Moral agents

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L049-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 19, 2024, from

3. The inner life and the Kantian view

The substantial question is whether the Kantian requirement is legitimate. Different moral theories give different answers to this question. Critics of the Kantian view might ask: if members of your family rescue you from a burning house, would you not think better of them if they did this out of affection for you rather than out of a sense of duty? Kantians would reply that if they did it out of affection, this would not at that time involve an exercise of their moral agency. This is consistent with the view that there may have been some exercise of moral agency in the past if the agent cultivated the right feelings and dispositions out of a sense of duty. Some people through good luck have better feelings and dispositions than others. Their qualities may even be wonderful, but do they deserve moral credit? Wittgenstein thought that G.E. Moore’s lack of vanity and his innocence generally might be loveable but Moore did not deserve any moral credit, for he was not ‘talking of the innocence a man has fought for, but of an innocence which comes from a natural absence of a temptation’ (see Malcolm 1966: 80). But what of the family members who fight against a selfish temptation to run away from the burning house where you are, and overcome it not out of a sense of duty but because of their love for you?

Persons who, through no fault of their own, have temptations to commit serious crimes are at a serious disadvantage compared to those of us who are lucky and do not have these temptations (see Moral luck). The former may deserve moral credit for conquering their temptations and for attempting to cultivate the right dispositions. Moral agency in one important sense of the term is to be contrasted with what happens as a result of luck. The conduct of individual agents is produced by a combination of factors: heredity, environment and free will. On the Kantian view, since personal choice is the only contribution to conduct made by agents themselves, it is only for this last factor that they are to be held morally accountable (see Free will).

The Kantian view of moral agency presupposes an enduring self that has the power of acting freely in a strong libertarian (or nondeterministic) sense. The enduring self on this view is different from an enduring character. The self is that which has the character and is autonomous in the sense that it has the power after reflection to change or not to change the character to some degree (see Autonomy, ethical). It is only to the extent that it has this power that it is held morally accountable for actions that issue from it or its character. If there is no enduring self, if the later self is a different self from the earlier one, then the later self cannot be morally accountable for the acts of its predecessor any more than a child can be for the deeds of its parents. Critics point out that the free will and the enduring self that are presupposed are incoherent. Either the character is determined by various factors that are ultimately outside the agent’s control or, if there is a break in the causal chain, then the act is a chance or random event and so again there can be no freedom.

Kantians reply that this objection loses force once we acknowledge the existence of the inner standpoint of the moral agent. C.A. Campbell (1957) has pointed out that from the internal standpoint we can make sense of a free act that is neither determined by factors outside our control nor a random event. Campbell appeals to our phenomenological experience of moral effort in the face of moral temptation, in which we can make sense of the creative agency of the self, when the self has the power to go beyond its formed character. On this view what is really admirable about moral agents is that they can obey the moral law, rising above their feelings and passions by efforts of will made for the sake of the moral law. So the existence of the inner life is considered, at any rate on the Kantian view, to be another essential requirement of moral agency. It is this requirement that is not met by robots, corporations, states and other groups. Even if they instantiate rational systems or functional systems such that it makes sense to attribute actions (in a functionalist sense) to them, they do not have an irreducible inner phenomenology (see Functionalism). Thus a corporation or a state is not joyous and does not suffer (in the phenomenological sense) except in the sense that is reducible to the suffering and joys of its members. To say this is consistent with the view that such entities are extremely important in the influence they have over their members and that their behaviour and the laws governing them are not reducible to the behaviour and the laws governing the behaviour of their members.

William James (1907) pointed out that what gives significance to human life is that we can set ourselves ideals or goals and then pursue them with zest, overcoming obstacles in the way (see James, W. §3). If there were no struggle in human endeavour there would be nothing heroic about us. When we admire individuals for their struggle against temptation, or against disease, or their heroic attempt at conquering mountains or solving mathematical problems, we are appealing to an inner life. If a computer solves a mathematical problem, however ingenious its solution, there is nothing heroic about it.

It might be objected that one can understand the duty versus temptations battle without appealing to an inner life; one may give a dispositional analysis of temptation as well as of overcoming it. But Kantians would reply that we can only make sense of moral effort and free will if we assume an internal point of view. If we look at things from a purely objective point of view neither the presence of determinism nor its absence can make sense of our free will and of our moral agency.

Citing this article:
Haksar, Vinit. The inner life and the Kantian view. Moral agents, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L049-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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