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August 04, 2015


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HP: The paper we’re featuring is largely historical, but in it you seem to agree with some of the main argumentative moves you attribute to Aristotle and Kant. I’d like to invite you to say something about the extent of your agreement, then and now, with these moves. Please, feel free to plug your other work in your answers! The references will be helpful. There are two argumentative moves I’m wondering about in particular.

(HP1) The first concerns the idea that the “source” of value must be an unconditional / unconditioned good. Some quick background for readers who may not be that familiar with this notion: I take it that your distinction between “conditioned” and “unconditioned” goods in the “Aristotle and Kant” paper corresponds to the distinction between “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” goods in your (1983) “Two Distinctions in Goodness.” Roughly, intrinsic / unconditioned goods don’t depend for their value on any “condition” or circumstance: they carry their value in themselves, as it were, and in every conceivable circumstance. The Kantian example you give is the good will. Extrinsic / conditioned goods do depend for their value on external conditions or circumstances that might not hold in every conceivable situation in which the valuable object exists. The Kantian example you give is happiness – for Kant, its value depends on our worthiness to be happy (on our having a good will). Further, anything whose value depends on our contingent human needs or interests has extrinsic value: perhaps certain activities that are pleasurable for us are like this. And you point out that extrinsic goods can also be “final” ends, valuable (and valued) for their own sakes: happiness, say, is not valuable merely as means for something further. Its value is extrinsic (according to Kant) but final.

You suggest that both Aristotle and Kant agree that the “source” of value must be something of unconditioned value: for Aristotle, contemplation; for Kant, the good will. I take it that part of the idea is that the intrinsically valuable thing has its own “source” of value in itself, not in something extrinsic to it (this is a way you put it in “Two Distinctions”). But crucially, the unconditioned good is also supposed to be the “source” of the value for other, conditionally valuable things. You argue:

"If the end is only conditionally good, it in turn must be justified. Justification, like explanation, seems to give rise to an indefinite regress: for any reason offered, we can always ask why. If complete justification of an end is to be possible, something must bring this regress to a stop; there must be something about which it is impossible or unnecessary to ask why. This will be something unconditionally good. Since what is unconditionally good will serve as the condition of the value of other good things, it will be the source of value." (p.488, “Aristotle and Kant”)

My question concerns the two last sentences here. Why think that what stops the regress of questions about why something extrinsically valuable is valuable must itself also be a value? Why think that the “source” of value for extrinsically valuable things must be something intrinsically valuable? Given that extrinsic value needn’t be instrumental value, it seems like a possibility that there might be only extrinsically valuable things—that nothing is intrinsically valuable. For instance, it might be that the only things of value depend for their value in some way on contingent human needs and interests—or more strongly, have the “source” of their value in some facts about contingent human needs and interests. Maybe there’s nothing that’s valuable completely regardless of contingent circumstance.

You sometimes put the argument as a potential regress of justifications that arises from the 1st-person perspective of the agent. The thought is that we can’t see our activity of willing as conferring value on extrinsically valuable things—as Kant and (I take it) you think we do—unless we also take our activity of willing (or maybe the power to engage in this activity (?)) to be intrinsically valuable. (Cf. your 1996 Sources?) But even when the argument is in this way replicated within the 1st-person perspective of the agent, I don’t quite see its force. Why couldn’t we see our own activity of willing as the source of value for extrinsically valuable things, even if we didn’t also see ourselves as being intrinsically valuable? To deploy Ruth Chang’s helpful terminology (from her 2009 “Voluntarist Reasons and the Sources of Normativity”), why think that the “source” of value must also be a bearer of value?

I’m wondering whether you did then / do now agree with the idea that the source of value must also be a bearer of value, so that the source must be intrinsically good; and if you did then / do now agree, I wonder what you’d say about the above objection to this idea. (My sense is that in “Two Distinctions,” you did agree with the idea I’m disputing; but I’m curious to hear what you think.)

(HP2) The second question can be put more briefly, given the first. You suggest that what’s most suitable for playing the role of the ultimate source of value is some activity, not a process, in the Aristotelian sense. But your argument for this claim in the “Aristotle and Kant” paper depends, I think, on the claim that the source of value must itself be an unconditioned good: you argue by way of the claim that only activities could be unconditioned goods. However, suppose, as I suggested above, that the source of value needn’t be an unconditioned good. Then even if we agree that only activities could be unconditioned goods, we needn’t yet conclude that the source of value must be an activity. For again, there might be no unconditioned goods, even if there is a source of value.

Maybe there’s another argument for why the source of value must be an activity that doesn’t depend on the claim that the source of value must be an unconditioned good? I’m curious also to hear more generally about how this topic relates to your more recent views. When reading your (2009) Self-Constitution, for example, I didn’t think that the idea of an unconditioned good did much / any argumentative work there. Does the idea of an activity do important argumentative work there nonetheless, specifically in the position of a justificatory regress-stopper? Or in some other way? (Schapiro suggests that the idea of an activity continues to be important in your work in some way.)

(Posted on behalf of Christine Korsgaard)

CMK Response to (HP1): First, I’ve long since given up on the idea of intrinsic value. (See Creating the Kingdom of Ends, p. 407). I think it is essentially a metaphysical notion that Kantians and other naturalists should reject. All value depends upon valuing. Things have value because we value them, rather than the reverse. This includes the value of humanity, which springs from a value that we set upon ourselves. Two things make the value of humanity different from other values. First, I believe that the value of humanity is a presupposition of rational choice and action. Roughly, the argument is that when we act for reasons, we suppose that the actions we do are worth doing and the ends we pursue are worth pursuing. Since ordinarily we act in pursuit of the ends that matter to us, that means that when we act, we take the things that matter to us to be worthy of pursuit, to matter absolutely, as I like to say. But to say that we take the things that matter to us to matter absolutely is just to say that we take ourselves to matter – we set a value on ourselves. After all, what it is to value a sentient creature is to take the things that matter to that creature to be genuinely important. (For somewhat more complete versions of these arguments see “A Kantian Case for Animals Rights,” §2, and “Kantian Ethics, Animals, and the Law,” §4. I’m afraid some of my more recent formulations of my ideas are hidden in places where people wouldn’t necessarily expect to find them.) So the first thing that’s special about the value of humanity is that rational action presupposes it. The second thing is that the value we set upon humanity is the condition of all value, since, as I argued way back in Sources, if we don’t set a value on humanity we have no basis for thinking that there are reasons and values at all.

If something along these lines is correct, I don’t need to make any general metaphysical assumption to the effect that the condition of all value or the source of value must itself be valuable. Instead the point is about the presuppositions and implications of valuing, of the act of valuing. We can still say that humanity is an unconditioned value in the sense that its value does not depend anything on outside of itself – it depends on our valuing ourselves, but that isn’t something outside of ourselves, and it is something that as rational beings we almost cannot help but do. (“Almost,” here, because of the possibility of the “normative skeptic” that I discuss in Sources 4.4.1-4.4.2.). And we can still say that humanity is the source of all value.

(Posted on behalf of Christine Korsgaard)

CMK Response to (HP2): I certainly believe that Aristotle was right in thinking that value must ultimately rest in activity. As he says, a process is for the sake of an end, and its value depends upon the value of that end. But of course that argument is only going to satisfy those who are prepared to take processes and activities to be the two candidates here. But many people think that objects (e.g. beautiful objects) and/or mental “states” (pleasure, supposedly) are also candidates to be the bearers of ultimate value. As against those ideas, there are some intuitive arguments that value must ultimately rest in activity: the value of a beautiful painting, for instance, seems to depend on the fact that someone (at some point in time) is looking at it. But some people would say that the value of the activity in turn depends upon the fact that the person is enjoying the activity (in the right way). After all, someone staring at a painting in a state of gloomy incomprehension does not realize its value. That might suggest that value in the end rests in a state. In contradistinction to that, Aristotle thought of pleasure as a way in which we experience activities, not as a static mental state that ensues upon them. I think he was right about that, but I won’t try to defend that here.

(..cont. post on behalf of Christine Korsgaard)

Instead I will give you a different kind of argument that value must rest in activity, one more related to the work I’m doing now on the good.

There’s a deep question, related to some of the points that Tamar makes below, about the nature of the human good. Some people think that certain objects/activities/whatever have intrinsic value, and the human good consists in our appreciating these objects, engaging in these activities, etc. On that account, human life can be good because it puts us in a position to come into the right kind of appreciative contact with intrinsically valuable stuff. People who think this may also think that it is better to be a human being than to be some other sort of animal, because human beings are equipped to come in contact with/appreciate/ engage with more of these intrinsically valuable things.

A quite different view is that the good for a being is relative to the nature of that being. Reading poetry is good for human beings, hunting is good for tigers, and rooting around in fresh straw is good for pigs (as reported by Temple Grandin in Animals Make Us Human; see my “Valuing Our Humanity,” forthcoming). On this view, it is not true that a pig would be better off if she were you, because then she could enjoy reading poetry, any more than it is true that you would be better off if you were a pig, because then you could enjoy rooting around in fresh straw.

Lately I’ve been arguing that the notion of good-for is prior to the notion of good. (“The Relational Nature of the Good” and “On Having a Good.”) This view favors the second of the two views I’ve described above, that value is relative to a creature’s nature – to what is good for that creature. If goodness for a creature is relative to the kind of life that he or she leads, then goodness is ultimately goodness of life. The things that are good are the things that constitute goodness of life. So the goodness of human life (for instance) does not consist in the fact that life puts us in a position to make contact with something else, rather, it is a property of life itself. The life is a well-lived life of its kind. And life itself is an activity – in fact, it is activity of self-constitution, in its various forms, including the physical self-constitution that is the nature of all organic life, and, in the human case, the constitution of practical identity.

(Posted on behalf of Tamar Schapiro)

(TS1): As I was reading your article, Kant’s claim that “the good will” is the source of value amounts to the claim that a certain activity of the source of value, namely the activity of good/rational/autonomous willing. I take it that on your more recent interpretation of Kant, good/rational/autonomous willing just amounts to the activity of self-constitution. So my questions are about whether, on your view, self-constitution stops the regress in virtue of the same features that Aristotle and Kant thought were necessary to stop the regress. The problem, as you put it, is to identify something, presumably an activity, “about which it is impossible or unnecessary to ask why.” (488) What features do Aristotle and Kant think such an activity has to have for this to be true of it, and to what extent is their answer the same as yours?

(Posted on behalf of Christine Korsgaard)

CMK Response to (TS1): I no longer exactly think there is a regress – I think that’s just a kind of handy way of presenting the argument. The claim that I made in response to Hille’s first point – that the value of humanity is presupposed by rational choice – doesn't have to be approached by a regress argument. That said, there is still a question about the source of value. Aristotle and Kant think that to be the source of value something has to be unconditionally valuable. For Aristotle the mark of that is that it has to be the sort of thing for the sake of which we would choose to be human, or live a human life. For Kant it has to be something unconditionally good. According to my argument, the value of humanity, taking that to be the exercise of rational choice, is unconditionally good in the sense that it does not depend on anything outside of itself, and can serve as the source of value for other things. I take it that my argument still has that in common with theirs.

(Posted on behalf of Tamar Schapiro)

(TS2): As you point out, Aristotle drew a distinction between impure and pure activities, and one of the features that makes an activity impure is that it involves the overcoming of human limitations. For Aristotle, there is a sense in which the less an activity directly responds to the human condition, the more pure it is. By contrast your conception of self-constitution is that of an activity made necessary by our distinctively human condition – our need to act, combined with our reflective nature. And on your view, self-constitution is work, which does involve the overcoming of obstacles, whereas it is not clear the same is true of Aristotelian contemplation. From your perspective, was Aristotle just wrong to think that there is a concept of a pure activity, and that only a pure activity can stop the regress of justification? Or did he misconstrue the notion of a pure activity?

(Posted on behalf of Christine Korsgaard)

CMK Response to (TS2): As I mentioned in response to Hille, I think there is a deep problem here – the problem of whether human life gets its value by putting us in contact with something valuable in itself, or by being good of its own kind. Aristotle’s complex position on this point involves elements of both thoughts. On the one hand, he seems to think the best thing in human life is that our nature makes us capable of participating in a divine activity, one that has its value in itself. On the other hand, it is Aristotle’s theory of an organism’s function that best lends itself to the view that the good for a thing is relative to its nature. (“Aristotle’s Function Argument,” “On Having a Good.”) I think Aristotle is aware of the tension in his position. In 9.4 of the Nicomachean Ethics, he remarks that “each man wishes himself what is good, while no one chooses to possess the whole world if he has first to become some one else (for that matter, even now God possesses the good); he wishes this only on condition of being what he is…” Here he acknowledges that what is good for you is relative to your nature; changing your nature to equip yourself for what is good for a God isn’t a way of getting what is good for you. But then he continues, “the element that thinks would seem to be the individual man, or to be so more than any other.” So he “resolves” the tension by claiming that the divine element in our nature also most truly our individual selves. At the risk of being disrespectful to one of my great heroes, I don’t think this will wash.

(Posted on behalf of Tamar Schapiro)

(TS3): On the Kant side, you attribute to Kant the claim that “the final purpose for human beings must also be regarded as the final purpose of the world” (501). But I gather on your view, we do not have to see self-constitution as the final purpose of the world in order to think of it as an activity “about which it is unnecessary or impossible to ask why.” Was Kant just wrong to think we have a rational need for this kind of practical faith?

(TS4): Relatedly, do you share the view that “[the] values of a human life are only really worth pursuing if something makes a human life worth living” (502)? If so, would you say that self-constitution makes human life worth living? That seems odd. It would seem more natural for you to that self-constitution just is human living, well done. Am I wrong about that?

(Posted on behalf of Christine Korsgaard)

CMK Response to (TS3) and (TS4): You’re right that these points are related, and I’m going to take them together. First, I think that the act of genuinely rational/moral willing amounts to the act of self-constitution, and that understanding this helps us to understand a great deal about it, including the categorical necessity of morality (Self-Constitution), and the nature of freedom and responsibility (“The Normative Conception of Action,” “How to be an Aristotelian Kantian Constitutivist” (forthcoming)). But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I think that focusing on the equivalence between moral activity and self-constitution is always the best way of illuminating everything that matters to us about moral activity. It does indeed sound absurd to say that self-constitution makes life worth living, but I don’t think that, although I think that somewhat successful self-constitution is a necessary condition of a worthwhile life. That brings me to a second point. Notice that Kant himself didn’t say that being moral makes life worth living. The object of practical faith for him is the highest good, which he thought was morality and happiness in proportion to virtue. In fact his argument for practical faith takes off from the worry that you might be a good person and neither be happy yourself nor achieve anything good for anybody else (that’s in my preferred version of the argument for practical faith, the version in the Critique of Judgment). The equivalent point here would be that what makes life worth living is not just the fact that you constitute your practical identity, but that you achieve (some of? a reasonable share of?) the things which are good from your point of view in virtue of your having that practical identity. I don’t mean just the things that are good for you in the sense given by the old idea of “self-interest.” I mean the things that are good from your point of view as the bearer of whatever identity you have – the goodness and happiness of your children from your point of view as a parent, justice from your point of view as a citizen, knowledge from your point of view as a scientist or student of the sciences, etc.

All of that said, I reject Kant’s idea of practical faith. I haven’t talked about it here, but I think that the argument for the value of humanity also establishes the value of sentient life generally (see, as before, “A Kantian Case for Animal Rights” and “Kantian Ethics, Animals, and the Law”). Because the interests of living creatures are necessarily at odds, I think that the state of affairs that I would call “the highest good” is not achievable. I still think that it is worth doing our best.

Hi Professor Korsgaard,

If you do not mind, I would be interested to hear you say something about a question that this exchange provokes. If I am understanding things correctly, we can understand why we are inescapably bound by morality by reflecting on the connection between morality and self-constitution, but we can also see that we have reasons to pursue our Good, defined by reference to our practical identity and not thought of as self-interest. My question is about what you would say when reflecting on Gauguin-style cases in which it looks like morality requires us to act in identity undermining ways. I am wondering what your current preferred strategy is here.

My question is partly motivated by the part of Moral luck in which Williams says that while going to Tahiti may be justified from the point of view of Gauguin's artistic ground project (roughly, personal identity), that point of view may not be one that those left behind can share. I am thinking of a strengthened claim that in some such cases going to Tahiti is required from the point of view of Gauguin's "ground project" but that such personal-identity grounded reasons are not sharable.

I can imagine the devil on Gauguin's shoulder saying: To constitute yourself as a diachronic person and maintain your personal identity, you must choose to act on personal-identity grounded reasons despite their being unsharable or less than ideally public (and therefore, or also, immoral). Because you are subject to moral norms you should feel guilty later, but you should still choose to leave town.

By going to Tahiti Gauguin *will* be untrue to some part of his self because he violates the constitutive norms of self-authorship and responsible agency; but if he stays in Paris he will be untrue to some part of his self because he will be betraying his identity constituting commitments or ends. It seems like he is in an self-authorship-based-reasons dilemma here.

Perhaps this relates to Professor Shapiro's second question and the concept of the true self that you use in your response. I agree it is hard to hold on to Aristotle's distinction between pure and impure activity and his view that our god-like nous is our true self, but I am also unclear how we may claim that Gauguin's true self is the part of his self that requires him to stay in Paris. This was something Kant would presumably want to say. I guess I wonder whether you would still want to make use of a true self claim here, a distinction between better and worse activity, or appeal to something else. If this is too off topic, I understand of course.

Brad Cokelet - I'm afraid this is kind of a boring reply, but in Self-Constitution I try to argue that willing morally is essential to the integrity necessary to have a coherent and unified practical identity. So if Gauguin needs to leave his wife and family in order to pursue his art, there's already something amiss. Having married, he should be making such decisions together with his wife. I don't agree with BW that this is an authentic moral luck case; I think he's just wrong. As for the true self, I was only describing Aristotle's view there. Of course I believe that you create yourself, not that you just have some self that you have to be true to. -Chris Korsgaard

Dear Professor Korsgaard,

Would you reveal the whereabouts of your friend to the murderer at the door?

With best wishes,

Calvin - Of course not. I explain why in "The Right to Lie; Kant on Dealing with Evil." - Chris Korsgaard

Dear Prof Korsgaard

You say ‘Since ordinarily we act in pursuit of the ends that matter to us, that means that when we act, we take the things that matter to us to be worthy of pursuit, to matter absolutely, as I like to say. But to say that we take the things that matter to us to matter absolutely is just to say that we take ourselves to matter – we set a value on ourselves. After all, what it is to value a sentient creature is to take the things that matter to that creature to be genuinely important.’

Imagine I live in a world where everyone apart from me thinks the following, ‘Nothing really matters, nothing has real value, I just sometimes feel like doing one thing so I do it, at other times I feel like doing something else, so I do it’.

Or imagine I live in a world where each person apart from me thinks that all that matters absolutely is that he become as rich as possible, and so he pursues this goal to the exclusion of all else. We might further imagine that they think this because of the way they were brought up.

In the first case no one apart from me thinks that anything really matters. In the second case people do think something really matters but they are mistaken about what really matters (let us assume) and did not rationally choose to think this is what really matters.

I would be grateful if you would clarify how then I get the argument for treating all these persons as ends. Furthermore, what are the implications of treating them as an end, given that it surely cannot be to help them achieve their goals?




These are large questions so the answers will necessarily be sketchy; I will have much more to say about such things in The Natural History of the Good, currently in progress.

Let's start with the case where everyone else values being rich. First of all, let's suppose that's all that anyone cares about, yourself included. Then perhaps that is what's good for human beings, in just the way that rooting around in straw is good for pigs (see my reply to HP2). That could be true. Okay, but we think it isn't true. Why do we think that? The fans of intrinsic value would say because being rich isn't really valuable, or anyway, it isn't really as valuable some of the other things human beings can go in for. But then there is a further question: if this isn't the most valuable thing human beings can do, then why does everyone think that it is? Perhaps there is something wrong with them: they feel insecure and want the power or status that wealth brings, they hope to feel superior to their neighbors, etc. Okay, but those are flaws that we can identify as such without recourse to a theory of intrinsic value. We don't have to say these people don't recognize what really matters: we can say they don't recognize what really matters *to them.* So the argument can accommodate the fact that people don't always get it right about what matters to them. It is what really matters to people that we are to take to be important.

The world in which nothing matters to anyone except you is harder, but for a reason that I think may not be what you had in mind. First of all, let's start again with a scenario in which nothing matters to any human being, or anyway that's what we all say. I haven't talked about it on this blog, because it's too big a subject, but I think there's a way in which things matter to animals, and would still matter to us as animals, so if we thought this we would be in conflict with ourselves. But let's set that aside, and say nothing matters to any human being. We are all like the normative skeptic I describe in the Sources of Normativity. If that's really true, then humanity does not matter. That's a bullet I bite. Our value depends on us; if we all cared nothing for ourselves, we wouldn't be worth caring about. That's not true on the individual level, but it would be if the whole species were like that.

Now let's go to your scenario, where you are the one exception to all this. You've got a problem, but not because the scenario is a threat to your own value or even to your setting a value on these others. You've got a problem because all of the specifically human values that make our species special depend on the ongoing existence and value of the species itself. (See section 10.1 of Self-Constitution for more on this.) We value things that we see as contributions to the human project - scientific discoveries, the production of art works, the raising of a happy and productive new generation - and It's hard to see how one person can carry on upholding the value of the human project all by herself or himself. So that's a problem. But I think it is a practical problem, not a problem with the theory.

As for how you treat these others as ends - in all the usual Kantian ways: by respecting their rights, being truthful with them, helping them out when they are in need. I don't just mean when they are in need of getting on with their worthless projects. Even people with worthless project can need help satisfying their genuine needs, getting rescued in emergencies, etc. All of that stuff remains in place.

Chris Korsgaard

Prof. Korsgaard,
I'm wondering why contemplation alone counts as the 'purest' energeia for Aristotle (thus the best candidate for a unconditioned source of value). Various other non-instrumental activities seem to have the important marks of a pure activity: a conversation with a friend, or appreciating the beauty of an artwork or the natural world, or even playing music or an absorbing game. Their value or telos is, in some sense, internal to them, as opposed to be a state of affairs that results once the actions are complete (as with a process). They also seem infinitely continuable, in principle (though we eventually get tired and hungry, etc., and must stop--but these stopping points are not intrinsic to the activities themselves). They also don't seem to be conditioned by any unfortunate human needs, or lacks, or threats/dangers in the way that the value of virtuous activity is. They are the kinds of things that could still be done "in utopia"--where instrumental needs are met and the unfortunate needs/lacks of human condition are met. They also seem like things we could "choose to be alive" or "choose to be human" for the sake of engaging in (friendship, appreciation of beauty, thrilling and challenging play for its own sake all seem like decent candidates for things that contribute to making life worth living or choosing, in addition to contemplation).
Is contemplation favored just because its assumed to be a "divine element," something god-like? But if so, why isn't the Aristotelian-god also appreciating beauty or enjoying play or other indefinitely continuable energeia-activities?
I think if we take the good is relative to life-form line that you describe in your comments, the idea that contemplation is the only pure energeia seems even less plausible.

Bill - I agree with you that there are other activities that meet Aristotle's criteria for a pure activity. Aristotle's reason for singling out contemplation, or thinking on thinking, is not just that it is a divine element. In his philosophy, there are metaphysical/epistemological reasons why thinking is the purest activity. For one thing, it is the only activity that is wholly immaterial, and Aristotle identifies matter with potency or potential, the opposite of activity. For another, since it is the active element in thinking that enables us to abstract the forms from things, thinking is a kind of form or all forms, rather the way the Form of the Good is in Plato. Obviously I am unable to convey the rather deep metaphysical conception behind all this here. Whatever we might think of it now, it is very beautiful. But it doesn't have much to do with the kinds of moral and political issues with which the argument of the paper is primarily concerned. - Chris Korsgaaard

Thanks very much to everyone who participated! And thanks especially to Christine Korsgaard for providing such helpful and thorough answers, and for Tamar Schapiro for the stimulating questions and for providing the occasion for this retrospective discussion. I think the result is a useful road map to a great deal of Korsgaard's work. So thanks, everyone.

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