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§5. Two Conceptions of Objectivity

§5. Two Conceptions of Objectivity

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expect that reasonable persons may differ. Disagreement may also arise

from a lack of reasonableness or rationality or conscientiousness on the part

of one or more persons involved. But if we say this, we must be careful

that the test of this lack of reasonableness or conscientiousness is not simply

the fact of disagreement itself, much less the fact that other persons disagree

with us. We must have independent grounds identifiable in the particular

circumstances for thinking that such causes of the failure to agree are at


. I believe that Kant’s conception of objectivity falls under the following

general characterization of objectivity: namely, moral convictions are objective if reasonable and rational persons who are sufficiently intelligent and

conscientious in exercising their powers of practical reason would eventually endorse those convictions, when all concerned know the relevant facts

and have sufficiently surveyed the relevant considerations. To say that a

moral conviction is objective, then, is to say that there are reasons sufficient

to convince all reasonable persons that it is valid or correct. To assert a

moral judgment is to imply that there are such reasons and that the judgment can be justified to a community of such persons.

Moreover, this is normally sufficient: it is not required that the correctness of the conviction enter into an empirical explanation of how we know

it is correct. In general, this explanation is trivial: we know that it is correct

because we have correctly applied the principles of practical reason.9 Of

course, Kant’s constructivism distinguishes his account of objectivity from

other such accounts. But his view is no less objective for that.

. Finally, to prevent misunderstanding, a further point about constructivism. No such view, including Kant’s, says that the facts relevant for

moral reasoning are constructed, any more than it says that ideas of reason

such as those of person and society are constructed.

To explain: we can distinguish two kinds of facts relevant to moral reasoning. One is appealed to in giving reasons as to why an action or institution is, say, right or wrong, or just or unjust; the other is the kind of facts

about what is unjust, or the nature of the virtues, or of the moral doctrine

9. As noted in the text, we may, however, seek an empirical explanation for the failure to

reach agreement, and this explanation may refer to psychological elements such as prejudice and

bias, or to various situational elements. Usually explanations of failure refer to things that interfere

with our ability to make reasoned and impartial judgments.

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itself. To illustrate the first kind: to argue that slavery is unjust, we appeal

to the fact that it allows some persons cruelly to demean and abuse others.

To illustrate the second: we may appeal straightaway to the fact that deceitful promises are unjust, or to the fact that indifference to the needs of others

is lacking in virtue. Finally, a fact about Kant’s moral doctrine itself is that

it distinguishes between duties of justice and duties of virtue.

With regard to the first kind of relevant facts, a constructivist procedure

is framed to yield the principles and criteria that specify which facts about

actions, institutions, persons, and the social world generally are relevant in

moral deliberation. For the claim that slavery is unjust, relevant facts about

it are not when it arose historically, or whether it is economically efficient,

but that it allows some persons cruelly to demean and abuse others. That

is a fact about slavery.

Moreover, the idea of constructing facts seems incoherent, while the

idea of a constructivist procedure yielding principles and precepts identifying which facts count as reasons is quite clear. Recall how the categorical

imperative procedure accepts some maxims and rejects others. The idea of

constructivism is that, apart from a reasonable constructivist conception,

facts are simply facts. What is wanted is a framework of reasoning within

which to identify which facts are relevant from the appropriate point of

view and to determine their weight as reasons. So understood, a constructivist moral doctrine is not at odds with our commonsense ideas of truth

and matters of fact.

With regard to the second kind of relevant facts—those about the moral

doctrine itself—we say that these are not constructed but rather are facts

about the possibilities of construction.10 When Kant elaborates his doctrine

from the fundamental ideas of reason expressed in the CI-procedure, it is

a possibility of construction, implicit in the family of conceptions and principles of practical reasoning that are the basis of the construction, that slavery

is unjust and that there is a basic distinction between the duties of justice

and the duties of virtue. We may think of these as analogous to the way

in which the infinity of primes is viewed (in constructivist arithmetic) as a

10. The possibilities referred to here are those characterizing the moral or political conception

that meets the tests of objectivity discussed earlier in this section. It is such a conception that

concerns us.

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possibility of construction.11 This analogy does not commit us to a constructivist view of mathematics: instead we use it to clarify the meaning of moral

and political constructivism. For this it suffices to understand the analogy;

the truth of constructivism in mathematics is a separate matter.

§. The Categorical Imperative: In What Way Synthetic A Priori?

. To complete the account of constructivism, I consider what Kant means

in describing the categorical imperative as a synthetic a priori practical proposition (Gr II: []). Doing this will clarify the sense in which the moral

law constructs out of itself its own a priori object. In § we saw that rational

intuitionism also views the first principles of morals as synthetic a priori

propositions. Of course, Kant means something quite different, but what?

You may ask: Why haven’t we done this sooner? After all, this is central

to Kant’s doctrine. The answer is that it’s best to have the constructivist

background already in place.

To begin with, the categorical imperative is a priori in Kant’s most general sense, that is, it is knowledge grounded on principles of (pure) reason.

But might someone discover that there is no a priori knowledge? He says

not (KP :): “There is no danger of this. It would be like proving by reason

that there is no such thing as reason. . . . [K]nowledge through reason and

a priori knowledge are the same thing.”

The CI-procedure is, then, a priori, assuming that it correctly formulates

the requirements of the categorical imperative through which the moral

law (an idea of reason) applies to us as finite persons with needs in the

order of nature.

I remark here that the idea of the a priori is much simpler in the case

of practical reason than it is in the case of theoretical reason. In the first

11. For the idea of possibilities of construction, see Parsons’s account of constructivism in his

article “Mathematics, Foundations of,” pp. f. He says, “Constructivist mathematics would proceed as if the last arbiter of mathematical existence and mathematical truth were the possibilities

of construction,” where the possibilities in question are those of an appropriately idealized procedure. The remark in the text about the infinity of primes rests on the fact that a constructivist proof

of their infinity can be given.

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Critique, we have to distinguish between the a priori in connection with

the understanding and its categories as well as in connection with reason

and the ideas of reason. Understanding and reason (Verstand and Vernunft)

have different roles in the overall structure of knowledge, and the categories

and the ideas of reason have their own distinctive roles. All of this must

be kept track of. And there are also the a priori intuitions of space and time.

By contrast, in the second Critique, there is only the a priori of practical

reason itself.

. Now, for Kant, there are two marks of a priori knowledge: necessity

and universality; and these marks apply to practical as well as to theoretical


(a) Necessity here means practical necessity: that is, what is required

by the principles of pure practical reason. So whatever is required by

the categorical imperative (via the CI-procedure) is practically necessary

for us.

(b) As for universality, this means that the requirements in question

hold for all reasonable and rational persons in virtue of their nature as

such persons, independently of any particular conditions of inclination and

circumstances that mark off one reasonable and rational person from another. Kant insists in the preface of the Groundwork (Pref:– [–] )

that “ ‘Thou shalt lie’ could not hold merely for men, other rational beings

having no obligation to abide by it—and similarly with all other genuinely

moral laws; that here consequently the ground of obligation must be looked

for, not in the nature of man nor in the circumstances of the world in which

he is placed, but solely a priori in the concepts of pure reason.”

So far, all this is quite straightforward. The categorical imperative is a

priori as grounded on pure practical reason; it is both practically necessary

and holds universally for all reasonable and rational persons; and the same

is true of particular categorical imperatives when the persons in question

are, like us, finite persons with needs and hence subject to that imperative.

We must be careful to distinguish, as we have done before, the categorical imperative from the hypothetical. Two differences are these:

First, the hypothetical imperative Kant regards as analytic and not synthetic, and it holds in virtue of empirical rather than pure practical reason.

For Kant, it is simply part of being rational that if we desire the end, we

also desire the (most effective) means. For him, there is no difficulty in

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understanding how hypothetical imperatives can determine our will (Gr II:

 []). He doesn’t see it as a problem.

The second difference is that particular hypothetical imperatives are

conditional: they apply to us or not depending on our specific wants and


. As we might expect from these two differences, the difficulty with

understanding how the categorical imperative determines the will concerns

how we are to understand it as a synthetic a priori and practical proposition.

The problem is that in contrast with hypothetical imperatives, they are

unconditional, both in regard to the means they forbid us to adopt in pursuing our ends (these means are restricted by the duties of justice) and in the

obligatory ends they require us to give at least some weight to (these ends

are specified by the duties of virtue). Recall that to say that particular categorical imperatives are unconditional is to say that they apply to us whatever may be the ends sought by our interests and inclinations. But if that

is so, how is it possible that they can determine our will? What possible

foothold can they have in our person?

There is a parallel here, as Kant indicates in passing, with the problem

of synthetic a priori propositions in the first Critique. For in that work Kant

sees no difficulty in understanding how empirical concepts apply to objects.

They are abstracted from instances of those concepts met with in experience, and so we are assured of their objective reality: that is, we are assured

that those concepts can apply to objects of experience. After all, the basic

ones have been abstracted from instances to which those concepts already

did apply. But the categories of the understanding, such as the concept of

cause, are a priori and have not been abstracted from objects in experience,

so how can we be assured that they can apply to objects? Thus arises the

problem of the transcendental deduction.

. How are we, then, to understand the categorical imperative as

synthetic a priori? We have already noted the general sense in which this

imperative is a priori as arising from practical reason. But there is also a

special sense in which it is a priori: it formulates the requirements of pure

practical reason and so it is a priori with respect to empirical practical


The thought is that just as the categories of the understanding specify

a priori conditions for the possibility of the experience of objects, the cate[  ]

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§5. Two Conceptions of Objectivity

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