Thursday, 16 February 2012

Allison and Kant on Autonomy (I)

In my last posting on Allison's commentary on the Groundwork I looked at Chapter 8 which discussed the Formula of Humanity. I'm going to move on now to Chapter 9 where Allison makes a series of inter-related but distinct claims about the uses Kant makes of the Formula of Autonomy but Chapter 9 is, at least thus far, the richest and most intricate chapter of the book so my discussion of this will be over a series of postings, not all in one bite.

Chapter 9 opens with a reiteration of Allison's general view of Groundwork II as providing a complete "construction" of the categorical imperative where the term "construction" is defined by Allison to mean "an account of the necessary and sufficient conditions of its possibility". There are 3 conditions that Allison views Kant as having set for the categorical imperative: firstly, it must have a universal form, secondly, it must presuppose something of absolute value and, thirdly, it must command unconditionally (or be binding). The last of these is related by Allison to the Formula of Autonomy whilst the second element is related by him to the Formula of Humanity. This distinction between the two formulas is one that I expressed some scepticism about last time but in this posting I want to look more narrowly at how Allison discusses the process by which Kant arrives at the statement of the Formula of Autonomy.

This is the subject of the first part of Chapter 9 where Allison broadly discusses what we could term the "derivation" of the Formula of Autonomy. Allison states that this derivation is not a "model of clarity". It is stated at Ak. 4: 431 where Kant derives it from restating the formulas of universal law and humanity and suggesting that autonomy arises from some kind of combination of the first two. Allison addresses here the question of how this derivation is supposed to work, concentrating initially on how Kant refers at Ak. 4: 431 to "humanity" which is in terms of being "the subject of all ends". Allison indicates that this expression is ambiguous as it could refer either to "those for whom ends exist", that is, to end-setters, or to "the objects of those ends", that is, the same end-setters considered as self-standing ends.  The latter seems to me more obvious and is aligned by Allison with the point that the rational agents so considered would set a limiting condition on both the ends set and the means by which I select them.

Turning over to the understanding of universal law, Allison likewise introduces a distinction between two ways of understanding it, namely either in terms of intra- or inter- subjective universalizability. Intra-universalizability is now understood by Allison as a first sense of universalizability with inter-universalizability a second sense. The formula of the law of nature is related by Allison to the first sense but the introduction of rational beings in the Formula of Humanity is viewed by him as leading us to the second sense. It is this second sense that is combined with the notion of humanity discussed in the previous paragraph and taken thereby to lead us to the notion of autonomy.

The principle of autonomy involves the idea that the law is something that one gives to oneself and since it is so viewed some critics of Kant assume that this gives a kind of green light to amoralism. On Allison's construal of the derivation of autonomy this is ruled out since autonomy requires universal legislation limited by reference to respect for ends in themselves. This sense of maxims being adopted out of respect for the law introduces a clear reference to a respect requirement into Allison's account.

Kant also provides a reason for thinking that the Formula of Autonomy rules out dependence of maxims referring to "interest" as, in being autonomous, the will that wills the law becomes a "supreme lawgiver" (Ak. 4: 432). This point is indicated by Allison to depend on the sense that the universality of the maxims in question is of the second type.

There are three distinct features introduced according to Allison when Kant arrives at the explicit statement of the Formula of Autonomy. Firstly, there is another formula of the categorical imperative, and this formula gives us the newly expanded notion of universality. Secondly, we thereby learn something new about willing morally. Finally, it leads us to the concluding stage of Kant's account of rational agency in Groundwork II. Included in the last point is the connection Kant appears to draw between autonomy and the realm of ends. It seems that to consider oneself autonomously is of a piece with viewing oneself as part of a realm of ends where this realm is understood by Allison to mean "a systematic unification in which the members are ends in themselves".

The "ends" in question are not "private" ends in their content or, as Allison puts it, "it does not assume that they have any such ends in particular". This way of understanding the realm of ends draws Kant very close to the Rawlsian understanding of the original position and Allison clearly acknowledges this without drawing any serious consequences for what this might say about the process of "constructing" the categorical imperative, something about which Rawls had quite a bit to say. Allison does, however, distinguish two ways of belonging to the realm of ends, as ordinary members of it on the one hand and the supreme head of it on the other. The difference between these is whilst both make the laws of the realm of ends in the sense of legislating them, only the ordinary members are also subject to them by which he means that the supreme head is not subject to any constraint as it is "a fully independent being".

The opening part of Chapter 9 thus includes a rather weak account of the derivation of the Formula of Autonomy patently largely meant to justify the general claim that it is a formula distinct from that of humanity without addressing the questions raised in my previous posting. After this point has been made Allison effectively draws on a Rawlsian notion of construction without clarifying the consequences of this or exploring it seriously. So the opening moves of the chapter have some philosophical problems but, in making the case that he does, Allison does draw out well that the binding character of the law is connected to autonomy and this is a key point.

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