The following is a guest-post by Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin, which provides a succinct summary of Korsgaard's Kantian Moral Theory:
According to Christine Korsgaard, our first-person experience of agency reveals a requirement. We need reasons to act and to live. You are a creature that stands at a “reflective distance” from your motives. You are not simply determined by your desires to act this way or that, but you can and do choose which desires to act on.
When you deliberate, it is as if there were something over and above all your desires, something which is you, and which chooses which desire to act on. This means that the principle or law by which you determine your actions is one that you regard as expressive of yourself” (Korsgaard (1996), p. 100).You regard your reasons as self-imposed.
In deliberation, on Korsgaard’s view, you form conceptions of your “practical identity,” and these are the source of your reasons and obligations. A conception of your practical identity is “a description under which you value yourself, a description under which you find your life to be worth living and your actions to be worth undertaking” (101). When you choose to act on a given desire, you do so because this is justified by some or other of your practical identities. Typically, one has many practical identities—a philosopher, a parent, a neighbor, a citizen, a student, a teacher—and each one gives rise to reasons and obligations. “Your reasons express your identity, your nature; your obligations spring from what that identity forbids” (Ibid, p. 101).
There is one practical identity, however, that has pride of place on Korsgaard’s view. Most of your practical identities are contingent. You could have valued yourself under different descriptions (and might do so in the future). But your identity as a human being is necessary. Korsgaard argues for this claim as follows:
It is necessary to have some conception of your practical identity, for without it you cannot have reasons to act. We endorse or reject impulses by determining whether they are consistent with the ways in which we identify ourselves. Yet most of the self-conceptions which govern us are contingent. … Because these conceptions are contingent, one or another of them may be shed. … What is not contingent is that you must be governed by some conception of your practical identity. For unless you are committed to some conception of your practical identity, you will lose your grip on yourself as having any reason to do one thing rather than another—and with it, your grip on yourself as having any reason to live and act at all. But this reason for conforming to your particular practical identities is not a reason that springs from one of those particular practical identities. It is a reason that springs from your humanity itself, from your identity simply as a human being, a reflective animal who needs reasons to act and to live. And so it is a reason you have only if you treat your humanity as a practical, normative, form of identity, that is, if you value yourself as a human being. (Ibid, pp. 120-121)The claim that your human identity is a necessary part of your self-conception is central to Korsgaard’s moral theory. Your human identity both “stands behind” your particular practical identities and is the source of your moral reasons and moral obligations. These points merit extrapolation.
The central idea of Korsgaard’s view is that you impose reasons and obligations on yourself by valuing yourself under certain descriptions. Each particular description under which you value yourself is a particular practical identity of yours—teacher, parent, citizen—and imposes a consistency constraint on candidate motivations for actions. You have reason to act on those motivations consistent with one of your practical identities and are obligated not to act on those motivations inconsistent with any of your practical identities.
But the fact that you have any practical identities at all means that you value yourself under the description of one who needs reasons to act and to live. That you have contingent practical identities entails that you have the necessary practical identity of a human being. Your human identity is explained in the same way as all other practical identities: you value yourself under a certain description. But it is special in two ways. First, your human identity is implicitly affirmed in the adoption and maintenance of all of your particular practical identities. It “stands behind” them. Your particular identities are normative only given that it is normative. The normativity of any particular practical identities is parasitic on the normativity of your human identity. And your human identity requires that you have some particular practical identity or other. Without these particular identities you would not have reasons to do particular things. Your human identity is necessary, in other words, because you do act for reasons, and this presupposes that you value the need to do so. Second, your human identity is the source of all of your specifically moral reasons and obligations. Your human identity gives you reason to value others’ humanity, and it obligates you not to flout the value of others’ humanity.
This introduces a distinction between moral and non-moral reasons and obligations. One has a moral reason to act on those motivations consistent with one’s human identity and a moral obligation not to act on those motivations inconsistent with one’s human identity. One has a non-moral reason to act on those motivations consistent with one of one’s particular practical identities and a non-moral obligation not to act on those motivations inconsistent with one of one’s particular practical identities. This makes room for conflict between obligations. For example, a non-moral obligation may conflict with a moral obligation when it would be both inconsistent with one’s human identity to act on a given desire and inconsistent with some particular practical identity not to.
The resolution of such conflicts is dictated by the structure of Korsgaard’s view. From the two special characteristics of your human identity, it follows that morality is both rationally inescapable and overriding. Morality is rationally inescapable because your human identity, the practical identity that underwrites moral reasons and moral obligations, is necessary. It is not one that can be shed. Morality is overriding because, in a case of conflict, the conflict must be resolved by shedding the source of one or the other conflicting reasons or obligations. But since the source of your moral reasons cannot be shed, it will always be the case that a conflict between a moral reason or obligation and a non-moral reason or obligation will be resolved in favor of the moral reason or obligation. Morality always wins the day because the source of its normative force is a necessary feature of human agency.