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1. You Are What You Do
In between two songs on Neil Young's Year of the Horse live album, an audience member shouts out 'they all sound the same!' Without missing a beat, Young retorts 'it's all one song' and his band, Crazy Horse, plunge straight into the next kindred number. And so it is with Christine Korsgaard, who happily confesses that she is 'always making the same argument' (p.76). Asking what this argument is would be as misguided as asking which song it is that Young keeps playing (over and over again).
As with the numerous, ostensibly equivalent, formulations of Kant's Categorical Imperative, we would do well to approach Korsgaard's argument (which remains here as indebted to Kant as ever) by asking what it is an argument for. Korsgaard is characteristically generous with descriptions of her conclusion:
To act...is to determine yourself to be the cause of a certain end (p.41); A living thing is engaged in an endless activity of self-constitution (ibid); Self-constitution...is action itself (p.44); Action is self-constitution (p.45); We human beings constitute our personal or practical identities -- and at the same time our own agency -- through action itself (Ibid); We make ourselves the authors of our actions, by the way that we act (ibid);An action just is a practical judgment [about what must be done or would be good to do to a particular movement in the world] (p.47); The categorical imperative...is constitutive of action (p.52); Action is a form of self-determination (p. 72)You are not acting unless you are determining yourself to be a cause (ibid).
There is an air of the purposefully paradoxical to these statements, one which would not be out of place in the kind of postmodern text that 'analytic' philosophy of the kind practised by Korsgaard often defines itself against. This book is largely engaged with unveiling a picture according to which the above statements come to represent the summation of a highly sophisticated, coherent, account of agency.
2. Over and Over Again
As with 1996's The Sources of Normativity (published simultaneously with Creating the Kingdom of Ends), Self-Constitution is accompanied by a collection of related essays on practical reason and moral psychology (The Constitution of Agency) which the author frequently points to for additional support in her monograph (alongside her second set of Tanner lectures, 2004's 'Fellow Creatures: Kantian Ethics and Our Duties to Animals'). Critics may find the procedure repetitive, but it crucially allows Korsgaard to once again compose a monograph which paints an astounding clear picture of a resolute view, devoid of all the jargon and dull complications which plague much academic philosophy today. To be certain, there are obvious counter-objections to replies to possible objections that she does not even pretend to consider here, but that is what the collected essays (which tell us how she arrived at the view she here unfolds) are for. Korsgaard presents her account with remarkable clarity and force, offering persuasive formulations of the argument for it.
Her view, presented here within Kantian and Aristotelian frameworks is to be contrasted with the Humean view according to which 'action essentially is nothing more than a movement caused by a judgement or idea that regularly has an effect on the will'(pp. 63-4). Other figures in the history of Philosophy who have combated this view include Fichte, Hegel, and Sartre. Indeed, it is a great shame that Korsgaard refrains from discussing Hegel's account of self-actualisation (as it emerges in his Philosophy of Right), for this was developed with the explicit purpose of avoiding some of the mereological difficulties raised by the Kantian notion of self-legislation (difficulties which Korsgaard addresses with some help from Plato in a chapter on Integrity and Integration).
On all such anti-Humean views, action is a process guided by judgement, not an event caused by it; Korsgaard implicity (and on occasion explicitly) rejects any notion of guidance in terms of any identification mechanism of the sort considered by Harry Frankfurt, John Martin Fischer, Gary Watson, David Velleman, et al. These are thought to fail from the outshot because they do not give a sufficient causal role the person as a whole:
It is essential to the concept of an action that it is attributable to the person as a whole, as a unit, not to some force that is working in her or on her (p.xii)
...determining yourself to be a cause is not the same as being moved by something within you, say some desire or impulse (p.72)
3. The Song Remains the Same
Korsgaard's chief tasks, then, are to (i) explain why the only actions that can be legitimately attributed to us as a whole are those in which we determine ourselves to be causes and (ii) demonstrate how this is possible (which is where the categorical imperative comes in).The second of these emerges from the endorsement argument she already gave in The Sources of Normativity viz. that only those beliefs and desires which we consciously endorse (as being normatively binding in a universal sense) count as our own. Indeed, the book under review here might thus be seen as an extended application of this thesis to the theory of action.
It is tempting to question the sequence of thoughts at play here: should not one's account of action precede rather than succeed one's account of right action? This temptation should be resisted though, for it makes perfect sense to place a constraint of responsibility to aspects of our agency i.e. to insist that our account of certain kinds of acts must reveal how it is that we can be responsible for them (in however weak or strong a sense one is working with). Extremely hard determinists who believe that there is no sense whatsoever in which we are responsible for actions are unlikely to be persuaded by this move, or indeed anything the book has to offer (cf. p131). All other readers, however, should appreciate its force.
As noted above, Korsgaard's account of responsible action entails that one constitutes oneself by or through acting. We are now in a position to see how this is entitled by her account of responsibility as voluntary self-determination:
...action is simply interaction with the self. If this is so, then respect for the humanity in one's own person, and the consequent treatment of one's own reasons as considerations with public normative standing, are the conditions that make unified agency possible. Without respect for the humanity in your own person, it is impossible to will the laws of your own causality, to make something of yourself, to be a person; and unless you make something of yourself, unless you constitute yourself as a person, it will be impossible for you to act at all (p.204, my emphasis).
There is a circular tension here, but it need not be vicious. Korsgaard's explanation of how it is that we can hold beings responsible for becoming (or, indeed, failing to become) certain people appeals to the (undoubtedly correct) claim that not everything we are responsible for is an action:
...in the sort of theory I am defending, responsibility in general is going to look a lot more like responsibility for omission. What we are going to blame you for is not that other force that was working in you or on you, but for the fact that you let it do that, that you failed to pick up the reins and take control of your own movements. And the reason we are going to do that is that making yourself into an agent, giving yourself an identity, becoming a person, is your job. (p.175, emphasis in the original).
4. Only As Creators
But what is this self that is thought to be more than a collection of 'alien' desires? And how can we make a desire our own simply by blessing it...is such an endorsement not merely a result of previous desires? Analogies between such thoughts and Nietzsche's causa sui argument should be obvious. Korsgaard is hardly nonplussed by such concerns. On her view, whatever internal and external forces we begin with at any given time, it is causally possible for a human being - of a certain age and mental ability - overcome them. We are, as Nietzsche himself paradoxically maintained, our own creators:
I think it is true that we could not rightly be held responsible unless we create ourselves, but false that that makes the idea of responsibility incoherent...we are responsible because we have a form of identity that is constituted by our chosen actions. We are responsible for our actions not because they are our products but because they are us, we are what we do (p.130, emphasis in the original).
Since normative reasons, for Korsgaard, are 'public' (i.e. universally shareable), we have a duty to act in accordance with them no matter what our motivational set (the last chapter of the book defends the 'publicity' of reasons against Bernard Williams' famous challenge).
Metaphysical worries aside, this view of agency simply seems too demanding to meet the phenomenological and linguistic facts. Most kinds of everyday human actions -- never mind those of animals -- seem to fall incredibly short of the criteria set out by Korsgaard, from self-consciousness to the categorical imperative. Unless we are to accept a highly technical notion of what it is to act (in which case everything that Korsgaard says would hold true through mere stipulation), it might therefore seem more plausible to claim that action, responsibility and, indeed, self-constitution come in various shades and degrees. Korsgaard is not completely averse to such pronouncements. She claims that non-human animals (who are not properly responsible for their actions) act upon principles that they do not choose (principles that are causally definitive of their will), and concludes from this that there is a (perfectly legitimate) weaker sense of autonomy available to us. Many of our actions seem to fall into this set but for the author of this book what matters, what separates us from the beasts, is our ability to keep on self-constituting in the free world. Should you cause yourself to read a copy, you shall constitute yourself well.
© 2010 Constantine Sandis
Constantine Sandis is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Oxford Brookes University and NYU in London. His edited volume New Essays on the Explanation of Action was published in 2009.