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Musing about Kant

11 May, 11 | by Iain Brassington

So… I’ve been writing a paper on Kant, the basic thrust of which is to assert the importance of respect for autonomy over and above respect for persons.  (That is, I think that Kant thinks that we ought to respect persons because they’re autonomous; this is in contrast to the modern idea that we ought to respect autonomy because it’s a property of persons.)  But the journal’s word limit has meant that I can’t fit some bits in – so I’ll shove ‘em here instead.

One line I’ve had to drop has to do with what seems like a blind-spot in the Categorical Imperative (or “another blind spot”, if you’re that way inclined).  If there is only one CI (and Kant claims that there is), and if the CI mandates respect for autonomy (and he claims that it does), there ought to be a way to say that any wrong action is a violation of respect for autonomy, either in oneself or others.  (If we couldn’t tie all wrongful actions to that, there’d have to be more than one principle of morality.)  Correspondingly, any claim that an action violates respect for persons, on the reading of Kant that I favour, would have to be translatable into a claim about it failing to respect autonomy.  But there are some times when Kantian respect for autonomy looks quite weak in comparison to a “respect for persons” claim.  Take, for example, recent* controversy about Christian doctors demanding the right to ask patients if they can pray for them.  I think that such an offer ought not to be made.  Part of my objection has to do with respecting the integrity of the patient, and I guess that this has some kind of relationship with a claim about respect for persons.  However, I’m really struggling to see how this could be substantiated by means of an appeal to autonomy.  So if respect for autonomy is fundamental to morality – as I think it is for Kant – the offer would not violate the duty.  Since I think it does, I must think that, at least, there is something missing from Kant’s account.

*Blimey.  It’s not as recent as I thought.

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  • John Coggon

    Hi, Iain.

    Is there a risk you're putting the cart before the horse in your critique here?

    If we can assess the soundness of a moral theory by reference to things it would allow, condemn, demand, etc., because ex ante we *know* what morality allows, condemns, demands, etc., our approach is radically different to Kant's, isn't it? (Not a rhetorical question – you know that I don't know much about any of this.) If the answer is yes, then it's hardly surprising there is something “missing”, but that's a bit of a foregone conclusion, perhaps.

  • http://www.law.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/staff/iain_brassington Iain Brassington

    Yeah – you're absolutely right. In this case, Kant is only being tested against an intuition, and in cases where intuitions and theories conflict, I think it's (almost) always going to have to be the intuition that loses out. Within the wider context of the paper, my claim was simply going to be that in many cases Kantianism is a lot more hard-nosed than a lot of ethicists think; but in a few cases, it seems remarkably unable to meet intuitions. Maybe we do just have to bite that bullet.

    Having said that, it's interesting to note that one of Kant's opening gambits at the start of the Grundlegung is that he's starting from the “common idea of duty” – so even he seems to make some foundational appeal to intuitions.

  • Peter Herissone-Kelly

    I suspect that for Kant, we *do* already know what is right or wrong. After all, we have the categorical imperative “always before our eyes” (that's a paraphrase rather than a quotation–can't be bothered to look up chapter and verse on a Friday night when there is real ale in the kitchen!). And as Iain replies, the starting point for Kant is our common knowledge of morality–though that turns out to be more a knowledge of the *sorts* of actions that have moral worth, than a knowledge of what actions are of those sorts.

    I think Iain's question about autonomy is a very interesting one indeed. I'd have to do a bit of thinking before I could even hazard a guess at a genuinely Kantian response to it. I wonder, though, whether appeal is being made in Iain's point to more than one sense of “autonomy”. Respect for autonomy in Kant is respect for an autonomous will, and an autonomous will is one that is determined by the moral law (I know that Iain already knows this!). Persons are fitting objects of respect just because each of them is, so to speak, a seat of the categorical imperative, rather than because  they can legitimately refuse to be prayed over or what have you. So what am I getting at with that point? I'm not quite sure yet. If I get the time to think more about the topic between marking exam scripts, I'll work it out and come back!

  • James Wilson

    Hi Iain. One possibility that you've missed is that , for the Kantian, such praying by the doctor is wrongful because it violates the respect that the doctor should show to her own status as a rational being. (This is Kant's general story for duties to oneself). So the refusal of prayer comes as part of the attempt to persuade people to throw off the shackles of intellectual immaturity and take the courage to use their own understanding (sapere aude). So the true Kantian could maintain that the wrongfulness of doctors praying for their patients is due to respect for autonomy, but in a different way than you suppose….

    Here's what Kant has to say about prayer in Religion within the limits of reason alone:

    Praying, thought of as an inner formal service of God and hence as a
    means of grace, is a superstitious illusion (a fetish-making); for it is
    no more than a stated wish directed to a Being who needs no such
    information regarding the inner disposition of the wisher; therefore
    nothing is accomplished by it, and it discharges none of the duties to
    which, as commands of God, we are obligated; hence God is not really
    served. A heart-felt wish to be well-pleasing to God in our every act
    and abstention, or in other words, the disposition, accompanying all our
    actions, to perform these as though they were being executed in the
    service of God, is the spirit of prayer which can, and should, be
    present in us “without ceasing.” But to clothe* this wish (even though
    it be but inwardly) in words and formulas can, at best, possess only the
    value of a means where- by that disposition within us may be repeatedly
    quickened, and can have no direct bearing upon the divine approval; and
    for this very reason it cannot be a duty for everyone.. ….  Men, are prone,
    moreover, when their hearts are disposed to religion, to transform what
    really has reference solely to their own moral improvement into a
    courtly service, wherein the humiliations and glorifications usually are
    the less felt in a moral way the more volubly they are expressed. It is
    therefore the more necessary carefully to inculcate set forms of prayer
    in children (who still stand in need of the letter), even in their
    earliest years, so that the language (even language spoken inwardly,
    yea, even the attempts to attune the mind to the comprehension of the
    idea of God, which is to be brought nearer to intuition) may possess
    here no value in itself but may be used merely to quicken the
    disposition to a course of life well-pleasing to God, those words being
    but an aid to the imagination. Otherwise all these devout attestations
    of awe involve the danger of producing nothing but hypocritical
    veneration of God instead of a practical service of Him–a service which
    never consists in mere feelings.

  • James Anderson

    Quick thought. I agree that any *right* to ask patients anything at all probably doesn't exist and am as irked as you are by the notion. That said, it seems that the actual process of asking permission to do anything for a person is where respect for autonomy comes from. If they say “yeah go ahead” you'd be respecting their autonomy by praying, if they say “no, ta” you would fail to respect their autonomy if you were to go ahead and pray anyhow.
    Perhaps it is the nature of prayer that is creating the difficulty as it really doesn't seem to have any perceivable affect, particularly if a person does not know that they are being prayed for. But, I am thinking about you now Iain, and I have not attempted to gain your consent to think about you. Am I failing to respect your autonomy by thinking about you without permission, or does the fact that the process of my thoughts having no affect on you at all make the whole think moot.
    I have no idea what I am banging on about either.

  • http://www.law.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/staff/iain_brassington Iain Brassington

    Thanks for that.  I disagree that you'd be respecting a person's autonomy by doing something to which they'd given permission – autonomy doesn't seem to come into that.  Nor, really, do I think that you'd be undermining their autonomy by praying for them even if they preferred that you didn't: you'd hardly be interfering with their moral freedom.

    My concern is with making the request to begin with, which – to me, at least – seems like it's morally problematic; but it's not problematic because of any appeal to autonomy.  The kind of request that seems to make a difference here.  Suppose I was your patient and you asked if I'd like to borrow a book you'd just read and thought I'd enjoy: I don't think that that would be problematic, even though your offer is structurally very similar to a prayer offer.  By contrast, if you offered to go and fill out an application for membership of a political party, that would be a problem, and for the same sort of reason.

    What makes the difference is, I think, something that I'm trying to capture by the word “integrity” – which is vague, but the best I can do at the moment.  If I'm on to something, though, then it ought to worry Kantians, because it's not at all obvious to me how the CI can accommodate what I'm trying to articulate.  And if there's a moral problem that can't be presented in terms of the CI, that means that Kant's moral philosophy is, at best, incomplete.

  • http://www.law.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/staff/iain_brassington Iain Brassington

    Thanks for that, James – it's really interesting.  RLRA is not a work I know well at all: I've plundered it for the stuff on Wille and Willkür, but not gone any deeper.

    As to your hypothesis – it's possible, though on my reading of Kant, duties of respect for rational beings are subordinate to the duty of respect for autonomy, which is itself a function of reverence for the moral law (one of the two things that fill Kant's mind with wonder).  So unless superstition is corrosive of the moral law within a person, I wonder how far your explanation would go.  Of course, superstition might be antagonistic to the moral law; but it needn't be corrosive – the two could be in an uneasy truce.  It's possible that someone making the offer does fail to respect himself as a creature within whom the moral law is manifest; but the connection doesn't seem to me to be analytic, which is what the Kantian'd need.

    But I'll go back to RLRA when I get the chance.  The passage you've provided is fascinating and surprising.

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