Sunday, 8 April 2012

Tom Sorell and Kant on the Good Will

It's a little while since I last blogged about the role of the "good will" in the first part of Kant's Groundwork, the subject of which has provoked quite different responses from Richard Henson and Barbara Herman. However, Tom Sorell in a piece published in this collection, has offered a reply to both their pieces that articulates an interestingly different view of the good will and in this posting I'm going to summarise and partially amplify his general argument.

As with the other pieces reflecting on the use Kant makes of the notion of the "good will", so also in Sorell's case the principal question concerning it is to do with the view of "moral worth" Kant is canvassing in Groundwork I. Is it Kant's claim that moral worth owes nothing to benevolent feelings or, as we more colloquially might put it, to our "good nature"? This appears to be Kant's claim and it is, I venture to suggest, a quite radical view in some respects though, and this is the interest of Sorell's piece, it might nonetheless be a view that is founded on moral intuition (or "common sense" claims about morality). If the latter can be justified then it might turn out that the implications of ordinary morality are not entirely equivalent to how we often represent them to ourselves.

The first reason that Kant (and Sorell) provide for the claim that there is a lack of equivalence between the notion of the "good will" and the general idea of "good dispositions" is to the effect that there is only an "accidental" correlation between these notions. This claim appears to run up against the intuitive suggestion that someone who acts, for example, in a spontaneously kindly way, is more morally attractive than someone who rather has to deliberate to arrive at the right act to perform. It was due to the apparent conflict between the Kantian view and the alleged intuitive appeal of the spontaneous character that Henson and Herman presented rival accounts of the "good will". Henson distinguished the account given in the Groundwork (which he termed a "battle citation" model) from that given in the Metaphysics of Morals (which was a "fitness model") suggesting that whilst the former presents rightness in terms of conflicts of motives that the latter, rather, instead simply takes duty to be one motive amongst others so long as it could have brought about the right action on its own. Herman, by contrast, doubted that there really were two models of right action in Kant.

Whilst Sorell intends to reply to the dispute between Henson and Herman he also indicates his view of what is going on with the "good will" in Kant will turn out to provide us with a "simpler" view of how "good will" is to be understood. Henson raised the question of whether a right act can be backed by both moral and non-moral motives, a question that can also be framed as one concerned with the "overdetermination" of right action. However, neither Henson nor Herman take Kant to have himself offered a view on overdetermination and Sorell disagrees with them both on this point. It is clearly stated in the general introduction to the Metaphysics of Morals that juridical legislation "admits another motive than the idea of duty itself" and, indeed, the motive that therefore leads me not to commit an act that is contrary to duty may itself have no moral worth (in Kant's claimed equivalence of moral worth with actions that follow from possession of a "good will"). Kant also has a very complicated picture of promising which is presented as implying a juridical duty even though often it is not susceptible to external coercive enforcement. The latter point is used by Sorell to show that Kant does consider the case of overdetermination.

The reason to take promise keeping as so overdetermined is that the thought of duty alone is sufficient, on Kant's account, to lead one to act so as to fulfil this command even though it is also often a command that can be enforced coercively (which latter gives us an incentive to act rightly). When something is represented as a duty subjectively then it is also taken to be something we should, of necessity, do. As Kant puts this point, there are different "modes" of obligation involved here. However, inasmuch as what we are interested in is merely ethics alone, there is no ground for even considering any mode of obligation other than that commanded by duty so, whilst Kant appears to indicate that overdetermination is capable of being at work, he also suggests that such overdetermination is of no interest to someone with a "good will" since this person will simply act in accord with the thought of duty alone.

This argument - drawn from the introduction to the Metaphysics of Morals - is supplemented by Sorell by considerations drawn from the Groundwork. These latter involve the claim, made at Ak. 4: 400, that action done from duty excludes the influence of inclination. Henson raised the question of whether the presence of a co-operating inclination is something that is thereby ethically excluded on the grounds that it would appear that intuition permits this. Now, addressing this exact point, Herman argued that this would open up dutiful actions to the problem of including something that would only align in a fortuitous way with the demand of duty. This point does appear to be emphasised by Kant both at Ak. 4: 390 and at Ak. 4: 398. How Herman sees this point is, however, different from the argument Sorell wishes to present as Kant's. Herman takes it that a disposition to help, for example, might lead to helping someone who is in the process of performing an act that is not morally commendable. So the difficultly with reliance on inclination on Herman's view appears to be that inclinations are "indiscriminate" in their orientation. But this is not the way Sorell suggests we should view Kant's argument. Rather, on Sorell's interpretation, the point is instead that inclinations violate what he terms Kant's "no accident" principle.

To see the difference between Sorell and Herman here it is useful to understand what follows from the claim that it should be "no accident" that the right act is performed. Well, for Herman, it is sufficient that a right act not only meet the requirement that it not depend on "accidental circumstances" but also that "failure in different circumstances does not require denial of moral worth". So there are two different senses of "accidental circumstance" for Herman. Sorell, by contrast, denies that Kant could have accepted the second of Herman's senses of "accidental circumstance". A will viewed in this way is one that is open to conditional rightness and this appears to contravene Kant's requirement that the good will be a will that is good in an unconditional sense. However, when this difference between Herman's and Sorell's reading comes out this way it appears that Sorell's reading reinforces the suggestion, to which Henson's original argument was meant to reply, that there is something about Kant's requirements that is seriously in conflict with moral intuition. Now it appears that the conflict concerns the point that Kant appears to want it not to be accidental ever that the right act is performed whereas "common sense" would appear to be satisfied, like Herman, with the lesser requirement that what is actually willed is right even though, given appropriate variational difference, it could have turned out to be wrong.

Now that we have arrived at this difference between Herman's and Sorell's accounts it becomes clearer that the "no accident" principle in the latter's sense would appear to be the source of the alleged conflict between the unconditionality of duty and the presumed attractiveness of spontaneous good character. In order to see the connection between the "no accident" principle and this claimed conflict it is useful to follow Sorell in looking again at the "natural dialectic" with which Kant concludes Groundwork I. In this "natural dialectic" Kant discusses the contrary pulls of duty and inclination summarising the latter as providing a basis for scepticism concerning the purity and strictness of morals (what Henson termed Kant's "battle citation" model). The point Kant has in view in evoking this "natural dialectic" is to present the commands of moral requirements as inescapable or unconditional. Now the point about responding to the view that alleges spontaneous good character is more attractive in the manner of Henson's alleged later "fitness" model is that it is meant to show that inclination need not be seen as a barrier to this unconditional nature of duty. However the "no accident" principle shows that this unconditional character of duty is not restricted and this appears to cut against any argument that allows "moral worth" to even partially reside in the presence of good inclinations.

Now it is obviously part of Kant's general case that we can detach ourselves from that which we are inclined towards. This is part of the way Kant resists "naturalism" in the sense of arguing that there is nothing about our sensuousness as such that can be morally determinative when it comes to the pure command of duty. This is underscored by Kant's claim at Ak. 4: 410-11 that reason influence us more powerfully than the inclinations. However, as Sorell points out, this brings Kant into apparent conflict with a picture like the one many derive from Aristotle in which the cultivation of the virtues through habitual learning will co-ordinate perception and appetite in such a way as to make right action the general outcome. The "Aristotelian" picture is not without problems of its own though since, as follows from recognition of even Herman's restricted notion of the "no accident" principle, some tend to have less spontaneous direction towards the right than others and would, on this account, therefore tend less towards the right outcome. This would open morality up to the accusation that it sets forth requirements that are in fact ones that some are, due to various types of good fortune, better able to meet than others. Thus circumstantial bad luck would put the good life beyond reach which would seem a poor ground for being responded to with moral opprobrium.

Now, in response to this worry, a worry that Kant can use against the "attractiveness" of the "spontaneous" good character, Kant can and does adopt the view that the type of commendation the "good character" deserves is less moral than aesthetic. The person of "good character" on Kant's view is one who acts in a way that we can term "beautiful" whereas the person who possesses a good will is, rather, one we view as "sublime" in their character. The person with the "good character" of spontaneous type is one who charms us but does not, merely due to this, present us with a check on our view of ourselves. Rather the person of this sort can reinforce a "naturalistic" view of ourselves that leads us to think that if we just leave things alone we will, over time, get the "good character" in question just from habitual observances. By contrast, the "discipline" of reason is based on the sublime authority of the law, an authority that we find we only reluctantly give way to (which is why the person with the "good will" inspires us with respect).

Another way of putting the general point that Sorell has derived from the aesthetic contrast that Kant makes is that the "spontaneous" good character, to be really attractive, is one that we have to think of as one that the one who exhibits it, is responsible for. If the person of "spontaneous" good character really is "naturalistically" good it would follow they were not really a character worthy of commendation for their goodness as this goodness would be purely a lucky possession. Hence, moral intuition agrees with Kant that there have to be internal constraints on good character for it really to be good. Should the character be just an outflow of a "good nature" it would not be one that was really worth commending for its morality since it would not be expressive of a moral character. So we need a "good will behind a good nature" in order to show moral respect. So if there are good inclinations in the person of good will they cannot be what is generically causally the basis of their good acts as otherwise there is nothing there that is worthy of our moral commendation. From which it follows that Kant's thesis is perhaps not, after all, out of accord with common sense morality and thus that the latter might not, despite appearances to the contrary, favour "spontaneous" good character.

No comments: