[Guest post by Pat Smith]
(Nota bene: What follows is a story that is unapologetically Korsgaardian, so it should not be taken as representative of Neo-Kantian constructivism. They all have their unique elements.)
How does the issue of normativity arise? It arises because we are self-conscious causalities. That is, we face the problem of morality because we have to decide what to do. If we weren’t causalities, like a rock or a chair, then there would be no problem of morality or of normativity. If we weren’t self-conscious about our causality, like a worm or a dog, then likewise the issue of normativity wouldn’t arise. The real problem of morality is that we can reflect upon our values and might decide that we aren’t justified in having them.
From the standpoint of the agent (first-person), the agent is presented with many desires (or as Kant calls them, incentives) vying for attention. But above those desires there is something that is you, something that ultimately has to endorse one of those desires in order to act. If I desire to go to a party, but also desire to study and do well on the test, I cannot simultaneously endorse (i.e. act upon) both desires. In order to act at all, I must pick the desire that I act upon, I must choose (We’ll get to the incompatibilist/ compatibilist discussions a little bit later).
To see why this must be so, let’s consider a paradigm case where it isn’t: addiction. In the most extreme forms of addiction, one desire simply takes control of you. In this case, a behavior is imposed on you to the point where it seems improper to say that you are the one acting at all. To be a self-conscious causality is to see oneself as a cause that acts upon reasons based upon desires that one reflectively endorses.
So, when we will an action we are responding to a reason, but it is a reason that results from us endorsing a particular desire. Now, if we stop here we are still far away from Kant and certainly far away from any kind of normativity. To get to Kant, we have to think on the argument in the beginning of the Section of 3 of the Groundwork.
Kant puts the reflective problem I mention above in terms of freedom. A free will is an autonomous causality. Because we are causalities, we have to operate according to laws. But we are autonomous causalities, so we cannot have an external law be imposed upon us. Nothing can determine, in advance, what the content of that law will be, so the only requirement of an autonomous will is that it will universal laws (which is redundant, laws that govern causes must be universal). Now consider the first formulation of the categorical imperative: "I ought never to act except in such a way that my maxim should be a universal law." A free will must act according to universal laws, and that is all the (first formulation) of the categorical imperative demands of us: that when we act, the only thing that determines our will must be a law.
Furthermore, consider what happens when we try to deny that our willing must be, in some important sense, universal. Well, if willing doesn’t have to be universal, then it can be one hundred percent particular. But particularistic willing is a very strange animal indeed. Particularistic willing is not "willing a different maxim" for each situation because every situation might be importantly different, thus justifying a different universal law for each situation. Nor is it endorsing whatever your strongest desire happens to be because you are still following the universal law: "I will do whatever my strongest desire is." And for similar reasons, particularistic willing cannot be something like egoism. Rather, particularistic willing must involve simply bouncing from one desire to another as soon as it seizes you, without reflection. You cannot see that desire as being representative of a general type of incentive; you must be entirely taken with the utterly particular nature of the incentive. But this is makes particularistic willing impossible. To quote Korsgaard:
"This means that the person who wills [particularistically] is at each moment identified entirely with ultimately particular incentive which he endorses. But that in turn means that particularistic willing eradicates the distinction between a person and the incentives on which he acts. And I think that means there is nothing left that is the person, the agent, whose will is distinct. He is not one person, but a series, a mere conglomeration, of unrelatedly causally effective impulses. There is no difference between someone who has a particularistic will and someone who has no will at all… (My emphasis)."
Remember our reflective structure: above our incentives there is something that is us. But if we will particularistically, then that part disappears leaving us unable to will anything at all. So particularistic willing is impossible.
Okay, let’s take stock at this point. The reflective structure of ourselves as self-conscious causalities gives rise to the requirement (both through Korsgaard’s and Kant’s arguments) that our willing use universal laws. And since this is the sole requirement of the categorical imperative, we can conclude that the categorical imperative must be our law. The categorical imperative is at least part of the constitutive standards of willing.
But this isn’t the end of the story because we need to demonstrate that the range of the categorical imperative for a free will (i.e. self conscious causality) is that of all rational beings. But that is the subject for the next post.