Agency and responsibility

Journal of Value Inquiry 44 (2):199-207 (2010)
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According to Christine Korsgaard, Kantian hypothetical and categorical imperative principles are constitutive principles of agency. By acting in a way that is guided by these imperatives, an individual makes herself into an agent. There is hence, on her theory, an inextricable link between the nature of agency and the practical issue of why we should be rational and moral. The benefits of such an account would be great: in Korsgaard’s view, an account that bases morality on the nature of agency is the basis for a refutation of any kind of moral skepticism, providing an indubitable and objective foundation for morality. This may seem too good to be true, and it is. Korsgaard could only succeed at offering a foundation for morality at a great cost. The cost is that Korsgaard gives too restrictive an account of agency. Korsgaard does not present a coherent account of irrational or immoral agency, and the inability to offer an account of such agency implies an inability to offer a proper account of responsibility. Korsgaard’s view shares a fundamental flaw with Immanuel Kant’s account of morality in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: Korsgaard cannot give a full, adequate account of individual responsibility. In light of the failure of Kant’s and Korsgaard’s accounts, Kantians need to provide a better, more comprehensive characterization of agency. Presenting a proper account of agency will require a rejection of a central tenet of traditional Kantian metaethics, but the rejection of this central tenet does not require a full rejection of Kantianism.
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