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Thursday, October 30, 2014


Some time in the late ‘60s, I gave a talk on Mill at a Columbia faculty seminar to which other scholars in the New York area were regularly invited.  After the talk, Hannah Arendt came up to say hello.  It was obvious that she had not been thrilled with the talk, but she was polite.  She asked me what I was working on at the moment and I replied that I was writing a book on Kant’s ethics [which was eventually published as The Autonomy of Reason.]  Her face lit up, and with a broad smile she said, “Ah.  It is always so much more pleasant to spend time with Kant.”

Recently, I have been worrying endlessly about the outcome of senatorial races in which neither of the candidates is anyone I would want to spend time with.  This morning, as we were watching the children with their rented sailboats at the lake in the center of the Jardin de Luxembourg, it occurred to me that it would really be much more pleasant to spend time with Kant.  So I decided to write a brief post summarizing the central thesis of my old paper, “The Completion of Kant’s Ethical Theory in the Tenets of the Rechtslehre.”  Kant’s argument, precisely where it fails, illuminates a number of things, among which are the limitations of social contract theory, the priority of political philosophy over ethical theory, the inescapability of the truth of philosophical anarchism, and the inadequacy of the central argument in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.  I have written about these subjects before in various places, but I suspect very few people interested in them have read what I have written, so this is an easy way for someone to get the gist of my writings on the subject without plowing through several of my books and articles.  At the very least, it will be more pleasant for me to spend some more time with Kant.

Kant undertakes in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals to demonstrate the absolutely unconditional universal validity of the fundamental moral law, a law that we mortals experience as an imperative, what Kant calls The Categorical Imperative.   Kant actually tries to establish this claim three times in the Groundwork.  His first try is the argument that the purely formal conditions of consistent willing, conditions laid down by Reason, suffice to demonstrate the validity of several substantive moral laws, the famous four examples of the Categorical Imperative.  The attempt is a pretty miserable failure, a fact recognized ever since by alert readers.

His second try is to argue that there are unconditioned ends, ends that any rational agent as such must necessarily aim at, most notably humanity, which Kant describes as an end-in-itself.  If there are in fact ends in themselves then the imperative to pursue such ends must be binding on all rational agents as such.  Now there is no doubt that the assertion “Humanity is an end in itself” is one of the noblest sentences ever penned.  It has only one tiny flaw.  It is, as it stands, meaningless.

Which leaves Kant with his third try at establishing the universal validity of the Moral Law a priori, namely the argument that in what he calls a Kingdom of Ends, which is to say a political community of rational agents, the laws that such a community would enact are the embodiment or instantiations of the Categorical Imperative.  There is no doubt in my mind that this is the most interesting and promising of Kant’s three attempts to establish the universal validity of the Moral Law.

Notice one of the implications of this move by Kant.  Generally speaking, Kant is thought of as one of those ethical theorists, like John Locke, who claims that moral obligation is logically prior to the social contract, as opposed to theorists like Jean-Jacques Rousseau who seems to claim that prior to the establishing of the social contract individuals are bound by self-interest, substituting the goal of the general good for the pursuit of private interest only as a result of the contract.  But in fact it turns out that Kant is with Rousseau on this crucial question, which should perhaps not surprise us when we recall how deeply influenced by Rousseau Kant was.

Obviously, Kant must successfully demonstrate that the members of the Kingdom of Ends will, in their legislation, necessarily legislate the Moral Law as the fundamental rule binding them all as members of the community.  However, if he is to show that this law is conditional, not hypothetical, in form, he must first prove that all human beings will be under a rational command to enter into a Kingdom of Ends.  Otherwise, even the Moral Law will have the hypothetical form, “If you choose to become a member of a Kingdom of Ends [i.e., If you choose to sign the Social Contract] then as a member of the kingdom of ends you must, as a rational agent, will collectively with your fellow members the Moral Law.”  This leaves it open to the self-interested amoralist simply to decline to sign the Contract, and so not be bound by the Moral Law which from Kant’s point of view would not do at all.

An argument demonstrating that human rational agents as such stand under a command of reason to join a Kingdom of Ends is to be found nowhere in the Grundlegung, but quite to my surprise, I found such an argument in Part One of Kant’s later work, The Metaphysics of Morals, the part devoted to the theory of justice [or law].  As you might expect, even in its simplest form the argument is quite complex.  I am going to summarize it in a few sentences.  Anyone really interested in the full argument is urged to consult my essay [and of course Kant’s text itself.]

Human agency manifest itself in the realm of appearances, hence in a material world governed by cause and effect.  In pursuit of my ends, whatever they may be, I may find it necessary to appropriate some portion of the material world, which is to say I may find it necessary to take de jure possession of it and to exclude others from its use.  There is no part of the material world that is in principle unownable [Kant’s ethical theory thus rules out all forms of ecological ethics.]  Regardless of my ends and purposes, I cannot know a priori that I will not need to take ownership of something or other.  Hence I can know a priori that property must be possible.  But a system of property that allows each person under appropriate circumstances to exclude others from a portion of the material world can come into existence only through a social contract that establishes the possibility of de jure possession.  Thus, from the mere fact that I as a phenomenal creature have ends, and hence stand under hypothetical imperatives, it follows necessarily that I am obliged to enter into rational community with others and collectively with them enact morally binding laws.

This still leaves open the question whether there is some specific system of fundamental laws that all rational communities as such will enact.  Rawls tries to prove that there is, and fails, as I demonstrate at length in my book Understanding Rawls.  But once Rawls has revised his theory to incorporate the device of the Veil of Ignorance, it is clear that he has failed as well to demonstrate the necessity of engaging in the Rational Choice exercise supposedly to take place under that Veil.

Well, it was good for a bit to stop thinking about the election next Tuesday.  Hannah Arendt seems to have been right.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Thanks for this, Prof. Wolff.

I have a couple of questions about the argument concerning agency and property.

1) why does human agency entail that I must take de jure possession of some portion of the external world, rather than de facto possession of it?

2) What does this kind of argument establish about the character of the property arrangements supposedly necessitated by the conditions of rational agency? Presumably, Kant is right that rational agency necessarily involves the private consumption/use of some portion of the external world. But isn't that different from it entailing that I should thereby acquire a private property right in the thing - which involves my right to dispose over and exchange the thing as I see fit?