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A Kantian View of Moral Luck

  • A. W. Moore (a1)

Some of the most interesting questions about Kant, and more particularly about his moral philosophy, arise when he is placed alongside the giants of antiquity. Where does he come together with Plato? Where with Aristotle? Where does he diverge from each?

He comes together with Plato in a shared conception of Ideas. When he first outlines how he is using the term ‘Idea’ in the Critique of Pure Reason, he insists that he is using it in none other than its original Platonic sense; and he explains away certain discrepancies with the comment:

It is by no means unusual… to find that we understand [an author] better than he has understood himself. As he has not sufficiently determined his concept, he has sometimes spoken… in opposition to his own intention.

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1 Kant Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason (hereafter CPuR), translated by Smith Norman Kemp (London: Macmillan, 1933), A314/B370. The general discussion occupies Bk I, §1 of the ‘Transcendental Dialectic’. Cf. Gadamer Hans-Georg, ‘The Proofs of Immortality in Plato's Phaedo’, in Dialogue and Dialectic: Eight Hermeneutical Studies in Plato, translated by Smith P. Christopher (Yale University Press, 1980), 38.

2 See e.g. Plato , Gorgias, 523e525a. For a fascinating suggestion as to how Kant and Plato might be even more closely related, see Walker Ralph C. S., The Coherence Theory of Truth: Realism, Anti-Realism, Idealism (London: Routledge, 1989), 65. I think the suggestion is ultimately unten able, however.

3 This tendency is reflected to some extent in the structure of Williams's BernardEthics and the Limits of Philosophy (hereafter ELP) (London: Fontana Press, 1985). Chs 3 and 4 are respectively concerned with an Aristotelian and a Kantian attempt to found ethics; while much of Ch. 5 is concerned with utilitarianism. See also Lear Jonathan, Aristotle: The Desire to Understand (Cambridge University Press, 1988), 152 ff.

4 Cf. Cooper John M., Reason and Human Good in Aristotle (Harvard University Press, 1975), 8788; and the work of McDowell John, e.g. ‘Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?’, in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supp. Vol. 52 (1978), in which Kantian and Aristotelian elements are brought together. I am very grateful to Philip Turetzky not only for first suggesting to me how close Kant and Aristotle are but for many valuable conversations on these issues.

5 On the first two points see e.g. Kant , Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (hereafter Groundwork), trans. Paton H. J. (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 60 and 7980; and Aristotle , Nicomachean Ethics (hereafter NE), 1095a2–13, 1095a30–b13 and Bk I, Ch. 7, passim. Cf. Lear , Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, 193; and Nussbaum Martha C., The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 1986), Ch. 8. On the third point cf. Korsgaard Christine M., ‘Aristotle and Kant on the Source of Value’, in Ethics 96 (19851986).

6 See e.g. the Preface to Kant's Groundwork, esp. 5759 (though on 55 he writes, ‘[Moral philosophy] has to formulate its laws… for the will of man so far as affected by nature’). And see Aristotle, NE, Bk I, Ch. 7.

7 For a good discussion of how it is that our ergon might be shared by other, non-human beings (gods, say) see Nagel Thomas, ‘Aristotle on Eudaimonia’ in Rorty Amélie Oksenberg (ed.) Essays on Aristotle's Ethics (University of California Press, 1980), 10 ff.

8 Groundwork, 6264. See also Kant's Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (hereafter Religion), trans. Greene Theodore M. and Hudson Hoyt H. (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), Bk One, Ch. I, where he speaks of man's Bestimmung.

9 NE, Bk X, Chs 7 and 8.

10 See e.g. Critique of Practical Reason (hereafter CPrR), translated by Beck Lewis White (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1956), Pt I, Bk II, Ch. II, §III. See also The Critique of Judgement (hereafter CJ), translated by Meredith James Creed (Oxford University Press, 1978), beginning of §86. (Korsgaard, incidentally, whose focus in ‘Aristotle and Kant on the Source of Value’ is in fact this difference between them, thereby sees Kant as the one with the greater humanistic strain. She may well be right.)

11 Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, 155, his emphasis. The discus sion as a whole is on 154 ff.

12 The whole question of the role of luck in morality has been the focus of much recent discussion. See especially Nussbaum's The Fragility of Good ness and the articles by Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel, both entitled ‘Moral Luck’, originally published together but now recast and appearing respectively in Moral Luck (Cambridge University Press, 1981) and Mortal Questions (Cambridge University Press, 1979). See also Andre Judith, ‘Nagel, Williams and Moral Luck’, in Analysis 43 (1983); Lewis David, ‘The Punishment That Leaves Something to Chance’, in Philosophy & Public Affairs 18 (1989); and Richards Norvin, ‘Luck and Desert’, in Mind 95 (1986). I am grateful to Stephen Everson and Sabina Lovibond for helpful discussions on this, and to the former for directing me to a number of references.

13 CPuR, ‘Transcendental Doctrine of Method’, Ch. II, §2. (On the idea that virtue is its own reward see Wittgenstein Ludwig, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, translated by Pears D. F. and McGuinness B. F. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961), 6.422.)

14 At least in NE. There may be important differences between NE and other ethical works of his: see Cooper John M., ‘Aristotle on the Goods of Fortune’ in The Philosophical Review 94 (1985). The main Aristotelian references are in note 15 below.

15 See e.g. NE 1095b33–1096a2; Bk I, Ch. 10; Bk II, Chs 1, 2 and 4; and Bk X, Chs 8 and 9. But Cooper, in Reason and Human Good in Aristotle, Ch. II, §2, argues that Aristotle can be interpreted in a much more Kantian way; cf. his ‘Aristotle on the Goods of Fortune’, 196. And contrast Nussbaum's exegesis in The Fragility of Goodness, Chs 11 and 12. See also on this issue Irwin T. H., ‘Permanent Happiness: Aristotle and Solon’, in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 3 (1985), and Kenny Anthony, ‘Aristotle on Moral Luck’ in Human Agency: Language, Duty and Value, Dancy Jonathan, Moravcsik J. M. E. and Taylor C. C. W. (eds) (Stanford University Press, 1988). One of the bones of contention is the extent to which our own ‘most fundamental’ goodness is at the mercy of education (which is certainly beyond our control). For a somewhat Socratic view of education, as activating latent dispositions, see Kant's The Doctrine of Virtue, translated by Gregor Mary J. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964), ‘The Ethical Doctrine of Method’, §11. However, in Lectures on Ethics, translated by Infield Louis (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 4647, we find something more Aristotelian. Finally, for an indication of where Plato stands on these issues—somewhat closer to Kant than to Aristotle—see Euthydemus 278e—282d and Meno 87d—89a.

16 ‘Moral Luck’, 22, 39 and note 11. (And see 38 for the point about ubiquity.)

17 Cf. Adams Robert M., ‘Involuntary Sins’, in The Philosophical Review 94 (1985).

18 See e.g. Nagel , ‘Moral Luck’, 29; and Andre , ‘Nagel, Williams and Moral Luck’, 205.

19 For these distinctions, and for discussion of them, see Nagel , ‘Moral Luck’, and Williams , ‘Moral Luck’.

20 Cf. Andre , ‘Nagel, Williams and Moral Luck’, 203, and Richards , ‘Luck and Desert’.

21 Cf. in this connection Strawson P. F., ‘Freedom and Resentment’, in Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays (London: Methuen, 1974). Cf. also Kant, CPuR, A554–555/B582–583. Nagel , in ‘Moral Luck’, 26, explicitly rejects this kind of move.

22 ‘On a Supposed Right to Lie From Altruistic Motives’, in Critique of Practical Reason and Other Writings in Moral Philosophy, Beck Lewis White (ed. and trans.) (The University of Chicago Press, 1949).

23 I can point already to Religion, 35, and CPuR, A551/B579, footnote.

24 See the passage from Kant's The Metaphysical Elements of Justice, translated by Ladd J. (Indianapolis: TheBobbs-Merrill Co., 1965), quoted by Nussbaum on 31 of The Fragility of Goodness. Kant effectively equates the ‘ought’ of moral obligation with the ‘ought’ of practical deliberation. See Williams , ELP, 174 ff.

25 See Williams , ‘Moral Luck’, 20.

26 Cf. my ‘Aspects of the Infinite in Kant’, in Mind 97 (1988), 220.

27 Thus the moral law is to ‘act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’ (Groundwork, 88).

28 See e.g. Notebooks: 1914–1916, von Wright G. H. and Anscombe G. E. M. (eds) and translated by Anscombe G. E. M. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979), 7677 and 81.

29 E.g. Plato , Protagoras, 330c ff.

30 I am indebted here to Williams , ELP, 174ff. I hope that what I say in this essay does something towards answering the (semi-rhetorical) question that Williams poses in note 2 of that discussion (221).

31 See Groundwork, 107 and CPrR, 69.

32 I am grateful to members of the Stapleton Society at Liverpool University for drawing my attention to this point.

33 Williams Bernard urges (non-Kantian) scepticism about whether it is, in ‘Ethical Consistency’, in Problems of the Self (Cambridge University Press, 1973), 179. At first blush it seems easy to construct examples to support Williams's view; there is his own example on p. 180 of ELP. But in fact it is not at all clear what ice this example cuts. As Williams says, ‘to make the example realistic, one should put in more detail’. (Did you actually promise to visit your friend whatever might crop up? If so, why? Was that not rash?).

34 I am using the New English Bible translation (Oxford University & Cambridge University Presses, 1970). I shall use this translation for all subsequent quotations from the Bible.

35 Returning again to the caveat at the end of section I, it is here that the question of a gap between what is Kantian and what is in Kant is most delicate. Such a radical conception of freedom is, so far as I know, nowhere explicitly embraced by Kant, though arguably it is implicit in CPuR; A538–541/B566–569; in CPuR, ‘Transcendental Doctrine of Method’, Ch. II, §1; at the beginning and end of Ch. III of Groundwork; at the beginning of the Introduction to CPrR, and in the discussion of ‘Problem II’ on 28–30 of CPrR. Still, all that Kant strictly commits himself to is that a free will is a will subject to (its own) rational laws; it does not follow that for the will to be exercised freely is for it to be exercised in accordance with those laws. Indeed elsewhere in CPrR, on 32, Kant clearly moves in the other direction and insists that an irrational act, though ‘pathologically affected’, is not ‘pathologically determined’ and is still free. (The Willkür/Wille distinction, which is often invoked in discussions of this, is especially prominent in Religion. But there is much greater emphasis on it in the introductory essay, ‘The Ethical Significance of Kant's Religion’, by John R. Silber, than there is in Kant himself. Some of the issues that arise here—not all of them, by any means—are purely verbal.) Cf. in this connection Sidgwick Henry, The Methods of Ethics (London: Macmillan, 1907), Bk I, Ch. V, §1, and Allison Henry E., ‘Morality and Freedom: Kant's Reciprocity Thesis’, in The Philosophical Review 95 (1986), esp. §VI. In his discussion of ‘Theorem II’ on 20ff. of CPrR, Kant suggests that an irrational act is one where self-love has got the better of the agent. Religion, Bk. One, §III is very revealing in this respect. The suggestion that to succumb to temptation is to lose control of oneself, which is what we see here, is famously ridiculed by Austin J. L., in ‘A Plea For Excuses’, in Philosophical Papers, Urmson J. O. and Warnock G. J. (eds) (Oxford University Press, 1970), 198, footnote. But Austin does not take due account of the fact that there are myriad ways of losing control of oneself. It is interesting to compare all of this with Aristotle's discussion of akrasia, and related issues, in NE, Bk III, Chs 1 and 5 and Bk VII, Chs 3 and 4: Aristotle recoils from the idea that acting wrongly means acting involuntarily.

36 Kant's own discussion of original sin occurs in Religion, Bk One, §III. His views about overcoming it (extricating oneself from the trap) do, interestingly, reveal the importance to his thinking of the diachronic; see further below. Cf. CPuR, A316–317/B373–374. Cf. also in this connection the Aristotelian thought that one can become a morally bad person by repeatedly doing what is morally bad and getting into a habit; hence the importance of education (see NE, Bk II, Ch. 1).

37 For discussion see my ‘Aspects of the Infinite in Kant’.

38 ‘The Disappearing “We”’, in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supp. Vol. 58 (1984), 223.

39 Cf. St. Paul's letter to the Romans, Ch. VII, vv. 14–25, to which we shall return. Cf. also Adams , ‘Involuntary Sins’, where, on 4, we find the examples of unjust anger, hatred, contempt for others and lack of hearty concern for their welfare; Nagel , ‘Moral Luck’, 3233; and Schlossberger Eugene, ‘Why We Are Responsible for Our Emotions’, in Mind 95 (1986). Aristotle's contrasting view comes out in NE, Bk II, Ch. 5.

40 Cf. Williams , ELF, 177178 and 194. Much of this essay is meant as a response to Williams's critique.

41 Cf. Nagel , ‘Moral Luck’, 25, and Williams , ‘Moral Luck’, 21.

42 It is only right to point out that some of the parts omitted from this quotation make Kant's own position look somewhat further removed from the Kantian position being presented in this essay; see also, in this connection, the crucial disclaimer at A551/B579, footnote. The Kantian position is, however, adopted by Adams , in ‘Involuntary Sins’. See esp. 25.

43 Cf. McDowell , ‘Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?’

44 This is where the three dots of ellipsis come in the quotation above; the emphasis is mine. Cf. again CPuR, A551/B579, footnote.

46 I try to say a little more about how hope fits in The Infinite (London: Routledge, 1990), 232233.

47 Cf. above, section I. Kant discusses the regulative use of our Ideas in e.g. CPuR, ‘Transcendental Dialectic’, Bk II, Ch. II, §8.

48 ‘Aspects of the Infinite in Kant’.

49 Cf. Williams , ELP, 195.

50 Kant comments on this passage in Religion, 2425. Earlier, vv. 7–11 provide a fascinating critique of how the law of sin is able to get the upper hand in me; cf. Genesis, Ch. II, vv. 15–17 and Ch. III, vv. 1–7. Later in Paul's letter, Ch. VIII, vv. 18–25, we see how important hope is for him too. R. M. Hare makes much of the quoted passage in his discussion of ‘backsliding’ in Freedom and Reason (Oxford University Press, 1963), §5.1. Paul's psychological model is famously rejected by Davidson Donald in Part I of ‘How is Weakness of the Will Possible?’, in Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford University Press, 1980).

51 Letter to the Romans, Ch. VIII, vv. 1–2, my emphasis.

52 For further discussion of the tension between Kant's position and orthodox Christianity see Vossenkuhl Wilhelm, ‘The Paradox in Kant's Rational Religion’, in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 88 (19871988).

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