Saturday, 21 January 2012

Allison and Kant on Universal Law

Due to being away traveling in the earlier part of this month it is a little while since I last blogged. My last posting on Allison's book on the Groundwork was about a month previous to this one and concerned chapter 6 where Allison discussed rational agency and the general notion of imperatives. In this posting I will comment on the seventh chapter where Allison gives his account of the two formulas of universal law as they appear in the second part of the Groundwork, and which includes an account of the examples Kant gives there.

The first issue Allison raises in this chapter concerns the claim Kant makes at Ak. 4: 421 that all "imperatives of his duty" can be "derived" from the "single imperative" of universal law that Kant unequivocally identifies with the categorical imperative formula of universal law. The word translated as "derived" is abgeleitet and Allison asks whether Kant here means that the test of the categorical imperative concerns whether all generally recognised duties can be derived from it or whether he has something weaker in mind. Allison also raises a second immediate question concerning Kant's use of the notion of "nature" in the formula of the law of nature and asks what function this reference serves for Kant. 

In addressing this second question Allison turns, unsurprisingly, to the account in the Critique of Practical Reason, of the "typic" of pure practical judgment where Kant gives a general discussion of the notion of practical schematism. Here the notion of natural law is described as serving as a "type" or schema of the general notion of law in the process of formulating imperatives. In the second Critique this leads to the formulation: "Ask yourself whether, if the action you propose were to take place by a law of nature of which you were yourself a part, you could indeed regard it as possible through your will" (Ak. 5: 69). This is indicated to be substantially the same as the formula of the law of nature in the Groundwork by Allison though he does little to use the "typic" to make clear the means by which the formula of the law of nature is justified.

The point that comes out by use of the typic is that actions that cannot meet it are, by virtue of this, morally impossible. However, rather than focus on this point, Allison chooses instead to return to the question of what is meant by the claim that imperatives of duty are "derived" from the reference to the law of nature. This question leads Allison to think of the reference to the law of nature as one that is intended to be "fertile" in the sense that it enables a discussion of how lists of duty are supposedly meant to arise. Despite formulating the alleged task of the reference to the law of nature in this way, however, Allison reaches the conclusion that the most that it can do is indicate the impermissibility of a course of action under a given maxim. In other words, it provides a test of moral permissibility rather than providing for specific determination of duties. 

Allison also defends this reading of what can be accomplished by the reference to the law of nature against other views, principally against the claim of Stephen Engstrom that fundamental duties of justice and beneficence can be directly derived from this reference. Essentially the reason why Allison disagrees with Engstrom appears to be that Allison does not think that the reference to universal laws of nature is sufficient to arrive at a generally acceptable conception of what is rationally universally required. 

In turning to Kant's use of examples, which appear after the formulation of the reference to universal laws of nature, Allison notes some points about Kant's procedure. Amongst other things, it is important on Allison's view to see that the examples include courses of action that run against generally accepted duties. Also the examples are meant to bring out a form of contradiction that will arise in willing the course of action in question. 

The first example is that of suicide but important in considering it is the understanding that the maxim here is one of taking shortening one's life to be acceptable if its longer duration promises more ill than agreeableness. So the maxim is one that rests upon an appeal to inclinations. However Allison takes it that the contradiction that arises from this maxim is a teleological one but also views Kant's argument here as unsuccessful. One of the points that Allison makes here is that there is no way of formulating the argument concerning suicide in terms of a simple reference to universal law simplicter. This seems to entail that Allison views the incorporation of reference to universal laws of nature as requiring some sense of teleology though it is far from clear why this should be so. Indeed, Allison himself accepts that taking a strongly teleological view of nature seems a rather large step in order to show a problem with reference to inclinations in a maxim concerning suicide and yet still thinks that Kant requires this. It appears to me that Allison's treatment of this example is marred in failing to justify the necessity of seeing Kant's treatment of it as having to involve assumptions that are far from evidently required.

Moving on to the example of false promises Kant invokes specific circumstances to make this example a strong one. In the case in question there is a reason why the false promise has a real attraction for the agent which is that they are in clear difficulties. Given these difficulties there is a need for something like the appeal to the device of the typic to test the maxim in question. The maxim then emerges as one in which a promise is to be made that I do not intend to fulfil. It is only within the device of the thought experiment that the problem that such a maxim involves can be clearly stated. It is within the device that a contradiction emerges, not within the maxim simply as such. 

Allison considers the type of contradiction that is meant to emerge from the false promising case, discussing whether it is a strict logical contradiction or, as Christine Korsgaard has suggested, a "practical" contradiction. Whilst the former is suggested to show that the contradiction would render the institution of promising impossible, the latter is rather supposed to show that there is a problem with the end of the agent. Allison favours the latter view though he does not think there is a single form of contradiction underlying all of Kant's examples. In this case, however, Allison's reading leads to the view that it is the "intention qua universal law" that generates a contradiction.

The third example concerning the development of talents is treated by Allison as including two different lines of argument, one that concerns a teleological contradiction and the other a practical contradiction. The former, however, if it is involved at all, is one that runs into difficulties of the same sort that would apply to reading the suicide example in this way. The latter, by contrast, has the difficulty that it could simply amount to a case concerning prudential rather than moral reasoning. The way that Allison avoids the latter is by reference to a conception of "true needs" that are essential to finite rational agency and that would be compromised if talents were not developed. However this leads Allison to reading the third example in a way that is weaker than is standard since it produces the outcome not that we are required to cultivate our talents but only that we not adopt a maxim of completely neglecting them. The fourth example concerning non-beneficence is ruled out by Kant in terms of universal laws of nature but this is again viewed by Allison in terms of "true needs" of finite rational agents. This is again thought to produce a form of practical contradiction in the maxim in question.

After treating Kant's four examples Allison moves on to the decidedly tricky ground of the counter-examples that have been stated in the literature to Kant's account. There are two types of such counter-examples: false positives and false negatives. False positives come in two versions, those based on attributing to an agent a highly specific maxim, on the basis of which a proposed course of action could pass the universalisability test and a second set that don't involve such specific reference. The first type of examples are used in particular by Allen Wood. In these cases the high specificity of the examples is meant to evade the reference to universality. In response to these examples Allison stresses the point that increasing the specificity of the maxim has the consequence of narrowing the scope of universalization without evading the universalizability requirement. The more general problem that such a procedure of false positives is meant to reveal is, however, that actions can be presented under a variety of descriptions and not all of such descriptions exclude universalisation. In response Allison stresses the point that use of such false positives depends on a very specific conception of what "maxims" are, namely, identifying them with intentions or actions rather than general determinations of the basis of conduct.

The second type of false positives, by contrast to the ones based on very specific formulations of maxims, tend to concern what Korsgaard has termed "natural" as opposed to "conventional" actions. Such "natural" actions don't require reference to institutions (such as "promising") and, in not requiring this, are allegedly more open to response by invocation of false positives. So the example of killing babies who disturb one's sleep does not appear to run into an immediate contradiction of either logical or practical type once universalised. The strategies of dealing with these types of example that Allison mentions are not entirely successful as responses. Korsgaard, for example, responds to them by stating that they involve reference to some further end than that immediately suggested by the maxim and that this further end is one that cannot be secured consistently with willing the maxim itself (a kind of "practical" contradiction suggestion). However that requires clear assumptions concerning these further ends and is thus open to the kinds of objections that Allison has mentioned when treating the example of cultivation of talents.

The second strategy in responding to these types of false positives is to invoke the contradiction in the will test rather than the contradiction in conception test. Barbara Herman, for example, favours this response. However, this has the peculiar consequence that the maxim concerning the killing of babies appears now to only violate an imperfect rather than a perfect duty, which is surely false. The third strategy, promoted by Onora O'Neill, is to say that the examples in question presuppose practices that would undercut the agency of those they victimise (which appears to imply some kind of reference to humanity and/or autonomy). Allison takes this strategy to be the best on offer but to be implausible as a reading of the requirements of reference to universal law alone. In making this point Allison argues that the formulas of universal law are only intra-subjective and not inter-subjective. What is meant by this is that the formulas of universal law, on Allison's reading, test only the compatibility of an agent's maxim with the same maxim considered as a universal law whilst an inter-subjective test relates the maxim to its possibility of endorsement by other rational agents. Since Allison views the reference to universal law to only involve the former and not the latter form of universalizability he is correct to see the strategy of O'Neill as not persuasive though the case for seeing the formulas of universal law in this restrictive way is not seriously made in this chapter.

After treating false positives, Allison moves on to false negatives that are used against Kant. These are cases of maxims that would be generally agreed not to be morally objectionable but which, it is argued, would fail Kant's test. They include what Herman terms "timing" problems where we state maxims that include references to doing things at given times (such as playing tennis on occasions when the courts aren't widely used). Again, Allen Wood has invoked many of these cases. As with the false positives the real question being raised by these examples concerns the nature of the description of the maxims that is appropriate. Again, Allison responds by distinguishing maxims from intentions. In the Critique of Practical Reason Kant describes maxims as "propositions that contain a general determination of the will having under it several practical rules" though Allison indicates that the nature of the claim that practical rules fall under a maxim is ambiguous. It is ambiguous as the rules could be seen as deduced from the maxim or that the maxim could be seen as providing the normative criterion for the rules but Allison sees the second as correct.

On this ground Allison revisits the alleged problem with the tennis example and points out that the real question concerns the end for the sake of which the agent is engaging in the activity in question. This accords with his point that we should be focusing not on specific intentions when we consider maxims but instead on general determinations of the will. Maxims are thus viewed as containing grounds that are found in agent's practical interests not in their specific intentions.

However, even on Allison's account there are still some problems left unaccounted for. Assuming with him that maxims are best tested by practical contradiction tests and that universal law formulas are seen in terms of intra-subjective validity, it follows that the example of the killing of the baby that disturbs one's sleep, appears not to be ruled out by reference to universal law. Since this is so it follows that Allison will need a stronger account of Kant's other formulas than he gives for the formulas of universal law if Kant's procedure is to be robust enough to rule out maxims that it would appear clearly counter-intuitive to leave undisturbed.

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