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Allen Wood on Ethics (1): Kant and Mutual Respect

Allen Wood Allen W. Wood is Ruth Norman Halls Professor at Indiana University and Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor emeritus at Stanford University. He is one of the most renowned scholars of Kant's moral philosophy alive today. For more than forty years he has expanded people's understanding of Kant's ideals, and helped foster a lively community debating and sharing perspectives on Kantian ethics. I was honoured to have a chance to ask him some questions about his incredible work.

Chris Bateman: The first book of moral philosophy I read was your magnificent 'Rethinking the Western Tradition' edition of Kant's Groundwork – and I fell in love not only with Kantian ethics, but with the vibrant discussion collected in the essays here. The exchange between you and Shelly Kagan in the final two papers seemed particularly heated! Is there a story behind this?

Allen Wood: Don't go looking for trouble! Shelly Kagan and I don't agree about some philosophical issues in ethics, or about how to read Kant. But we were always very friendly colleagues at Yale, and I don't see anything 'heated' about either of our essays in the book you mention.

Chris: I suppose I read the philosophical disagreements between the two of you and interpreted as something more dramatic! I think perhaps contemporary newspapers prepare us to expect for personality battles, which we then look for…

Allen: Well, I invited him to write the essay for that book, and I did so knowing (in general terms) what he was going to say. I wanted his perspective, and I think it is good that there are a variety of positions out there on the subject of ethical theory.

Chris: What do you make of the diversity of moral perspectives available today?

Allen: A half century or so ago, ethics (at least in the Anglophone analytic tradition) was dominated by utilitarianism, and other positions were seldom taken seriously. This has changed a lot. The work of John Rawls, and books such as Onora (Nell) O'Neill's Acting on Principle, made people pay more serious attention to Kantian ethical theory.

Chris: What about contemporary virtue ethics?

Allen: That has added another valuable perspective, which was set off by Elizabeth Anscombe's rather incendiary article "Modern Moral Philosophy" (1958).

Chris: But there is still great disagreement about both ethics and meta-ethics.

Allen: Of course philosophers disagree about the foundations of ethics (as about everything else)! A philosophical question may be defined as one on which any answer you give is open to insuperable objections. The only question is which of these hopelessly controversial positions is the least indefensible and the most profitable approach to them. There are many such questions, and they concern, moreover, the very foundations of all the sciences and other fields where people have managed to find ways of answering their questions.

Chris: I like this attitude, whereby philosophy is viewed as a source of questions more than a source of answers. The questions are often the most important part of any enquiry!

Allen: This is the sense in which philosophy 'grounds' the sciences, or social life, or religious faith. It shows all these to be deeply questionable. Naturally people disagree about this, and which positions are ascendant at a given time shifts and goes in cycles, with no position returning in quite the same form it took before. I don't mean these remarks in a sceptical spirit, however, because I think we have to take a position on basic questions in order to act or to make progress in the sciences, and we ought to base our actions and beliefs on the best evidence and argument available. The important thing is for philosophers to remain engaged with others who take different approaches. The only ultimate crime, in philosophy as in life more generally, is complacency.

Chris: You have been a passionate advocate for seeing Kantian ethics as more than a mere 'sausage machine' (your term!) for cranking out answers to ethical questions – yet this caricature of the Prussian philosopher's views still seems to pass for the 'official story' all too often. It sometimes seems people read the first part of the Groundwork and then simply ignore everything else he ever wrote! What do you make of this?

Allen: I think it is understandable, but (when you think about it) obviously erroneous to take your impression of a philosophical work from the way it begins. It stands to reason that a philosopher's message really emerges nearer the end of a book than at the beginning, because of course an argument reaches its conclusion not at the beginning but at the end.

Chris: So you think this is not just a problem that affects the interpretation of Kant's work?

Allen: Another good example is Locke. People think Locke is an empiricist because the Essay Concerning Human Understanding begins with an attack on innate ideas and knowledge. If they paid attention to his account of knowledge in Book Four, they would see that his views are very close to those of Descartes. Knowledge for Locke is the intellectual perception of agreement or disagreement between ideas, modelled on the a priori science of mathematics. The accumulation of sensory information is not knowledge for Locke.

Chris: Both Locke and Kant were writing more than two centuries ago – is this a problem that is exacerbated with the passing of time?

Allen: Not necessarily. People think Marx's Capital is a difficult book because it begins with the analysis of value, which (Marx warns you in the Preface) is difficult, but the rest of the book (like most of Marx's writings) is not obscure or difficult, but sparkles with his wonderful and quite popular writing style. (Of course the ruling classes still have an interest in dissuading people from reading Marx, so they want us to think he is difficult and obscure.) It is a sad flaw in human nature that people don't have the patience to read works to the end – or, often, even beyond the beginning.

Chris: Getting back to the Groundwork, your work has made very clear to me just how many ways there are to misread Kant's argument here.

Allen: I tell students, when I teach Kant's ethics, that the first fifty times I read the Groundwork I did not understand it at all, but accepted many of the common errors, because they were easy to commit and had become hallowed by generations of misreading by others. But the more basic point about Kantian ethics is one that John Rawls made many years ago: It should be seen not as an ethics of austere command but of mutual respect and self-esteem. My development of Kantian ethics has been dedicated to bringing out that truth about Kantian ethics, though sometimes in ways different from Rawls.

Chris: I hear a lot of philosophy professors say they didn't fully appreciate the Groundwork the first time – I think I got a lot more from my first attempt, precisely because your edition helps orient the reader in the context not only of the text, but in terms of discussions about that text that are still going on today. You helped me avoid some of the usual pitfalls by providing a skeleton key to the text, without which I would doubtless have fallen into some of the usual mistakes.

Allen: The errors are especially bad with the Groundwork because the opening discussion about acting from duty is easy to misunderstand (and in my view, is usually quite badly misunderstood). I don't think that discussion is at all about the importance of choosing moral over non-moral motives (and think Kant did not believe we can even make such choices, because our motives are largely opaque to ourselves). His point there – as I might tendentiously put it – is that morality is more truly itself when it is difficult than when it is easy. Morality is important in human life because we humans are so imperfectly rational that we need to constrain ourselves, struggling against our natural propensities, if we are to act according to reason.

Chris: But it's not just the opening sections that have given rise to distortions of Kant's concepts and ideals, is it?

Allen: No, many people misunderstand what Kant is doing with the four examples in the Second Section of the Groundwork.

Chris: You spend quite a bit of space going over these in your book Kant's Ethical Thought, but this is essentially the basis for your 'sausage machine' complaint I mentioned earlier!

Allen: People bring to their reading of this text the assumption that moral philosophy is about finding some nifty test telling us what to do, a test that can be applied just as easily and successfully by a fool or a scoundrel as by a wise and good person. And so they see Kant's examples as attempts to offer such a test. Naturally they are then disappointed, because no such test exists, or ever could exist. And of course it never dawns on them that Kant is fully aware of this.

Chris: As you present Kant's thought, the concept of ethics as the universal – the first formula – has a much smaller role than it is usually given.    

Allen: Kant's 'universalizability' criteria, if you see how he actually applies them, have a very narrow aim. He is interested in the situation of an agent who is morally conscientious at a basic level, and realizes he has a certain duty – for instance, the duty not to make a promise he doesn't intend to keep – but is tempted to think that his own desires or interests, or something about his particular situation (for instance, the urgency of his need for money, which he is tempted to borrow with no intention to repay it) might justify making an exception to this duty in his own advantage. Kant's test is designed to show such agents that their own tastes or self-preference does not justify making such exceptions to their duties.

Chris: So rather than a decision procedure for replacing moral thought, the universality test serves to show individuals where they are failing to act morally.

Allen: Kant's first formula of the categorical imperative was never designed to do more than that, and it is, after all, only the first of the three formulations Kant presents in the Second Section. As he tells us, they represent a "progression," so that the later ones are richer and more adequate than the first one.

Chris: Yet it's still a prevailing view that this is the whole story of Kantian ethics – the psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes this blunder in his latest book, for instance.

Allen: Many readers behave as if Kant's only contribution to ethics had been this first, poorest formulation of the moral principle. And they misunderstand even his intention in offering that. Kant, like Plato or Aristotle or Spinoza or Hegel or almost any great philosopher, is not easy to understand, but very easy to misunderstand. This is the main reason it is worthwhile to devote lot of attention and effort to reading the most important texts in the history of philosophy –Plato's Symposium, or Book Z of Aristotle's Metaphysics, or Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.

Chris Bateman: The latter part of the twentieth century seemed to show a kind of revival in Kantian scholarship. Yourself and Christine Korsgaard are perhaps the people most associated with it, but there now seems to be a huge numbers of academics writing about Kantian ethics! Do you sense a growing recognition that we haven't yet fully got to grips with everything Kant's ethics have to offer, that there is still a great deal to explore?

Allen: In Kant's case, as in the case of many great philosophers, their fundamental insights far outrun their own appreciation of the conclusions that follow from them. Thus it is very easy for people hostile to Kant, or impatient with the difficulty of his writings, to find (bad) excuses for dismissing his philosophy, in the form of his own time-bound or idiosyncratic views about sex, or capital punishment, or race or the position of women in society.

Chris: A lot of your work, both in Kant's Ethical Thought and the more recent Kantian Ethics, explores the differences between what Kant's moral philosophy claims, and what Kant himself believed. And most of Kant's more offensive claims appear to be of the latter kind.

Allen: Considered in the context of his own time, Kant was on many topics socially, morally and politically progressive; but many of his opinions on specific issues that matter a lot to us now appear grotesque, ridiculous or even abominable. There are many people who dismiss moral philosophy with the casual and condescending observation that people's views inevitably reflect their own time and culture, and all moral questions need to be understood in context, so that it is hopeless to propose general philosophical theories regarding them. These same people, however, are the very first to ignore the historical context of a great philosopher's thinking, and the first to dismiss him because he doesn't share our latest fashionable views on the issues that matter to us.

Chris: I sometimes wonder if there is a fear of just how vast the corpus of human knowledge has become – such that people are looking for any excuse to cut down on what they need to read. Philosophy in particular looks dispensable to a lot of people today, which has a tragic cost because we need it now as much – if not more than – ever.

Allen: It is important in thinking about moral and political questions to realize that at bottom these are deeply problematic, and we need to engage in fundamental and often abstract theorizing and reasoning even to see the basis of our own opinions about them. The past philosophers who can most help us to do this are not necessarily the ones who were most ahead of their time in thinking about the issues that concern us most today. Thus if you want to find someone in the late 18th century who best anticipated our views about the role of women in society, you can't look to Kant, Fichte or Hegel for that, but must look instead to Mary Wollstonecraft or to Kant's friend Gottlieb Hippel.

Chris: The merits of Kant's approach lie elsewhere.

Allen: If you want to understand the fundamental philosophical grounds of our belief in human dignity and equality, Kant is probably the place to look for that. Some people want to remain only on the surface in their thinking – and maybe for the purposes of immediate political activity, this is enough. But there is also a role for understanding the roots of what we think. Of course, when you do understand these roots, you also come to see how problematic is all our thinking about moral questions.

Chris: People are generally looking for answers, and dislike finding only more questions.

Allen: Maybe that is what these people are really afraid of. They want to remain complacent about their dogmas or faiths. They are afraid of the fundamental absurdity of the human condition.

Next week, the second and final part: Political Realities


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