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Robert Audi on Moral Creditworthiness and Moral Obligation

by Roger Crisp

On Tuesday 8 March, Professor Robert Audi, John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, gave a Public Lecture for the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. The event was held in the Lecture Room at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford and was hybrid, the audience numbering around 60 overall.

Audi’s fascinating and suggestive lecture focused on the broadly Kantian notion of ‘moral worth’. He began by outlining the Aristotelian precursor to the view, in the conditions Aristotle places on proper action from virtue, in Nicomachean Ethics II.4: the agent must know what they are doing, choose the action for its own sake, and act from a stable disposition. A person might do the right action, but not do it in this way, and this distinction is on all fours with Kant’s distinction acting from duty and merely acting in conformity with it (from, e.g., prudence or mere inclination).

What is the relation between moral worth and Kant’s famous ‘categorical imperative’? Audi outlined the ‘imperatival’ forms of the CI requiring one to act only in accordance with a principle of action which one can will to become a universal law, and always to use humanity as an end, not merely as a means. As Audi pointed out, these exhortations, especially the humanity formula, make it easy to conflate mere rightness with moral worth, and to imply volitional powers Kant rightly did not believe we had (you cannot ‘make’ yourself act on the relevant correct motive).

This raises the question of how to understand the distinction between rightness and moral worth, given the imperatival forms. Consider the universalizability version of the CI. A literal reading would have it that you should conform all your actions to a properly universalizable maxim (and this would entail that your action was right). On the ‘treat as an end’ version, we might have: Avoid merely instrumental treatment and realize end-regarding treatment. Here, Audi pointed out, we have to read Kant charitably and carefully, to avoid attributing to him the view that we have direct, voluntary control over our motives (which leads to W.D. Ross’s objection that there can be no ‘duty to act from duty’). Kant is not, then, committed to saying that when we have different motives favouring the same act, we can at will bring it about that, e.g., we are helping someone from our motive of duty rather than from our motive of self-interest.

Audi ended by outlining the idea of ‘moral creditworthiness’ as a notion of correctness that includes but is not limited to moral worth, noting that such correctness – or ‘fittingness’ — is found in various normative domains, including the epistemic, aesthetic, and religious, as well as the moral.

The discussion covered a wide range of issues, including how best to articulate the notion of moral worth, and Kant’s account of it. One fundamental issue that remains for Kant is whether his close link between the will and moral worth can be maintained once we accept that one cannot will to act on duty. It may be that the ideal Kantian agent can be admirable, but the form of admiration here might be said to be closer to aesthetic rather than moral. And here we might be reminded of another Aristotelian precursor: the value of ‘the noble’ or ‘the fine’, at which the virtuous agent aims. But, as Audi suggested, we can understand Kant’s duty of self-improvement to include seeking ways to orient oneself towards doing what one ought to do for the right moral reason(s).  Indeed both Aristotle and Kant would presumably be happy with the idea that we have indirect control of our tendencies to act for certain reasons.


I am grateful to Professor Audi for comments on an earlier draft.

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