Saturday, 15 October 2011

Nelson Potter, Kant and Respect

A little while ago I wrote about Nelson Potter's response to the argument of Groundwork I. However, one part of Potter's response to the argument that was not treated in this earlier posting concerns his "appendix" that addresses the role of "respect" in the discussion of Groundwork I. The "third proposition" of the argument of Groundwork I is that "duty is the necessity of an action from respect for the law" (Ak. 4: 400). Kant states that this proposition is "the conclusion" from the first two propositions of his argument. 

Potter presents the third proposition as a subjective account of the nature of action from duty. The key to it, however, is that it treats "respect", putatively something that could be regarded as a "feeling", as worthy of inclusion in a rational determination of moral action. In order to demonstrate this point it is necessary for Kant to provide an account of how the "feeling" of respect is something distinct from feelings generally considered since the latter have been treated, under the heading of "pathology", as unworthy of being part of a purely rational account of morality.

Now the argument of Kant here is one that distinguishes between "inclination" and "respect" and in doing so he views the former as attached to objects as the effects of actions. In doing so Kant is placing inclination in relation to passivity whereas respect, by contrast, is viewed as part of spontaneous willing. Similarly, Kant views inclination as something towards which I cannot have the "feeling" of respect. By contrast to the object related to as an effect to which inclination is tied, Kant emphasises the "ground" of my will as something that can be an object of respect. This "ground", however, is none other than "the mere law by itself". In other words respect attaches to the law as the third proposition stated. 

Potter analyses the claim in this argument and divides it into three parts. Firstly, he argues that taking the object of respect to be the ground of the determination of the will is equivalent to viewing its object as purely formal in nature. This is a point worth making, not least since Kant does not make it explicit in his compressed argument. Secondly, Potter argues that respect is an effect and not a cause of the law. This point is not stated by Kant here but Potter supports it on the ground that viewing respect as a cause of the law would entail that acting from the law was acting in response to a feeling. However, since Kant is indicating the special quality of the feeling of respect, as a feeling that is not a product of receptivity, it is less obvious than Potter suggests that Kant could not have viewed respect as part of what allows the law to act upon us (though seeing respect like this does require eschewing reference to causal vocabulary at all). Thirdly, Potter points out that the feeling of respect is "self-produced", precisely the point I have just used to put his second point into question.

What Kant specifically writes about respect in the footnote introduced into the argument of Groundwork I that concerns respect is that if we recognise something immediately as a law for us then we recognise it "with respect" and this latter recognition "signifies merely the consciousness of the subordination of my will to a law" (Ak. 4: 401n). So respect is a kind of recognition whereby a law is taken to have validity for us. This recognition involves the sense that the validity of the law requires our will's conformity to its command. So respect shows us the requirement that we act in accordance with that which we respect. It thus appears, from this statement that the action of respect is part of the means by which the law has efficacy for us, just as I suggested above.

Potter summarises the unique character of the "feeling" of respect in claiming that it is unique in "its cause, its object, and its effects in action". The cause of the appearance of the feeling is not due to the stimulus of sense and this marks out respect as a special feeling. The object of respect is the ground of the will, not the effect of the will. Finally, however, the relation of respect to the effect of the action of the will is mentioned by Potter though this appears merely to be his odd way of referring to the spontaneity of respect's appearance.

Potter indicates, however, that he is unsure what role the feeling of respect has in the determination of "moral value" or in Kant's moral philosophy generally. The reason why Potter is puzzled about these points is that respect is not something that is part of the content of the maxims of duty although it is, as he admits, part of our awareness of the moral law. Since Potter views respect as only derivative of the law, he also takes it to arise only after the formation of maxims. But this is not required to make sense of Kant's view as I have suggested. Rather, the formation of the law seems to require recognition of the need for the will to be subordinated to its command, that is, to recognise the validity of its demand upon us. Unless this validity is granted the command of the law will have no efficacy and respect is the means by which this validity is given. Potter effectively has to recognise this and states it as our awareness of being put under obligation. So another way of putting the point would be to say that the recognition that the law has put us under obligation in a certain way is to operate with respect with regard to the law.

Essentially despite raising difficulties concerning the formulations of Kant's view Potter does accept the necessity of respect and does so in terms of its belonging to the "subjective" side of morality's pull. What is missing from his analysis however is the development of this point in terms of the means by which the recognition that respect effects us concerns the way the law commands us, not merely the recognition that it command us.

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