John Skorupski
There are philosophers who think that practical reason has fundamental principles
from which all practical reasons flow. Some of them are pure impartialists about
practical reason. These philosophers hold, first, that all the fundamental principles of
practical reason are agent-neutral. And second, that the range of these principles, the
set of objects they concern, is human, or rational, or sentient beings. On this view the
fundamental principles of practical reason mandate some form of impartiality as
between the beings in this set.
Some others are pure partialists about practical reason. They hold that the
fundamental principles of practical reason are agent-relative. Anyone, for example,
who holds that a principle of formal egoism is the sole fundamental practical principle
is a pure partialist. So is anyone who holds that the sole principle is instrumentalism.
Hobbes fits into one of these groups, on most readings.
Then there is also the possibility that the foundations of practical reason are
mixed, containing both partial and impartial principles. A foundation that postulated
formal egoism but constrained it with a theory of rights would be a case in point.
Sidgwick’s elusive dualism of practical reason is, or at any rate seems to be, another.
Sidgwick departed from his two “masters,” on this point:
The rationality of self-regard seemed to me as undeniable as the rationality of
self-sacrifice. I could not give up this conviction, though neither of my
masters, neither Kant nor Mill, seemed willing to admit it: in different ways,
each in his own way, they refused to admit it.1
‘No-one is more important than anyone else’; ‘no-one’s good matters more –
“absolutely” – than anyone else’s.’ ‘No human being has greater absolute worth than
another.’ Whether or not such dicta have always been taken for granted, they are
widely taken for granted today, certainly at the political but also to a large extent at
Henry Sidgwick, 1907, 1981. The Methods of Ethics, Indianapolis: Hackett,
p. xx.
the ethical level. One could, it is true, agree with them negatively, on the basis that
there is no such thing as the ‘absolute’ point of view, or Sidgwick’s ‘point of view of
the universe’. If there is not, then it is true that no-one is more important ‘absolutely’
than anyone else. That is because no-one is absolutely important at all. By the same
token no-one’s good matters more absolutely, and no human being has greater
absolute worth. A doctrine of impartiality, in contrast, mandates a positive reading: at
least in certain contexts, everyone, or everyone’s interests, or ends, or rights, count
positively and count equally. Now the pure partialist may indeed concede that we are
committed politically to some such doctrine – though presumably among citizens
rather than among all human and still less among all rational or sentient beings. But
on the pure partialist view the construction of an impartial political stance from
foundations of practical reason must build with partialist, for example Hobbesian,
materials. It is a political project. It is not the discovery of a fundamental insight of
pure practical reason.
Kant and Mill, in contrast, hold that that is just what impartiality is.
Furthermore, they hold that impartiality is the fundamental insight. They are pure
impartialists. They must therefore somehow build the ineliminable elements of
partiality that exist in any reasonable ethics into that.
I do not believe that can be done. I believe that certain partial principles are as
fundamental as any principle of impartiality. So I endorse the mixed view. However
the question of mixed or pure is not the one I am going to pursue. My aim here is to
examine what epistemological defence Kant and Mill can give of their respective
impartial principles, by testing them against the incisive criticisms of Sidgwick. On
what epistemic basis can they hold impartiality to be a fundamental requirement of
practical reason? The question remains interesting even if one’s position is mixed – it
remains interesting so long as one thinks that a requirement of impartiality is at least
one of the fundamental practical principles.
Sidgwick’s criticisms are decisive against the arguments he considers.
However I am going to argue that in the end they somewhat miss their targets, by
virtue of coming from an epistemological stance that both Kant and Mill would find
uncongenial. Sidgwick sought to base ethics on self-evident “axioms” or “intuitions”,
but neither Kant nor Mill would have been happy with such apparently intuitionistic
talk. Of course given the wide range of things that people mean by ‘intuitionism’, that
could be a merely apparent disagreement – but I don’t believe it is. I think it marks a
real disagreement, and I want to defend the side of Kant and Mill. Yet Sidgwick’s
criticisms are powerful enough to require significant restatement (or perhaps just
clarification) of both the Kantian and the Millian positions. And it is important to
consider both positions, because, I shall argue, the required reformulation must lead
both of them to a similar idea as the epistemic basis of pure practical reason, namely,
to the spontaneously disinterested dispositions of the will.
I need hardly add, of course, that Kant and Mill go beyond mere impartiality
in their accounts of the foundations of practical reason. Kant incorporates his version
of impartiality in the richer doctrine of the Categorical Imperative, Mill incorporates
his in the principle of utility. These are rightly thought to point in different directions
– in the one case towards equal respect for everyone’s autonomy, in the other to equal
concern with everyone’s well-being. However it is the element of impartiality in their
respective views, and its basis in the disinterested will, that I am interested in in this
this talk.
The version of the Categorical Imperative that most clearly bears impartiality on its
face is the Formula of Humanity:
Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own
person, or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at
the same time as an end. IV 429
This requires us to treat all rational beings, impartially, as ends and not merely as
means – “man, and in general every rational being, exists as an end in itself ...” (IV
Kant holds that this imperative follows by pure analysis from the requirement
of autonomy. But can we even get impartiality, let alone Kant’s other distinctive
ethical doctrines, from autonomy?
Practical reason, from which we take ourselves to act under the causality of
freedom, is universal in content, as Kant correctly says. So reasons for action must be
universalisable. This was the important lesson Sidgwick took himself to have learned
from Kant. But then we encounter his critical point.2 We can make it vivid by
considering the standpoint Sidgwick calls rational egoism. Rational egoists follow the
maxim ‘Always do the action that is best for you’. They readily acknowledge the
universality of that principle: everyone should always do the action that is best for
Sidgwick’s point can be put in terms of a contrast between agent-relative and
agent-neutral ends, as they have since come to be known.3 The rational egoist’s
reasons are agent-relative; the relation in question is that the act will advance his, the
agent’s, good. In contrast the categorical imperative and the utility principle are
agent-neutral. Both posit an agent-neutral end: rational nature, or the general
happiness. Yet the rational egoist’s reasons and ends are just as universalisable as are
the Kantian’s or the utilitarian’s. Hence no grounds for thinking that reasons must be
agent-neutral can be merely formal, since the rational egoist’s reasons are in perfectly
good formal shape to be reasons. Rational egoism may be mistaken, but it is not a
misunderstanding of the very notion of a reason. If our substantive insight into
practical reasons reveals to us that all or some reasons are agent-neutral, what it
reveals is a substantive normative truth. This truth is not analytically derivable from
the very notion of a reason.
So if we interpret Kant as arguing to impartiality solely from the sound formal
point that reasons are universalisable, we have to conclude that his argument is
fallacious. We cannot get from universality to impartiality by analysis alone.
Impartiality requires not just the universality of reasons but also the existence of
agent-neutral reasons.
At this point a promising response is made by Henry Allison.4 Recognising the
force of Sidgwick’s objection, Allison acknowledges that no impartial principle can
be deduced from the universality of reasons alone. However he denies that that is
Kant’s intention. Instead he points out that Kant claims to derive impartiality from
Ibid, pp. 208 – 210, 420 – 21, 497 – 98. Sidgwick’s point is directed at Mill’s
“proof” of the principle of utility as much as at Kant.
Thomas Nagel, 1970. The Possibility of Altruism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
(I have in mind what Nagel in that book calls ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ reasons.)
Henry Allison, 1990. Kant’s Theory of Freedom, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, pp. 204 – 210. See also Thomas Hill, ‘Kant’s Argument for the Rationality of
Moral Conduct’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 66, 1985, 3–23
autonomy: that is, from the idea of acting solely from recognition of what one should
Acting thus means that one accepts no aim for one’s action, and no constraint
on it, unless one sees reason to pursue that aim or observe that constraint. For anyone
who accepts an aim or a constraint which they see no reason to accept is not acting
from reason-responsiveness alone; they are being driven heteronomously by nonrational factors, “alien causes”.5 This is an important feature of Kant’s account. It
generates, I agree, a sound objection to an instrumental, means-end conception of
rationality, according to which rationality consists in adopting efficient means to
one’s ends. Against this conception we can ask: why should we pursue our ends if
there is no reason to pursue them? This may be your or my end, but it remains an
open question whether it should be. Strictly speaking, in fact, one should deny that an
instrumental conception of rationality is a conception of rationality, the capacity to
come to a purely reason-responsive conclusion about what one should do, at all.
Rationality thus understood – free and unconstrained deliberation about reasons –
requires that we should be able to pursue reasons all the way down, never accepting
an end or constraint simply as given: there must be no end, no constraint, that
practical reason cannot put in question, by asking and answering whether there is
reason to accept it.
This is a plausible interpretation of Kant’s notion of autonomy, and of why he
thought it so important. Autonomy itself entails the existence of categorical, not
merely hypothetical, imperatives. It is the crucial thing an instrumental conception of
rationality omits. The instrumentalist maxim is ‘do whatever will most efficiently
advance your actual ends’. The objection to it is not that it cannot be universalised, for
it can be. The objection is that this principle simply takes ends for granted, without
asking whether they should be adopted in the first place, and so cannot be the
principle of an autonomous, fully free rational agent.
The instrumentalist conception of practical reason is agent-relative, and is
ruled out by the ‘open-question’ challenge that autonomy puts to any merely positive
ends. However, it does not follow that all agent-relative principles are ruled out by
autonomy. In particular, appeal to autonomy provides no effective argument against
“Will is a kind of causality belonging to living beings so far as they are rational.
Freedom would then be the property this causality has of being able to work
independently of determination by alien causes …” Groundwork, IV:446
the rational egoist. Rational egoists do not hold that you cannot deliberate about ends.
They hold that there is reason for everyone to pursue their own good and they
deliberate about what constitutes that good; thus about what ends there is reason to
pursue. They accept that autonomy requires recognition of categorical imperatives;
they think pursuit of one’s own good is a categorical imperative. Each person’s own
good is a rational end for that person. For all that mere analysis of the notion of
autonomy can apparently tell us it may be the only rational end; it may be that for
each person their own good is the only final and unconditional end. In which case a
rational egoist who acts from his principle acts autonomously.
So must we must conclude that an argument from the very idea of autonomy
does not get us to impartiality, any more than an argument from the universalisability
of reasons does? I think we can do a little more that than with the materials that Kant
gives us.
Consider the Universal Law Formulation. This says:
Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it
should become a universal law. (IV 421)
There is here, we know, a very suggestive idea: the idea of what you can will. Alas, at
this point, one must confess, Kant says various things that those of us who are not
committed Kantians find utterly unconvincing. I have in mind his appeals to the idea
of a contradiction in the concept or in the will. In particular, it is a depressing lapse
into banal moralism to argue, for example, that you cannot will that no-one should
come to the aid of another, because you would want others to come to your aid if you
were in need. At this point one can’t help seeing, in one’s mind’s eye, the incredulous
sneer of Nietzsche. Suppose you encounter another human being, or just another
rational being, which has no desire or neet at all for the assistance of others. Must
such a being recognise the principle of aid – that one should come to the aid of those
in need – as a categorical imperative? On the argument we are considering, it would
seem that Kant should say no.
To be sure, I can ask myself whether, given my actual, contingent needs and
limitations as a human being, I could ‘will’, that is, whether I could want to live in, a
society in which everyone cheats whenever they can get away with it, in which there
is no mutual aid, and so on. If I would not want everyone to do that kind of thing,
because of the bad consequences such behaviour would have for me, or for people in
general, then I am taking unfair advantage of others if I do it myself. I am
unreasonably treating myself as special. That is good moral thinking so far as it goes.
But the point is that it does not derive impartiality from autonomy. In appealing to
fairness it presupposes impartiality. That is what gives this argument from fairness its
dignity and strength. But at the same time this argument gives no hint of how pure
practical reason itself can be said to bring fairness, impartiality, onto the scene.
Moreover Kant holds that the inference from autonomy to morality is analytic:
“if freedom of the will is presupposed, morality, together with its principle, follows
by mere analysis of the concept of freedom.”6 But on this argument the principle of
aid does not follow by mere analysis of freedom, since it requires a premise about the
agent’s wants. So if this is the only argument available, the principle of aid is no part
of morality.
Nor, I am afraid, does impartiality follow by “mere analysis of the concept of
freedom.” And yet the idea that a connection between autonomy and impartiality can
be mediated by the notion of what an autonomous will can will remains intriguing.
We can approach it by asking whether there is anything, and if so what, that a being
can will inasmuch as it wills autonomously but without knowledge of the content of
rational agent-relative ends, its own or those of others, to work on.
The question can be illustrated by a thought-experiment. You are
contemplating a world of people that does not include you. All you know about them
is that they are pursuing some rational ends or other. In other words you know that
whatever these ends may be they are ends they should rationally pursue, and hence
ends they would autonomously pursue. You have some green buttons you can press,
one per person, to assist them to achieve their ends. You have some red buttons you
can press, one per person, to frustrate their pursuit. Pressing any of these buttons has
no other effect. You know nothing else; in particular you know nothing about who
these people are or any relation they might have to you, or about your own current
inclinations. Is there anything you can autonomously will? Is there anything there is
still reason to will?
I believe that we are spontaneously disposed to press as many green buttons as
we can, chosen at random if we can’t press them all, and likewise disposed to press no
green buttons. Furthermore I think it makes sense to say that this is a disinterested
disposition of the will, in that the disposition remains even if we abstract from all
IV 447. Compare the Critique of Practical Reason, V 31.
inclination. And finally, I think that this spontaneous disposition is the epistemic basis
of the normative principle of impartiality. All of this, obviously, is controversial; but
before we consider it further I want to bring in Mill, where we can find some
distinctly similar themes.
III Mill
Let us start from the so-called ‘proof’ of the principle of utility. This, as Mill points
out in the introduction, “cannot be proof in the ordinary and popular meaning of the
term” – “Questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof.” He adds,
however, that
We are not … to infer that its acceptance or rejection must depend on blind
impulse, or arbitrary choice. There is a larger meaning of the word proof, in
which this question is amenable to it as any other of the disputed questions of
philosophy. The subject is within the cognizance of the rational faculty; and
neither does that faculty deal with it solely in the way of intuition.
Considerations may be presented capable of determining the intellect either to
give or withhold its assent to the doctrine; and this is equivalent to proof. (U I
Turning to chapter 4, the ‘proof’ chapter itself, we find Mill asserting that
the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable is that
people do actually desire it. If the end which the utilitarian doctrine proposes
to itself were not, in theory and in practice, acknowledged to be an end,
nothing could ever convince any person that it was so. U IV 3
To understand this famous remark it is important to place it in the context of Mill’s
epistemology of the normative. This epistemology makes no appeal whatsoever to a
special receptive faculty of intuition which tells us of normative truths, in the way
that our normal sensory faculties tell us of perceptible facts. Mill does not think that
there is any such faculty. And on this point at least, Kant would agree. Mill’s positive
epistemological claim is that the “evidence”, that is the epistemic criterion, of what is
desirable is nothing but what is desired – “in theory and practice”. In general, the
“evidence” for what there is reason to feel – to desire, to admire, to disdain, and so
on – consists in our actual affective dispositions – the ones, one might add, that are
both spontaneous and resilient, and cannot be reduced to others. Likewise, the
evidence for what there is reason to believe consists in our spontaneous, resilient,
irreducible dispositions to believe. It is in this way that Mill defends the normativity
of induction in the System of Logic – by appeal to what he takes to be our
spontaneous, resilient and irreducible inferential dispositions. In general, on Mill’s
showing the epistemic basis for normative claims is nothing other than such
dispositions. The work that epistemology can do consists solely in criticism of our
dispositions, with a view to identifying which ones really are spontaneous, resilient
and irreducible.
There is clearly a much longer story to be told about this anti-metaphysical
outlook. Taking it as background, however, let us turn to Mill’s next notorious move,
in which he infers that if “each person’s happiness is a good to that person” then “the
general happiness” must be “a good to the aggregate of all persons” (CWX 234; U
IV 3). In a letter in which he explains this unclear remark, he amplifies: “I merely
meant in this particular sentence to argue that since A’s happiness is a good, B’s a
good, C’s a good, etc, the sum of all these goods must be a good” (CWXVI 1414).
Evidently he simply takes it for granted that each person’s happiness is a good – not
just good for him, desirable for him, but an agent-neutral good.
We should also take into account two other passages. At the end of the last
chapter of Utilitarianism (‘On the Connexion between Justice and Utility’), Mill
explains that he takes “perfect impartiality between persons” to be part of the very
meaning of the Greatest Happiness Principle; the
principle is a mere form of words without rational signification, unless one
person’s happiness, supposed equal in degree (with the proper allowance
made for kind), is counted for exactly as much as another’s. (CWX 257; U 5
And in the last chapter of the System of Logic, where he comes to consider the “logic
of practice”, he announces that
Every art is ... a joint result of laws of nature disclosed by science, and of
the general principles of what has been called Teleology, or the Doctrine
of Ends; which, borrowing the language of the German metaphysicians,
may also be termed, not improperly, the principles of Practical Reason.
...These general premises, together with the principal conclusions which
may be deduced from them, form (or rather might form) a body of
doctrine, which is properly the Art of Life, in its three departments,
Morality, Prudence or Policy, and Aesthetics; the Right, the Expedient,
and the Beautiful or Noble, in human conduct and works.
“Without attempting,” he continues a little later,
in this place to justify my opinion, or even to define the kind of
justification which it admits of, I merely declare my conviction, that the
general principle to which all rules of practice ought to conform, and the
test by which they should be tried, is that of conduciveness to the
happiness of mankind, or rather, of all sentient beings: in other words,
that the promotion of happiness is the ultimate principle of Teleology.
(System of Logic CWVIII 232)
In all these passages the assumption of agent-neutrality is clearly evident.
Furthermore the passage from the System of Logic makes it clear that Mill takes
the utility principle to be the fundamental principle not just of morality but of
practical reason as such. So the sole, agent-neutral, principle of practical reason
itself is the principle of utility.
Now as Sidgwick is quite right to point out, this principle requires a
separate epistemic basis. However, given Mill’s epistemology, its epistemic basis
cannot be a Sidgwickian “intuition”. It must consist of the kind of dispositions
that we have just been talking about. The dispositions in question cannot however
be dispositions of feeling or desire. Perfect impartiality cannot be founded on
these, since we have no such impartial dispositions of feeling or desire. Nor can
they be founded on dispositions to believe, since the norms founded in this way
are epistemic not practical norms – principles governing the theoretical intellect.
Mill is not an intellectualist who thinks that fundamental practical principles are
known by a purely intellectual intuition. In these two specific respects Kant
agrees: knowledge of pure practical principles is not founded on dispositions of
feeling, but nor is it founded on dispositions of the understanding. It is founded
on the spontaneous dispositions of the will. For Kant the spontaneity that
epistemically grounds pure practical principles must be the spontaneity of the
autonomous will.
Now of course Kant sharply distinguishes inclination and will, and hence
he has this epistemic resource to call on. But, it might be asked, does Mill make
any such distinction? Given his associationist psychology can he invoke
dispositions of the will as against dispositions of desire? He does and he can – or
at least he thinks he can. He accepts, to quote Utilitarianism again:
that the will is a different thing from desire; that a person of confirmed virtue,
or any other person whose purposes are fixed, carries out his purposes without
any thought of the pleasure he has in contemplating them, or expects to derive
from their fulfilment; and persists in acting on them, even though these
pleasures are much diminished, by changes in his character or decay of his
passive sensibilities, or are outweighed by the pains which the pursuit of the
purposes may bring upon him ... All this I fully admit, and have stated it
elsewhere, as positively and emphatically as anyone. Will, the active
phenomenon, is a different thing from desire, the state of passive sensibility,
and though originally an offshoot from it, may in time take root and detach
itself from the parent stock; so much so, that in the case of an habitual
purpose, instead of willing the thing because we desire it, we often desire it
only because we will it. (U IV 11, CWX 238)
The other place where he has emphatically stated this doctrine is the System of Logic,
in a section entitled “A motive not always the anticipation of a pleasure or pain”,
where we find the following interesting remark:
… A habit of willing is commonly called a purpose; and among the causes of
our volitions, and of the actions which flow from them, must be reckoned not
only likings and aversions, but also purposes. It is only when our purposes
have become independent from the feelings of pain or pleasure from which
they originally took their rise, that we are said to have a confirmed character.
"A character," says Novalis, " is a completely fashioned will:" and the will,
once so fashioned, may be steady and constant, when the passive
susceptibilities of pleasure and pain are greatly weakened, or materially
changed. CWVIII 154
This brings Kant and German romanticism to mind, as I am sure it is meant to do.
Importantly, of course, Kant thinks that that the feelings are phenomenal, that they
belong to our phenomenal character, whereas the will does not. Fatefully, he puts his
good distinction between feeling and will into the distorting framework of
transcendental idealism. But from our present epistemological standpoint this issue
about transcendental idealism makes little difference, though it makes some. The
important thing is the distinction between feeling and will, which, as we have just
seen, Mill also recognises.
Let’s go back to the thought-experiment about green and red buttons. In this
situation I think I would be disposed to press as many green buttons as I could, chosen
at random if I couldn’t press them all, and disposed not to press any red buttons. I
think that would apply to most of us. Furthermore this disposition comes packaged, so
to speak, with a disposition to take it, to see it as, an apt, appropriate, reasonable thing
to do – the right thing to do. I am at home with it, it doesn’t feel like an alien
intrusion, an adventitious psychological phenomenon that puzzles me. It feels
spontaneous, something that comes naturally from the way I am. Since it’s a
disposition to act in a certain way, it is a disposition of the will. Furthermore, this
particular disposition of the will is not conditioned, or dependent on, any disposition
of the feelings. It is a spontaneous, unconditioned and disinterested disposition of the
Is it resilient and irreducible (or in Mill’s words “steady and constant”) as well
as spontaneous? If it is it remains firm after I have made it clear to myself that I have
it – it does not wilt in the daylight of clear self-knowledge, and is not be explained as
a means to some other end that I am disposed to seek. If it has this character, then by
the epistemology we have found in Mill, it provides the epistemic basis for a pure
practical principle: namely, the principle that achievement by anyone of their rational
goals is something I have some reason to promote. We may conclude that everyone’s
rational ends, considered comprehensively and impartially, have normative standing
as ends for the autonomous will.
Once you bring knowledge about your inclinations and relations to other
people back into the picture, you may well bring back agent-relative reasons. The
claim is not that the autonomous will can only will agent-neutral ends. The claim is
that when we focus on whether there is anything that an autonomous will can will
before any further material is brought in that might give it other, inclination-based
reasons for action, we find that there is indeed still something, and that something is
the achievement of any being’s rational ends as such. Furthermore the moment of
impartiality that is (on this view) contained in the autonomous will exercises a
constraint of some form on our pursuit of our agent-relative ends. Obviously there are
difficult further questions about what substantive form that constraint takes, which I
certainly don’t think can be worked out from the very notion of impartiality. Even so,
these points about the disinterested will give us an approach to understanding the
Universal Law Formulation:
Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it
should become a universal law.
That is, reject maxims which you can will to be universal law only at the cost of
contradicting the moment of impartiality that is present in your autonomous will. That
is the sense in which we should ask whether we can will our maxim to be a universal
law: we are asking whether we can will it in the presence of that pure or disinterested
disposition, which is the spontaneous disposition of the autonomous will itself.
Now Kant thinks, as we noted, that it follows analytically from the concept of
autonomy that an autonomous will is bound by this categorical imperative. To defend
this (even in part) we would have to argue that a will that does not contain the
disinterested moment of impartiality is not autonomous, not fully free. Since
autonomy is full positive freedom, that amounts to arguing that it is analytic, or at
least constitutive of the very concept of full positive freedom, that a will that lacks the
disinterested moment of impartiality is not full free. The question obviously arises:
are we simply dressing up a substantive and attractive ideal of freedom as an analytic
truth? Put the question in another way. We have an understanding of what it is to be
fully free, ‘morally free’ to use John Stuart Mill’s term.7 In effect Kant wants to add
to the negative conception of moral freedom, that of a will that is not determined “by
alien causes,” a positive conception: that of will positive capable of disinterested
willing. Can we say that that is, indeed, a part of our notion of full freedom, so that to
lack that capability is to fall short of full freedom?
But I shall leave that question hanging, because it takes us away from my
main point, which is that this epistemological basis for impartiality is equally
available – if available at all – to both Kant and Mill. Of course Mill is committed by
his associationist psychology to showing how such a disinterested disposition of the
will can emerge. We have already seen how he argues that the will and its purposes
can emerge from desire. He must further argue that a disinterested disposition of the
will is a spontaneous element on which a developed human nature builds. Something
like that is implicit in chapter III of Utilitarianism. Here Mill rejects a “transcendental
In System of Logic, Book VI, ch.2, ‘Of Liberty and Necessity’ – “moral freedom”
(CWVIII 152)
origin of moral obligation” and states his belief that the “moral feelings are not innate,
but acquired”. But, he continues,
they are not for that reason the less natural… The moral feelings are not
indeed a part of our nature, in the sense of being in any perceptible degree
present in all of us; but this, unhappily, is a fact admitted by those who believe
the most strenuously in their transcendental origin. … the moral faculty, if not
a part of our nature, is a natural outgrowth from it; capable … in a certain
small degree, of springing up spontaneously; and susceptible of being brought
by cultivation to a high degree of development. (U III 8)
He then goes on to discuss how this outgrowth is natural because consonant with and
supported by a powerful class of natural sentiments: “the social feelings of mankind”,
“the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures” – feelings which are not only
natural to us but also continually strengthened, he thinks, by the growth of social
specialisation and mutual interdependence.
In these passages Mill appeals to the natural sentiments, whereas in the other
passages I have quoted he distinguishes between desire and will. Mill’s interest in the
moral sentiments is entirely apt; it is one of the strengths of his ethics. My point in
putting the two groups of remarks together is to show that Mill might well be ready to
endorse a psychological account of the growth of a disinterested disposition of the
will, and thus, in this respect, approach the Kantian epistemological stance as to the
foundation of impartiality. I take it that Mill’s emphatic distinction between desire
and will is intended to give its due to Kantianism. There remains the difference, of
course, that Mill takes the will be a natural phenomenon, whereas Kant takes it to
belong to the transcendental domain of freedom. However the crucial point, as far as
the epistemology of impartial reason is concerned, is not whether the will is
transcendental or natural, but whether it does have a resilient moment of spontaneous
disinterestedness, which can be sometimes overwhelmed, but not destroyed.
Transcendentalism may be thought to have an advantage in that it gives that moment
a transcendental guarantee. It makes its resilient spontaneity tamper-proof, so to speak
– and importantly for Kant, something that is present in all of us. An empirical
psychology of the will, and especially an associationist aetiology of the will, cannot
do these things. However Mill’s associationist psychology is one thesis, his
naturalism is another, and his epistemology is a third. Given his naturalism, his claim
must be that a disinterested disposition of the will does exist as part of our nature,
whatever its aetiology may be. Or at least, that it exists “as a naral outgrowth from
[our nature]; capable … in a certain small degree, of springing up spontaneously.”
Much more then has to be said, to explain what it means to say that disinterestedness
is a spontaneous and resilient disposition of our will. What do we mean by ‘our’ for
example? Do we mean everyone’s? And how does that matter? But on the assumption
that this claim can be sensibly explained and established, it suffices to ground a
normative principle of impartiality, without requiring any appeal to a receptive faculty
of intuition.
It is Sidgwick’s merit to have pointed out, clearly and sharply, that impartiality,
considered as a pure principle of practical reason, requires a distinct epistemic basis
of its own and cannot be derived by any argument from purely agent-relative starting
points. I have argued however that both Kant and Mill have or think they have the
materials to provide that distinct epistemic basis, though neither of them exactly
comes clean about it. It is clear enough, however, that neither of them is interested in
intuitionist metaphysics; nor is that because they have somehow overlooked the
intuitionist option.
Sidgwick’s view seems more intuitionistic. However there is an important
question of interpretation here. In one sense of ‘intuitionism’, intuitionists hold that
there is a world of normative facts that we know by a receptive faculty of intuition, in
the way that we know the world of space and time by spatio-temporal perception. On
the basis of that knowledge of normative facts, we then choose what to do. In other
words, their account of the epistemology of normative knowledge gives no epistemic
status to our dispositions of belief, feeling, or will as such. Our normative intuitions
may indeed cause such dispositions in us, but the dispositions themselves play no role
in the epistemology of normative knowledge. For Kant, given his contrast between
spontaneity and receptivity, there can be no such separation. Purely normative
judgement is a matter of spontaneity, not receptivity. In particular, pure practical
reason is epistemically grounded in spontaneous dispositions of the will, and for just
that reason it can itself be practical: i.e. give rise to action via the causality of
One can therefore distinguish between an intellectualist and a realist aspect of
intuitionism. I don’t believe that Sidgwick endorsed the realist aspect. When he talks
about rational intuitions, or about the self-evidence of certain propositions, he is not
taking intuition to be a receptive faculty which gives us knowledge of a world of
normative facts. The criteria he gives for intuitive knowledge (self-evidence,
consistency, consensus, clarity and precision) make no mention of such a faculty. So
far, so good. On the other hand Sidgwick’s view of ethics does seem to have been
distinctly intellectualist. What I mean is that he treats ‘intuitions’ as acts of
intellectual insight, divorced from dispositions of the will or the feelings. We
somehow simply ‘see’, for example, that something is desirable, or that it is the right
thing to do – and that may or may not dispose us to desire it, or to do it. In this respect
it seems to me that Mill’s epistemology is preferable. It finds firm ground for our
normative judgements – judgements about what there is reason to believe, or feel, or
do – in our spontaneous and resilient dispositions to believe, feel and act. In doing so,
it stick close to our actual, often messy, normative practice. Sidgwick’s intellectualist
talk of self-evident ethical axioms has an impressively exact and scientific air. But as
with the marmoreal classical façade of a bank, the exterior misleads as to what is
really going on inside: the actual human dispositions that are involved in making the
thing work. In the case of impartiality, it is only the presence and power of
disinterested will that gives it normative force, and makes it work. Mill’s approach
directs our attention in the right way: to what we can say, empirically, about the
presence and power of this disinterested will, and how we can fashion such facts into
an epistemic basis for some principle of impartiality.
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