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The Emergence of the Concept of Practical Reason in Kant's Ethics and its Philosophical Grounds

Final Report Summary - PRACTICALREASON (The Emergence of the Concept of Practical Reason in Kant's Ethics and its Philosophical Grounds)

My research has investigated the roots and the philosophical grounds of Kant's novel conception of practical reason, one of the main outcomes of modern moral philosophy. One fundamental assumption of the project was that Kant's views of practical reason must be understood mainly as a response to the shortcomings of the different accounts of morality and moral knowledge between 17th and 18th century. Therefore, Kant's view must to be examined with strong and continuous reference to the philosophical context, taking into account the strengths and the weaknesses of the previous moral theories, not only in Germany, but also in Britain, since the British philosophy of 17th and 18th century not only contributed some of the most interesting views in early modern moral philosophy, but was also regarded with great interest by German philosophers in Kant's times. This has been the primary subject matter of my work. The main interpretive theses resulting from my research are: (1) that Kant's re-definition of the notion of practical reason must be understood as a new defense of the basic tenets of moral rationalism, (2) that his original conception of practical reason combines rationalist and voluntarist elements, amounting to a mixed theory that, in the terms of the present discussions, brings together moral realism and moral constructivism, (3) that the development of his theory of practical reason results also in a new conception of the status of moral subjects, grounding also a new account of conscience.

My contextual-comparative approach has not only focused on which role the most significant accounts of morality in that age attribute to reason, but has shown the necessity of a broader perspective. My investigation has focused not merely on Kant's vocabulary and its development, but also, specifically, on the link between his idea of practical reason and his innovative thesis on the foundations of moral demands. My research shows that Kant's re-definition of the idea of practical reason cannot be understood as a mere terminological issue, but has to be regarded as one central element of the defense of a new version of moral rationalism. What defines this new moral rationalism is not just a new idea of reason as opposed to other faculties responsible for moral knowledge, but how an account of moral knowledge is tied with an account of moral obligation. As my analysis of Kant's critical arguments against prior moral philosophy makes clear, his dissatisfaction with prior rationalist accounts never targets an insufficient conception of reason, nor his criticisms against them ever mention the notion. Rather, the first aim of his newly conceived idea of reason is to allow a better foundation and development of basic rationalist theses (first and foremost, the objectivity and non-contingency of moral demands).

Kant's moral rationalism is to be understood, thus, as a new version of moral rationalism that, through a different conception of moral knowledge through reason, aims at providing a better defense of some basic theses for which prior moral rationalists had argued. I have thoroughly investigated both how Kant sees the previous rationalist and voluntarist positions. This examination helped to clarify how Kant understood the flaws of the previous attempts at understand morality in the rationalist camp, and what alternative path he took. Contrary to the usually accepted picture, I argue that the development of Kant's theory was not a transition from a sentimentalist position to a rationalist one, but an on-going search for a stronger account within the rationalist camp. While the usual readings of the philosophical roots of Kant's idea of practical reason insist on his interest for the notion of moral sense and on his later rejection of it, my research argues for a rather different interpretation, underscoring that Kant's aim was from the beginning rationalist in nature. My analysis shows that Kant did not regard sentimentalist theories as significant because they provided a new foundation morality that he intended to endorse. His initial consideration of the possibilities opened up by moral sense theories was actually meant to provide a new, stronger defense of fundamentally rationalist tenets through key elements taken from sentimentalist accounts. In this respect, Kant's philosophical orientation was quite different from that of some of his contemporaries, who, drawing on British ideas, defended empiricist accounts of morality, against basic tenets of the Wolffian rationalism. (This is for instance the case of J.G.H. Feder, who can be regarded as a countercase to Kant.)

This first main point is combined with a further thesis: The most significant factor determining the originality and the peculiar features of Kant's moral rationalism is that he puts forward an original combination of rationalism and voluntarism, contrasting with most prior positions. This is the main result of my investigation of Kant's idea of self-legislation of the moral law and its development, where the role of practical reason and its relationship with the will become particularly clear. This point does not merely concern Kant's position in regard to early modern debates, but helps also to clarify his stance with respect to much-debated meta-ethical option. While focusing merely on the notion of 'reason' and its features would only amount to an historical account, the investigation of the philosophical grounds motivating Kant's idea of (practical) reason allows a consistent comparison with the terms of current debates. My analysis of the crucial normative role of pratical reason in Kant's theory shows how his account of morality amounts to a combination of realism and constructivism, since Kant affirms both that the moral law must be regarded as a constitutive, non-contingent principle of practical reason and that the prescriptive validity of moral demands depends on the law-giving role of practical reason itself.

A further main focus of the project has been the link between the development of Kant's conception of practical reason and his views on the moral status of human beings, that is, between his theory of practical reason and his account of human dignity and conscience, which have scarcely been investigated with a contextual approach as the one adopted in my research, paying attention to the other views with which Kant's was meant to compete. A significant part of my research was devoted to investigate Kant's account of conscience in comparison with the main others in 18th century. Butler, Rousseau, Wolff, and Fichte are the main other authors who have been considered in this respect. Here I show how Kant's very peculiar account of conscience consists in a version of one the two main models facing each other in the history of the philosophical interpretation of conscience: while some authors understand conscience as the faculty of the mind providing a direct cognition of what is good or bad, others attribute to conscience an assessing, or judging, role. Kant elaborates on the latter model, arguing for the original idea that conscience does not actually judge of our actions, but of the correctness of our decision procedure. Thereby conscience is given a specific role within the space of practical reason.

The outcomes of the research should hopefully contribute to the intense on-going discussions on Kant's ethics, both with a specifically historical interest and with a focus on current debates on the foundations of morality, where Kant still is one major reference.