Friday, 19 March 2010

The Good Will and the Categorical Imperative

In a recent posting over at Pea Soup there are presented some arguments for thinking that Kant's view of goodness is "profoundly wrong". The author, Ralph Wedgwood, has difficulty in particular with the suggestion, made at the beginning of the first part of the Groundwork, that the only thing good without qualification is a good will. Wedgwood correctly views this opening claim of the Groundwork as closely related to the general formalism of Kant's ethics. The arguments presented in response to Kant's claims concerning the absolute status of the good will consist partly in suggesting other candidates than the good and partly in arguments for not taking Kant to be consistent in his general commitment to this view concerning the good.

The argument concerning other candidates for the "good" than the good will is presented first and consists in a general claim, not itself supported by argument, that there are things that exist that are intrinsically good. Included under this heading for Wedgwood are the value attaching to ecological systems, the value of pleasure by contrast to pain and the value of cognitive achievements. This is a somewhat diverse list and presupposes a commitment to a basic form of moral realism. In response it is worth asking whether this list of things of intrinsic value is meant to indicate that these things are of value regardless of relations to persons or not. A strongly realist position would suggest that the answer was in the affirmative. In which case the value of the ecological system would always exist regardless of the types of organisms it produced. Following that claim further it is hard to see how disvalue could attach to an ecological system that evolved in such a way that it produced certain life-forms that sustained themselves directly through the destruction of most others. Since the value is intrinsic to the system itself there is no ground for moral evaluation of any product of it. Similarly, if pleasure is an intrinsic good then it shouldn't matter intrinsically how it is distributed since the possession of the pleasure that can exist for some in torturing others to death might well be very great and surely it would require some standard extrinsic to the pleasure itself to find grounds of difficulty with this? Finally, whilst cognitive achievements may well be fine things in themselves they can be used for any number of types of ends and if those ends are irrelevant to the question of the goodness of the achievements then they could be used for any given end at all.

The argument listing independent goods seems to be clearly to fail if taken in the strongest realist sense. If, however, these things of intrinsic value have that value in relation to qualities of persons then the need for a discussion of will, and good will, follows.

The second argument Wedgwood gives concerns the supposed internal inconsistencies in Kant's defence of his conception of the absolute status of the good will. As examples of this Wedgwood suggests that Kant appeals to natural teleology, as in his condemnation of suicide. The condemnation of suicide does indicate that the basis of self-love, is, for example, to help further life by giving some basis for its continuation. However, the basic rationale of the argument concerning suicide doesn't last really on this claim as this claim is part of Kant's "hedonism" rather than part of his argument for the disvalue of suicide. The argument concerning the disvalue of suicide is that it involves a contradiction in that affirming it is part of affirming the value of willing itself. After all, how does a potential suicide support their own action other by saying that it is a right they should possess since it is their own life that is in question? So the potential suicide appeals to a value alleged to be intrinsic to their life and their power over it. The latter is the real point since this power resides precisely in their taking their own will to have value, a value however that is nullified in the affirmation of the act in question. That shows a contradiction, one that is opposed by the categorical imperative.

Wedgwood's subsequent points concern whether Kant justifies his claims concerning benevolence on the one hand and the relationship between the formula of humanity and the formalist foundation on the other. These are separate topics that have treated extensive treatment in literature on Kant. Whilst the notion of benevolence is not one he justifies through a notion like that of a "contradiction in conception" there is a case for saying it has something to do with "contradiction in the will". The argument concerning humanity, by contrast, is relatively short if humanity is essentially identified with practical rationality as it is by Kant. It's not that these two latter points aren't worthy of deeper treatment but simply referring to them as knock-down points against Kant is surely simplistic on Wedgwood's part. Finally, Wedgwood suggests that if you see value in the empirical natural world that you should reject Kant's view. If, however, we do see such value then surely it is related to conditions of being able to relate in the right way to things that are thought to have value. See again the point concerning cognitive achievements! 

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