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Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Well, I never did get to Paris.  A sinus infection intervened.  But with the assistance of, I purchased a copy of the Lewis White Beck translation of the Grundlegung from a little bookshop in Oregon, so I am ready to continue the tutorial.

If you approach the Grundlegung knowing that it is widely considered one of the two or three most important texts in the history of Western Ethical Theory, the first thing that will strike you is how short it is:  barely eighty pages in the Beck translation [seventy-five in the original German edition.]  Now, I am myself given to writing short books, so I do not disparage a work merely because it does not spread itself over five or six hundred pages, but eighty pages does seem a bit slight.  Not to worry.  We shall find that it has more than enough powerful philosophy in it to keep the most dedicated student busy for quite some time.

The structure of the work is somewhat unbalanced.  After a six page Preface, there are three Sections.  The first runs a bit more than thirteen pages, the second is fully forty-two pages long -- more than half of the total book -- and the last section, the third, is seventeen pages.

The logical structure of the exposition is quite straightforward.  In Section One, Kant begins with what he takes to be the ordinary moral beliefs of good, decent Prussian peasants, and attempts to show that contained within those beliefs, if one thinks about it carefully, is a form of the principle of action that he calls variously The Moral Law and The Categorical Imperative [I shall explain the distinction a bit later on.]  Kant does not for a moment imagine that he is putting forward a new principle of morality.  Indeed, he thinks that such a notion is absurd.  But a good deal of over-intellectual philosophizing has served to confuse good people about what they all know in their bones, so he proposes to put our common understanding of morality on an absolutely firm footing.

However well-argued Section One may be, its conclusions are open to the objection that they are at all persuasive only to someone who happens to share the common understanding of morality that Kant there assumes, so in Section Two, Kant begins all over again with the concept of a Will, and undertakes to demonstrate what he has in Section One assumed.  This is quite obviously a daunting task, so we ought not to be surprised that it consumes fully half of the little book.  In Section Two, we find an explication of the notion of a Categorical Imperative and a derivation of its several of its alternative formulations, as well as the famous Four Examples of the Categorical Imperative, and the equally famous discussions of Humanity as an End in Itself and the Realm of Ends.

Section Two, I should note, contains a brief paragraph with the heading "The Autonomy of the Will as the Supreme Principle of Morality," in case anyone has ever wondered where I got the central, idea for my little book, In Defense of Anarchism.  This is of course also the source for the title of my Commentary on the Grundlegung, The Autonomy of Reason.

Section Three is devoted to dealing with the extremely tricky question of the precise logical status of the conclusions of Section Two.  Inasmuch as Kant has, he believes, established in the First Critique that we can never have knowledge of things as they are in themselves, and since he believes that it is as a self-in-itself, and not as a phenomenon in the Realm of Appearance, that my Reason can be practical, which is to say that I can in the full sense act, it is incumbent upon him to explain just what the status is of the propositions he purports to have established about rational willing and the principles that guide us as moral agents.  It is in this Section that Kant resolves the conflict between Free Will and Determinism, insofar as that conflict can in fact be resolved.

Well, that is the big picture.  Now we must descend into the weeds a bit.  Let us consider these sections in sequence.

Section One

In the Western tradition, there are several very different questions that seem to have motivated philosophers to write about what we can recognize as Ethics.  The first, historically, is the question posed repeatedly by Plato in the Dialogues:  What is the Good Life?  Is it a life devoted to the enjoyment of pleasure and the avoidance of pain?  Is it a life of contemplation and meditation?  Is it a life of virtuous action?

A second question is posed by the philosophers known as Utilitarians:  Is there a way of calculating what I ought to do, especially when confronted by difficult choices among competing claims upon my allegiance?  Ought I to weigh the pains and pleasures that my actions will cause myself or others?  Ought I to try to formulate some general rules to which I can adhere when faced with hard choices?

Neither of these questions seems to be what motivates Kant.  Instead, we might put his question in this way:  Knowing as I do, indeed as all good, decent people do, what I ought to do, how shall I understand and deal with the inner struggle between this knowledge and the many temptations to be ignore what I know to be my duty and to stray into a path of immorality?  In short, what is it my duty to do?

"Nothing in the world -- indeed nothing even beyond the world --can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will."  Thus Kant begins Section One.  It is, when you think about it, a rather odd place to start.  Neither Plato nor Aristotle nor Hobbes nor Hume nor Bentham would have recognized that statement as an appropriate place to begin an investigation of ethical theory, or indeed as an appropriate component of such an investigation at all.

It is worth quoting several passages from this opening Section of the Grundlegung to convey the flavor of Kant's ethical discourse.  Let me offer just two, from the first four pages:

"Intelligence, wit, judgment, and the other talents of the mind, however they may be named, or courage, resolution, and perseverance as qualities of temperament,, are doubtless in many respects good and desirable.  But they can become very bad and harmful if the will, which is to make use of these gifts of nature and which in its special constitution is called character, is not good.  (and so forth.)"

"[T]he more a cultivated reason deliberately devotes itself to the enjoyment of life and happiness, the more the man falls short of true contentment.  [This at least Aristotle would have agreed with... ed.]  From this fact, there arises in many persons, if only they be candid enough to admit it, a certain degree of misology, hatred of reason."

It comes as a surprise to learn that in his youth, Kant played billiards and was thought to be something of a man about town, although to be sure that town was Königsberg.

The bulk of Section One is devoted to stating and arguing for three propositions, each of which, Kant believes, is either acknowledged by common moral opinion or else follows directly from propositions that are so acknowledged.  The three propositions are:

First:  To have moral worth, an action must be done from duty [and not from inclination.  ed.]

Second:  An action done from duty does not have its moral worth in the purpose which is to be achieved through it but in the maxim by which it is determined.

Third:  Duty is the necessity of an action executed from respect for law.

In the next part, we shall explore these three propositions a bit and see where they lead.

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