October 18-19, 2008


“Mimicking Korsgaard”

Jon Garthoff (Northwestern University)

Sunday, October 19, 12:00PM (EDT)

Immanuel Kant famously claimed that the good will, and only the good will, is good without qualification.  The most influential recent attempt to connect this claim with the content of Kant’s theory of moral obligation is Christine Korsgaard’s “regress argument”.  The crucial element of this argument is the centerpiece of Korsgaard’s constructivism: her claim that rational willing is the only unconditional value, and hence that all value is conferred by rational willing.

The principal purpose of this essay is to show how to recover elements of Kant’s moral theory within a realist account of value which denies that all value is conferred by rational willing.  A secondary purpose is to demonstrate that Korsgaard’s argument fails because it elides an unappreciated distinction between two kinds of unconditional goods: the value of humanity in general and the value of the good will in particular.

I begin by recovering, within a realist account of value, Korsgaard’s Kantian claim that in action all persons are committed to regarding rational capacities as value-conferring.  Korsgaard supports this claim with a view no realist should accept: that our aims lack value altogether independent of our adoption of them.  I reject this view, and rely instead on a much weaker premise: that values grossly underdetermine what we should do, and hence are not, absent the adoption of aims, sufficiently action-guiding.

I then proceed by mimicking Korsgaard’s Kantian explanation of the wrongfulness of violating the formula of humanity: when one person fails to respect another, he at once values rational capacities in himself and fails to value them in others, and so is guilty of the exception-making volition that is the mark of wrongful action.  I contend, moreover, that the realist version of this inference is immune to the charge of question-begging often leveled against Korsgaard.