Sunday, 4 March 2012

Allison and Kant on the Moral Law

My last posting on Allison concluded a series on Chapter 9 of his commentary on the Groundwork, a chapter that raised so many questions it seemed to be necessary to split it between a number of postings. Chapter 9 also culminated Allison's discussion of the second part of the Groundwork. In this posting I am going to address Chapter 10 where Allison begins his discussion of the third section of the Groundwork.

If Groundwork II is particularly significant due to the question of the formulas of the categorical imperative being addressed there, Groundwork III is traditionally taken to have a problematic status due to its account of a "deduction" of the principle of morality and in this chapter part of Allison's task is to discuss what precisely it is that Kant is providing here a deduction of. This turns out to be problematic since it appears that there are at least two differing views concerning this question. The basic question turns out to be whether Kant provides only a deduction of the categorical imperative or whether he also provides one of the "moral law".  Allison distinguishes these two readings terming the view that Kant only provides a deduction of the categorical imperative a "single deduction" reading as opposed to the "double deduction" one that focuses on the moral law as distinct from the categorical imperative and assumes that Kant here provides deductions of both.

Allison himself prefers the "double deduction" reading and rests part of his argument on what he claims to be distinct referents in the text of Groundwork III for the term "deduction". On Allison's reading "the moral law" is the term Kant uses for a descriptive principle which depicts the modus operandi of an agent in abstraction from whatever ends or interests they have in view whilst the categorical imperative, by contrast, is taken to be a prescriptive principle which only applies to certain types of agents (finite or imperfectly rational ones). However there are some problems with this distinction, not least, as Allison himself notes, Kant rarely refers to "the moral law" in the Groundwork although he cites Ak. 4: 449 as evidence that Kant equates it with the principle of the autonomy of the will. This principle is distinguished by Allison from autonomy as a formula of the categorical imperative. 

The second problem is that the textual questions at issue for showing that the distinction is relevant to the description of the overall task of Groundwork III are pretty difficult ones. So Allison cites for example Ak. 4: 444 where Kant speaks of a "synthetic practical proposition" without clearly identifying the proposition in question. On Allison's own reading the passage is ambiguous and capable of being read in two different ways so that Allison's preference for taking it to refer to the moral law doesn't appear very firmly grounded. Indeed Allison himself agrees that: "the obscurity of the text makes any interpretation hazardous". 

Another issue that Allison addresses in this chapter concerns whether "the moral law" is analytic or synthetic. Again the argument here turns on some very fine textual details but Allison's claim that "the moral law" is be taken generically as a synthetic principle is surely correct assuming that "the moral law" is a substantive principle that Kant is affirming. The other point about the suggestion that there is a distinct "deduction" of this "moral law" is, however, as Allison again confesses, that, should it exist, it must be quite different from the "deduction" of the categorical imperative. The reason why it must be different is that the categorical imperative states something that is binding and the deduction of it would aim to establish this bindingness. By contrast, the "moral law" cannot be binding as it does not state an imperative so that the deduction of it would only be a deduction of a "descriptive" law. Should Kant be attempting such a deduction it has to be said it is far from obvious what status it would have for him.

The other topic that Allison addresses in Chapter 10 concerns the relationship asserted there between freedom and autonomy. Allison takes Kant to be arguing in Groundwork III that freedom is not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition for autonomy and that freedom and unconditional practical law imply each other. The general name Allison gives to this claim is the "reciprocity thesis" and he finds Kant's argument for it to reside in a short passage at Ak. 4: 446. Back in the Critique of Pure Reason Kant already presented an argument for a kind of "law of freedom" though he did not there present this law as equivalent to autonomy. However Allison is not convinced that the argument Kant gives for the notion of autonomy as a necessary law of freedom is compelling finding it only a basis for saying that some kind of internal (and thus possibly only contingent) "law" is required. This leads Allison to distinguish between two different senses of "autonomy", namely moral autonomy and free agency in a general (even only contingent) sense. 

Allison uncovers what he takes to be a better argument for the reciprocity thesis in the Critique of Practical Reason, better in the sense that it does not, on his reading, equivocate between two senses of autonomy, though he continues to fault it for having an ambiguous use of "form", moving from the sense of it to indicate abstraction from matter to the quite different sense of "lawgiving". Thus Allison eventually arrives instead at the claim that the real basis for the "reciprocity thesis" asserted in Groundwork III is found not there, nor in the Critique of Practical Reason but instead in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. In the latter work Kant asserts what Allison terms the "incorporation thesis" which requires maxims, in order to be justified, to be self-consciously understood as acts of free agency. The point of invoking this thesis is that the notion of such incorporation requires, on the one hand, that only such agency can be seen as the real source of the maxim and hence rules out appeals to sensuousness as normatively determinative and that it enables the first principle of maxims to be clearly described.

Thus it is not merely the choice that agents are making when they formulate maxims but also the reason for the choice that matters, a point that is central to the understanding of autonomy. Whilst this argument for the reciprocity thesis has some importance, however, it is clearly not sufficient as yet to provide a deduction of the categorical imperative and to that Allison will turn in the next two chapters of his commentary.

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