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MORAL CONSTRUCTION AS A TASK: SOURCES AND LIMITS

  • Thomas E. Hill (a1)
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1 By calling a perspective “broadly Kantian” I mean to acknowledge that it draws heavily from Kant's ethical writings but does not follow Kant's texts in all respects. The broadly Kantian perspective that I sketch here and elsewhere modifies and supplements Kant's theory in various ways, one of which is its attempt to disassociate normative aspects of the theory from Kant's theory of noumenal freedom (as this is usually understood). I give a fuller (though still incomplete) description of the broadly Kantian perspective I have in mind in other essays, especially Hill, Thomas E. Jr., Respect, Pluralism, and Justice: Kantian Perspectives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), chaps. 2, 4, and 8; Hill, , Human Welfare and Moral Worth: Kantian Perspectives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), chap. 3; and Hill, , “Assessing Moral Rules: Utilitarian and Kantian Perspectives,” Normativity, Philosophical Issues (A Supplement to Noûs), vol. 15, edited by Sosa, Ernest and Villanueva, Enrique (2005): 158–78.

2 Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Zweig, Arnulf, ed. Hill, Thomas E. Jr., and Zweig, Arnulf (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 222–37 [4:421–38]. Bracketed numbers in all citations of Kant's works refer to volume and page numbers in the standard Prussian Academy edition.

3 The idea that moral principles can be constructed is a metaphor that can be illuminating in some respects but is also liable to be misleading. For example, the metaphor is intended to suggest that in order to reach reasonable conclusions about what moral principles require and what exceptions they allow, what is needed for practical purposes is not acute “perception” of natural or nonnatural metaphysical facts but rather reflection and discussion about what standards we have most reason to endorse in the light of certain basic moral values, norms of rationality, and relevant facts about the human condition and the more local conditions in which the principles are to be applied. The metaphor of construction would be misleading if it suggested that we may construct whatever principles we please as if we were children given a pile of miscellaneous materials with which to build something but without any given blueprint, purpose, or standard for construction. When I suggest that we may think of substantive principles (for example, about lying, stealing, and killing) as constructed (or to be constructed) from a broadly Kantian deliberative perspective, I do not mean to imply that they are (or are to be) constructed from morally neutral or value-free assumptions or from values that are themselves constructed in the same sense. In saying, in addition, that we may think of articulating the broadly Kantian deliberative perspective as a task for construction, I mean to suggest only that it remains an unfinished task in moral theory to work out and express as clearly as possible a description of the most basic constraints and guiding values that are reasonable, and appropriately called (broadly) “Kantian,” as a framework for assessing more substantive and derivative moral principles. When understood this way, construction of substantive principles need not be redundant or viciously circular, and construction of the deliberative basic perspective does not necessarily presuppose any particular metaethical theory. A more radical and controversial claim would be that all moral values and principles, including those treated as basic in a broadly Kantian deliberative perspective, are constructed in some further sense.

4 Philosophers have often noted important distinctions among the questions relevant to discussions of relativism and objectivity. An excellent example is Brandt, Richard, Ethical Theory (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1959), chap. 11.

5 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed. Curley, Edwin (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1994), part I, chap. 6, pp. 2829. This famous passage in Hobbes is open to several different interpretations. My concern here is with the idea I draw from Hobbes, which may or may not be exactly what Hobbes meant.

6 Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903, 1959).

7 For Kant's extreme position on lying, see “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy,” in Kant, Immanuel, Practical Philosophy, trans. and ed. Gregor, Mary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 605–15 [8:423–30]. Elizabeth Anscombe's view is expressed in her classic essay “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy 33 (1958): 1–19. Some other philosophers associated with virtue ethics (for example, Philippa Foot) have reportedly endorsed this view in discussions.

8 Ross, W. D., The Right and the Good (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), chap. 2. Ross held that it is the principles of prima facie duty together with the facts of the particular case at hand that determine one's actual duty, but because none of those principles is absolute and they cannot be ranked with respect to one another, one's actual duty can vary with even slight changes in circumstance. To say that one has a prima facie duty to keep one's promise in a particular case is, in effect, to say that the fact that one promised is a pro tanto or defeasible moral reason to keep the promise or, in other words, a reason for doing what was promised that is sufficient in the absence of weightier countervailing moral reasons but not necessarily decisive in all contexts.

9 Dancy, Jonathan, Ethics without Principles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), chap. 1.

10 Principles can be more or less general and comprehensive. In Kant's moral theory, the various formulations of the Categorical Imperative are supposed to express the supreme moral principle, which is the most general principle relevant to all questions about what we morally ought to do. What I call “intermediate-level principles” (or sometimes just “specific principles”) are not as general and comprehensive, applying only to certain kinds of often-recurring cases, for example, cases involving lies, theft, various sexual practices, developing one's talents, giving aid to the needy, etc. These are intermediate in generality between the Categorical Imperative and extremely specific rules and judgments concerned with a narrowly restricted range of cases (e.g., the special responsibilities of doctors and social workers regarding patients with Alzheimer's disease). Kant outlines a system of intermediate-level principles for law and individual ethics in Kant, Immanuel, The Metaphysics of Morals, trans. and ed. Gregor, Mary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

11 The act-utilitarian standard (roughly) is that one ought to do whatever brings about, or is expected to bring about, the most good (e.g., pleasure or well-being) in the long run. The standards of rule-utilitarianism are more complex to state because of various necessary qualifications, but the main idea is that one ought to conform to a set of rules (a code) the internalization of which by most people would bring about the most good. See Hooker, Brad, Ideal Code and Real World (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), 1–2 and 33. Ross's basic standards are his principles of prima facie duty concerning fidelity, gratitude, reparation, justice, self-improvement, non-injury, and beneficence. See note 8. Kant's basic standards or deliberative procedures are expressed in the several formulations of the Categorical Imperative. See note 2.

12 The opposing theorists include not only nihilists (who dismiss morality entirely) but also subtle expressivists (who deny literal truth and validity to moral principles but do not deny their importance) and particularists (who affirm particular moral truths, possibly even similar ones in different cultures, but deny that there are basic general standards). Another possible view would be that there are general standards that are basic and true or valid within different historical or cultural contexts but no basic moral standards that are true or valid for all contexts.

13 The relevance of various empirical facts to Kant's basic normative claims is not obvious. Kant evidently believed that virtually every mature and competent moral agent, at least every one in relatively “advanced” or “enlightened” parts of the world (and history), has practical reason and a conscience that acknowledges “the moral law,” no matter how badly he or she may behave. He also thought that reason can be latent and conscience dulled, and that “evil” people intentionally elect to subordinate their moral predispositions. See Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, 160–61 [6:400–401] and 189–91 [6:438–40], and Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, ed. Allen Wood and George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 179–80 [6:184–87] and 45–65 [6:19–44]. Kant's deplorable anthropological remarks about peoples of other “races” at least suggest that, in his opinion, even the capacity for morality may be more limited than his inspiring words about human dignity would seem to imply. See Boxill, Bernard and Hill, Thomas E. Jr., “Kant and Race,” in Race and Racism, ed. Boxill, Bernard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 448–71. It remains a difficult question to what extent Kant's main theses and arguments depend on his empirical beliefs and prejudices. Groundwork I starts with assertions about common rational knowledge of morality and proceeds to analyze their presuppositions. If Kant was mistaken about how wide the community that shared the “common” beliefs is, this would limit the interest in his main argument, making it applicable only to those who share the common beliefs. This, however, would not necessarily refute or render useless the sort of conditional (“analytical” style) argument that he admitted the argument in Groundwork I to be. Similarly, Groundwork II argues that our common conception of duty has certain striking presuppositions, but Kant concedes rather dramatically that this does not entail even that “we” who have that conception are really under moral obligations—and, all the more, the argument clearly does not entail that human beings who lack the conception are under moral obligations. In Groundwork III, and the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant tries to convince readers of the stronger claim that all agents with practical reason are subject to the moral requirements prescribed by the Categorical Imperative, but he is committed to the idea that these arguments cannot rest on empirical claims (for example, the claim that, as a matter of fact, all cognitively competent human beings acknowledge these moral requirements or would do so after being given rational arguments). See sections I and II of Kant's Groundwork and, for an interpretation of the main arguments of those sections, see my “Analysis of Arguments,” in Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Zweig, Arnulf and ed. Hill, Thomas E. Jr., and Zweig, Arnulf (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 195–245 [4:393–445] and 109–14. See also Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. and ed. Gregor, Mary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 28–64 [5:30–50]. If Kant's conception of duty and a good will were limited to eighteenth-century Prussians, the interest in his arguments would be severely limited in scope, but there is apparently a wider audience that shares Kant's conception of duty, or at least the belief that a moral duty is what one has sufficient reason to do and not just because it serves one's interests. Whether, despite objections, Kant's arguments have any merit remains a controversial question, not easily settled by reference to anthropological facts and still subject to doubts of other kinds.

14 See note 7 above.

15 In Kantian theory, as I understand it, “values” are not entities or facts independent of what rational agents would care about (or “value”) in various conditions. To say that humanity is a basic Kantian value, then, is not to claim that it has a perceptible quality that explains and justifies the idea that we have a rational requirement or good reasons to respect it. Saying that humanity is a basic value implies that it should be respected; i.e., we have a rational requirement or good reasons to respect it, because these are just different ways of saying the same thing. The Kantian view, so construed, is an instance of what T. M. Scanlon calls the “buck-passing” view of value—that is, value-claims do not state the justifying basis of reason-claims but rather express the idea that there are good reasons for taking certain (not yet specified) attitudes and actions toward the thing. Scanlon, T. M., What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 95100.

16 Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 222–37 [4:421–38].

17 Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, parts I and II, 1–170 [6:203–413].

18 Ibid., 16–17 [6:224–25].

19 Ibid., 153 [6:390].

20 The formula of universal law states: “Act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 222 [4:421]. A variation that Kant uses in discussing his examples is: “Act as though the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.” Kant, Groundwork, 222 [4:421]. The formula of humanity states: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in any other person, always at the same time as an end, never as a means.” Kant, Groundwork, 230 [4:429]. Distinguished scholars have interpreted these formulas in different ways, many of which I review in my essay “Kantian Normative Ethics,” in David Copp, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 480–514.

21 See note 1 for references to my fuller discussions of this Kantian perspective. According to David Falk in conversation, the frequent translation of Reich der Zwecke as “kingdom of ends” is due to H. J. Paton's insistence on using the term in his translation of Kant's Groundwork despite Falk's warning that the translation is misleading. Paton, H. J.'s translation is Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (New York: Harper and Row, 1964). A Reich (literally) is a state or commonwealth, a governing legal system that may or may not involve a king or monarch. There is a possible analogy with biblical talk of a “kingdom of God” that may have influenced Kant but is not essential to his idea. When Kant describes the “kingdom of ends” (Reich der Zwecke) in the Groundwork, it has a “head” with features only possible for a divine being, but the head has no function apparently but to endorse the same rational principles as every other member. The primary difference is that the “head,” who is not conceived as a political sovereign with independent legislative authority, lacks sensuous temptations to act contrary to reason and so is not “subject to” or “bound by” the rational principles. That is, they are not moral “imperatives” for the divine being.

22 Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 231–37 [4:431–37].

23 Ibid., 237 [4:436–37].

24 Hill, “Assessing Moral Rules: Utilitarian and Kantian Perspectives,” 168–69; emphasis in original.

25 Of course, they will rule out certain acts as immoral and show that others are morally required, but they do so by demanding that our deliberations, choices, and intentions are compatible with the prescribed attitudes. It is not as though one could muster up a motivationally inert and non-reason-giving “inner state of mind,” such as a mere wish or “pure thought,” and then anything one does will be permitted.

26 As Fred Miller has noted in discussion, theories that aim to derive specific principles from a “self-interested” or any other deliberative point of view will not be able to reach any substantive conclusions unless they explain the interests or values that motivate the parties taking the deliberative (or contractual) perspective. “Self-interest” can be conceived in different ways, for example, as having the most pleasure possible, as realizing one's most important personal ends, or as Aristotelian eudaimonia. In Hobbes's state of nature, those who make the social contract are conceived as moved by their various desires, especially the predominant desire to survive, and their desires are always for some “good” for themselves. In Rawls's “original position,” the parties are exclusively motivated to secure, within the constraints of the choice situation, the most favorable mix of “primary goods” (e.g., wealth, income, opportunities, powers, and self-respect) for themselves. They are mutually disinterested for purposes of deliberation under a veil of ignorance that bars them from knowing their special talents and circumstances, but they “represent” themselves as actual persons in the real world who may have deep religious convictions, family ties, and even altruistic dispositions. Both Rawls and Hobbes (on my reading) conceive of the parties in the relevant deliberative position (Rawls's original position and Hobbes's state of nature) as not motivated by explicitly moral concerns. The choice situations are deliberately defined to ensure that we can draw moral conclusions from arguments that the parties in those choice situations would endorse certain principles, but the parties themselves are not engaged in moral reflection. There are some theoretical advantages in conceiving of the parties' motivations as nonmoral, but, following Kant, my broadly Kantian deliberative perspective nevertheless conceives of the “legislators” of specific moral principles as motivated in part by stipulated basic moral values (for example, humanity as an end in itself). This approach, of course, invites questions about how the stipulated values can be defended and whether, given that moral values are stipulated, arguments for specific principles are circular or redundant. My brief discussion here suggests Kantian responses, but these questions obviously require more attention.

27 John Locke's political philosophy employs the idea of reasonable agreements or contracts that were, or would be, made by persons who take for granted certain fundamental moral norms (the “laws of nature”) as requirements of reason. Locke then tries to justify various specific principles regarding government, revolution, etc., by arguing that these principles would be endorsed by contracting parties who have personal interests but are also committed to these laws of nature (as moral guides and constraints). Thomas Hobbes, by contrast, tries to justify principles regarding government, law, etc., by arguing that rational persons in a state of nature would have sufficient prudential grounds, apart from any independent moral commitments, to accept those principles to be enforced by a sovereign power. Interpretations differ, but on my reading Locke, like Kant, is explicitly arguing from basic general moral values to more specific moral principles. Hobbes is apparently more concerned to avoid potentially controversial assumptions about moral values and instead to justify specific principles as rationally prudent to accept and follow if one is assured that others will. Among those principles are Hobbes's “other laws of nature,” many of which resemble familiar moral norms, but Hobbes apparently regards these as rationally binding only because following them serves to enhance one's power to survive and satisfy one's desires. See John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, in Classics of Moral and Political Theory, ed. Michael L. Morgan (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co.), esp. chaps. 1–9; and Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, part I, esp. chaps. XIV and XV. We should note, however, that I have been comparing a Kantian moral perspective with the political theories of Locke and Hobbes. A comparison of the latter with Kant's political and legal theory is complicated because the relation between the Categorical Imperative and Kant's principles regarding law is unclear and controversial.

28 Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other, esp. chaps. 2, 4, and 5.

29 Those who were looking for a logical demonstration or empirical confirmation of Kant's basic value claims are likely to find this appeal to their moral consciousness initially disappointing and perhaps not even worth calling a “defense.” It also falls short of Kant's ambitious project in Groundwork III to “establish” that anyone who acts for reasons does so “under the idea of freedom” and is therefore committed to the Categorical Imperative as a supreme standard. However, given a background of arguments against other moral theories, the attempt to get us to see, in our own reflections, that we deeply and persistently acknowledge certain basic moral values as rational might suffice, for practical purposes, in response to certain kinds of theory-driven doubts about whether acting morally makes sense.

30 See Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 242–45 [4:441–44], and Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 32–36 [5:35–41].

31 Psychological egoism, as I understand it, is the view that, as a matter of fact, every person is always ultimately motivated by the desire to advance his or her own interests. It can take different forms, depending on how “one's own interests” is interpreted and how deep or near the surface self-interested desires are taken to be.

32 Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, Revised Edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 18–19, 42–45, and 507–8.

33 Ibid., esp. part I, 10–19.

34 Rawls takes up various practical problems in part II of A Theory of Justice, for example, toleration of the intolerant (190–94), governmental institutions to promote just distribution of wealth and income (242–51), justice between generations (251–58), and civil disobedience (319–31).

35 Rawls, John, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

36 Kant says: “[M]y claims about this central question [the nature and justification of the supreme principle of morality] would be greatly clarified by seeing the application of that supreme principle to the whole system, and they would be strongly confirmed by the adequacy the principle would manifest throughout.” Kant, Groundwork, 193–94 [4:492]; emphasis added. He nevertheless strongly condemns any attempt to derive fundamental moral principles from examples. See, for example, Groundwork, 208–14 [4:406–12]. The Metaphysics of Morals contains his most systematic attempt to present and support a system of intermediate-level principles.

37 Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 245–48 [4:444–48].

38 Ibid., 248–57 [4:448–58].

39 Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 28–64 [5:30–50].

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