A drawing of a stick figure asking Christine Korsgaard's Normative Question

Christine Korsgaard on Reflection and Reflective Endorsement

Christine Korsgaard’s Sources of Normativity is one of the most impressive pieces of philosophy I’ve ever read. There are many, many reasons to read the book. Right now I am reading it because I want to understand Korsgaard’s view of reflective reasoning. She thinks that reflective reasoning is important for all of morality — #NBD. And her notion of ‘reflective’ is very similar to cognitive scientists’, but not the same. In this post, I explain Korsgaards’ view and how it differs from cognitive scientists’.

For those who want to find the relevant parts of the book, see Lecture 2 and Lecture 3.

1.  Korsgaard’s ‘Reflection’

So what does Christine Korsgaard mean by ‘reflection’? The underlined portions of the following excerpt give us a clue.

[…] normativity is a problem for human beings because of our reflective nature. Even if we are inclined to believe that an action is right and even if we are inclined to be motivated by that fact, it is always possible for us to call our beliefs and motives into question. This is why, after all, we seek a philosophical foundation for ethics in the first place: […]. Morality might not survive reflection(Korsgaard 1996, 2.1.1)

According to what is underlined, Korsgaard’s ‘reflection’ is the act of calling our beliefs and motives into question. And reflection is supposed to be foundational for morality: for deciding what to do. This interpretation fits with another of Korsgaard’s descriptions of reflection:

the human mind …is essentially reflective. […we have the] capacity to turn our attention on to our own mental activities [and] distance ourselves from them, and to call them into question. […For example,] I find myself with a powerful impulse to believe. But I back up and bring that impulse into view and then I have a certain distance. Now the impulse doesn’t dominate me and now I have a problem. Shall I believe? (3.2.1)

Let’s unpack this description with a concrete example:

Imagine that you believe that you should always tell the truth (Korsgaard 1986). Now imagine that you are hiding Jews from the Nazis in your home. A Nazi officer walks up to you as you are entering your front door. He tells you that he is rounding up Jews and asks you if there are any Jews in your home. You believe that you should tell the truth, but you also want to save your concealed Jews from this Nazi officer. So you might begin reflecting:

“I believe that I should tell the Nazi about the Jews hiding in my home, but must I really do that?”

2.  Reflective Endorsement

So reflection is supposed to help with Nazi encounters. But what else is it good for?

For Korsgaard, reflection is supposed to be good for morality — all of it. To explain, let’s continue with the Nazi example. You were reflecting on whether you should act on your belief about always telling the truth  or whether you should act on your desire to save your concealed Jews.

After this reflection, you might endorse one option over another. Korsgaard calls this “reflective endorsement.” And she calls the broader reflective exercise the “reflective endorsement test.” The test involves calling a belief into question, reflecting on what to do, and then endorsing some action. So what’s this got to do with morality? Here’s Korsgaard:

…the reflective endorsement test is not merely a way of justifying morality. It is morality itself. (2.5.2)

3.  Cognitive Scientists’ ‘Reflection’

So Korsgaards’ reflection sounds similar to what cognitive scientists have in mind when they use ‘reflective’ and ‘reflection’. For example, consider a question from the Cognitive Reflection Test.

A Cognitive Reflection Test Question

A bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. So how much does the ball cost?

Most people seem to believe that the answer to this question is, “10 cents” (Frederick 2005). And some people continue to believe this for awhile:

I swear I looked at this for awhile and still [think the answer is 10 cents]. (Source)

So what happens when people reflect on this belief that the answer is “10 cents”? They might back up and distance themselves from this belief:

“I believe the answer is 10 cents, but must I believe this?”

And to answer their question, they might rehearse each step of the calculation. Let’s do that now.

Is 10 Cents the answer?

If the ball costs $0.10 and the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, then the bat costs $1.10. Here’s why: $0.10 (bat) + $1.00 = $1.10 (ball).

And if the ball costs that much, then the sum of the bat and ball is $1.20. Here’s why: $0.10 (bat) + $1.10 (ball) = $1.20.

But the total should be $1.10, not $1.20. So 10 cents is the wrong answer.

What is the correct answer?

There are few ways that you might answer this question. And unless you’ve just memorized the correct answer, you’ll have to reason reflectively to find the correct answer. Even trial and error reasoning would involve deliberately and consciously rehearsing a process like the one above. Or perhaps you could solve the problem algebraically by consciously representing the answer as a variable — say, x — and then deliberately solving for that variable.

4.  The Difference

While Korsgaard’s and cognitive scientists’ notions of reflection overlap, the two notions are not the same. Korsgaard’s notion of reflection involves claims about identity. Cognitive scientists’ notions of reflection do not.

For Korsgaard, normative authority is our sense of obligation to act according to some norm or another. Where is this authority supposed to come from? Our identity. Or “practical identity“, to be more precise:

a description under which you value yourself, a description under which you find your life to be worth living and your actions to be worth undertaking. […] I will call this […] practical identity. (3.3.1)

So how does practical identity result in normative authority? Well,

[w]hen an action cannot be performed without loss of some fundamental part of [our] identity, [we might] as well be dead [making] the obligation not to do it… unconditional and complete. (3.3.1)

That is, what we think about who we are determines our reasons and obligations. So if you identify as the kind of person who always tells the truth, then that identity gives you a reason to tell the truth when the Nazi asks you if you are housing Jews. But if you identify most as the kind of person who wants to protect the vulnerable, then that identity gives you a greater sense of obligation to lie to the Nazi.

“But,” you might ask, “how is that related to reflection?” Reflection is supposed to be the means by which our identity exerts some kind of normative authority.

Cognitive scientists might also think that reflection involves normative authority — e.g., that certain mathetical principles bear normative authority in our reflective reasoning. But cognitive scientists do not necessarily think that normative authority is bound up in our practical identities. It is not as though we have to identify as a certain kind of person to feel the normative force of a mathematical principle. And that seems to be a difference between Korsgaard’s and cognitive scientists’ view of reflective reasoning.


For Korsgaard, reflection is about stepping back from our beliefs and calling them into question. Such reflection is important for morality. It is also important for surprisingly tricky mathematical questions. But Korsgaard’s view of reflection is not the same as cognitive scientists’. Korsgaard’s notion of reflection involves additional claims about identity.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog