Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Reason and Morality is a work in the rationalist tradition. Deriving from the emphasis on reason in Greek philosophy, rationalism had a profound effect on the early humanists, most of whom sought to reconcile reason and faith. However, in the seventeenth century, with the development of scientific thought, reason began to be seen as replacing religion as a foundation for life. Although philosophers such as René Descartes insisted that reason and faith were meant to govern different areas of human existence, ultimately rationalism became an opponent of religious institutions and of faith itself. At the very least, there was an effort to eliminate religious bigotry and intolerance, which the French writer Voltaire labeled “infamy.” For many, however, the supernatural was seen simply as a falsehood, probably perpetrated by the hierarchy whose power depended on popular belief.

In his Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; The Critique of Pure Reason, 1838), Kant ruled out traditional metaphysics as the source of truth and constructed a moral system on the basis of reason. However, succeeding philosophers extended their skepticism to reason itself, doubting that anything in this world or outside it was a certainty. From this posture came such vague popular declarations as “everything’s relative” and often a resulting inability to make decisions based on ethical principles. Alan Gewirth and the other neo-Kantians, then, are in one sense conservative, in that they seek to reclaim the earlier belief in reason so as to establish a basis for moral choices. However, Gewirth is not merely Kant’s disciple. His arguments, the moral system he develops, and his practical applications are all highly original.