Monday, March 5, 2012

Does Kant have a Prescriptive Ethics?

"But who would even want to introduce a new principle of all morality and, as it were, first invent it? Just as if, before him, the world had been ignorant of what duty is or in thoroughgoing error about it." (Critique of Practical Reason, Preface)

"Do you really require that a mode of knowledge which concerns all men should transcend the common understanding, and should only be revealed to you by philosophers?" (Critique of Pure Reason, A831 B859)

   Prescriptive (or Normative) Ethics are often understood as 1) deciding what is right or wrong on a case by case basis according to some procedure, and 2) developing general theories of such a procedure. Kant is often read as having a Prescriptive Ethics with a unique decision procedure that competes with decision procedures of other Prescriptive theories, such as Utilitarianism in its various flavors. I maintain that this understanding of Kant is completely wrongheaded: there is no decision procedure created by Kant; Kant does not use a procedure to determine what things are right or wrong. Because of this I often call Kant a Descriptivist, but this overcorrection is not technically correct, since his pure moral philosophy is not just an empirical investigation into what people generally have said is right or wrong in history (this empirical study Kant calls 'moral anthropology' in the Preface to the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals). Even saying that Kant does a sort of Meta-Ethics, which traditionally deals with what counts as morality or what 'morality' means, does not properly describe what his project is.
   Construing all three of these terms (Prescriptive, Descriptive and Meta-Ethical) in a new way may help us to to get a sense of what Kant is doing. (I am not proposing redefining these terms generally, but only in the scope of this paper to highlight a certain understanding of Kant.)
   Kant's Ethics are Prescriptive in the sense that they recognize that we experience categorical judgments pertaining to morality. What this refers to is that the starting point of morality for Kant is 'duty', or what it's like to know what you ought to do. Prescription in this sense is not determined by any particular person, but rather is something experienced.
   Kant's Ethics are Descriptive in the sense that they try to give a formulation of the general form of 'duty' (what it's like to know what you ought to do). Just as the first critique looks at how experience of objects is possible, the second critique looks at how the experience of 'duty' is possible.
   Kant's Ethics are Meta-Ethics in the sense that they are interested in determining something formal. We begin with 'duty' and then abstract anything experience contributes. If we want to see ethics in action, however, we must look at a specific case. When we ad the specific case, we are also contributing a number of empirical interpretations, which may lead to disagreements - however, not disagreements as to the form of law, but to its particular judgments. The important thing here is that the form is constant, and so deliberation is possible between agents.
   Kant intends his Practical Philosophy to be a formal representation of common reason, and so we should have an interpretation that stays close to that guiding principle. This, however, is only one small step in clarifying Kant's Practical Philosophy.
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