Thursday, March 31, 2011

Kant & the foundation of morals

I've read some more of Michael Sandel's Liberalism and the Limits of Justice.

Sandel's aim is to criticise the influential Kantian strand of liberalism. Kant was an Enlightenment philosopher of the 18th century. He wanted to find a way to make individual autonomy the basis of morality.

This meant that the moral law could not be based on a concept of good and evil. If an understanding of good and evil defined morality, then individuals could not choose for themselves their own ends.

Therefore, morality was to be based instead on a concept of justice or right. What Kant wanted to show was that justice or right, defined as possession of autonomy, could have primacy over the good.

But how can this position be justified? Some liberals, such as the 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill, have attempted a teleological justification. In other words, the principle is justified in terms of final human purposes or ends.

Mill argued that rights took primacy for utilitarian reasons, namely that this increased the sum of human happiness. Mill wrote:

I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions

Sandel summarises Mill's position as follows:

On the utilitarian view, principles of justice, like all other moral principles, take their character and colour from the end of happiness. For "questions of ends are…questions about what things are desirable", and happiness is desirable, in fact "the only thing desirable as an end", because "people do actually desire it".

Traditionalists would not, of course, reduce principles of justice and morality to the end of happiness. Kant also rejected such a view, believing that if happiness were the ultimate end that justice or right might not always be given primacy.

Kant instead looked for a deontological justification of the primacy of right, one which did not rely on final human purposes. He claimed to have found it in the idea that the human subject itself is prior to any of its objects just as the right is prior to any good.

For Kant, therefore, the human subject is not grounded within a particular nature or within particular relationships or within a moral universe leading on to an understanding of the good. The human subject is abstracted from all this.

Kant's position is very much in line with modern liberalism. This is how Sandel describes the Kantian view:

On the deontological view, what matters above all is not the ends we choose but our capacity to choose them.

And this is how Sandel describes the abstracted view of the human subject:

His answer is that the basis of the moral law is to be found in the subject… a subject capable of an autonomous will… Only such a subject could be that "something which elevates man above himself as a part of the world of sense" and enables him to participate in an ideal, unconditioned realm wholly independent of our social and psychological inclinations.

So if Kant is an important founder of modern liberalism, what can we say about his philosophy? Well, it places what is right and just in opposition to what is good. It has an abstracted view of man as a moral actor. It assumes that human communities cannot share important moral goods. And it dramatically reduces the significance of our moral choices preferring instead to focus on agency.


  1. Mark said,

    "And it dramatically reduces the significance of our moral choices preferring instead to focus on agency."

    How does this fit in with the primacy given by Kant to morals, such as in the categorical imperitive?

  2. Like the proverbial man with a hammer, you seem to see everything as a nail, with the latter standing in for 'autonomy'. Kant is far less interested in 'autonomy' than in making rational, secular inquiry the basis of his thought. If 'autonomy' is there at all, it's secondary and incidental. Kant's challenge was to establish a purely rational, a priori basis to reason and ethics. I don't believe for a moment that he succeeded, but you would do well to represent him fairly, and perhaps to take him up on that challenge before blaming him for your own hang-ups.

  3. Wow, both excellent comments and the question by Jesse_7 is what immediately came to my mind.

    But, anyway, I think Mill had the right of it. I've found very few laymen who correctly understand what Mill was implying, however.

  4. Anon, it was Sandel's presentation of the argument I was trying to present fairly.

    Sandel stresses that both Kant and Mill wanted to give primacy to the right over the good but differed in the way they attempted to justify this philosophically. And why did they want to give primacy to the right? Because they saw an autonomous freedom as being crucially what they wanted to defend.

    Take this quote, for instance:

    "For Kant, the priority of right is 'derived entirely from the concept of freedom in the mutual external relationships of human beings, and has nothing to do with the end which all men have by nature"

    And the kind of morally based union he sought was aimed,

    "to secure justice and avoid the coercion of some by the convictions of others. Only in such a union can no one 'compel me to be happy in accordance with his conception of the welfare of others'."

    Anon, I agree with you that Kant was one of those involved in the programme to found morality upon "rational, secular inquiry". But I think you're wrong when you question if autonomy "was there at all" in his thinking.

    From the Stanford encyclopedia we get this description of Kant's "autonomy formula":

    "we are required according to this formulation to conform our behavior to principles that express this autonomy of the rational will...The autonomy formula presumably does this by putting on display the source of our dignity and worth..."

    And this:

    "At the heart of Kant's moral theory is the position that rational human wills are autonomous. Kant saw this as the key to understanding and justifying the authority moral requirements have over us. As with Rousseau, whose views influenced Kant, freedom does not consist in being bound by no law, but by laws that are in some sense of one's own making."

    And this:

    "we may think of a person as free when bound only by her own will and not by the will of another. Her actions then express her own will and not the will of someone or something else. The authority of the principles binding her will is then also not external to her will. It comes from the fact that she willed them. So autonomy, when applied to an individual, ensures that the source of the authority of the principles that bind her is in her own will. Kant's view can be seen as the view that the moral law is just such a principle. Hence, the ‘moral legitimacy’ of the CI is grounded in its being an expression of each person's own rational will."

    Kant's position as described here fits into the theory put forward by Jean Bethke Elshtain, that a critical shift in Western thinking was based on changes in the understanding of sovereignty.

  5. Jesse,

    I think I need to read further along the book to answer your question confidently. Sandel has presented an idea of the primacy of right or justice in Kant's thought to which the good is subordinate. How Sandel then connects this to Kant's formulation of the categorial imperative is not clear to me yet.

  6. Perhaps you should consider reading Kant says, rather than what someone else says he says. A primary source is always preferable to a secondary source, when available. I agree with Jesse_7's reference to the "categorical imperative", for a start, and I don't consider myself well read in Kant at all.

    Seriously, I'm not being sarcastic. A relative of mine is in a Bible study group concentrating on the book of Isiah in the old testament. First day of the study, my relation asked the teacher "What book do you intend to use?" and he's an old man from the old says, he replied "Isiah". His opinion is that reading books explaining a book is not a good use of time. Just read the primary source book and be done with it. Of course, this man has been studying theology for over 50 years, so he has a lot of it at his fingertips.

    Kant is heavy going, but not as bad as Hegel in my opinion.

    I also question the idea that any serious number of liberals today can be challenged on Kantian grounds; most of them have at best read the "Cliff's Notes" version of any philosophy at all. They don't know much of anything, and don't know they don't know.

    Unconscious ignorance. That's why liberals on average are unable to debate much of anything without resorting to slogans, or logical fallacies. There are a few exceptions. A few...