History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
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Kant Lecture 1

I. Rousseau maintains that ``moral liberty'' is only possible within a consensual civic association. This is because he believes that such self-determination consists in a citizen's guiding herself by laws she prescribes for herself, and the only standpoint available for such legislation is the common standpoint of an actual community through the general will.

Now this imposes some fairly heavy requirements.

(a) For example, it is a condition of the possibility of such a general will's existing that there be a common good, i.e. some determinate truth about what would be rightly seen to be valuable from the common standpoint.

(b) It is a further requirement, that this common good be authoritative. There can be no further standpoint from which one can sensibly question whether one should do what the general will requires. What the general will requires is itself constitutive of what one ought to do, since what one ought to do is constituted by laws (any)one of us would prescribe from that standpoint. There is no further critical standpoint one can take up.

The conjunction of these requirements may be questioned. Can the common interests of any particular community with which one is identified be authoritative for an autonomous agent in the sense that no further standpoint can exist from which one can sensibly raise the question whether one should do as seems best from its point of view? In contemporary life, when one may belong to various overlapping communities of shared value. And where many communities with conflicting shared values contend, we may well be skeptical that any satisfactory form of common life for all, in some widest community composed of such communities, can be based on any very robust conception of shared value without the use of force. [Here we get the liberal idea that we need a way of thinking about principles for a form of association that do not presuppose agreement in conceptions of the good life.]

II. At this point it is natural to turn to Kant. Kant takes from Rousseau both the account of moral obligation as constituted by laws that are self-prescribed and, hence, that the moral life realizes self-determination. [And also Rousseau's idea that human beings have a distinctive dignity that is inconsistent with simply being mastered and used by another.] But, instead of holding that such autonomy is realized in being guided by the general will of a particular community (in which one participates as a member), Kant argues that genuinely moral obligations or imperatives derive from a fundamental principle that is valid for all rational moral agents (and not just this or that particular community), and that they consist in laws or principles that would be prescribed for all from a point of view that is, in principle, available to any rational moral agent as such.

Morality strikes us, he thinks, as universal and categorical. When we conceive of ourselves as under a moral obligation, say, not to lie in some circumstance, we don't conceive of this obligation as arising from anything that could be peculiar to our community all the way down. If we press on our belief, we shall see that we think ourselves to be constrained most fundamentally by something we think applies also to any being capable of guiding her life by a conception of law. [n.b. This does not require that we think that a moral obligation of a given, specific content requires a universal obligation to which all moral agents are subject with that very same content. All Kant has to think is that there is some fundamental principle, to which all moral agents are subject, in which any specific moral obligation applying to a specific agent must be grounded.]

Moreover, again, if we press, we will come to see that our conception of moral obligation is of something which binds us categorically.

III. Kant is famous for the thesis that moral obligations are categorical imperatives. This includes two ideas, different aspects of an emerging modern conception of moral obligation.

(a) First, it includes the idea that moral obligations are morally inescapable; whether one does discharges moral obligations is, morally speaking, nonoptional. It is wrong to fail to do what one is morally obligated to do, whether one wants to do it or not.

(b) Second, it includes the idea that moral obligations are justificationally inescapable. If one is morally obligated to do something, then one has an overriding reason to do it. There can be no adequate justification for doing what is morally wrong.

IV. We can see these two distinguishable elements, and the desire to bring them together, throughout the period we have been studying.

(a) Thus, in Hobbes, we saw two different conceptions of normative constraint, which he tries to connect together: his official notion of obligation (created by transferring a right) and one that is involved in the laws of nature. One of the great dialectical burdens of Leviathan is to show that any ``obligation'''s created by a covenant (normative constraint in the first sense) are such that an agent could not possibly be justified in failing to abide by it; i.e., they also bind as normative constraints in the second sense (argument with ``the Foole''.

(b) Likewise, we find Hutcheson distinguishing two different things that might be meant by ``obligation'': (i) a motive of self-interest ``sufficient to determine all those who duly consider it'', and (ii) an explicitly moral obligation which depends on the approbation and condemnation of moral sense. Again, it is striking that he assumes the burden of arguing that these two will coincide. So a vicious person runs afoul both of his moral obligation and of the obligation of prudence, as we might call it.

(c) Thus also, Hume. Hume simply follows Hutcheson in his distinction, and gives the terms ``moral obligation'' and ``natural obligation'' to the two ideas that Hutcheson had distinguished. And he argues that, at least with respect to justice, we have both a moral and natural obligation to uphold its dictates.

V. Each of these writers distinguishes the two features, and then tries to argue that, as things happen, they roughly coincide. But it is important to appreciate that, for all three, the coincidence of these features depends on circumstances that are, from the agent's point of view, given. They are part of the practical context as he finds it. So, for Hobbes, the coincidence depends on certain facts about human nature and interaction in competitive (Prisoner's Dilemma) situations. For Hutcheson, it depends on a rough coincidence between moral sense, benevolence, and self-love established by God. And for Hume, it depends on facts about human nature and coordinated agreement, similar to, although importantly different from those to which Hobbes alludes.

There is a sense, then, in which the motivation creating the coincidence between moral and ``rational'' obligation, as these thinkers think of it, is heteronomous. It doesn't result from motives internal to the rational will, as such. Reason is, for these writers, simply a faculty for discovering the truth about the world by making inferences from experience. Hence what one will be moved by when one uses reason will depend on a given psychological makeup.

Moreover, the coincidence arises without any essential role being played by the agent's guiding himself by a conception of justification. Self-love moves the agent in the direction of his own interest without any need for him to think that his interests provide him with a reason to act. That is epiphenomenal.

VI. With Butler and Rousseau, matters are very different. The coincidence of moral and ``rational'' obligation is assured, not by something external to autonomous will, but to the fact that the very standpoint from which the agent can make an assessment of what he is justified in doing is the same as that from which he renders moral judgment.

(a) On the ``transcendental'' reading, Butler appears to hold that moral and rational agency presuppose a standpoint from which the agent can reflect on his actual motives and endorse his motives as appropriate for (a person like) him to act on. This standpoint is the principle of reflection: an informed, dispassionate, and disinterested perspective.

(b) Likewise, Rousseau: autonomy is action on self-prescribed law from the standpoint of the general will.

VII Comparing this with Hobbes, Hutcheson, and Hume, two things are striking.

(i) The coincidence between moral obligation and ``rational'' obligation is not conditional on features external to rational judgment and will. The reason I ought to follow my conscience, for Butler, is not that, as the world happens to be structured, I will have a better life if I do, although he thinks that to be true. Rather, it is that nothing could be justified for me at all unless I had a conception of justification, and I can have this only by having a principle of reflection, so justification is therefore internal to what I judge from that standpoint. Similarly for Rousseau, but with appropriate changes for the general will.

(ii) For Butler and Rousseau, the coincidence between moral and ``rational'' obligation is itself realized through the agent's own self-guidance by a conception of justification; that is what plays the critical role.

VIII. Still, there are features of both Butler's and Rousseau's account that may still feel heteronomous. This is most obvious with Butler, since whether an agent makes any particular judgment through his principle of reflection itself depends on his having a given psychological makeup. We won't make any judgments from this point of view unless we have some given responses from it, and Butler thinks this is simply created by God.

With Rousseau things are more complicated. While he doesn't assume given conscientious judgments, and aims to construct these out of the idea of self-prescribed laws, these latter derive from a common interest that is simply given through membership in a particular community.

IX. Kant's account of moral obligations as categorical imperatives is thoroughly in the same tradition as that of Butler and Rousseau, but one way of viewing his thought is as attempting to overcome the heteronomous elements of both of theirs. For Kant aims to show that the moral life involves self-guidance by principles that one would prescribe to oneself (and others) from a standpoint available to one as a creature capable of a conception of justification, and, as such, capable of autonomy.

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