thinks reflection functions (Nagel and, rather differently, Williams). Her resourceful and illuminating replies make it clear that new objections will elicit yet further aspects of what is plainly a carefully worked out view of agency, morality, language and practical reason. Perhaps the following question concerning her response to one of Cohen’s points will help start off the discussion.

Cohen imagines a sincere Mafioso who takes the requirement that he protect his fellow-criminals as a deep part of his identity. Korsgaard’s view implies, Cohen says, that he is obligated to protect them. Korsgaard agrees that he is indeed obligated, not just in his feelings but “normatively” as well (p. 257). She does not deny that he is an agent, which would be implausible. But she says that the rest of us are not required to honor his identity. We should be trying to get him to change it, by showing him that he has an obligation to do so. We can address him on this matter, and not just ourselves, because he is reflective, and “perhaps the most essential” rule of reflection is “that we should never stop reflecting until we have reached a satisfactory answer, one that admits of no further questioning” (p. 258).

This rule is puzzling. Korsgaard claims that as reflective beings we simply cannot act until we have come to what we take to be a satisfactory reason (p. 93). So it is not clear what room there is a for a “should” here. And I wonder what justifies Korsgaard’s apparent refusal to accept as final the agent’s actual view of what gives a satisfactory answer to a practical doubt. Her argument is that the perspective of the deliberating agent must be taken as central because freedom is not otherwise defensible. Why then is it not his perspective and his identity from which the judgment should be made as to when an answer admits of no further questioning? If he takes his identity to be unquestionable, what opening does he leave for further argument?

If Korsgaard says that the criminal is simply inconsistent in allowing that he needs reasons although he does not reject an immoral identity, then she seems to belie her own claim that the CI alone does not get the ML, and that some agents may not see themselves as citizens of the kingdom of ends. And it is not clear that everyone must share the sceptic’s search for an answer that could not be questioned because it is intrinsically normative. When I come to be satisfied with a resolution of the particular concerns that make this situation one that I think I must reflect on, I may not have come to an intrinsically normative maxim. The criminal may just take his loyalty to be the source of unquestionable reasons for him to act. Perhaps it is only if he already sees himself as a citizen of the kingdom of ends that he will take seriously the sceptic’s question with which Korsgaard begins. But then it would be his morality, not his agency, that enables us to argue with him.


Department of Philosophy

Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, MD 21210


COPYRIGHT 1997 Oxford University Press

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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