Practical Reason in Kant: Self-Conscious or Self-Opaque?
Anastasia Berg (University of Cambridge)
Friday, February 16th, 2:00-4:30
Most interpreters attribute to Kant the claim that we can never know whether even our own actions are performed merely in accordance with the moral law or from it and that therefore we never know whether our actions are merely legal or have genuine moral worth. This claim, however, poses not only a threat of skepticism concerning the possibility of moral self-knowledge, but seems to fly in the face of Kant’s philosophical teaching concerning our rational capacities: namely, that they are self-conscious. In this paper, I evaluate Kant’s so-called ‘self-opacity’ thesis and argue that, firstly, his claim applies asymmetrically to good and bad cases: when I act from the motive of self-love I may not know that I am not acting from duty, but it does not follow that when I do act from duty, I do not know that I do. Secondly, and more importantly, I argue that the uncertainty Kant is concerned with is essential to his account of practical reason. This is so because the end of acting from the motive of “happiness,” or the sum of all my subjective and contingent desires and inclinations is an indeterminate concept, at any moment potentially self-contradictory, and therefore impossible to pursue coherently: it cannot guide practical reasoning and does not offer standards for its attainment. But precisely because pursuit of her ends is self-conscious, in order to pursue her ends, the subject pursuing happiness will be tempted to pursue the objects of her subjective inclinations and desires as if they were not derived from the unintelligible end of happiness, but from the moral law. Thus, far from undermining the self-consciousness of practical reason, we see that the self-opacity characteristic of bad action is not only consistent with self-consciousness, but is born of it.
The paper will be presented at the workshop. A light reception will follow in the Anscombe Lounge.