Notes on Robert Audi’s Moral Knowledge and Ethical Character, pt IV: Practical Reason and the Foundations of Ethics

Section IV: Practical Reason and the Foundations of Ethics
“Autonomy, Reason and Desire”

In a way, this essay is best understood as a further defense of the theory of responsibility Audi argues for in “Responsible Action and Virtuous Character” (in pt III). The intent of the current essay is to develop the conception of autonomy as presented in that essay, and how our best understanding of autonomy does not fit with Humean instrumentalism, but an objectivism of the Kantian tradition. The crucial point is that autonomy implies not just self-legislation, but self-government.

If the instrumentalist conception of practical reason is correct, then autonomy is merely self-legislation, and so if Audi can succeed in showing this conditional to be true, then we have reason to reject the instrumentalist view of practical reason. On the instrumentalist view, reason serves the purpose of attaining our desires, such that reason tells us how to fulfill our wants, but it does not tell us what is in fact desirable. By contrast, on the objectivist conception of autonomy, reason does not inform us only how to attain our desires, but also shapes our desires by recognition of what is intrinsically good and desirable in itself, such that reason does tell us what is in fact desirable. “The central point is that reason, on this view, is normatively practical, roughly in the sense that (a priori) reflection can deliver at least rational judgments (even if not knowledge) of intrinsic value, say judgments to the effect that pleasure is good and pain is bad” (208).

For Audi, it seems that instrumentalism entails a view of autonomy where one controls how one acts without understanding why one should act in that way. The correct view of autonomy must include the condition that one understands and endorses their actions through reasoning about what is and what is not actually desirable, such that one truly governs their self. The instrumentalist view cannot provide this condition because it essentially tells one the law or what is desirable without telling why it is the law or why it is desirable. Only the objectivist view can provide the reasons for why certain ends are desirable, and by analogy, why the law is the law, such that the objectivist conception of autonomy is superior to the instrumentalist conception.

“Moral Judgment and Reasons for Action”

In this essay, Audi argues against motivational internalism, positing that it cannot be understood in isolation from relations internalism, which when fully fleshed out, amounts to an instrumentalist conception of practical rationality, but which Audi argues is in fact incompatible with motivational internalism. Audi concludes in favor of motivational and reasons externalism.

Audi begins by outlining the issue as being as to whether holding a moral judgment is necessarily motivating, and whether this motivation exhausts the reasons for an action, opening the possibility that there might be reasons for actions apart from desires that motivate actions. Audi notes that the idea of motivation being intrinsic to making a moral judgment seems plausible at first, but that it becomes dubitable after we consider the assumptions that we need to make about the agent and the circumstances they are in. Motivational internalism seems true when we consider rational agents, but this reveals that moral judgments are not intrinsically motivating, only that in rational agents there is a consistent connection between moral judgments and motivation, a thesis that a motivational externalist can agree with, such that this point does not support motivational internalism.

A possible move for the motivational internalist is to note the difference between intellectually stating a moral proposition and making a moral judgment from the moral point of view. Audi argues that this isn’t very helpful to the point of the internalist, because it still seems that moral judgments are not intrinsically motivating, and that the agent must get into the moral mindset for motivation to concur with judgments in such a way that it seems motivation is extrinsic to judgment. This is essentially to note the possibility of an amoralist as evidence against motivational internalism.

In the next section of the essay Audi notes that while he has granted that a rational person in the moral mindset may be motivated intrinsically by their moral judgments, even this thesis is too strong. He posits that when a rational person makes a moral judgment he may later not be motivated by that judgment, while still being perfectly rational, providing the example of a father who judges that he must punish a disobedient child but later changes his mind. Audi proposes that “moral emotions” that come from our moral experiences might deprive a moral judgment of its motivation, an idea that the internalist could attempt to accommodate, but Audi takes this point further by noting that the motivation that seems intrinsic to the judgment might actually be caused by such moral emotions, rather than the judgment causing the motivation – a thesis the internalist cannot embrace.

A final argument considered for getting to motivational internalism is by noting that a moral judgment provides a reason for action, but one could not have a reason for action if one could not be motivated by that reason and by extension, that judgment (the “ought implies can” argument). Audi dismisses this as misguided, as surely there can be a reason for an action even if we have been neurologically blocked from being motivated to take that action. In response to the objection to this that we must have the capacity to be motivated by judgments in order to have reasons at all, Audi maintains that an agent can have a reason for a certain action even if they haven’t made a judgment at that moment, and this seems quite right.

Audi then turns to reasons internalism, the thesis that reasons for action are grounded in internally present non-cognitive motivational states. He posits that proponents of reasons internalism are likely drawn to the view because of an instrumentalist view of reasons for action, roughly the idea that reasons function only to attain non-instrumental desires, such that “all reasons for action, then, are rooted in desire” (235). With instrumentalism connected with reasons internalism we get a narrower picture of rationality: reasons for action are not grounded in desires generally, they are only grounded in non-instrumental desires. The consequence of this point is that while moral judgments may cause desires, moral judgments themselves cannot provide reasons for action, as only non-instrumental desires provide reasons for action. Audi posits that this point is not frequently recognized, but it undermines the compatibility of motivational internalism and this instrumentalist account of reasons for action, which is of great importance, because, argues Audi, motivational internalism is attractive to philosophers because of their acceptance of an instrumentalist reasons internalism. The tension is that if motivational internalism is true then moral judgments can themselves provide reasons for action, which is incompatible with the instrumentalist view. One way to avoid this is to not construe moral judgments as cognitive, but non-cognitive, but such a move commits one to non-cognitivism. Still, Audi doubts the support that this truly gives to non-cognitivism, as moral judgments would have to be desire producing in a way that is contingent and this point doesn’t bolster the non-cognitivist’s position.

Reasons externalism is then presented as the view that reasons for action are not grounded in internal non-cognitive motivational states, a view that is nonetheless compatible with epistemic internalism, and the conjunction of which entails that reasons for action can be grounded by beliefs (rather than desires on the internalist view) and which are internally accessible through reflection on moral concepts. Audi posits that the preceding arguments against motivational and reasons internalism suggest the truth of motivational and reasons externalism, coupled with epistemic internalism.


“Intrinsic Value and the Dignity of Persons”

In this fantastically exhaustive essay Audi provides an account of intrinsic value, and intrinsic goods that provide reasons for action, and argues that the intrinsic good of human dignity provides moral reasons for action.

Audi begins with the Aristotelian argument that goods, such as pleasure and pain, provide reasons for actions, and if this is so then there cannot be an infinite recess in the good, but rather there must be intrinsic goods. The next step is to articulate what an intrinsic good is, narrowing the concept from states of affairs to states of experiences, arguing for what he terms ‘axiological experientialism’: “only states of experience have intrinsic value (or intrinsic disvalue), where these states are construed psychologically, roughly as mental states or processes” (254). Experientialism is wider than hedonism, as Audi rejects the latter view on the point that experiences can be intrinsically rewarding even if no pleasure is taken in them.

Audi expands experientialism further by noting that objects may be contemplatively valuable, such that entities can have intrinsic value even if no one is able to experience them, so long as we can appreciate this value through contemplation of this fact. These entities are intrinsically valuable in virtue of their intrinsic properties, such that the contemplation of those entities is an experience that itself has inherent value because of those properties that are intrinsically valuable in their being appreciated by experience or contemplation – there is no intrinsic value independent of our experiencing our contemplating the properties that create that value. The idea, going forward from what has been argued, is that states of experience can have intrinsic value and thus provide reasons to act, so, if states of experience can have moral intrinsic value then it follows that moral values can provide reasons to act (recall the reasons externalism seen in the last essay).

The question then is whether moral value can belong to experiences, in such a way that there can be experiences of moral elements. It does seem that moral experiences are bearers of moral intrinsic value, and derivatively persons and actions may have inherent moral value. The idea is that one’s response to a situation is affected by one’s moral sensibility in such a way that makes the experience moral. Two responses to the same outcome may result in different moral experiences if one feels that they were treated unjustly, thus having a moral experience of moral disvalue. The conclusion from this is that indeed, we experience intrinsic moral values and disvalues.

A moral value that Audi sees as potentially bridging the gap between moral value and moral obligation is the value of human dignity, which Audi argues can be accommodated by experientialism. On this view, to have dignity is to be capable of experiences that have value and moral properties, such as experiences that realize moral values for oneself and for others. Dignity is a higher-order value because “it is an axiological property that depends on moral and other ‘higher’ values [such as aesthetic and intellectual values], and it belongs to persons in virtue of their capacity for certain kinds of experience” (263). This dignity grounds a respect for persons that motivates just treatment in line with the second formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative, such that dignity is a moral value that not only creates reasons to act, but obligations to act.

In continuation of his intuitionist project, Audi posits that the intrinsic value of human dignity is known a priori and non-inferentially, showing the epistemological weight of intuitionism. Nevertheless, Audi maintains that there is a plurality of moral values, such that there is no simple principle that serves as a decision procedure, such that, true to the work of Aristotle and Ross before him, Audi stresses the importance of practical wisdom.

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