• Where I am:

Kant’s Ethics of Virtue, ed. Monika Betz

ID III.1.r4


Kant’s Ethics of Virtue, ed. Monika Betzler, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008. 302 pp., $88.
- Ognian Kassabov (University of Sofia)

As its title suggests, this volume is to serve a double purpose. It is to explore the role virtue plays within the framework of Kant’s practical philosophy. It is also to explore possible points of contact between a Kantian ethics (including Kant’s own) and an ethics of virtue. The volume thus easily fits into some recent trends in scholarship. Increasingly, more attention has been given to the Metaphysics of Morals, in which Kant develops his substantive, or “doctrinal,” position in the field of ethics and which thus constitutes the completion of the project begun in the more familiar Groundwork and Critique of Practical Reason. In the second part of the Metaphysics of Morals – “The Doctrine of Virtue” – Kant fleshes out his account of the specific duties of a genuine moral agent, sometimes subtly modifying some prior positions. This of course involves an account of the significance of virtues and the possible moral merit of feeling – topics that provoke interest in light of their potential to provide a picture of Kant’s moral theory beyond the “rigorist” guise in which it is often viewed. In addition to this scholarly exercise, there has also been interest in formulating a contemporary Kantian ethics sensitive to the objections of virtue ethics. The collection thus contributes to an interesting development in the understanding of Kant’s moral philosophy: both Kant’s earliest critics and recent virtue ethicists have directed their attacks at the apparent neglect of the role of natural dispositions to act well and of the importance of feeling and emotion in moral life.
The volume consists of twelve contributions looking at this field from different angles and, for the most part, addressing concrete problems within it. The first essay, by editor Monika Betzler, serves as an introduction and overview of the remaining eleven entries, which are the main object of this review.
The second entry, by Thomas Hill, Jr., continues the stage-setting by presenting a broad picture of the possible points of convergence between Kant’s ethics and virtue ethics, taking as a point of departure Kant’s notion of the good will. The good will is not just a will determined by a certain general principle: it is also “a back-up motivational commitment.” Virtue is understood as the strength of the good will or as an ideal regarding the moral character of actions. Moreover, as the author mentions, but does not discuss in detail, Kant’s view, at least in the Metaphysics of Morals, is that virtue can be cultivated and that feelings connected with virtue do possess moral significance. Though not sufficient, virtue turns out to be essential to a moral life for Kant. For its part, virtue ethics could move closer to Kantian ethics if it were to formulate a general criterion for moral rightness.
Addressing similar issues, Robert Johnson’s contribution takes its starting point from that which makes virtue ethics distinctive: its centeredness on human flourishing understood as an activity. Virtue ethics thus starts from an ideal of the moral person prior to any understanding of right action or good consequences. The notion of the good will cannot really be an equivalent to a rule-independent ideal of the agent – for it is dependent on the concept of duty. One cannot even claim, as Barbara Herman has done, that rational agency is the ultimate value on which morality is based – because of Kant’s firm position that no value whatsoever can be prior to the law on pain of heteronomy. In the end, on this account, any theory that supposes the moral agent as determined not by the moral law, but by something else, dooms her to heteronomy. Thus, while Hill stresses the indubitable role that virtues play in Kant, Johnson puts considerable weight on a major divergence that Hill acknowledges himself – the primacy of the notion of a moral law in Kant and its secondary position in virtue ethics.
The notion of primacy in the foundation of ethics is thoroughly examined in the fourth article, by Jörg Schroth. Schroth begins with the question of whether the primacy of the right over the good proclaimed in the Groundwork has been reversed in the Metaphysics, but from there goes to the broader issue concerning the very meaning and function of “primacy” at work. This last is explored in a sophisticated comparison of deontology and consequentialism, the latter of which has often been regarded as attributing primacy to the good over the right. This comparison takes up the bulk of the article and its result is its chief merit. The result is twofold. First, it cannot be maintained that in either deontology or consequentialism the right has priority over the good or vice versa, if the relation of priority is understood as involving the definition (or understanding) of the posterior only on the basis of the prior. Kant’s own ethics and many forms of consequentialism maintain that the good and the right can be defined independently of each other. Thus, the second result: on this account, consequentialism and Kantianism are not as radically divergent as is often thought. Yet it is precisely on this account that both consequentialism and Kantianism radically differ from any virtue ethics. For a central tenet of virtue ethics is that a conception of the good is always prior to a conception of the right, in the sense that what is right can be understood only by reference to a notion of the good.
The next six articles pursue topics more directly relating to Kant’s texts. Phillip Stratton-Lake explores the relationship between the virtues and the quality of being virtuous. He claims that any successful theory of the virtues should provide a strong link between the two and then finds that Kant’s theory is not successful in this respect. The reason: being virtuous for Kant means being motivated by duty and thus adopting a certain maxim; on the other hand, exercising specific virtues means performing certain actions with respect to oneself or others. Thus, exercising specific virtues cannot, according to Stratton-Lake’s argument, be a “realization” of the general condition of being virtuous, which has to do with maxims and not actions. A solution is proposed by integrating the idea of disjunctive duties into the Kantian framework.
Elizabeth Anderson’s article gives the reader a broader historical perspective by focusing on the moral status of emotions in Kant’s ethics. Anderson’s reconstruction of these matters paints an intriguing picture of Kant’s moral philosophy as an heir to the “ethics of honor.” Traces of the ethics of honor can be seen in Kant’s unusual emphasis on the theme of human dignity, leading him to place dignity above even life, which in turn is uneasily manifest in some of Kant’s most controversial examples: the approval of honor-killing and the apparent condemnation of rape victims. According to Anderson, for all its revolutionary egalitarianism, these features situate Kant’s ethics as a transitional stage on the movement away from honor ethics. Apart from these considerations, Anderson also provides some interesting discussion of the increased moral relevance that Kant accords to moral emotions in his mature ethics.
Chirstoph Horn, in his turn, explores the moral relevance of love in Kant, focusing on what Kant calls “practical love.” The apparent paradox the article tackles is the fact that love apparently is an emotion, yet at the same time Kant claims that it can (and must) be commanded and become one’s duty. The article does not so much explore the obscure process of generating or cultivating emotions from reason as argue that, in the end, within the Kantian framework, no emotion or feeling can have moral relevance unless it is generated by duty.
Stephen Darwall examines another tension in Kant’s ethics – the basis for attribution of dignity and the ensuing duty to respect. Sometimes, Kant expressly writes that all rational beings, all beings capable of setting ends to themselves, are to be unconditionally respected as ends in themselves. But at other places, he also states that an immoral agent is to be despised, condemned and denied all respect. This seems to imply that Kant (at least sometimes) confuses respect for rationality with moral esteem. Darwall’s thesis is that in the second Critique and especially the Metaphysics of Morals Kant corrects this unclarity – in the Metaphysics by the innovation of an express requirement for a “second-personal acknowledgement” of rational agents.
In his contribution, Samuel Kerstein takes up an issue somewhat tangentially related to the problems of virtues and virtue ethics: Kant’s notion of using oneself as a means in the three paradigmatic cases of suicide, masturbation and lying. Moral condemnation of such acts seemingly cannot be explained on the model requiring that the patient of the act be able to consent. Thus Kerstein considers precisely what Kant’s requirement that the patient be regarded as “containing” the end of the action in herself means. On Kerstein’s reconstruction, it implies that it must be possible for the patient of the act to pursue that end “without practical irrationality.” For various reasons, this requirement is violated in cases of suicide, masturbation and lying, for they either destroy, impair or deny one’s capacity to act rationally. Nevertheless, Kerstein sees some further difficulties in store in view of Kant’s commitment that sometimes (e.g. self-defense, capital punishment) it seems permissible to actually destroy rationality.
Katja Vogt turns the reader’s attention back to issues of relevance to contemporary ethics, more specifically to the familiar criticism that some forms of ethics are too demanding and do not give any actual limits to the requirements of morality, thus impairing the agent’s capacity to pursue goals and relationships of her own. Not surprisingly, it turns out that Kant does not have a good counterargument against this criticism, but the criticism is somewhat irrelevant with respect to him. For Kant, only another duty can limit a duty and so morality is not limited by something external. In accordance with this, Vogt proposes to explore limits to duties to others by means of inquiring how Kant (especially in the Metaphysics) constructs a system of interrelating and mutually limiting duties. Moreover, since Kant writes about duties to oneself, this kind of limit on duties to others makes morality even more, not less, demanding. Vogt then points out one option for settling the contemporary worry about Kant’s sketched but undeveloped view: the agent herself is the one who best knows her own needs and notions of happiness. As a side effect, this essay throws some light on the sometimes fundamental difference between a Kantian ethics and Kant’s own ethics.
The following article, by Marcia Baron, takes up another familiar worry about Kantian ethics – “the one thought too many” argument. Baron gives a valuable survey of important statements of this objection, generally staying far from Kant’s texts. The main conclusion of her argument seems to boil down to the thought that the “one thought too many” criticism is misguided, for if taken seriously, it means that in some moral cases there is really no need for rational justification of one’s actions. Moreover, giving rational justification is mistakenly seen as somehow weakening important emotional attachments. Baron is careful to point out the manifold ways in which Kant’s ethics and Kantian ethics actually do allow for partiality and special relationships – provided they are morally permitted. Another valuable feature of this article is the introductory systematic and retrospective reconstruction of the emergence of virtue ethics out of dissatisfactions with “impartialist,” specifically Kantian, ethics. In the light of the “one thought too many” considerations, Baron concludes that a claim for strong convergence between Kantian and virtue ethics can only be a forced one.
The final article of the volume, by Andrea Esser, addresses a third classic argument against Kantianism from the virtue ethics camp. Apparently there exist moral problems, or dilemmas, and Kant’s claim to be able to resolve all cases of moral deliberation by means of an abstract principle means that Kant’s ethics is incapable of acknowledging the significance of this moral phenomenon. Here the situation is similar to the one with the problem of the “overdemandingness” of morality: for Kant’s considered position turns out to be that there simply can be no conflict of duties, and thus no moral dilemma. Thus, the cases of tragic choices or deep regret that virtue ethicists put forward turn out not to be of moral relevance. Ethics cannot help us avoid tragedy or regret. Among the merits of this insightful article is also a careful interpretation of Kant’s notorious article “On a Supposed Right to Lie,” which convincingly shows why it can be maintained that there is never a right to lie, though in some cases one might be legally or morally permitted not to tell the truth. Another highlight is the emphasis on the oft-neglected and difficult to reconstruct intrinsic connection between adopting a maxim and acting on it within the framework of Kant’s ethics.
Unfortunately, the volume lacks an index. A bibliography on Kant and the virtues or Kant and virtue ethics would also have been helpful. Outside of these purely technical remarks, this undoubtedly is a valuable book, both in its timeliness and in the plurality of views it presents. The articles assembled are bound to add both to the understanding of Kant’s ethical work and to the contemporary ethics debate.