Introductory summary by Ted Honderich of Christine Korsgaard’s Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture



            Christine Korsgaard was a student of Philosophy and English Literature in Illinois, then a philosophy graduate student at Harvard of the esteemed social contract theorist John Rawls. She taught at other universities including Chicago, and then returned to a professorship at Harvard, where she has also served as Head of Department. She has the further distinction of being the first woman to give the John Locke lectures in Oxford.


            God, you may suppose, could have created a completely happy universe, all that ever exists, with everybody and every animal in it happy -- or he could have created a completely miserable universe, everybody and every animal in it miserable. But forget about religion if you want. You can as well just imagine and compare for yourself the completely happy universe and the completely miserable universe. You agree, don't you, that the first one would be an awful lot better, that it would be right to choose it if you could? But you will hear there is a problem or question about this choice.


            It is not the usual sort of choice or judgement having to do with happiness, misery and the like. With respect to this choice or judgement, in favour of the happy universe, all there ever is, there is nobody better off. The choice is not the usual choice between the same people or animals being either happy or instead miserable. It is between people and animals existing and being happy or miserable and those people not existing at all. You could say that in a certain sense nobody at all would be being deprived of happiness by the second choice. In a sense there is no comparison here.


            And, moreover, there is the same situation with respect to the first choice. In short, nobody's life would be made better by that choice of the happy universe.


            Further, there is the same kind of situation, it seems, about choosing between a universe of greater equality and a different universe of lesser equality. The question here, as in the first case, to put it differently, is why the first world would be better. Here too, you can say, there exists no one to whom it matters.


            Korsgaard agrees that the first choices are right. So does she then agree that there is what can be called impersonal good? And, further, that what it means to say something is good for you, say, is that you have some impersonal good, that you stand to impersonal good in that way? She argues, on the contrary, that to begin with impersonal good is to make it impossible to say what the having consists in, what relation it names.


            This leads to a discussion of what we can mean by saying that something is good for someone, how these are related to each other. Also to a discussion of what sorts of entities can be in this relation. The answer to the latter question depends on a particular way of thinking or philosophizing about coming to answers to questions about right and wrong -- thinking of an imagined contract, thinking in or near the way proposed by Rawls in his A Theory of Justice. Thus in the end we are vindicated in thinking a world full of happy people is better than a world full of miserable ones, even if the people are different in the two cases, even if nobody and no animal is better off.


            Questions arise about this thinking, one about desires or reasonable or natural desires -- and hence about actually conscious beings, existing beings. Are these grounds of right and wrong, the stuff of a principle of humanity for example, conceivably an immediate means to rejecting the idea of impersonal goods? There is also the older question of whether imagined contract-making is not really an argument for right principles but rather something written into the contract-making tacitly from the start.


            Korsgaard's is original work, work that depends on new assumptions and asks its own new questions. They may become familiar. Conceivably the new assumptions and questions may become as settled as those of earlier philosophers of whom we already know that they gave rise to the philosophical concerns to come. Who knows? Certainly the lecture is reminiscent of the progress of a Platonic lecture, otherwise known as a Platonic dialogue.