Senior Literature Review Fall 2018

Coleman’s Second Presentation


Coleman presented Christine Korsgaard’s lecture on the sources of normativity. In this lecture, Korsgaard tries to explain how the nature of human action leads to a commitment to Kantian morality. The crucial move, as Coleman sees it, is the argument on p. 91 that we are committed to identifying as rational beings and so we are committed to thinking that rational beings are valuable.

Our discussion

Oscar noted that impulses are not typically thought through; think “impulsive.” Since that is so, he didn’t think it was obvious that someone who acts on impulses is committed to reflection or any other kind of reasoning. For instance, if you block a punch, you probably do so without thinking much. Why think that this kind of action commits you to the chain of thinking that leads to Kantian ethics?

James struck a similar note. He didn’t think you have to engage in reflection on your desires in order to act on them. If I want to eat a cookie, I will eat the cookie. Why think that there is anything more to it than that?

Bay asked about people who don’t see others as fully human. I thought Coleman was right to say that the natural answer is that they’re making a mistake. This led to a quick discussion of non-human animals where we agreed that Kant did not obviously have much to say. (And I put in a plug of Benthamite utilitarianism, which does have a lot to say.)

At the end of the class, I said that I thought that one of Korsgaard’s first moves was very much like Nagel’s account of absurdity that we read in the first week (see Korsgaard 1992, 79). I think she moves too quickly from “you can question any of your desires” to “you can question all of your desires.” I also said that I would make the same point here that I made about Nagel, namely, that I’m not sure that it makes sense to ask whether you could justify or make sense of your desires from the standpoint of someone who has none of your desires. I don’t know why you would care about what someone who doesn’t share any of your values would think. If we’re supposed to imagine that the point of view is one that lacks any desires at all, I don’t understand how that would work. How do you have an opinion about whether one thing is better than another if you don’t care about anything? But that’s me.

Coleman said that he thought identity could do work for Korsgaard here: you can evaluate your desires from the point of view of your identity.


Korsgaard, Christine M. 1992. “The Sources of Normativity.” In The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, 12:19–112.