Friday, 23 December 2011

Allison and Kant on Rational Agency

In my last posting on Allison's commentary on the Groundwork I looked at Chapter 5 which was a loose collection of material roughly relating to the concluding sections of Groundwork I. In this posting I am going to look at Chapter 6 which, conversely, is more tightly focused but is somewhat preparatory to a serious focus on the argument of Groundwork II.

In this chapter Allison is looking at Kant's account of rational agency and how it relates to his description of imperatives. One of the problems that Allison has posed insistently since the opening of his commentary concerns why Kant's argument did not move simply from the discussion of common moral cognition in Groundwork I to the "deduction" of the categorical imperative in Groundwork III? The basic reason that this chapter opens with is that Kant needs to establish the absolute necessity of the supreme principle of morality and that this is the central task of Groundwork II. However there is also a second question about Groundwork II that concerns its internal structure and the apparent multiplicity of formulas of law that it gives. Like Paul Guyer, with whom he otherwise differs, Allison takes the view that the formulas are parts of a progressive description that Kant is giving in Groundwork II, the description, according to Allison, of the concept of finite rational agency.

The account of rational agency opens, according to Allison, at Ak. 4: 412 where Kant speaks of how only rational beings have the capacity to act according to the representation of laws as opposed to simply acting on these laws themselves. What kind of law is this? Allison considers the argument that it is a moral law and adduces two factors in support of such a view: firstly, Kant describes only the categorical imperative (among practical principles) as a law and, secondly, since maxims are freely adopted by agents this has the virtue of placing freedom at the heart of Kant's account. However Allison decides against this reading and prefers the view that what is meant by "law" here is, rather, objective practical principles (both moral and instrumental). 

The key point about the reference to laws in rational agency is, however, that it introduces the notion of the "will". Objective principles as necessitating for wills are commands of reason and the formula of their commands is an imperative (Ak. 4: 413). Once we have this notion of an imperative we can divide the genus of this idea into its sub-species of hypothetical and categorical. To command categorically is to command independently of any given end. 

Allison reviews the contrast Kant draws between two forms of hypothetical imperative in the Groundwork, distinguishing, as he does there, between imperatives of skill and pragmatic imperatives. Further Allison states that hypothetical imperatives are all grounded in an analytic principle with regard to willing, a principle stated by Kant at Ak. 4: 417: "Whoever wills the end, also wills (insofar as reason has decisive influence on his action) the means that are indispensably necessary to it that are in his power". This statement is described by Allison as the "grounding principle" (GP) of hypothetical imperatives but it is notable that it does not contain any sense of inclusion of an "ought". 

Two conditions are introduced on the apparently analytic statement GP by Kant which are that the agent must have knowledge that the end in question could not be attained apart from a given course of action and that the agent must fully or completely will the end in question. As Allison points out, the second of these conditions is important given that it is all too common for agents not to fully will to attain a given end. On the basis of these further conditions Allison fills out the "grounding principle" of hypothetical imperatives further than Kant explicitly did and arrives at what he terms GP1. This has the form: "If A fully wills E and knows that M is indispensably necessary for E and M is in its power, then A will M". 

However there is still a problem with how we move from GP1 to the statement of the hypothetical imperative given that the latter contains an ought-operator and the former does not. Normativity will require some form of prescription which has yet to be stated. As Allison indicates, however, this element of prescription is often not explicitly stated in a law as when a simple traffic law states what one must do, it does not also say that you ought to do what you must do. Ought-propositions are addressed to finite rational agents and such agents also require an understanding of how ends relate to means. If an agent simply thinks an end in relation to means they have a hypothetical connection between the two that stands under the assumption of desiring the end in question. It is the importation of this that brings in the ought-operator.

What Kant takes to be analytic is thus not hypothetical imperatives themselves according to Allison but rather the practical propositions that correspond to them. Since the volition of an agent is presupposed in the statement of a hypothetical imperative and GP1 describes the means of attaining them then this is sufficient to account for the possibility of such imperatives. However, in addition to the generic description of such imperatives Thomas Hill has further argued that there is a general form for all hypothetical imperatives that can be expressed as the Hypothetical Imperative, of which specific imperatives are given examples. It could be taken to abstract from given specific ends in favour of the general way in which instrumental end-setting can be given. Allison rejects this idea though he does so very swiftly without examining the details of Hill's argument and the swiftness of this makes his rejection unconvincing.

Key to the notion of an imperative is constraint so that accounting for an imperative is to describe the grounds of constraint it imposes. With hypothetical imperatives the constraint is comprehended in relation to the end set but categorical imperatives are ones that command, in their unconditionality, move beyond this type of constraint. The necessitation of such categorical imperatives is not grounded in any given volition. However the generic possibility of categorical imperatives is not the province of the argument of Groundwork II but, instead, of Groundwork III.

Given this point Allison moves instead to looking at the derivation of the categorical imperative that is carried out in Groundwork II which culminates in the statement of its formula at Ak. 4: 420-21 and which is glossed in terms of an ought-operator that refers to consistency of maxims in relation to universal law. In the Groundwork I argument the universal law formula was grounded on the relation of imperatives to the good will and the conformity of imperatives to the good will was a sufficient reason for rejecting anything that failed to conform to universal law. The content of the law was filled by reference to the pre-given maxim's of the agent.

In Groundwork II, by contrast, the derivation of the categorical imperative is argued by Allison to follow from analysis of the concept of an imperative with the law being the source of the constraint on volition that must be operative in an imperative. The necessity that is built into the imperative is also assumed to be grounded on the reference to law in general and determinate content to be removed from the law. This leaves us with the simple conception of conformity to law as such. However, the general worry with this argument can be said to have the form that, whilst apparently stating something purely formal, it arrives at a principle with content and that the means by which this is done is unclear. Allison's response refers to the unconditionality of the statement of the law as that which provides us with a general possibility of content. Or, it does so "just in case" the agent takes their maxims to be willed also as universal laws. Key to the whole chapter has been the simple statement that rational agents act according to their representation of laws and the demand that an unconditional imperative provide prescriptive force independently of reference to ends. 

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