Saturday, 28 January 2012

Allison and Kant on Humanity

In my last posting on Allison I looked at Chapter 7 of his commentary on the Groundwork that addressed Kant's formulas of universal law. In this posting I'm going to look at Chapter 8 where Allison moves on to a discussion of Kant's formula of humanity.

Allison opens the chapter by citing Kant's claim that "the will is a capacity to determine itself to act in conformity with [gemass] the representation of certain laws" and adds to it that what Kant here brings out is that rational beings set their own ends for themselves, a point that refers us forward to Kant's notion of autonomy although Allison, somewhat oddly, fails to draw this consequence. That the concept of moral obligation presupposes an end that is necessary in itself, is, however, something that Allison suggests Kant had a long commitment to, pre-dating even the composition of the Groundwork. However, the ends that are presupposed by the categorical imperative are taken by Allison to be ends only in a negative sense. What this means is that they are ends that are sources of constraint on the acts one can permissibly perform. 

After opening with these claims about ends Allison moves on to more careful distinctions within the Kantian discussion of ends. Firstly, Allison looks at the difference between "objective" and "subjective" ends for Kant aligning objective ends with motives and subjective ends with inclinations. However Allison is also careful to point out that by "objective" ends Kant does not merely mean a source of reasons for action but also ends that are given by pure reason. Any end that is capable of grounding a categorical imperative must, on Allison's view, meet two conditions. It must, firstly, be objective in the sense of being given by pure reason, and, secondly, it must have a self-standing character.

Now the "end" that Kant takes to meet these conditions is that of "humanity" so the key question concerns what the notion of "humanity" consists in for Kant. This question is complicated by the fact that, in different texts, Kant contrasts "humanity" on some occasions with "animality" and on others with "personality". Christine Korsgaard appears to take the relationship between "humanity" and "animality" to be the central one but also to view the distinguishing feature of humanity to consist in a rather minimal capacity, namely, that of purely being able to set ends. By contrast, Allen Wood, who frames the distinction between "humanity" and "personality" as the central one, sees the capacity to set ends "through reason" as what holds together the capacities of humanity. 

However Wood seems to take the reference to "reason" here to mean that Kant frames "humanity" in the Formula of Humanity in a way that involves no specific reference to morality (as fits his view that humanity is primarily a contrastive term with "personality" as the latter clearly does incorporate moral notions in itself). Wood's basic reason appears to be that the categorical imperative requires preserving and respecting rational nature in general, not just its moral function. However, as Allison rightly points out, this is beside the point since the issue is not what the categorical imperative requires but rather in virtue of what capacity "humanity" has the property of being an end in itself. Allison thinks that ambiguity on Kant's point might well have led Wood to adopt this view but it is not one that Allison can accept and his rejection of this view is one that I certainly endorse.

Another view of the "capacity" of humanity that Allison critically discusses is that of Richard Dean who identifies "humanity" with the good will. Dean's point is that Kant's argument leads to the conclusion that something is good in all circumstances only if its value is independent of inclination and that this is how Kant identifies the good will so the good will must be equivalent to the capacity of humanity. Allison regards this claim as based on a conflation of two distinct senses of end, namely "end" as something to be effected and "end" as something self-standing. The good will is an end to be effected (perhaps the ultimate such one) but it is not a self-standing end. 

After canvassing these views, Allison takes instead the claim that Kant is making about humanity to consist in the view that it is the capacity to be moral that is identified by Kant with "humanity" and uses citations from the Critique of Practical Reason to help make this point. The mere capacity to set ends is described by Kant in the Metaphysics of Morals as having only "extrinsic value" (Ak. 6: 434) which appears to rule out Korsgaard's minimal view. However, what is problematic in Allison's identification of humanity with the capacity for morality is surely that it leaves Kant's view as a highly general one (and leaves out reference to what makes this capacity possible, namely, autonomy).

After going through the discussion concerning what the capacity for humanity consists in Allison moves on to looking at Kant's derivation of the formula of humanity which, he alleges, occupies only two paragraphs of the Groundwork. Allison views this derivation as having two steps. The first is that the possibility of a categorical imperative presupposes the existence of something as an end in itself and then gives an argument for elimination concerning what that something must be. The second step is to argue that we have good reasons to regard rational agents as ends in themselves.

The argument for elimination that accompanies the first step rules out objects of inclination, inclinations themselves and what Kant terms "things". Allison's account of the inclinations themselves indicates that we don't have to accept Kant's apparently more extreme views of inclinations to accept this claim. However whilst Allison appears to find Kant's argument by elimination convincing he does not uncover a specific argument for viewing rational beings as the appropriate "something" in the first stage of the argument which is why he turns to the second stage in order to uncover this.

There are three parts to the second stage of Kant's derivation according to Allison. The first part is the claim that human beings necessarily represent their own existence in this way so that it is a subjective principle of action (based on Ak. 4: 429). One of the points Allison stresses in presenting this claim is that when one sets an end, one makes it one's own end. Further, to take oneself as an end is to make the consequential claim that one cannot be regarded as nothing more than a means to some other end. So the unconditioned worth that Kant was after in the "something" lies in the end-setter rather than in any particular end that they set for themselves.

The second part of the argument for Allison moves beyond the "subjective" claim of the first part as it claims that every rational being necessarily represent their existence in this way so that it is an "objective" principle (Ak. 4: 429). Allison views this as making a claim for the objective validity of my conception of myself as an end in itself. Allison takes this to introduce a normative import to the discussion that he did not find present previously though it is unclear to me where he finds this import since he still does not uncover the source of the claim to reside in autonomy. The third part of the derivation for Allison is the translation into imperatival form of the principle that rational nature exists as an end in itself. 

The final part of Allison's chapter turns to looking at Kant's uses of examples of application of the Formula of Humanity in the second part of the Groundwork. Since Allen Wood, amongst others, have argued that the Formula of Humanity has a status that is practically superior to that of the formulas of universal law, this is particularly interesting to do with regard to the Formula of Humanity. The same examples are treated with regard to this formula as were related to the formula of the universal law of nature previously and they are given in the same order.

Kant begins with the example of suicide and asks whether the maxim related to it could subsist together with the idea of humanity as an end in itself (Ak. 4: 429). In denying that these are compatible Kant points out that since human beings are not merely things they cannot be used merely as means, and this mere means requirement of the Formula of Humanity is here mentioned for the first time by Allison. Allison finds the application of this requirement in this case to be unclear since he is not sure what end humanity is here being used for. Further, Allison seems to think it is a reply to this argument of Kant's to say that if the self is the source of all value that it is also the source of its own value, a view that cuts against any serious understanding of autonomy and brings out again his failure in this chapter to consider it.

Allison's positive view is that Kant rules out the maxim underlying the case of suicide considered on the grounds that it involves an authorisation to withdraw from obligation, something that is the source of the "contradiction" Kant finds here and enables Allison to prescind from Kant's own reference to the mere means requirement. However the argument is not filled out by Allison and in leaving out the mere means requirement he seems not to support the positive sense of humanity very clearly here.

The case of false promising, by contrast, is one in which Allison can pull out the sense of the mere means requirement but only by conflating it with what Parfit has termed the "consent" requirement, namely by referring to the ability of the other to endorse the end embodied in the action. The discussion of neglecting one's talents appears not to refer to the mere means requirement to Allison but, given that he has seen the formula of humanity as giving only the basis for saying that certain ends should not be acted against and not a positive ground for any specific ends to be accomplished, he cannot see any basis for Kant's claim that reference to humanity should prevent neglect of talents. At least with regard to non-beneficence Allison's reading does partially work since the reference to ends one should not act against is here sufficient to strike down active non-beneficence but it is insufficient to produce a positive claim for beneficence.

In summary, then, Allison's chapter strikes me as problematic for two different reasons. Firstly, the identification of the capacity for humanity purely with a capacity for morality without identifying what this latter capacity consists in or what grounds it is insufficient. It ensures that the relationship between humanity and autonomy does not become clear. Secondly, and as a consequence of the first problem, Allison can give no persuasive account of the discussion of examples Kant gives in the second part of the Groundwork of the application of the Formula of Humanity. So whilst the discussion of the derivation of the Formula of Humanity is an intriguing addition to the secondary literature there are as many problems with Allison's account of humanity as he finds beset his predecessors views.

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