Saturday, July 23, 2005

Willing and Normativity: Part Two

[Guest post by Pat Smith]

At the end of the post “Willing and Normativity: Part One,” I argued that even though we had established the categorical imperative is the law of rational agents, we had not gotten to where we needed to be because of the range problem. What is needed is to tie these discussions with our own practical identities.

There are two very important reasons why any account of normativity must be tied, in some way, to our practical identities.

1. The demandingness of morality: morality is hard. Sometimes it even requires that we die rather than do something wrong. The only way I can see this making sense is if we would, in some way, die or cease to be if we did wrong. Think of the remarkable statement, “I couldn’t live with myself if I did that.” Or, “I could do that, but it just wouldn’t be me” or “I am not that guy.”

2. Identities are the source of obligation. Think on it. Where do our day to day obligations come from? They are the obligations that stem from us being friends, lovers, citizens, teammates, or professionals. And these roles are the components of our practical identity. So any theory that wants to show how our obligations can be normative must deal with that identity.

But there is a sense in which our moral obligations trump our other identities. Our response to the gangster or the deceitful womanizer who says, “That’s who I am” is “Well, you’d better damn well change.” We say the same thing to the person who lines up in a firing squad or appears on a concentration camp walls saying, “I do this for my country.” So, our moral identity is, in a sense, deeper than our other identities, and we have to be able to explain why that is.

But, as I alluded to at the end of the last post, there is a “gap” in my argument that the categorical imperative is the law of rational agents. And that is, we need to show that the domain of the categorical imperative for an individual agent is all rational agents and not just herself. The identity that Kant relies on to motivate our following the Moral Law is our identity as citizens in the Kingdom of Ends.

Thus, my account of normativity is going to rely on the idea that our identity as citizens in the Kingdom of Ends (thus solving the range problem) is deeper and more fundamental than our other contingent identities. This explains why the obligations of our contingent identities often have to face a trial by fire in the face of our moral obligations.

But how do we show the priority or depth of our moral identity when compared to our identities as friends, siblings, citizens, or lovers? The Korsgaardian answer is that operating as a citizen in the Kingdom of Ends is constitutive of having an identity at all. To put it more formally, acting according to the categorical imperative is the constitutive standard of possessing any identity whatsoever.

Before we proceed, let’s talk about what constitutive standards are. Let us take the constitutive standards of building a house. Constitutive standards are founded in the purpose of the object. In this case, the purpose of a house is to provide shelter. The walls are linked tightly with a roof placed on top, with insulation and strong materials. A good house is simply a house that fits those constitutive standards well (as opposed to the house being a good thing for the neighborhood or the environment or whatever). Producing a good house is not a different activity from producing a house, it is simply the same activity done well.

Now let’s look at a giraffe. What are the constitutive standards of being a giraffe? Well, the purpose of a giraffe is to…continue being a giraffe. This is where we get the activities of a giraffe: nutrition, reproduction, digestion, respiration, and the like. And this makes sense of the notion that things can go better or worse for a giraffe. But more importantly, it must be seen that being a giraffe is an activity, not a state. It is only by artificially slicing up the giraffe (heh…a temporally extended rabbit part) that we see being a giraffe as a state. Being an unhealthy giraffe is not different from being a healthy giraffe, it is the same activity poorly done. Korsgaard puts it this way, “Living things are continuously engaged in the activity of self-constitution.”

The same applies to our identities, to our personhood. A person is different from being an animal in that a person is a rational being, a self-conscious causality. To be a person is to be constantly engaged in the self-conscious activity of making oneself into a person. Being self-conscious means we have to be governed by some kind of practical identity. We might reject some parts of our identity or consider other parts more important upon reflection, but it is certainly true that we must have an identity-a self conception-of some kind.

And being a person, like being a giraffe, is a kind of activity. We make ourselves into what we are. In fact, that is what having an identity means. It is the self-conscious choice (perhaps not all the time, but at least some of the time it is self-conscious; other times we take shortcuts) to continually re-make oneself in a particular way. Now, the content of those choices is provided by the natural and social contingent circumstances of our existence. But, just as the materials used to make a house are different from the form of a house so are the content of the maxims of our action different from their form.

But what does it precisely mean to talk about our identity as “citizens in the kingdom of ends”? In order to answer that question, let us look at Kant’s three formulations of the categorical imperative:

1. The Formula of Universal Law: Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.

2. The Formula of Humanity: So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time an end, never as a mere means.

3. We must see ourselves as a legislative members in the Kingdom of Ends.

What should be noted is that, for Kant, each formulation is equivalent. Being a member in the Kingdom of Ends just means that you follow the other two formulations (as well as the hypothetical imperative: If I will that I do X, then I also will the means to X).

Now, in order for our membership in the Kingdom of ends to be a fundamental and unavoidable, it must be the basis for our having an identity at all. That is, the categorical and hypothetical imperatives are the constitutive standards for having an identity (for being a person) just like the principles for creating a shelter (linking the walls, putting a roof on top etc) are the constitutive standards for building a house.

I don’t really have the space to parse out the consequences (or even argue for each step fully), but you can see how this might work. Categorical (and hypothetical) imperatives are the principles of a self-conscious causality: of a being that takes itself as the originator of actions. And if we accept the idea that being a person consists in actions. That is, being a person is fundamentally an activity of creating, endorsing, maintaining and reproducing one’s identity. If so, then the constitutive standards of being a person (or being an agent) at all are the Kantian imperatives.

And this explains normativity. Normativity arises because one can fail to act properly or recreate one’s self effectively or autonomously. If one cannot fail to act, then the idea of normativity makes no sense. I believe this idea comes from Wittgenstein, who argued similarly about speech acts: there are have to be public standards of communication, otherwise it makes no sense to have “a failure to communicate.” You can make a house poorly, and you can be a bad person.

I am not going to say that I have come close to proving these claims. Rather, I have pointed at one possible way that Kantian constructivism can run. And I think this is a very promising account indeed. But all forms of Kantian constructivism I think have this in common: they all try to show that the categorical imperative is the law governing the rational will, but how that is linked to human life, actions, and morality is distinctive. I have merely argued from the standpoint of the thinker I have found most convincing: Professor Christine Korsgaard.

If you are interested in reading Professor Korsgaard’s account in greater detail, I recommend you go here ( and scroll down to her Locke Lectures (there are 6). They are all accessible and interesting, with good exegesis of Hume, Aristotle, and Plato as well as Kant.

Next up: one major difficulty that I find with the Korsgaardian account. And a discussion of constructivism versus realism.

1 comment:

  1. I've fixed it for you. (It was getting muddled up by all the extra HTML in your posts.)


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