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§3. The Idea of a Pure Will

§3. The Idea of a Pure Will

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mines what we do. A person of strong will (someone with Hume’s strength

of mind) is someone whose deliberations are persistently controlled by the

same strong desires.

By contrast, Kant’s account of a pure will is like transcendental logic in

this way. Transcendental logic studies all the epistemic conditions that make

possible synthetic a priori knowledge of objects. We find such knowledge

in mathematics and in the first principles of physics; and this knowledge

must be explained. Similarly, Kant thinks that pure practical reason exists

and that it is sufficient of itself to determine the will independently of our

inclinations and natural desires. This fact too must be explained. To do so,

we need an account of a pure will, and not an account of willing as such;

for just as synthetic a priori knowledge is knowledge of a special kind and

requires transcendental logic to set out its principles, so pure willing is a

special kind of willing and requires its own inquiry to be understood.

The difference between theoretical reason and practical reason is,

briefly, this: theoretical reason deals with knowledge of given objects, and

transcendental logic sets out the principles that make synthetic a priori

knowledge of those objects possible; whereas practical reason concerns how

we are to bring about objects in accordance with an idea (or a conception)

of those objects (KP :f.). The principles of a pure will that Kant wants

to examine are the principles of practical reason that, in his view, can effectively determine our will apart from inclinations and natural desires, and

direct it to its a priori object, the highest good (KP :). As Kant presents

him, Wolff, and no doubt others also, are not aware of the significance of

a pure will, an idea Kant sees as fundamental. For that reason, he sees

himself as breaking “entirely new ground” (Pref: []).

. We might put Wolff ’s view (as Kant sees it) as follows: recall the

distinctions from Hume II:§ between object-dependent and principledependent (and conception-dependent) desires. Think of all the desires that

affect us, and that contend within our person, as object-dependent desires.

These are like Kant’s inclinations and impulses generated in us by everything from our bodily wants and needs to social processes of learning and

education. Such social processes are governed, let’s suppose, by Hume’s

laws of association, the principles of custom and facility, the principle of

predominant passions, and the like. Now, Wolff considers all these desires

solely with respect to their strength and, like Hume, has no conception of

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practical reason. Presumably the action done is often, though not always,

the one promising the greatest balance of overall satisfaction.

For Kant, this means that the person has no pure will, for such a will

is an elective power guided by the principles of practical reason, that is, a

power to elect which of our many (often contending) object-dependent

desires we are to act from, or to reject them all entirely, as moved by

principle-dependent and conception-dependent desires. In the Religion (:

), Kant refers to a member of the English House of Commons who said

in the heat of debate, “Every man has his price.”7 Although we think that

we ought never to do certain things no matter what—never to betray family and friends, country, or church, for example—the speaker alleges that

should the price be right, we can all be bought. The Wolffian psychologist

would explain this (if true) by saying something like this: desires as psychic

forces all stand on a par and differ only in their strength and promise of

satisfaction should their aim be realized. So for every desire or combination

of desires, even when it usually decides the case by guiding deliberation,

there must exist a stronger desire, or a combination of desires, that can

counterbalance it. Find this counterbalancing desire or combination and

you know the price.

. As we shall see, Kant has a different conception of persons as reasonable and rational, and as possessing an elective will. He wants to study the

principles of a pure will and to set out how persons with a fully effective

pure will would act, and to ascertain what the structure of their desires as

governed by the principles of practical reason would be. It is best, I think,

to regard Kant as presenting the principles from which a fully ideal reasonable and rational agent would act, even against all object-dependent desires,

should this be necessary to respect the requirements of the moral law.8

Such an ideal (human) agent, although affected by natural inclinations and

needs, as we must be belonging to the natural world, never follows them

when doing so would violate the principles of pure will.

Now, Kant does not deny, as I have said, that all of our desires have

7. Sir Robert Walpole. But what he said was much less general: namely, “All those men [referring to certain patriots] have their price.” See Greene and Hudson, p. n.

8. That an ideal agent would do this, and that we know we could do likewise, is the point

of the example (at KP :) of the Sovereign who for his dishonorable ends wants us to make a

false charge against another subject.



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psychological strength. But he insists on the distinction between the

strength of conception-dependent and principle-dependent desires and the

regulative priority—Butler would say the authority—that their corresponding principles have for ideal agents. What characterizes these agents is that

the psychological strength of their conception-dependent and principledependent desires exactly parallels the regulative priority of the corresponding principles of practical reason. Thus, as ideally reasonable persons, we

have the capacity to stand above and to assess our object-dependent desires.

This gives us an elective power to determine from which of those desires,

if any, we shall act. Next time I consider how this election is done: i.e., by

incorporating the desire into the maxim from which we propose to act (Rel

:) and then checking whether the maxim is morally permissible by using

the CI-procedure, as I shall call it.

This conception of ourselves as reasonable agents with elective wills

contrasts sharply with Wolff ’s conception. Kant’s complaint against Wolff

is that he simply ignores the principles appropriate to a pure will and so

his view allows no place for a conception of moral obligation rooted in

pure practical reason.



§. The Main Argument of Groundwork I

. Let’s look briefly at the main argument in Groundwork I as found in I:

– (–). It goes as follows. (The asterisks before , , and  indicate

these as Kant’s three propositions; they appear in the order in which he

introduces them.)

*. A good will is a will the actions of which accord with duty,

not from inclination but from duty (out of duty). (paragraph

, end [])

*. Actions done from duty have their moral worth from the

principle of volition from which they are done, and not

from the purposes (objectives, states of affairs, or ends) the

inclination to bring about which initially prompted the

agent to consider doing the action. (paragraph  [–])

. The will must always act from some principle of volition.

(paragraphs  [–],  [–])

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. There are two kinds of principles of volition, formal and

material, which are mutually exclusive and exhaustive.

(paragraph  [–])

. No material principle of volition is the principle of volition

of an action done from duty. (from the definition of a material principle of volition and * above)

. An action done from duty is an action done from a formal

principle of volition. (from * through )

. There is only one formal principle of volition, and this principle is the moral law. (paragraph  [])

. Respect is, by definition, the recognition of a principle of

volition as law for us, that is, as directly determining our

will without reference to what is wanted by our inclinations. (paragraph n. [])

. The object of respect is the moral law. (paragraphs  [–

], n. [])

*. Actions done from duty are actions done from respect (or

out of respect) for the moral law (paragraph  [–]).

(from  through )

. A good will is a will the actions of which accord with duty,

not from inclination, but from respect for the moral law.

(from *, * above)



. Several comments: Lines  through  inclusive above try to fill in

what seem to be the steps in Kant’s reasoning as based on the premises

indicated by asterisks. However, not much depends on the rendering given

being exactly right. His reasoning can no doubt be put in other ways.

Further, the aim of the argument, which seems valid, is to find the

supreme principle of morality (the moral law). It starts from ordinary commonsense moral knowledge and moves to philosophical knowledge by elucidating the underlying principle found in our everyday judgments about

the moral worth of actions. I do not examine the argument, for if I have

it more or less right, its form and purpose are reasonably clear. But I should

note that Kant views Chapters I and II of the Groundwork as purely analytic,

as showing by the development of the universally accepted concept of morality that autonomy of the will is its foundation (Gr II: [–]).

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