Sunday, 20 November 2011

Barbara Herman and Kant on Moral Worth

In my previous posting I looked at Richard Henson's article on Kant and moral worth and reported the basis of his conclusion that we may not have a duty to perform actions that have moral worth. The point of Henson's argument was to take the sting out of the view, as reported in part of the Groundwork, that there is a sense in which the presence of inclination is apparently sufficient to undermine the moral worth of an action. Henson's argument, whilst ingenious in its way, and certainly influential, has not gone without opposition. In this posting I am going to look at the reply to Henson made by Barbara Herman

Herman opens her piece by indicating that her sense of Henson's achievement consists in the notion that he has managed to salvage Kant's view by indicating two distinct views of moral worth in Kant's texts and that only one of these requires the view that the presence of inclinations undermines the moral worth of an action. The view that cuts against this conception, on Herman's account, is the fitness-report model of moral worth but this view is not, on Henson's report, the model of moral worth that Kant adopts in the Groundwork.  Henson appears to view the Groundwork account as requiring that respect for duty be present if an act is to have moral worth (and this is what he terms a "battle-citation" view). In responding to Henson, Herman's first move is to return to the text of the Groundwork to see if it supports the account that Henson has given.

Henson's interpretation of the Groundwork is based largely on the account of the sympathetic man (or "friend of mankind") mentioned in the first part of the work. This person normally does what is right due to finding an inner satisfaction in doing so. However, in extremis, when overcome by sorrow, he finds a ground for doing the right thing despite no longer having any inclination to do so and now for the first time, as Kant puts it, "his action has its genuine moral worth" (Ak. 4: 398). Henson generalises from this case to the position that there is a basic problem with inclination in the Groundwork which produces his "battle-citation" conception of moral worth. 

Herman, however, in returning to the text of the Groundwork, goes back prior to the invocation of this example by Kant in order to look at the wider context of the discussion in the first section of the work within which this example occurs. The first part of the Groundwork is evidently concerned with the conception of the good will and after the concept of duty has  introduced "certain subjective limitations" on the good will we arrive at the discussion of moral worth and the examples of acting for the sake of duty. This suggests, says Herman, that moral worth is part of an account of what it is that is involved in the good will. Now, the key to the good will, as appears from its connection to duty, concerns the motive involved in performing a dutiful act. The important thing, however, is that the motivation here considered is one in which acting dutifully means acting for the sake of duty rather than for the sake of something else.

This limitation on dutiful acts is undertaken in order to contrast such a form of motivation from ones in which dutiful acts are undertaken for some other end with the example of a dutiful act undertaken for self-seeking ends (as in the case of the shopkeeper) and due to immediate inclination (in the case of the "friend of man") brought in as contrastive to the action undertaken for the sake of duty alone. In the shopkeeper example it is evident that acting honestly is undertaken instrumentally and hence need not apply in all circumstances. Now this problem with the maxim of the shopkeeper does not obviously apply to the philanthropist who is generally disposed to act in ways that do accord with duty. Whilst the philanthropist has not adopted the right maxim instrumentally, however, it is still true, Kant suggests, that there is only a contingent connection between the ground of their maxims and right action and it lacks, he says, "moral content". In other words, the philanthropist is essentially indifferent to morality. 

Looked at in general terms, Herman argues, Kant's discussion of the examples is not intended to give an overall account of moral worth. But what it does do is show us a problem with dutiful actions being performed for motives that are not themselves dutiful. The key point then would not concern inclination ultimately (as it does for Henson) but, instead, an understanding of what is involved in moral motivation which is, for Herman, the claim that a moral motive, to be truly said to exist, has to give the agent adopting it an interest in the rightness of their actions. So the problem with Henson's account of "overdetermination" of motives really concerns whether such motives involve attention being directed to such rightness as, if they do not, their connection to the rightness of actions remains only contingent. To be sure that an action has moral worth we thus need a non-contingent (or necessary) relation between the motive of the agent and the duty that the action would manifest.

Once things are put in this way Herman can move to complicate the details of Henson's original picture which she does by considering two models of her own of moral worth. On the first account the fitness-report model of moral worth that Henson argues is articulated in the Groundwork requires to be understood through a notion of "greater strength". What this involves is that an action would be judged only to have moral worth if the moral motive was sufficiently strong to prevail over other inclinations regardless of whether they cooperation or conflicted with the moral motive. The battle-citation model is only different in the sense that it has here been specified that the moral motive has won out. In other words, on Herman's account, it becomes implausible to view Kant as having adopted different models of moral worth in the Groundwork and the Doctrine of Virtue as Henson argued. However the problem with this first account is that since it really collapses the two views of moral worth into one by upholding the battle-citation model that it seems to require that moral worth be understood as the same as moral virtue. 

On the alternative reading Herman requires that the moral motive be the one on which the agent acted and that the configuration of motives be one that is reliable in its outcome. The reliability of outcome seems to be guaranteed not by an appeal to "strength" (which perhaps was still a contingent measure) but by the direct invocation of the moral motive as the ground of the action so that an action with moral worth was produced. The stress here seems to fall on the action rather than the agent as the general structure of the agent's character is what is meant by virtue. The disambiguation that Herman has carried out in distinguishing this second alternative from the first thus consisted in seeing the appeal to the ground of the maxim as crucial to the given action rather than taking it to represent a permanent alteration in the structure of the agent's willing.

Herman's account of dutiful actions thus indicates the nature of the appeal to the moral motive as the assessment of the moral worth of the action undertaken. The motives provide what she calls "limiting conditions" on what we can do for other motives than the moral one. The key is that the moral motive be the effective ground of the action undertaken regardless of the presence or otherwise of other elements. It limits the effective presence of other motivations but is also a ground of appeal when we do act in its own right. 

However Herman's picture becomes more complicated when we note that she speaks of duty being a motive in a primary sense in dutiful actions whilst it is only limitative of the presence of other motives in, for example, merely permissible (but not mandatory) actions. So the role of duty is not always expressive in the primary sense as it can simply act as a means of filtering out immoral temptations. 

Going back to the "friend of humanity" who was important for Henson's original argument, Herman now presents this person in terms of a change of temperament and the point concerns not the kind of view that Schiller endorsed (and towards which Henson's interpretation inevitably drifts) but rather that this case has broken the person in question from having only a contingent connection between their willing and an action that can be said to be right. In support of this Herman also cites Kant's discussion of suicide in Groundwork I in which it becomes clear that it is not normally morally worthy that we avoid it but it becomes so when we are robbed of the normal reasons inclination provides us with not to wish for it. Inclination alone provides us with nothing that has moral worth as it gives no reason to act morally. So the appeal to being free of inclination in order for an act to have moral worth concerns, as Herman concludes by arguing, a situation of independence from circumstances and it is that which we have when inclination ceases to be the ground on which we act.

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