Heart of the moral matter

Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy
April 12, 2002

This is another valuable contribution from an author who has had an unparalleled impact on moral and political philosophy over the past three decades. Until the publication of John Rawls's path-breaking A Theory of Justice , utilitarianism had been the dominant tradition in political philosophy - the only plausible systematic theory available, although many were dissatisfied with it.

A Theory of Justice offers a compelling alternative, which understands the justice of social and political institutions in terms of their fairness, and fairness in terms of what each person could reasonably agree to, in ignorance of their position in society. This "veil of ignorance", as Rawls calls it, excludes personal bias from the choice of institutions. Given that each person has only one life to lead, and that the institutions chosen could have a drastic impact on life chances, Rawls argues that from behind the veil, individuals will choose to ensure that the position of the worst off is as good as possible.

Although A Theory of Justice focused on the fairness of social and political institutions, its impact went beyond political philosophy. At the core of Rawls's account of justice is Kant's idea that respect for people as rational, autonomous agents entails acting on principles that those people can endorse. Publicly justifiable principles are those that people will support as a basis for governing their interactions in society. Rawls terms this view of principles, for a society as constructed by the people in it, "constructivism". Not only does it offer a powerful method of political justification that embodies what many felt was missing in utilitarian political theory, it seems equally compelling as the basis for an alternative to utilitarian moral theory. Working out a Rawlsian-inspired Kantian moral theory has been a common project among Kantian scholars, especially Rawls's students.

We now have access to the lectures that inspired those students. Because of Rawls's pervasive influence, we have here the basis of a whole tradition of Kantian moral theory, so these lectures are an excellent introduction to an entire modern approach to ethics.

Rawls's analysis of Kant focuses on the heart of his doctrine and brings out what is plausible in it, rather than getting bogged down in piecemeal criticisms. For example, when he discusses Kant's notorious first formulation of the categorical imperative, he acknowledges its problems and supplies a workable solution to them that is in line with the spirit of Kant's overall doctrine.

This resourceful use of the whole Kantian corpus is also evident in his application of an often-unread text, The Religion , to a classic objection to Kant's moral theory. From Kant's Foundations , one gets the impression that for him, moral agents are free only when they act out of duty. Immoral actions are due not to free choice but to the unfortunate influence of desire on our behaviour. On this view of our moral psychology, we must see ourselves as engaged in a pitched battle against our desires for control of our actions.

Rawls introduces a subtler picture from The Religion , according to which immoral desires influence action only because we have freely chosen to act on them. Moreover, when they are not immoral, they are legitimate grounds for choice.

While Rawls's approach brings out what is powerful in Kant, those with sympathies towards other moral theories may feel that some of Kant's key moves call for more critical scrutiny. Rawls describes one such move as follows: "The powers of practical reason are essential to our humanity as reasonable and rational. Hence the capacity for a good will specifies the scope of the moral law, that is, its range of application." The transition in Kant's argument, explained in these two sentences, is large. Although it is relatively uncontroversial that the good will, based on the powers of practical reason and moral sensibility, is a necessary condition for our being able to act morally and the key source of human dignity, it is far from clear that the scope of morality is grounded in these capacities. A utilitarian will appeal to the widespread thought that if anything has basic moral importance, it is suffering. For Kant, suffering matters morally only in virtue of its being something that rational agents care about. One worry this raises is that it is the wrong kind of explanation of the moral badness of suffering. A second worry is that animals that lack rational autonomy are not included in the scope of morality, despite their capacity to flourish or suffer.

Rawls's discussion of alternative moral traditions such as utilitarianism seems to serve principally as a foil to the explication of Kant. Hume is the closest we come to a rival, and then Rawls is less resourceful in finding the passages in Hume from which we can arrive at the most charitable and appealing view of his moral thought. For example, Rawls claims that Hume has no account of practical reason. But many passages in Hume do suggest one. In addition, Rawls draws an overly sharp contrast between Hume's account of moral worth, which he takes to be purely instrumentalist, and Kant's, as grounded in the agent's intentions. There are, though, several passages in Hume that indicate that benevolent concern for welfare has an intrinsic moral worth and amiableness that is independent of the actual consequences of the agent's behaviour.

Given that Rawls's primary interest is Kantianism, it is fair for Kant's moral philosophy to be the focus of the lectures. But the title of the book is perhaps misleading. Those readers whose interest is in the main traditions in the history of moral philosophy - utilitarianism, perfectionism and intuitionism - as well as Kantianism, may find the emphasis and scope of Rawls's book rather narrow. As an explication of Kant, however, it is extremely rich.

Elizabeth Ashford and Christopher Reich Taylor teach moral philosophy at Middlesex University.

Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy

Author - John Rawls
Editor - Barbara Herman
ISBN - 0 674 00296 2 and 00442 6
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £32.95 and £14.50
Pages - 384

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