Philosophy 433                                     History of Ethics                                   Darwall                                    Winter 2008




I Rousseauian background  Rousseau maintains that "moral freedom" (autonomy) 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?  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 Kant’s Rousseauian roots  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 Moral obligations as categorical imperatives.  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 and supreme.  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.

            In addition, we might note a third element in our idea of moral obligation that seems to find no fundamental role in Kant’s account, viz., it’s connection to moral responsibility; what is morally obligatory is what one can be held responsible (accountable) for doing.  It is what we can (and do) demand that people do.


IV Anticipations in earlier writers. 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  Contingent “external” (“heteronomous”) connection between morality and practical reason.  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, in Kant’s terms “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 Butler and Rousseau: necessary “internal” (“autonomous”) connection between morality and practical reason.  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 by 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.


            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.


VII  Heteronomous residue in Butler and Rousseau.  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 project: morality and freedom  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.


            Kant's two great foundational works of moral philosophy are Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and Critique of Practical Reason (1788).  These are the works where he tries to establish the fundamental principles of all ethical thought.  However, these were by no means the whole of his ethical writings.  In addition he wrote a two volume work that elaborated the normative ethical scheme: The Metaphysics of Morals.


            A central organizing idea of Kant's two foundational works is freedom.  Intuitively, we are free by virtue of our capacity to determine our will by reasons, by a conception of law.  But, Kant argues, a free agent can do this successfully only by following the Categorical Imperative (act on a maxim only if you can will that it should likewise be acted on by everyone).


            Why suppose we actually are free?  Note that this is tantamount to asking, Why suppose that reason can determine the will?  Why suppose there is genuinely practical reason?  Kant’s answer in Critique is different from what he says in the Groundwork.  His Critique answer is that we have to suppose we are free because he take ourselves to be subject to the moral law. Freedom is thus a condition of being morally bound.  We couldn't be morally bound and not be free.


            His response in the Groundwork, however, is different.  There he argues that an agent cannot act, cannot deliberate about what to do, except under the assumption that she is free, that she can determine her choices by reasons.  The intuitive idea is that in deliberating we ask ourselves what to do, what reasons there are to do one thing rather than another.  But in so doing we have to assume that we can determine our wills by what we regard to be good reasons. 

            Furthermore, the assumption that we are free, as embodied in deliberation, is all Kant insists on.  This makes us really free “in a practical sense.”  Moreover, he regards this thought as fully compatible with the belief that everything we do is utterly determined.  In fact, his views in the Critique of Pure Reason commit him to the position that in viewing our own and other people's actions from an observer's point of view, we must take them to be effects of prior causes.  So, from a theoretical or observer's point of view, all occurrences, and hence, all actions, are fully caused, and could, in principle, be predicted if we knew their causes.  But this is fully compatible with our actions being free in the sense that, from the agent's point of view in deliberation and action, we must regard our choices as determined by our reasons, and hence as practically free in this sense.

            Christine Korsgaard gives a helpful illustration.  Suppose we believed that our every move was fully caused and that there is an omniscient predictor who knows exactly what we are going to do.  What effect should this belief have on our actions?  We would still, ourselves, face the question of what to do.  This question would in no way be undermined or answered by our knowledge that what we end up doing will have been be fully predictable.  To decide what to do,

even if we believe what we will do is fully predictable, we simply ignore, not to say repress, this belief, and consult what reasons there are for doing one thing rather than another.  That is we undertake to determine our wills by what we can regard as reasons to act.