Morals and Modernity

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We need, that is, a conception of philosophy that recognizes the historically conditioned character both of the problems it confronts and of the knowledge it can acquire. For other areas of inquiry, this kind of historical sensitivity may not be necessary, and a blinkered focus on isolated parts of experience may be more productive.

But philosophy strives to be as reflective as possible, regarding a full awareness of any problem's complexities as not just praiseworthy, but essential to the proper investigation of it. This, if anything, we could take as the essence of the philosophical attitude. It cannot afford to pass by, therefore, the givens of the historical situation in which it operates.

To explain this conception of philosophy further, I should say something first about taking into account the historical circumstances that have made certain philosophical problems our own. This involves two things. It means, to begin with, that we take an undoctrinaire view of why these problems have come to count as "philosophical" ones. No doubt, philosophical problems are all, in some sense, fundamental in nature, focused on concepts and themes whose implications spread through wide stretches of experience.

But that is really all that can be said about philosophy's domain by way of definition. So, too, there is little to say about philosophical method in general, except that, as I have noted, it typically aims at being maximally reflective, bringing together into consideration all the various aspects of any given problem.

To give up the idea of first philosophy is to see that there is no timeless essence of philosophy, and in particular no special methods or subject matter peculiar to it. The only adequate definition of philosophy is an "extensional" one, that is, the simple enumeration of problems that for diverse, contingent reasons have come to be classified as "philosophical. Philosophy has a long and complex history, full of discoveries and dead ends, dynamic traditions and new beginnings. It is only reasonable to suppose that it forms a heterogeneous mixture rather than a unified discipline.

Recognizing the historical character of philosophical problems also means paying attention to the circumstances that have made certain problems truly problems - not mere curiosities, that is, but real challenges to our existing views and expectations. As our beliefs change, some problems disappear and others emerge.

This point is closely connected with the other part of the conception of philosophy I espouse, namely, the conviction that philosophical knowledge, like all knowledge, is historically conditioned in character. This conviction, as I understand it, does not signal a surrender to historical relativism. On the contrary, the essential point is that we overcome the deep-seated notion that history and reason are like oil and water. The pursuit of objectivity is often assumed to require that we neutralize the effects of historical contingency on our thinking and strive to see the world from something like the standpoint of eternity.

This aspiration has many sources, but one of them is not that it expresses a demand of reason itself. In Chapter 2, I present a "contextualist" theory of rational belief that dispels the supposed antagonism between objective inquiry and the recognition of historical context. It applies not just to philosophical knowledge, but to knowledge in general. Its key principle, by which I mean to break with much of traditional epistemology and not just with so-called foundationalism, which almost everyone these days is keen to dismiss , is that no existing belief stands as such in need of justification.

That need arises only when we have uncovered some positive reason, based on other things we believe, for thinking that the belief might be false. The object ofjustification is not belief, but rather changes in belief. And so the claims of reason govern how we go on from where we are, not whether we are entitled to be where we are at all, as that might be judged from some Archimedean standpoint transcending our historical situation. Modern Ethics and Reasonable Disagreement In this book I pursue these epistemological reflections not simply for their own sake, but chiefly to show how moral philosophy, on one of the pivotal issues it faces today, must come to terms with modernity.

The most distinctive element of modern ethics is the idea that we all are subject to certain "categorical" moral obligations, binding on us whatever may be our various interests. Yet there has always been an undercurrent of doubt, ever more pronounced in recent years, about whether such a moral outlook can truly be authoritative for us, particularly given the waning of religious worldviews. This concern is the source of that nostalgia for "virtue-ethics," ancien style, mentioned earlier. As I argue in Chapters 1 and 2, insuperable difficulties stand in the way of such a return to ancient models.

That crucial element of modern experience is the realization that on the meaning of life reasonable people tend naturally to disagree with one another.

See a Problem?

We have come to expect that in a free and open discussion about the fulfilled life, the human good, the nature of selfrealization - notions essential to the virtue-centered conceptions of ancient ethics - the more we converse, the more we disagree, even with ourselves. This outlook see Chapter 7 is not the same as what is often called "pluralism," or the conviction that in the end the human good is not one, but many, its different forms irreducible to any single basis such as pleasure, freedom, or knowledge.

Pluralism itself is one of the things about which reasonable people disagree. The expectation of reasonable disagreement is, in fact, a more unsettling view than pluralism, one that runs contrary to some of the deepest preconceptions in the Western tradition. It is the recognition that, on matters of supreme importance, reason is not likely to bring us together, but tends rather to drive us apart. This experience was absent from ancient and medieval virtue ethics, but it loomed large in early modern thought.

It was a lesson hammered home, for example, by more than a century of religious wars. In modern ethics, the expectation of disagreement has turned attention toward a core morality on which reasonable people, despite their differences about the good life, can nonetheless agree. This is the demand that the idea of categorical obligation is meant to meet. Though we associate that idea with the famous exposition Kant gave it, the "priority of the right over the good," to use his words, is by no means limited to Kantian ethics.

It has also shaped the utilitarian tradition, that other great current of modern moral philosophy. We cannot, it is true, understand the whole of our moral life in terms of categorical obligations. To this extent, we may learn much from the resources of ancient ethics. But we lose touch with one of the formative experiences of modernity if we miss the importance of a core morality, binding on all whatever their views of the human good. It is an integral part of our form of life.

Clearly, this need for a core morality is particularly urgent in the political realm. The essays in Part III explore how the modern experience of reasonable disagreement has played an essential role in the liberal political tradition. Political principles are not just ones by which we judge people, but also ones where force may be used to ensure compliance. We therefore treat others as having the same right as ourselves to set the terms of political association - we regard them as free and equal citizens, only if we assume that the coercive principles we propose as binding on all would also be the object of reasonable agreement.

The expectation that reasonable people tend naturally to disagree about the good life has therefore impelled the liberal tradition to seek the rules of political life within a core morality all may affirm. No doubt, that expectation has also fostered the very ideal of political transparency. Responding to this modern experience has proven to be, however, a more complex task than liberal thinkers have often supposed. Many have cast their political principles in terms of an individualist philosophy of life, urging a critical detachment toward inherited forms of belief and cultural traditions.

But such theories have themselves become the object of reasonable disagreement, particularly in the wake of the Romantic movement. As a result, this general individualism, whatever may be its truth, can no longer serve as the public philosophy of a liberal political order. Now more than ever, liberalism must take on the character of a political doctrine see Chapter 6. This does not mean it ceases to be a moral conception. But the value of equal respect that is its spirit requires us to distinguish carefully between the political principles that unite us as citizens and the broader, if divergent, ideals and commitments we also affirm.

Little will be clear, therefore, about the guiding aims of modern ethics and the fundamental problems in moral philosophy we face today unless we keep in mind and understand this formative experience of modernity.

Is The Morality of Islam Suitable for the Modern World, or Antithetical to It?

The expectation of reasonable disagreement, and so the ideas of categorical obligation and political liberalism, do not, 9 On the liberal ideal of transparency, see Jeremy Waldron, "Theoretical Foundations of Liberalism" , pp. I do not follow Waldron, however, in extending the liberal ideal beyond the terms of political association to social life as a whole. The "political liberalism" I espouse does not assume that a general social transparency is necessary or even desirable. What it is reasonable to believe is not limited to what everyone will reasonably accept.

The idea is, rather, as I explain in Chapter 7, that even when we have good reasons to embrace some vision of the human good, we must count on meeting with the reasoned dissent of others. Some of the controversial claims I make in this very book, such as the need to reject naturalism and adopt a quasi-Platonistic conception of reality, are no exception.

This feature of modernity points, then, to the complex moral self-understanding that must be ours today. As it impresses on us the need for a core morality all must heed, it also allows that we are no less reasonable in holding to those more speculative convictions that divide us. What Clarity Demands I hope by now to have dispelled the suspicion that this book falls neatly into the line of historicized philosophy that springs from Hegel and is commonly associated with "Continental" thought.

I acknowledge, certainly, the influence of some writers in this area, among them Hegel himself. The way I propose of bringing together reason and history, for example, owes much to his "phenomenological" method, though it also embodies a greater sense of contingency than his own trust in historical providence would admit. But not only, I repeat, is it the breakdown of the analytic project itself that points in the direction of the conception of philosophy I have advanced.

I also hasten to add that the orphic style, which seems so much at home in so-called Continental thought, is not mine. Philosophy is extraordinarily difficult, I admit. But for me this means not that it is a heroic task to rise above the profound errors of common opinion, which is the sense of difficulty so many Hegel-inspired philosophers have relished, but rather that one's own philosophical vision is more likely to be wrong than right. Making mistakes is what we should expect. The expectation of error has been, in fact, a prominent attitude throughout the course of analytic philosophy.

So though I see little merit in grandiose contrasts between "Anglo-American" and "Continental" philosophy, I do feel an identification with the analytic tradition that is absent from the more exploitative, pick-and-choose relation I have to philosophy in the Hegelian mold. Clarity, of course, can signify various things. Often it is only in the eyes of the beholder. In the history of philosophy, it has sometimes meant the search for intuitively perspicuous ideas or the practice of precision for its own sake.

But the clarity to which I refer is something different. It is an ideal that comes from taking to heart how easy it is in philosophy to go wrong. It holds that we do not really know what we think until we have made our philosophical conceptions open to criticism.

To do this, we must specify the aspects of existing opinion on which we aim to build as well as those we wish to reject, therefore exposing our views to public standards of appraisal over which others have as much control as we do. This seems to me the element of truth in the "linguistic turn" so often associated with analytic philosophy, existing opinion generally finding expression in common forms of speech.

As a result, common opinion cannot be dismissed as but the repository of error, which a heroic philosophy must transcend. Without the bearings it provides, we lose any sense of what it is for our own thinking to go wrong. This does not mean that philosophy must be complacent and simply defer to existing views. On the contrary, only by heeding this ideal of clarity can philosophy be argumentative, for only thus do we open ourselves to criticism by others. This ethics of thought is by no means special to analytic philosophy.

It is as old as Socrates' dialectic. In hindsight we can say, indeed, that one great accomplishment of analytic philosophy has been its cultivation of the Socratic virtues in a century that has not been very hospitable to them. But its other important contribution has been, paradoxical as this may sound, the way its devotion to clarity has led to its own demise.

By this I mean that it is precisely arguments such as those of Quine, working through the analytic tradition, that have so clearly brought out the failure of the analytic project and indeed the impossibility of first philosophy in general. This same ideal of clarity now points, I believe, to a historically responsible conception of philosophy. We make ourselves clear, I have said, by holding ourselves accountable to existing opinion, even as in some regards we go beyond it.

But existing opinion is historically contingent at its very core. We cannot expect to know how to go on, therefore, without understanding why we find ourselves where we do. This is the spirit in which I have written the essays in this book. It has also given rise to unprecedented problems about the nature and authority of morality and the possibilities of political association.

We will not see our way through these problems as clearly as we must unless we take stock of what has made us what we are. Ancient and Modern Ethics Henry Sidgwick is in many regards the greatest moral philosopher of the second half of the nineteenth century. But it was in a generally neglected chapter 1.

The nature of moral value, he suggested, assumes two fundamentally different forms, depending on whether the notion of right or the notion of good is thought to be more basic. Furthermore, these two views of morality were in his eyes historically distinct: the priority of the good was central to Greek ethics, whereas modern ethics has embraced the priority of the right. Sidgwick's observations seem to me correct and important. In this chapter I will examine how these two views of morality differ and show why it is useful to explain the differences between ancient and modern ethics along these lines.

But this discussion will also indicate how each of the two conceptions may prove unappealing to us in certain respects. In this light, we can better understand why our present moral thought seems so often disoriented, no longer fully at home in the leading currents of modern ethics, but also unable to return to the ancients.

At the end, I will suggest a promising way to steer through these fundamental difficulties in the nature of morality. The exploration of this approach, however, will be the subject of the following chapter. To this point in his book, Sidgwick had presented the notion of "right" as the fundamental ethical concept.

The idea of right, he had claimed, expresses the idea of an authoritative prescription, a rule or dictate to which conduct ought to be subordinated. In this chapter, however, he observed that alternatively the notion of good might be made basic. To see the difference he thought this change would make, we must not suppose that he was appealing simply to the everyday usage of these two terms, which in fact is rather indiscriminate. The role that these notions had played in earlier philosophical discussions, both ancient and modern, was also in his mind.

But what Sidgwick wanted most of all was to describe two very different ways of understanding the nature of ethics, or what he called "the moral ideal. In the first view, the notion of right is fundamental, in the second the notion of good. Each view makes use, of course, of the other notion as well, but it explains it in terms of its primary notion.

If the right is fundamental, then the good is what an agent does or would want, so long as it conforms to the demands of obligation; it is the object of right desire. If the good is fundamental, then the right is what one ought to do in order to attain what one would indeed want if properly informed. So we can say that the imperative conception of ethical value makes the right prior to the good.

By contrast, the attractive conception makes the good prior to the right. I shall follow Sidgwick in using these two conceptions of ethical value tofixwhat is to be meant by making the right or the good prior to the other. Sidgwick did not present these conceptions merely as two theoretical possibilities. In The Methods of Ethics and more thoroughly in his Outlines of the History of Ethics he argued that they correspond to the different perspectives of ancient and modern ethics.

London: Macmillan, , p. London: Macmillan, , pp. They both believed that the exercise of moral virtue is best conceived as forming an intrinsic part of the "happy" or fulfilled life that by nature each human being desires as his ultimate end. This does not mean that their ethical outlook is a species of egoism, at least as that position is usually defined. For they believed that the agent's self-fulfillment consists in the exercise of virtue as opposed to being a condition instrumentally advanced by it , so that one will achieve the fulfilled life one wants only by being generous, courageous, and so forth, for their own sakes.

But nowhere in their writings do we find the modern idea that there are obligations unconditionally or "categorically," as Kant would say binding on all agents, whatever their interests or desires. In this respect, Stoic ethics was no different. All animals being predisposed to live in accord with their own nature, the value of moral virtue, for the Stoics, lies in its being the way man would live if he were to follow this predisposition oikeiosis in the light of his rational nature and so be happy as a rational being.

It has its beginnings among later medieval Franciscans such as Scotus and Ockham. Rejecting the idea of a perspicuous natural order in the 3 Plato, Republic, , 5O5a-e; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1. Long ed. Stuttgart: Teubner, , III, Sidgwick included Stoicism within the ancient perspective Methods of Ethics, p. All subsequent references to Kant's writings, both to the Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten and to the Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, will cite the Akademieausgabe and will be given in the text. Indeed, Scotus startlingly anticipated later developments we associate with Kant when he argued that the Christian rule of loving others for their own sake and thus a real sense of justice affectio justitiae cannot draw on that natural desire for self-perfection which, as he observed, underlies Aristotelian and Thomistic ethics, but only on a freedom of the will that can suspend that desire.

The imperative conception of morality, by no means always expressed in theological terms, has dominated much of modern moral philosophy. The utilitarian tradition, at least since the time of Sidgwick himself, is no exception. It appeals to a categorical moral "ought" as much as does Kant's moral philosophy. We go wrong if we describe, as some have done, the difference between deontological and utilitarian theories as lying in whether the right or the good is made the fundamental moral concept. The essential principle of any "consequentialist" theory utilitarianism being the version that conceives of the good subjectively, as felt happiness is that right action consists in doing whatever will bring about the most good overall, for all those affected by the action, each of them "counting for one and only one.

For the good to be 7 For the Franciscan emphasis on God as moral legislator and its link to the demise of a good-based ethics, see Michel Villey, La formation de la pensee juridique moderne Paris: Montchrestien, , pp. Frankena, Ethics, 2d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N. For he believes utilitarianism sometimes ceases to be deontological, namely when it makes the equal consideration of persons subordinate to maximizing the good.

I, however, think it never really does this though utilitarians may understand the idea of equal consideration differently , since it always conceives of the good impartially. And so it always views the maximization of the good as an obligation binding unconditionally on agents. THE RIGHT AND THE GOOD 23 maximized is itself specified by appeal to a categorical principle of right: the good is defined by our considering impartially, as it is claimed we ought to do, the total good of all individuals involved, whatever our own interests may be, and thus the duty to pursue it is one binding upon us unconditionally.

A deontological theory maintains, of course, that one is bound by certain obligations even if an alternative course of action is known to bring about more good overall. But it is not this principle that expresses the priority of the right characteristic of modern ethics. It is rather the view such a theory shares with consequentialism, the view that moral duty is independent of the agent's own good. This common assumption explains why the unending debate between deontological and consequentialist outlooks, which has lain at the center of modern moral philosophy, was unknown to ancient ethics.

To glimpse the power of this way of conceiving the difference between ancient and modern ethics, recall Hegel's famous observation that conscience has had an importance in modern thought it never enjoyed in ancient ethics. Sidgwick himself agreed with this observation. And to have internalized the superiority of these claims is what it is to live under the authority of conscience. Without this "duality" of practical reason, as Sidgwick called it, the idea of conscience lacks a basis.

On the contrary, I believe that our convictions are better captured by a view more complex than the outlooks 9 Hegel, Vorlesungen ilber die Philosophie der Geschichte, vol. The duties of friendship differ from the duties of core morality in being contingent on a continuing pattern of affection and interest.

But despite this reservation, I remain convinced that Sidgwick's remarks express real historical insight. They will also prove helpful as we try to determine what to make of the core morality we believe binding on all — whether we ought to remain modern to the extent of viewing it if not the whole of morality as a system of categorical obligations, or whether we ought to return to the ancient view that the validity of our moral obligations must lie in how they foster the agent's self-fulfillment.

In the rest of this essay, I shall be concerned only with the proper analysis of this core morality. I must also note that in taking over Sidgwick's idea of the basic difference between ancient and modern ethics, I do not deny that it admits of some exceptions. Indeed, there have been several modern philosophers including Hume, Schopenhauer, and, most influentially in our day, G.

Anscombe who have argued that "right" or "ought" should not play the fundamental role in ethical theory. In it, she announced that the modern emphatic sense of the moral "ought" makes sense only within the framework of a divine legislator and that if we lack allegiance to that framework, we must return to the ancient outlook, which makes the virtues central.

Hume and Anscombe though not Schopenhauer have seen their own thought as an effort to return to ancient models. Anscombe's essay of , "Modern Moral Philosophy," in which she laid out her position, has indeed proved to be one of the charter documents of contemporary neo-Aristotelianism. Like Hume, Anscombe has maintained that such a return to the ancient outlook would place the idea of virtue once again at the center of ethical theory. I believe that this is true. It is not that ancient ethics did not know the "ought" or had no conception of duty as is sometimes claimed.

And clearly the modern priority of the right over the good can make room for the notion of virtue, understanding it as the disposition to do what one ought to do for its own sake. The crucial issue revolves around which notion is central. In the modern outlook, the concept of virtue remains subordinate to that of duty. And what is distinctive of the ancient idea of virtue, and what present-day, often Aristotle-minded, critics of modern ethics wish to reclaim in the name of "virtue ethics," is the conception of the virtues as instead fundamentally forms of human flourishing and self-realization.

So far, I have offered only a sketch of the difference between these two moral outlooks, however. A more careful analysis is required. I believe that in Kant's moral thought we find, independent of the more specific features of his position that separate him from utilitarian thinkers, the best exposition and defense of the imperative conception of morality. Kant himself did not in fact recognize from the outset that a central feature of his moral thought had come to be a priority of the right over the good.

It was a remarkable review of his Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, published in by Hermann Andreas Pistorius, the pastor of Riigen, that first drew his attention to it. The focus of Pistorius's review was precisely the issue of the relative roles of the right and the good in moral theory. His insight into what is at stake in this question and his criticisms of Kant's position have indeed rarely been surpassed. The Kant-Pistorius controversy offers an excellent means to getting clearer about the difference between the imperative and attractive views of morality.

Anscombe, "Modern Moral Philosophy," pp. Kant and the Priority of the Right At the beginning of the Grundlegung Kant had claimed that the only thing unconditionally good is a good will, the disposition to act in accord with moral principle. This claim amounts to placing the right above the good, although Kant did not say so at the time. It asserts that nothing is morally good unless it accords with the principle of right, which expresses what one ought to do. Precisely this claim is what moved Pistorius, in his review of the Grundlegung, to object that Kant had erred, that he ought instead to have begun with a definition of good.

No principle stipulating what one ought to do can be a sufficient basis of moral action, he charged, since it must first be determined whether that principle is good or bad. Its goodness depends in general on its object or goal This object will be the supreme good the summum bonum only if it is the good of all rational beings, but that is possible only if all rational beings have a common nature that produces an interest in this summum bonum The principle of right action, he concluded, must be to act in accord with this common nature and interest, to pursue the good for all rational beings.

The notion of good that he placed at the foundation of ethics is plainly an attractive one: the validity of principles of right is supposed to rest on a good in which all have an interest who are thought to be subject to these principles. That is why Pistorius denied explicitly that these principles can be understood as categorical imperatives. There are only hypothetical imperatives , , He did not believe, of course, that anyone can reasonably defect from their claims, for it was his conviction that all rational beings have an interest in the good, which the rules of morality serve.

I should remark that although Pistorius believed that something can be part of the good of a rational agent only if that agent has an interest in it, there is no evidence that he had what has been called a "subjective" conception of the good. That is, nothing indicates that for him, as for Hobbes, an object's being good for a person consists in its 15 Pistorius, "Rezension der Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten," pp. All subsequent references to Pistorius's essay will be given in parentheses in the text.

A correlation between good and interest can also stem from the opposite view that the goodness of some object is what produces a person's interest in it. Either of these views can be housed within an attractive conception of morality. I believe that Pistorius like Aristotle was persuaded that in the end, desire must be explained by objective goodness.

In any case, he correctly perceived that Kant's conception of the rules of morality as categorical imperatives depends on not making an attractive notion of the good the foundation of ethics. And he found this idea of making the right prior to the good incoherent for the reason that a principle of right must first be shown to be good. As now must be apparent, this objection had a very specific sense. By insisting that a principle of right must be shown to be good, he meant that it had to be shown to interest the agent on whom it is supposed to be binding.

The maxim of breaking a promise when this is expedient may indeed fail to be universalizable, as Kant maintained. But Pistorius observed that this fact alone would leave the will unmoved unless the agent were interested in living in accord with universalizable maxims A principle purporting to be a moral law, he believed, cannot be such as to be a matter of complete indifference to the agent to whom it is thought to apply although it may of course be overpowered by other motives.

The rules of moral conduct cannot be without connection to human psychology. Having to suppose in the agent an interest in conforming with them, valid principles of right must be subordinate, he maintained, to the good that is the object of that interest But Kant's commitment to understanding morality as a system of categorical imperatives had forced him to accommodate this idea by means of a distinction between two sorts of interests V, Contrary to what he claims p.

He agreed with Kant that all rational beings necessarily have an interest in morality. His disagreement with Kant turned on what this interest must be like — on whether it can be any other than an interest in the good. There is no reason to postulate a nonempirical freedom if moral imperatives are understood from the first as hypothetical, dependent upon an interest in a good that experience discloses to each of us.

Besides, the distinction between empirically conditioned and unconditioned interests seems not to change the fact that, in spite of himself, Kant had come around to tying the claims of morality to an interest and so to an antecedent notion of the good, however perversely nonempirical. He recognized how forcefully Pistorius had expounded the attractive conception of morality. Yet his conviction remained unshaken that it was an untenable view. One of the principal tasks of the Second Critique was to defend, this time explicitly, the necessity of making the right prior to the good.

The arguments on which Kant relied are nowhere presented as crisply as those of Pistorius just reviewed.

See a Problem?

But they are worth the effort of reconstruction, for in the end they yield some of the deepest reasons for allegiance to an imperative conception of morality. They also put us in a better position to evaluate Pistorius's claim that, by connecting the validity of moral rules to an interest in the agent to conform to them, Kant had contradicted his own thesis of the priority of the right.

Pluralism and Reasonable Disagreement Kant's Second Critique contains two separate arguments for the priority of the right. Kant did not clearly distinguish them from one another, and some of their elements lie scattered about the text, so I must stitch them together from various passages. Moreover, each argument serves a different end, though their combined import is that we must all recognize a core morality of unconditional duties, whatever our divergent views of the human good.

They combine, in other words, to give Kant's articulation of the modern, imperative conception of morality. Clearly, Kant too understood the priority of the good to mean that the rules of morality have been based in what persons subject to them want or would want if properly informed. Such rules would then belong among what he called "material principles," rules of action motivated by the desire for some object.

We can desire an object, Kant continued, only if we think that having it will bring us pleasure. As a result, the good will be conceived as the pleasurable, and that, he claimed, cannot be correct. Before examining why he deemed this conclusion obviously false, we should determine just what he thought it meant. Because he proceeded to add V, 22 that all material principles belong under the general principle of self-love or our own happiness, it has seemed inescapable to many that Kant had an implausibly narrow view of the springs of human action: if our actions are not animated by supreme principles of right, they seem on his view to be given over to the egoistic pursuit of pleasure.

There are many passages in the Second Critique that confirm this verdict V, 28, But if we lean upon other passages, a more generous interpretation is possible, and the argument for the priority of the right becomes more interesting. Sometimes Kant construed the notion of self-love very broadly to mean the agent's happiness, in the sense of the satisfaction of his desires, whether they are directed toward his own benefit or toward that of others V, 22, The point of his first argument would then be that placing the good before the right is to equate the good with the satisfaction of the agent's desires.

The defect in this, according to Kant V, 25 , is that each of us has a different conception of our own happiness, shaped by our own constitution and particular experiences; even where it is another person whom we want to flourish, there is little likelihood that we will agree with others, or with that person himself, about just what that consists in. If conceptions of happiness vary so widely, Kant claimed, then the agent's happiness and so the agent's good cannot work as the basis for a moral law applicable to all.

Kant was well aware that this was the outlook of ancient ethics V, 64, But he was persuaded that human nature is too variable, too malleable by circumstance and individual initiative, for this view to seem convincing. I think that we cannot help but agree. Even if the good is understood objectively as being responsible for our interest in it, the kinds of good we can pursue seem too various to serve as the basis for a common morality. Kant's first reason for rejecting the priority of the good is a characteristically modern one.

It combines in fact two distinct ideas: a the "pluralist" insight that there are a great many valuable forms of selfrealization, irreducible to any common form of good that all desire; and b the recognition that reasonable people tend naturally to disagree about the nature of the fulfilled life. I explore the links and differences between these two notions in Chapter 7. Pluralism and the expectation of reasonable disagreement about the good life are rarely found in ancient thinkers, except among the Skeptics, whose influence upon the moral thought of such modern philosophers as Montaigne, Hobbes, and Grotius was indeed pervasive, particularly in their rejection of Aristotelian and Stoic ethics.

Kant stands in this modern tradition. The Role of Conscience Kant's second argument V, 21, 26, 63 is positive rather than negative. Whereas the first aimed to explain why the good cannot be prior to the right, the second was meant to show why the right should be seen as prior to the good. We might think of this argument as his answer to the moral skepticism he had exploited in the first argument. If the good is made the ground of the moral law, he argued, if the desire for some object is made the determining ground of the moral will, then what this object is must be an empirical matter, since only from experience can we learn what gives us pleasure.

I suggest that again we adopt the more generous interpretation of Kantian psychology so that his claim will be that only experience can teach us what satisfies our desires, whether they are directed toward ourselves or others. Now even if experience were to disclose contrary to the first argument some object or condition having the capacity to make all men ultimately happy, this good could still not serve as the basis of morality.

Precisely this "necessary" or categorical form is, according to Kant, what must be recognized as characteristic of the rules of morality. Only the priority of the right over the good can make sense of this fact. This argument may seem feeble, even circular, since Pistorius, the sort of adversary against whom the argument was directed, had explicitly denied that moral imperatives are categorical.

Why was Kant so convinced that they are? In the Grundlegung and earlier he had entertained the hope that the categorical nature of morality the Categorical Imperative, for short could be derived from a consciousness of freedom that is empirically unconditioned, a consciousness we have in exercising our rational agency. But in the Second Critique he gave up this project, principally because he had realized that such a freedom, lying outside the world of experience, can never be an object of knowledge. We can only postulate that we are free, and do so precisely on the basis of the belief that we are subject to a categorical moral law.

Our nonempirical freedom, expressed in reason's legislative activity, continued to be for Kant the explanation of morality. But he no longer thought this explanation could serve as a justification as well. The categorical or unconditional character of moral duties he now understood as a "fact of reason" V, 31, 47, By that he meant that we are immediately aware of it in our conscience without being able to justify it by means of anything else. This change of mind involves a very important point for our understanding of both Kant and morality, though it is too often neglected.

Thus, Bernard Williams has written that those who do not accept Kant's metaphysics of freedom, yet still believe there are categorical moral duties, must offer an alternative account to show why this is so. He did not believe it could justify the view that moral duties are categorically binding.


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Of that we can be convinced only by the voice of conscience. The task of moral theory, he believed, can be only to explicate what we already know in our conscience. Moreover, Kant seems to me entirely right on this point. The failure of one such theory does not diminish the authority of what conscience tells us. For in general, beliefs of which we are independently certain ought not to be shaken by our 18 Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy Cambridge, Mass.

This epistemological thesis I shall defend in some detail in the next chapter, and with an eye to the present question about categorical obligations. I think that Kant's doctrine of the "fact of reason" expresses a glimpse of the import of this truth for the authority of conscience, though I also think as I shall next suggest that he wrongly saw moral conscience as a feature of human nature rather than as a social phenomenon.

The authority of conscience, therefore, can be diminished only by positive grounds for doubting what it tells us. Whether such reasons exist for doubting that there are categorical moral duties is a question I take up eventually. Kant's doctrine of the "fact of reason" must thus be added to what I have called his second argument. The gist of that argument now becomes that only the priority of the right over the good can make sense of what we know in our conscience to be the nature of moral duties.

Kant rightly observed V, —9 , a s I n a v e done earlier, that this role of conscience, and the priority of the right it expresses, are what make modern ethics superior to ancient ethics. In the end, his reply to Pistorius must thus be that he consult his conscience once again. There remains, however, Pistorius's objection that by conceding that valid rules of morality presuppose some interest in the agent to comply with them, Kant himself could not escape the priority of the good that he claimed to repudiate.

In fact, to understand why this charge is untrue is to grasp an important feature of the imperative conception of morality. First, though, I must bring out a mistake that Kant did make at this point in his reasoning. Kant adhered as did Pistorius as well to a strong version of the principle that " 'ought' implies 'can' ": that no one can be said to be bound by an obligation unless his psychology is such that he can then be moved to carry it out.

Otherwise, blaming someone who has failed to fulfill an obligation seemed to him to be baseless. This principle is what led him to assume that everyone must have an interest in morality, and indeed an empirically unconditioned one the expression of a nonempirical freedom , since our moral duties are binding upon us whatever we may want in the world of experience.

This principle does indeed suggest that our interest in a categorical morality has a source unconditioned by experience. But that is just because it can make no sense of the active role society plays in our developing an interest in the demands of morality. From the standpoint of society, there are things its fledging members ought to do even before they can feel moved to comply with them, since it is precisely the educative role of socialization processes to close such a gap. The coincidence of "ought" and "can" is a social achievement rather than a necessary truth.

Kant failed to appreciate properly the extent to which our allegiance to morality is a social institution. In the next and following chapters, I shall have more to say about the historically and socially conditioned character of our moral knowledge. But as for the present question about obligation and motivation, we should conclude that a more reasonable view than Kant's is that no one can be said to have an obligation unless, through argument or through training, he either has or could have been brought around to have a motive to comply with it.

Categorical duties need then no longer appeal to a metaphysically obscure interest in morality, one that is supposedly ours whatever our experience may have been. Instead, they presuppose only that there is an interest in categorical duties into which everyone can be socialized. Kant's exorbitant notion of freedom forms no necessary part of an imperative conception of morality.

Conceiving of this morality as thus a social institution implies that in one sense our interest in morality is empirically conditioned: we develop it only through our experience in society. But in another sense, which is the one essential to the priority of the right over the good, this interest remains empirically unconditioned. It is an intrinsic interest in morality - not an interest we have independently of any moral commitments and that we have learned by experience is best satisfied by acting virtuously - but instead an interest in what we ought to do, regardless of what we may want.

On the contrary, we can be taught by others that we should do what is morally right, whatever may satisfy our interests. What we morally ought to do is not explained in terms of an interest we all have or could have, and so in terms of an attractive notion of the good, since we can describe the interest in question only as an interest in what we ought to do. The notion of right remains supreme. I should add that by this intrinsic interest in morality I do not mean a desire to do one's moral duty, at least if such a desire is to be contrasted with the belief that one ought to do it.

On the contrary, this belief is in my view precisely the form that interest takes, and it need not be supplemented by some desire to be able to move one to act. However familiar, the notion that action must proceed from desire as well as from belief is, as I argue in Chapter 5, a preconception with little warrant. Modern Ethics in Question A recognition of the pluralism and controversiality of the good and an appeal to conscience are Kant's two arguments for the priority of the right.

They figure prominently among the reasons many people have presented for this moral outlook.

Introduction: Modernity and the Crisis of Morals | SpringerLink

The theological considerations we saw Scotus invoke for rejecting the priority of the good - namely, the Christian precept of loving others as one loves oneself - have also proved influential. It is important, however, to keep in mind the difference in what the two arguments can establish. The first shows only that making the good prior to the right cannot ground a morality binding upon all; by itself it does not imply that the right must be made prior to the good, for there remains the possibility of rejecting the very idea of a universally valid morality.

The second argument, which appeals to conscience, seems therefore essential to an imperative conception of morality. Taken together, Kant's two points refer to a core morality on which people of conscience can agree despite their deep differences about the nature of the good life.

Some Remarks on the Birth of Modernity

But now we must look more closely at this appeal to conscience. I have insisted that conscience is a legitimate court of appeal for moral philosophy, and I doubt that anyone today would sincerely deny recognizing a basic set of duties that are ours whatever we may want to do.

Nonetheless, the voice of conscience is not unimpeachable. One reason we could have for rejecting its demands is finding that they make 21 See Chapter 5, Section 3, this volume. And indeed an objection of precisely this form has dogged the imperative conception of morality throughout modern times. As I observed before, Hume, Schopenhauer, and Anscombe have all argued that conceiving of morality as a set of obligations binding upon all, whatever our ideas of self-realization, cannot be coherently detached from the Christian theology that gave birth to it.

There cannot be laws of conduct without a lawgiver, and only God, they have claimed, can be thought to have sufficient authority and scope to issue unconditional commands to which all human conduct is subject. Since, however, the image of the divine legislator has lost for so many its appeal I examine the most important reasons for this in the next chapter , these thinkers have concluded that the imperative view of morality must be left behind as well.

They do not deny that, without giving any thought to this theological framework, we may feel unconditionally bound by certain obligations. But for them such convictions are, as Anscombe says, mere "survivals. For a neo-Aristotelian such as Anscombe, the only comprehensible obligations we have must be those we can see to foster the self-fulfillment or flourishing of the agent. In other words, she, like Hume, has pleaded for restoring the ancient priority of the good. The most common rejoinder to this argument is that the legislative source of categorical obligations can be, instead of God, practical reason itself.

It has been thought that, insofar as anyone views himself as a rational agent, he must accept certain norms regulating his conduct toward other such agents, whatever other interests he may have. This approach is generally called Kantian, and with some justice, since Kant did believe that categorical obligations express the laws that rational beings impose upon themselves. But it is important to remember that at least beginning with the Critique of Practical Reason Kant did not believe that this could serve as an argument to justify that we are subject to categorical moral duties.

According to him, practical reason can be legislative in this way only if it is free, only if it can transcend all empirically conditioned interests for which, after all, it is supposedly legislating ; but that means that this rational activity can never be an object of our knowledge, so it can never be used to prove anything about the nature of moral obligations. In Kant's view, we do 36 MODERN ETHICS have grounds to believe that reason is the source of morality, but only as an inference from our prior conviction which he called the "fact of reason" that we are bound by categorical obligations.

To its contemporary adherents, however, the idea that practical reason is the source of obligations unconditionally binding upon all has seemed independent of Kant's own metaphysics of freedom. Leaving aside various differences of detail, we may understand their rationalism as resting essentially upon the following, not always fully explicit, pattern of argument: 22 1 To act rationally, one must act for what one believes to be good reasons. Even in the case of instrumental reasoning, where one believes a certain action is the reasonable way to satisfy some given interest, one must also believe that all rational agents would agree that it is reasonable, given that interest which they may or may not share.

Of course, they need not therefore have good reason to perform the action, since its rationality, which they must recognize, may consist in its best satisfying some interest that they may not share. And the rationality of this latter unconditional demand, so it is concluded, must derive from the very nature of practical reason. More has to be said, of course, about the nature of rationality if such unconditional claims on conduct are to become specific and begin to resemble what we ordinarily understand by moral obligations.

Here differences emerge among the philosophers sharing this line of argument. In addition, it is generally supposed that practical reason can thus yield fundamental norms of moral conduct only given certain basic features of the human condition such as the relative scarcity of resources and the physical vulnerability of persons. That is another parameter of the argument that has to be spelled out. This rationalist argument, moreover, need not be meant to show that practical reason by itself, without moral resources of some sort or other, is able to generate good reasons for action.

The argument does presuppose, of course, that no moral obligations are already given as valid. But reason can still be said to be the source of an imperative morality, if in a posture of complete detachment it can work up an objective conception of moral value from the appearances of value contained in our less objective views - if, that is, it can approve or reject reasons for action that arise from commitments we find we have, but do not yet recognize as truly binding on us. This is the version Thomas Nagel seems to favor, for example. Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.

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Durkheim, Morals, and Modernity wi Watts Miller highlights Durkheim's communitarian route to liberalism and abolishes ill-conceived ideas that Durkheim is at heart conservative in outlook. Durkheim, Morals, and Modernity will be widely welcomed not only by students of social and political theory but also by scholars working in the fields of philosophy and history of ideas.

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