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Charles Larmore: The Autonomy of Morality.

Charles Larmore

The Autonomy of Morality.

New York: Cambridge University Press 2008.

Pp. 290.

US$85.00 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-521-88913-1); US$24.99 (paper ISBN-13: 978-0-521-71782-3).

This is a collection of ten essays and an introduction. Nine of the essays are revisions of previously published papers. Chapter 5, 'The Autonomy of Morality' is in print for the first time. Larmore continues to develop a fine of thought defended in earlier work, most notably, The Morals of Modernity. His central theses include: liberal values must be defended as part of a moral doctrine; historical context is essential to understanding the content of and justification for liberal values; autonomy is not the source of moral norms; liberals should affirm externalism about theoretical and practical reason; and human flourishing has less to do with having a rational life plan than is typically claimed within the philosophical tradition.

There are many facets to Larmore's ambitious project. The most promi nent is his attempt to provide an alternative to the Kantian liberalism which dominates contemporary liberal theory. This alternative consists of a moral realism that is conjoined to a contextualist epistemology. On Larmore's view, claims about value purport to be true and some are in fact true, including claims about basic liberal principles. Thus he objects to the pragmatism of Rorty as well as the freestanding political liberalism that Rawls advocates.

He asks: 'If we justify a view not only to our own satisfaction but also in a way that others find convincing, have we not all the more reason to think that it is true?' (28). At the same time, Larmore insists that '[a]ll our think ing is shaped by our historical context' (1). Values do not depend on agents; we discover instead of create them. Yet knowledge about values is shaped by historical and cultural context; our access to values is thus contextual.

Chapter 5, 'The Autonomy of Morality' presents the central thesis of the book. Larmore presents an alternative to the familiar Kantian thesis that moral reasons are self-authorized products of free and rational deliberation. His chief target in this chapter is Christine Korsgaard, whose Sources ofNor mativity presents a paradigm example of contemporary Kantian moral theory (112). Moral reasons are, on Larmore's view, discovered rather than legislated (110). Larmore's realism about reasons is expressed by his claim that '(a) reason is the possible object of a belief and not itself a mental state' (125). On this view, our moral competence consists of being able to discern features of our own and others' interests. This competence is acquired by initiation into a moral practice; luck and circumstance play a major role in determining whether one is initiated into the moral life; yet reason does not constitute the moral point of view. Larmore's conception of rationality is nicely stated in Chapter 2, 'Back to Kant? No Way': T believe, we must conclude, in a very un-Kantian spirit, that reason is a receptive faculty. It is the capacity to recognize and heed the independent validity of reasons' (44).

Chapter 6, 'The Moral Basis of Political Liberalism', presents an alter native to the Rawlsian and Habermasian conceptions of liberalism. Rawls defends a freestanding political liberalism that purports to be neutral to wards all reasonable comprehensive doctrines. Larmore insists that liberal ism requires a moral foundation in the ideal of respect for persons. 'Respect for persons must be considered as a norm binding on us independently of our will as citizens, enjoying a moral authority that we have not fashioned our selves' (150). This conception of liberalism still qualifies as a version of political liberalism, however, because it does not espouse a comprehensive theory of human nature. Liberalism is a moral doctrine based on the ideal of respect for persons, and respect for persons is a norm that binds us because there are no alternative bases for liberal values in the modern world. Habermas also fails to grant moral respect the central role it deserves within liberal theory. On Larmore's view, Habermas' claim that human rights and popular sover-eignty are co-original, such that neither is prior to the other, does not really fit Habermas' general conception of liberalism. Habermas in fact privileges self-rule over inalienable rights and thus privileges a feature of liberalism--popular sovereignty--that is in tension with a more central feature of liberalism--justice (154). Larmore's objection to Habermasian liberalism comes down to the conviction that liberalism's core value is a moral principle of respect which is presupposed by rather than a result of legitimate democratic procedures.

In developing his realism and contextualism, Larmore devotes a lot of criticism to Rawls, Habermas, and Korsgaard. Yet he spares no criticism for those committed to a conception of rationality similar to his own. Chapter 3, 'Attending to Reasons', is a critical review of McDowell's Mind and World. Larmore agrees with McDowell's claim that making sense of normativity re quires an explanation of the mind's capacity for receptivity to reasons. Yet McDowell is unwilling to embark on an attempt to characterize the nature of what it is that our minds are receptive to. Larmore claims that McDowell thereby fails to deliver a satisfactory account of how experience is 'truly a tribunal for belief (62).

The final chapter, 'The Idea of a Life Plan', is arguably the most pro vocative. Larmore takes on what he claims is an unwarranted prejudice in the philosophical tradition, namely, that human flourishing is largely determined by whether an agent's life is guided by a rational plan. The roots of this idea are longstanding. Rawls' account, in A Theory of Justice, of a conception of deliberative rationality--i.e., an agent's good is identified by a process of rational reflection under idealized conditions--offers a re cent defense of a position that was affirmed by the Greek rationalists (253). In developing his alternative, Larmore appeals to a view about the human condition: '(t)he idea that life should be the object of a plan is false to the reality of the human condition' (246). The prevailing view presupposes that a rational agent can apprehend goods that make life worth living 'prior to ... actually living a life' (269). Larmore claims that this is false; agents do not have advance knowledge of all the goods that will enable them to flourish. The traditional view underemphasizes the role of unanticipated discoveries about the good life.

Larmore is not advocating irrationalism. Nor does he claim that agents that aspire to develop a rational plan will diminish their chances of leading a good life. In fact, his critique of the standard conception of a rational life plan is what we should expect from an externalist about value. For if value is something to which reason responds and does not create, then the values that make a life worth living are discovered rather than made.

Much of this book is presented as a survey of the intellectual landscape of liberalism and its relation to contemporary theories of rationality. Readers who look forward to a survey of ideas that animate large swaths of contem porary philosophy will enjoy this book. Readers who demand careful and de tailed arguments in favor of such positions as externalism about reasons and moral realism can complain that many of Larmore's targets--e.g., Rawls, Habermas, Korsgaard and McDowell--for all their faults are more sensitive to details than is Larmore. Many readers of both stripes will concur that Larmore has made the case that philosophy is 'subject to a law we might call "the conservation of trouble"' (48).

Jon Mahoney

Kansas State University
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Author:Mahoney, Jon
Publication:Philosophy in Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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