Sunday, 20 June 2010

Ethics and Teleology (II)

Essentially what is meant by describing an approach to ethics as "teleological" at the moment can be summarised as a very particular understanding of what an "end" involves. So, on this conception, an "end" is something that can be taken to be a goal or intention. Not only is this so but it represents something that we can realise in differential amounts with the general aim being to "maximise" it. On these grounds a teleological approach to ethics is rendered pretty much equivalent to consequentialism.

If someone were to claim that Kant had this kind of approach to ethics then it would require a lot of work. Some have claimed this and the view they give would take an examination that was very specific. I assume, for the sake of this posting, however, that there are few philosophers who take Kant to be endorsing consequentialism. Since this is so it will then automatically appear necessary to deny that Kant could possibly be saying anything teleological about ethics.

So let's approach the question next from a different angle. I mentioned in the previous posting that there are variant understandings of the formula of humanity at present and that some articulate a ground for supporting it as the favoured way of representing the categorical imperative on the basis that this offers a reply to Hegel's "empty formalism" objection. (Incidentally this criticism is one that has had formidable influence including on philosophers who would otherwise disregard Hegel's views.) Now, those who approach the formula of humanity in this way, such as Allen Wood, view an end primarily as "something for the sake of which we act" (85 of Kantian Ethics). However, Wood also views the notion of humanity as incorporating a reference to a value, the value of rational nature. Since this value is something independently specified from the formula of universal law (since if it were not there would be little point in favouring it as a formula over that of universal law) it follows, on Wood's account, that humanity is hence a goal towards which we aim and that, as such a goal, it also possesses a value.

Now, the teleological ethic that emerges from Wood's interpretation has to be regarded as importantly different from classic consequentialism. It does, however, treat the idea of the reference to an "end" in the humanity formula in much the way that consequentialists view ends. The difference is only that this "end" is taken to have a weight (an "absolute" status) different from that of any other end. Since it has this weight it can be given something like a Rawlsian lexical priority over other ends and be treated as special and not to be sacrificed in considerations of commensurate weighting. Whilst this view maintains the distinction between "price" and that which is beyond all price it still essentially views the end-in-itself as an end in the same kind of way as other ends.

Now does this do any better than the classic consequentialist view as a reading of Kant's ethics? The problem with it is, that if we take Kant's reference to an "end" in the humanity formula in this way then it is not clear how the notion of rational nature really relates to the idea of universal law. The point of suggesting that the formulas of the categorical imperative are inter-related is to make some kind of connection between these ideas. But if universal law is essentially conceded to only state something emptily formal whilst we have a substantial value with the formula of humanity it follows that the value in the latter formula has no grounding in the law of the first formula but is something independent of that law. And that seems to make nonsense of Kant's approach to ethics.

However the notion of a teleological approach to ethics does not have to take either the path of classic consequentialism or the idea put forward by Wood of relating to humanity as a value independent of the law. There must be another way since Kant, in the Doctrine of Virtue, describes ethics as "the system of the ends of pure practical reason" (Ak. 6:381). If ethics is a system of ends then there has to be a sense in which adopting the categorical imperative gives us a response to ends that is distinct from either the classic consequentialist view or a view that has to formulate the sense of humanity as different in principle (and in value) from the idea of universal law.

Just after making the claim about ethics just cited Kant makes the following distinction between two types of end:
One can think of the relation of end to duty in two ways: one can begin with the end and seek out the maxim of actions in conformity with duty or, on the other hand, one can begin with the maxim of actions in conformity with duty and seek out the end that is also a duty. (Ak. 6: 382)
This contrast is related by Kant to the distinction between right and virtue and raises a number of interesting questions about right that I will turn to on another occasion. The Doctrine of Right, says Kant, takes the first way. That is, when viewing things in terms of right, we begin with the end as something given and seek out, on the basis of this pre-given end, a relationship to what duties we have. However, with ethics, says Kant, we go the opposite way. That is, we start from the view that there are duties and on the basis of this we seek out ends that conform to such duties. If Wood's reading of the formula of humanity were right then it would appear that this difference between right and virtue could not be specified in the way Kant has done since, on Wood's reading, it appears that humanity is an independent value whose end we start with. So the end of humanity sets out a constraint for duties. But that is not how Kant views virtue, hence, not how he sees ethics.

It follows from this way of presenting the distinction that there is an internal connection between an "end" and a "duty" when we are dealing with virtue and if this is so (and the notion of "duty" is dependent on the sense of universal law) then it follows that there must be an important sense in which the formula of humanity is something that emerges out of the formula of universal law and is not something that can be set against the formula of universal law. This is also specified concretely in the supreme principle of virtue: "act in accordance with a maxim of ends that it can be a universal law for everyone to have" (Ak. 6: 395).

So, Kant's ethics appears "teleological", if this is the right expression, in the sense that it is importantly concerned with ends. However, if the ends that it is concerned with are ones that emerge from passing through the process of meeting the criteria for permissible maxims then one cannot start, in a Kantian approach to ethics, with some specific ends as pre-given and think about how to maximise them (which cuts against consequentialism) and nor can we think of the notion of humanity as expressive of a value independent of law (which cuts against Wood's reading). Since this is the case it may appear that there is little sense to using the term "teleology" here at all. However, this does not quite follow or, at least, this reaction should be modified. In the Groundwork Kant writes: "The categorical imperative would be that which represented an action as objectively necessary of itself, without reference to another end" (Ak. 4: 414). So there is reference to an end importantly built in (as with the remark I cited earlier saying that virtue is a system of ends). This end, however, requires no reference to any other end separate from itself. In this respect it is not a goal if goals are taken to require means-ends reasoning as is usual. It is, rather, an "end-in-itself". If there are ends in themselves then it is not our task, pace Wood, to act "for the sake of" these. Such an expression suggests that the notion of end in the formula of humanity is not different in kind from the type of end that is at work in instrumental reasoning but Kant does distinguish these from each other. The difference is not that this end is given a mysterious absolute status despite being essentially similar in kind to other ends. It is not: it is different in kind from other ends. In this respect it has really an eschatological rather than a teleological sense. And this sense is importantly connected to rationality. That would require another posting to show but this distinction between an eschatological and a teleological sense of ends should clear up a confusion I inadvertently created in my book on practical philosophy.


Micah Tillman said...

Thanks for working through the senses in which "teleological" might be applied to Kant's moral theory! Most philosophers either reject the word altogether when talking about Kant, or only think to apply it in its consequentialist sense.

I'd argue that we can apply the term in its Aristotelian (not consequentialist) sense. A thing's end or "telos," in the Aristotelian sense, is its essence; or, rather, a thing's telos/end is the full, ongoing realization, expression, or enactment of its essence.

(A thing's "end," therefore, is not something at which it aims in the future, or a consequence it seeks to effect, but is, instead, what it already is most essentially, and which it must bring out/enact/express in how it acts or exists.)

In fact, I'd go so far as to argue that "duty derives from telos" (in the Aristotelian sense) for Kant.

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for your response Micah. The Aristotelian sense you are talking about would certainly be worth more exploration since it does fit more closely with what I was suggesting than any other sense of "end" that is current at present. Given that Kant also is concerned fundamentally with virtue in his ethics this is another respect that he is closer to Aristotle than is often thought to be the case. I think more can be said yet about consequentialism but I will try and get back to the comparison with Aristotle at some later point. Can you recommend anything good on Aristotle's sense of "end"/"telos"?