Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Immanuel Kant Sucks

The sage of Koeningsberg sucks. That, to put it colloquially, is one of Deirdre McCloskey's other main points. She talks at length about how Kant's universalism was a terrible mistake which still corrupts ethical reasoning.

Kant helped create the glorious yet mischievous utopianism of the Enlightenment project; but by fiat, not by reasoning.


Perhaps it was the example of Newton, and the example of the perfect mathematical structure of physics that seemed to point the way forward. Perhaps it was the after-effects of the wars of religion. Perhaps it was a desire to equalize status.

Universal, unparticular reason, he seemed to reason, would apply to a miller as much as to a marquis. Writing in a world of 1785 in which status most oppressively ruled, the egalitarian axiom of Kant, and of Bentham and Smith and Locke and Richard Hooker and John Knox and for that matter St. Thomas of Aquino, St. Augustine of Hippo, and Jesus of Nazareth, was revolutionary stuff. "A man's a man for a' that" is an explosive idea.

And that idea of equal reason was revolutionary and welcome.

But it also progressively destroyed the older ethical tradition. It unbalanced the system of virtues and led to the elevation of enlightenment reason.

The Kantian tradition in ethical philosophy, then, begins with a monomania for Prudence Only-a prudence worthy of Jeremy Bentham and the modern economists. In a not charming sense it is bourgeois. That such intemperate lunacy lies at the heart of the modern and anti-Aristotelian theory of ethics should give pause.

Universal reason gradually lost any sense of particular human lives or actual human dilemmas. It lost any sense of proportion or restraint or balance. In developing something which - at least in theory - could be applicable to intelligent beings on Alpha Centauri, it lost an essential part of what made us human.

"So great has been the influence within contemporary moral philosophy of Hume, Kant and the Utilitarians" (in advocating an egalitarian vision of the universally good person), Stuart Hampshire writes, "that it has been possible to forget that for centuries the warrior and the priest, the landowner and the peasant, the merchant and the craftsman, the musician or poet ... have coexisted in society with sharply distinct dispositions and virtues.... Varied social roles and functions, each with its typical virtues and its particular obligations, have been the normal situation in most societies throughout history.


The problem, says McCloskey, is there is nothing that grounds the Kantian categorical imperative, the univeralizing maxims. Why would a utility-maximizing being want to be universalistic as opposed to self-interested?

As Philippa Foot put it, Kant went wrong in not realizing that "the evaluation of human action depends ... on essential features of specifically human life."" In fact, as I have noted, the Kantian program is self-contradictory, which among Kantians is judged the worst sin.

Univeralism is not necessarily a good grounding for ethics. Instead, it has to be grounded in actual experience and judgement.

Both Kant and Bentham were sweet but notably inexperienced men. As Mill said of Bentham, "He was a boy to the last. Kant and Bentham had seen little of life. Neither of them had been married or had run a business or had carried a spear in the phalanx.


And in any case, she says, we learn ethics not by universal maxims, but by stories.


Guides to ethical life, to repeat, are achieved mainly through story and example. As Robert Hariman puts it: What to do? One typical [modern] response is to look for rules: what would any rational person do in this situation? ... There was another approach familiar to the classical thinkers, however, which was to look to exemplars: how have other individuals managed situations such as this one?


People ultimately want examples, stories, insights, judgments, dialogue: not maxims.

It has been a three-century long dead end. This is something I've been grasping towards since the beginning of this blog.

the long experiment in ethics of emulating Descartes and Newton, with their mathematical axioms and rigid proofs, has failed. We neo-Aristotelians want to try instead to emulate Darwin, Mayr, and Gould, with their biological classifications and their stories.


To be honest, I'd always read Kant as in essence about limitations on reasoning - although that is more the metaphysics than the ethics. I remember having to study the Groundwork when I was a teenager. It was intricate and difficult, but fit together like a brilliant puzzle.


But it's this blockage which is barring the road to the future of the economy too. How can we know what we want, or what kind of society and people and flourishing we want, if we have a shallow geometric universalism? There is no "we" then, just utility-maximizing agents. All the content is leached out of the questions. We strip away most of the important attributes of human beings before we consider ethics. The "good life" is rendered empty and abstract. All the purpose and dignity is flushed out of life.


Equality of status may have been noble in the eighteenth century in East Prussia. Universal maxims may have given the illusion of making ethical choices appear like a mathematical problem as well. But the truth is life doesn't work like that. There is more to life than bland universalist reason.


No comments:

Post a Comment