Baier, Kurt (1917–)

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Kurt Baier was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1917. He had to abandon his law studies at the University of Vienna in 1938, when he went as a refugee to Britain. There he was interned as a "friendly enemy alien" and sent to Australia. He began his study of philosophy in earnest in the internment camp and continued after the war ended. He received his BA (1944) and MA (1947) from the University of Melbourne, and his DPhil (1952) from Oxford University. He taught at the University of Melbourne, the Australian National University, and the University of Pittsburgh. He was a visiting professor at Cornell University, the University of Illinois, the University of Florida, and the University of Otago (New Zealand). He was president of the Eastern Division and chairman of the National Board of Officers of the American Philosophical Association. Annette Baier, whom he married in 1958, was also president of the Eastern Division. After they retired, they moved to New Zealand, which is Annette's native country. They may be the most distinguished philosophical couple in American philosophy, although neither was born in America. Both gave the Paul Carus Lectures, and both were invited to be members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2001 Kurt was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Jurisprudence from the Karl Franzen University of Graz, at a ceremony hosted by the University of Otago.

Baier was one of the most influential philosophers in the field of moral philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century. He is one of the philosophers primarily responsible for returning the field of moral philosophy from an obsession with the language of moral judgments to its traditional concern with describing and justifying guides to moral behavior.

Baier claims that moral rules are meant for everybody. They must be universally teachable, that is, they cannot involve beliefs or concepts not known to all normal adult humans. They cannot be self-frustrating, self-defeating, or morally impossible, that is, impossible or pointless if universally taught. Many moral philosophers after Baier have used these features as necessary conditions for a guide to conduct to count as a morality.

Baier recognizes that these features are merely formal and that moral rules must also have a particular kind of content. Baier describes this content by saying that moral rules must be for the good of everyone alike. However, when he gives examples of these rules (e.g., rules prohibiting killing, cruelty, inflicting pain, maiming, torturing, deceiving, cheating, rape, and adultery), it is quite clear that he means that these rules prohibit causing harm to anyone. He was prescient in recognizing, against both deontologists and utilitarians, that morality does not require doing the optimific act (the act having the best consequences), no matter how one determines what that optimific act is.

Like Thomas Hobbes, whom he acknowledges as a strong influence on his views, Baier put forward the principle of reversibility (a negative version of the Golden Rule), "Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you," as summarizing the moral guide to life. Although he does not use the language of natural-law theories, Baier also follows Hobbes in holding that morality has to be known by all those who are held morally responsible for their behavior, that is, moral rules apply to all who can understand the rules and can guide their behavior accordingly.

Baier argues, "It is the very meaning of 'a morality' that it should contain a body of moral convictions which can be true or false, that is, a body of rules or precepts for which there are certain tests" (Baier 1965, p. 89). Baier claims that these tests must involve what he calls "the moral point of view." Although Baier's description of this point of view is not universally accepted, it is acknowledged by all that moral rules must stem from a point of view based on universally shared beliefs and desires.

In addition to providing a plausible and influential account of morality, Baier also put forward an account of rationality that is more acceptable than the standard instrumentalist accounts. He recognizes that it is irrational "when, for no reason at all, we set our hands on fire or cut off our toes one by one" (Baier 1965, p. 158). Unlike many contemporary philosophers, he is aware that there are irrational desires, and hence that it cannot be correct to define a rational action as one that maximizes the satisfaction of a person's desires.

Baier's attempt to use his analyses of the concepts of rationality and morality to arrive at substantive moral conclusions marked the end, in ethics, of a concern with the language of morals that claimed to be morally neutral. By making a distinction between moral judgments and other value judgments, he showed that the terms "right," "ought," "good," and "bad" are primarily related to values, not morality. Recognizing that we offer reasons for choosing and doing many things in addition to those related to morality, Baier convinced many that concentrating on the use of these terms is not likely to be of much help in determining what morality is. Although many contemporary moral philosophers, especially consequentialists, continue to talk of good and bad, right and wrong, it is now generally recognized that these concepts are not identical to the concepts of morally good and morally bad, morally right and morally wrong.

Throughout his work Baier has attempted to show that reason supports acting morally. In his earlier work he distinguished between self-interested reasons, altruistic reasons, and moral reasons; and argued that although self-interested reasons were stronger than altruistic reasons, moral reasons were stronger than self-interested reasons. He showed that anyone picking worlds to live in would pick a world that had this ordering. In his later work, he distinguished between self-interested reasons, self-anchored reasons, and society-anchored reasons, and showed that if a society is to function, its members must accept that society-anchored reasons, particularly moral reasons, overrule both self-interested and self-anchored reasons. Although there is considerable doubt about whether Baier has shown that reason supports morality as he argues for it, his arguments for this view contain many valuable points. Failure to appreciate his distinction between altruistic reasons and moral reasons explains why some people find it difficult to accept that lying to protect a guilty colleague is immoral.

Largely because of Baier's work, moral philosophy no longer is dominated by concerns about the language of ethics. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, moral philosophers are now more likely to put forward substantive ethical views, be they Hobbesian, Kantian, or utilitarian, than they are to view their accounts of morality as having no normative implications. The distinction between concern with analyzing the terms or concepts involved in moral discourse and concern with substantive moral problems has largely disappeared. Even those concerned with analyses of ethical concepts now hold that analyses of these moral concepts may yield substantive moral conclusions. Baier is also primarily responsible for the fact that the central problem of moral philosophy is now showing the relationship between rationality and morality. The mark of a great philosopher is generally thought to lie not in the answers he gives but in the questions he raises. There is no question that on this view Kurt Baier is a great philosopher.

See also Baier, Annette; Ethics, History of; Hobbes, Thomas; Rationalism in Ethics (Practical-Reason Approaches).


works by baier

The Moral Point of View. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1958.

The Moral Point of View. Abridged and rev. ed. New York: Random House, 1965.

Values and the Future, edited with Nicholas Rescher. New York: Free Press, 1969.

The Rational and the Moral Order. Chicago: Open Court, 1995.

Reason, Ethics, and Society: Themes from Kurt Baier, with His Responses, edited by J. B. Schneewind. Chicago: Open Court, 1996. Contains a complete bibliography of Baier's publications up until 1995.

Problems of Life and Death: A Humanist Perspective. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1997.

Bernard Gert (2005)