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Every year sees the publication of at least a couple of new introductions to Kant's moral philosophy. To some extent this is both understandable and unavoidable. Kant's influence on contemporary ethics is substantial, probably only rivalled by the influence of other notable historical figures such as Aristotle, Hume and Mill. The abiding influence of and interest in Kant's ethics means that there is an apparently insatiable demand for new introductions to this aspect of Kant's philosophy. Furthermore Kant's writings are notoriously difficult, and some introductory groundwork is usually needed to get the uninitiated going. Finally, recent years have seen a surge of interest in previously neglected aspects of Kant's philosophical thought, e.g. his anthropological writings and his empirically oriented popular essays, which has led many philosophers to also reinterpret fundamental features of Kant's moral theory. These reinterpretations are currently being introduced to a wider philosophical audience through introductory companions to and handbooks on Kant's moral philosophy.
Michael Cholbi's Understanding Kant's Ethics is yet another contribution to this ever expanding pantheon of introductions to Kant's moral theory. Cholbi's explicit aim is to not only present a compact overview of the basic ideas of Kant's ethics, but to argue that Kant's moral philosophy can and should be "viewed as a viable candidate for the true (or the best) philosophical theory of morality" (p. 2)". Cholbi's book is thus not simple an introduction to, but a defense of Kant's ethical theory; a defense which Cholbi himself describes as both opinionated (as in; not neutral but sympathetically inclined towards Kant) and analytical (since it attempts to relate the different elements of Kant's theory to each other and to his theory as a whole). (p. 2).
The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 consists of five chapters which introduce and explain basic aspects of Kant's philosophy. Chapter 1 describes "Kant's Pursuit of the Supreme Principle of Morality" in the Groundwork. Cholbi here adopts what he terms a criterial approach to or interpretation of Kant, that is; an interpretation which sees Kant as attempting to sketch the basic criteria a supreme moral principle necessarily must fulfill. Chapters 2 and 3 then zoom in on Kant's own preferred version of the supreme principle of morality, namely the Categorical Imperative (CI). Cholbi helpfully supplements his discussion of the CI with an interesting, and somewhat controversial, account of Kant's (or at least a Kantian) theory of value, which right from the outset goes some way towards countering the well-known critique of the CI for being a purely formal principle. Chapter 4 discusses Kant's notion of dignity using primarily Michael Rosen's recent book on Dignity: Its History and Meaning (Harvard UP 2012) to explain and defend this notion. Chapter 5 provides a (probably too) brief overview of the vexed topic of the relation between freedom, reason and the CI in Kant's theory.
Part 2 of the book consists of three chapters and a brief conclusion. The three main chapters discuss various objections to or apparently problematic features of Kant's moral philosophy. Chapter 6 tackles various well-known criticisms of the CI: the problem of how to identify the proper action description (or the proper maxim), which the CI is supposed to evaluate; the problem of false positives and false negatives; the question of whether the different formulations of the CI really are equivalent, and the absolutism objection. Cholbi here does a lot to counter the most common misinterpretations and misunderstandings of Kant's ethical theory. Chapter 7 discusses three more substantial apparent problems with Kant practical ethics: Kant's views on sex and marriage, on suicide and on non-human animals. Cholbi here acknowledges certain persisting and quite troubling aspects of Kant's explicitly stated views, but argues that Kant nevertheless have something important to teach us on each of these topics.
Chapter 8 finally discusses whether, how and to what extent a Kant's theory can make room for a substantial account of a good moral life as an important and indispensable part of morality. Cholbi formulates this problem as a question of whether Kant's reason-centered ethics can allow for and make sense of the moral significance of sentiments, special obligations and happiness. His answer is that yes, a Kantian moral theory can make room for and sense of these phenomena, but that we occasionally need to go beyond what Kant himself explicitly said and wrote to do so.
Taking a step back from the particulars of the book two aspects of Cholbi's approach t and account of Kant deserves special mention. First of all Cholbi argues, particularly in Chapter 3 and chapter 6, that Kant's ethics is primarily an ethics of maxims, not an ethics of action or principles or duty. The primary object of moral evaluation is neither actions nor principles, but maxims "which express or represent a person's reasons for acting on a given occasion" (p. 152). It is this interpretative move which, in different ways, allows him to respond to a number of the most common objections to the CI, in particular the objections concerning false positives, false negatives and absolutism. This clearly shows the fruitfulness and relevance of this particular approach to Kant's moral philosophy, and highlights the need for more work to be done on this topic.
Secondly, two important aspects of Kant's moral theory are clearly and explicitly absent from Cholbi's book, namely the systematic place of this theory in Kant's overall philosophical system, and the metaphysical underpinnings of the theory in Kant's transcendental idealism. Cholbi himself freely acknowledges that he, as far as possible, has attempted "to present Kant's ethics as a freestanding theory" But he also readily admits that "this complicates the task of understanding Kant's ethics, and there are certain topics (for example, Kant's discussion of freedom of the will) where clams from elsewhere in Kant's philosophy cannot be avoided." (p. 2). In his discussion of Kant's account of freedom of the will in chapter 5, Cholbi thus do briefly refer to and make use of the more metaphysical aspects of Kant's theory. But he also clearly believes that Kant's ethics is better served by staying as far away from metaphysics as possible.
This is of course a widespread and well-established position, especially among analytic Kant scholars. It is also quite understandable why Cholbi wants to stay away from Kant's complex, occasionally perplexing and admittedly highly controversial metaphysical discussions in an introductory text on Kant's ethics. It would however have been nice if he at some point, e.g. at the end of his book, had included a (by all means brief) systematic account of how Kant's ethics fits with and is related to, the rest of Kant's philosophical system; his theory of knowledge; his philosophy of religion, his political philosophy, his anthropological writings and, yes, his metaphysics. There is something important missing from (our understanding of) Kant's ethics if it is not, however briefly, viewed in connection with Kant's system as a systematic whole.
With that said: Cholbi's book is well written, well-structured, clearly argued and touches upon most of the important aspects of Kant's moral philosophy. Cholbi also provides systematically argued responses to some of the most common objections to and criticisms of Kant's ethics, and convincingly shows that and why Kant's moral theory (or at least a distinctively Kantian approach to and understanding of ethics) is still worthy of continued philosophical interest and respect. Both the philosophy student and the advanced Kant-scholar are thus bound to find something of interest and something to discuss and disagree on in Cholbi's book. And that of course is one of the tings which all good introductions should do.
© 2017 Carsten Fogh Nielsen
Carsten Fogh Nielsen