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The work of Harvard analytical ethicist Christine Korsgaard is justly renowned, for her clever attempt to reconstruct a Kantian ethics in the abstract terms of contemporary analytical moral philosophy, without the philosophy of religion and other elements of Kant’s philosophy that contemporary philosophers find hard to defend. She has received less attention for her interesting takes on the history of Western ethics – which suggest to me some potential problems with her overall project.

In the prologue to The Sources of Normativity, probably her most important and influential work, Korsgaard provides what she calls a “very concise history” (her emphasis) of the connections between metaphysics and ethics in Western philosophy. I noted recently that the concept of obligation is central to Korsgaard’s philosophy, as it is to Lévinas’s; this prologue provides us with historical reasons why an obligation-centred philosophy might be a worthwhile project.

Plato and Aristotle, Korsgaard notes, had a philosophy focused on excellence (aretē, often translated “virtue”) rather than obligation, as do most of those who today reject Kantian and utilitarian ethics and are therefore usually lumped into the catch-all category of “virtue ethics.” Their ethics had much more to do more with what is good, what we should care about, than with what others oblige us to do. But, Korsgaard adds, in Plato and Aristotle this account depends on metaphysics, on a view of the way things really are. For them, a thing’s highest perfection and potential – its form – was in some sense more real than the existing particular thing as it actually is.

Korsgaard correctly notes that Christianity changed Western philosophy’s emphasis, away from excellence and toward obligation and law, with God as the lawgiver. But what if we no longer assume that God is the source of ethics? What we cannot do, she says, is go back to Plato and Aristotle’s world of excellence. “Because for us, the world is no longer first and foremost form. It is matter.” (4) By identifying ultimate reality with matter, we have separated the real from the good; we no longer look at actual things as reflecting a higher and better potential. And this means that a Platonic or Aristotelian ethics of excellence is no longer available to us.

What Korsgaard does not say, however, is that this new, hard, scientific world is entirely bereft of value. Indeed, she sees that it cannot be. (Although she does not put it in these terms, science’s claims to truth are themselves grounded in value.) She says:

If the real and the good are no longer one, value must find its way into the world somehow. Form must be imposed on the world of matter. This is the work of art, the work of obligation, and it brings us back to Kant. And this is what we should expect. For it was Kant who completed the revolution, when he said that reason — which is form — isn’t in the world, but is something that we impose upon it. The ethics of autonomy is the only one consistent with the metaphysics of the modern world, and the ethics of autonomy is an ethics of obligation. (5)

Now I think there is something very wrong with this paragraph. Korsgaard has accepted that value has a real place in the world, even the world of a modern scientific metaphysics; and she then claims that value’s place in the world is one of obligation (as opposed, by implication, to excellence). The next parts of the book flesh out her account of the ethics of obligation, but let us leave that aside for the moment. Let us assume for now that Korsgaard, in the rest of the book, succeeds in founding ethics on obligation. Isn’t there still something missing?

Korsgaard’s account of value, as provided here, derives that value only from obligation. If her account in the rest of the book were correct, it might be the case that all moral value comes from obligation. But is that the only kind of value in the world? Korsgaard never tries to argue that, and it’s hard to see how she could. She opens the prologue by saying: “It is the most striking fact about human life that we have values. We think of ways that things could be better, more perfect, and so of course different, than they are; and of ways that we ourselves could be better, more perfect, and so of course different, than we are.” (1) But things are not obliged to do or be anything, certainly not on any Kantian account of morality. Indeed if one were to imagine obligation being applied to things, it would likely have to be on something like the Greek teleological metaphysics that Korsgaard explicitly rejects: it is the purpose of a knife to cut well, therefore it is that knife’s duty to cut well.

There is, then, a yawning gap in Korsgaard’s historical account of value, even if we take her account of morality and obligation to be true. At a minimum, this ethics must be accompanied by an aesthetics. Some accounts of ethics – including those I’m most sympathetic with – do not restrict their concern to morality in the strict sense, and might therefore include aesthetics, but this appears not to be the case with Korsgaard’s. And while Korsgaard’s quote above tantalizingly lists “the work of art” along with “the work of obligation” above, suggesting the importance of aesthetics, it seems on a fuller reading that this is only apparent: when she uses the word “art” elsewhere in this passage, she contrasts it with what is natural, and so appears to mean only “artifice,” the Xunzian point that we are not naturally good but need to work on it.

And so it seems that aesthetics, at least, is missing from Korsgaard’s account. Just as we need an account of how people’s actions can be right and wrong, so we need an account of how things can be beautiful and ugly. Kant did not have this problem since he had a highly developed aesthetics, but it is not clear whether Korsgaard buys it. But it would seem, on Korsgaard’s account, that one must either adopt something very much like Kant’s aesthetics (as she does with his ethics) or return in some respect to a semi-premodern metaphysical account that sees value in the world while still taking science into consideration – as Hegel tried to do, for example. If one takes this latter route with aesthetics, however, it would seem that one is compelled to do so with ethics too.

I recently noted the strong similarities between Korsgaard’s philosophy of obligation and that of Emmanuel Lévinas. Lévinas, in one of his better-known essays, tells us that “ethics is first philosophy” – and by “ethics” he means obligation. But, I’m told, Speculative Realist Graham Harman retorts that “aesthetics is first philosophy.” I’m wondering if issues like this are what Harman has in mind: we don’t just need an account of moral value, we need an account of value as such.

In his excellent post which quotes Harman to this effect, Skholiast adds a quote from Wittgenstein that “Ethics and aesthetics are one.” I’m not sure I would go that far; but it seems to me that there must be some sort of connection between the two, a connection that Korsgaard implies only to ignore. We could, I suppose, say that axiology is first philosophy – “axiology” meaning the study of value – though that phrase doesn’t sound nearly as cutting as either Lévinas’s or Harman’s.