Sunday, 30 October 2011

Henry Allison and Kant's *Groundwork*

Henry E. Allison has recently added to his already extensive collection of works on Kant a new work, Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals: A Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2011). Given the importance of Allison generally as an interpreter of Kant and the significance of the Groundwork for the understanding of Kant's contribution to moral philosophy the publication of this work must count as a signal moment in Kantian studies. Since this work is so significant I intend to treat it as a matter of serious import for this blog and will be responding to it with the same kind of detailed reactions I have developed in previous postings in regard to both Derek Parfit and John Rawls.

In this posting I will confine my attention to the "Introduction" to Allison's commentary. Allison here instantly makes the claim that the "main reason" why the Groundwork is particularly crucial for both understanding Kant's contribution to moral philosophy and for a view of modern moral philosophy as a whole, consists in the articulation in this work of a distinction between ethics that is based on "autonomy" and that which, by contrast, has a grounding in something heteronomous. In making this claim Allison is self-consciously following in the wake of J.B. Schneewind's historical work on modern moral philosophy but complementing the latter by seeing the emphasis on autonomy as a practical complement to Kant's alleged "Copernican revolution" in philosophy. However, Allison does acknowledge the point that emphasis on "autonomy" in Kant is connected to Rousseau's political conception that freedom involves obedience to a law one prescribes to oneself. Despite mentioning this point, however, Allison does not connect this either to Kant's later characterisation of enlightened reason or to Kant's articulation of the supreme principle of right in the Doctrine of Right preferring only to see a shift from Rousseau's political vocabulary to Kant's moral one, something that is not comprehensively accurate however appropriate it might be to the context of the Groundwork alone.

Unlike Rawls, however, Allison does not think that the effect of the emphasis on autonomy in Kant's ethics can be well described by means of a view that the right has priority over the good. In eschewing this presentation Allison prefers instead the formulation that the Kantian view involves the priority of the moral law over the good. However, again, the main reason for this apparent change in formulation is due to a distrust of Rawls' own conception of justice as fairness whereas Allison wants to emphasise the Kantian contribution to moral philosophy, something that suggests there is little substantive of importance in the altered formulation. 

Allison admits to the fact that serious study of the Groundwork has led to an alteration of views on his own part though he says little initially to indicate in what ways this has taken place. Similarly, whilst conceding that the days are, in my view thankfully, long past, when it could be held that the Groundwork could be regarded as constituting the main fabric of Kant's contribution to moral theory, Allison only modifies this old view by addressing the Groundwork as the place where Kantian meta-ethics is formulated whereas even this claim is perhaps more sweeping than is warranted. However, Allison is surely on safer ground when he reports, as a generally accepted view, that the categorical imperative is no longer treated as a kind of algorithm for morality by means of which considerations of moral judgment can be swept aside.

If this general point about the categorical imperative is taken to be significant however, it is only negatively so and would still leave almost everything left unsaid concerning it. Amongst other questions, in interpreting the Groundwork it is clearly important to arrive at a view of how it presents, as Allison puts it, "the nature and function of the categorical imperative" as well as treatments of the various alleged "derivations" it is subjected to in the text of the work and the supposed "problems" connected to its "deduction" in the third part of the work and Allison promises that his book will offer his own views on these key topics.

In addition to these promises Allison also makes clear that, for him, it is important to come to a view on the development of Kant's views from the statements in the Critique of Pure Reason on ethical topics, statements often not sufficiently treated. The point in particular on which Allison lays emphasis is that the Critique of Pure Reason appears to suggest that it has provided all that is needed in order for the ground to be laid for a metaphysics of morals so that there must have been some kind of change of view on this topic between 1781 and 1784.

Similarly, Allison indicates that amongst other historical considerations that his commentary will treat are responses to some of the key external influences on Kant, notably, the Wolffian "practical philosophy" to which Kant refers at one point in the Groundwork and Christian Garve's notion of "popular moral philosophy". The second section of the Groundwork is one he will be particularly treating as a riposte to Garve's views.

Allison's general account of the structure of the Groundwork is in terms of the work's focus on two objectives, firstly, searching for and, secondly, establishing, the supreme principle of morality. Essentially Groundwork I and II are taken to be concerned with the first of these tasks (what are conventionally described as the "derivation" of the categorical imperative) whilst Groundwork III, by contrast, treats of the third (generally termed the "deduction" of the categorical imperative). Allison also anticipates his general argument by indicating that on the latter, his overall verdict has not changed since the publication of his seminal work Kant's Theory of Freedom since he continues, apparently, to adopt the view argued for there, to the effect that the argument of Groundwork III is a failure though it remains to be seen if the nature of his treatment of the reasons for this alleged "failure" have remained the same.

An aspect of the treatment offered that is certainly surprising is that Allison also aspires to take seriously an objection that could be made to the structure of the Groundwork but that has not often been pressed in recent years. This is to the effect that the argument of the second section of the work is "redundant" given that Kant has already arrived at a statement of the categorical imperative by the close of the first part of the Groundwork (hence completing the first task of the work) whilst the third part tackles the task of "establishing" the categorical imperative (thus dealing with the work's second objective). Once put like this the argument as to why Kant introduces what is perhaps the most complex and sustained argument, the argument of Groundwork II, can appear perplexing. Further, whilst, as I said, the argument to this effect has been little advanced in recent years, it is articulated in a work by A.R.C. Duncan (a work of broadly intuitionist persuasion from the late 1950's) and has not been provided, as Allison suggests, with any kind of comprehensive response. Providing such a response is part of the rationale for Allison's commentary which ensures that addressing how well it succeeds in responding to this "redundancy argument" is part of seeing whether the work generally succeeds in adding something substantive to the great volume of works that already exist on the Groundwork.

It is within Groundwork II that Kant presents a number of different formulas of the categorical imperative though it has been a subject of sustained dispute exactly how many are there given and what the relationship between them consists in. Allison indicates that it will be part of his argument that the formulas represent "successive stages in the complete construction of the concept of the categorical imperative" and that they correlate with a progressive analysis of the concept of rational agency. Since the conception of the relationship of the categorical imperative to a picture of rational agency surely is central to the viability of the offering of the categorical imperative as truly being the supreme principle of morality this point is certainly one that is centrally important.

Allison's conception of Groundwork III is to the effect that within it Kant aims to demonstrate that our wills possess a specific property, namely that of autonomy. Unlike the Groundwork, however, Allison's books is divided into four parts, not three. The first part concerns "preliminaries", namely an analysis of the "preface" to the Groundwork and a treatment of Kant's responses to the projects of Garve and Wolff. The second part is a reading of Groundwork I, carried out over three chapters, addressing the understanding of the good will, maxims and the three "propositions" of this first part. The third part treats Groundwork II, looking at rational agency, the universal law formulas, the formula of humanity and an account of autonomy. Finally, the fourth part is a reading of Groundwork III, looking at the moral law, the presupposition of freedom and the "deduction" of the categorical imperative. All told the commentary promises to be perhaps the most comprehensive provided in English to date and to set a standard that will require response from all others addressing Kant's moral philosophy.

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