Philosophy 433                                     History of Ethics                                   Darwall                                    Winter 2008





I Practical principles: subjective and objective.  Enough stage-setting.  Let's get into the text.  We need to begin with some definitions.

            A.  "Practical principles are propositions that contain a general determination of the will, having under it several practical rules.  They are subjective, or maxims, when the condition is regarded by the subject as holding only for his own will.  They are objective, or practical laws, when the condition is cognized as objective, that is, as holding for the will of every rational being." (19)

            So practical principle is the genus, and subjective principles, or maxims, and objective principles, or practical laws, are species of this genus.  Any "general determination of the will" is a practical principle (i.e., something of the form "in circumstances C, I will do A").  And if the agent regards its “condition” this as "holding" for his will only, and acts on it under that thought, then it is merely subjective.  If, however, he “cognizes" its condition as "holding for the will of every rational being," then it is objective, or a practical law.


            Question:  shouldn’t Kant say that in the former case, the agent “cognizes” the principle as subjective, and in the latter, he cognizes it as objective, as a practical law?


            B.  Note, now, the remark:  “If it is assumed that pure reason can contain within itself a practical ground, that is, one sufficient to determine the will, then there are practical laws; otherwise all practical principles will be mere maxims.”  (19) How is Kant thinking here? What is the suppressed premise?  Presumably, something like this:


            A condition can “hold” for the will of every rational agent only if it is internal to (contained within) practical reason(ing).  So, obviously, no particular desire we cannot assume to be contained within the deliberative standpoint as such can be a condition of practical laws.


            C.  Note, next, a contrast that Kant then draws between theoretical and practical reasoning.  Theoretical uses of reason are “determined by the constitution of the object.”  However, “in practical cognition—that is, cognition having to do only with the determining grounds of the will—the principles that one makes for oneself are not yet laws to which one is unavoidably subject, because reason, in the practical, has to do with the subject, namely with his faculty of desire, which by its special constitution can make various adjustments to the rule.” (20) 


            For the moment, let’s ignore the issue of what this last clause (“which by its special constitution . . .”) means.  Note the contrast between theoretical and practical reasoning.  The contrast is between object-based reasoning and subject-based reasoning.  The objective of theoretical reason is to form beliefs that accurately represent reality.  Like Hume, Kant must be assuming practical “reasoning” contrasts with theoretical reasoning in that it has no object-based function that is comparable to accurate representation.  Hume draws the consequence that there is no such thing as practical reason.  Kant draws the consequence that there can be such a thing as practical reason only if there is, as it were, an objective condition within the subject ( that is, only if reason can determine the will of itself).  This is the same as what Kant calls “autonomy” in the Groundwork (“the property of the will by which it is a law to itself independently of any property of the objects of volition”).


            D.  We can see this in Kant’ contrast between hypothetical and categorical imperatives.  A hypothetical imperative presents an action as necessary to achieve a (contingently) desired purpose.  E.g., if you want to understand Kant, you must read him more than once.  A categorical imperative, on the other hand, presents an action as necessary, not because it will achieve the agent's contingent ends, but in itself.  As Kant puts it, they "must completely determine the will as will." (18)   tell someone that he ought never to make a lying promise; this is a rule that has to do only with his will, regardless of whether the purposes the human being may have can be thereby attained.”  (21)


II An alternative picture: object-based practical reason. Clearly, this picture treats desire as entirely a subjective condition, as opposed to something that reveals reasons for acting that are rooted in objective values to which they give us epistemic access.  But why should a critique of practical reason rule that out?  What in the deliberative standpoint rules it out?  Indeed, isn’t this a natural picture of things from the deliberative standpoint? Suppose practical reasoning were, as G. E. Moore believed, simply figuring out the relative value of all possible outcomes or feasible states of the world, along with the facts and costs of realizing these, in order to determine which thing one can do would bring about the most valuable states.  We might think of an agent’s ranking of possible states as given in his preferences or desires.  The idea wouldn’t be that the agent thinks these states good because, i.e., for the reason that, he desires or prefers them.  Rather in preferring them, he thinks them good (to whatever degree, in whatever order).  He critically revises his preferences by his view of the relative value of possible states, or perhaps his preferential ordering just is his view of the relative value of all possible world states.

On this familiar decision-theoretic picture, action would have, like belief, an internal aim that would relate it to a (putatively) independent order.  Just as belief is for the accurate representation of the world as it actually is, action, according to this picture, would be for the realization of the best feasible world.  Freedom of choice would be constrained similarly to our freedom in forming beliefs.  The reasons on the basis of which we could freely choose would be restricted to those that are responsive to and defeasible by their relation to this independent order of fact and value (the world as it should be and can be made in light of how it is).  Let’s keep this picture in mind to see how Kant can rule it out.

(For an example of this view, see Dennis Stampe, “The Authority of Desire”)


III  Theorems I and II:  With our definitions we can look to Kant's "proofs" of Theorems I and II.

            A.  Theorem I.  "All practical principles that presuppose an object (material) of the faculty of desire as the determining ground of the will are without exception empirical and can furnish no practical laws." (21)

            By a practical principle "presuppos[ing] an object (material) of the faculty of desire" Kant evidently has in mind the case where an agent determines his will in some general way (in C, I will do A) on the grounds that he desires some particular thing:  "When the desire for this object precedes the practical rule and is the condition under which the latter becomes a principle."  But in this case, it is a contingent matter whether any particular rational being has such a desire:  "it cannot be cognized a priori of any representation of an object, whatever it may be whether it will be connected with pleasure or displeasure or be indifferent." (20)  Therefore, no such principle can be (regarded to be) a practical law.  Q.E.D.


            What about this?  So far as we emphasize desire as simply a subjective condition, it seems to work.  There is no such subjective condition that we can assume a priori to be hold for all.  But suppose we see it as a form of access to an objective value?  Then, in that case, we will treat it as evidence that a possible outcome has a value that is a source of a reason for anyone to bring it about.  So the conclusion wouldn’t follow.


            B.  Theorem II.  "All material practical principles as such are, without exception, of one and the same kind and come under the general principle of self-love or one’s own happiness.” (22)

            Kant's reasoning suggests he is a psychological hedonist.  Motivation rooted in contingent desire is based on agreeable feeling, and any such desire is ultimately a desire for some agreeable feeling or other. 


            Again, notice how he is simply ruling out an “epistemic” conception of desire. 


            He gives an interesting, but curious (indeed almost offensive) argument on p. 22, to the effect that, if our desires didn't have some such homogeneous stuff as object, we wouldn't be able to choose between conflicting desires.  "Otherwise how could . . . affected." 

            Now, in fact, I think that this implausible psychology is really beside any central point that Kant wants to make and that he could as well give it up.  The point he needs to rely on is that no contingent desire, whether its object is agreeable feeling or not, can be common to any being capable of determining the will by practical reason


IV Remark II (transition to Theorem III) Kant makes some interesting observations in Remark II to Theorem II that provide a crucial transition to Theorem III.  In Theorems I and II, recall, Kant claimed, first, that no practical principle which is conditioned on a contingent desire could be (regarded to be) a practical law; and second, that all such material practical principles are instances of the principle of self-love.  In Theorem III he will maintain that a rational being can "think of its maxims as practical universal laws" only by considering them "as principles that contain the determining grounds of the will not by their matter but only by their form.” (27)

            Recall also that the reason Kant thinks that no material practical principle can be regarded to be a practical law is that no desire for a particular object is common to rational agents.  So none can form the basis of an objective principle or practical law. 


            At the beginning of Remark II, however, he says that "to be happy is necessarily the demand [desire] of every rational but finite being. . . "  So, the question arises, if this desire is thus universal, then why cannot it form the basis of a practical law?  Why can't the principle, do whatever is necessary to become happy, be a practical law?

            Kant responds:  "For, although the concept of happiness everywhere underlies the practical relation of objects to the faculty of desire, it is still only the general name for determining grounds.”  We are happy when we find our experiences agreeable.  But different people find different things agreeable.  And what really underlies our desire for happiness is a desire for the particular things we find agreeable--which will be different in different people. 

            The desire for happiness, "hence can never yield a law because, in the desire for happiness, it is not the form of lawfulness that counts but simply the mater, namely whether I am to expect satisfaction from following the law, and how much.” (25)


            Thus:  the person motivated by the desire for happiness is motivated by a desire for those specific things in which his happiness consists.  But these desires are not universal, and the desire for happiness is universal only because, as self-conscious beings, it is true of each that he desires what he finds agreeable, that in which his happiness consists.  So the universality of the desire for happiness cannot possibly form the basis for a practical law.

            Note Kant's framing of the alternatives:  "in the desire for happiness it is not the form of lawfulness that counts but simply the matter." (25)  This leads us to Theorem III.


V  Theorem III  "If a rational being is to think of its maxims as practical universal laws, he can think of them only as principles that contain the determining grounds of the will not by their matter but only by their form.” (27) 

            Now this may well seem puzzling.  What does Kant mean by form here?  And how can a principle be a determining ground of the will by virtue of its form?

            First, let's be clear what form is supposed to contrast with.  What is matter?  A practical principle contains the determining grounds of the will by virtue of its matter, recall, just in case the agent determines his will in accord with a given rule because he (antecedently) desires a certain object and is motivated to embrace the rule because of his desire for the object. 

            Second, Kant says that anyone with common understanding can determine “without instruction” whether a maxim has a form that “makes it fit for a giving universal law.”  And he proceeds to give an example.  The maxim "I will increase my property by every safe means" does not have a form fitting it to be universal law.  We can see this, he thinks, by applying the following test.  Could I, "through the maxim” make the law that every man is allowed to deny that a deposit has been made when no one can prove the contrary.   That is, we take the maxim, applied to a kind of action in hand, and ask whether, "through the maxim" one could make it a law that everyone act as the maxim dictates.  This could not be done, Kant argues.  He says very little about the reasons here, but he makes similar arguments in the Groundwork to the effect that:  (a) it would be impossible that this hold as a universal law, since a world in which everyone denied such a deposit would be a world without the trust necessary to fund the system of credit which made it possible for me to have the deposit in the first place.  (b) Even if it were possible for everyone to act on such a principle, this would not advance the end for which I made the maxim; indeed, it would detract from  it. 


            What Kant means, therefore, by saying that a maxim has the requisite form to be a universal law, is that it can pass the test of what, in the Groundwork, he calls The Categorical Imperative--what he calls the Fundamental Law of Pure Practical Reason in CPR, roughly: 

            Act only on maxims which you can, at the same time, will to hold as a universal law of nature.


Note, therefore, the implicit premise Kant must be accepting in arguing for Theorem III:

            There are only two possible determining grounds of the will:

            (a) an object of desire

            (b) the conviction that a maxim is fit to be universal law; i.e. it can pass the test of the Categorical Imperative (or the Fundamental Law).  This amounts to saying that it can determine one's (the agent's) will because the agent can will it as law--she can will that everyone, herself included, act on it.


VI Problems I and II:  the equivalence of CI and autonomy This brings us to Kant's two "problems" in which he draws the consequence of his arguments to this point, viz., that "freedom and unconditional practical law reciprocally imply each other." (29) A will that can be determined by the "legislative form" of a maxim--i.e. not by any given desire for some object, but by the thought that the maxim passes the Categorical Imperative--is free.  And a free will is one that determines itself by the "legislative form" of its maxims.


            But this only gives us that if we are free, we stand under practical laws; and if we stand under practical laws, we are free.  So, if we know either, then we know the other.  But how do we know either?


            In the Groundwork, as I mentioned last time, Kant argues that we cannot act but under the idea of freedom.  In CPR, however, he takes a different tack.  Here Kant takes the view that "we become immediately conscious" of the moral law "as soon as we draw up maxims for the will." (29)  And that we are led to infer our freedom as a necessary condition of our genuinely being subject to the moral law.


            Kant calls the "consciousness of this fundamental law" a "fact of reason." (31)  Here is his idea:

            "Experience also confirms this order of concepts in us.  Suppose someone asserts of his lustful inclination that, when the desired object and the opportunity are present, it is quite irresistible to him; ask him whether, if a gallows were erected in front of the house where he finds this opportunity and he would be hanged on it immediately after gratifying his lust, he would not then control his inclination..  One need not conjecture very long what he would reply.  But ask him whether, if his prince demanded, on pain of the same immediate execution, that he give false testimony against an honorable man whom the prince would like to destroy under a plausible pretext, he would consider it possible to overcome his love of life, however great it may be.  He would perhaps not venture to assert whether he would do it or not, but he must admit without hesitation that it would be possible for him.” (30)

            Now Kant is a compatibilist in some sense--i.e. he believes that it is both true that we are free and that every act we take is determined by prior causes.  But this passage makes it clear that his view must differ from that of other compatibilists such as Hume.  Hume held that an agent was free if he could have done otherwise; and he could have done otherwise if it is true that if his desires had been different, he would have done otherwise.  But this is the sense in which the person who doesn't resist his lust could have done so.  And Kant evidently means to contrast the sort of freedom he is saying we have to suppose

we have with this.  WHAT IS HE SAYING?