This book of Charles Larmore comprises ten essays about a wide range of topics in practical philosophy. Nine of them are already published elsewhere but have been revised for the new edition. The fifth essay, which gave the title to the bundle, is new. It can also be seen as the book's centerpiece since it defends the author's stance on fundamental issues of moral theory and meta-ethics. The phrase "autonomy of morality" is a felicitous expression of Larmore's position, which he contrasts with the Kantian "morality of autonomy". Kantianism, however, is only one of Larmore's opponents, the other being "instrumentalism" in practical philosophy -- mainly the contractualist tradition from Thomas Hobbes to David Gauthier. The problem that, according to Larmore, plagues these two strands of practical philosophy is that they are trying to ground morality in something else -- something pre-moral that is considered more basic than morality. In the case of instrumentalism, this is a specific form of self-interest that, by definition, excludes any interest we could have in the good of other persons as such. By this basic move, Larmore claims, instrumentalism directly excludes everything that could count as moral, since morality obligates us to care about other people's good just as we care about our own. The failure of instrumentalism to grasp the meaning of moral obligations corresponds to its inability to reconstruct their full scope. Hence, instrumentalism fails to justify precisely those norms that can be seen as paradigmatic elements of our moral code: duties towards the strangers and the weak and the requirement of honesty (cf. 91ff.). So far, Larmore's ethics of non-instrumental care for the good of others sounds quite Kantian. Indeed, Larmore is sympathetic towards an ethics of respect as it is expressed by Kantian ethicists. What he considers wrong with the reasoning of Kant and Kantians like Christine Korsgaard is primarily that they, just as instrumentalists, attempt the impossible by trying to ground morality in something more fundamental, in this case a concept of freedom, practical reason, or autonomy. Standing in a tradition that traces back to Hegel, Larmore argues that the Kantian project of extracting morality from autonomy amounts to an empty formalism (cf. 43ff., 105ff.). The autonomous person, in deciding which practical principles she wants to adopt as reasons for her action, runs into a dilemma: either her decisions remain arbitrary, in which case they could not serve as a basis for morality, or they must be based on preceding reasons. These reasons cannot in turn be validated by acts of autonomous self-determination, since this would lead to an infinite regress. Indeed, Larmore assumes that Kantianism can 'prove' the validity of moral norms only to the extent that it already surreptitiously presupposes it.
However, if the effort to validate moral reasons by deducing them from something else has proven unsuccessful, what are we to do? Larmore argues that we should simply stop trying. Instead of covertly resorting to moral assumptions, we should do so publicly. Not only is it impossible to take a position outside the realm of moral reasons and deduce morality from something else, there is also no need to do so. Moral reasons are real, Larmore claims, and therefore don't need any external backing. This is one sense of his expression "autonomy of morality". Morality, as he frequently puts it, "speaks with its own voice". Drawing on the tradition of rational intuitionism, represented by authors like Prichard and Ross, Larmore defends a bold version of moral realism. Reasons are real, they are discovered rather than constructed or projected onto the world, and they constitute an "ontological dimension of the world" on their own (cf. 63). However the "own voice" metaphor has a second meaning, namely that the voice of morality is one independent voice in practical deliberations, not the only one. Also, this voice does not have what Hare called 'overriding' authority: "The morally best action need not always be the action that, all things considered, we have most reason to do." (89) Moreover, the "voice of morality" expresses a plurality of moral claims that cannot be grasped by one-dimensional reconstructions, may they be deontological or consequentialist. Yet Larmore sticks to a broad conception of practical rationality as oriented towards maximizing expected utility, a conception that he thinks is neutral with respect to the distinction between consequentialism and deontology (cf. 102). Relying on these general assumptions, Larmore discusses different issues in practical philosophy, including aspects of Rawls' political philosophy like the concept of public reasons (which, according to Larmore, presupposes an already shared notion of basic respect; cf. 196ff.), or Rawls' concept of a life-plan (which doesn't leave sufficient room for the value of contingency; cf. 246ff.), problems of Habermas' concept of deliberative democracy (which, like Rawls' concept of political liberalism, depends on hidden moral presuppositions; cf. 139ff.), the nature and ontological place of reasons (which might be more puzzling than McDowell suggests; cf. 47ff.), and the role that the commitment to truth plays in Nietzsche's philosophy (223ff.).
As one might infer even from this fragmentary enumeration, this is a remarkably rich book. Hence, I will have to confine myself to pointing at some problematic aspects. Whereas I share many of Larmore's views, like his criticism of instrumentalism, I'm less convinced by his critique of Kantian constructivism. To begin with, I doubt that the alleged analogy between instrumentalism and Kantianism actually exists. Kantians try to demonstrate that we cannot escape the claims of morality since, inevitably, we have already taken the role of members of the moral community, including the responsibilities that come with that role -- or, as Korsgaard would put it, we have already constituted ourselves as such members --, whenever we deliberate and thus treat ourselves as having a free will. This is certainly not the same as deducing morality from something pre-moral. For Kantians, there is nothing more basic than morality. Quite contrary, Kant explicitly states that it is only our awareness of our moral obligations that warrants the notion of practical freedom. I am also not convinced by Larmore's neo-Hegelian charge of formalism against Kantian constructivists. Interestingly, as Robert Stern notes, Larmore himself uses a kind of 'constructivist' reasoning in his discussion of Nietzsche in order to defend a basic commitment to the value of truth. Moreover, Larmore's criticism that Kant "talks of reason [...] as though it were an agent (a legislator)" whereas actually "reason is not an agent but rather a faculty that we, who are agents, exercise more or less well", loses some of its force if one considers Larmore's own constant use of metaphors like "morality speaks with its own voice". This is not only a point about rhetoric, however, since it hints to an important and, I think, problematic aspect of Larmore's philosophy: he emphasizes the reality of reasons to such an extent that what remains of the faculty of human reason is mainly a form of passive receptivity for the power of reasons which are, in some sense, already there. I agree with Richard Kraut that this notion of reasoning might be too weak. As to normative ethics, it must remain sterile. All it can do is telling us that, whenever someone acts in the morally right way or makes a valid moral judgment, this must be seen as a response to moral reasons which already existed in their own "ontological dimension" of the world. Taken as a contribution to the meta-ethical discourse, I fail to see how Larmore's realist notion of reason could overcome the problems that motivated most philosophers to dismiss classical intuitionism, or at least, as in the case of Robert Audi, to endorse it only in a strongly revised form.
However, while I do not agree with everything said in this book, I definitely find it a valuable read. It is clearly and vividly written. Even though it consists of essays about different topics, Larmore's basic concept of moral reason acts as a leitmotif that turns the essays into a whole. Larmore's claims and arguments are inspiring and sometimes provocative, and they will certainly continue to initiate fruitful discussions.
Richard Kraut, "Review of Charles Larmore: The Autonomy of Morality," Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (2009) http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=15165
Robert Stern, "The Autonomy of Morality and the Morality of Autonomy," Journal of Moral Philosophy 6 (2009), p. 395-415
© 2009 Micha H. Werner
Dr. Micha H. Werner, Department of Philosophy, Utrecht University