Books in Review

The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy

Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 90 (February1999): 40-45.

Man as Lucifer

The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. By J. B. Schneewind. Cambridge University Press. 624 pp. $69.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Reviewed by Gilbert Meilaender

The autonomy whose invention J. B. Schneewind explores in this long and magisterial history of seventeenth–and eighteenth-century moral philosophy is Kantian autonomy. Yet, this is chiefly a book about Kant’s predecessors. By studying them in detail, Schneewind hopes, as it were, to recreate the questions that must have been in Kant’s mind, the problems he was considering, when he developed his notion of autonomy, which has had such a profound influence on the modern world. It is important to note that Kant is, on this account, not the "discoverer" but the "inventor" of autonomy, and Schneewind is clear about his own admiration for the accomplishment. He writes that Kant’s "conception of morality as autonomy provides a better place to start working out a contemporary philosophical understanding of morality than anything we can get from other past philosophers."

This book has other aims as well, however. It is also about how to do moral philosophy. And Schneewind’s answer is: historically. In a concluding epilogue that is both fascinating and rather hard to connect with the main lines of the rest of the book, Schneewind distinguishes between two ways in which the history of moral philosophy has been understood—which he terms "the Socrates story" and "the Pythagoras story."

According to the Socrates story, moral philosphy seeks to teach us how to live well and rightly. Socrates broke with his predecessors by turning his attention away from nature and things in general to human life in particular. Unfortunately, when we take up the question of how we ought to live, we quickly discover that there are many different answers given. The task of moral philosophy becomes, then, the investigation of these answers, with the aim of finding a sure foundation for moral knowledge. The history of philosophy plays a role in that investigation, because it alerts us to the questions that need our attention.

According to the Pythagoras story, our situation is quite different. Most of us more or less know the basic moral truths; hence, moral philosophy cannot be a search for previously unknown information about how we ought to live. Rather, it seeks to help us become more virtuous—that is, to overcome the vices that keep us from doing what everyone knows we ought to do. Some of the Christian Fathers held such a view. Believing, as they did, that this general knowledge of basic moral truths was grounded in God’s covenant with Noah, they were naturally puzzled that the Greeks, when they started to philosophize, should have done as well as they did. How did the Greeks manage that without the Noachite revelation? The answer, many concluded, was that Pythagoras, first among the Greeks to study moral philosophy, had actually been a Jew, who had perhaps learned the foundations of morality from Ezekiel. On this view, moral philosophy is not so much the attempt to make progress in our moral knowledge as it is the constant struggle to remember and act upon what we already know. Moreover, the Pythagoras story offered a way to keep morality connected with revelation (and God), and, according to Schneewind, "some version or other of the Pythagoras story . . . must have been assumed, however indistinctly, by a great many philosophers" (who did connect morality and religion).

From Schneewind’s perspective, these two stories, different as they are, remain alike in one important way. Each supposes that moral philosophy has a single aim, though the aims are different in the respective stories (to provide the foundation for morality, to reclaim the human moral inheritance). By contrast, Schneewind argues—or at least suggests—that there is no single aim that can unite what all moral philosophers do. Anyone who looks historically at Schneewind’s account of what moral philsophers have in fact done will, he thinks, have to conclude this. Seeking to unearth some single aim, we inevitably distort our predecessors by reading them with our own aims in mind. We draw them into our projects and concerns when, in fact, we should be trying "to understand them in terms they themselves had available." They were not all trying to solve the same problem, and, hence, we cannot write the history of moral philosophy as if it were a story of progress (or regress). Something like this is what Schneewind tries to do for Kant. Of course, on this account it will be harder to know why we should care about or expect to be instructed by the story Schneewind tells in such lavish detail. He sees this, of course, and tries to uphold the continued importance of the history he recounts and of Kant in particular. Nevertheless, there is an undeniable sense in which the book ends not with a bang but a whimper.

As a history of moral philosophy this book can be read as a sustained response to Alasdair MacIntyre’s work. Thus, for example, MacIntyre depicts the notion of self–governance as having emerged from an "Enlightenment project" that tried to show that morality had no need of religion and could rely on its own foundations. Schneewind tells the story quite differently. There were, on his account, many "enlightened" thinkers who, though they wanted to limit God’s control over life, did not disbelieve in his existence, which they thought was, in fact, essential for morality. Hence, both religious and antireligious thinkers contributed to the morality of autonomy.

The bulk of the book consists, therefore, in painstakingly detailed "readings" of Kant’s predecessors—some very well known, others now relatively obscure. Schneewind groups these thinkers into four main phases that constitute the development of modern moral philosophy. In natural law morality (grounded in reasoning from experience) and in "perfectionism," its principal seventeenth–century alternative (an emphasis on self–perfection maintaining that as we perfect ourselves we will see more clearly the moral harmony God intends for human life), God remained essential to morality. In the eighteenth century, however, many philosophers tried to show that it was possible for morality to get along without God—that morality, without making reference to "pleasing God" or "conforming to God’s will," can and should teach us how to preserve and foster human happiness. For them the issue often becomes how and why, without a connection to God, morality can still move us. The stage is set then for Kant and his most immediate predecessors, who conclude that human beings must be capable of self–governance.

Schneewind’s alternative to MacIntyre’s account of the devolution and fragmentation of morality begins, therefore, with Aquinas and proceeds to Kant. Because the various chapters in which Schneewind unfolds his account are, in fact, told in such painstaking detail, a reader is likely to get much more from some chapters than from others. Paradoxically, we profit more from chapters about thinkers whom we already know well. It is much harder to profit from chapters about those we have never read. That is because the work reads rather like a detailed commentary, and one almost needs the text side by side with the commentary. Consequently, this may not be a book to read from start to finish, and yet without doing so one cannot really get a full sense of Schneewind’s story. That unresolved methodological tension lies at its heart. As an exercise in communication it, perhaps inevitably, is flawed.

The plot of the story, its central turn, is from morality conceived in terms of obedience to morality conceived in terms of self–governance. Just as important, this turn applies to all moral agents, not just a few. All have "equal moral competence." That is, all are assumed to be capable of self–governance. They do not need instruction from authorities of one sort or another in order to understand the moral law:

All of us, on this view, have an equal ability to see for ourselves what morality calls for and are in principle equally able to move ourselves to act accordingly, regardless of threats or rewards from others. These two points have come to be widely accepted—so widely that most moral philosophy now starts by assuming them. . . . We assume, in short, that people are equally competent as moral agents unless shown to be otherwise. There are many substantive points on which modern moral views differ from what was widely accepted at the beginning of the seventeenth century, but our assumption of prima facie equal moral competence is the deepest and most pervasive difference.

Here we need the contrast with MacIntyre’s work to remind us of something very important. MacIntyre noted in After Virtue that we have come to think of "anyone and everyone not actually mentally defective" as equal moral agents—exactly what Schneewind says. But MacIntyre also reminds us that it will be difficult, on such an account of moral philosophy, to make place for the virtues and for the claim that only those agents whose character has been shaped in certain ways will be discerning moral agents, able to see the truth about the moral life. If the assumption is that all adult reasoners (however we mark adulthood and making allowance for disabilities) are equally competent moral agents, then it will not be true that virtues such as justice, temperance, or love are necessary for us really to see what morality requires. Yet, a theory of the virtues—renewing an older emphasis on the epistemological significance of self–perfection—reminds us that without such virtues we may be unable to turn from the facts as we would like them to be to the facts as they are.

It is true, of course, that it may be good politics to assume that all adults are of "equal moral competence," but this only shows the degree to which in Schneewind’s account a (laudable) political assumption has shaped the modern understanding of ethics. We have become almost unable to distinguish between ethics and politics, making moral discussion a process of negotiation between those who must be presumed to be of equal moral competence. Although they may not agree on countless matters, they have to live together; morality then becomes a search for ways to live cooperatively, and everything depends on who has the most votes. That is the underside of the story Schneewind tells, and we do well not to forget it.

The story culminates in Kant. Schneewind does not suppose, of course, that Kant himself had actually read all the thinkers whom the book has discussed, but that their work provides the necessary background for understanding the questions (and answers) that were important to Kant. We are self–governing, Kant claims, because we are autonomous. That is, we legislate the moral law for ourselves. Kant offers us the exact opposite of a morality of obedience. The ground of our moral responsibility does not lie in an obligation to obey God, and Kant is utterly opposed to servility. One person cannot be obligated by the commands of another (not even God)—not, at any rate, if human dignity and self–respect are to mean anything. "The mature Kant," Schneewind writes, "does not hesitate to make an explicit comparison between human agents and God." To be as free as God, legislating for ourselves, is the heart of human dignity. Accurate and helpful as this depiction is, once we have followed the story to this point we may be less sure than Schneewind that Kant should really be called the inventor of such a vision of human autonomy. For, as Iris Murdoch once put it, "Kant’s man had already received a glorious incarnation nearly a century earlier in the work of Milton: his proper name is Lucifer."

At any rate, in vindicating self–governance Kant seeks in his own way to make space for God, assigning God "the task of assuring us that we live in a morally ordered universe, one in which virtue is, ultimately, rewarded and vice punished." In this way it turns out that the world may perhaps be big enough for both us and God. But God can—and should!—do no more than assure us of a kind of moral symmetry in the world. "Because moral perfection is a condition of the will, we can strive for it only for ourselves. The moral perfection of others cannot be our business; their happiness can and should be."

Here again we see imported into ethics a principle of modern politics—namely, that our concern for others can only be for whether they are harmed or helped, not whether they act rightly or wrongly, are virtuous or vicious. And what is a bit dubious even as a political principle is, of course, positively devastating when transformed by Kant into the basis of morality. "The moral perfection of others cannot be our business; their happiness can and should be." Granting all the complexities involved in the task of transmitting virtue while respecting human freedom, one must respond: This could only have been written by a childless man.

Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University.