Why ask about the good of free rational willing?
We have seen arguments that, for Kant, free rational willing is the good at which practice ought ultimately to aim – that free rational willing is, for Kant, the moral good. We have seen, that is, that the value of free rational willing grounds, for Kant, the commands of morality, and that our interest in free rational willing is what moves us to follow these commands. Here, we need to ask another question, namely, what allows free rational willing to play all these roles? What, that is, is so appealing about it? Kant thinks an interest in free rational willing is strong enough to compete with sensuous desire in moving our wills. Why? How? Wherein lies the pull of free rational willing?
These questions will seem distinctly unKantian to some. For some, insistence that morality eschew incentives, interests, or motives is a hallmark of Kantian thought. However, as we have seen, Kant's real claim is that morality must eschew empirical and external incentives, interests, and motives. The answers I offer here to these questions will also seem distinctly unKantian to some. I address the question of what pulls us toward free rational will in terms of appealing experiences and lived self-awarenesses. But this can seem all wrong, since free rational willing is noumenal if anything is: how could it appeal, attract, be experienced, be something like a ‘phenomenon’ with pull, at all?
This chapter aims to defend an alternative to a widespread formalist interpretation of Kant's moral theory. It does so via a close reading of Kant's canonical arguments for his moral law in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Practical Reason. On the interpretation I defend here, Kant's famous categorical imperative urges the ‘free will to will itself.’ This is of course how Hegel put it. To put Kant's moral imperative this way is not, in my view, nor was it in itself for Hegel, a criticism of Kant, though Hegel of course did criticize Kant. Rather, it is to argue that Kant's moral law, expressed in the categorical imperative, has as its specific end the free rational activity of the will itself.
The first part of this chapter traces the roots of the formalist reading, and shows what Kant's formalism (really) demands, and what it doesn't. My aim is to loosen the grip of a formalist ban on asking what Kant cares about, or what his moral theory aims at, by showing that Kant didn't want to silence those inquiries. Having carved out permission to ask, directly, what Kant cares about, what he values, what his moral theory aims at, I turn to Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and Critique of Practical Reason discussions of the moral law (the categorical imperative) and read them with these questions in mind.
Reason, in practice, has to do with a subject and especially with its faculty of desire.
Like many people I know, I often try to draw abstract, non-spatio-temporal things on blackboards. When I start trying to draw the Kantian will, students become particularly hopeful. Having a clear picture of this unwieldy faculty would make life a lot easier – but after the first few circles and arrows, we all end up discouraged. There are too many different parts and pieces, interacting in too many different ways. These early chapters represent my efforts at offering, instead, a sketch in writing of the complicated Kantian will.
Kantian will is complicated because it is at once a faculty that desires, makes choices, and issues action-guiding rules. To say it desires is to say that it wants and wishes, that it has inclinations and interests. To say it makes choices is to say that it decides between possible ends or aims of action, picking which desires we act upon. To say it issues action-guiding rules is to say that it is a faculty that formulates maxims, as well as rules for deciding among possible maxims; it is to say that will authors, and represents to itself, and determines itself according to, principles.
To further complicate matters, Kantian will – encompassing desire, choice, and rule-making – is also at once thoroughly rational and thoroughly free, and also often incompletely rational and incompletely free.
There are times in philosophy, as in life, when the way a problem is framed, the way the alternatives are formulated, makes you feel like your head is going to explode. This was the case for me when, in college, I first encountered John Rawls' effort to separate the political from the moral, and found others echoing, as though it were unproblematic and even helpful, a distinction between ‘the right’ and ‘the good.’ The former was meant to be impersonal and somehow suited for public institutions, a matter of ground rules and shared principles, and of duties to which there could not be exceptions, while the latter was best articulated and pursued in ways that were personal and private, an ideal suited to, say, intimate relationships where sensitivity and particularity were called for. What were these people talking about? Connections were drawn to ‘liberal neutrality,’ to the attractions of a conception of right able to accommodate ‘competing conceptions of the good’; those critical of abstract descriptions of right championed Habermas' ‘more grounded’ approach. But, I thought, isn't the right only right because it is in some important sense good? How could there be a political (public, juridical, institutional) vision that isn't based on (designed to accommodate, realize, and/or protect) some moral conception of human flourishing?
I realize that blame for mapping the terrain of practical philosophy in ways that segregated ‘good’ and ‘right’ probably should not all be heaped on Rawls.
THE STRANGE THING
“The thing is strange enough and has no parallel in the remainder of practical knowledge” (KpV 5:31). So writes Kant about the activity of human will. According to Kant, human will authors an ultimate action-guiding principle – a moral law – that tells what matters most and how to act accordingly. It binds itself to this law, experiencing the law's commands as absolute and expecting as reward neither happiness nor heaven, eschewing both sensuous and divine incentives. According to Kant, human will understands the moral law it has authored as holding not only for itself but universally. The strange activity of this strange thing is strange for many reasons. It is free in a determined world; it subjects itself to itself, despite the seeming paradox of this; in the end, and strangest of all, the will that authors and can bind itself to moral law is itself what matters most, is itself the aim of morality. The strange will is thus its own object: at the heart of Kant's moral theory is, to use Hegel's words, “the free will which wills the free will.” The moral law that Kantian free will authors is, to put it another way, strangely and ingeniously self-serving. This book is about all these strange things, and especially about why, for Kant, the strange, free, law-giving will is its own ultimate aim.
The problem is a problem of long standing. In the Presidential Address to the December 2001 Eastern Division American Philosophical Association Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, for instance, Virginia Held raised doubts about research programs in ethics that insist on naturalism. Held targeted recent efforts in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology to ground ethics in natural facts about human beings, and argued against philosophical projects – like those of Daniel Dennett, Paul Churchland, and Allan Gibbard – that seek to give ethics psychobiological foundations. She cautioned fellow feminist thinkers against embracing naturalism, congenial as embracing nature might seem, especially to thinkers – Held names Annette Baier – eager to revalue the ‘natural’ moral practices of care, and to generally reclaim the denigrated natural sphere – home to bodies, emotions, and the mundane, messy, as well as ‘sinful’ facts of reproduction – to which women have often been consigned. Held's argument, roughly, was that nature, by its very nature, cannot be turned to for answers about what is morally good, what evil, what called for, what forbidden. We rebel, as we should, against systems of gender hierarchy, no matter how rooted in ‘nature.’ We reject, as we should, callous selfishness, again no matter how natural. The normative, Held argued, cannot come from the natural; we should not try to ground moral oughts, her thought goes, in what ‘by nature’ is.
In this second stage of a three-stage effort to sketch the Kantian will, we turn to the structure of practical rationality, that is, to the structure of the will insofar as will is, for Kant, reason in its practical employment. This stage of the effort will take us through the architecture of Kantian practical reason. We will look at the kinds of representations and propositions, and at the kinds of possible relations between them that, taken together, constitute practical reason's basic structure and internal logic.
WILL AS PRACTICAL REASON: PRACTICAL RULES, LAWS, AND PRINCIPLES
A first thing to do is to clarify the many terms that figure in Kant's descriptions of practice, or action. Practice (or action), properly speaking, consists for Kant in movement according to rules we represent to ourselves – we saw this in Chapter 2. But what does Kant mean by ‘rule’? ‘Rule’ is, for Kant, a fairly all-purpose term. Rules, or, in German, Regeln, either describe or prescribe regularities. Plants grow toward the sun; the first word of a sentence is capitalized; parking after 6 p.m. is by permit only. Each of these is a kind of rule. Now rules, as both we and Kant use the term, can admit of exceptions. Fungi, though plants, spurn sunlight; sentences in many non-Latin alphabets, in some other character sets, and in many people's emails, do not begin with capitalized letters; parking regulations may be suspended during special events. We might say that rules can apply contingently or locally.
AN OVERVIEW OF THE FREE KANTIAN WILL
The third and final stage in this initial sketch of Kantian will is focused on the will's freedom. For Kant, freedom in the most central sense consists in being self-determining, that is, in being a kind of causality whose determining ground is internal and not external (see, e.g., A444–6/B472–4). Given the ground we have already covered, we can easily see that, for Kant, a will determinable by reason itself, that is, a will that can give itself an end and a corresponding law of action, is also for this reason and at the same time a free will. The aim of this short final chapter on the will is to say this again, in greater detail, and to show how it is related to some of Kant's more famous discussions of freedom and the good will.
Despite the brief gloss just given, freedom is a complicated business for Kant. Just as there is for Kant a sense of rationality according to which rationality pervades all action and a sense of rationality according to which rationality is something to achieve, and can be achieved more or less, so there is a sense of freedom according to which freedom pervades all choice and all action, and a sense of freedom according to which freedom is something to achieve, and can be achieved more or less.
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