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Reviewed by:
  • Agent-Centered Morality: An Aristotelian Alternative to Kantian Internalism
  • Daniel E. Palmer
George W. Harris . Agent-Centered Morality: An Aristotelian Alternative to Kantian Internalism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Pp. xi + 434. Cloth, $60.00.

Contemporary philosophers have found substantial resources in the ethical writings of both Aristotle and Kant. Together Aristotelian-inspired virtue ethics and Kantian constructivism have not only contributed greatly to the resurgence of interest in normative theory in recent decades, but have also provided the most prominent alternatives to the utilitarianism that has dominated Anglo-American ethics for so long. However, the development of these ethical projects has been carried out largely independently of one another. In Agent-Centered Morality, George Harris helps to overcome this lacuna by comparing and contrasting these two competing versions of [End Page 449] morality. As such, this work is a welcome addition to the literature both as a survey of recent work in Aristotelian and Kantian ethics as well as an account of the many ways in which they converge and diverge in their corresponding treatments of practical rationality.

Harris begins by noting that the appeal of both the Aristotelian and Kantian models is that they attempt to generate a foundation for ethics within an account of practical reason, and thus to ground morality within a deliberative perspective that connects the demands of morality with an agent's own meaningful commitments. As such, Harris correctly argues that these projects have much more in common than has sometimes been supposed. The central question that Harris raises in this book is which account of practical reason is best suited for this task. His thesis is that the Aristotelian model gives us a more plausible picture of the role of norms within practical rationality.

The major distinction between the Aristotelian and the Kantian models according to Harris is that while on the Aristotelian model the norms made use of in practical judgments are symmetric in their regulative function, the Kantian model provides an asymmetrical account of norms. To arbitrate between these two views, Harris proposes an integration test. The point of the integration test is to assure that our account of practical rationality and the function of regulative norms that it provides can support the integrity of rational agents. Minimally then, the test will favor the account of practical rationality that best "integrates the various concerns of rational human agents in a way that preserves integrity" (32).

While the above vastly simplifies Harris's rich treatment of this issue, it nonetheless allows us to see how Harris goes about arguing for the superiority of the Aristotelian view. For Harris maintains that the Aristotelian symmetrical model integrates regulative norms better than the Kantian model. To show why, Harris makes use of a number of examples to demonstrate that regulative norms function in a symmetrical fashion in regards to one another for the agent of integrity. For instance, to show that the norm of impartial respect is sometimes regulated by the norm of impartial sympathy, Harris gives an example of someone who breaks a lunch date in order to help a dog that is being mistreated. Likewise, Harris uses examples to argue that sometimes even partial norms, like that of parental concern, regulate the impartial norm of respect. Harris believes that these cases demonstrate that the regulative norms made use of in practical deliberation must function in a symmetrical fashion. Thus, Harris thinks we have good reason to reject the Kantian view "that the integrative function of practical reason is achieved by an impartial norm that is asymmetrical in its regulative function" (127).

Though interesting and worthy of attention, I am not convinced that Harris makes use of the most plausible understanding of the Kantian model of practical rationality in his central argument. By focusing almost exclusively upon the idea of respect, Harris assumes that the best reading of the Kantian project will be founded primarily in the idea of impartial respect. However, if we adopt a procedural understanding of the Categorical Imperative, a plausible case could be made that a Kantian account of practical rationality can account for the examples that Harris makes use of just as well as the Aristotelian...


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pp. 449-451
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