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Virtue, Rules, and Justice brings together fifteen essays by Thomas Hill. These essays cover a wide variety of topics relating to normative theory, some fairly abstract (weakness of will, moral constructivism), others more concrete (criminal justice, humanitarian intervention). What all of them share is Hill's "exploratory, often ambivalent, but hopeful attitude about Kant's moral and political theory, which is also expressed in the subtitle 'Kantian Aspirations'" (Hill's emphasis; p. 7). The collection is Kantian in "that it draws heavily from Kant's ethical writings but does not follow Kant's texts in all respects" (p. 249, n. 1). As a result, Hill's "aims and method are neither those of pure historical scholarship nor of entirely text-independent philosophical investigation" (p. 3). Rather, Hill's "project is to draw from and extend some of Kant's ideas, not to reflect them with full historical accuracy" (p. 239).
Hill is as good as his word. In the book's later chapters, Hill considers a few of Kant's more controversial political ideas, such as his denial of any right to revolution (ch. 12), his draconian views on punishment (ch. 13), and his defense of state sovereignty as more-or-less inviolable (ch. 14). He argues that Kant's general approach to ethics, properly understood, leads to conclusions in these areas that are much different, and much more reasonable, than the conclusions Kant himself reached.
Hill intends Virtue, Rules, and Justice "to be accessible to advanced students and serious general readers as well as professional philosophers" (p. 2). As a result, the essays sometimes pass quickly over difficult issues addressed in more depth by Hill elsewhere. There is nothing wrong with this approach. I am not a Kant scholar myself, and I definitely benefited from reading this book. I did, however, find myself wishing that Hill had answered several important questions more adequately. In the remainder of this review, I shall consider two of these questions.
First, to what extent can Kantian ethics constitute a freestanding enterprise? Hill repeatedly describes the book as offering a theory of "normative ethics." Such a theory, unlike a theory of "metaethics," does not "claim to answer all the linguistic, epistemological, and metaphysical questions that philosophers have raised about moral judgments" (p. 207). And so Hill tries to "focus primarily on those normative ideas rather than their background in Kant's systematic philosophy" (p. 189).
Hill is correct that normative ethics can, to a point, be separated from other areas of philosophy. "We do not," for example, "need to accept the full Kantian idea of autonomy to appreciate his critique of other moral theories" (p. 266). But pressing this separation too far generates some serious problems. Take, for example, Hill's discussion of free will, which mostly takes place in "Kant on Weakness of Will" (ch. 5). Hill accepts Kant's contention that "empirical science must think of human behavior as causally determined; but this is not inconsistent with conceiving ourselves for moral purposes as having negative freedom and autonomy" (p. 114). But Kant offered a metaphysical argument as to how this was possible. This argument rested on the distinction between the phenomenal world (which was governed by necessary physical laws) and the noumenal world (within which human freedom was possible). Hill seems to reject Kant's solution, but he offers nothing in its place (not in this book, at least). But surely even most lay readers will be wondering how the fact of natural causation does not render free choice illusory; the metaphysical question cannot simply be dodged, no matter how badly Hill wishes to do so.
Hill compounds this difficulty at one point by equating the "noumenal" with the "metaphorical" (p. 145). I understand that Hill entertains a very nontraditional reading of the noumenal/phenomenal distinction in Kant's philosophy. But as textual exegesis goes, claiming that Kant's discussion of the noumenal is just metaphor sounds about as plausible as claiming that the Old Testament supports gay marriage. At the very least, Hill cannot advance such a radically anti-metaphysical position (much less associate Kant with it) without much more argument than Virtue, Rules, and Justice provides.
Second, just how valuable is Kantian normative ethics? Hill strongly dislikes the characterization of Kantian ethics as offering rigid, precise, inflexible moral proscriptions. He does so even though he believes Kant himself endorsed just such an ethic, at least in part. Kant "endorsed rules, such as 'Never tell a lie,' that are simple, substantive, unqualified, and absolutely inflexible...I think we must agree both that Kant endorsed such principles and that doing so was a mistake" (p. 152). Hill wishes to reject Kant here in order to save Kantian ethics. He would have us see Kantian ethics "as describing an essential framework for moral deliberation and discussion rather than as an independent and determinate guide" (p. 56; see also p. 328). Such a framework is "not a decision procedure but at best an aid to thinking about moral rules, pulling together various morally relevant considerations and excluding irrelevant ones" (p. 219).
Hill is certainly right to insist that we acknowledge the immense complexity of the moral world when making decisions. But as with the separation of normative ethics from metaphysics, one can easily take this point too far. Just how valuable is this "aid to thinking about moral rules?" In the book's final chapter, for example, Hill investigates the "special responsibilities" of "bystanders in situations of oppression." He identifies three such responsibilities—"to exercise due care in deliberation, to scrutinize one's motives for passivity, and to try to develop virtue conceived as strength of will to do what is right despite obstacles" (p. 343). All valuable advice, to be sure, but there's nothing especially Kantian about it. Is there any serious moral theory that suggests that careful deliberation, self-scrutiny, and the avoidance of weakness of will are undesirable or irrelevant? For that matter, does anyone really need a moral theory to recognize the value of these things? Sounds like simple common sense to me. If Hill is correct that this is the most that Kantian moral theory can provide, then why anyone would waste time slogging through the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals simply escapes me.
In the end, I found Hill's approach to Kantian ethics unconvincing. This approach, however, is one of the leading approaches to Kantian ethics today. Hill's book does a good job of both laying out this approach and contrasting it to other major approaches. And so Virtue, Rules, and Justice is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the current state of play in Kantian ethics.
© 2013 Peter Stone
Peter Stone is Ussher Assistant Professor of Political Science (Political Theory) at Trinity College Dublin. He is the author of The Luck of the Draw: The Role of Lotteries in Decision Making (Oxford University Press, 2011) and the editor of Lotteries in Public Life: A Reader (Imprint Academic, 2011). He is a regular contributor to the blog Equality by Lot.