Sunday, 20 November 2011

Richard Henson and Kant on Moral Worth

I have posted a number of pieces recently concerned with how different commentators have responded to the argument of the first part of the Groundwork, including, most recently, Christine Korsgaard's account of its argument. However, what I have not addressed thus far in the postings given over to this topic, have been the contributions in the secondary literature that have focused specific attention to the topic of "moral worth", something that is worth some detailed attention as the literature on this topic has, in recent years, rather grown. As one of the first pieces devoted specifically to discussing moral worth was by Richard Henson I will, in this piece, seek to retrace the main points of Henson's argument in order that the subsequent responses to it can be given separate consideration in later postings.

Henson's article is meant to focus on the question of what is involved in attribution of "moral worth" to an action given Kant's statements and the statement analysed in particular in Henson's article is in the first section of the Groundwork. It is worth adding, however, that Henson also emphasises the notion that moral motivation can be "overdetermined" as it may involve a mixture of inclinations and determining reasons. In relation to the maxim being taken to be a moral one Henson also points out that it is not sufficient that it pass the universalisation test (although it is necessary that it does so) but failure to carry out the action should also be wrong. However, the key point for Henson doesn't concern duty itself but rather "moral worth" and the suggestion that an act "only" has such worth if it is done from duty. Finally, for the purposes of introduction of Henson's argument, the suggestion that moral worth attaches only to actions done from duty, is taken by him only to feature as an argument in the Groundwork and not to be part of the argument of the Doctrine of Virtue, not least because, in the latter work, we have a distinct class of "duties of virtue" which are simply not performed at all unless done from duty.

The key passage from the Groundwork on which Henson builds so much is the one concerning the "friend to mankind" who has been overcome by some sorrow such that they are no longer capable of possessing an inclination to do a good act but manage to tear themselves "out of this dead insensibility" and perform the required act "without any inclination" and then have performed an act which has "genuine moral worth" (Ak. 4: 398). Having cited this passage Henson questions its import on two levels, asking both (A) what it means to ascribe moral worth to an act and (B) under what circumstances we are to say that someone has acted from duty. The first question concerning the ascription of moral worth is one that is presented as having two possible answers, either (a) that the person at the time of performing the action was in a "fit moral condition" or (b) that the person at the time acted in such a way that we feel they won a significant battle against evil.

The second question (B), by contrast, concerns overdetermination of acts given that it is often the case that one may well have many distinct motives for performing a given act. Henson argues that Kant gives no direct answer to this second question but that he could have given one of three possible answers to it: 1) reverence for duty was present and would be enough without anything further; 2) other inclinations were present and show the act was not  done from duty; 3) both could be present but this does not show, in any given case, on which motive the agent was acting. Henson effectively rules out 3) (despite giving it some supporting grounds) in order to argue between 1) and 2) and argues that the example given at Ak 4: 398 tells in favour of 2) and thus to support the view that it is only when one acts without any supporting inclination that one is acting from duty.

Henson does concede, however, that many would be tempted to deny that Kant adopts 2) as the right answer to B) simply because it seems to leave him open to the view of Schiller to the effect that he is endorsing the suggestion that having pleasure in doing duty is itself "wrong", an odd and counter-intuitive result and one that most Kantians have always been concerned to reject. 

In order to respond to this putative objection to his account Henson rolls together his responses to A) and B) now in order to articulate what he takes the full Kantian reply to be to the question of what it means to say that a dutiful act has moral worth and he states that the choice is between one of two answers: i) provided respect for duty was present then it doesn't matter whether or not there were other motives; ii) only if respect for duty was the sole motive was there moral worth in the act performed. Now this full response also relates back to the alternative answers given to question A) since the  fitness report model (a) would coincide with i) whereas the battle model would require ii). 

Now, having stated these points Henson returns to the putative objection from Schiller and points out that it counts as such only if Kant agrees c) that the presence of inclinations defeats the attribution of moral worth and d) it is a moral defect not to perform actions which require moral worth. Both conditions are required for Schiller's response to the Kantian account to be the right one since the failure of c) would ensure that the presence of inclinations had no effect on the award of moral worth to an action whereas the failure of d) would show that it was not necessary to put oneself in positions where it is was required to act from duty. (So there would not be a duty to act from duty.)

Assuming that Henson's earlier argument was accepted it would follow that part of Schiller's condition was fulfilled since c) would hold and the presence of inclinations would have an effect on the award of moral worth to an action but this does not, by itself, entail that d) also has to hold. This means that the battle that could be won in overcoming evil is not one that we would necessarily encourage people to undertake. A reason for adopting this view, according to Henson, is that the argument of the Groundwork does not lead to the conclusion that we have to perform acts that have moral worth (or even, he says, that we "ought" to). The reason for this is that the situation that requires moral worth is not one that we should wish to be placed in and nor is it one that we have a duty to find ourselves in. A supporting argument for this view is the suggestion made at Ak. 4: 428 concerning the wish to be free from inclinations which Henson takes merely to require that we be free of inclinations which would hinder us from performing our duties not of inclinations per se (which takes part of the sting out of Schiller's attack).

The final part of Henson's argument turns on his view of the case in the Doctrine of Virtue since the duties of virtue require, he states, that we adopt the end in question and if we lacked it we would not have performed the said duties at all. On this model it does become the case that it is a moral defect to fail to perform acts having moral worth (d) on Schiller's account but not evidently a problem that there be cooperating inclinations. So neither the Doctrine of Virtue account nor that of the Groundwork satisfies both conditions of Schiller's gibe though each work possesses one of the conditions of meeting it. This does suggest that the works are inconsistent with each other on Henson's view but he argues the reason for this inconsistency is that Kant failed to pay sufficient attention to the question of overdetermination of actions. 

Having set Henson's argument out in detail I will, in future postings on moral worth, review some of the responses to it that have appeared in the secondary literature but will link back to this posting when I do so in order that the replies can be evaluated in terms of how well they have depicted Henson's original argument.


desertdew said...

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Gary Banham said...

No problem: by the way, you left this comment four times, hope you don't mind I only posted it once!