Monday, 21 November 2011

Korsgaard and Kant on Valuing Humanity

I should open this posting with thanks to a member of the Facebook group that supports this blog who brought to my attention the recent piece Christine Korsgaard has added to her website and which up-dates her view on valuing humanity as to it is to this piece that this posting is devoted. Essentially the point of the piece is to present some reflections that respond to the ways that others have viewed her original article on the formula of humanity that is available in Creating the Kingdom of Ends. In that original piece Korsgaard argued that there is a fundamental kind of value involved in our capacity to confer values on things and that the value involved in this capacity is what is at stake in the Formula of Humanity. However, some critics have responded to this argument by claiming that it is not apparent from it why it should follow that each of us should be led to value the capacity as present in others as well as in themselves.

In responding to this objection Korsgaard looks at the question of what the value of morality itself is meant to be. As Kant argues in the Groundwork that morality is the condition under which a rational being can be an end in itself (Ak. 4: 435) there is the clear suggestion that we realise our own value in some way by choosing morally. Since this whole point is made whilst articulating the Formula of Humanity it also appears that this discussion of rational beings involves a type of elevation of humans above "mere" animals and this appears to raise a further question about the type of valuation that the formula invites us to make. As Korsgaard takes this second point seriously she wanders somewhat away from concentration on the first point for quite sometime in the article.

The first stage of Korsgaard's reply to the second question involves a consideration of moral realism as moral realists appear to see the claim that human beings respond to morality as a kind of "superior" capacity that we possess. And in looking at this claim Korsgaard is led initially away from considerations of morality in a sense since the question about animals becomes one of what types of "reason" they possess to respond to considerations. For example, Korsgaard speaks about the distinction between "objective" and "subjective" reasons and points to an example of the former being that the possession of certain properties of an object give us "reasons" to act in certain ways towards this object although we might not be aware of the fact that the object possesses these characteristics (hence have no "subjective" reason to act in this way). The point of mentioning this characteristic would be that, on a moral realists view, moral properties are "objective" reasons to act in certain ways that animals "subjectively" lack. "Subjective" reasons, on this construal, would be reasons relative to one's beliefs about things (and to one's other "reasons"). If animals thus fail to respond subjectively to these objective properties then there is a sense in which they might be thought to be "inferior" to those creatures (such as ourselves) who can respond to these properties.

Some "moral realists" might well try to deny this consequence of their view by denying that there is any normative situation present to animals in the moral sense so no "deficiency" exists in failing to respond to it. This leads to a distinction between practical and theoretical beliefs however since, in this case, practical reality would be constituted by reasons for acting rather than reasons for believing. Or, as Korsgaard thinks follows on Scanlon's view, animals have "interests" but not moral reasons. This kind of defensive move on the part of moral realists is meant to deflate the challenge that it appears, on their view, that animals "have" certain kinds of reasons that they are unaware of. However it is still true that such moral realists take the normativity of reasons to be something objective in its nature.

But it is possible, says Korsgaard, to deny the notion that possession of moral characteristics gives humans some "superiority" over animals without having to endorse a conception of moral reasons as having "objective" standing. One of the reasons why the suggestion of "superiority" here appears so odd, says Korsgaard, is that it is not clear for whom it is "better" to have the conception of "moral reasons". Is it better for those who possess such reasons that they have them or would it better for "animals" to possess them (which latter view seems to be required for the superiority thesis to be held). The latter view is, however, an odd one as Korsgaard illustrates by reference to John Stuart Mill's claim concerning it being better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. This claim is odd in the sense that it is not clear here what status the "being better" statement has. Would it be better for the pig if it were dissatisfied in the way Socrates is? It is unclear how this could be true. But this does not mean that we have to deny there is clear value, all the same, in being Socrates!

This takes Korsgaard back to her original claim about valuing the capacity to be able to claim something has value. When you act on reasons you affirm the value of so acting and when you act on moral reasons you take these to have a particular importance. And these claims have to be distinguished from ones that lead to the superiority claim. Korsgaard makes this distinction by separating two types of claims to value something. On the first sense of valuing, we value something by placing it within a domain to which evaluative standards apply. This is different from valuing something within an evaluable domain as meeting standards internal to that domain. So placing something within the domain of moral standards need not entail that lives that are outside such a domain in the way animal lives appear to be are thereby denigrated. An analogy that is made to support this involves the sense that being a parent is taken to be a moral status of a certain sort and within its status domain claims can be made that distinguish between performing this function well or badly. It doesn't follow from such claims that parenting as an activity has to be taken as a preferable form of life to a life that does not include it.

Returning now to the sense in which humanity is valued in the Formula of Humanity, Korsgaard indicates that the power to determine ends is a property that confers a sort of normative standing and that viewing it in this way enables one to respond to the critic who argues that it is possible simply to value their own humanity without taking account of the humanity of others.  But to see whether this argument goes any way to understanding Kant's position Korsgaard looks at some of Kant's specific casuistical arguments. In the case of beneficence there is a positive obligation to others that appears to require recognition that these others possess normative standing and this supports the conception that humanity itself is the source of such a standing. However, at other times, there do appear grounds for the notion that there are "valuable properties" at issue such as when Kant talks about development of talents. Korsgaard, however, does not think we need give up the latter arguments simply due to having adopted her preferred conception of humanity. The reason why she takes this to be the case, however, is that she moves to conflate the two conceptions of humanity by stating that it is the possession of normative standing itself that is the valuable property in question. Whether that is a sufficient response to the question she has set would require a different type of posting to this one.

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