I am currently reading Korsgaard's Self-Constitution in the Ethics of Plato and Kant (which you can find here). I was wondering if the argumentative step from an injustice in the perfectly arranged polis to an injustice in a contemporary democracy is justified somewhere. I will try to explain what I mean. Korsgaard writes (p.7):

And this explains Socrates’s puzzling definition of justice. Justice, he says, is “doing one’s own work and not meddling with what isn’t one’s own” (433a–b). When Socrates first introduces this principle into the discussion (369eff.), he’s talking about the specialization of labor, and that’s what the principle sounds like it’s about. But if we think of the constitution as laying out the procedures for deliberative action, and the roles and offices that constitute those procedures, we can see what Socrates’s point is. For usurping the office of another in the constitutional procedures for collective action is precisely what we mean by injustice, or at least it is one thing we mean. For instance if the constitution says that the president cannot make war without the agreement of the congress, and yet he does, he has usurped congress’s role in this decision, and that’s unjust. If the constitution says that each citizen gets to cast one vote in the election, and through some fraud you manage to vote more than once, you are diminishing the voice of others in the election, and that’s unjust. So injustice, in one of its most familiar senses, is usurping the role of another in the deliberative procedures that define collective action. It is meddling with somebody else’s work.

Now, considering that the polis Plato has in mind is arranged perfectly, and thus just, somebody who "meddles with what isn't her own" is being unjust. But having bought that, are we already, without further steps, buying that the same goes for acting against the constitution of, say, the US? Doesn't the assessment of a person's act as unjust mainly depend on the installation of justice in the society that person is acting in? For that would mean that it might not be unjust to non-conform with the constitution of an unjust society.

If I read the following correctly, then it's not Korsgaard's goal to tell us how to behave in a society. She tells us that to conform to a constitution means to make collective action possible in the first place, and later she will, just as Plato, transfer this back to the person and its faculties/soul. Nonetheless, I wonder if her modernisation of Plato can carry the argument. Therefore the question: Is usurping the office of another in a society that might be described as not yet just unjust in the same way it would be in the perfect polis? I don't think so.

My question would be: Does anybody know whether Korsgaard herself motivated this step somewhere else, maybe in Self-Constituion: Agency, Identity, and Integrity? In that case I would be grateful for a specific reference and/or an answer explaining what seems to be the argumentative gap. I would also appreciate some further references to criticisms of Korsgaard's argument.

  • Platos argument is that justice in the polis brings about justice in the soul (and perhaps the reverse is Rousseaus theory of the general will); it seems then reasonable to say that the injust city brings about injustice in the soul; if this injustice is acting to bring the polis to justice then the injustice is in this sense justice; but if it acts to increasing injustice, then it itself is being injust; Jun 14, 2014 at 22:38
  • Somebody explain the downvote, please.
    – iphigenie
    Jun 15, 2014 at 12:10
  • @MoziburUllah I don't see your conclusion in the text I read. Korsgaard does not say that it is okay to usurp the office of another in order to bring justice is just. And I wasn't asking about Plato, who uses the city as a magnifier for the soul, not as an instrument for the betterment of the latter, as I read it.
    – iphigenie
    Jun 15, 2014 at 12:11
  • :I was commenting on this line:" For that would mean that it might not be unjust to non-conform with the constitution of an unjust society." rather than critiquing Korsgaard argument. Jun 15, 2014 at 15:16
  • I find it part of your specific question towards the end of the text difficult to parse:What do you mean by 'as not yet just unjust'? That it isn't a perfectly just society but nor is it a perfectly unjust society, but that its trajectory is tending towards it? Jun 15, 2014 at 15:25

1 Answer 1


I think Korsgaard thinks this follows from her alternative deduction for the morality for Kant. Rejecting Kant's own approach in Groundwork 3 as garbled (who doesn't?) and not accepting it as a Faktum of reason, she proposes that we commit ourselves to universal rational action whenever we commit an action as a condition for engaging in action.

I think you'll find roughly the same move happening in the "Creating the Kingdom of Ends" available in her volume of the same title. Basically, she thinks that in an imperfect world, we have a right to move towards a better world. In the process, she's rejecting Kant's requirement that we assume the people we are interacting with are making rational choices. Instead, we treat them like they ought to be making rational choices and adjust accordingly. Korsgaard maintains this is what Kant was saying all along.

In both cases, what seems to happen is that we've undergone at least in my interpretation a shift that changes what we are doing substantiality from the classical projects they replace. Korsgaard seems to take Plato, Aristotle, and Kant to be seeking the same thing as she is: a description of just action under deliberative conditions. But the thing is that deliberative conditions were not considered important in any of these accounts.

Plato's republic and Aristotle's polis are both forms of state that are not ultimately built around deliberation by all members but rather are different types of informed harmonies. In Plato's case, the harmony that brings us the closest to the ideal of Justice. In Aristotle's case, the form of life best suited to us as rational animals (as he understands that). Again, for Kant, this becomes a community of rational agents. But then we need to be careful not to confuse our common uses of rational with Kant's meaning. The Kantian meaning is very much a priori in its origin rather than derived from experience or what seems to make the best sense at the time.

I would think for Plato that injustice in the republic is a failure to submit to one's place in the community or to act outside of the roles given by the guardians -- not to fail to involve everyone in the decision.

admittedly, this is the ranting of someone who thinks there are some flaws with Korsgaard's work insofar as it claims to interpret history.

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