Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Kant on Rationalization

Will moral philosophers behave better than non-philosophers? Kant seems to imply as much. From the Groundwork (1785/2002, Ch. 1):

A wonderful thing about innocence -- but also something very bad -- is that it cannot defend itself very well and is easily led astray. For this reason even wisdom -- which otherwise is more a matter of acting than knowing -- also needs science [i.e., Wissenschaft: academic learning], not in order to learn from it, but in order to gain access and durability for what it prescribes. Human beings feel within themselves a powerful counterweight opposed to all the commandments of duty... the counterweight of needs and inclinations.... From this there arises a natural dialectic -- that is, a tendency to quibble with these strict laws of duty, to cast doubt on their validity or at least on their purity and strictness, and, if possible, to make them conform better to our wishes and inclinations....

In this way, common human reason is driven... to take a step into the field of practical philosophy. There it seeks instruction and precise direction as to the source of its own principle and about the correct function of this principle in contrast with maxims based on need and inclination. It ventures into philosophy so as to escape from the perplexity caused by conflicting claims and so as to avoid the risk of losing all genuine moral principles through the obscurity into which it easily falls.
Generally speaking, Kant interpretation is not for the faint-hearted, but this passage seems straightforward enough, even lucid: Without philosophy, our moral thinking is apt to be tangled up with self-serving impulses. We're apt to be led astray, illegitimately justifying just what it is that we desire. Philosophical reason, because it sees more accurately the true principles of morality, tends to counter such self-serving rationalizations.

From this it seems to follow that the more we beef up the philosophical end of the "dialectic" -- that is, the more we reflect on moral principles -- the more steadily we will see the moral right and the less will selfish desires entangle our understanding. This is the "science" that ordinary wisdom needs to "gain access and durability for what it prescribes".

As I see it, the issue is empirical. Does training in philosophical ethics help insulate one from ethical confusion due to self-serving impulses? Do ethicists engage in less rationalization? Does some principle, some unblinking knowledge of the right shine through?

Or, instead, does ethics tend to give one additional resources for rationalization? The ethicist may see more easily than others through the crudest, stupidest rationalizations -- but might this gain may be offset, or even more than offset, by a talent for subtle, sophisticated rationalizations...?


ADHR said...


Doesn't this lead back into the question of whether adherents of different normative/substantive theories diverge on their tendencies to follow those theories in practice? (I can't recall at this point if it was you or Leiter -- or someone else! -- who raised the possibility originally.) After all, I doubt Kant would think doing, say, utilitarian moral philosophy would be more conducive, or maybe as conducive, to doing right as doing Kantian moral philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Something you might want to look into is the motivation for people to get into ethical philosophy in the first place. Is it because they want to improve the world by convincing others to be ethical through reasoned argument? or more likely, because they like to prove how smart they are through their clever philosophical arguments? (the reason I am making this blog comment? ;-)) Or maybe because they have a guilty conscience they want to assuage, by turning ethics into a philosophical game, rather than the serious moral question of right and wrong? Or maybe because they consider themselves intrinsically unethical or evil and are looking for a way to use logic to dig their way out of that?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, adhr & kenf!

Adhr: Well, Kant doesn't limit his remarks to any particular type of moral philosophy. He might say that philosophy will tend to support, overall, the right principles -- either through leading reflective people, on average, to roughly Kantian views or through the fact that Kantians and utilitarians and virtue ethicists can really agree on quite a lot -- e.g., condemning self-serving dishonesty in almost all situations. But you might be right that he'd think that utilitarian-style moral philosophizing would actually be no better than (or even worse than) common sense blown about by one's inclinations. Is there any textual basis for one interpretation rather than another? Based *just* on this passage, I think my interpretation is the more likely.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Kenf: I do wonder about the psychology of attraction to ethics. I would *hope* that an important part of it, for many, would be a commitment to the importance and value of morality. But if so, then it's odd that ethicists don't -- or don't seem to, according to my research so far -- show much more of a tendency to behave morally than others. So less appealing motivations, like the ones you mention, start to suggest themselves as hypotheses.

My son Davy (six or seven at the time) suggested to me that most of the people who talk about sharing and being good and being fair do so really because they want YOU to share with them, be good to them, be fair to them. That suggests a way in which interest in morality may be self-serving at root.

ADHR said...


Heh -- couldn't tell you. I've read most of the first Critique, but that relates to ethics only peripherally. I don't recall, off-hand, anything that might decide the issue in the Groundwork.

I've thought for a while, though, that Kant had a weird sort of convergence idea working in the background of his ethical thought, i.e., that if everyone really thought about ethics, they'd all just happen to conclude that his system was correct. (Sort of Cartesian in spirit, I suppose.) That may be more of me than Kant, however. As said, I can't come up with textual support for the suggestion.

Brad C said...

adhr and Eric,

This footnote from chapter 2 of the Groundwork seems somewhat relevant:

"I have been asked why teachings about virtue containing so much that is convincing to reason nevertheless achieve so little. The answer is just this: the teachers themselves haven’t brought their concepts right out into
the clear; and when they wish to make up for this by hunting all over the place for motives for being morally good so as to make their medicine have the right strength, they spoil it. Entertain the thought of an act of honesty performed with a steadfast soul, with no view towards any advantage in this world or the next, under the greatest temptations of need or allurement.

You don’t have to look very hard to see that conduct like this far surpasses and eclipses any similar action that was affected - even if only slightly - by any external action-driver. It elevates the soul and makes one want to be able to
act in this way. Even youngish children feel this, and one should never represent duties to them in any other way."

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks adhr and Brad!

That is a neat quote, Brad. I read it as about the effectiveness of ethics instruction to novices rather than about the moral behavior of experts. One thing that's nice about it, though, for the issues in this post is that it implicitly suggests that Kantian moral instruction and reflection will be effective in promoting moral behavior.

I actually raised a concern similar to Kant's in an early post: Why Do the Good Guys Always Win in Morality Tales?