By: Arjun Verma
Christine Korsgaard is a contemporary American philosopher who draws much of her inspiration from the philosophical traditions of Kant and Aristotle. Her work can provide much-needed insight into reshaping Kantianism into a modern philosophy.
What does Korsgaard believe about practical identities?
Kant’s philosophy of the Categorical Imperative has often been accused of being too abstract and inapplicable to the real world. One critique is that it merely sees humans as rational beings without any room for our other worldly interests, passions, and identities.
Korsgaard challenges this belief by contextualizing how Kantian philosophy is much richer than pure abstraction and can in fact provide insight into these material concerns.
She believes that all of these interests and activities that we pursue can be tied back to what she calls “practical identities.” For example, the practical identity of a student might correlate with a person’s responsibility to do homework, attend school, and interact with classmates. A doctor as a practical identity might imply corresponding obligations to nonmaleficence, beneficence, autonomy, and justice.
Of course, people typically categorize themselves as multiple identities, including nationality, job, race, family, sports team, etc. All of our actions are tied to who we identify as. Some identities might be more important to us; our family obligations might override our identity as a sports fan. We all have different practical identities because we all are different humans.
Despite these vast differences, Korsgaard argues, there is one identity that unites us all: our universal humanity. For Kant and Korsgaard, being a human is inseparable from our ability to rationally reflect upon our actions. Thus, this human identity is what determines our other projects and identities. These “practical identities” only matter at all if we matter as humans.
We can always question or shift out of our identities; however, the ability to shift is itself predicated on our identity as rational agents. As a result, this human identity (and therefore all of the Kantian moral obligations that derive from it) is inescapable. To shift out of this identity and its obligations would exercise the very feature (rational reflection) that defines it.
How does this idea apply to the modern world?
First, this conception of practical identity serves as an important reminder that our obligations as a human, a moral agent, a practical reasoner, come prior to any other obligations that we take on. Even if it may seem cooler or more socially acceptable to take on a role that involves violating the humanity of others, this is still unethical and ought to be rejected. In other words, our identity and moral duties as a human should constrain our other identities and actions.
Second, in spite of our differences, we are in fact united. It may often seem as if our disparate beliefs, actions, and identities separate us; however, this capacity to choose our differences is itself what makes us human.
Arjun is a high school senior. He is a captain of his high school's Lincoln Douglas debate team.
I am an undergraduate student who's fascinated by anything related to philosophy. I hope to show you how philosophy can apply to everyday life! Check out my Youtube Channel, Philosophy in Context.