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Moral LiteracyReview - Moral Literacy
by Barbara Herman
Harvard University Press, 2007
Review by Felix Koch
Sep 18th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 38)

Barbara Herman has already made her mark as an important interpreter of Kant’s moral philosophy and as a moral philosopher in her own right with her influential earlier collection of essays, The Practice of Moral Judgment. This new volume collects ten papers originally published between 1996 and 2002, supplemented by three previously unpublished chapters. Even though all but one of them engage in detail with Kant’s texts, describing them as exegetical would hardly do justice to them. Rather, they are fascinating exercises in the mutual illumination of Kant’s moral philosophy in all its complexity, on the one hand, and a whole number of challenges facing contemporary moral theory and practice, on the other.

The equally fundamental and fruitful idea animating Herman’s whole approach to Kant is that any reconstruction of his account of agency, moral duty, and practical rationality must be tested against the phenomenology of the moral questions that we face in practice. No account of the requirements of rational moral agency will be convincing to us unless it can make room for our knowledge and experience of human psychology, society, and institutions. A successful moral theory cannot rest content with making prescriptions for "ideal" agents; it should also have some explanatory potential, it should help us make sense of our actual predicaments.

These basic demands have been taken by many to speak against the relevance of Kant’s ethics as such. Not so for Herman. Instead, she argues that Kant’ ideas do remarkably well when confronted with the challenge of accounting for our everyday moral experience. Whether one ends up agreeing with this on all counts or not, there can be no doubt that confronting head-on "the attractive messiness of real cases" leads Herman to produce some of the most fruitful and sympathetic readings of Kant’s moral philosophy available to date, and at the same time a number of illuminating analyses of contemporary moral problems.

In developing her refined Kantian account of moral agency, Herman draws on an idea developed mainly by what is often supposed to be a rival theory, namely, Aristotelian ethics: the idea of a virtuous character. To develop the capacity for moral agency -- and  that is to say: to develop what Herman aptly calls "moral literacy" -- is not simply to learn a set of rules, or perhaps one master rule (Kant’s Categorical Imperative). Rather, it is to acquire a whole set of interdependent conceptual, cognitive, emotional, and motivational dispositions and capacities -- what some philosophers have called a "second nature". The development of this second nature, as a precondition for a "moral personality", depends on concrete formative processes, most notably the moral education of children, but extending to individuals’ participation in social institutions more broadly. An agent formed in this way will not, in general, face the sorts of motivational conflicts between inclination and reason, or between egocentric and altruistic concerns, or between reasons of prudence and reasons of respect, that have often been taken to play a central role in Kant’s moral philosophy. Rather, for such an agent, her desires themselves will be "reason-responsive"; what she wants, why she wants it, what features of situations she perceives as salient and in which terms she describes them, will already have been shaped in such a way that no deep rift opens between what she desires, what it is "rational" for her to do, and what is the "moral" thing to do.

Furthermore, depending on specific processes of formation, the dispositions and capacities of moral agency can be more or less fully realized, which means that a constant effort must be made to create social and political conditions that will allow it to be "perfected". This means that thinking about political and social institutions is of intrinsic rather than incidental significance for moral theory, and vice versa. One of Herman’s central interpretive concepts, already introduced in some of her earlier work, is that of a "community of moral judgment". Behind it stands the idea that morality and moral reasoning are at bottom not systems of norms, but rather practices of deliberation and judgment -- practices that individuals must be enabled to master and participate in, that are subject to historical change, and whose existence and shape rest on specific social and political institutions. These institutions, educational and other, are proper objects of moral philosophy. In contrast with a stripe of moral theory that has aimed at maintaining the purity of normative theory vis-a-vis the contingent empirical conditions of moral agency, Herman therefore asks us to acknowledge the "unsustainability of the division of labor between moral and social thought".

Herman succeeds admirably, then, in bringing Kantian ideas to life: not only by providing an engaging and plausible internal reconstruction of those ideas, but also by making them relevant to our present practical concerns. On the one hand, the reader encounters a careful treatment of the fundamental questions at the heart of Kant’s moral philosophy, such as the conditions of free (autonomous) agency, the nature of the will, the question of the source of "obligatory ends" or duties, the problem of moral motivation, and the relation between our rational and our animal nature. On the other hand, Herman addresses pressing questions about ethical and social pluralism, moral change, education, the legitimacy of social and political institutions, pornography and censorship, affirmative action, gender equity, child abuse, and friendship, to name only a few. She connects these two endeavors not so much by "applying" moral concepts to practical cases, but rather by making the latter central to the very project of elaborating the concepts in the first place. 

A high degree of theoretical complexity is in the nature of Herman’s subject matter, but is sometimes exacerbated by her style, which means that the book is a challenging read even for the academic reader already familiar with its themes. The various essays complement each other and overlap in some places, and one might have wished for more guidance concerning the overall systematic structure and unity of the account. Even so, Herman’s focus on the dynamic and developmental aspects of a Kantian account of moral agency, her attention to frequently neglected texts and passages, and her refusal to settle for schematic reconstructions with dubious applicability to "real life", all combine to make this an outstanding collection. It should be of interest not only to scholars of Kant’s ethics but to all those concerned to understand how our self-conception as free agents whose intentions are subject to moral assessment should affect our thinking about psychology, education, politics, and society.

© 2007 Felix Koch

Felix Koch is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at Columbia University.


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