Thursday, August 12, 2004
Normativity and morality
Of the philosophers working today, the one most tightly focused on issues of normativity is probably Christine Korsgaard. In a series of lectures published under the title The sources of normativity she argues that the central question that must be asked of any moral theory is the one posed by an agent of whom moral action is demanded. The moral theory must, Korsgaard says, have an adequate answer ready when such an agent asks, “why should I do this?” Korsgaard calls this question the normative question.
I don’t want to go too deeply into Korsgaard’s way of answering the normative question, but it will be helpful to say a few words about the sort of answer she believes to be appropriate. Consider a simple case: Tommy sees that Kathleen is choking and realizes that he could easily relieve her suffering, possibly saving her life. He then asks, “why should I do this?” For most people, most of the time, it would be enough to say, “Kathleen is choking and if you don’t help she may die.” If Tommy were in a particularly contrary mood you might also have to explain such things to him as the facts that dying is a bad thing, Kathleen is a human being, helping is easy, and so on. What you wouldn’t do is launch into a philosophical speech about the way that helping Kathleen corresponds to a genuine moral facts or must be done in order to unify one’s agency.
These sorts of reasons, the ones that occur to us at the moment of moral action, aren’t the focus of Korsgaard’s inquiry. Her interest begins at that point where Tommy reflects on the question of why he was moved by the concerns articulated in that moment. At this point Tommy might well call for a philosophical theory which looks deeply enough into human motivations and reasons to explain to him why it was that he was moved as he was. The adequacy of such a theory, Korsgaard holds, does not depend solely on its descriptive success. It must also be the case that our commitment to first order moral reasons survives the theory’s higher order explication of that commitment.
The paradigm of an inadequate theory, according to Korsgaard, is the evolutionary account. We might imagine that attention to the workings of selective pressures would reveal to us the reproductive utility of a commitment to norms favoring altruism, particularly when altruistic behavior has few costs. Such a theory, Korsgaard argues, would fall short of providing a justification of altruism to the individual. What such a theory shows is, at most, something along the lines of the claim that, in general, reproductive success is connected to the display of altruistic behaviors. This leaves it open to the individual to question whether a particular altruistic act would, in fact, contribute to reproductive success, and whether reproductive success is itself worth pursuing. Moreover, Korsgaard says, if such questions aren’t left open to the individual then the result will be that the individual’s place in the world will be that of an automaton rather than that of an agent.
The details of Korsgaard’s own accounts of normativity and of what would count as a successful answer to the normative question are deeply controversial. Nevertheless, it is widely thought that her presentation of the normative question is an interesting and fruitful development in the study of ethics. Why? Just because it gives us insight into an ethical theory when we take up the sort of perspective that Korsgaard recommends. It encourages us to begin ethical inquiry not with abstruse metaphysical inquiries about the status of morality but rather with the thought that morality, if it is anything, is something that has a hold on us. What, then, could it be? That’s a question I’ll come back to.