Sunday, 11 December 2011

Allison and Kant on Maxims and Moral Worth

In my last posting on Allison I discussed his initial account of the "good will" in Chapter 3 of his commentary on the Groundwork. In this posting I am moving on to an account of Chapter 4 of the commentary where Allison talks about 2 topics, the Kantian account of maxims on the one hand, and the dispute over the meaning Kant gives to "moral worth", on the other. The latter discussion expands upon some of the remarks about duty with which Chapter 3 closed.

The first part of the discussion in Chapter 4 on maxims opens with an examination of the two definitions Kant gives of the term "maxim" in the Groundwork. Key to these definitions is the view that "maxims" are "subjective" principles. Allison subsequently points that, in the Critique of Practical Reason (Ak. 5: 79), Kant also states that maxims presuppose interests and that interests rest on incentives. Further, in the Critique of Practical Reason, "incentives" are presented as subjective determining grounds of the will whilst an interest is defined there as "an incentive of the will insofar as it is represented by reason" (Ak. 5: 79). 

Maxims are ways of thinking and there can be a general orientation of the will that indicates its disposition to adopt maxims of certain sorts. They are the proper objects of moral deliberation and assessment and are related by Allison to a view of how deliberation takes place on a Kantian view. The generic account of deliberation includes a distinction between different forms of consciousness and self-consciousness but the key thing about these is that, in terms of practical deliberation, maxims are part of the spontaneity of an agent. When there is reflexive awareness of maxims then they become taken as guides for action.

Allison distinguishes three functions of maxims. Their first function is in moral deliberation where we examine maxims which requires their explicit formulation. By contrast, in moral assessment, we have to respond to the problem of Kant's account of the opacity of motivation. Allison argues, however, that Kant highlights such opacity only at the level of determination of the purity of motivation. Even spur of the moment decisions are choices made by agents and involve rational commitments. This point leads to the third level of discussion of maxims, which concerns their relationship to rational agency. What is crucial, on Allison's account, is that Kant's theory of rational agency requires that intentional action refer to some maxim even without requiring that there always be complete certainty about the nature of the maxim in question.

After going through the account of maxims, Allison turns to the objections that have been made to Kant's view of moral worth. One of the objections has concerned the relationship between duty and sentiment, in the name of more sentiment-based views. More radically, some argue that emphasis on duty is alienating (as Bernard Williams appears to have thought), a view that refers back to the traditional Schiller objection to the argument of Groundwork I. Allison mentions a number of possible responses to these objections, and, in particular, the more radical of them. The first response referred to is the one that was made by Paton and emphasised the view that Kant is practicing a "method of isolation" in the argument of Groundwork I. This argument has been taken further by Barbara Herman who takes Kant to be making not a general point about inclination but only a specific point concerning the alteration of the attitude of one person (as in the case about the sympathetic person who acts eventually only from duty). However, as Allison states, it is far from obvious that this is a sufficient reply to the Schillerian objection.

The second reply to objections given is the one formulated by Richard Henson and discussed in some detail here. Henson argues for a view he terms the "fitness report" model of moral worth in which the enjoyment of duty does not lessen its moral worth as long as the sense of duty is also present but this view is taken by Henson not to be the representative one given in the Groundwork where, instead, he found there to be a 'battle citation' model given which is essentially close to the argument that Schiller objected to. Not only is this so but, Allison argues, Henson's positive model reflects an empiricist view of agency.

By contrast to these two responses, Allison gives a third one in considerably more detail. This is the view argued for by Allen Wood which distinguishes acting from duty from possession of a "good will". Allison objects to the suggestion that someone with aversion or apathy to moral demands could be said to have a good will though this is in accord with Wood's own statements. However, unlike Wood, Allison stresses the need for self-constraint in following one's duty as there is always some temptation to act contrary to duty. Wood is also accused by Allison of failing to note the difference between taking duty to be a direct motivating factor and seeing it instead as an underlying commitment to do what morality requires. For Allison a maxim's moral content is evidently part of the maxim which leads him to the view that adoption of a good maxim is a reflection of possession of a good character. 

Allison's positive view of moral worth appeals to his conception of the "incorporation thesis", a thesis he famously located in a passage from Kant's Religion (Ak. 6: 24). On this view it is not the case that an incentive or desire can of itself provide us with a reason for action as such a reason is only given if the incentive or desire is incorporated into our maxim. Unlike with Henson's conception of overdetermination, Allison's view of the incorporation thesis does not take the will to be determined but it does involve seeing it as having determining grounds. When one adopts a maxim one also incorporates an incentive into one's reasons on this view. So you can act with inclination but from duty. However, as the previous chapter ended without a full enough view of moral worth emerging so this chapter ends without a full enough view of the incorporation thesis emerging and Allison promises to return to giving a fuller account of the latter later in the work.

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