Korsgaard and Actions for Their Own Sake

The key to understanding Aristotle’s view is that the aim is included in the description of the action, and that it is the action as a whole, including the aim, that the agent chooses.

Let us say that out agent is a citizen-soldier, who chooses to sacrifice his life for the sake of a victory for his polis or city. The Greeks seem to think that is usually a good aim. Let’s also assume that our soldier sacrifices himself at the right time — not before it is necessary, perhaps, or when something especially good, say cutting off the enemy’s access to reinforcements, may be achieved by it. And he does it in the right way, efficiently and unflinchingly, perhaps even with style, and so on. Then he has done something courageous, a good action. Why has he done it? His purpose is to secure a victory for his city. But the object of his choice is the whole action — sacrificing his life in a certain way at a certain time in order to secure a victory for the city. He chooses this whole package, that is, to-do-this-act-for-the-sake-of-this-end — he chooses that, the whole package, as a thing worth doing for its own sake, and without any further end. “Noble” describes the kind of value that the whole package has, the value that he sees in it when he chooses it.

(Korsgaard, Self-Constitution: 10)

1. I am not entirely sure this metaphysics of action can help rationalize the claim that good actions are actions for their own sake (ibid: 9). Consider the following analogy: Suppose Jon wants to have a X because X has O as a part (e.g., a shiny surface). Actually, anything that has O as a part would do for Jon. But X happens to be around and he wants X for that. In this case, although O is part of X, Jon’s desire for X in virtue of O is not a case of Jon desiring X for its own sake, I presume. So, Korsgaard’s claim that the purpose of an action is a part of that action cannot help vindicate the claim that good actions are actions for their own sake.

2. Korsgaard’s account might overkill. If she is right, why aren’t all intentional actions actions for their own sake? Why the good actions alone?

Tal on History of Philosophy

Straightforward philosophical analysis is ideally suited to bringing out internal paradoxes and contradictions in a given domain of discourse, but it is ill-suited to the task of shedding light on the impoverishment of human life that can go hand-in-hand with an impoverished yet internally self-consistent [understanding of ourselves]. If philosophical analysis cleaves too closely to common beliefs and practices, it can easily generate philosophical psychologies and allied ethical theories that serve only to systematize and entrench reigning prejudices concerning the nature and point of human action. […] where, then, might we look for a fresh start? One fruitful source is the cultural history of articulacy and self-consciousness in the classics of the philosophical tradition. Here, in the traditions of thought that have both shaped our times and been left behind by them, we might hope to find rival pictures with just the degree of ‘cultural distance’ from our own place and time to be of help: near enough that we shall not find it impossible to re-conceive of ourselves and our strivings in those pictures’ terms; alien enough that they can distance and possibly liberate us from the pictures of the self and the good in whose light, or darkness, we have been nurtured. To invoke the history of philosophy, and to learn from it, is to transcend a narrowly analytic approach to philosophy in favour of a potentially transformative struggle with the prejudices of our times.
Talbot Brewer “Three Dogmas of Desires” (p.259)


Truth! And that is why I constantly find attempts to do so-called “philosophical history” — namely the efforts to read contemporary philosophical views out of historical texts — suspicious, in the sense that it defeats the purpose of reading history of philosophy.

Schwenkler’s Remark on Paul’s Inferential Theory of Practical Knowledge

Is Paul’s inferential view a viable response to the self-knowledge problem? One question is whether Paul fully preserves the first-personal/third-personal asymmetry that was emphasized at the beginning of this paper […]. For on an account like Paul’s while there will clearly be fundamental differences between your and my respective ways of knowing about my intentions, it appears that once that knowledge is in place, you may be in every bit as good a position as I am to know what I am doing on the basis of the knowledge of those intentions plus my general tendencies and the evident favorability of my circumstances: this is an inference that you are every bit as capable of making as I am, and it seems that you will be no less justified in it. But it seems as if it is knowledge of one’s actions, and not just of the intentions that underlie them, that ought to be characterized by first-personal privilege, and it is a significant defect of Paul’s position if it fails to ensure this.

Schwenkler, J. (2011) “Perception and Practical Knowledge”: p.143

I have a few remarks about Schwenkler’s remark about Sarah Paul’s view. Continue reading

Problem of Practical Knowledge is Problem of Infallibilism?

Both models face the problem that there appears to be an epistemic gap between having an intention and performing a certain intentional action. In each case, we have no difficulty with the idea that agents know their intentions without observation (by introspection), but the conclusion falls short of (AK), the claim that agents know their intentional actions without observation. (p.13)

[T]he gap might consist in the fact that the intention itself is conceived of as something that falls short of the whole intentional action. Here the intention would stand to an action as a sense-datum does to an object of perception. (p.13)

I have suggested that we could learn to live with a metaphysical gap between intentions and intentional actions by adopting a more fallibilist conception of agent’s knowledge. […] [A]wareness of one’s plan provide fallible evidence for thinking that one is acting as planned. (p.19)

Newstead, A. (2006) “Knowledge by Intention? On the Possibility of Agent’s Knowledge”

Anscombe believes that we, as agents, have non-observational knowledge of what we are doing. And such practical knowledge (or: agent’s knowledge, in Newstead’s terminology) is not just our knowledge of our own mental state, i.e., our intentions. It has long been debated how such kind of non-observational knowledge about our intentional actions is possible. Continue reading

Setiya on Practical Knowledge

The moral of these arguments is that we have a kind of knowledge of what we are doing intentionally, and of what we are going to do which is not the conclusion of an inference. It cannot be inferred from bodily movement, since we may not know in relevant, independent detail just how our body is moving — and in the prospective case, it need not be moving at all. It cannot be inferred from facts about our will, since that would make the presence of belief in intentional action contingent, which it is not. Rather, our knowledge of what we are doing, or what we are going to do, is constituted by our will: it is knowledge in intention. […] [F]orming an intention is forming a belief about what one is doing, or what one is going to do, but not by inference from sufficient prior evidence. […] As Grice complained in “Intention and Uncertainty,” it is as though having an intention were “a case of licensed wishful thinking.”

Setiya, K. (2008) “Practical Knowledge.” Ethics 118: p.397. (My underline)

Setting everything else aside, I have trouble understanding the underlined sentence. It is true that inferences are psychological processes that we perform only contingently. But that does not entail that an inference’s presence in an intentional action is contingent as well. So, I am not sure Setiya has presented a proper objection against the view that our practical knowledge is based on an inference from (introspectively available) facts about our will/intention.