Korsgaard, C. M. (1996): The sources of normativity

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Ch. 3: The Authority of Reflection

Here Korsgaard clearly lays out (in what I think is really a nice bit of writing) the features of the view of reflection, acting for a reason, and (broadly speaking

anyway) autonomy.

Attention and metarepresentation

Korsgaard helpfully articulates the importance of attention and metarepresentation for her view of rationality.

the human mind is self-conscious in the sense that it is essentially reflective. I’m not talking about being thoughtful, which of course is an individual property, but about the structure of our minds that makes thoughtfulness possible. A lower animal’s atten|tion is fixed on the world. Its perceptions are its beliefs and its desires are its will. It is engaged in conscious activities, but it is not conscious of them. That is, they are not the objects of its attention. But we human animals turn our attention on to our perceptions and desires themselves, on to our own mental activities, and we are conscious of them. That is why we can think about them (92-3)

Note the difference between human and animal in terms of metarepresentation (or a version of metacognition). Humans can attend to their own mental states (our perception and desires, and no doubt our doxastic states as well). Animals cannot.

Reflective distance

Korsgaard goes on to characterize metarepresentation as bringing with it the capacity for reflection and the “problem of the normative”:

our capacity to turn our attention on to our own mental activities is also a capacity to distance ourselves from them, and to call them into question. I perceive, and I find myself with a powerful impulse to believe. But I back up and bring that impulse into view and then I have a certain distance. Now the impulse doesn’t dominate me and now I have a problem. Shall I believe? Is this perception really a reason to believe? I desire and I find myself with a powerful impulse to act. But I back up and bring that impulse into view and then I have a certain distance. Now the impulse doesn’t dominate me and now I have a problem. Shall I act? Is this desire really a reason to act? The reflective mind cannot settle for perception and desire, not just as such. It needs a reason. Otherwise, at least as long as it reflects, it cannot commit itself or go forward. If the problem springs from reflection then the solution must do so as well. If the problem is that our perceptions and desires might not withstand reflective scrutiny, then the solution is that they might. 2 We need reasons because our impulses must be able to withstand reflective scrutiny. We have reasons if they do. (93)


Korsgaard offers an account of freedom in terms of leeway, and says that this doesn’t really matter from the deliberative perspective.

Freedom is the capacity to do otherwise, not the capacity to have done otherwise. No one has that capacity, because you cannot change the past. That sounds like a joke but I mean it. The freedom discovered in reflection is not a theoretical property which can also be seen by scientists considering the agent’s deliberations third-personally and from outside. It is from within the deliberative perspective that we see our desires as providing suggestions which we may take or leave. You will say that this means that our freedom is not ‘real’ only if you have denned the ‘real’ as what can be identified by scientists looking at things third-personally and from outside. (96)

We may need to appeal to the existence of reasons in the course of an explanation of why human beings experience choice in the way that we do, and in particular, of why it seems to us that there are reasons. But that explanation will not take the form ‘it seems to us that there are reasons because there really are reasons’. Instead, it will be just the sort of explanation which I am constructing here: reasons exist because we need them, and we need them because of the structure of reflective consciousness, and so on. In the same way, we do not need the concept of ‘freedom’ in the first instance because it is required for giving scientific explanations of what people do, but rather to describe the condition in which we find ourselves when we reflect on what to do. (96)

And nothing in human life is more real than the fact we must make our decisions and choices ‘under the idea of freedom’. When desire bids, we can indeed take it or leave it. And that is the source of the problem. (97)

So, on Korsgaard’s view, there is a kind of formal structure to reflective deliberation, which is a capacity humans have in virtue of their metarepresentational capacities (i.e.┬áthe capacities that allow them to attend to their own mental states as such). And that formal structure is indifferent to the truth of determinism (see also @korsgaard1989, 38).

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