Sunday, November 27, 2011

Allen Wood on Kantian Ethics

There are a handful of more or less reliable interpreters of Kantian moral theory: Paul Guyer, Barbara Herman, Christine Korsgarrd, and Onora O’Neill are foremost among those I’m thinking of here. But there’s one expositer of Kant’s moral thinking that, for me at least, stands apart from the rest and that is Allen W. Wood. I’ve long relied for guidance in this regard on his book, Kant’s Ethical Thought (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Several years ago, Wood penned another work, Kantian Ethics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008) this time as an “attempt[] to sketch an ethical theory based on the principles found in the writings of Immanuel Kant,” and thus it is “not primarily a study of those writings but an attempt to develop out of Kant’s thought the most defensible theory possible on that basis,” not unlike what Jonathan Lear has done for Freudian psychoanalytic theory and praxis. The latter book is absolutely essential by way of dispelling recalcitrant misleading and incorrect interpretations of Kant’s ethical thought. For instance, Wood writes that

“Kant’s moral outlook is...fundamentally determined by a subtle, shrew, historically self-conscious (and characteristically Enlightenment) conception of human nature and human psychology that most treatments of Kantian ethics (even sympathetic ones) have largely overlooked. This side of Kant owes a great deal to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and it belongs to a radical tradition in the social criticism of modernity whose later representatives include Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Karl Marx. The Kantian mistrust of our empirical desires reflects a Rousseauian picture of the way our natural desires have been influenced by the loss of innocence--the restless competitiveness—characteristic of human beings in the social condition, especially as found in the social inequalities of what Rousseau and Kant called the ‘civilized’ stage of human society but was later renamed ‘modern bourgeois society’ or ‘capitalism.’ Again, to miss this continuity is not only to misread Kant; it is badly to misread the history, and even the living reality, of the social order that is all around us. Kant’s famous mistrust of our empirical ‘inclinations’ is mistrust of ‘nature’ only insofar as our nature has been shaped by society. [....] [Thus our natural inclinations] become evil only insofar as vices have been ‘grafted onto them’ by an ‘invisible enemy, one who hides behind reason and is hence all the more dangerous.’ This enemy is competitiveness, social inequality, the passion for domination over others.”

Wood states that he’s changed his mind about a few facets of his earlier interpretation of Kant’s moral ideas, “especially regarding the aims of ethical theory and the Kantian conception of autonomy.” And important topics “that were much more briefly discussed, or not covered at all” in the earlier work, are now accorded whole chapters: “virtue, conscience, social justice, sex, punishment, lying, consequentialism, the personhood of persons, and the moral status of nonrational animals.”


Blogger Nick said...

I think it's high time we started recognizing that divergent readings of Kantian ethics are not the result of ignorance and misreading, they're built right into Kant's text.

I mean, how can a scholar of Wood's stature 'change his mind' about Kant's concept of autonomy, which must be the most important concept in the entire system? Well, he can change his mind because Kant is systematically ambiguous about it.

Something else: Wood may have made a career on selling Rousseau-inspired readings of Kant on inclination, but in passage after passage in the Groundwork Kant makes no distinction between natural and social desires. He has ample opportunity to make this reading explicit in the second Critique, yet he does not take advantage of that opportunity, saving Wood's preferred thesis for a work on religion. This is systematic ambiguity, and there is no one 'correct' reading of Kantian ethics.

11/28/2011 11:59 AM  

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