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Interest in Kant's "impure ethics" i.e. Kant's account of how pure practical reason can be applied to and manifest itself in the life of empirical, embodied, sensible, finite creatures such as human beings is booming. Robert Louden, Allen Wood, Barbara Herman, Patrick Frierson, Felicitas Munzel and many others have provided articles and book length treatments of different aspects of Kant's empirically orientated accounts of anthropology, virtue, character, education and emotions. These studies have greatly improved our understanding of these less well-known aspects of Kant's moral theory and have shown that a number of standard criticisms of Kant's ethics are misguided and based on an incomplete and one-sided understanding of Kant's thought.
Anne Margaret Baxley's lucid, levelheaded and (from a Kantian perspective at least) deeply interesting book places itself firmly within this tradition. Baxley's explicit aim is thus to "reconstruct Kant's considered moral psychology on the basis of his lesser-known works in practical reason" (p. 4) and argue that a fully developed Kantian account of virtue has the resources to respond to a number of classic objections to Kant´s moral theory. In this she succeeds admirably.
Chapter 1 outlines Kant's views on moral motivation and moral worth as presented in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Practical Reason. Kant here (in)famously argues that only actions done from duty, i.e. actions motivated by respect for the moral law, have moral worth. This claim has been widely criticized and is often regarded as both phenomenologically and psychologically implausible. Baxley distinguishes and discusses four different versions of this criticism and shows that most of them either relies on clear misinterpretations Kant's text or can be disarmed by careful consideration of some of the (many) distinctions Kant draws in his foundational works.
However Baxley acknowledges that not all of these objections can be adequately addressed within the conceptual framework provided by Groundwork and the second Critique. In Chapters 2-4 Baxley thus turns to Kant's later works on practical reason, morality and religion, in particular The Metaphysics of Morals, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and Kant's lecture notes on ethics, and argues that Kant here sets out a much more complex, comprehensive and nuanced moral psychology. And this account, she believes, is capable of answering most, if not all, of the objections raised at the end of chapter 1.
Chapter 2 focuses on two key concepts in Kant's later writings: Autocracy and radical evil. Drawing on The Metaphysics of Morals and the lectures on ethics Baxley convincingly argues that Kant understands virtue in terms of autocracy: a form of rational self-mastery or self-constraint, where reason governs and controls sensibility. Kant believes that autocracy is the proper way to think of human virtue because human beings are finite, sensible creatures, whose inclinations do not necessarily conform to the requirements of reason. Some sort of rational constraint or mastery of sensibility is thus an essential, indeed necessary, element in human virtue. Baxley's argument for the centrality of autocracy in Kant's mature thought is further strengthened when she introduces Kant's notion of the "radical evil" inherent in human nature; the human propensity to reverse the normative priority between our sensible inclinations and the moral law. If the human will really does exhibit such a propensity (which Kant clearly thinks it does) then the possibility and development of autocracy, rational self-rule over sensibility, becomes an even more pressing concern.
The importance of Kant's notion of radical evil for a proper understanding of Kant's mature account of virtue is one of the most interesting and important conclusions in Baxley's book. Unfortunately Baxley's discussion of the radical propensity to evil itself is rather short and somewhat unsatisfactory. Baxley explicitly refuses to provide an extended account of this propensity since any adequate account would require (at least) a book length treatment. Baxley does refer to the recent discussion between Allen Wood and Henry Allison as to whether this propensity should be explained anthropologically (as a consequence of the constitution of human nature and human society) or systematically/conceptually (as a result of Kant's commitment to "moral rigorism", the view that actions are either morally good or morally evil and "tertium non datur"). And she explicitly singles out Pablo Muchnick's recent book on the topic, Kant's Theory of Evil: An Essay on the Dangers of Self-Love and the Aprioricity of History (2009) as the best place to look for an adequate treatment of the notion of radical evil. However given the importance of this concept for Baxley's overall argument one could reasonably have expected her to present a more nuanced and careful discussion of Kant's account of this topic.
Chapter 3 expands upon and provides further evidence of the importance of autocracy and radical evil for an adequate understanding of Kant's considered moral psychology. Baxley here provides an illuminating and fruitful discussion of an (unfortunately) neglected exchange between the poet, playwright and philosopher Friedrich Schiller and Kant. In "On Grace and Dignity" Schiller argues that a perfectly virtuous agent would have internalized the moral law to such an extent that moral requirements no longer present themselves as imperatives. Differently put: In the fully virtuous agent morality and empirical inclinations are perfectly harmonized and no longer stands in opposition to each other. And this, Schiller believes, is a possibility which Kant can and should allow for but seems to either overlook or deliberately ignore.
Baxley's reconstruction of Kant's reply to Schiller (found in the Religion within the Boundaries of mere Reason, in the Doctrine of Virtue and in a number of notes and manuscripts) once again underlines the importance of the notion of radical evil. Because of this notion Kant simply denies that morality (pure practical reason) and sensibility (empirical inclinations) can ever be as fully integrated and harmonized as Schiller believes. Even a human being who always acts out of duty and who never feels any temptation to disobey the moral law will still, according to Kant, be infected with the radical propensity to evil diagnosed and described in the Religions-schrift. And this means that the mere possibility that he might be tempted to disobey the moral law remains open. Reason must therefore constantly remain vigilant and ready to step in and constrain or control sensibility, no matter how virtuous the moral agent in fact is.
Chapter 4 presents a systematic account of Kant's mature views on virtue and the relation between practical reason and empirical sensibility. More precisely Baxley shows how and to what extent feelings and inclinations is, can and should be considered as part of a Kantian account of moral psychology. Baxley's discussion of this question is clear and to the point, and she convincingly argues that a fully developed Kantian theory of virtue represents a consistent and distinct alternative to the traditional Aristotelian account of virtue.
Needless to say this Kantian alternative to some extent presupposes a number of (controversial) Kantian theses concerning reason, sensibility and the nature of morality, which many may not accept. But Baxley has shown that a number of standard objections against Kant's moral psychology is misplaced, misguided or can be fairly and squarely met on recognizably Kantian grounds. That is an impressive achievement and everyone who is interested in Kantian ethics and moral psychology ought to read Baxley's book. And afterwards they should go and read up on the notion of radical evil.
© 2012 Carsten Fogh Nielsen
Carsten Fogh Nielsen, Ph.D., post graduate student, University of Aarhus. Main interests: Kant, moral philosophy and the philosophy of popular culture