Thursday, 22 December 2011

Allison, Kant and the Conclusion of *Groundwork* III

In my last posting on Allison I described the argument of his fourth chapter and in this one I am moving on to his fifth chapter. Whereas the fourth chapter had a relatively tight focus on two topics, the nature of maxims, and the characterisation of moral worth, the fifth chapter, by contrast, takes on a range of topics that are really only united in being all addressed in the final sections of the first part of the Groundwork.

The first part of Allison's discussion concerns three propositions that are stated in Groundwork I and the difficulty that the first of these propositions, whilst required, is not directly indicated by Kant with the result that a hermeneutic problem has arisen with regard to it. The "standard" view of it is that this first proposition amounts to the assertion that an action has moral worth if and only if it is performed from duty alone. However, some have called this reading into question since Kant indicates that the third proposition follows from the first two and it is not obvious, if the standard reading is accepted, how this takes place. Allison mentions three different interpretations of what this first proposition consists in prior to giving his own view concerning it.

On the first view, identified with Freudiger, Kant's first proposition states that duty presupposes subjective motivation but this requires that supplementary material also be added in order to make the third proposition follow from the first two so Allison rejects this contention. The second view, identified with Dieter Schonecker, is instead that the first proposition should be read as stating that an action from duty is an action from respect for the moral law. However, Allison rejects this claim on the grounds that it requires reading material into the text at this point that is not introduced until later. Finally Jens Timmermann's proposal is mentioned to the effect that the third proposition should be read as saying that an action that coincides with duty has moral worth if and only if its maxim produces this by necessity. However Allison thinks that this reading requires reference to a principle of non-contingence and that this is far from obviously equivalent to Kant's sense of "necessary".

In contrast to these views Allison argues that Kant's first proposition should be read as stating that a good will under human conditions is one whose maxims have moral content. One of the reasons for adopting this view is that the claim about possession of moral content would give some sense to the questions about non-contingency with which Timmermann was concerned. 

Kant's other two propositions are explicitly stated in Groundwork I and the second is to the effect that actions from duty have their moral worth not in the purpose they aim to achieve but in the maxim according to which they are decided upon. So the moral worth of actions is based on the principle of volition that was at work in willing them, not on the object of their action. This proposition relates back to Kant's earlier argument that the goodness of a good will does not reside in what it accomplishes. 

Kant's third proposition states that duty is the necessity of an action from respect for the law and here Allison takes some trouble unravelling the nature of Kant's appeal to the notion of "respect" arguing that effectively two different notions of "respect" are stated by Kant and occasionally conflated in his treatment. On the one hand, there is the notion of "spectator-respect", a third-person pro-attitude towards persons, whilst, on the other hand, there is "agent-respect", a notion that involves consciousness of standing under the moral law. The long note Kant adds concerning respect at Ak. 4: 401 is also set out by Allison as containing eleven distinct claims. Kant here opens with acknowledgement that the reference to respect might appear obscure but undertakes to indicate reasons for its introduction including the contention that respect is a specific feeling that is not based on sensuous nature but instead on rationality in some sense. What is immediately recognised as a law for oneself is recognised with respect but the normative force of the law is not grounded on sensuous feelings. The feeling of respect is taken, by contrast, to trump all feelings of mere self-love though the argument of the Critique of Practical Reason that it involves direct humiliation is not here stated. The sense of the law as something self-imposed is here intimated in Kant's argument for the first time. Spectator-respect involves marvelling at how someone else is capable of incarnating the law in their conduct.

After outlining the account of respect Allison moves next to Kant's derivation of the moral law in Groundwork I. The representation of the law determines the will in the sense of providing it with a sufficient reason to act apart from any regard for a result. One of the reasons for this is that the will has had removed from its analysis any impulses that could arise from obedience to any particular law. All laws that are based on impulse have specific content that presuppose an end as the basis of their normativity so in excluding them Kant is left with a law that has its normative ground solely in itself.

Allison takes the derivation of the universal law in Groundwork I to be closely connected to the earlier discussion of the concept of a good will. Conformity to the law is a necessary characteristic of such a will. However the law that is stated now specifically builds in a requirement that maxims be willed as universal laws. Bruce Aune has famously objected to the derivation of the universal law on the grounds that Kant simply moves from a general argument for universal law to the specific one involving maxims which Allison presents as a move from a descriptive to a prescriptive principle. Maxims provide content to an otherwise empty notion of conformity to universal law and this is how prescriptivity is introduced into the law according to Allison. This principle enables one to test the permissibility of maxims rather than being, as is often thought, a self-standing generator of duties.

In conclusion Allison looks at Kant's final paragraphs of Groundwork I which concern the apparent "natural dialectic" which common human reason is said to be drawn into when it considers moral questions. This leads Kant to refer to the need for philosophy, a point that contrasts rather vividly with his treatment of dialectical questions in the Critique of Pure Reason which were thought to arise from philosophy. However Allison is unconvinced that a genuine dialectic is introduced here by Kant and, if there is one, it would have to be between empirical and pure practical reason though Kant seems not to take the conflict between these as dialectical.

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