Notes on Robert Audi’s Moral Knowledge and Ethical Character, pt V: Conclusion

“The Moral Justification of Actions and the Ethical Character of Persons”

In this concluding essay, Audi makes further points on how a Rossian intuitionistic pluralism can be supplemented with Kant’s categorical imperative.

A moral theory can be normatively complete on two levels, the first being that the theory accounts for the diversity of moral claims in our moral experience, and on the second level, the theory explains why the final duty is the one that it is, rather than the competing duties. By itself, Ross’s pluralism does accurately map the moral terrain, such that it has normative first order completeness. However, the theory does not itself explain why one final duty overrules the other, we must use practical wisdom to do so, such that Ross’s pluralism does not have second order completeness. Audi posits that supplementing Ross’s view with the categorical imperative offers an explanation for why the final duty is the one that it is, by reflecting on the maxim of one’s duty being universalizable for all similar states of affairs without contradiction, and/or whether acting on one’s duty treats another as a mere means rather than an end. The idea is that using the categorical imperative as a reflective framework might aid in considering the relevant moral properties that would decide the final duty for the situation, in such a way that provides second-order completeness.

As a quick aside, Audi argues that the use of the categorical imperative helps resolve a problem for Ross’s intuitionism that Ross could not quite resolve: how is beneficence towards strangers sometimes overruled? Audi notes that if one were to blindly maximize the good for all and thus strangers, one would treat oneself as a mere means, not as an end deserving of the realization of one’s own personal projects. The other way the categorical imperative comes in is that in maximizing the good for strangers one would inevitably violate duties to friends and loved ones, in such a way that does not treat them as ends.

The combination of Rossian intuitionism and the categorical imperative creates a strong moral theory, one that is superior to others that are less theoretically unified. Audi’s view is unified in that the same variables are at play at each level of the theory, it is just that at the second level a principle is offered to decide on what the overriding duty is. By contrast, views such rule utilitarianism have different variables at each level, such as rules on the first level, and the pleasure created by the universalization of those rules on the second level. This suggests that intuitionism and Kantianism are highly compatible and internally consistent.

Audi takes this merger far further than Ross would accept, arguing that the duties that Ross posits might just be principles of duty that we would derive from applying the categorical imperative to everyday moral experiences. Taking this point further, we can use this Kantian derivation to uncover that our perfect duties are ones the violation of which would treat others as mere means, and our imperfect duties are ones the violation of which would be a failure to treat others as ends. We might also use this merger to make sense of abstract Kantian points with Rossian pluralism. The Rossian duties might be understood as the standards for treating others with respect, and recognizing human dignity could amount to a duty of non-maleficence in the perfect form, and a duty of beneficence in the imperfect form.

On an epistemological level, the combination of these two views is fruitful because our justification for accepting the categorical imperative can be enhanced by our justification for accepting Ross’s duties, in such a way that the theories epistemologically reinforce each other. In continuation of the epistemological thesis of ethical reflectionism developed in “Intuitionism, Pluralism and the Foundations of Ethics”, Ross’s duties and Kant’s categorical imperative can be brought together in a reflective equilibrium, wherein each clarifies and expands the other.

I find Audi’s position remarkable as it successfully combines the best parts of various theories. Before being introduced to metaethics I was a Kantian, as I thought the categorical imperative offered a decision procedure that was far more plausible than consequentialism, and moreover, correctly kept an eye on the intentions of the agent. As I studied metaethics I became convinced that the underlying constructivism of Kant’s position was untenable. Audi’s realist metaethical position, which uses the categorical imperative as a decision procedure while avoiding Kant’s constructivism, strikes me as one of the best overall moral theories currently on offer.


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