Friday, 18 November 2011

Allison on Kant's Ethical Predecessors

In my last posting on Henry Allison's commentary on the Groundwork I expressed some disappointment over the coverage given in its first chapter to historical questions. The first chapter laid out, in somewhat rudimentary form, some of the background to Kant's writing of the Groundwork. The second chapter, by contrast, looks at the two approaches to moral philosophy that were likely to be foremost in Kant's mind as alternatives to his own approach when he composed the Groundwork. These are the Wolffian notion of "universal practical philosophy" and the approach, associated by Allison here with Christian Garve, of "popular moral philosophy". Whilst the discussion of these approaches in Allison's second chapter does not aim to compete with the more extensive discussions on offer elsewhere this second chapter is certainly more useful in giving the reader of the Groundwork historical background than anything Allison provided in the first chapter.

The second chapter is intended only to give, as Allison explicitly states, a "sketch" of the relevant features of the approaches discussed and a brief analysis of some of Kant's reactions (though the latter is provided only really with regard to the Wolffian system). Kant's use of Baumgarten's textbook is well recorded in the lecture notes that have come down to us from Kant's teaching practice and the textbook by Baumgarten that Kant used was published as late as 1760 so was certainly current material, even at the time of the publication of the Groundwork. Allison chooses, however, to base most of his reportage of the approach of the Wolffian school not on Baumgarten's textbook but on one by Georg Meier who, though not referred to by Kant in his lectures on ethics, produced what Allison regards as "the most accessible and comprehensive treatment" of the approach.

As Allison points out, one of the features of "universal practical philosophy" that would have appealed to Kant was that it does give a kind of metaphysics of morals as it aims to provide the only viable foundation for a system of human duties. It also focuses on general rules governing free actions which, due to their normative necessity, are taken to be laws. However, the metaphysics in this approach involves a compatibilist conception of freedom that ultimately derives from Leibniz's conception that free actions are necessary in the sense that they are derived from the principle of sufficient reason. So, on this view, the morally possible and the morally necessary become extensionally equivalent.

Wolff's general idea of obligation, by contrast, focused on an idea of perfection which, in a practical sense, viewed it as requiring the harmony of all volitions with each other so that none ran counter to the others. This produced his moral imperative: "Do what makes you and your condition more perfect and omit what makes you and your condition less perfect", modified slightly by Baumgarten to read "seek perfection as much as you can". This perfectionism was also linked, at least by Baumgarten, to a Stoic principle of living according to nature in order to attain the perfection in question (thus providing an interpretation of perfectionism that bends in the direction of a kind of naturalism). 

Allison provides Kant's response to the standpoint of universal practical philosophy in two phases, looking first at Kant's lectures on ethics as transcribed by Collins (1780s lectures) and, secondly, and more briefly, at the remarks Kant makes on it in the "Preface" to the Groundwork. In relation to the analysis of obligation by Baumgarten, Kant is recorded in the lectures as stating that not all imperatives yield obligations (which is part of his distinction of hypothetical from categorical imperatives). Similarly, being necessitated has to be distinguished from being obligated since natural necessitation is not the basis of moral obligation. Kant does here show himself more favourably disposed towards the principle of perfection than to many other moral principles since he took it to state something that does have a certain use as it can be understood to refer to the "completeness of man" (thus to a kind of idea of totality). This can also be seen to be lasting given Kant's remarks on perfection in the Metaphysics of Morals.

By contrast, Kant's discussions of freedom in the Collins lectures are obviously at odds with Leibnizian compatibilism but share something different with a Leibnizian approach (though it has to be said Allison does not discuss this as a connection between Kant and Leibniz), namely, a sense that moral action is more "free" than immoral action. Kant's remark on universal practical philosophy in the "Preface" to the Groundwork explicitly states that the approach of this work is not to be confused with that of the "universal practical philosophy", not least because the latter has not isolated the conception of a will determined fully from a priori principles. Starting from this notion of a possible pure will (as Kant does in Groundwork I) differentiates the approach adopted from one that refers to a conception of volition derived largely from psychology. Allison stresses the point made here by Kant about "purity" in order to underline the distinctive method of the Groundwork by contrast to that of "universal practical philosophy". Kant also suggests in the "Preface" that the treatment of obligation in "universal practical philosophy" is insufficient for an ethics to arise.

The second part of Allison's discussion concerns the work of Christian Garve, which is taken to be illustrative of the approach of "popular moral philosophy" and Garve is specifically looked at due to the fact that he provided a translation, with commentary, of Cicero's De Officiis in 1783, a point significant given that Kant apparently had a long-standing interest in Cicero. Further, the importance of the "Garve-Feder" review of the Critique of Pure Reason, a review that led Kant to write the Prolegomena (and, arguably, was important in the revisions of the Critique itself in its second edition) give additional weighty reasons for the focus on Garve. The original version of this review, by Garve alone, also contained some paragraphs responding to the account of morality Kant gave in the Canon section of the Critique. Allison points out that in the Canon Kant assumes that there really are moral laws a priori and that they command absolutely although in this work Kant also excluded moral philosophy from the scope of transcendental philosophy so did not proceed to an investigation of these claims.

Further, the account in the Canon does refer to the notion of the summum bonum that will recur in the Critique of Practical Reason. However, Allison claims that at the time of the composition of the Critique of Pure Reason that Kant was not in possession of the notion of autonomy of the will so that the location of happiness would not have been an evident problem to Kant at the time this work was published. By contrast, in Garve's brief comment on the Canon, the question of the basis in nature for a view of the correlation between happiness and morality is raised as an explicit problem (thus foreshadowing the argument of the Dialectic of the Second Critique). Allison takes the ground for Kant's views about this connection in the Critique of Pure Reason to be quite different from what they became in the Second Critique and suggests Garve's criticism may have been a spur to the development of Kant's thought here.

A second line of thought taken from Garve by Allison concerns the emphasis placed on popularity in his alleged "popular moral philosophy". Kant himself rejected this emphasis as a proper way to approach the beginning of moral philosophy in the Groundwork and as a false way of responding to the critique of metaphysics in the Critique of Pure Reason but the writing of the Prolegomena does suggest a sense of a need for a response to popular criticism of his work. However, it remained Kant's view that scholastic precision and throughness of argumentation could not be replicated in "popular" treatises.

Garve's approach to moral philosophy as illustrated in his translation of Cicero shows a decided emphasis on the importance to him of popularity since he did not assume familiarity on the part of his readers with the Latin text. However, it was not purely such matters that were part of Garve's "popular" approach but also his understanding of philosophical method. The decision to translate De Officiis at all, rather than Cicero's De Finibus, occurs because of a view that the former work is easier in form and that this "popularity" of it is a distinct virtue. Over and above these points, however, Garve approved of the way in which Cicero identified moral goodness with happiness in terms of his analysis of human nature. Indeed, Garve essentially simplifies Cicero's account of virtue since, on Garve's account, there is really only one essential virtue which turns out to be "prudence".

Garve, unlike the advocates of the Wolffian approach, does not advocate a compatibilist view of freedom but essentially gives up on the problems connected to freedom indicating that we should just "live" the aporias felt here. Part of the lesson derived from this is that it would be arrogant to assume we are in possession of virtue since we are not even properly speaking responsible for its production. These points indicate some of the basis for Kant's dismissive view of "popular moral philosophy" as a form of eclecticism and the requirement, by contrast, to develop a clearer moral philosophy that is built more firmly on concepts of rational agents rather than empirical concepts.

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