Friday, 9 December 2011

Allison, Kant, and the Good Will

It's been a little while since my last posting on Henry Allison's book on the Groundwork. In that posting I addressed some of Allison's remarks on Kant's relationship to the previous traditions of moral philosophy. The discussion of that relationship closed the first part of Allison's book and the second part is concentrated entirely on the interpretation of the first part of the Groundwork. The second part consists of three chapters, looking at different aspects of the argument of Groundwork I and in this posting I'm going to look at the first of these, Chapter 3, in which Allison concentrates in particular on Kant's discussion of the good will.

Chapter 3 of Allison's book is devoted entirely to the first thirteen paragraphs of Groundwork I which deal with the topics of the good will, Kant's "teleological" argument and a discussion of acting from duty. Allison's chapter is divided between these topics, beginning with the account of the good will. Kant's account of the good will involves the specific claim that it is the only thing that is good "without limitation" (Ak. 4: 393). Partly this argument is negative, in terms of showing the limitations of other things that might be deemed "good". However, Kant also makes the positive point that the good will possesses the characteristic of having "absolute worth" and Allison follows Allen Wood in taking the "higher worth thesis" to be logically independent of the "good without limitation thesis". To claim that the good will has absolute worth tells one something about the degree of its goodness whilst claiming that it is good without limitation, by contrast, tells one about the kind of goodness it has.

The claim about the good will's absolute character, however, does commit Kant to the view that it is the condition of value of all other goods, according to Allison. This is part of the way Allison makes sense of the distinction Kant makes between what has a "price" and what possesses "dignity" (where the latter is "beyond" all price). In many cases, particularly with regard to pleasure, the claim here is not difficult to see since pleasure is evidently possible with regard to almost anything so in itself it is too indeterminate to hold as a measure of value. This is why Kant talks about being "worthy" of happiness. 

However, Allison is careful to point out that despite claiming that the good will is what is good without limitation that this does not entail that the good will is equivalent to the "complete" good. Allison rather identifies the latter with the "highest good" (though, in so doing, he is failing to note some of the distinctions involved in the discussion of the latter in the Critique of Practical Reason). This argument is not, in any case, made explicit in the discussion of the good will in the Groundwork. It is, though, clear enough that a world in which the good will was capable of having effect would be a morally preferable one to one in which it was not so capable.

The possibility of the good will having an effect is also at work in how Allison understands the goodness of the good will since he determines this to consist not in an occurrent condition but rather in possession of a dispositional trait. In making this claim he follows the hints Kant drops that the good will is to be understood in terms of the possession of a certain kind of character. The character involved would be one of a general orientation towards the moral, based on principles rather than sentiment.

Allison's opening account of the good will is followed by an investigation of the four paragraphs of Groundwork I where Kant refers to teleology and which many commentaries have failed to address. Kant's discussion of this is prefaced by the mention that there could be sceptical doubt about the very possibility of the "good will". In addressing these doubts, on Allison's construal, Kant develops a kind of polemical reply to the views of Christian Garve, to the effect that there is some sense in which nature has provided reason to human beings as part of a superior means of self-preservation. On this view there is something prudentially (and, ultimately, eudaemonistically) good in human possession of reason.

Kant replies to this suggestion with some indications of why reason is far from being able to meet this requirement of also providing those possessed with it the advantages suggested. Not only does reason not make it easier to attain ends of self-preservation, it also complicates matters by multiplying the types of ends we strive after. Allison also mentions a relationship of the discussion in Groundwork I to the account of historical teleology Kant gives in his Idea of Universal History. Both the earlier essay and the Groundwork agree that reason is not something that makes mechanical possession of happiness easier but rather something that replaces the ends of instinct with other types of end. 

The final part of Allison's account concerns Kant's analysis of acting in accordance with duty. Having a good will is not, on Allison's argument, sufficient for one to act from duty. The discussion of the relationship between acting from duty and moral worth is a controversial matter, however, as some of the recent postings on this blog attest to. Allison analyses five paragraphs of Groundwork I in terms of how they relate to these questions.

Here are included some of Kant's famous examples, including that of the shopkeeper who does the right thing, not because it is right, but purely from prudential interests. Kant also here considers cases of doing the right thing from inclination rather than from duty and Allison points out that there is an important similarity between acting in such a way and acting purely prudentially since, in both cases, the action that accords with duty is not undertaken for its own sake. The difference between them, however, is that those who have a sympathetic disposition that leads them, in some almost immediate sense, to do the right thing, do deserve a kind of moral praise that the merely prudential behaviour does not merit. This does not, however, mean that such behaviour is equivalent to that which has true moral worth, not least because the inclination is quite capable of simply leading to beneficent actions that in fact could even conflict with morality. Kant does, though, still mark an important difference between such attitudes given that he is capable of arguing, as he does in the Doctrine of Virtue, that there is an indirect duty to cultivate sympathetic feelings.

The case of the person who loses their sympathetic inclination and yet nonetheless does the right thing is, by contrast, meant to draw out the true source of moral worth is not resident in the immediacy of sympathetic inclination but rather in a relation to duty. Whilst Allison's view of these examples has a character that is more sympathetic towards them than some others it is also clear that his account is foreshortened and fails to address some of the problems others have raised. Further, the discussion in Chapter 3 is essentially introductory of Allison's response to the argument of Groundwork I and there are two more chapters devoted to its argument. Subsequent postings on Allison's book will look at these later chapters, which will enable a more considered view of Allison's account of moral worth to be evaluated.

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