Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Ethics and Teleology

In the previous two postings I have looked at the notions of deontology and the alleged priority of the "right" over the "good" and whilst the former notion has proved trickier than the latter there would appear to have been a certain message emerging from consideration of these notions with regard to the nature of Kant's ethics. However, when turning to the views alleged to be held by those who think of ethics in a teleological way, we will discover some areas of substantial confusion.

Samuel Freeman, as noted in the earlier posting on deontology, views deontological theories as involving pluralism with regard to value whilst, by contrast, he presents teleological views of ethics as having a monistic conception of value. This position of Freeman's is, however, not sustained when we look back in the history of ethics. One of the first works to present a broad characterisation of teleological conceptions of ethics and, in the process, to distinguish such a view from the deontological conception, is by C. D. Broad. Broad's classic text Five Types of Ethical Theory agrees with contemporary usage in that it opens by treating teleological conceptions of ethics as primarily concerned with consequences as certain types of consequences are viewed as intrinsically good or bad. However, whilst this equation of teleological conceptions of ethics with consequentialism might seem to confirm certain contemporary views of teleological ethics there are further complications in Broad's account which converge rather less with contemporary usage. So Broad is, for example, unconvinced that there are any ethical theories are either purely deontological or purely teleological and he presents these conceptions as instead ideal limits of theory rather than characterising any ethical view as such. Secondly, and an important corrective to the claim of Freeman, Broad is quite clear that there can be pluralist forms of teleological conceptions of ethics in which several distinguishable views of the good can be held in tandem. So there is, for Broad, nothing intrinsic to teleological views that requires them to be classed as monistic.

William Frankena, as mentioned in the earlier posting on deontology, presents teleological theories of ethics in a different way to Broad. On Frankena's view, the distinctive point about teleological theories is that they assess the moral qualities of actions and persons in relation to certain non-moral values which are held to be important. So, for Frankena, what is important is the claim concerning value that is held by teleologists though, like Freeman, he does tend to view teleological theories as monistic in nature. 

If we move from these general conceptions of teleological accounts of ethics to attempts to view Kant's ethics in terms that are either resistant to deontology or embracing of teleology we will note that the problems already inherent in the accounts of teleological ethics considered will multiply. The two most prominent dissenters from the view that Kant should be considered to embrace a kind of (rule)-deontology are Barbara Herman and Paul Guyer. The reasons why Herman and Guyer resist the deontological characterisation are different but they lead both to views that require a revision of the simple conception that Kant asserts a priority for the right over the good. Barbara Herman focuses on the opening section of Kant's Groundwork where the "good will" is taken to have absolute value and she uses this to resist attributing a deontological conception of ethics to Kant where she means by "deontology" a thesis concerning value (a claimed independence of moral considerations from value). Herman claims that Kant has a view of the good "both as the formal final end and as the ultimate internal condition of rational agency". 

The problem with deontological conceptions of ethics, according to Herman, is that they do not provide us with an understanding of how it is that moral rules have any kind of claim upon us. To account for this is to give what she calls "a grounding conception of value" and we need this in order to make intelligible moral requirements. So the key for Herman is to provide an account of Kant's ethics that enables us to see it as giving us a motivational view of practical reason that provides a conception of principles that allows for a notion of value. The interesting point about these claims is that they aim less at providing a strictly teleological conception of ethics than one that does not rest so evidently as the previous posting might have led one to think on an assumed priority of the right over the good.

Paul Guyer brings together teleology with a view about the relation between the right and the good as he views teleological ethics as consisting in an assertion of an antecedent good prior to principles of right being established but whilst the notion of the good tends to be assimilated with some notion of consequences it is not so understood by Guyer for whom the intrinsic value of freedom could be grasped as such a "good". Since, though, somewhat unsurprisingly, Guyer views Kantian freedom as autonomy (or freedom governed by law) it would follow that such freedom incorporates a sense of duty, though, on his view, it also includes the value that is so important to Herman. On these grounds, however, Guyer asserts a surprising preference for the argument of the Groundwork over that of the Critique of Practical Reason and dismisses Kant's claim for the "fact of reason" in the latter as indicative of a view that abandons finding reasons for why we would adopt the moral law (hence effectively finding in the Second Critique the view that Herman rejects). Like Herman, Guyer views the good will as something that is antecedently valuable and indicative on Kant's part of an understanding of a substantive conception of the good with the second part of the Groundwork amplifying this into the notion of rational being as an end-in-itself.

Guyer's view hence includes elements not present in Herman's and allows for at least one point not congruent with Herman's. This is that Guyer allows that the intrinsic value of freedom is not itself demonstrable, something that seems to ensure that it does not meet Herman's demand for a rational construction of Kantian ethics.

What we have noted in this posting is that the view of what teleological views of ethics consists in is less settled than many think.  Further, at least some prominent contemporary Kantians are less than happy with the effect of characterising Kant's ethics in a way that does not make room for considerations that have often been thought to belong only with teleological views. In the next posting we will consider consequentialism.

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