Monday, May 21, 2007

Evil and Akrasia in the Context of Authenticity

Davidson claimed to have been the first to separate the problem of weakness of will, or akrasia, from the moral context in which the problem is traditionally taken up. He is right to make this separation, though it is a separation that needs to be carried out consistently. Davidson’s interest is in separating out akrasia as a distinctive problem for philosophy of action. But it seems equally important from the standpoint of moral philosophy to separate the problem of akrasia from that of evil. Akrasia is not equivalent to evil, and here I want to suggest a way of distinguishing the two in a vaguely Heideggerian language.

Heidegger characterizes our being as a being thrown into the world into the midst of pre-given possibilities. Some of these possibilities we will live through; others we will bypass entirely. Some we will take up as authentic, as genuinely our own. Others we will see as foreign to our selfhood. Akrasia seems to me to involve acting on possibilities that we are living inauthentically, but which are opposed to other, authentic possibilities. For example: Let us say that I am a student and see studying as the authentic possibility of my life. Occasionally, instead of studying, I go out clubbing and drink until 5 in the morning instead of getting any work done. Let us say (there is obviously no necessity in this) that I do not see this partying as authentically my own. In other words, I see a certain kind of behavior as defining of my self, as genuinely mine, and yet I am capable of taking up a behavior that I see as foreign to who I am, to my self, and to my will. How is this possible? This, I take it, is a way of characterizing the akrasia problem.

But the problem of evil involves something different: it involves the question of how I might choose to act contrary to a law that I see as the law supremely binding on me. This law—and I am here using the Kantian model of morality—is a law that is genuinely my own insofar as I am a person. Sometimes I may be tempted to break this law, and I do so. It is, of course, possible that what is involved in my breaking the moral law is nothing but a weakness of the will; in cases of that kind we have to look for an explanation along the lines mentioned in the previous paragraph. But the more interesting question of evil is that of an evil that is specifically chosen as evil; that is, I am both aware of my obligation according to the moral law and of the fact that the choice I am making explicitly violates that law. Yet at the same time I make this choice, and do so not through any weakness, but in a fully intentional way.

The way to characterize the second problem, I think, is by seeing it as a conflict not between an authentic and an inauthentic possibility, but as a conflict between two authentic possibilities. Both the moral law and the incentive to deviate from it belong to my self. This seems like a correct characterization of moral conflict: the difficulty is not simply that I am not strong enough to act on my judgment of what is morally right, but that I myself have made the other incentive powerful enough to oppose the moral law. I have done this by making the incentive into an authentic possibility for me. Kant does sometimes imply that moral conflict boils down to a case of akrasia, which is why he defines virtue as the strength to resist non-moral incentives. But it is also clear that, for Kant, we are responsible for having chosen those non-moral incentives as powerful enough to need resisting. That the incentives opposed to the moral law are, in fact, incentives we have made our own is the pre-condition for a theory of virtue as strength.
Obviously this rough account is not sufficient to explain moral conflict: we will need, among other things, an explanation of why morality should be seen by us as authentic at all. My goal here was only to suggest a framework within which akrasia and evil can, I think fruitfully, be distinguished. Only by seeing evil as involving a choice in favor of a certain view of one’s own self, rather than a simple fleeing from the self-conception implied by the moral law, can we start to understand the sort of responsibility involved in a violation of morality.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Ought and Can: What Implies the Implication?

The foremost question posed by libertarians to compatibilists is how a thoroughgoing determinism can leave room for moral responsibility. Another significant question, however, is how it can leave room for moral obligation, and what sort of obligation would be implied. One way to approach this question is through Frankfurt's rejection of the principle of alternative possiblities (PAP) as an obstacle in the way of making responsibility compatible with determinism. As David Widerker notes (1), it remains an open question whether Frankfurt’s rejection of (PAP) requires “renouncing the Kantian thesis that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, i.e.
(K) An agent S has a moral obligation to perform (not to perform) an act A only if S has it within his power to perform (not to perform) A.”
Whatever the virtues of this debate, it is actually very clear that Frankfurt cannot accept the Kantian thesis (though he claims he can) for the simple reason that (K) is very obviously not a correct representation of that thesis. No understanding of the English (or German) language, however charitable the interpretation, is sufficient to yield (K) as an accurate restatement of the claim that “ought” implies “can.” Instead, as the wording of the implication clearly implies, the thesis is:
(K1) If an agent S has a moral obligation to perform (not to perform) an act A, then S has it within his power to perform (not to perform) A.
Of course the two are logically equivalent, so that (K1) entails (K): if we can establish on independent grounds that S cannot perform (not perform) A, then we cannot reasonably say that S has an obligation to perform (not perform) A. For example, if there were a species of beings that were rational but literally could not avoid constantly and intentionally killing each other (so, only a little different from human beings), then they could not have an obligation not to kill each other. So doesn’t this just mean that (K1) really boils down to (K)? I don’t think so. A Kantian might question the coherence of any such thought experiment, and do so on the following Kantian grounds: to be under an obligation is to be a rational being for which reason is practical. But if reason is practical, then it follows that we are able to act on it. (K) and (K1) differ precisely in their emphasis: Kant is not trying to derive obligation from ability (an “ought” from an “is”), but to show that obligation has implications for how we must see ourselves; more specifically, for what abilities we must attribute to ourselves regardless of lack of any possible other evidence for them. This, obviously, is a very different project. Logical equivalency does not guarantee identity of meaning.

(K1) is intimately tied to a project of giving what may be seen as a libertarian spin to freedom: it is determined entirely on the basis of our obligations, and established despite the truth of determinism (which also makes it completely different from any libertarian theories around today that I am aware of). Thus we come to Frankfurt, who happens to be a compatibilist. As a compatibilist, he can accept (K). There is nothing incoherent about accepting both that (1) our abilities place limits on our obligations and (2) the extent of our abilities can be fully ascertained within the scope of the natural sciences (whether deterministic or not). But (K1) meshes only with (1); it implies—strictly implies—that (2) is at least possibly false. It follows that Frankfurt would have to reject (K1). Would he have to do it on the basis of his rejection of (PAP)? I don't see how, except insofar as his rejection of (PAP) comes with other compatibilist assumptions.
(1) “Frankfurt on ‘Ought implies Can’ and Alternative Possibilities” in Analysis, Vol. 51, No. 4. (Oct., 1991), p. 223.

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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Kant on Freedom and Evil

An argument still frequently raised against Kant’s theory of freedom goes as follows: Kant seems to have two conceptions of freedom, which may be termed, following Sidgwick, the rational and the neutral conception. According to the rational conception, freedom involves acting on the moral law. It is only when we act on the moral law, the idea goes, that we are actually free of the determination of our will by natural desires. Rational freedom, then, seems necessary in order to account for our ability to act morally. The neutral conception, on the other hand, involves our choosing between good and evil; that is, knowing the law, we choose to act on it or to willingly violate it. Without this conception of freedom it becomes impossible to blame agents for their immoral actions.

The standard criticism (formulated in some way or other by Reinhold, Sidgwick, and Prauss) is that these two conceptions clearly can’t work together: either we are only free when we follow the moral law, in which case we cannot freely choose to violate it and are never responsible for immoral actions, or we are always free, in which case there seems to be no internal connection between freedom and the moral law. Nelson Potter and, more recently, Henry Allison, among others, have pointed out in response that Kant actually defines freedom as the ability to follow the moral law, which means that one can be free without ever actually acting morally, so long as one is capable of acting morally. But the misunderstanding (and criticism) keep coming back, and to address them I want to look at a passage in the Metaphysics of Morals, where Kant deals explicitly with the problem (or at least as explicitly as he ever deals with the major problems) and suggest two important consequences of this passage.

The sentence in question reads:

die Freiheit nimmermehr darin gesetzt werden kann, daß das vernünftige Subjekt auch eine wider seine (gesetzgebende) Vernunft streitende Wahl treffen kann (6:226)

freedom can never be located in this, that the rational subject can also make a contentious choice against his (lawgiving) reason
If we keep in mind the context—Kant is talking about the definition of freedom—this isn’t a particularly strange claim. In fact, I want to insist that it is much closer to plain common sense than to the wacky metaphysics of which Kant is sometimes accused.

Here is the first point: Kant is talking about the rational subject acting against his reason. It makes sense that freedom—as an ability of the subject—cannot be defined in this way. Why? Consider an ordinary object, like a chair. We may roughly define a chair as an object for sitting on. The definition is perhaps incomplete, but it would be a very strange mistake to complete the definition by adding that it is also possible not to sit in a chair. It is of course true that there are chairs in the world in which no one is sitting at the moment, but that is not a good reason to define a chair as an object for sitting on or not sitting on. The first part belongs to the definition of a chair, while the second part belongs to a description of how chairs are sometimes actually used in practice and has nothing to do with the definition. By adding the second clause we do not simply confuse the definition of a chair, but we in fact ensure that we are not giving a definition of it at all. “An object for sitting on or not sitting on,” you see, would be a description that does not apply in any essential way to chairs: it would also cover tables, beds, floors, elephants, other people, etc. Similarly, it would be very odd to define the freedom of a rational subject as the subject’s ability to act in accord with or in opposition to its reason. To be rational means that one’s freedom lies in the exercise of that rationality, not its abandonment.

But now let’s look at the second point: In parenthesis, Kant puts the important word “lawgiving” before the word “reason.” Why is this important? Because it seems to refute the claim by some prominent analytic Kantians (see, for example, Korsgaard’s argument in “Skepticism About Practical Reason”) that immorality is just a species of irrationality. It is not. There is, of course, something irrational in violating one’s reason. But it is not as obvious that there is something similarly irrational in violating one’s lawgiving reason. Kant is, in other words, tipping his hat to Hume’s famous quip:
‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my little finger. (Treatise of Human Nature, Bk. 2, 3, iii)
There is nothing contrary to reason in this. There is, however, something contrary to lawgiving reason. But this sort of contradiction is not a logical one: it is a contradiction between the standards set by reason, on one hand, and evil on the other.

Kant never denies that we can freely choose to act contrary to the moral law, and he does not claim that it is irrational to do so. This is implied by his account: if evil were nothing more than a species of irrationality, then we would not be responsible for our evil actions any more than we are responsible for an innocent mistake in multiplication. This raises a new difficulty, of course: how can we understand the freedom of a rational being as allowing for action contrary to lawgiving reason? I will not address the problem here. My goal has, rather, been to deal with two common misreadings by pointing out, first, that Kant’s definition of freedom in terms of the moral law does not, in fact, rule out the possibility of freely acting contrary to the law and, second, that action contrary to the law is nevertheless freely chosen and not simply an error of reasoning. The problems that remain with the conception of freedom, I believe, must thus be addressed through the problem of evil.

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