Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity
Korsgaard (Christine)
Source: Korsgaard (Christine) - Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity
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Preface (Full Text1)

  1. One who is just does not allow any part of himself to do the work of another part or allow the various classes within him to meddle with each other. He regulates well what is really his own and rules himself. He puts himself in order, is his own friend, and harmonizes the three parts of himself like three limiting notes in a musical scale — high, low, and middle. He binds together those parts and any others there may be in between, and from having been many things he becomes entirely one, moderate and harmonious. Only then does he act.
    → (Plato, Republic 443d-e)
  2. Both human beings and the other animals act, but human actions can be morally right or wrong, while the actions of the other animals cannot. This must be because of something distinctive about the nature of human action, about the way in which we human beings make choices. In this book, I try to explain what that distinctive feature is, and how it is connected to some of the other things that make human life different from the lives of the other animals. The name I give to the distinctive feature is the traditional one — rationality. As I understand it, reason is a power we have in virtue of a certain type of self-consciousness2 — consciousness of the grounds of our own beliefs and actions. This form of self-consciousness3 gives us a capacity to control and direct our beliefs and actions that the other animals lack, and makes us active in a way that they are not. But it also gives us a problem that the other animals do not face — the problem of deciding what to count as a reason for belief or action. To put the point another way, this form of self-consciousness4 makes it necessary to take control of our beliefs and actions, but we must then work out how to do that: we must find normative principles, laws, to govern what we believe and do. The distinctive feature of human beings, reason, is therefore the capacity for normative self-government.
  3. The capacity for normative self-government brings with it another distinctively human attribute, normative self-conception, perhaps more than anything else the thing that makes being human both an adventure and a curse. For an action is a movement attributable to an agent as its author, and that means that whenever you choose an action — whenever you take control of your own movements — you are constituting yourself as the author of that action, and so you are deciding who to be. Human beings therefore have a distinct form of identity, a norm-governed or practical form of identity, for which we are ourselves responsible. As a rational being, as a rational agent, you are faced with the task of making something of yourself, and you must regard yourself as a success or a failure insofar as you succeed or fail at this task.
  4. If, when we act, we are trying to constitute ourselves as the authors of our own movements, and at the same time, we are making ourselves into the particular people who we are, then we may say that the function of action is self-constitution. This conception of action opens up the possibility that the specific form of goodness or badness that applies to human actions — rightness or wrongness — is goodness or badness of their kind, goodness or badness as actions. A good action is one that constitutes its agent as the autonomous and efficacious cause of her own movements. These properties correspond, respectively, to Kant's two imperatives of practical reason. Conformity to the categorical imperative renders us autonomous, and conformity to the hypothetical imperative renders us efficacious. These imperatives are therefore constitutive principles of action, principles to which we necessarily are trying to conform insofar as we are acting at all.
  5. That way of putting it will make it clear that the conception of morality and practical reason that I defend in this book is the Kantian one. But I also draw on the work of Aristotle, to explain the sense in which an intentional movement can be attributed to an agent as its author, and on Plato, to explain the kind of unity that a person must have in order to be regarded as the author of her movements. For 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. And it was Plato who taught us, in the Republic, that the kind of unity required for agency is the kind of unity that a city has in virtue of having a just constitution.
  6. Following Plato's lead, in this book I argue that the kind of unity that is necessary for action cannot be achieved without a commitment to morality. The task of self-constitution, which is simply the task of living a human life, places us in a relationship with ourselves — it means that we interact with ourselves. We make laws for ourselves, and those laws determine whether we constitute ourselves well or badly. And I argue that the only way in which you can constitute yourself well is by governing yourself in accordance with universal principles which you can will as laws for every rational being. It follows that you can't maintain the integrity you need in order to be an agent with your own identity on any terms short of morality itself. That doesn't mean that we have a reason for being moral that is selfish, that morality gets us something else, the integrity needed for agency and identity. Rather, it means that a commitment to the moral law is built right into the activity that, by virtue of being human, we are necessarily engaged in: the activity of making something of ourselves. The moral law is the law of self-constitution, and as such, it is a constitutive principle of human life itself
  7. In this book I argue that thinking is just talking to yourself, and talking is just thinking in the company of others (9.4.12). I have been working on this book for a long time, and have had the benefit of thinking in the company of many others. It was as a result of reading Derek Parfit's work that I first began to think of identity as a problem that human beings have to solve (see "Korsgaard (Christine) - Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency: A Kantian Response to Parfit"). I am grateful to Derek for that, and I apologize to him for kidnapping his Russian nobleman for my own purposes (see Chapter 9). Jay Schleusener once remarked to me that Socrates was "good at being a person," and anyone who reads this book will see what I have made of that thought. I first published a short version of the ideas found here as an essay, "Korsgaard (Christine) - Self-Constitution in the Ethics of Plato and Kant" in 1999, after delivering it in various places as a talk. …
  8. I presented some of the other ideas found here as a talk, "Human Action and the Kantian Imperatives," ...
  9. I expanded the longer manuscript from which those essays were drawn into a set of lectures, which I delivered as the Locke Lectures at Oxford in 2002. …

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Less the more tedious acknowledgements.

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