the limits of our possible knowledge are very narrow, where
the temptation to judge is great, where the illusion that
besets us is very deceptive and the harm that results from
the error is considerable, there the negative instruction,
which serves solely to guard us from errors, has even more
importance than many a piece of positive information by
which our knowledge is increased. The compulsion by which
the constant tendency to disobey certain rules is restrained
and finally extirpated, we entitle discipline.
(Kant, 1787, B737)
a cursory view of the present work it may seem that its
results are merely negative.… But such teaching at once
acquires a positive value when we recognize that
the principles with which speculative reason ventures out beyond
its proper limits do not in effect extend the employment
of reason but inevitably narrow it. These principles really
only threaten to extend the use of theoretical reason beyond
all limits of experience and thereby to supplant, rather
than support, reason in its practical employment. (Kant,
1787, Bxxivf, my simplified transl., my italics)
quest for practical reason Part 1 (Ulrich, 2011a) argued that
there are some good reasons to question the conventional concept
of competent professionalism; reasons that we basically found
to be of a sociological, ethical, and methodological nature.
We focused particularly on two strong assumptions
underpinning the current notion of professionalism. The first
stipulates that professionalism distinguishes itself from
the practice of other qualified occupations (such as those of
politicians or entrepreneurs) by a "disinterested" or even
altruistic ethos of service; the second, that professionalism
owes its societal recognition
to a "technical" kind of competence grounded in the
so-called means-end scheme, which suggests that all the normative presuppositions
of professional intervention may be associated with the choice
of ends so that professionals can recommend proper means in a value-free or
at least value-neutral manner
(i.e., based on theoretical-instrumental reason only).
Both assumptions were found to be untenable.
In different ways, they both ignore the unavoidable normative core of all practice.
A concept of professional competence built on such assumptions
cannot support professionals in dealing systematically and critically
with that normative core. Counter to what is usually assumed,
we found that the supposed virtues of "disinterested professionalism"
and of a "technical" focus on the selection of means
are more likely to impair than to strengthen the competence of professionals.
Hence, we concluded, these conventional assumptions should be dropped
in favor of a two-dimensional concept of rational practice,
in which theoretical and practical reason would be understood to
go hand in hand, in the sense that they mutually presuppose and support
one another. It is imperative, therefore, that professionals
learn to appreciate and practice the idea of practical reason
– the topic of the present, second part.
is practical reason? Dealing philosophically with any
issue means to inquire into its ultimate foundations of rationality;
into the criteria and considerations that may help us understand
what it means to handle some class of questions "with reason." This
also applies to questions related to "good" practice.
There is a philosophical discipline specializing in the logic
of such "practical"
judgments, called practical philosophy. In its
most basic definition, practical philosophy is the philosophical
effort aimed at explaining how reason can guide the quest
for good practice, that is, how it may give us good answers
to practical questions. To understand the concept of practical
reason and how it can promote good practice, we thus need to
be clear about three basic issues involved:
do we mean by "practical" questions?
do we mean by "good" answers to such questions? And finally,
does it mean to deal with such questions "reasonably"
or, with a slightly stronger focus on procedural requirements,
Each of the three questions takes
on a more specific meaning in
practical philosophy than it has in common parlance; let
us make the differences clear.
do we mean by practical questions?
In everyday language and sometimes also
in philosophical disciplines other than practical philosophy
(e.g., in epistemology, science theory, and hermeneutics),
a question is quite generally considered "practical" when the
issue is what we reasonably are to do, that is, what
proposals for action can be supported by rational deliberation
and argumentation. A question is "theoretical,"
by contrast, when the issue is what we reasonably are to
believe, that is, what claims to knowledge can be supported by rational
deliberation and argumentation. This general usage often also designates
as "practical" those questions which concern the
choice of means for reaching defined ends, that is, questions
of know-how or "instrumental" (e.g., technical,
procedural, economic, and administrative) questions. As we have seen in
Part 1, this type of questions falls philosophically under the jurisdiction
of theoretical reason; for the answers we can give depend
on the transformation of theoretical propositions and conforming
statements (judgments of fact) into what-if
statements or instrumental propositions. They describe what
we can or cannot do in the light of what we know about the
circumstances and conditions under which we need to act.
They do not, however, tell us whether we actually ought to undertake
such action and with what ends in view.
the vantage point of practical philosophy, such instrumental
questions are basically a matter of science and technology;
they primarily require empirical, technical and theoretical
Practical questions in the sense of practical philosophy are,
by contrast, genuinely normative questions, that is, questions that
cannot be answered in the terms of theoretical or instrumental
reason. The core issue is not what is feasible and expedient
but rather, what is valuable and desirable. We ask not for the
facts that should inform what we do (e.g., concerning
and efficacious ways to reach an end) but for the norms
of action that should guide us, that is, for basic principles
and evaluation criteria; hence the talk of "normative"
presuppositions or questions. In the Nicomachean
Ethics, Aristotle (1976) suggested as such a basic principle
the "doctrine of the mean," which we might translate
as a principle of balanced judgment, along with an
influential list of criteria of virtuous conduct that should be employed in the
spirit of this principle, among them moderation, generosity, sincerity, and
fairness (cf. Ulrich, 2009a, p. 12). In the Groundwork
of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique
of Practical Reason, Kant (1786b and 1788)
formulated an even more fundamental principle in the form of his categorical
imperative, with which he introduced to practical philosophy
the groundbreaking (though difficult) idea of moral universalization –
an idea that for the first time explained the deep connection
between rationality and ethics and which for this reason has
become an indispensable cornerstone of all rational ethics (cf.
Ulrich, 2009b, pp. 4-16 and 24).
be sure, most real-world practice raises both theoretical-instrumental
and practical-normative questions. Either may pose major difficulties.
A major difficulty in dealing with instrumental issues consists
in the interconnectedness of our modern world, which often makes
it difficult to anticipate and understand all the circumstances
and interdependencies that may influence the outcome of action
– the core issue of complexity. A major difficulty in
dealing with normative issues consists in the increasing pluralism
of values, world views, and corresponding forms of life, which makes it difficult to agree
on any specific standards of action – the core issue of diversity.
In fighting poverty, for example, it has proven difficult to
define policies and instruments that not merely alleviate the
consequences of poverty but also eliminate its manifold and interconnected causes and thus could
expected to be instrumentally effective and efficient in the longer run. Just
as difficult are the normative issues involved,
such as finding a societal consensus on who should be considered
poor in the first place and who should not, that is, ultimately,
what kind of "just" society we want to live in. We
cannot fight poverty efficiently, and in fact we cannot even
understand and measure poverty, without such normative assumptions,
along with a thorough-going understanding of the roots of poverty
in a world of affluence.
two-dimensional concept of rational practice needs to respond to both core issues. It recognizes that
practical questions of what to do always raise theoretical-instrumental
issues of what we can and cannot do, just as instrumental questions of how to do it
raise practical-normative issues of what we would like and
ought to do. To put it differently, rational
action invariably confronts us with both kinds of questions, of handling complexity
and of handling diversity. More than that: the
answers we give to either type of question in turn can and need to be discussed in the light of both theoretical
and practical reason, that is, with respect to both instrumental
and normative adequacy. In the terms we have used before, the
choice of means and the selection of ends cannot ultimately
be separated, although it is often possible and helpful to deal
with them one at a time. Taking again the example of fighting
poverty, we cannot judge the efficacy of a proposal such as,
say, replacing the proliferation of bureaucratic social welfare
programs and institutions by a guaranteed minimal income for
all, without examining the consequences such a new policy might
have in both economic (cost-effectiveness) and ethical (consequences
for work ethic and quality of life) terms. This double interdependence of
theoretical and practical judgments provides
no reason, however, for ignoring or blurring the different methodological
requirements involved in "good" judgment. When it comes to justifying or criticizing
the judgments involved in professional intervention, it should always be clear whether we discuss them
with a view to ensuring theoretical (instrumental) or practical
(normative) rationality, as the criteria for "good" practice
will accordingly differ.
do we mean by good answers to practical questions?
We have become used in everyday contexts of action to speak
of the need for doing things right and doing
the right things. We thereby tend to think in
terms of the means-end scheme, that is, we tacitly give
the first "right" a merely instrumental meaning
referring to means and ways, and the second, a merely normative
meaning referring to ends and criteria of improvement.
Interestingly though, once we stop to take the means-end scheme
for granted and begin to recognize that both means and ends
have a normative content in need of questioning, this way
of talking about good practice gains a new significance:
it reminds us to consider practical
questions from a normative as well as an instrumental perspective.
Since, as we have seen earlier, not only the choice of ends
but also the choice of means has
value implications, the latter can indeed be normatively right or wrong – better
or worse – so that asking whether we do things "right"
does indeed make sense in both an instrumental and a normative
sense. Similarly, trying to do the "right" things
in the usual sense of a proper choice of ends has instrumental
as well as normative implications, in that it may mean
better or worse chances to actually achieve improvement
of a situation; it can thus indeed be instrumentally right
or wrong – better or worse – regarding aspects of feasibility, economics, risks and uncertainties involved,
and so on, that is, in the light of what science and expertise
can tell us about it. Aligning normative and instrumental
issues with "doing the right things" and "doing
things right," respectively, is thus a rather inadequate
idea, frequently held as it is. Both claims to "doing
the right things" and claims to "doing things
right" can and need to be questioned regarding instrumental
as well as normative presuppositions and consequences. Again,
there is no way round the fact that the two dimensions of
theoretical and practical reason are always simultaneously
is, then, a deeper philosophical significance (deeper than we
usually realize, that is) in the everyday formula of "doing
things right" and "doing the right things":
good practice demands that as a matter of principle, we consider
each and every professional assumptions or proposal, even if
it appears to concern the choice of means only (or conversely,
that of ends only), in the light of theoretical-instrumental
and practical-normative reason. A similar observation
applies to the everyday habit of referring to technical-instrumental
questions as "practical" questions. It is quite correct,
although in a sense different from what is usually assumed.
The question of what
is "good" instrumentally is inextricably linked
to the question of what is "good" normatively,
and vice-versa. It is, then, always a relevant
question to ask what criteria of "good" practice
should be employed – and to answer it from a perspective of both
theoretical-instrumental and practical-normative reason.
everyday use of the qualification "good" for both
instrumental and normative merit is far from inadequate.
Good practice comes in plural forms. It entails questions
of what is feasible and useful (serves the purpose) as well
as questions of what is desirable (makes us happy) and fair
(can be defended morally). Even so, in philosophical
reflection about rational practice we need to avoid ambiguities
of language as they are contained in expressions such as "doing
the right things" and "doing things right." Likewise, practical
philosophy must not rely on tacit assumptions of the kind usually
associated with the means-end scheme. As is the case
with the word "practical," we thus need to specify
the meaning of "good" in practical philosophy as
distinguished from its everyday usage. To
avoid any ambiguities and tacit assumptions, I suggest we
adhere to the following use of language:
- In everyday communication
about good practice, it should be clear that the qualifications
"good" and "right"
may qualify instrumental as well as normative aspects. Hence,
where confusion threatens, we better say explicitly what we mean. Are we referring to feasibility and expediency
(focus: theoretical-instrumental questions) or to intrinsic value, desirability, and moral defensibility
(focus: practical-normative questions)? Furthermore,
if in a specific case we find it difficult to decide
whether the focus is (or should be) on an instrumental
or a normative type of questions, it helps
to ask: Is the core issue in need of clarification one of
complexity (focus: theoretical-instrumental questions)
or of diversity
(focus: practical-normative questions)?
- In practical-philosophical
discourse about good practice, by contrast, it will be clear unless
otherwise stated that the focus is on normative aspects.
Accordingly, the qualifications
"good" and "right" will in such discourse
(including the present essay) be reserved for practical-normative
claims as they may be raised in combination with both
practical proposals (action proposals, stipulation of
ends, evaluations, standards of improvement, and so
on) and instrumental proposals (stipulation of means,
efficiency judgments, and so on). That is, "good"
and "right" will refer to the normative implications
of all judgments made in a context of practical intervention, including theoretical-instrumental
considerations. Perhaps a better way to express this
intent is by saying that in practical-philosophical
discourse, we examine all kinds of judgment with
special regard for the practical-normative dimension
In short, at issue is the normative core of practice
as it is contained in both theoretical-instrumental
and practical-normative judgments. What needs to be made
explicit in practical-philosophical discourse is thus
this focus on the normative dimension but rather, the
differing specific meanings we may (but need not) attach to
"good" and "right" in qualifying normative
content. On the other hand, inasmuch
as the focus is on the theoretical-instrumental dimension,
we will usually avoid the qualifications "good" or
"right" in favor of terms such as "useful,"
(or "purposive-rational"), "efficacious," "expedient," "functional," and so on, except when we mean
to refer to the specifically normative implications
versus right: In
contemporary philosophical discourse, the terms "good" and "right" are increasingly (though
not always) distinguished as follows. "Good" is taken
to refer to personal judgments of what is valuable and desirable;
"right," to interpersonally shared standards of proper
Thus understood, the distinction of good and right is akin to that of
ethics and morality. "Good" is understood as an ethical
qualification that responds to the question: "What
makes me happy?" and "right" is understood as
a moral qualification that responds to the question:
"What ought we – everyone – to do?" My personal
way of life may be good for me (i.e., a source of happiness) but is
not necessarily right for everyone, given that we live in an
epoch of ethical pluralism. Moral principles and human rights,
by contrast, are meant to be right (i.e., a source of obligation
for all mature agents and as such are still indispensable and
in fact, more needed than ever, to
resolve ethical conflicts as they arise through the clash of
different forms of life. It is precisely because we accept ethical
pluralism that we need some overarching moral standards to resolve
ethical conflicts peacefully, "with reason" (i.e.,
on the basis of argument) rather than with force (i.e., on the
basis of power, manipulation or coercion).
we may further distinguish "good" and "right"
as follows: "good" is a subjective value judgment,
"right" is an intersubjective argument. About
what makes you happy, I cannot argue with you – it's
just part of your subjectivity, your way of life, and it
would be pointless for me to claim it is no good. I might argue
with you, however, about the extent to which your way of life is right, that is,
morally defensible, say, as a model for others or at least in
the sense that it does no harm whatsoever to others. You might
then respond with your own arguments as to why your way of life
is right; for example, because it shows consideration for and solidarity with others, or
because it imposes no unduly
restrictions to the freedom of others to chose their own way
of life, is motivated by a quest for environmentally conscious
behavior, and so on.
from allowing clear and accurate communication, this way of
distinguishing between "good" and "right"
also has some major methodological relevance: only with
respect to judgments of rightness can we conceive
of interpersonal standards, that is, standards or principles
of action that all mature and responsible agents can acknowledge
to be right. This is why, as mentioned above, we can
argue about judgments of rightness but not about other value
judgments such as conceptions of happiness or what it means
for you and me to lead a good life. The arguability of claims to rightness
opens up an avenue towards a rational solution of ethical
conflicts, that is, of conflicting conceptions of the good.
That leads us to the last of our three basic questions:
does it mean to deal reasonably (or rationally)
with practical questions?
In general language, we do not often appeal to
"practical reason." When we do, we usually
mean to emphasize that there is a need for approaching
things in a thoughtful and well-reasoned way. We might say,
then, that practical reason in an everyday sense refers
quite generally to the human will and ability to let actions be guided
by reason rather than by mere impulse or inclination. In practical philosophy, the
same plea for
practical reason acquires a more specific meaning; it then
aims at a careful, well-reasoned handling of what we have earlier
called the normative core (or normative content, dimension) of practice.
It is captured by the questions: What are, in a specific
situation, the normative presuppositions and implications
of alternative ways to act? and consequently: On what basis
can we claim that a practical proposal is more or less defensible
on normative grounds than is another?
basic idea, captured by the first question, is value transparency
or (to the extent it is wanting) value clarification,
as the sine qua non for all the parties concerned to
be able to judge for themselves and try to agree. But while
value transparency is a necessary condition, it is not a sufficient
condition for practical reason. The sufficient condition, captured
by the second question above, is value justification and
claim to "practical reason" implies the proponent's
readiness to question a proposal, or to allow it being questioned,
with respect to its normative presuppositions and implications.
The crucial question
is, accordingly, whether the proposal lends itself to argumentative
vindication beyond mere appeal to self-interest, that
is, beyond mere reference to the views and interests of those directly involved.
In the history of practical philosophy,
this core idea of vindication beyond mere reference to self-interest
has found a variety of different
of them we have encountered in our separate, ongoing series of reflections
about reflective practice (see Ulrich, 2009a, b, and c):
ancient times, the golden rule certainly embodied
the idea of disciplining one's claims and actions by
considering them in
a spirit of "reciprocity" from the perspective of others. The device of
shifting one's perspective in this way is indeed methodologically
fundamental to any self-reflective effort of orienting
one's thinking and acting beyond mere self-interest
(cf. Ulrich, 2009a, pp. 16 and 28).
- From an Aristotelian perspective,
we characterized the same essential idea as "excellence"
(or "virtue") and its methodological expression as
good deliberation (Ulrich, 2009a, pp. 8, 10, 13, 16,
- From a Kantian perspective, we described the
basic impetus as one of "good will" and its methodological
expression as enlarged thought or "dropping the ego" (Ulrich,
2009b, pp. 10f, 35, and 39; 2009c, p. 37f).
Kant (1786b, 1788), along with Adam Smith (1795) and John Rawls (1971), the
idea of treating others with equal consideration
and respect for their views and values also translated into
the idea of taking the stance of a sympathetic but impartial
spectator, and in Rawls' work moreover into the methodological
device of arguing from an imagined original position
characterized by a "veil of ignorance" regarding
one's own possibly privileged (or deprived) position in society.
- Finally, from the perspective
of the contemporary revival of practical philosophy, particularly
in the work of Apel (1972) and Habermas (1979; 1990; 1993a) about practical discourse
and discourse ethics, the basic idea becomes "communicative
rationality" and its major methodological thrust
is argumentation under fair conditions
(Ulrich, 2009c, p. 36; cf. Tables 4 and 5 there for an overview of Habermas' model
of practical discourse, pp. 32-34).
have previously analyzed these different expressions of the core idea of
practical reason – the need for rational agents to think
and act beyond mere self-interest – in the "Reflections
on Reflective Practice" series and there is no need to
repeat these earlier discussions. The point I would like to
highlight here is a more general one: abstracting from one's own limited standpoint
is the epitome of all good reasoning. It is the core idea of the
very concept of rationality. The quest for practical
reason, as a basis of rational action, is no different in this
regard from the pursuit of theoretical reason as a basis of
knowledge and instrumental know-how. In either case, well-understood
rationality is about disciplining thought
and action so that they are not arbitrary, merely living
up to "subjective principles" and in this sense
"private," as Kant (1787, B840f) puts it.
In theoretical reason, the basic
of abstracting from one's own particular angle of view translates into the quest for objectivity; in practical reason,
into the quest for morality. In Kant's language, practical reason is morally
pure (perfect, ideal) when
it is "free from all private purposes" (B841); it
is morally defensible (arguable), we might add, if it
is not merely pursuing private ends. Reason is, quite
simply, more than just calculating one's own advantage. We can, then,
capture Kant's understanding of ordinary practical reason, and
thus ordinary morality, in the following definition: morality
is practical reason that is free from merely private purposes.
Ordinary practical reason is not perfect; a perfect will
would not need guidance by moral principles, much less by a
categorical imperative. What matters for ordinary practical
reason is that it be not just oriented towards purely subjective
interests, whether they take the form of reasoned maxims (subjective
principles, Kant 1786, B15n; 1787, B840) or mere inclinations (Kant, 1786, B38f).
practical reasoning will thus do. It takes practical philosophy, however,
to clarify the source and nature
of perfect morality (or of a perfectly good will, as Kant likes
to put it) so as to provide guidance to the common
reason of mankind (1786, B20-24). Just as in the theoretical domain it is the theory and methods
of science (along with logic and argumentation theory) which provide the necessary standards
and procedures for sound and arguable research, in the practical
domain it is practical philosophy with its core disciplines
of moral theory and the formulation of rules (or imperatives)
of moral reasoning or, in contemporary practical philosophy,
models of moral discourse, which has to provide the necessary
standards and procedures for good and arguable moral practice.
also explains why moral theory and discourse rather than ethics in general,
and/or political philosophy, philosophical pragmatism or other
fields of reflection close to practical philosophy, provide
the methodological key. To be sure, it is always relevant to examine
the normative content of actions or related claims with a view
to their ethical, political, and pragmatic underpinnings and
We certainly can and should always reflect and (with Aristotle) deliberate
on such normative implications, for example, by systematically
our perspective, whether in our imagination or through dialogue
with others, so as to better appreciate the limited nature
of any standpoint from which we may choose to identify and evaluate normative
assumptions. But the methodological point at issue here is that
we can argue about normative claims, that is, criticize or justify their
adequacy, only by taking a moral point of
view (Baier, 1958), that is, by examining their compatibility with
some shared standard of interpersonal fairness
that would do justice to all those effectively or potentially
concerned and therefore can be accepted by them on their
own free will. I say "can," not "must," for neither rationality nor morality can grow out
of coercion or manipulation. But although a proper standard
will not necessarily always be
accepted under real-world conditions of imperfect morality,
it must philosophically still be acceptable and hence,
on moral grounds. This is why from a practical-philosophical perspective,
the quest for practical reason is fundamentally linked to (the
theory of) moral argumentation and discourse.
Moral discourse plays the same critical role in practical questions
that scientific discourse plays in theoretical questions: both
are about making sure that the "reasons" we advance
for any claims and conclusions hold publicly, in front of all the people concerned.
obviously demands that we also question all normative (ethical and
political as well as moral) assumptions and claims with regard
to their feasibility; to their economic, social, and ecological rationality;
and to any other input that expertise may provide in a specific
situation of professional intervention. But with this
kind of questioning we leave the domain of practical reason strictly
speaking (i.e., the jurisdiction of practical philosophy) and return
to the domain of theoretical reason (i.e., the jurisdiction
of science), which is why in practical philosophy we do not
subsume such basically instrumental questions under practical
what? Methodologically speaking, a crucial
question remains: What can be the basis for genuinely practical
and hence, at bottom, moral argumentation? What principle(s)
can guide it? What is the origin and reach of whatever authority
such a principle may be expected to give to reason in practical
questions? We have already hinted at the core principle that
Kant contributed to practical philosophy, the idea of moral universalization.
But it is a difficult idea, for it charges rational agents with
a burden of proof – a standard of rationality – that is hard
to meet in practice. We will need to strike some balance between
the two diverging requirements of authority and practicability.
The more it matters that we first understand the idea of moral
universalization thoroughly, so that we can then try to pragmatize
it without undermining its relevance. I would like to dedicate
the second half of the present essay to this fundamental
issue. Only seemingly does it lead us far away from the central
concern of this series of essays with good professional practice;
quite the contrary, it leads us directly to the heart of the
matter, although the philosophical considerations in question
will of course, in due time, need to be pragmatized properly.
Well-understood simplification results from thorough understanding,
it does not replace it.
originates reason's authority in practical questions? Some basic
thoughts about the deep connections between reason, morality,
and the public realm
We have recognized that a basic condition (and limitation) of
reason's authority in practical questions consists in a need
the focus from ethical questions of what is "good"
(questions of personal preference) to moral questions of what
is "right" (questions of interpersonal justification).
But then, do we not have to expect that people in turn will have different
preferences as to what constitutes a "good" standard
of interpersonal justification
and thus provides a rational basis for claims to rightness?
What exactly can it consequently mean to decide among clashing
claims to rightness "with reason"? Why and in what way is it "rational"
to take a moral point of view in the first place? How do we really
know a proposal
can "rightly" claim to be moral? And why in the world
should we bother at all, rather than just give preference to our own preferences?
With a view to fully appreciating what it is that the practical
dimension of reason adds to the quest for rational thought and
action and why it is indispensable, we need to delve a bit
deeper into the subject of reason's authority in general, and
of practical reasoning about what is right in particular.
and power To
put us on the right track, it helps to first ask ourselves what
happens if such authority is absent. With regard to purely private
action, the consequences of which do not concern anyone except
those directly involved, the answer is simple: nothing.
In all other cases, where the consequences of actions concern
people who are not involved, the absence of the disciplining
and coordinating function of reason leaves us with basically
two possibilities: either there is an open clash
of interests and actions – a lack of coordination that leads
to disorder and conflict – or else, some other, non-argumentative
force takes the place of reason as a coordinating authority.
The result is the same: if a plurality of agents pursue
their different interests without being willing and able to coordinate
their non-private actions peacefully, "with reason"
rather than with force (whether in the form of brute or hidden
a mere threat of sanctions), some will manage to impose
their will upon the others simply because they have the economic,
technical, or political means to do so. This ability of imposing
one's will regardless of whether one manages to convince those
concerned argumentatively is what the German sociologist
Max Weber (1921), in a famous and influential essay, defined as power:
understand by "power" the chance of a man or of a number of
men to realize their own will in a communal [read: social, non-private]
action even against the resistance of others who are participating
in the action. (Weber, 1921, p. 531; 1968, p. 926;
1991, p. 180)
question is then no longer what is the right thing to do for
each and every agent but only, who is the stronger. And the
answer is given not on the basis of argumentation but of power,
status, legal or bureaucratic authority, manipulation, coercion,
or war. Power in all its non-argumentative forms undermines
the ability of people to act as mature and moral agents, for
such action requires freedom of will, of expression of thought,
of argumentation and action. It also diminishes the quality
of outcomes, as those holding power can impose their notions
of the right things to do without needing to argue, that is,
advancing and substantiating "good reasons," and consequently
without needing to inform themselves and to learn. As history
teaches us, this privilege of power holders, of not needing
to learn and to argue, sooner or later tends to diminish their
ability to fully appreciate both the complexity and the diversity
of the contexts of action concerned – the two earlier-mentioned
core issues of rational action. Instead, it favors an impoverished
understanding and consideration of relevant contexts, or speaking
with Kant, a
merely private use of reason.
a merely private use of reason Let
us look a bit closer at Kant's (1784b, 485-487; 1787, B841;
1793, B157-159; 1798, § 43; and 1800, B83f)
before-mentioned notion of a merely private use of reason. It may help us
better understand what the idea of practical reason – reason's authority
in practical questions – is all about. First of all, it is worth
mentioning that Kant's use of the word "private," as
I understand him, captures the full
original sense of the Latin privatus (past participle
of the verb privare), which means both "deprived"
(or "bereaved," because incomplete, partial, biased
by private ends) and "privileged"
(exceptional, not available to others, not public). Kant's methodological
antidote is the sensus communis, by which he means
an effort to compare one's own judgment to the collective
reason of humanity, as it were, and thus to avoid the trap [orig.:
of allowing one's private conditions of thought, which one might
easily mistake for objective, to inform [orig.: affect in a harmful
way] one's judgment. (Kant 1793, B157f, my simplified transl.; for
earlier discussion see Ulrich, 2009b, esp. p. 10).
idea of "community sense" rather than "common
sense," perhaps best translated as sense of civic responsibility,
informs what Kant designates the public use of reason,
an effort of reasoning aimed at proposals and arguments that
can be shared with all other people concerned. The public, non-private use of reason is the critical
device that "disciplines" the way people think
and act with regard to what in a given context is to count as
rational, as true and right. In particular, it is a device to test
and improve the normative validity of any assumptions
or claims, given that issues of normative validity cannot be
subject to the test of science. Like no other device, exposure
observation and scrutiny makes sure reason is not merely
serving some private agenda. Far from merely being a negative
kind of control, the public use of reason actually allows errors
or defects of reasoning to be uncovered and improved, as well
as arbitrary or overly partial perspectives to be completed.
It thus ensures to reason its
credibility and authority in practical as in theoretical matters,
which in turn expresses itself
in an ability of the reasoners involved to supply, if challenged
to do so, cogent (i.e., compelling, because well-reasoned and
that withstand public scrutiny. Hence, these arguments can then
confidently be shared with
everyone concerned. The authority of reason resides in the fitness
of its 'reasons' for an unrestricted audience; and
its being able to reach the world at large (cf. Kant, 1784b, A487).
public constitution and use of reason What
holds true in the realm of theoretical questions holds even
more true in the realm of practical questions: reason
by its very nature is public – open to criticism on the part
of everyone concerned – or it is fundamentally impoverished.
Reason is publicly constituted. It cannot do without the
active involvement and possible veto of free citizens:
must in all its undertakings subject itself to criticism; should
it limit freedom of criticism by any prohibition, it must harm
itself, drawing upon itself a damaging suspicion. Nothing is
so important for its usefulness, nothing so sacred, that it
may be exempted from this searching examination, which knows
no respect for persons. Reason depends on this freedom for its
very existence. For reason has no dictatorial authority; its
verdict is always simply the agreement of free citizens, of
whom each one must be permitted to express, without let or hindrance,
his objections or even his veto. (Kant, 1787, B766f; cf. my
discussions in Ulrich, 2009b, p. 15, and 1983, p. 310)
is either free and public or it is deprived of its authority,
In both theoretical and practical questions, reason must at
all times be above all merely private agendas. Every competent
researcher, every true scholar knows that; every moral agent
practices it. Substantively
speaking, then, reason's authority originates in a stance of
methodologically, in the possibility of unfettered criticism
(cf. Kant, 1787, B775, B780 and B784). Unlike all other forces that may motivate and control human
thought and action, reason not only allows but actively encourages
and supports unrestrained criticism, for it understands such
criticism as the very discipline to which it owes its authority
– its constitutive self-discipline.
consequently exists a fundamental common denominator
of the sources of reason's authority in both theoretical and
practical questions. It consists in the unique potential of
reason to settle differences of views and opinion (what is
true?) as well as of values and interests (what is right?)
without recourse to power. It has this potential because – or
better, so long as – it does not put itself into the service
of any agenda that would be buttressed by power rather than
by free exchange of ideas and arguments. No private agenda!
is reason's basic motto. Its only agenda is that of reason's integrity
itself, which demands its independence and impartiality, its
completeness and growth, its consistency and ability to address
an unrestricted audience. These are big aims, but for every
individual reasoner their conquest begins small, by abstracting
from one's own small world, by renouncing the merely private
use of reason, by submitting one's claims and actions to public
scrutiny. Impartiality – overcoming partiality – is key. It
is a never-ending quest, but as we have said, Kant does not
ask ordinary practical reason to be perfect, only to renounce
a merely private agenda. He expects us to submit (whether in thought or
actual discourse) our "good reasons" to a principally
audience, as a way to find out whether we are then still able to argue them
consistently without getting entangled in inconsistencies; without
ever needing to claim an exception
for ourselves or for any particular party. This is the idea
that is known as the fundamental principle of moral reasoning
(the categorical imperative), but it is in fact the fundamental
principle of all reasoning.
impartiality: reason's cooperative potential
it a remarkable conclusion that reason's authority in all its
employments is inextricably
linked to its self-disciplining effort of being impartial? As
soon as reason neglects such discipline and allows itself to
become "private" in the sense in which Kant understands it
– of being partial rather than impartial, deprived rather than
it loses its authority and thereby its ability to settle human
differences peacefully. It forgoes, in other words, its cooperative
potential, opts for a declaration of war instead. That is, reason and morality have a
deep-seated, common origin in the idea of peaceful cooperation
(which does not preclude fair competition, to be sure). We begin to sense why Kant considers
the practical dimension of reason to be more fundamental than
its theoretical dimension, and accordingly speaks of the primacy
of practical reason over theoretical reason: it is because
impartiality is a key to dealing
with questions of interpersonal coordination not only morally (i.e., in a shareable,
because mutually fair and just way) but also reasonably (i.e.,
in a way that can be vindicated argumentatively with "good
reasons") and thereby also peacefully.
its theoretical and practical employments, reason, at bottom, is the
idea that mature individuals limit their claims to what other mature individuals
can share with
them and all others argumentatively – the core
idea of morality. Such self-limitation is vital for peaceful conviviality
in practical questions, but it is also essential in dealing reasonably
questions. In either case, cooperation involves the idea that private bias and
interest may be disciplined systematically through a process
of mutual coordination that all competent observers can share
and accept on the basis of their own insight and recognition
– the common denominator of science
as well as of morality.
conclusion: Let us pause for a moment and see where
we stand. We
can perhaps provisionally answer our questions of the source and nature of reason's
authority in practical matters, and of the methodological basis
(standards and procedures) for exerting such authority, in this way: Reason's
authority is essentially rooted in its function as a
discipline of impartial thought and action. The hallmark of
impartial thought and action is that they can be shared with
an unrestricted audience, as there is no need for hiding any
private agenda. Consequently there is no risk of getting entangled
in inconsistent argumentation and thus, of needing to claim
an exception for oneself or for any specific party (compare
Kant, 1786b, B424, and the discussion of the "no exception!"
test in Ulrich, 2009b, pp. 31-35). Conforming to this root of
reason's authority, reason's methodological basis for exerting
such authority in practical questions consists in a systematic
effort of value clarification and critique with a view to ensuring
the fitness of normative assumptions and claims for unrestricted
shareability. This is what the two core disciplines of practical
philosophy, moral theory and moral discourse, are basically
To be sure, perfect morality is not attainable under real-world
conditions. Ordinary practical reason is not usually free of
any private agenda. What matters in practice is that we
(or others involved in a situation of shared concern) do not,
in the names of reason and morality, pursue a merely
private agenda. How do we know? The way to find out is by submitting whatever
agenda there is – the normative assumptions and claims involved
in all practice – to public scrutiny. Why should we? Once normative assumptions
and claims have successfully been tested for moral defensibility,
they can be shared confidently with an unrestricted audience, as
they need not fear to be convicted of standing for a merely private
agenda. They have, in this regard, a strong competitive advantage,
which over time and with sufficient opportunities for non-private
discussion increases their chances to prevail. A representative
current example is provided by the worldwide gradual retreat
of the so-called banking secret, a non-shareable business
model supported by so-called "tax heavens."
As they claim an exception for themselves from principles they
expect all others to respect in dealing with them, they find
themselves unable to argue the case for the banking secret consistently;
their argumentative position is accordingly weak, that of their
opponents strong (see our previous short discussion of this example in Ulrich,
2009b, p. 35f, note 3).
and impartiality are siblings: they gain and
lose authority together. In dealing with theoretical questions,
the quest for impartiality amounts to the ideal of objectivity
or intersubjective reproducibility of observations (or judgments
of fact); in dealing with practical question, the same quest
amounts to the ideal of morality or interpersonal fairness of
valuations (value judgments). No hidden agendas! is thus
the motto that motivates the quest for practical as well as
theoretical reason, and its methodological counterpart reads:
No claims or assumptions that cannot be
defended publicly! Which is exactly what impartiality
means: keeping undisclosed private agendas out of what
counts as true and right.
political dimension But not only impartiality is
deeply entrenched in reason's mission. Linked to its
deeply non-private nature, it also has an intrinsically political
dimension that it needs to cultivate. It is true, Kant formulates his fundamental
principle of practical
reason, the "categorical imperative," in the monological
(self-reflective) terms of a lonely reasoner rather than in
the dialogical (argumentative) terms of a res publica
or, as we also say today, of a living civil society. But the
of reason is nevertheless a deeply communicative and indeed,
republican conception. We have already hinted at it: reason's
unique mission is that of a guardian of public arguability or,
as Silber (1974, p. 217) has aptly phrased it, of universal
communicability. Not only reason and morality are siblings,
but also communicability and universality. In practical as in theoretical questions,
reason has authority inasmuch as the specific reasons that drive
our thinking and acting (whether as researchers, professionals,
decision-makers, or citizens) are good enough to be laid open
to everyone concerned. Reason in its proper, not merely private
use provides good grounds: it supports our thought and
action with conjectures that need not be concealed but are universally
communicable, in the sense that we can publicly defend them
(or else, we can allow them to be criticized so as to improve
their communicability) regardless of the particular circumstances and interests involved
and without limiting the audience in advance.
before concluding this essay, I
find a similar line of thought in Onora O'Neill's (1989) account
of Kant's practical philosophy in Constructions of Reason,
a book that was not available at the time I developed my understanding of Kant in Critical Heuristics (Ulrich,
1983) but which in at least two respects comes as close to it
as any other source of which I am aware. The aspects I mean are the "political"
core of Kant's critique of reason, and the relevance of his
"constructivist" practical philosophy for
contemporary notions of sound inquiry, rational action, and
legitimate politics. O'Neill's work has also made me turn to
the related work of Hans Saner (1973) in his book on Kant's
Political Thought, of which I had been aware but which I
had failed to read. No further need to explain why this Bimonthly
Reason as peacemaker and as political propaedeutic To
begin with Saner, he offers what must be the most detailed and careful exegesis available to date of the development of
Kant's political thought, from the precritical writings to the
three Critiques and on to his anthropological, historical,
juridical and political writings. To be sure, Kant does not
write about politics in the way we would understand it today;
systematic political analyses are rare in his work (Saner, 1973,
p. 1f, lists them) and they have received scant attention
(a major exception is Jaspers, 1962, pp. 328-362). However, as both Saner and O'Neill show, one can find throughout
Kant's writings a large variety of political along with judicial figures
of speech, to which O'Neill (1989, p. 12) refers as "metaphors" and
Saner (1973, p. 3 ) as basic "thought structures"
or "thought forms"; patterns of analysis and argument,
we might say, that Kant consistently employs to describe
the nature and scope of his project of a systematic (self-) critique of reason in both
its theoretical and its practical employments and which he
later also uses in his "applied" writings. Indeed,
as I know from my own extensive reading of Kant, he frequently
refers to the "public" nature of reason, to its having no "dictatorial authority"
but remaining open to the "verdict" or "veto" of "free citizens,"
its implying not only "intellectual freedom" and "freedom
of the pen" but also a "sensus communis," even
a "cosmopolitan point of view" and ultimately, a "way
to peace" (my examples, referring to places in the three
Critiques and some other writings that have been particularly
important to my use of Kant in Critical Heuristics, see
Ulrich, 1983, esp. Ch. 5).
Saner, the major political thought structure underpinning Kant's
work is the idea of a systematic way from diversity to unity. Kant makes reason the
guardian of this way. As Saner (1973, pp. 5-68) demonstrates
in considerable detail, this line of thought slowly emerges in Kant's early natural-scientific
and metaphysical writings (the precritical writings) and subsequently
in the Critiques as a figure of speech, a mere analogy
at first that helps him formulate the problems of order in nature
and of the self-constitution of reason's own order. It keeps
recurring as a basic scheme of progress from "diversity"
(antagonism in nature and society) via a "road to unity" (physical
community and reciprocity in nature; a law-governed social order
in society) to final "unity"
(e.g., of the noumenal and phenomenal world of nature;
of a cosmopolitan constitution of government, international
law, and civil society that would secure peace, freedom, and justice for all;
and ultimately, of the convergence of the universal
history of nature and the history of human culture and enlightenment). By the time Kant embarks on his later
writings on practical, legal, and political philosophy, the scheme
has become more than a means to the end, it now is part of the
end itself, of reason's self-set task of securing what I am
tempted to call cognitive and political peace at once. Both in
his theoretical philosophy (metaphysics
and science) and in his practical philosophy (ethics, law, and
politics), Kant makes reason the big peacemaker that
paves the difficult way to unity of thought and action.
is always in danger of being pursued in the wrong ways, by shortcuts
that rely on non-argumentative means; but for Kant, such unity
is worthless. The only kind of unity he wants is unity
in freedom; a unity that is compatible with free will, free
argument, and mutual fairness
– essential conditions of true peace –
as well as with reason's peace with itself (cf. pp. 215-313). This
is the "way to peace" that Saner (pp. 3 and 312)
identifies as a major political theme in Kant's thinking. It
is ultimately also the essential leitmotif
Kant's plea for reason in general. The free and public use of
reason – in Kant's cosmopolitan ideal: a worldwide expansion
of reason – requires peace and at the same time embodies
the only possible way to (worldwide) peace (pp. 252-261).
That makes it such a difficult, yet necessary way.
is the philosopher of that way. He is not a pacifist of metaphysics
– after all, he rejects certain forms of peace – but in a profound
sense, he more than any other thinker, may be the philosopher
of peace. (Saner, 1973, p. 312)
thus becomes for Saner "a propaedeutic
for political thinking," although, to be sure, "not merely such a propaedeutic"
(p. 312f). Indeed, I would like to add, isn't it at the
same time also the most meaningful kind of general philosophical
we might imagine; a primer to the proper use of reason that
speaks to philosophers, professionals, and citizens alike? And
which certainly has nothing to do with the narrow rationalism
and formalism of which Kant is so often accused quite superficially?
As Saner's remarkable book suggests to me – and the evidence it
is strong indeed – Kant's entire philosophizing, drawing on
its political root metaphor but reaching far beyond, may ultimately
be subsumed under the one central theme of
quest for peace with itself. "All his
Saner writes, "is understood by him as being en route
to the peace of reason." (p. 312, italics added)
and justice Kant's
revolutionary view of reason, according to his well-known "Copernican"
hypothesis (1787, Bxvi), is that reason must construct the world
after a plan of its own. More than that, it also must construct
itself: to provide itself with the legitimacy and authority
that no external force can give it, it has no choice but to define
its own principles and constitute its own critical tribunal. Furthermore, as O'Neill argues convincingly
(and with this I turn to her exploration of Kant's practical
reason's rejection of external force burdens it, from the start of its self-constructive enterprise, with
a third difficult task. It must establish not only its own cognitive order but
also, simultaneously, some political order
in the world of human inquirers and agents, for the two problems
arise in one and the same context (1989, p. 16). Neither
can be solved without the other.
put it differently, in Kant's thinking reason and justice originate in
the same, ultimately political source (p. 16). Neither
is given naturally to mankind; both require for their development
and preservation constructive acts of interpersonal cooperation
and (self-) legislation. Both also respond to the existential need of human agents to coordinate
their views and interests in ways that promote collaboration
and peace rather
than disorder and discordance. Just as the human zoon politicon
(Aristotle) depends for survival and welfare on the constitution
of some societal and political union with others, each plurality
of human agents or inquirers depends for their free and peaceful
on that peculiar force which we call "reason." In
Kant's view, therefore, reason had to emerge in the natural and cultural history of
mankind as the only entirely non-coercive force that can coordinate
human agents or inquirers in freedom. Or, in O'Neill's beautiful
words, it is the one force that allows us to "share a possible
world," that is, to establish and maintain both cognitive
order and political order:
authority – if it has any – would be undermined by appeal to
any "alien" authority, which would itself stand in
need of vindication.… The problem of seeing which modes of thinking
– if any – are authoritative presupposes not only the lack of
a "dictator," but the presence of a plurality
of noncoordinated (potential) actors or thinkers. Kant uses
the imagery of "citizens" or "fellow workers"
to contrast the situation with that facing the subjects of a
dictator who imposes common standards.…[In fact] Kant's account
of the authority of reason uses not only the images of plurality
but specifically those of constitutionality and political order.
reason why Kant is drawn to explicate the authority of reason
in political metaphors is surely that he sees the problems of
cognitive and political order as arising in one and the same
context. In either case we have a plurality of agents or voices
(perhaps potential agents or voices) and no transcendent or
preestablished authority. Authority has in either case to be
constructed. The problem is to discover whether there are any
constraints on the mode of order (cognitive or political) that
can be constituted. Such constraints (if they can be discovered)
constitute respectively the principles of reason and of justice.
Reason and justice are two aspects to the solution of the problems
that arise when an uncoordinated plurality of agents is to share
a possible world. Hence political imagery can illuminate the
nature of cognitive order and disorientation, just as the vocabulary
of reason can be used to characterize social and political order
and disorientation. (O'Neill, 1989, p. 15f, italics added;
cf. similarly pp.
and justice are inseparable because at bottom, mankind's never-ending
quest for knowledge and understanding – How can we master
we live in? – shares its
roots with the equally unending quest for conviviality:
How can we live together well and peacefully? The common condition
for solving both tasks consists in the political task of securing
the personal freedom of all to use their reason and to
express their free will publicly; the common promise, in releasing
potential of mankind in dealing with matters of collective
(non-private) concern peacefully, based on principles of reason
rather than just the law of the stronger.
public constitution and use of reason (continued)
We can now deepen our previous reflection about the public nature
of reason a bit further. Both as citizens and as professionals, we always again
face this existential choice: we can
opt for argumentative reason as a way to "share a world,"
a world of mutual understanding and fairness;
or we can allow some parties to impose their particular interests
means and thereby to deal with human affairs of collective concern
as if they concerned private matters only. There is no
way round a free decision of all human agents regarding
this choice, for neither reason nor justice and peace can grow
on the basis of unfreedom. Nothing can guarantee that the choice
may not always again be in favor of a merely private use of
reason. Just like the idea of reason as such, its public use
is a never-ending challenge, a constructive task of lasting
collective concern. Whenever reason is deprived of its free
and public use, the causes of both reason and justice
are in question. But at least, we have understood with Kant
that there is no way for anyone to defend such a choice with
arguments that could be addressed to a non-private audience,
or with Kant's forceful words, to the world at large (Kant, 1784b, A487;
cf. O'Neill, 1989, p. 48).)
The quest for practical reason can build
this insight. Methodologically
speaking, it opens up an emancipatory avenue that I have pursued
in my work on critical heuristics and which I consider increasingly
important for formulating adequate notions of good professional practice
and of professional competence, as well as for putting them
into practice within a living civil society today. At this place I can only
refer to work available elsewhere (see esp. Ulrich,
1983, Ch. 5, and 2000). Moreover, history teaches us that the
public use of reason cannot be suppressed over unrestricted
periods of time, in today's global village less than ever before.
Some arena of discourse will always open up that cannot be fully
controlled by private interests, and in fact not even by totalitarian
regimes. "Dictatorships have weaknesses." (Sharp,
2010, p. 28) The private control of reason
is no less a precarious idea than is its public control!
just as the idea of impartiality is key to an adequate understanding
of reason, its public use is and forever remains key to promoting
reasonable practice, justice, and peace. It is a fragile, vulnerable
source of emancipation, to be sure, like all non-violent ways.
It will not always work as fast as we might wish. And of course,
whenever it breaks down, or in the terms of O'Neill: whenever
the public use of reason is not allowed
to assume the job of coordinating human agents, some
other, private authority will; but the results will show it. Cognitive and political order will then
visibly be based on means that are not disciplined
by the public use of reason. It will be a non-argumentative,
unfree, and uncooperative order of the few rather than that of a free and shared world.
But at least, no argument in its support will lend itself to being
upheld publicly for long.
its very nature, reason's authority is not and cannot be a dictatorial one
(Kant, 1787, B706).
Whether in professional practice or in the struggle for liberation
from dictatorial regimes of any kind, it is therefore clear that all the
parties must remain free to agree or not
with reason's counter-agenda to merely "private" (deprived)
partiality for public arguability as it were. To discipline
reason so as to safeguard its integrity and authority, in practical
no less than in theoretical questions and, likewise, in professional
work no less than in political struggle, means to make
sure everyone concerned can accept to share a cooperative
point of view, not that anyone must do so. No more, no
less is what the public use of reason is all about.
might object that there is a normative core in such a conception
of reason; that it ultimately boils down to a value judgment.
That may be true; but this normative core is
far from being just a private utopia, a personal form of life
that one may or may not want to adopt lightly. Rather, as we
have seen, it amounts to an indispensable, existential requirement in coordinating human
affairs; a minimal normative core to which there is no rational,
just, and peaceful alternative.
This is indeed what Kant's somewhat obscure invention of "transcendental"
philosophy, the methodological device he constructed for the
critique of reason, is all about: to uncover the ultimate
conditions of the possibility (not necessity) of reason's
authority in regulating human affairs. It belongs to these conditions
that everyone remain free to choose the path of reason; but
the alternative is not sustainable.
other good news is, there is no public use of reason against
the public use of reason. It is a practical impossibility to
uphold a façade of rationality for long when reason's free use
is suppressed, for such argumentation soon runs into overt contradictions:
it is bound to argue a case that it does not respect itself.
It is, in the terms of practical philosophy, immoral – not shareable
(generalizable) on moral grounds.
principle of moral universalization If reason
is to realize its cooperative potential, we may conclude from
our considerations thus far, it must adhere to argumentative
principles and standards of truth and rightness that can be
shared. Or, as O'Neill (1989, p. 56) puts it, it must limit
itself to "principles that do not fail even if used
universally and reflexively." Otherwise both its integrity (the quest for cognitive
order) and its cooperative potential (the quest for political
order) are at peril. By its own insight reason is therefore
impelled to reject all strategies
of argumentation that risk turning its public use into merely
private use or which may undermine the possibilities of cooperation
in other ways.
The most fundamental principle of reason must thus
be to rely on principles of thought
and action that can be shared. But of course, the community
of those who may want to share is never known with certainty
in advance. Hence, to make sure our personal maxims or subjective principles
and action are sufficiently shareable, Kant requires
them to be generalizable, shareable with anyone actually
or potentially concerned. This
is the case, as Kant puts it, if the maxims in question can
be conceived to constitute "universal
laws" (of cognitive and political order, that is) without either
the possibility of peaceful cooperation or leading into argumentative
contradictions, thereby damaging reason's own integrity and
Reason's fundamental principle of self-discipline, as
I am tempted to call it, accordingly reads:
possibility of sharing principles is to be left open.… The fundamental
principle of all reasoning and acting … is to base action and
thought only on maxims through which one can at the same time
will that they be universal laws. (O'Neill, 1989, p. 22f)
may, but need not, read the reference to "universal laws"
as intending the categorical imperative. More in line with the
present discussion is to read it as standing for shareable principles
of thought and action in general. In both its theoretical and
its practical employment, the core concern of reason is that
rational thought and action should rely on principles that can be
defended publicly. This is the "positive" application
of the principle of universalization. The "negative"
application is no less important: whenever some merely private
use of reason threatens to dominate what counts as rational
thought and action, Kant provides us – everyone concerned
in a specific situation – with a standard of critique that allows consistent and cogent
public argumentation throughout. It is always a relevant idea to examine claims
to expertise and rightness – our own as well as those of others,
whoever raises them – as to whether they can be argumentatively
with all those potentially concerned. Without
adhering to this minimal standard, reason risks losing its integrity,
and thereby its authority as a coodinating force on which we
can rely in constructing a world to share.
sum, reason is about disciplining thought and action
so that their underlying principles can at all times be shared
with everyone concerned. In this precise sense, reason expresses
itself by our thinking and acting on principle.
To be sure, we are talking about an ideal; real-world thinking
and acting are hardly ever fully reasonable in this pure
sense, more often they embody a combination of private
(non-shareable) and public (shareable) reasoning. There is an
eternal tension between the particular context that motivates
human thought and action on the one hand, and the universalizing perspective that would
render such thought and action shareable with
others. It is at heart a tension between the two
poles of private and public concerns, of contextual and general
reasoning, with which we have to live in all circumstances of
life, whether as professionals or as citizens. We cannot avoid
it but can only learn to deal with it carefully and responsibly.
Particularly as professionals, we will want to deal systematically
with it; for as we have observed in Part 1, the tension between
dedication to professional service and maintenance of personal
integrity touches upon a fundamental aspect of professionalism;
a topic to which we will return in the continuation of this
series but for which the present, fundamental considerations
about the nature and implications of "practical reason"
should prepare us philosophically.
consideration: the reasonable and the general In
the ideal of practical reason, not unlike that of theoretical
reason, the rational and the general converge. Whenever
humans need to coordinate their different views and preferences,
whether in the interest of understanding and mastering the complex
world we live in or in the interest of living together well
despite all the diversity of individual beliefs and values, it is
a necessary condition for deciding among alternative views and
wishes "with reason," rather than just on the basis
of power, that there be a minimum of basic criteria and principles
which all the individuals actually or potentially concerned
can share. In other words, there must be some standards that
are sufficiently general to merit being accepted by everyone.
The generalizable is what disciplines the rational. This
is why for Kant, the father of modern practical philosophy,
the principle of universalization or generalization
– the idea of making sure our practical maxims and theoretical hypotheses
do not fail from the perspective of anyone concerned – was to
become the touchstone of all good reasoning. The generalizable
can orient a "good
will" as well as "good thinking";
good action as well as good judgment.
almost exclusively discusses the universalization principle
in its capacity as the "supreme principle of practical
reason," better known as the different forms of the categorical
imperative. But if our conjectures are not entirely wrong,
it must also hold for good reasoning in general. I find this
idea expressed in many ways throughout Kant's writings, notably
in the Critique of Pure Reason, where he characterizes the
"principle peculiar to reason in general" (B364) by a systematic effort to understand
the totality of conditions that explain the conditioned nature
of all our judgments, all our claims to knowledge and understanding. But
of course, the totality of conditions is itself unconditioned
and as such is beyond all human knowledge, an unachievable yet
unavoidable ideal of a systematic and complete unity of
all our reasoning:
… seeks to discover the universal condition of its judgment.…
The principle peculiar to reason in general … is: to
find for the conditioned knowledge obtained through the understanding
the unconditioned [read: the totality of conditions] whereby its unity is brought to completion.
1787, B364, cf. B379f and B436-447; for extensive discussion
Ulrich, 1983, pp. 217-230).
principle is as fundamental as it is impractical, due to its
holistic implications. One
of the core ideas of my work on critical systems heuristics
is the idea that for critical purposes, we can pragmatize Kant's
principle as the principle of boundary
critique. According to this alternative principle, it is
quite sufficient for a critical employment of reason, both in
its theoretical and its practical employments, to understand
the specific, limited contexts for which specific judgments
or claims are meaningful and valid, and to qualify them accordingly.
In this way we can lay open to ourselves and to everyone concerned
the conditioned nature of our thinking and acting. It is a merely
critical strategy, but at least it allows us to communicate
and argue rationally without needing to claim (or imply) we
know and understand enough to fully justify all our judgments.
occasion where Kant comes close to stating the universalization
principle as a general principle of reason, in a way that remains
closer to the categorical imperative, is in a footnote
of his essay “What does it mean to orient oneself in thinking?”
make use of one's own reason means no more than to ask oneself,
whenever one is supposed to rely on some assumption:
What reason or principle does my relying on this assumption
imply, could I make it a general principle of my reasoning?
(Kant, 1786a, A329, my free transl.)
reasoning and argumentation for Kant involves a self-limiting
and questioning sense of universal or, as he also says on some occasions
(e.g., 1784a; 1784b),
accountability. We are
accountable for our reasons to think and act the way we do,
and reason itself provides no natural limit to such accountability,
only external forces do. This "enlarged"
sense of accountability is the ultimate source of a critical
use of reason which, because its thrust is oriented towards
unrestricted (or "universal") communicability and
shareability, can prevent us from succumbing to the constant temptation
of a merely private use of reason. In respect to practical as
well as theoretical questions, it is therefore also the
ultimate source of reason's self-discipline and authority.
Are you ready to adopt the spirit of reasonableness that
is deeply entrenched in Kant's quest for practical reason? Are
you prepared to share his insight into the
fundamentally non-private nature of reason in its practical
as well as its theoretical employment? If
your answer is yes, here is your short summary of Part 2:
it comes to the normative implications of all practice, reason
cannot help but to rely on principles that it can defend publicly.
Reason's ultimate meaning and message to us, both as citizens
and as professionals, is that we must try to share
however your answer should be no, please continue here.
For a hyperlinked overview of all issues
of "Ulrich's Bimonthly" and the previous "Picture of the
see the site map
(for Parts 1 and 2)
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