Monday, March 10, 2008

Kant's Moral Psychology (III): Endorsement, Determinism, and Motives

In this series of posts I have been defending Kant’s moral psychology against Leiter and Knobe’s attack. Particularly, I have been contending that their target is not Kant at all: they are attacking the position of a naturalistic Kantian, but Kant himself was certainly no naturalist. In this post I want to wrap up the discussion by looking at three features important to Kant’s moral psychology: his view of determinism, the endorsement principle, and the role of the passions (or sensible motives) in moral action.

Let me review the main elements of L&K’s argument as it pertains to Kant. They first present findings that suggest a massive role for heredity in determining our moral behavior (p. 18), so already there is a big chunk of moral behavior that is not touched by our explicitly adopted moral principles. L&K then go on to cite studies that suggest in no uncertain terms that, first of all, the correlation between people’s beliefs and their behavior is fairly low. Second, in cases of correlation, it looks like usually the behavior determines the beliefs, and not the other way around (incidentally: I do think this is a fairly large problem for Velleman; I doubt it is a problem for Kant). And finally they take their parting shot: even though there may be a small number of people who act on the basis of consciously chosen principles, not all will be moral; conversely, there may be agents who look very moral, but don’t act on explicitly chosen beliefs. That is, there “may well be agents whose conduct otherwise manifests respect for the dignity and autonomy of other persons and comports with the categorical imperative,” but, if these agents do not act specifically on consciously chosen principles, they “lack the kind of motivation (e.g., respect for the moral law) Kant himself thought morally significant.” Consequently, a Kantian is “likely to have to treat as immoral a lot of apparently moral individuals because of the largely unrealistic demands of Kant’s moral psychology” (33). This is a web of tangles and poorly understood Kant.

And there is just a bit of distortion designed to make Nietzsche come out on top. Take, for example, the following: “Nietzsche puts forward the view that a person’s traits are determined, to a great extent, by factors (type-facts) that are fixed at birth” (15). (L&K slip immediately into showing how studies of heredity show Nietzsche to be right. But did Nietzsche talk about heredity and modern genetics? Or did he simply say that character is determined at birth?) If what Nietzsche says is just that our moral characters are determined at birth, then one might strangely enough discover that this notion is taken directly from Kant. Let us recall that Kant was a staunch determinist. Unlike contemporary determinists, Kant did not simply believe in the truth of determinism because the world just happens to look determined. Rather, Kant insisted that the world must look determined if there is to be a world at all: we can only perceive an event as the effect of some cause. So it is no wonder that Kant is heavily committed—and on stronger theoretical grounds than Nietzsche had—to the idea that our empirical character is determined by factors “that are fixed at birth.” So much for using heredity to make Nietzsche look more plausible than Kant.

What about the role of conscious beliefs? I have already indicated in the last post that Kant simply did not hold the view that the only moral action is action caused by consciously chosen principles—the principles involved (maxims) are rational, not psychological entities. But there is another confusion here to disentangle, namely, the confusion between that thesis and the idea (which, in keeping with contemporary convention, we might call “the endorsement thesis”) expressed in a clip from Paul Katsfanas that Rob Sica quoted to me in the original discussion at Leiter’s blog:

Contemporary philosophers often endorse a claim that has its origins in Locke and Kant: self-conscious agents are capable of reflecting on and thereby achieving a distance from their motives; therefore, these motives do not determine what the agent will do. Nietzsche’s drive psychology shows that the inference in the preceding sentence is illegitimate. The drive psychology articulates a way in which motives can determine the agent’s action by influencing the course of the agent’s reflective deliberations. An agent who reflects on a motive and decides whether to act on it may, all the while, be surreptitiously guided by the very motive upon which he is reflecting.

I don’t disagree with anything here (and I am very much looking forward to reading this paper). What I want to note, however, is that Kant would—in my view—agree with all of it (he probably would not have agreed with the part about Nietzsche, but mainly because he hadn’t read Nietzsche, the slacker!). Even though L&K seem to conflate the two issues, there is a difference between the idea that agents’ actions are determined by principles (which, as I’ve suggested, was not for Kant an empirical claim at all), and the very empirical claim that agents can achieve a distance from their motives and are thus not determined by them.

How are these two claims different? Well, simply put, the bit of empirical psychology that Kant employs in the second is just obvious: he does not say that we know our sensible motives don’t determine our actions, but only that they don’t directly determine our actions. And that seems hard to argue with. When your nose itches, you want to scratch it. But if you stop to think about it, you might, for whatever reason, decide not to scratch. Under some circumstances—for example, when you need both of your hands on the wheel in order to keep your car from spinning off the road into a deep ravine—you would even be very likely to resist the urge to scratch your nose if you thought about it at all. In other words, the thesis is just this: if I am aware of a motive, then I have a certain distance from it, and this means that the motive does not directly determine me to action. Of course some motives might determine us to action no matter how much we want to resist them; but insofar as we are thinking about what to do, the motives will do so surreptitiously, as Paul correctly notes. That is, our motives do not directly determine our actions, even though they might determine them indirectly. And certainly no research L&K cite speaks against this.

Actually, in keeping with the emphasis on determinism, it is worth remembering that Kant is explicit on the issue that only sensible motives can cause our actions. If the motives that caused our actions were not sensible ones, then actions would appear to us as uncaused. But then, for Kant, we could never experience them at all. There is a further issue here: are the motives that cause our actions moral ones? According to Kant, even at the level of empirical psychology we can never know our motives because we do not have perfect introspection. We can strive to be as moral as possible, and to always act on moral motives, but in the end we can never know whether in fact we have done so. Many think this is a failing in Kant; but it strikes me as a strength of his moral theory, one that too many contemporary moral philosophers overlook: agents who know that they are moral are likely to get complacent; agents who are striving to be moral but do not know whether they have ever succeeded are forced to retain moral humility.

But the issue of whether someone’s motivation is a properly moral one is thornier than this in Kant, and far thornier than L&K suggest. They use the example of a teacher who both cares about his students and believes that he ought to care about his students. And they take it as a given that, if the teacher’s inclination to care about his students causes his belief that he ought to (rather than vice versa), this is evidence that he is not a moral agent by Kant’s standards. But this is pure rubbish. What empirical test would L&K propose to determine whether the teacher’s inclination to care about his students is not itself the effect of the moral law working within him? At the empirical level, you would be insane to tell the teacher that he is an immoral agent. He may well be immoral if his motive is not a moral one, but that is not something you could possibly know. (Of course if it turned out that the teacher cares about his students a little too much, then you could be pretty sure that his motive isn’t driven by pure respect for the moral law. But in that case you probably wouldn’t be too likely to mistake the teacher for a moral agent in the first place.)

Of course there is another sense in which we could tell an apparently moral agent that he is actually immoral: if what we mean is that all human beings are immoral or, as the Christian doctrine goes, in Adam all have sinned. Something like this is indeed at work in Kant, for he does proclaim that (“due to the largely unrealistic demands of his moral psychology”) the human race is evil by nature. But nobody should go from that doctrine to going around telling people who hid Jews from the Nazis that, despite appearances, they are still evil. If this is what L&K are worried about, then their real worry is about the idea of a moral ideal that’s actually an ideal. That is: they’re really just seconding Bernard Williams’s rejection of the institution of morality. But that’s another argument, both for another time, and also not about the data on moral psychology.

Empirical moral psychology, in other words, is not the place at which one is likely to find effective tools against Kant or, at least, against Kant the philosopher as opposed to Kant the misinterpreted punching bag. It is also not the place where Nietzsche will likely come out on top without some editorial tweaking. Naturalists may be rightly (in their eyes) suspicious of Kant. But so long as there is any discipline of philosophy that is not fully reducible to psychology and physics, perhaps that had best be the domain where honest philosophers engage Kant’s ideas. Provided, that is, that honesty is a goal.


  1. The unspoken is everything here. L&K attack Kant's "moral psychology". This entails a profound assumption: that morals are established from out of psychological norms. But that is precisely the contradiction of Kant's position, and, therefore, Kant is defeated not by legitimate refutation but by assumption.

    According to Kant, once morality is derived from psychology it is no longer morality. Instead it is inclination, an impossibly unstable foundation that prevents any fixed point from which to derive "the moral act". Quote-unquote morals that are based upon inclination are merely the imposition of one segment of society over another, are only a statement of compulsion. Nietzche, for all post-modernism has airbrushed him, agrees that morals are compulsion, in the end, and advocates that the segments of a society most functionally imbued with the Will to Power will be the segment doing the compelling in a healthy society. Compulsion via the herd, according to N.'s psycho-sociological model, is societally unhealthy and profoundly corrupt and thus immoral.

    It is the absolute core of Kant's position that all truly moral acts can only occur from the well-spring of a rationally (i.e. non-empirically) derived, a priori first principle (a.k.a. categorical imperative). Kant's position is that moral acts can not be psychologically derived. Once they are psychologically derived they are no longer morals.

    Should L&K feel that they can successfully make the case that Kant's categorical imperative fails because there is no such thing as a "fixed point" or "a priori," then it is there that they should begin in re Kant. Refuting the old professor may just prove more difficult than they think once his position regarding a metaphysics of morals is actually addressed.

  2. Hi GWP, thanks for the comment. As you know, I agree with much of what you say. I'm not entirely sure that "moral psychology" is itself such a problematic term, though. Of course L&K simply assume that moral psychology must be wholly empirical, and this does rule out Kant's position from the start. But then the problem is not with moral psychology per se, but with this conception of it.

    For Kant, of course, psychology is mostly an empirical field (he has doubts about whether it can be a science, for reasons worked out fairly well by Davidson). I would say that "moral psychology" for Kant would involve precisely that: a psychology of the sort of being to whom morality applies. That is, given the legitimacy of the moral law, what psychological features must human beings have? Kant's account of respect for the moral law is a psychological account, that combines the requirements of pure practical reason with a contingent fact about us, i.e., that we can act only on incentives and toward ends.

  3. "Kant's account of respect for the moral law is a psychological account, that combines the requirements of pure practical reason with a contingent fact about us, i.e., that we can act only on incentives and toward ends."

    Surely, Kant himself preempts his own "account" such that it can only be dead-on-arrival:

    "...there is the alleged special sense, the moral feeling. The appeal to it is superficial, since those who cannot think expect help from feeling, even with respect to that which concerns universal laws; they do so even though feelings naturally differ so infinitely in degree that they are incapable of furnishing a uniform standard of the good and bad, and also in spite of the fact that one cannot validly judge for others by means of his own feeling. Nevertheless, the moral feeling is nearer to morality and its dignity, inasmuch as it pays virtue the honor of ascribing the satisfaction and esteem for her dirctly to morality, and does not, as it were, say to her face that it is not her beauty but only our advantage which attaches us to her."

    [Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, sec 2, "Classification of all possible principles... of Heteronomy". Lewis Beck White tr.]

    Still, he gives credit where credit is due. He just doesn't feel that much (if any) is due.

  4. Sure. I don't think we disagree about anything of substance here. I mean only that there are some claims about our psychology involved in Kant (not about the moral sense as such--specifically, yes, Kant fully denies that we can use moral sense as a reliable guide to the good). I am thinking of things like this: "the capacity of taking such an interest in the law (or of having respect for the moral law itself) is really moral feeling." [Crit. Practical Reason, 5:80] Or: "Respect for the moral law is therefore the sole and undoubted moral drive, and this feeling is directed to no being except on this basis." [5:78] There are lots of weird inconsistencies in that whole discussion, but some basic points are these: As finite beings, we need incentives and feelings to drive us to actions. (This is a fact about our psychology.) Pathological feelings are ones determined by an object; in order for there to be a genuine moral incentive--without which we could not act morally--there must be a non-pathological feeling, i.e., a feeling that is the direct effect of the moral law on our sensibility. This feeling is respect.

    So I think there are psychological considerations involved. Nothing about our psychology is involved in dictating right and wrong, of course--only the moral law can do that. But some features of our psychology are involved in enabling us to act on the moral law. So with regard to issues of motivation, psychology does come into play.

  5. No, I do not think that we disagree about anything of substance supra. Having read your three part defense of Kant, as represented in Joshua Knobe's and Brian Leiter's "Case for Nietzchean Moral Psychology", however, I wished to point out that Kant's proxies had a devastating rejoinder available to them. It is simple, not subject to the kind of semantic thrust and parry that your three part riposte is bound to invite, and irrefutable on the merits.

    When Knobe and Leiter typify Kant's rational foundation for morals as a "tradition in moral psychology" they entirely misrepresent him:

    "From Kant, by contrast, has come the rationalist tradition in moral psychology,4 according to which reason is the source of moral motivation, and the mechanism for moral action is one in which rational agents legislate for themselves certain principles on the basis of which they consciously act."

    Kant states specifically, and supports repeatedly and with vigor, that moral psychology occupies an entirely different realm than rational metaphysics. His position is that, no matter what emprical studies of moral psychology might show they can have absolutely no effect upon the question as to what is a genuine moral injunction or act. With or without supporting empirical studies, Kant's proxy can boldly assert, in his behalf, that psychology can inform one of nothing beyond a "moral sense," which does not begin to be, in itself, "a foundation of the moral".

    Again, L&K:

    "In the Kantian tradition of moral psychology, moral obligations are grounded in principles that each agent consciously chooses."

    According to Kant, "moral psychology" is the foundation of no genuine "moral obligation" whatsoever. Having seriously misconstrued Kant's thesis such that "the alleged special sense, the moral feeling," substitutes for a genuine moral injunction, thus bringing such an injunction under the aegis of "moral psychology" is a serious failure to address a serious issue of proper categories. L&K's statement of Kant's position is, as the result, exactly the opposite of Kant's own. And the fact is central to their thesis, which, as the result, contains at least one major flaw.

  6. Sure, I agree with this, and in my first post in this series I accused L&K of precisely the conflation you mention here: the conflation of moral psychology and moral theory. But I don't think we should drop moral psychology from Kant altogether, because there is a crucial aspect of moral psychology in Kant, developed in the Second Critique chapter on the Incentives, and in Book I of the Religion.

    This is perhaps clearest in Kant's Lectures on Ethics, where he clearly warns against the conflation L&K make:

    "We must first notice that there are two points to consider; the principle of the discrimination of our obligation and the principle of its performance or execution. We must distinguish between measuring-rod and mainspring [Triebfeder--drive or incentive]. The measuring-rod is the principle of discrimination [Diiudication]; the mainstrping is the principle of the performance of our obligation. Confusion between these has led to complete falsity in the sphere of ethics." (36)

    A little further: "The supreme principle of all moral judgment lies in the understanding: that of moral incentive to action lies in the heart. This motive is moral feeling. We must guard against confusing the principle of the judgment with the principle of the motive." (36-37) (In his mature works, of course, the principle of adjudication lies in reason, not in the understanding.)

    So the ground of obligation certainly does not lie in principles we choose, as L&K claim, because then the obligation would be entirely subjective. So we absolutely cannot derive morality from any moral psychology. On the other hand, in order for this principle to apply to us, we must have the means of being moved by it. And these means are psychological. This is not an empirical moral psychology, but it is still moral psychology.

    You are absolutely right to point out that moral feeling cannot be the ground of the moral. The reverse must be true: morality must be the ground of moral feeling. But the examination of moral feeling as the incentive by which we can be moved to do our duty is important for Kant. So important, in fact, that Kant famously describes it in the following terms:

    "The understanding, obviously, can judge, but to give to this judgment of the understanding a compelling force, to make it an incentive that can move the will to perform the action--this is the philosopher's stone!" (45) The moral feeling connects us, as sensible acting beings, with our pure wills, which dictate the moral law to us. Without an investigation of moral feeling, you've left the philosopher's stone out of philosophy.