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Fine Distinctions in Comparing Kant and Aristotle on Moral Pyschology

Recently (and by recently I mean since the revival of virtue ethics) there has been a move to draw close the similarities between Aristotle and Kant with respect to their ethics. From what I can tell the best places to see this are in chapter 4 in Rosalind Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics, and in Christine Korsgaard’s “From Duty and for the Sake of the Noble” (which appears in the book Aristotle, Kant and the Stoics. I think this is not only correct, but I think it is good for ethics. However, there are some distinctions that Korsgaard and Hursthouse draw that need a bit of clarification, though I think they don’t quite do much for moving Kant and Aristotle closer together.

In the Groundwork, Kant contrasts the agent acting from natural inclination and the agent acting without inclination but from duty. Korsgaard points out that this is often misconstrued as a direct argument against the position that Aristotle happens to support. She also notes though, that this is clearly not what is going on. It becomes necessary in order to understand the differences (and similarities) between the two to actually set up the agent-scenarios that will put both philosophers’ positions on display. There are actually four distinctions, rather than two. For clarity let’s use a specific example of action, i.e. charity. The four types of agents (that are relevant) are:

1. The agent who acts charitably because he has a natural inclination to do so. He doesn’t however, act charitably because he believes it is the right thing to do. This makes him the Unreflective Inclined Agent.

2. The agent who acts charitably because he feels that he has a duty to do so, but that this duty simply stems from a dogmatic acceptance of some sort of cultural or religious norm. This agent does not actually reflect on the rightness of the action itself either. He is the Unreflective Dutiful Agent (Let’s leave aside for the moment that at some point he had to reflect minimally to accept the religious or cultural norms, we assume).

3. The agent who acts charitably because he has deliberated and decided that it is the right thing to do to be charitable, and he also has the inclination (presume for my purposes that Korsgaard’s use of the word inclination would be acceptably interchangeable with Aristotle’s term virtue) to act charitably. This is the Reflective Inclined Agent.

4. The agent who acts charitably because he has deliberated and decided that it is his duty to act in this way. He however, has no inclination to do the act, and perhaps performs it contrary to his inclinations, which may be totally selfish, etc. He is the Reflective Uninclined Agent.

Now, we have the actual groundwork laid to draw sides. Plainly, The reflective uninclined agent is the one Kant wants to support, and the reflective inclined agent is the one Aristotle wants to support. Now keep in mind that past interpretations have tended to say that Aristotle’s agent is the one we have called the unreflective inclined agent. This is Hursthouse’s purpose in her chapter on the topic. She argues that if we draw the proper distinctions, what we find is that in Kant’s moral view in the Groundwork, the only real difference between Kant and Aristotle’s agents are how they are disposed toward action. Both of their agents will perform the action for the right reasons, but Aristotle’s agent will also have an inclination (character trait would be better obviously) to do the act, while Kant’s agent will not. Hursthouse also notes that while this seems to clearly give an Aristotelian account the upper hand, it must not be intrinsically so. And subsequently we have seen many Kantians going back and saying that no, what Kant actually settles upon in the Metaphysics of Morals is the reflective inclined agent just as Aristotle does. This I think is a wonderful fusion for the field of ethics. But it is not the end of the story.

The problem lies elsewhere. Firstly, the unreflective inclined agent is, according to Korsgaard, equivalent to Aristotle’s conception of those with natural virtue. However, Hursthouse points out that these two do not actually line up. For on Aristotle’s account, an adult cannot actually be naturally virtuous, because an agent who has the ability to reason about a situation, yet doesn’t, cannot be called anything but negligent. So this is one distinction, though a small and insignificant one.

The point to be made about the unreflective dutiful agent is that it may indeed be an artificial construction. It does seem hard to believe that one can feel they are acting according to duty with no reflection at all. We may, it’s true, want to draw a distinction between how thorough their reflection was, but do they actually do no reflection? In speaking to Hursthouse, she suggest that possibly children embrace the conception of rightness of certain acts from their parents and apply this at a young age without any reflection at all. However, this suggestion is open to the (somewhat tautological) criticism that the child is really acting to please their parents, or to avoid punishment, not because they have embraced a duty. I think this will have to remain an open question.

This brings us to the actual discontinuity between Kant and Aristotle that matters. In her article, Korsgaard quotes Kant quite a bit, and since I have not read the Metaphysics of Morals or anything of his ethical works outside the Groundwork, I will accept her judgments. At one point she quotes Kant to explain that virtue is indeed a part of Kant’s framework, but she does it in such a way as to indicate that the agent acts first from duty, and then comes to love this duty over time, thus creating the virtue. This is not at all Aristotle’s idea of virtue’s role. Rather, Aristotle claims that one does not (reliably) act without virtue. The virtue and the right reasons must go hand in hand. This is necessary for an ethical account of right action. For Kant, this is not the case. The agent who is inclined toward the right action does not actually have any greater moral worth than the agent who is not inclined, but acts alone from duty. For Aristotle though, the agent who acts rightly, but does not have the inclination (he calls this agent the continent one) is not virtuous, as Kant’s continent agent would be called (on Kant’s view). So here’s the point: The reflective uninclined agent is not actually the same for Kant and Aristotle. There is a subtle difference. The continent for Aristotle is one who is in a precarious position, he is between virtue and incontinence (weakness of will), and he may be propelled to move in either direction–up towards virtue or down towards incontinence. The continent agent is in a transition period. The emphasis in Aristotle is that while this agent may at times get things right, he is just as likely to slip back into being incontinent. His position is unreliable for hitting on right action. Another way to look at it is that the agent, if he manages to continue to be continent, will eventually become virtuous. This is unavoidable. On Aristotle’s moral psychology, the habituation will eventually lead him to develop the inclinations (character traits) he needs to be called virtuous. But this is not how Kant conceives of the continent.

For Kant, the continent is not in a precarious position at all. He is concerned with acting for the right reasons and so he is perfectly virtuous (if we can sub in that term here). And while it is true that Kant does (again, according to Korsgaard’s description) acknowledge the helpfulness of having certain inclinations or character traits to propel an agent toward what he has decided is his duty, he says that virtue is only a “temporary substitute for reason.” Clearly Kant and Aristotle do not agree on this point.

Now, I do not want to extend this distinction at all into current modifications of Kantian ethics, and am quite willing to acknowledge that there is nothing necessarily present in the Kantian account that prevents it from adopting Aristotle’s moral psychology, but I think it is still helpful to understand where the two thinkers do come apart. I believe it is also clear (though I will not argue for it) that the agent who chooses to act for the right reasons and also habituates himself to be inclined toward that action is in a much better position to act morally on a consistent basis (this I am told is a position Kant comes to accept in the Metaphysic of Morals). If this is true, then whether we are Kantian or Aristotelian, we should accept Aristotle’s account of moral motivation over the one that Kant proposes (which equates the moral worth of Aristotle’s cotinent agent with his virtuous one).


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