Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kant and Universalism

We've encountered plenty of criticism of Immanuel Kant on this blog before, and some support for the "escalator of reason" in which enlightenment ethics played a major part.

Clearly he is the axial figure, the pivot around which our modern conception of ethics shifted. We can trace much of the modem preoccupation with impartiality and universal rules as the bedrock of morality straight to him.

Looking at Kantian ethics hardly guarantees much readership for a blog - quite the opposite. But I keep finding on this blog that looking at the future path of the economy requires rethinking many of our ethical concepts. If we no longer have to worry about food, shelter and basic survival as our main preoccupations in life, then issues of the common good, the good life, happiness and flourishing all come to the fore.

And that means ethical philosophy becomes much more prominent in the discussion, rather than simply utility or macroeconomics. And that means we have to look, among other things, at Kant rather than the Kardashians.

I had read the classic Stephen Korner book on Kant years ago, but I noted a major recent biography in Deirdre McCloskey's references. So I read Manfred Kuehn's Kant: A Biography the other week ( while exiled to a place in Queens by the hurricane). It is well-written, tractable, and gives a deep evocation of Kant's times and context.

Of course, it does not break new ground in examining his philosophy itself, although it very much helps to get more sense of his evolution.

What really struck me is how much of Kant's early life and education was rooted in Lutheran theology and Pietist religious doctrine. Even in the eighteenth century, theology could have major consequences. Prussia tended to allow free intellectual speculation on metaphysics, although normal life was circumscribed. The relationship between reason and faith was a major issue of the age.

The limits of reason

I will leave most of the issues in the Critique of Pure Reason aside and focus on the ethics. But before I do, it is striking that Kant's metaphysics is all about demonstrating the boundaries and limits that apply to reason and experience; his ethics is all about entrenching pure reason with little regard to experience.

The driving force is certainty, and its limits.

Kant's critical philosophy can be viewed as an attempt to answer three fundamental questions of enduring philosophical significance: "What can I know", "What ought I to do?" and "What may I hope for". He may be said to address the first of these questions in the Critique of Pure Reason, but he does not answer the question. He seems to be primarily interested not in the general question of what we can know, but in the narrower question of what can be known with absolute certainty and without any qualification. In his terminology, this question is "What can we know a priori and in complete isolation from experience?" p242

He wants to demonstrate that absolute skepticism does not make sense. Experience must presuppose some a priori categories. As Kuehn puts it,

Science allows of continuous progress. This is not so for metaphysics. It has both limits and boundaries. In fact, Kant believes that metaphysics leads us necessarily towards boundaries. p260

In a sense, his aim was to save a place for moral certainty based on a priori reason, in the face of rationalist skepticism.

Kant's ultimate concerns were moral, and perhaps even religious. Accepting the validity of the empiricist approach to science and to the growth of knowledge, Kant wanted to save morality from becoming too naturalistic and too relativistic. He wanted to show that even in the absence of knowledge of absolute reality, morality has a claim on us that is itself absolute and incontrovertible. It is this moral claim that elevates us above the beasts. p 265

He wanted to use reason to save morality from reason, in effect. It is a defense of morality against the corrosion of skepticism, on the one hand, and dogmatic Pietist religious claims on the other, but it leaves a very thin morality. Too much territory is conceded.

Kant's Groundwork

Kuehn emphasis that Kant saw a good will as the only moral thing.

Indeed, a good will is the only thing that is good without any qualification. In order to explain what he means by a good will, Kant introduces a distinction between acting from duty and acting in accordance with duty. He apparently thought that duty is what a good will would will. p284

And it is wholly distinct from self interest or specific ends.

Thus, actions have moral worth only when done from duty. But this moral worth is not to be found in the purpose or goal that they are meant to attain. They have their moral worth only in the subjective principle of volition that they express. Kant calls this practical principle of volition the "maxim". As we have seen, maxims are general principles of action. p284

So here already we have the contemporary notion that intention matters to the exclusion of anything else, and strict separation from self-interest.

A pure moral philosophy deals with a pure will, that is, a will that has motives "that are represented completely a priori by reason alone" and not with human volition, which is characterized by empirically based motives. p285

Morality is a matter of pure reason, rather than the more concrete issues that lay in the domain of anthropology.

Kant, in other words, does not intend to deal with the everyday situations of moral agents. He deals, rather with an ideal of pure reason that is entirely a priori. This ideal, which he calls the categorical imperative, is not given in experience. p285-286

This requirement of disinterestedness is also at the root of his aesthetic theory.

.."the beautiful is what pleases in the mere estimate formed of it (consequently not by the intervention of any feeling of sense in accordance with a concept of the understanding). From this it follows immediately that it must please apart from all interest. p347

Indeed, one cannot help but naturally think there are parallels between Kant's purely rational autonomous agent and our more recent conception of homo economicus in economics.


Residual elements

He sees there are difficulties with this notion, however:

Indeed, Kant ends his book by emphasizing that " we do not.. comprehend the practical unconditional necessity of the moral imperative." We only "comprehend its incomprehensibility"... So morality for Kant is an enigma. .. That the "mere dignity of humanity as rational nature, without any other end or advantage to be attained from it - hence respect for a mere idea - is yet to serve as an inflexible precept of the will", is , Kant openly acknowledges, a paradox. True morality is an ideal yet to be instantiated in the world, but it is the only ideal worth striving for. This is in the end what his idealism amounts to. p 286

Interestingly, immediately after the Groundwork he wrote the Idea for a Universal History, which does of course have teleological elements.

So Kant argues for a teleological view of Nature by arguing that such a view is required for the progress of humanity. .. Such a regular progression would not be due to any rational process of humanity, but would have to be ascribed to Nature itself. [.]

To this end, Kant formulates in somewhat dogmatic fashion and with little defense nine propositions. The first maintains that all natural capacities of a creature are 'destined" to be fully developed sooner or later. If nature has a plan, then the plan must be fulfilled. In the second proposition, he claims that our reason is such that it can be developed only in the species, not in an individual. Our lives are too short to allow the latter ... Fourth, nature brings about the full development of our natural faculties by an antagonism within society. In the long run, this antagonism leads to a law-governed social order. Kant calls this the "unsocial sociability." Though people may not be able to bear one another many a time, they still seek the approval and respect of others.

This is a feature of his approach in general. Kant has not abandoned completely the older ideas of purpose, or, as we shall see, virtue. But he pushes them to the periphery of his system. They are ad-hoc add-ons. And as such they soon fall from sight altogether.

Whereas much of his theoretical work was concerned with showing that reason has much less power than had been assumed by his rationalistic predecessors, Kant's moral philosophy may be seen as an attempt to show that morality is the exclusive domain of reason. p312

In a similar displacement, morality requires us to believe in the existence of God, or so Kuehn summarizes Kant's view:

Without morality and God, we would be condemned to moral despair. Moral action should lead to greater good in this world, but it usually does not. Happiness and worthiness to be happy do not usually go together in this world. If we want to establish a connection between the two, we must assume they will be made to coincide by God in the long run. In this way, the notion of "God" and "immortaility" as prerequisites for the realization of the summum bonum or the highest good, make possible the moral enterprise for Kant, and therefore we must believe in their reality. p313

But God is a consequence of morality, not the other way around.

It is our autononomy that is the basis of the moral law, not God's commands or demands on us. p313

God, like purpose, still forms part of his system, but at the periphery. The trouble is these other elements - God, a belief in progress and teleology, a belief in the paradox of inflexible striving for a pure idea - are needed, even on his arguments, to make his theory join up and make sense in practice.

Kant and Virtue

One thing I found particularly interesting was Kuehn's account of how Kant saw the virtues. He was very influenced by Cicero.

There are large areas of agreement between Kant and Cicero. They both thought that ethics is based on reason and is opposed to impulse, and they both rejected hedonism. Cicero used such phrases as "conquered by pleasure" and "broken by desires" to describe actions that fall short of virtue and moral character, while Kant argued that only actions done from duty alone were moral, while any action motivated by pleasure was nonmoral. Both Cicero and Kant offer a duty-based theory of morality.

But, says Kuehn,

Though Cicero, like Kant, considered duty and virtue to be the fundamental concepts of morality, Cicero opted for a form of eudaimonism, which held that whatever is in accordance with duty will also turn out to be ultimately more pleasant than what is in contradiction to virtue.

Kant rejected Ciceronian notions of ethos or honor or the duties particular to a role or social position, although he was very familiar with it from his father's participation in Koenigsberg guilds. "Without honor, a member of a guild was nothing."

The grounds of moral obligation, Kant thinks, must not be found

in the nature of man nor in the circumstances in which a man is placed, but must be sought a priori in the concepts of pure reason... Ciceronian ethics that remain founded on common life, expressed by such concepts of honor (honestas) , faithfulness (fides) , fellowship (societas) and seemliness (decorum) is too superficial and unphilosophical for Kant. For this reason, Kant rejected not just Cicero but all those who were trying to derive a Ciceronian ethics. Moral duties cannot be derived from honor or honorableness in any way. p281

Honor, he thought, always involves an element of self-interest. He still allowed a role for character and virtue in his system, but largely in terms of strength of will in carrying out the claims of disinterested duty.

Kuehn quotes a very late Kant work, the Doctrine of Virtue.

(objectively), there is only one virtue (as moral strength of one's maxims); but in fact (subjectively) there is a multitude of virtues.. our self-knowledge can never adequately tell us whether it is complete [in being virtuous] or deficient. p401

Kant also believed duty was a clearer principle than happiness.

The concept of duty is "simpler, clearer, more comprehensible, and more natural" than any motive drawn from happiness. Maxims drawn from happiness are notoriously difficult to formulate and act on. Yet moral education had been based on such maxims until now. Kant went on to argue that this is what impeded moral progress, and this did not prove the old saw that moral theory could not work in practice. It would work, if only it were tried. p374

Kuehn summarizes, and then quotes Kant again :

The complete system of duties that Kant finally presents to us is a doctrine of virtue; what he ultimately aims at is a virtue-based ethics, one in which character plays a central role, and not some kind of constructivist moral system. The categorical imperative is intimately bound up with virtue.

Virtue is the strength of a human being's maxims in fulfilling his duty. Strength of any kind can be recognized only by the obstacles only by the obstacles it can overcome, and in this case the obstacles are natural inclinations.. and since it is man himself who puts these obstacles in the way of his maxims, virtue is not merely self-constraint.. but also a self-constraint in accordance with a principle of inner freedom, and so through the mere representation of one's duty in accordance with the moral law. p402

So virtue and character are boiled down to determination to pursue the one true principle of adhererence to univeral maxims. The plurality of life and multiplicity of different virtues are reduced down to one demand of reason. The shadow of other doctrines is still there, but only a shadow.

I think in the end Kant's aim is to defend morality against the possibility of radical doubt, which was seeping into the European consciousness. But is this really a sensible aim? In a plural world, with competing values and situations and contexts, there will always be some grounds for doubt or exceptions to universal moral principles. That is not to justify relativism. It is to say that no moral principles can be universal. Rules must sometimes be honored in the breach. Experience and knowledge of human nature must be a major part of our moral outlook. Things should not be neater than they can be.

Perhaps it is just an inherent inclination in many people that they crave clear principles to the detriment of reality, just as quant modellers prefer their econometrics to the messy business of qualitative reality.


Destroying the village in order to save it

So, in the end, Kant rejected social roles and position as a foundation for morality, including the elevation of the aristocracy, which was brave for his time. He believed he had retained character and virtue as central parts of his system. But they were relegated to just supporting roles for the central actor: universal rules dictated to us by our autonomous reason. There is no role for flourishing or happiness: only duty is moral. And nature has her own purposes which may be inscrutable to us.

He defended morality by ignoring most of the content and inherent judgement that underlies it. Impartiality replaced substance.

Kant spent many years lecturing on anthropology, i.e the more concrete elements of human nature, and devoted much effort to practical reason as well as pure reason in the Critiques. But he severed morality from forms of life, and human nature.

It is a magnificent system for hedgehogs, people who believe in explaining things in terms of one principle or model. It provides more determinate principles of action, stripped from particular circumstances.

But the dictates of reason themselves may allow little room for restraint or temperance or prudence or compassion or good judgment. In releasing ourselves from the circumstances of human life, we also release ourselves from the constraints and possibilities of humanity.





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