Koorsgard Self-Constitution – Discussion of first part of Chapter 1

A bit late, but here it is my first bash at starting to read through Korsgards book. I haven’t got quite as far as I wanted to, I’ve only written up first half of chapter so far. Perhaps I’m being overly in depth? My primary goal is to use this ‘writing up’ exercise as a tool to better understand the arguments myself but if anyone is reading I can only say that hopefully as I go through the each chapter my style and conciseness will improve.

Korsgards aim in Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity and Integrity is to make sense of that apparent fact that human actions can be assessed in terms of being right or wrong. A type of assessment she sees as distinct from that in which we evaluate the actions of other animals.

Now, there are many ways in which we might distinguish our actions from those of other animals. We might note that we perform different types of actions. For example, we are the only animals that play monopoly, drink coffee and wear hats. Korsgaard however is not particularly interested in any particular types of actions (per say), rather, her quarry is that which she believes makes all of our actions uniquely human – or, as we might more informatively say, uniquely agentive.

For Korsgaard we need to direct our attentions not to the outcomes of our actions but rather to the reasons that we have for them. She believes that it is our ability to decide how to ground our actions that makes us special and that provides the foundation for the normative assessment of our actions.

While we might quibble over the cases of a few ‘higher’ animals, Korsgaards point seems generally correct. While I might train a dog to put on a hat, it seems odd to even imagine how I might train it to choose the reason why it should put on a hat. Conversely, it appears easy to see that I (a human agent) can choose to ground my hat wearing in various ways; I might wear it to please my father, I might wear it to keep my head warm or I might wear it to preserve a conservative sense of modesty.

To be clear, Korsgard’s focus is not the causal sequence that ends in your performing a certain piece of behaviour, though hopefully it will be possible to connect what she says up to such a story, rather she is interested in the experience of action from the perspective of the agent. So she would not be particularly interested in discovering whether it was your father’s constant nagging that lead you to be subconsciously biased towards hat wearing. Instead, she is interested in what you consciously see as your reason for wearing the hat.

While psychosocial studies may tell us that the reasons we claim to have for performing actions do not always appear be to be truly what motivate us1, it does seem that from our own perspectives we have to see ourselves as free to choose our reasons. To think otherwise seems to be a form of Sartrean bad faith. It feels to me that I am free to act out of the wish to please my father or to act out of a need to keep my head warm. If I try and deny to myself that I can so choose then my deliberative reason grinds to a hault. Korsgaard does not (at least in this book) seem to see any particular need to argue for this position, but this is not surprising given her grounding in moral philosophy; for if we do not see each agent’s choices as free it seems hard to understand how they can be condemned or praised for making them.

If we accept the openness of our choices Korsgaard believes that we face a uniquely human plight: Action is presented to us as something we must necessary do. As she notes, even if we choose to stand still, by choosing to do so we make this standing still into an action2. However, because we are free to choose how to ground our actions, we always face the task of determining how we are to act with a range of open possibilities.

This plight is eased by the fact that each choice is not experienced by us as being of equal weight rather we experience “… a vast assortment of duties, obligations, expectations, demands and rules, all telling us what to do.”3 Korsgaard uses the term ‘necessitation’ as a label for the psychological force we feel compels us to do as we ought and her aim is to build a model that can explain this feeling of necessitation. Trying to give an explanation of normativity is hardly unique, however we will see that what makes Korsgaard’s model special is the way in which she ties her explanation of normativity to the challenge of the multiplicity of open possibilities for action. She believes that norms are able to have force over us because they play a role in solving the challenge of choosing, they allow us to make sense of making certain choices over others by giving structure to our characters.

In setting up her explanatory model Korsgard gives two alternatives. The first is the Good Dog model, on which the experience of necessitation comes from the battle between ones good desires (i.e. those that are in line with the relevant norms) and ones bad desires (i.e. those that are not in line with the relevant norms). On this view the perfect individual is one whose desires are absolutely in line with that which is good. The second is the Miserable Sinner model, on which the experience of necessitation comes from the battle between ones desires and the demands of ones duty (i.e. what one sees as required of them by the relevant norms). On this view the perfect individual is one who can repress their desires.

Korsgaard believes that both models are wrong because they both mislocate the site of the conflict that leads to necessitation. Both, she believes, require that “.. norms exist outside of human reason”4 and as such cannot play a direct role in our feeling of necessitation, rather they have impact on us only via an intermediary. In the case of good dog models the intermediary is the training (either by ones self or by an other) of ones desires to fit with the relevant norms. It functions prior to each particular case of deliberation. In the case of the miserable sinner model this intermediary is some kind of rational module which directly motivates us to follow the relevant norms. This intermediary functions concurrently with each particular case of deliberation. In both cases our experience of necessitation is the experience of a clash between internally generated motivations (i.e. desires) and externally generated ones (either well trained desires or the outputs of rational consideration).

Korsgard believes that because these accounts must see normative standards as affecting us indirectly that they end up merely stating that we experience norms as necessitating, they do not (she believes) really explain why we experience these standards as necessitating. That is they simply state that we are set up in such a way that our psychological systems happen to mirror the normative, they do not make experience of the normative an essential part of our practical reason.To achieve the later she believes that we need an account of necessitation that locates the site of the conflict that generates it as one within human reason.

Koorsgaard believes that the in facing the challenge of choosing how to act we make decisions about who we will be. In choosing our actions we choice who we are to be, as she puts it we ‘constitute ourselves’. This, she thinks, provides provides a location internal to agentive reason where we can site the conflict that leads to nessistation. That is to say, she believes that an account of necessitation must be find its foundation in “… the struggle to be, in the face of psychic complexity, a single unified agent.”5 On this model, we do not experience necessitation because of (in any straightforward sense) any psychological clash between good and bad motivations – rather we experience necessitation as part of a complex process of constituting ourselves.

So far so intriguing, but why we might wonder do normative standards play a part in constituting our selves? In the next post a I’ll discus how Korsgaard tries to flesh out this model in the second half of the first chapter.

1For example in studies of conformity, where agents often end up choosing to act in conformity with others they will often invent what seem to be spurious reasons for so acting.

2C.f. Frankfurt’s famous example of someone allowing their car to coast down a hill (in Problem of action)
3Koorsgard, p.2
4Korsgaard, P.6
5Korsgaard, p.7

About Joseph Kisolo

Philosopher teaching Ethics & Epistemology @ NottsUni and interested in in Social Ontology. Outside academia interested in climbing, design, geekery and radical social justice.
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