Sunday, 30 August 2009

Report on UK Kant Society Conference 2009

Having just returned from attending this event, held this year at Lancaster University, it struck me as worthwhile to do a posting on the major themes that emerged from it and to note some of the ways this seems significant in relation to contemporary Kantian philosophy. Before moving on to an account of these general points I should mention three factors that seriously impressed me. The first was the number and quality of graduate papers this year. As occurred earlier this year when I co-organized the annual conference of the British Society for the History of Philosophy, the graduate contributions were of very high quality. As with the BSHP, graduates who attended demonstrated that there are good grounds for hope with regard to the continuation of philosophical research of serious value.

The second factor was the surprisingly high number of US contributors this year. Like the first factor this is a welcome development, revealing as it does the increasingly international nature of philosophical work. The third factor was the larger number of women philosophers, a development, like the first two, promising a more creative future for philosophical research.

The conference theme this year was "Kant: morality and society" and the organizer, Garrath Williams, is to be commended for bringing together a wide range of papers on the theme in question, many of great interest. The three plenary papers were certainly very different in both approach and focus. The first, by Stephen Darwall, covered the question of an alleged "gap" in Kant's derivation of the formula of universal law, treating this gap as appearing in both the first and second parts of the Groundwork but presenting his own theory of the need for a "second-person" standpoint as indicating a way of amending the derivation so that it succeed. Somewhat surprisingly, given his theme, Darwall did not refer to earlier work on this question such as appears in the books of Bruce Aune and Samuel Kerstein. An additional problem with Darwall's treatment of the alleged "gap" is that it appears to rest on the presumption that such strange creatures as principled egoists and act consequentialists not only exist but, in existing, have to be committed to the view that others should adopt the same principles! Despite these problems the paper was a thoughtful contribution and certainly suggests reasons both for reading his new book on the second personal standpoint in more detail and treating it to a more extended response.

The second plenary paper was by Arthur Ripstein and concerned the theory, adopted by John Rawls from H.L.A. Hart, that we need to distinguish between laws/rules and their "benefits". This theory, whose remoter origin resides in utilitarian responses to "rule-fetishism" has an inherently de-bunking effect on the understanding of rules, and was opposed point by point by Ripstein to a Kantian theory. The interesting point about Ripstein's treatment of Kantian theory was that he reprised the central motifs of the account of "private right" in the Doctrine of Right and showed in the process that it was with regard particularly to these elements that the distinction between rules and their "benefits" was especially prominent. Ripstein's highly impressive paper brought out the need, by contrast to this theory, for Kantians to emphasize a view of rules that did not regard the "benefits" of them as something intrinsically separable from them. Ripstein has elsewhere extended his treatment of the Doctrine of Right and this account, like that of Darwall, bears much more extended investigation.

The final plenary speech, by Tamar Schapiro, contrasted markedly with the earlier two in being a more general paper that was less strictly focused directly on Kantian themes. Schapiro's paper concerned a distinction between two pictures of the relationship between passion and action. On one picture (argued to be shared by both empiricists and rationalists) the agent is viewed as unitary and passions and reasons treated as part of a continuum, not different in principle. As opposed to this, the other view, identified as Kantian, treats passions and reasons as different in kind and passions as generally adopted in the light of reasons. The effect of this second picture, Schapiro argued, was a bipartite, not a unitary, view of agency. Debate concerning this paper centred on arguments as to whether Kant is really committed to such a bipartite picture of agency with many claiming that this is not so though wishing to maintain the division between passions and reasons that Schapiro drew. The discussion subsequent to this paper was in many respects more engaging than the paper itself but also brought out clearly the questions posed for philosophy of action by Kantian practical philosophy.

The parallel sessions divided between those at which faculty members spoke and those devoted to graduate students. Topics discussed in them included Kant's view of suicide (taken to be unsustainable in itself but revealing of some key elements of his general view), the relationship of duties to humans and duties to animals, the relationship between Kantian ethics and aesthetics, the nature of Kantian respect, further reflections on the derivation of the formula of universal law, two papers on aspects of the doctrine of right, and, perhaps most impressively, a paper on provisional duty by Heather Roff. In the only paper specifically focused on the question of international right Roff demonstrated in detail both that all duties at this level are provisional and that the question of their provisionality raises important questions for Kant's whole Doctrine of Right. This paper was perhaps the single most inspiring one delivered at the conference and indicative of the centrality of the area of international right for the study of the whole of Kant's practical philosophy.

For domestic reasons I had to miss the final day of the conference and so this report is not complete. However, from the events I attended what becomes clear is a division between two general types of work being undertaken on Kantian practical philosophy. On the one hand are papers which are either highly general in feel (such as the plenary by Schapiro) or specifically focused on clarifying questions in Kant's critique of morality, especially as found in the Groundwork. The characteristics of these papers is that they are engaged in foundational questions, whether of moral philosophy, moral psychology or philosophy of action. On the other hand are papers either focused on the doctrine of right directly or on questions that require a concern with Kantian casuistry or with the implications of the general practical philosophy. The latter sort of papers are the sort that are more capable of speaking to other non-Kantian philosophers or to a broader public concerned with moral and political questions though the former kind remain significant in requiring us constantly to return to the basis of Kantian views.

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