Christine Korsgaard’s “Sources of Normativity”


The Normative Question

In the Introduction chapter of “The Sources of Normativity”, (1996) Christine Korsgaard writes:

…”We all know in a general way how and why we were taught to follow moral rules, and that it would be impossible for us to get on together if we didn’t do something along these lines. We are social animals, so probably the whole thing has a biological basis. So what’s missing here, that makes us seek a philosophical ‘foundation’?

The answer lies in the fact that ethical standards are normative. They do not merely describe a way in which we in fact regulate our conduct. They make claims on us; they command, oblige, recommend, or guide. Or at least, when we invoke them, we make claims on one another. When I say that an action is right I am saying that you ought to do it; when I say that something is good I am recommending it as worthy of your choice. The same is true of the other concepts for which we seek philosophical foundations. Concepts like knowledge, beauty, and meaning, as well as virtue and justice, all have a normative dimension, for they tell us what to think, what to like, what to say, what to do, and what to be. And it is the force of these normative claims – the right of these concepts to give laws to us – that we want to understand.

And in ethics, the question can become urgent, for the day will come, for most of us, when what morality commands, obliges, or recommends is hard: that we share decisions with people whose intelligence or integrity don’t inspire our confidence; that we assume grave responsibilities to which we feel inadequate; that we sacrifice our lives, or voluntarily relinquish what makes them sweet. And then the question – why? – will press, and rightly so. Why should I be moral? This is not, as H.A. Pritchard supposed, a misguided request for a demonstration that morality is in our interest (although that may be one answer to the question.) It is a call for philosophy, the examination of life. Even those who are convinced that ‘it is right’ must be in itself a sufficient reason for action may request an account of rightness which this conviction will survive.”

…”When we seek a philosophical foundation for morality we are not looking merely for an explanation of moral practices. We are asking what justifies the claims that morality makes on us. This is what I am calling the ‘normative question’.”

In this meeting we will look into philosophical foundations of moral obligation, following Korsgaard’s interpretation of four major attempts to provide an account of it. Korsgaard does not reject these accounts, but concludes that they are all true:

1. Voluntarism (Pufendorf and Hobbes) – “normativity must spring from the commands of a legislator. A good legislator commands us to do only what is in any case a good idea to do, but the bare fact that an action is a good idea cannot make it a requirement. For that, it must be made law by someone in a position to command us. As we saw, that view is true. What it describes is the relation in which we stand to ourselves. The fact that we must act in the light of reflection gives us a double nature. The thinking self has the power to command the acting self, and it is only its command that can make action obligatory. A good thinking self commands the acting self only to do what is good, but the acting self must in any case do what it says.”

2. Realism (Nagel) – “Realists like Nagel think that reasons are intrinsically normative entities, and that what we should do when a desire presents itself is to look at it more objectively, to see whether it is such an entity [a reason to act]. This view is also true. What it describes is the activity of the thinking self as it assesses the impulses that present themselves to us, the legislative proposals of our nature.”

3. Reflective Endorsement (Hume, B. Williams) – “Reflection has the power to compel obedience, and to punish us for disobedience. It  is in turn bound to govern us by laws that are good.”

4. Autonomy (Kant) –  Together these facts yield the conclusion that the relation of the thinking self to the acting self is the relation of legitimate authority. That is to say, the necessity of acting in the light of reflection makes us authorities over ourselves. And in so far as we have authority over ourselves, we can make laws for ourselves, and those laws will be normative. So Kant’s view is also true. Autonomy is the source of obligation.”

Korsgaard concludes that nothing can be normative unless we place a value upon ourselves, unless we endorse our own nature:

“Reflection reveals to us that the normativity of our values springs from the fact that we are animals of a certain kind, autonomous moral animals. That is, in the Aristotelian sense, our human form.”