Allen W. Wood

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Allen William Wood (born October 26, 1942) is an American philosopher specialising in the work of Immanuel Kant and German Idealism, with particular interests in ethics and social philosophy.


  • The differentiation of the political state from civil society was made historically possible, Marx believed, by the introduction of commodity exchange into the productive life of society, and the resulting opposition between the form of common property corresponding to the tribal Gemeinwesen and the form of private property corresponding to the exchange of commodities. This opposition, present already in the oriental and ancient productive modes, made possible in Marx's view the alienation of the state from civil society which characterized feudal production, and which reaches its extreme form in the fragmented life of capitalist civil society. Here the state, which began in immediate unity with the process of social production, has become a distinct institution operating within this process, which nevertheless still claims to represent society in its totality.
    • "The Marxian Critique of Justice," Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Spring, 1972), pp. 244-282

Kantian Ethics (2008)


Ch. 1. Reason

  • Kantian ethics is fundamentally committed to a radical critique of human social life, especially of social life in its “civilized” form. This critical tendency is not a mere ancillary feature or contingent concomitant of Kantian ethics. It conditions the fundamental conception of Kantian ethical theory.

Ch. 2. Moral Worth

  • Good will is obviously present also in the case where the innocently goodhearted person acts beneficently because she enjoys it. As already mentioned, certain moral psychologies even encourage us to think that this innocent good-heartedness is the only thing we could possibly mean by a “good will.” Kant’s claim is that it is not, and that the true value of good will “shines forth more brightly” when it is found in the contrasting case, where it must struggle to overcome adversity. This claim certainly has an air of paradox about it, because it means that what is most essentially deserving of moral esteem is found only in cases where the moral agent is faced with conflicting motivations, or at least with an absence of any natural, spontaneous motivation to do the right thing.
  • There are two main reasons that Kant refuses to allow that sympathy or any other empirical sentiment or desire could constitute the foundation of morality. One is that no sentiment of this kind can yield the kinds of objective and universal principles that morality requires. They can approximate to this only by claiming a greater empirical uniformity in human nature than experience shows to be there. […] Kant’s other main reason for rejecting sympathy or love as the basis of morality involves his view of the empirical psychology of these feelings as they arise in us in our social condition, and especially in the “civilized” condition of modern European society.

Ch. 3. Ethical Theory

  • The standard model of ethical theory may seem like merely a necessary consequence of applying to normative ethics the high standards of clarity and rigor prized by all of us who like to think of ourselves as philosophers in the analytic tradition. This way of doing ethics obviously parallels the way analytical philosophers treat many other subjects – by formulating generalizations about this or that and testing them against intuitive counterexamples. But I think the Sidgwickian method of intuitional ethics, or the Rawlsian method of reflective equilibrium, is not the only way to think clearly about ethical theory.

Ch. 4. The Moral Law

  • A moral imperative is categorical because its function is not to advise us how to reach some prior end of ours that is based on what we happen to want but instead to command us how to act irrespective of our wants or our contingent ends. Its rational bindingness is therefore not conditional on our setting any prior end.
  • It is far from self-evident why Kant chooses this triad as his vehicle for systematizing the formulas of the moral principle.

Ch. 5. Humanity

  • Treating a being as an end in itself means respecting the value of what makes it such an end. After we see that this value resides in rational nature, we see it implies that, at least in general, rational beings should not be subjected to deception or coercion. Instead, we should seek to harmonize our strivings with those of other rational beings toward their ends.
  • Don’t children have the same rights to life and equal concern as adults? Don’t we have moral reasons to concern ourselves with the welfare of nonrational beings, such as animals? Mustn’t that status rest on some value independent of the rational nature in persons?
    Kantian ethics must answer the last question in the negative, but it answers the other two in the affirmative. I think the right account of the moral status of nonrational living things and of human beings who lack personality in the strict sense can best be derived from Kantian principles, even though Kant himself did not worry about these questions as much as he should have, and some of the things he said about them do not seem to me entirely cogent, or to be the best account available to him.

Ch. 6. Autonomy

  • Those of us who are sympathetic to Kantian ethics usually are so because we regard it as an ethics of autonomy, based on respect for the human capacity to govern our own lives according to rational principles. Kantian ethical theory is grounded on the idea that the moral law is binding on me only because it is regarded as proceeding from my own will.
  • Thus Kantian autonomy, once it is understood, will (and ought to) disappoint those shallow minds and immature souls who are attracted to the doctrine of autonomy for the wrong reasons. They were hoping for some radical individualist revolution in morality, in which paroxysms of human self-will overthrow the divine will’s numinous majesty (thereby replacing, as many such revolutions sadly do, one arbitrary and unjust tyranny with another and bringing to power merely a different mob of unprincipled scoundrels). The sober rationalism of Kantian ethics is equally incompatible with voluntarism in its theological and its Promethean forms.

Ch. 7. Freedom

  • Kant’s theory of freedom, and especially the idea that we are free only in the intelligible world beyond nature, has also been the chief stumbling block to the acceptance of his moral philosophy. The scandal has only increased with the passage of time, as fewer and fewer moral philosophers find it tolerable to burden morality with an extravagant supernaturalist metaphysics.
  • Here is a conceptual truth about reasons: If it is impossible for us to do otherwise, that can never be because there is a reason to act as we do.
  • Free will is as philosophical a question, in that sense, as there is. Kantian ethics should not represent itself as having a solution to it. If the problem of freedom is a philosophical open wound, then the right way to think about Kant’s utterly unacceptable theory of noumenal freedom is that it is the salt that philosophers have a professional obligation to rub in the wound so that they can’t forget about it.
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