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Fr. 753

January 12, 2017

It goes without saying that O’Neill’s argument, on behalf of Kant, carries weight with readers and enjoys an intuitive plausibility. If persons seek deep justification and contingent, environmental factors impede deep justification, then persons do well to exclude appeal to contingent, environmental factors in whatever form, be they persons, thoughts or knowledge claims. That said, a faultline runs through the argumentation above and comes out in several places.

As one example, consider in what sense contingent, environmental factors “impede” deep justification. Does O’Neill mean to say that such factors merely hinder deep justification or block it all together? In other words, do such factors prevent persons differing in contingent, environmental factors from arriving at deep justification more easily or at all? If O’Neill does not specify which of the two senses her usage has, her wording strongly implies that she favors the second of the two options. Indeed, this vacillation would seem to increase the initial plausibility which her retelling of Kant enjoys.

Secondly, one may suspect that the last passage’s tone shifts from descriptive registers to prescriptive registers. It remains to be seen whether this is done so justifiably. Certainly, the author has argued persuasively for a particular set of conditions which obtain between persons of differing standpoints in an uncoordinated situation. From this initial description of the way things are in such a case, it is reasonable to expect O’Neill to advance a view of how persons so situated should adapt themselves to said situation. What results is, however, less conclusive than the author would seem to suggest insofar as both a weak and a strong prescriptive follow from the conditions so described: weakly, one may either not appeal to considerations deriving from contingent, environmental factors or, strongly, one may exclude appeal thereto.

For certain readers, the two prescriptives may seem identical, for all relevant purposes. After all, if one does not appeal to something, one effectively excludes appeal thereto. Yet the two are distinct in the sense that, when one does not appeal to something, one retains the ability to appeal thereto. On the contrary, when one excludes appeal to something, one ipso facto loses the ability to appeal thereto. In the former, one may recognize that such appeals are arbitrary and unlikely to, even incapable of, achieve deep justification while still allowing that they may have a place in the broader justificatory process. In the latter, one recognizes that all such appeals are arbitrary and discounts their possible contribution to the broader justificatory process.

For her part, O’Neill advances the strong without giving due consideration to the weak. One might even so far as to maintain that, in her account, O’Neill occludes the second in favor of the theoretically simpler response and thereby reifies a sound practical consideration into a conceptually pure requirement of practical reason. In the way of illustration, we might cite the fact that the theoretically simpler position implies that contingent, environmental factors freely examined, chosen and affirmed cannot constitute objective thoughts or knowledge claims. This holds even on the supposition that their proponents have stepped back from their own standpoints, under ideal circumstances and with an open mind, to consider all other possible standpoints, find other standpoints wanting for justifiable reasons, and so affirm their standpoints. If we are inclined to view this supposition charitably, there is good reason to suspect that contingent, environmental factors can, under the right circumstances, constitute objective thoughts and knowledge claims. (Stout’s notion of “epistemic responsibility” captures a good deal of the intuitions and arguments voiced here. Suffice it to say, O’Neill would reject Stout’s notion outright or, at least, limit epistemic responsibility to the reliability shown by those who consistently back thoughts and knowledge claims by reasons followable by all.)

As a third and final instance, O’Neill’s account of Kant’s requirements for practical reason puts forward a plausible picture of the human mind which may hold not up as well on closer examination: the human mind can either follow or not follow, adopt or not adopt, apply or not apply the reasons for a thought or knowledge claim. More specifically, the author sketches a picture in which a person possesses a kind of on/off function. Either the person’s understanding is “on” and so able to follow a given reason or the person’s understanding is “off” and so unable to follow a given reason. Thus, the picture surreptitiously introduces the law of excluded middle into its picture of human understanding: between comprehension and incomprehension, there is neither intermediate state nor movement.

This questionably static view of human understanding bolsters an overly rigid theory of standpoints and reason. For O’Neill’s Kantian account suggests that, while persons can be brought to understand thoughts and knowledge claims which they have reason to consider arbitrary, the fact that they must be brought to understand due to the arbitrary quality excludes others’ efforts to bring the former to understand. In some sense, the account offered seems to consider as overly demanding on persons the mere exercise of their reason and the pressure exerted on their standpoints. This stands contrary to certain everyday experiences and intuitions which show that standpoints can expand or contract in response to argumentation and persuasion. In a word, thoughts and knowledge claims can become followable in a way that the author’s view would disallow.

All in all, these considerations serve to qualify the intuition which O’Neill’s reading of Kant trades on, namely, that, when faced with diversity of opinion, the surest way forward lies in casting off thoughts and knowledge claims and reasons therefor which possess qualities unlikely to warrant assent from others. Indeed, this intuition becomes radicalized on the present reading, setting out an ideal which suggests a dim view of human capacity for reasoning, justification and understanding as well as for the possibilities for human interaction. This qualification proves all the more important in that standard public reason accounts arise precisely therefrom. If Kant and O’Neill are right to impose limits, and significant ones at that, on what we can reasonably expect from discourse, their proposal nonetheless sets the bar at once too high and too low.

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