Realism and autonomy: three sketchy thoughts

Right now, the work that I’m doing for my supervision meetings is on realism and autonomy. My aim is to articulate possible tensions between realist accounts of normative force and the Kantian understanding of autonomy: that is, acting according to a law not derived from something external to the will. For, while contemporary Kantians like Christine Korsgaard seem to think that there is an obvious incompatibility between autonomy so understood and any reasonably robust moral realism, I remain unconvinced. In part, this may be because the criticisms of realism from a perspective that privileges autonomy are rather underdeveloped and gestural. Also, however, I remain sceptical because the resources available to the realist have been underestimated. Ultimately, I think that far from clashing with autonomy, a sufficiently nuanced realism can do a better job at explaining it. Indeed, eventually I hope to show that a certain version of realism gets closer to Kant’s own position than the oh-so-obvious subsumption of Kant’s moral philosophy under the categories of modern anti-realism.

Very crudely, the contemporary ‘Kantian’ thought seems to go something like this. In practical deliberation, the realist is going to appeal to reasons for action that are supposed to be intrinsically compelling, e.g. ‘the fact that killing is unjust’, or ‘God mandates eating animals’. Yet, to be autonomous is to act on a law in some sense immanent to the will and not imposed from outside of it. If there are intrinsically compelling normative features of the world, and so features in some sense independent of the activity of the will, then it seems that the will cannot or ought not be autonomous. This is because the will would be beholden to reasons whose authority lies outside of it, and therefore it is not free to choose its own law constrained only by principles immanent to it as a will. Thus autonomy and moral realism are incompatible. At least, that is how I think the basic story is meant to go.

Obviously, things can rapidly get more complicated. There seem to be various ways for the realist to reply as well as ways of finessing the way the anti-realist sets up the problem. So too, there are other potential clashes between realism and autonomy, fleshed out differently from the one presented here. Here, I only wish to note three of the more nascent thoughts I’ve had recently with respect to these issues:

(i) In good Zizekian fashion, why not simply plead guilty? That is, what is so awful about jettisoning autonomy, at least in this sense, in favour of realism. I find this tempting, since I am suspicious of freedom-like concepts being the keystones of ethico-political systems. Apparently, Charles Larmore pursues this thought in his The Morals of Modernity, which I have yet to get hold of. Still, it is a separate question whether on the grounds given by the neo-Kantian the realist must give up autonomy. As I say, I am yet to be convinced of this.

(ii) The understanding of autonomy outlined is one in which to be autonomous is to act according to the will’s own principles, where these are understood to be constitutive of the will as such — part of what any will must be in virtue of it being a will at all. One path would be to pursue this thought rather deeper, to try and connect the appeal to such constitutive principles — which the Kantian anti-realist strategy endorses — with realism. If it could be shown that the will relies upon, say, an implicit understanding of a reason which is the same as one given by a realist account, then there may be a way of conjoining realism and autonomy. This strategy would try to show that the very notion of a will must be understood against a realist backdrop to be intelligible. Conversely, we might try to show that an anti-realist will — one whose constitutive principles preclude or ignore the realist conception of normativity — fails to be a will at all.

This is extremely sketchy, and I feel there are lots of possible confusions afoot here. One thing to bear in mind is the distinction between two senses of a constitutive principle. There are what we might call constitutive features (e.g. of a rose that it is a plant) and constitutive rules (e.g. given that you are thinking, you are licensed to employ the principle of non-contradiction). The sense in which the will is said to be autonomous seems to be the latter, that it acts on constitutive rules and so does not appeal to anything outside of itself. If these constitutive rules required a realist conception of a good reason for action then it seems there could be no clash between autonomy — as the acting upon such rules — and moral realism.

(iii) How does this relate to other stripes of realism about normativity? The topic of my larger project encompasses normativity in general, not merely moral practices. So, can similar issues be raised with respect to, say, normative epistemological realism — which can be characterised as the position that good reasons for belief are, perhaps in some qualified sense, independent of what we take to be such reasons. In Kant at least, the concept of autonomy might seem to be misplaced here, with Kant taking the subtly different notion of freedom to apply to theoretical activity. Kant aside though, perhaps it does make sense to ask whether a realist account of theoretical activity is a threat to the autonomous exercise of our intellectual powers. Spelling out some of the relevant disanalogies between theoretical and practical reason (if [contra McDowell and Dancy?] there are any), such as the agent-centric perspective of the latter, might help to clarify matters.


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