Normative Entities and Obligations

Winner of the Alabama Philosophical Society’s 2003 Undergraduate Essay Competition.

1. In her paper “Sources of Normativity”, Christina Korsgaard affirms the existence of intrinsically normative entities. In his paper “The Objectivity of Values”, Mackie denies the existence of objective values. He argues that such values would be queer and we would be wrong in believing them to exist. Korsgaard thinks she can provide an answer as to how there can be queer entities by outlining how we come to have obligation to others. For her, we fall into the category of Mackie’s “queer” entities: First, we can obligate one another and are therefore prescriptive; second, the way we know others is not like the way we know anything else. I will outline Mackie’s argument from queerness and Korsgaard’s argument as to how we obligate others. I will clarify the differences between the forms of realism each argues against and explain how each conceives of objective values and normative entities. I will then go on to explain how the existence of intrinsically normative entities proves Mackie’s conclusion wrong. Finally, I will entertain a question about whether it is a necessary fact that we value our humanity and care about our obligations to others.

  • 2. As a moral skeptic, Mackie denies the existence of objective values. Values are not “part of the fabric” of Mackie’s world. While moral values are not part of the world, differences in the actions moral values are placed on or attached to are part of the world. We acknowledge the difference between a kind action and a cruel one, but there is no moral, objective, value attached to these actions. For Mackie, things can have value only relative to some interest or institution.

Once Mackie has explained his view of objective values, he offers the argument from queerness (from this point referred to as AFQ) in support of his view. Simply stated, Mackie’s AFQ says: if moral values existed they would be queer entities; there are no queer entities in the world, therefore there are no moral values. He believes that we can do without these oddities in our ontology.

There are two parts to his AFQ, one metaphysical and the other epistemic. The metaphysical addresses the existence of moral facts in the world. If values existed, they would be strange and different from everything else. How would these values be attached to the actions we associate with them? Mackie thinks the only answer would be that they would be consequential or supervenient on natural properties (and neither of these seem to be a satisfactory answer for him). In addition, if moral values did exist, they would be prescriptive and intrinsically action-guiding, with a “has-to-be-pursuedness” built into them. Knowledge of x being “good” would give the knower a reason to pursue x and makes him pursue it. In the end, x would be sought by anyone who was aware of it, and not because of any contingent fact about that person such as a fact about her desires.

The epistemic part of the AFQ addresses how it is we come to have knowledge of these facts. It questions how we are to account for our knowledge of value entities and of their link with non-natural properties. Mackie’s belief is that we could account for this only by some sort of moral intuition. He thinks the objectivist is committed to this intuitionism, which, for Mackie, is a “travesty”. The notion of prescriptivity is important here. The process of reasoning, however complex, will result in a conclusion that is authoritatively prescriptive. How is it we are aware of this prescriptivity and how do we reason to moral values? If it is not through sensory perception, introspection, or hypotheses, the only option we have is through intuition, which has already been rejected on the grounds that it is a lame answer. In order to be aware of moral values and their prescriptivity we must postulate a faculty that “sees” the non-moral features that constitute (for example) cruelty, “sees” the wrongness, and “sees” the link between the two. Do we really need to go this far? Our metaphysics and epistemology would be much simpler if we replaced moral qualities with subjective responses. He thinks his argument shows that we are wrong in presupposing the existence of prescriptive entities or objective values when making moral judgments.


3. The first point Korsgaard argues in her paper is that autonomy is the source of our ability to obligate ourselves. To make this point, she starts by stating that the human mind is reflective. We are conscious of our desires and perceptions and can think about them. We can also turn our attention away from them, asking ourselves if our desires are valid reasons for action. We have a desire and then have the impulse to act; however, we can then take a “step back” and change our minds. Here is where we encounter Korsgaard’s problem of the normative: can our desires withstand reflective scrutiny?

The reflective mind needs a reason to act, a reason to commit itself and go forward with action. Therefore, we need an answer as to whether our desires can remain reasons for action after reflection. The solution is that reasons for action also arise from reflection. If our desire still motivates us to act after withstanding reflection, then the desire is a valid reason and we can endorse it. As Korsgaard puts it, reason refers to reflective success.

So how is it that we come to endorse a desire? In order to endorse a desire, we must become a law unto ourselves and determine our actions based on what we consider our defining principles. How we conceive of our identity makes up the description under which we value ourselves and this will determine which laws we place on ourselves. The law we are unto ourselves is our source of normativity. Therefore, autonomy is the source of the obligation we have to ourselves.

Now another question arises: how should we conceive of personal identity? We need to decide what law we should be unto ourselves. Here Korsgaard invokes a distinction between the acting self and the thinking self. Because we are reflective creatures we have a relation of authority to ourselves; the acting self gives the thinking self the right to govern. In other words, we allow ourselves to command ourselves. The duty of the thinking self is to make the right choices and appropriate laws in order to govern well. How do we know what the right choices and appropriate laws should be? As rational beings, we act on impulses such as desire. The test for determining whether an impulse is a sufficient reason for action is whether the maxim we have from that impulse can be willed as a law. If the maxim can be willed as a law then it is good and therefore a reason for action. Korsgaard believes that because a good maxim is an intrinsically normative entity, realism (of a form) is true after all.

From here Korsgaard goes on to explain how we have moral obligation. As humans, we have a need for a normative conception of identity. She believes that it matters what we do and whether we conform to this identity. We have already established that we cannot act without reason and it is our humanity that is the source of these reasons. We must endorse humanity in order to act. From this she concludes that human beings are valuable and that we have a moral obligation to ourselves.

Now that she has established the moral obligation we have to ourselves, Korsgaard can explain how it is that we obligate others. It cannot simply be said that because I regard my humanity as a source of value, I must regard yours as a source of value as well. Some special reason is needed in order to take the reasons of others into account. Here Korsgaard invokes Wittgenstein’s private language argument and parallels it to the case of private reasons. Since a reason is a relation one has to another, two people are needed. There must exist a legislator (to lay down the law) and a citizen (to obey the law). These are the two elements of our consciousness previously discussed: the thinking self and the acting self.

Consciousness and reasons are not as private as one may think. I can always intrude into your consciousness. If I call out your name, I obligate you, giving you a reason to stop. After hearing your name called there is no way you can walk on as you did before. You can ignore me, but by ignoring me you go against the law, the law I am to you, asking you to stop. If you do respond, it is not because you merely wish to be cooperative, but because it’s hard not to respect the demands and reasons of others. So Korsgaard concludes that it seems we need a reason not to take the reasons of others into account.

Obligation often arises by putting yourself in another’s shoes, so to say. You perform an action, x, towards me, where x is an action that brings about some harm. I ask you to think about how you would like it if someone did x to you. You respond that you would dislike it and would object if someone did x to you. Responding in that way would obligates you to refrain from doing x; your reason to stop arises from your objection to the action being committed against you. This is how we make ourselves a law unto others and how others are laws unto us. By asking you to consider how you would like it if x was done to you, I make you acknowledge the value of my humanity and obligate you to act in a way that respects it. In so far as we can obligate ourselves, we can obligate others.


4. Korsgaard believes she has proven the existence of the prescriptive entities Mackie denies. Mackie does not believe in these entities because of the prescriptivity necessary for their existence and the problems that prescriptivity entails. If they were prescriptive then the way we know them wouldn’t be like how we know anything else and he argues there are not any such things. Korsgaard disagrees, claiming that humans are such entities. First of all, she has no problem admitting that the way we know others and ourselves is not like how we know anything else. Second, as she has shown, we can obligate others and are therefore prescriptive. If this fact makes humans queer, then they are. Can we resign ourselves to non-existence? Since people fall into the category of “queer” entities, Korsgaard has proven Mackie wrong. Intrinsically normative entities do exist, thus Mackie’s AFQ has no bearing on Korsgaard’s conception of normativity. Korsgaard concludes that she has proven her conception of realism right.


5. Korsgaard agrees with Mackie in rejecting a strict form of realism, stating that it “tries to block that regress by postulating the existence of entities – objective values, reasons, or obligations – whose intrinsic normativity forbids further questioning. But why should we believe in these entities? (1)” These entities she calls into question are the same such entities which Mackie denies. Both reject the idea that these values inhabit the world, independent of our existence. Let’s call this strict form of realism R1. Korsgaard does, however, think a weaker form of realism to be true. She believes a good maxim to be good in virtue of its internal structure. It is its internal structure that makes it fit to be a law. Therefore, a good maxim is an intrinsically normative entity, and since there are good maxims, realism is true on this level. Let’s call this form of realism R2. It is because of these maxims that we can obligate others and ourselves, and, for Korsgaard, this is a simple fact about human nature. We are the entities that both tell ourselves what to do and make ourselves do it. So if Korsgaard is right, there is at least one form of realism (R2) that Mackie’s AFQ does not work against.

As we have seen, Mackie denies both intrinsically normative entities and objective values (R1). Korsgaard accepts intrinsically normative entities while denying objective values (R2). Mackie treats both objective values and intrinsically normative entities as things out in the world, independent of our existence. Korsgaard agrees in denying these objective values independent of our existence. However, it follows from Korsgaard’s view that there are intrinsically normative entities. If Mackie is right in treating intrinsically normative entities and objective values as the same, then there is no way Korsgaard can be right and not be contradicting herself. She would have to deny the existence of normative entities as well. But Korsgaard is right: intrinsically normative entities and objective values are not the same. Mackie is wrong in treating intrinsically normative entities and objective values as if they were the same thing; he fails to acknowledge an important distinction between the two. While objective values may be intrinsically normative in nature, denying their existence does not mean we should deny that any intrinsically normative entities exist. There can be intrinsically normative entities in the world apart from objective values.

6. Even if it is a fact about humans that we are intrinsically normative, one might ask in Mackie’s fashion if it is necessary that we play the “obligating game” when it comes to morality. Is there any way to refuse these obligations? Is it possible that we choose to “opt out” of the obligating game? Korsgaard says we need a reason not to take the reasons and demands of others into account, but can’t the fact that we do not care be enough of a reason to opt out of the “obligating game”? If it is not a necessary fact that we care about, then it is not a necessary fact that these normative rules apply.

But it seems as though this objection has already been answered. In reply to this objection, Korsgaard would say that she has already proven that her obligations are necessary and that we can’t help but care about our humanity. Therefore, there is no way to opt out of the “obligating game”. It has been shown that, if these obligations stem from our reflective nature, and these reflective natures are not merely a contingent fact about humanity, then the obligations deduced from them are also necessary.

She starts from the fact that we are rational and essentially reflective beings and concludes that we have an obligation to others, thus establishing our role as intrinsically normative entities. In order to establish a normative conception of identity we must endorse our humanity. This provides us with reason for action and establishes our obligation to ourselves. In order to obligate others we make them acknowledge our humanity and we, in turn, acknowledge theirs. Your reason not to do something arises from your objection to an action being committed against you. If you object, then your action cannot be willed as a law, so you should not act on it. We take the reasons of others into account because, if we don’t, we fail to endorse our humanity and are without reasons for action.

It cannot simply be a contingent fact about us that we can obligate others. It follows from being rational that we are essentially reflective (2). We should question whether being essentially reflective (and everything that follows from it) is necessary of rational beings. From what Korsgaard has stated the answer must be yes. So it seems that she has shown the necessity of these obligations. Since we are rational and reflective creatures, there is no way to avoid this conclusion. It follows from Korsgaard’s argument that we must value our humanity and act on these obligations.


  1. Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity, p. 90. The regress she mentions is the infinitive regress brought up by accepting Voluntarism. Voluntarism states that we are subject to laws because we are subject to lawgivers. If we ask why we are subject to these lawgivers, then we risk a regress.

  2. It may not be a necessary fact about humans that we are rational, but this whole debate becomes pointless if we are not dealing with rational beings.

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