On the Contingency of ‘Human Identity’ in Korsgaard

In this paper I will be taking a critical look at Korsgaard’s lectures ‘The Authority of Reflection’ and ‘The Origin of Value and the Scope of Obligation’. In these lectures, Korsgaard tries to ground normativity and obligation to ourselves, others and animals. While doing this, she constantly refers to concepts such as ‘human identity’, ‘humanity’ and our ‘nature’. She distinguishes our ‘human identity’ from a mere contingent ‘practical identity’. I will engage in a critique which in some sense is akin to the way Foucault described a part of his project: ‘[To discover] in what is given to us as universal, necessary, obligatory, what place is occupied by whatever is singular, contingent, and the product of arbitrary constraints.’[1]I will analyse what Korsgaard means by ‘human identity’ in different stages in her argument and show that while she can ground obligation to ourselves in reflection without using a specific conception of ‘humanity’, she lets the ‘human identity’ fall into contingency while trying to argue for us having obligations to other persons. She takes something to be universal which is singular, something necessary which is contingent. Because the human identity she uses is contingent, it is not a fundamental but a practical identity.

I will concern myself with two parts of Korsgaard’s argument: why we have obligations to ourselves and obligations to other people– I won’t concern myself with her argument concerning animals and plants because of restrictions on length and the most important points will come up in the discussion regarding obligation to others.

Obligations to ourselves

The fundamental thing Korsgaard’s entire argument rests on is the reflective structure of consciousness. Something with a reflective consciousness can take a step back from its desires and can ask the question of whether that desire is a reason to act. A reflective being needs a reason to act: if I want to act, I have to ask myself what my grounds for undertaking that action are. If I am about to eat a chocolate bar, I can take a step back and ask, ‘what are my reasons for eating this chocolate bar?’ Not only that, I can ask whether my reasons are good reasons. As Korsgaard puts it: ‘Each impulse as it offers itself to the will must pass a kind of test for normativity before we can adopt it as a reason for action.’[2]

According to Korsgaard, reasons come from principles – or, in the Kantian terminology, maxims. To have a reason is to endorse a certain maxim. If I want to know whether my desire is a reason to act, I need to transform my desire into a relevant maxim and see if I could rationally will this to be a law. The way Korsgaard conceptualizes the Kantian categorical imperative is that it forces us to choose a law, ‘its only constraint on our choice is that is has the form of a law.’[3]It does not tell us which law, or maxim, we should act upon.

The way she connects the fact that we need to act on a maxim to what the content of these maxims should be involves a concept she calls ‘practical identity’. We all have practical identities: one is a student, a son, a philosopher, a baker. A practical identity is a way I conceptualize myself and is necessarily present in a consciousness which is reflective. The reflective mind forces us to have a conception of ourselves because we experience a self which reflects.[4]

These identities provide us with maxims, according to Korsgaard. When choosing a certain reason to act upon, you experience a self which deliberates. A choice is an expression of that self – it is the constitution and the expression of a practical identity. So, how do these practical identities obligate us to choose certain maxims? If I have the practical identity of a brave person, if I think of myself of a brave person, then when I see a robber I should act in accordance with my braveness and help arrest the robber. My practical identity brings obligations with it in this sense. I have to act in accordance with my practical identity, or in other words, I am obligated to act on those maxims that prevent the loss of my practical identity.[5]

At this point in her argument, Korsgaard starts using concepts such as ‘human being’, ‘humanity’ and ‘human identity’. She admits that our practical identities are contingent.[6]My practical identity is different than my neighbour’s because of pure chance – we were born in different places, in different circumstances, at different times. However, Korsgaard states that it is ‘simply the truth’ that we are human beings, a reflective animal, and we can’t reject that identity.[7]Her argument is the following: We as reflective humans need a conception of our practical identity which is normative. Normative reasons originate in our practical identity, and without normative reasons we couldn’t act. We act; therefore, we have normative reasons, therefore we have practical identities, therefore we must have a fundamental human identity and in order to act we need to value our humanity. 

I don’t think she needs to bring the concept of humanity into this argument in order for it to work. It could make her argument contingent, and I take any particularconception of humanity to be contingent. As Foucault argues in The Order of Things, conceptions of humanity arise due to the particular configuration of a particular epistemological field. This means that different cultures have different prerequisites for what even counts as knowledge at all.[8]If knowledge depends on particular historical events that shaped these prerequisites for knowledge, the resulting knowledge is not necessary but contingent, not universal but singular. 

Two question need to be posed at this point: Does Korsgaard indeed use a contingent view of human identity in this part of her argument? Can her argument function without this conception of what a ‘human’ is?’

I want to start by repeating that Korsgaard says that practical identities are contingent, but what is not contingent is ‘that you must be governed by someconception of your practical identity.’[9]This is a fact that comes ‘from your humanity itself, from our identity simply as a human being, a reflective animal who needs reasons to act and to live.’[10]This all makes it evident that she does use a particular conception of a human being. A human being is a reflective animal.

However, I don’t think the argument needs this conception of what a human is in order for it to work. It works perfectly fine if we replace the talk of human identities with the reflectivity of consciousness, the fact that we experience a deliberating self. With this fact the argument works–if we are to act, we need good reasons to do so, reasons stem from our practical identities, and we need practical identities because we have a reflective structure of consciousness (or we experience a deliberative self). 

We don’t need to add any talk of a reflective human animal, we only need to acknowledge the fact that we experience a deliberative self (which doesn’t establish anything like a metaphysical self and so leaves a contingent view of humanity behind). We need to value this reflectivity in order to act, not our humanity. Even a Buddhist, who would deny the existence of anything like a self, could potentially agree that indeed we experience something like a deliberative self – even though he wouldn’t agree that a fundamental identity of ours is a human animal, because he doesn’t believe humans and animals exist in the way Korsgaard does.[11]

The conception of humanity Korsgaard uses to show that we have obligations to ourselves is in fact contingent, but not necessary for her argument to work. What she needs is to show that we have reflective experience, a claim I don’t intend to dispute in this paper. However, she needs to add a couple of things to this conception in order for her argument for obligations to others to work. 

Obligations to others

What Korsgaard needs to do is avoid a problem all moral theories such as hers have faced: how we get from private reasons, me thinking to myself that I have obligations in my own head (so to say), to public reasons, reasons we all share and can engage with. It’s all fun and games that I have obligations to myself, but these private considerations need to be bridged to other persons.She admits that it might be impossible to ever bridge the gap from private reasons to public reasons. She doesn’t need to bridge the gap, for she argues that our reasons were never essentially private reasons, but public reasons. She argues for this using our ‘deep social nature’.[12]Korsgaard believes that we have a deep social nature because others are ‘able to intrude on my reflections.’[13]While I am thinking (seemingly in the privacy of my consciousness) I can always be interrupted by someone talking to me. I can be thinking about an argument, but when someone raises a counterargument I needto think about that counterargument. It has intruded my consciousness, in a sense. This leads Korsgaard to conclude that the ‘space of linguistic consciousness is essentially public’.[14]There are no private reasons, our reasons are pubic in essence. This is the first step in moral obligations to others. She does not need to bridge the gap between private and public reasons, since she avoids the problem altogether.

Her argument for our moral obligations to others involves one more step. Not only does she need to appeal to what she calls our ‘social nature’, but also to the humanity of another person. In this way her argument still relies on consistency.[15]I have to treat others who are human – or reflective, as that is what her argument relies on – the same as my own humanity (reflectivity).

What is the core of this argument, and does she smuggle in some particular conception of humanity in any of these two additions – our social nature and the humanity of others? 

First, Korsgaard relies on what she calls our ‘social nature’. This ‘social nature’, in its essence, means that others can intrude in our reflective processes. By calling this ‘social nature’, we bring in a lot of baggage the argument doesn’t need. The argument merely needs to show the fact that when we think, words of another person can influence our thinking. This is fact of experience: when I tell you to picture a pink elephant, you will. No talk of humans or nature is needed; therefore, I the argument doesn’t need to rely on a specific conception of humanity so far. 

Second, Korsgaard needs us to acknowledge what she calls the ‘humanity of others’.[16]It is at this point in the argument we run into trouble. It seems we need a specific criterion for when an ‘other’ is a human. Yet, we should stick as much to the criterion of reflectivity as possible – we don’t need to know when an other is human, just when it is capable of reflection. Can Korsgaard legitimately make this move without falling into contingency and thereby making our human identity another practical identity? I will argue she cannot.

First of all, as Korsgaard herself note, we would have to actually acknowledge the existence of another beside me.[17]This may sound like nit-picking, yet I do believe this might be a source of contingency. There are conceptions of others as an illusion, just as the self as we experience it is an illusion in tantric traditions of Hinduism.[18]They won’t be able to ground obligation in the existence of the other. 

One may object to this that Korsgaard only needs the experience of the other, like she only needed the experience of the deliberative self previously. It is a good point, but if others were an actual illusion, then I wouldn’t know why we wouldn’t have obligations to people we meet in dreams. I don’t think that this is a large contingency, but it is a contingency nonetheless. However, with regards to this objection and because this contingency is relatively uncontroversial, I will happily let this one slide. Let us assume that ‘others’ are real. That won’t get the argument out of trouble.

Now we come to the problem of when an other is reflective. Korsgaard argues that when an other produces words, when an other talks in language I understand, I ‘acknowledge that you are someone’.[19]This means that we recognize a reflective being through its ability to speak intelligibly. It is not a criterion for when something is reflective, merely a sign of reflectivity. But in the way Korsgaard recognizes reflectivity in some and not in others, her implicit use of a conception of humanity shows. Korsgaard claims animals don’t have a reflective consciousness,[20]but there are animals, like parrots, who can speak intelligibly to us. Korsgaard wouldn’t consider these parrots as having a human identity, so I believe this shows that this is the point in her argument where she (probably unknowingly) sneaks in a specific conception of what a human being is. 

It is this point where it is not enough to merely talk about reflectivity anymore. Korsgaard must talk about being human now, for she excludes things that according to this criterion would be reflective (parrots), but don’t have a human identity. She is presupposing what is human and what is not. If she was merely talking about reflectivity, parrots would be considered reflective beings as well, since they can speak intelligibly. She doesn’t consider them reflective because she doesn’t recognize their human identity, not the other way around. 

Although I feel she has a ‘common sense’ view of what a human is, or a view that is popular in our current paradigm, we should be careful to say this is a universal truth. On Java, to be human means to be Javanese – it means that one not merely speaks, but speaks in a certain way.[21]In The Analects, Confucius is not concerned with ‘human nature’ – one becomes human through acting in the appropriate ways.[22]Because Korsgaard’s argument, from this point onwards, wouldn’t be valid with these conceptions of what a human being is, it is evident she relies on a different conception– a contingent conception. 

In summary, Korsgaard tries to ground normativity and obligation in something other than practical identity, because practical identities are contingent. To do this she would need to avoid using a conception of what a human is, for these are contingent. The first part of her argument works fine without a specific conception of human identity. She evidently uses a contingent conception of humanity when talking about how we can recognize an ‘other’ to be a reflective being. Therefore, although she might have succeeded in grounding obligations to oneself in reflectivity, Korsgaard uses a contingent human identity when grounding obligations to others. Therefore, she cannot use the human identity as a fundamental identity in her argument, but only as a practical identity.


Feuerstein, Georg. Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy. Boston: Shambala Publications, 1998.

Foucault, Michel. “What is Enlightenment?” In The Postmodernism Reader: Foundational Texts, edited by Michael Drolet, 41-52. New York: Routledge, 2004.

 Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An archaeology of the human sciences. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. and Bryan W. Van Norden. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, Second Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 2001.

Korsgaard, Christine. The Sources of Normativity. Edited by Onora O’Neill. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Trungpa, Chögyam. The Myth of Freedom, and the Way of Meditation. Berkeley: Shambhala, 1976.

[1]Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” in The Postmodernism Reader: Foundational Texts, ed. Michael Drolet (New York: Routledge, 2004), 49. 

[2]Christine Korsgaard, “The authority of reflection,” in The Sources of Normativity, ed. Onora O’Neill (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 91.

[3]Korsgaard, “The authority of reflection,” 98.

[4]Ibid., 100.

[5]Ibid., 102.

[6]Ibid., 120.

[7]Ibid., 123.

[8]Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An archaeology of the human sciences (New York: Routledge, 2002), 172. 

[9]Korsgaard, “The authority of reflection,” 120.

[10]Ibid., 121.

[11]Chögyam Trungpa, The Myth of Freedom, and the Way of Meditation, (Berkeley: Shambhala, 1976), 27. 

[12]Christine Korsgaard, “The origin of value and the scope of obligation,” in The Sources of Normativity, ed. Onora O’Neill (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 136.

[13]Korsgaard, “The origin of value and the scope of obligation,” 136.

[14]Ibid., 140.

[15]Ibid., 143.

[16]Ibid., 143.

[17]Ibid., 143.

[18]Georg Feuerstein,Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy(Boston: Shambala Publications, 1998), 66. 

[19]Korsgaard, “The origin of value and the scope of obligation,” 143.

[20]Ibid., 149.

[21]Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 53. 

[22]Confucius, “The Analects,” in Readings in Classical Chinese Philopsophy, ed. Philip J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2005), 1-58. 


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