Contemporary Ethical Theory Essay Sample

Contemporary Ethical Theory Pages
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In what ways does she conform with Kant and in what ways does she deviate?

Do you think her argument is successful?

Christine Korsgaard argued for the universalizability of moral principles based on the notion of autonomy and categorical imperative as employed by Kant. He further argued that autonomy is the source of obligation and moral identity dictates moral obligations. He first assumed that morality is grounded in human nature. He arrived at this through a critique of voluntarism, realism, and reflective endorsement. Korsgaard is largely Kantian in this respect as she extrapolates on the sources of normativity.

Affirming the significance of reflective endorsement vis-�-vis to endorse a desire based on reason or to reject it and get obligation, she focuses on the crucial role and relations of human identity (moral identity/practical identity), human will (categorical imperative), and moral law (laws of the kingdom of Ends). Universalizability as an issue poses a certain problem, is it possible and is there a need to universalize moral principles, and on what sources and grounds are we to universalize such principles and laws? Korsgaard tries to have answers by remaining fidel to the Kantian ideas.

If a person decides that his desire is a reason to act, he must decide that, and in reflection he endorses that desire. The problem is, on what basis the person will decide to endorse or not to endorse such desire. This poses the problem on the human will. Kant defines free will as a rational causality which is effective without being determined by any alien cause such as desires and inclinations of the person. If it is not something that is determined, then, it is self-determining. But free will is causal and therefore operates under certain laws. The will is rational so the will must act for reasons of its own. This logically posits that the will (as free, rational, and causal) must have its own law or principle. This expresses that human will is autonomous. The will makes laws for itself.

For Kant, the law of free will is the categorical imperative which is generally formulated as, “Act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”. He argues that such general maxim can be expressed in four formulations. These are the Formula of the Law of Nature (Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature), the Formula of the End Itself (Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end), the Formula of Autonomy (so act that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its maxims), and the Formula of the Kingdom of Ends (So act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of the Kingdom of Ends).

Kant tells us that maxim to be universal, it should be subjected to a universalizability test. This happens when we act under the idea that we have free will, where this free will never determined by some external law or principle, and that it only accords with its own law, and shows that this law, which is the categorical imperative, is the law of free will. This categorical imperative does not impose any external constraint on the free will’s activities but arises from the nature of the will. It describes what a free will must do in order to be what it is. It must choose a maxim it can regard as a law. Once the will have chosen a maxim that can be regarded as a law, it becomes universal.

Korsgaard affirms and defends this Kantian view. For her, the notion of autonomy and categorical imperative is the synthesis of the various elements found in voluntarism (notion of moral law), realism (law-providing reason for action), and reflective endorsement (providing reflection authority over the person). Kantian moral constructivism is said to be a source of normativity on obligation. Korsgaard acknowledges the authority and power of the categorical imperative to will a universal law. But seeing the need to complement the notion of categorical imperative, she makes a thorough distinction between it and the moral law. Moral law is already cited and discussed by Kant in his works but for her, Kant does not clearly show the difference and the relation between them. The categorical imperative does not imply the moral law.

The categorical imperative is the law of free will and it does not establish the moral law as law of free will. Moral law tells us to act only on maxims that all rational beings could agree to act together in a workable cooperative system. Korsgaard gives emphasis to the role of the moral law not only to will what the categorical imperative wills but to will a moral principle that could be regarded as universal by all agents by virtue of social cooperation, for instance.

The argument that we are bound by the categorical imperative does not show that we are also bound by the moral law. Korsgaard’s contribution revolves on this point and makes such distinction between categorical imperative and moral law and recognizes both of them as elementary for normativity due to reflective endorsement. Moral law tells us that our maxims must qualify as laws for the Kingdom of Ends. By virtue of which it becomes a substantive command. In this case, Korsgaard thinks that the person must think of himself first as a citizen of the Kingdom of Ends. Kant does not show that universalization must range over human beings as such. By this, the person must treat his humanity as a normative identity, a source of principles and laws for himself.

The problem of moral law is resolved by the idea of moral identity and obligation. The reflective structure of human identity presupposes that a person identifies himself with some law or principle which will govern his choices and reasons. It requires him to be a law to himself. His autonomy is the source of his obligation. Autonomy then is commanding his self to do what he thinks it would be a good idea to do. The reflective distance the person does to view his impulses from a certain perspective makes possible and necessary to decide which ones he will act for reasons. If an impulse can be willed as a law it is a reason for it has an intrinsically normative structure. If not, he must reject it and he gets obligation. And this relates to the notion of identity. It depends on who he thinks he is. To make a law for himself is to give expression to a practical identity.

Practical conceptions of his identity determine which of his impulses he will count as reasons. They can obligate him to the extent that he cannot act against those impulses without losing his sense that his life is worth living and his actions are worth undertaking. To have moral identity is to treat his human identity as normative and hence as a source of reasons and obligations. Among the many identities that he is, he should see himself as a member of the party of humanity because he is truly a member of such party and therefore makes it his fundamental identity, and to see it that way paves him to see himself as a Citizen of the Kingdom of Ends. This is moral identity. Like the social identities, moral identity carries obligations. And this identity stands with other identities. If one will not treat his humanity as normative, he will have no basis to act at all.

Based on her discussion, Korsgaard portrayed moral principles as constitutive of and essential to the making of human choices and in leading a human life. To choose moral principles via the authority of reflection recognizing moral identity, one has to look for laws that he can will to be laws, and therefore has the feature of universality. Autonomous lawmaking must be universal. The agent, as unequivocally the author of the law, is autonomous and can endorse and reject.

He must identify himself (with all other humans) normatively and as human beings as such to get the idea that the laws referred to be moral laws and principles. As reflective agents, men have the capacity to identify themselves with the active side of their nature, and this binds them to the moral law. The moral identity is the universal ethical self. With the moral law, one should identify with his principles of choice and not with his impulses and desires. And to determine whether an impulse is a reason is whether one can will acting on that impulse as a law. It is a matter of choice; it is a matter of endorsement.

Korsgaard’s discussion is successful on three main accounts. First, she was able to recognize the authority of reflection in seeing moral problems and finding its justification through the recognition and appreciation of the ethics proposed by Kant particularly the complex notions of the need for the universalizability and categorical imperative. Second, her accounts of explaining a moral theory founded on the main considerations of the elements in Pufendorf’s and Hobbes’ voluntarism, Clarke’s realism, and Hume’s, Williams’, and Mill’s reflective endorsement. Such account becomes a synthesis of the major concerns in the history of moral philosophy. Re-visiting and re-formulating a moral theory based on those critiques make the categorical imperative of Kant powerful and promising. And Third, her account on moral obligation which springs from the question of practical and moral identity and extending such obligation to other living things is a good insight that pushes and calls for special discussions of normativity.

How does social or practical identity differ from moral identity?

Do you think that moral identity is tenable?

Practical identity refers to a set of descriptions under which one values himself and finds his life to be worth living and his actions worth undertaking. It regards all social roles that one has which is fundamentally the source of his reasons and obligations. This set of identities determines how one thinks of himself. His duties and responsibilities are attached to this social/practical identity. One’s social identity is relative to his status, religion, profession, organization, class type, etc.

These conceptions of us are very important because it gives rise to certain obligations. To go against them is to deny one’s integrity and therefore identity. And in case there is conflict, some parts of it are shed. This shedding is intended to stabilize in order for one to continuously think of himself under a set of descriptions in which he values himself. Since the reflective structure of human identity requires identification of oneself to some law or principle to govern his choices, the autonomous self is the source of normativity and obligation. In this sense, a certain identity should rise up from social or practical identity. It is better to think of oneself, to value himself, to be governed by value he places to himself such as by being human simply, and as a member of the human race.

To value oneself as a human being is to have moral identity. Valuing oneself as a human being posits valuing others (and with it are moral obligations). It is necessary for one to have some conceptions of his practical identity (particular ties and commitments) he has in certain community, for without this social identity he cannot have reasons to act. He endorses or rejects his impulses by determining whether they are consistent with the ways he identifies himself it is a reason he has only if he treats humanity as practical, normative form of identity. He must value himself if he is to value anything at all. And if he has to have practical identity, he must recognize himself to have moral identity. To treat his human identity as normative which is a source of reasons and obligations is to have moral identity. Among the many things that he is, he is a Citizen of the Kingdom of Ends.

Practical identity is horizontal; moral identity is vertical. Practical identity is the overall social contingent roles and identity one has and therefore includes duties and obligations as son/daughter, father/mother, Christian/Muslim, professional/non-professional, teacher/student, politician/religious, etc. Every status indicates a set of duties and obligations one has to perform in the honor of those identities. Who one is can be answered in the light of his social positions. In this sense, we can say that one is defined by his particular ties and commitments. Practical identity is an ocean of social labels. No one can escape these names since his very identity as a person is characterized by such labels. Practical identity is a social psychology.

Moral identity is a universal identity since it is an identity that underlies all aspects of social identity. Since all social roles reside in a person, the very fundamental identity then is the identity as being a person, being a human person capable of reflection looking for universal principles for the Kingdom of Ends as its participants and citizens, in other words, being human as such or being a humanity in and for itself. Moral identity serves as the repository for all other social identity. Lexical ordering is a must here. A certain kind of prioritization should be set. Since moral identity grounds all practical identity, in case of conflict, moral identity is in and should be in the first-order arrangement. Social roles and identity must harmonize with the moral identity. In this case, to identify a set of moral principles to guide moral identity is a first-level point also for the social identity. But moral identity should be regarded as independent to all social identity. But moral identity has special relationship with the rest of practical identity.

Practical identity is contingent; moral identity is necessary. Since practical identity is simply a conglomeration of social identity which are dependent on the social rules and norms, such identity is simply accidental and random. It could change. Moral identity is necessary because it covers and strikes all kinds of identity and that the various social labels inhere in the fundamental identity of the self, of the human identity, which is the moral identity itself. Moral identity is a rational psychology.

Moral identity is tenable for some reasons. First, moral identity treats the subject as the fundamental aspect of all sorts as human. It makes us humans. It recognizes and asserts that all human endeavors should always be seen as an effort to affirm oneself in his very basic aspect, human nature for instance. Second, moral identity appeals to humanity as such and posits a universal application. It identifies the self as fundamentally a citizen of the Kingdom of Ends where men as humans agree to follow and abide and bind themselves to the laws all willed to be laws.

It sets the stage for the acknowledgment of self as Citizen in such Kingdom of Ends. Third, moral identity emerges from deep-seated particular ties and commitments. It is identified as the meta-entity to practical and social identity. Fourth, moral identity is the universal ethical self. Moral identity serves as the identity of all social identity. It is the seat of human nature. Man is basically human. With it flows the basic duty and obligation of man to himself as human. And Fifth, moral identity resolves conflicts of identities and re-source the nature of such identities. Moral identity serves as the groundwork and the final judge in the activities of various social identities.

What in reflection can counter the pressure of desire?

Man is a reflective agent. As such, he has the capacity to evaluate and re-evaluate, assess and re-think ideas, dispositions, impulses and all others that come by way through the reflective consciousness. Concretely, the mind is capable to separate itself, to distance from itself, in order for itself to see some points and perspectives not seen when it is fully immersed with itself. It goes beyond it, comes above for instance, in order to perceive clearly the object at hand. This method or strategy of the reflective mind makes itself objective and recasts the objectivity of the thing under study. This style strategically examines the presented data as objects of reflection. Even the thing that evaluates it is itself the self, it is able to evaluate objectively itself. This reflective distance from our impulses makes it necessary and possible to desire which one we will act on. The reflective mind demands reason for it to endorse and therefore act on such presented desire. It forces the reflective self to act for reasons.

When an impulse (i.e. moral desire) presents itself to the agent, the reflective self asks whether it could be a reason. Such desire is endorsed when the reflective agent sees the maxim of acting on it, given the set of reasons to justify the act of endorsing, can be willed as a law. If it can be willed as a law it is a reason and therefore the agent can will it, can endorse it in effect. It can be endorsed because it now has in itself intrinsic normative structure. If it cannot be willed as a law, the reflective mind rejects it, and it gets obligation. At the moment of action the reflective self identifies itself with its principle of choice if it is to regard itself as the agent of such action.

If the reflective self realizes based on the willed laws that a presented impulse should not be endorsed, even if the pressure of desire is so great, the self will not will it because it cannot will it. This is because once the reflective self sees and recognizes that the impulse is contrary to the maxims it willed to be law, the self is binded not to act on it. It is through reflection that the self is able to recognize the rational and reasonable criteria posed by the moral law and maxim. The reflective self is reflexive. It should be remembered that the human will is autonomous and it only wills the moral law via the maxim of the categorical imperative. The autonomous will can only will which can only be willed as a law. The reflective self also recognizes his moral identity, his basic duty and obligation to will which can only be part of the Kingdom of Ends, and as member of the so-called party of humanity.

To what extent Korsgaard achieves her avowed purpose of evaluating the sources of normativity?

Christine Korsgaard in effect summarizes the history of moral philosophy by proving us objective evaluation and critique of voluntarism, realism, and reflective endorsement. Centering discussions on the core theory of Kant’s ethics provides itself a strong basis for a source of normativity. Korsgaard was able to re-pose the normative question and review our literature to answer the question.

She values the notion of moral law raised by Pufendorf and Hobbes. Pufendorf and Hobbes thought that the content of morality is given by reason independently of the legislative will and that no one could be a legislator without the power to impose sanctions to enforce his law. For them the power of the legislator to enforce law is necessary to give moral commands the special force of requirement, and duty and obligation is only possible if there is this legislator backed by the power of sanctions who can lay down the law. It is the legislator who makes morality normative.

Korsgaard shows that the moral law is only given to us with no justification of the necessity to follow and obey it. It is the legislator who only has the power to give and to do this, and as legislator, with the power of sanctions attached to him, that it is not needed it to be explained. For Korsgaard, What is worth noted here is that the moral law is given to the citizen and the citizen gives it to himself. There is recognition of the citizen for the authority of the moral law to them.

She accounts on the objective reasons posed by realism. The realists tell us that we obey the law because it gives us objective reasons for action, but when they are asked what is this objective reason, they cannot give a full account. They cannot explain why we should believe in those objective reasons. They are not able to answer or provide to answer the normative question. Their belief in the existence of objective reasons and normative entities is merely based on their confidence to their mere beliefs that desires are normative. Korsgaard sees realists give us the good notion that law provides us with real reason for action.

She gives merit to those who employ the reflective endorsement method to resolve the problem. Obligations and values are projections of our moral sentiments and dispositions. They are justified because we approve of them when we turn in them. These moral sentiments and dispositions perfect social nature and hence promote self-interest and human flourishing. Korsgaard thinks that conceiving reflection as having authority over us is the best achievement of this theory.

Why should I be moral?

The question is tough and complex. One possible way to answer the question is to pose another question, what is the aim of human life? I always think that the main reason why we exist is for us to find meaning in our being. What is this meaning in our being is vague and relative and general, and the procedure to do it is subject to many interpretations and even forms of skepticism. But our finding mission of the self is a process, a series of becoming of being, I would say. I appeal to the notion of self-actualization ethics. We are in a process to construct ourselves in such a way that we long and we intend to actualize ourselves towards our fullness. Whatever that means, again, is subject to different hermeneutics of self, but as men try to go about it and attain it, men are able to approximate and construct such notion of perfection and excellence.

This can be seen for instance in the notion of the care of the soul. To borrow the language of Foucault, it is epimeleia heautou (care of the self), or that of the ancient Greeks as enkrateia (self-mastery), or that of Kong Zi as the doctrine of ‘jen’. The reason for the need to be moral is related to the notion of perfection and excellence in the context of human flourishing and happiness. Every person is called to be perfect because his nature demands completion of the reason for his existence. But this task is not self-directing or self-centering. To care for the self is to care for others. To feel one’s humanity is to feel others’ humanity. In this sense, all men drive themselves to their fulfillment with the rest of humanity. Marcel and Buber may draw us to their notion of I – Thou relationship, and even Levinas in his ‘face-to-face’ encounter.

The notion of excellence of oneself applies to all. It has a universal form. There is a need to arrive to an objective set of reasons that would affirm personal moral principles. It even calls for objective notions of good and bad. Since one cannot but to exist with others and that these others are also looking for objective set of reasons to affirm their identity as human persons, men are to find ways to a reconstruction of morals and ethics. Any notion of perfection of himself is also projected to the rest of humanity. How to go about this is difficult to ascertain. One way could be in a form of dialectics.

One has to continuously converse with others and project his sentiments and ideas until the best idea comes out, or one has to continuously project his ‘totality’ to the ‘other’ and the case is mutual until a certain level of consensus is reached. It is through dialectics or dialogue that things are clarified, common grounds are established, differences are recognized and resolved, and a certain level of meeting of minds or fusion of horizons, to borrow the language of Gadamer, is possible. One way could also be by following the maxims expressed in the categorical imperative of Kant. The main point actually is that the need to be moral concerns not only the ‘I’ but also the ‘Other’; in Filipino Philosophy, the analytic of ‘loob’ and ‘labas’ relation.

Regardless of the so many ways we put them, ethics posits metaphysics and epistemology of our existence. It looks for an objective life of truth and meaning. I am pushed to think that politics is one better form of ethics because the public life is not and supposedly should not be alien to ethics. The value of justice, which is one of the objects of excellence and perfection, is greatly seen and discussed and deliberated in the arena of politics. The main thesis of this whole discourse to be moral is to consider this human world of ours to live a happy and meaning-full life, and that self-actualization a public matter, and therefore morality concerns the ‘participation’ of all human beings. Why should I be moral? The question is tough and complex.

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