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Christine Korsgaard's The Constitution of Agency includes an introductory chapter and collects ten of her previously published essays which explain the human mind in terms of agency, rationality, and virtue.
It is organized into three parts, with an introduction that nicely summarizes the themes of the book. The remaining chapters, particularly in the first two parts, form a natural progression as Korsgaard moves through the material. (As a work of fairly technical philosophy, this is not intended for nor accessible to general readers.)
Korsgaard uses the first two chapters of "Part 1: The Principles of Practical Reason" to clear away popular but incorrect views of agency. The essay "The Normativity of Instrumental Reason" seeks to show that rationalism and empiricism both fail to account for practical reason. "The Myth of Egoism" argues against the popular claim that egoism involves two principles: all practical reasons are instrumental and all motivation springs from desire. Her tack is to show that the only defensible versions of egoism must rely on a principle of pure practical reason (and hence is not only a matter of instrumental reason) and that the egoist's conception of the Good is only consistent with the antiquated psychological assumptions of 18th-century British moralists. While not refuting egoism, she takes it as showing it to be an unattractive position.
In the first part's final chapter, "Self-Constitution in the Ethics of Plato and Kant", Korsgaard argues that the "Constitution Model" of the soul explains what makes us agents rather than mere things through which events pass. She thinks that an action arises from the person's constitution as a whole rather than from outside or inside force working in or through the agent. In contrast is Hume's "Combat Model" which she rejects since in that model we are not agents but merely nodes in the causal flow of the world. Kant's categorical imperative and Plato's conception of justice rely on an understanding of action as internally integrated by self-constituted agents and hence these principles provide normative standards of action.
In "Part 2: Moral Virtue and Moral Psychology", Korsgaard brings together four papers. In "Aristotle's Function Argument" and "Aristotle on Function and Virtue" Korsgaard argues that Aristotle has a notion of function presented in Nicomachean Ethics 1.7 and in his Metaphysics according to which humans have a function, understood not as having a purpose, but as having a characteristic way of acting in the world. Humans are agents, and they act through their rational choices. Human flourishing does not result from acting merely according to a rational principle but consists in the activity itself, since acting rationally expresses the nature of the agent as she truly is by revealing the agent's conception of what is worth doing for the sake of what. Korsgaard also argues that the relation between moral virtues and rational activity is that the moral virtues are constitutive of and actualize rational activity.
"From Duty and for the Sake of the Noble: Kant and Aristotle on Morally Good Action" and "Acting for a Reason" seek to show the close connection between Kant's and Aristotle's ethical doctrines. Common to both is the belief that moral value is properly attributed not to acts but to actions: acts done for the sake of particular ends. In Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, for example, Kant does not address whether suicide is morally permissible but whether it is morally permissible to commit suicide in order to avoid an unpleasant future. Aristotle, on the other hand, describes virtuous acts as acting to the right extent, toward the right person, for the right reason, etc. Thus, Aristotle's notion of right behavior applies to actions, not acts, since the evaluation of behavior figures at least in part on the reason for action. Korsgaard concludes that action is morally good according to the reason it embodies. If Jack goes to his mother because she needs him, then his going is not separate from and backed by the reason but a practical expression of the reason.
"Part 3: Other Reflections" gathers "Taking the Law into Our Own Hands: Kant on the Right to Revolution", "The General Point of View: Love and Moral Approval in Hume's Ethics", and "Realism and Constructivism in Twentieth-Century Moral Philosophy". Since these are not essential to the central themes of her book, but fine-tune her central presentation, I'll pass without comment.
Korsgaard ably deals with many facets of practical reason and moral psychology--too many on which to focus in this review. Two topics, however, stand out as unifying themes. First, human agency and rationality operate according to constitutive principles; here she tries to show that Kant and Plato focus on different aspects of the same phenomenon. Second, Kant and Aristotle agree in their understanding of moral psychology and moral theory. Again, while there are important differences between them, much of what's taken as difference is, Korsgaard argues, at bottom a matter of emphasis and presentation.
Korsgaard presents the notion of a constitutive standard as both descriptive and normative. For example, the standard for a house is that it provide shelter. That standard tells us not only what every proper house is like, but also what any house must to be like to fulfill the function for which it is designed. If we consider a particular structure that fails to be habitable, we may either apply the standard descriptively and say "that's not a house, that's just boards slapped together" or we may apply the standard normatively and say "that's a sorry excuse for a house". In the same way, an essentially goal-directed activity like swimming follows a constitutive principle (propelling oneself through the water). We may thus accurately claim of a person who is trying to swim but making no headway either that she's just splashing about, or that she's swimming poorly. Korsgaard, thus, is a Platonist about goal-directed activities: "An activity is the activity that it is by virtue of its imperfect participation in the perfect Platonic form of that activity" (9).
In the same way, the principles of practical reason and the categorical imperative combine as the constitutive principles of rational activity: if one does not follow means-end principles, for example, we can either say that one isn't trying to achieve the desired end or that one is making a poor attempt at it. "To be an agent," according to Korsgaard, "is to be, at once, both autonomous and efficacious--it is to have effects on the world that are determined by yourself. By following the categorical imperative we render ourselves autonomous and by following the principles of instrumental reason, we render ourselves efficacious" (13).
The connection between Kant and Aristotle is that moral action is performed not merely in accordance with moral principles but because of them. Moral reasons are not, according to Korsgaard, external standards that we apply in evaluating action, but rather that morally correct behavior is the embodiment and expression of moral reasons.
Korsgaard needs to account for actions that are morally permissible but not morally required. Korsgaard says of Jack going to help his mother: "And his taking the fact that it would help his mother as a reason for making the trip, and in so doing judging that the whole action is good, is coincident with his doing it" (228). Thus, "being motivated by a reason is not a reaction to the judgment that a certain way of acting is good. It is more like an announcement that a certain way of acting is good" (228-229).
Suppose, though, that Jack doesn't go to see his mother. Presumably on Kant's account, Jack has an imperfect duty to help her: while it's praiseworthy for him to help her on this occasion, he is not duty bound by the categorical imperative to help her on every occasion. Thus, it's permissible if he doesn't go to help her this time. Korsgaard has not, as far as I can tell, developed sufficient resources to explain his not going to see her in spite of being morally motivated to do so. This is not an instance of weakness of the will which would show a defect in Jack's rational motivational structure. This is someone as fully rational as Kant or Aristotle or Plato could hope for seeing a morally good action and yet not performing it. That's a fairly small worry, though, and attests to the superb quality of Korsgaard's book.
Her writing is firmly grounded in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Hume, and Kant. She approaches them as if they were colleagues capable of making important and vital contributions to contemporary philosophy. Her work naturally invites us as readers to take the same stance toward these historical giants and to read them in a fresh light. Her philosophical contribution is in itself engaging, but if she did no more than to bring these philosophers so vividly before us, that would be contribution enough.
© 2009 Patrick Beach
Patrick Beach is an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Boise State University. He holds an MA from Miami University and is writing his dissertation on moral luck to complete his Ph.D. at Syracuse University. In addition to his interest in ethics, he also works in metaphysics and the history of philosophy.