Friday, November 30, 2012

Welfare and the Good Life


We're looking at Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, starting here.

Against the European Welfare model

The connection between the four basic social institutions and happiness leads Murray to argue for American exceptionalism, as against the European welfare model.

The tacit assumption of the advanced welfare state is correct when human beings face starvation or death by exposure. Then, food and shelter are all that count. But in an advanced society, the needs for food and shelter can be met in a variety of ways, and at that point human needs can no longer be disaggregated. The ways in which food and shelter are obtained affects whether the other human needs are met.

People need self-respect, but self-respect must be earned—it cannot be self-respect if it’s not earned—and the only way to earn anything is to achieve it in the face of the possibility of failing.

This is of course a version of what I have talked about before, a change in needs as we rise up Maslow's hierarchy. The welfare state ramified in the 1960s as one response to abundance. Given sufficient wealth, the main political drive has been towards equal distribution rather than new flourishing and possibility.

Upper class people still generally practice these four institutional virtues, he says. They are much more likely to be married, see a job as a calling and work hard, practice religion, and believe others can be trusted. In a sense, getting ahead requires them.

The new upper class still does a good job of practicing some of the virtues, but it no longer preaches them. It has lost self-confidence in the rightness of its own customs and values, and preaches nonjudgmentalism instead.

He thinks this view, nonjudgemental "niceness", is living on borrowed time, however, as science produces more results which refute it.

Here are some more examples of things I think the neuroscientists and geneticists will prove over the next few decades: Human beings enjoy themselves when they are exercising their realized capabilities at the limit of those capabilities. Challenge and responsibility for consequences is an indispensable part of human motivation to exercise their realized capabilities at the limit of those capabilities. People grouped by gender, ethnicity, age, social class, and sexual preference, left free to live their lives as they see fit, will produce group differences in outcomes, because they differ genetically in their cognitive, psychological, and physiological profiles. Regardless of whether people have free will, human flourishing requires that they live in an environment in which they are treated as if they did.

So he thinks it will become obvious that nonjudgemental welfarism will be understood to undermine the crucial institutions of society.

The institutions surrounding marriage, vocation, community, and faith will be found to be the critical resources through which human beings lead satisfying lives. It will be found that those institutions deteriorate in the advanced welfare states for reasons that are intrinsic to the nature of the welfare state. It will be found that those institutions are richest and most robust in states that allow people to work out their lives on their own and in company with the people around them.

Putting it together

So what do we make of this? As a rule I consider libertarianism a horrible mistake. But Murray is a strange kind of libertarian. He is not so much arguing for the market and voluntary Ayn Randian contractualism, as strengthened independent social institutions.

He calls for an emphasis on virtue, which I like, but it in practice he means strengthening his four core institutions rather than the Aristotelian virtues as such. It is sociology more than ethics. He does not have much of the rest of virtue ethics, such as the golden mean, or an emphasis on the multiplicity of virtues.

What he does have is a kind of sociological vision of the good life, of flourishing, which I think makes him divergent from full libertarianism. Flourishing for him means strengthening those four institutions and reducing the role of government and bureaucracy in life.

I think this is what my friend, who I mentioned at the beginning of the post, was hostile to. Murray says people have to make their own choices in life, but his view is much less sympathetic for radical innovation in lifestyles. He believes in marriage, in standard jobs, in the churches, in stability.

But there is a basic confusion here. People do not work out their lives on their own, or even just in the company of those around them. They do so in the context of an ethical vision of the good life, of what contributes to happiness. We do not start off from year zero every time we make a decision.

Government and bureaucracy cannot run our lives for us. That much is true. But we still need a conception of the common good. Traditional libertarianism does not do that. It is just about process. Murray's distaste for government means he throws much of the possibility of common culture out as well.

I've said a number of times I think the debate between government and the market is a stale 20th century debate. Instead, the real issue is what we do about abundance and what flourishing means. Murray contributes some hard statistical evidence to that question, about the value of social institutions. But it correlation, rather than explanation.

It is a good argument against welfarist government. But it does not make any case for the positive possibilities of abundance, or how institutions need to adapt. What becomes of work if the demand for medium-skilled jobs is being hollowed out, for example? How do you promote social trust?

America is about new possibilities of freedom - and what that means substantively when material necessities are met.



Thursday, November 29, 2012

Virtue and the Founders

We're looking at Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, starting here.

Murray argues that mainstream America is seeing crucial social institutions erode. He gives a fascinating account of how the founders of the United States were convinced that the bedrock of the Republic was the virtue of the people. Naturally, I found this illuminating because of my continued interest in virtue ethics, like this post the other day. According to Murray,

Everyone involved in the creation of the United States knew that its success depended on virtue in its citizenry—not gentility, but virtue. “No theoretical checks, no form of government can render us secure,” James Madison famously observed at the Virginia ratifying convention. “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”

For Benjamin Franklin, this meant that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” On the other hand, virtue makes government easy to sustain: “The expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small. A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed.”

Washington emphasized the point too:

George Washington said much the same thing in the undelivered version of his first inaugural address, asserting that “no Wall of words, no mound of parchment can be formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.” Or as he put it most simply in his Farewell Address: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” In their various ways, the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.

This shows, of course, how natural and widespread and unexceptional a belief in the virtues was before the utilitarian 19th century.

Now Murray believes virtue is eroding.

The success of America depended on virtue in the people when the country began and it still does in the twenty-first century. America will remain exceptional only to the extent that its people embody the same qualities that made it work for the first two centuries of its existence. The founding virtues are central to that kind of citizenry.


Four key institutions

He spends much of the rest of the book distingushing between the mores of an upper class suburb, which he calls Belmont, and a lower class one, Fishtown. The four core institutions of society - marriage, work, religion, and social trust - have all eroded markedly in Fishtown, he says. Marriage has declined:

For the first time in human history, we now have societies in which a group consisting of a lone woman and her offspring is not considered to be sociologically incomplete—not considered to be illegitimate—and so I will adapt and call them nonmarital births.

So too has the work ethic. One interesting thing is he emphasises work as a vocation, a calling, rather than just a means to pay the bills. He thinks that even low-paying work can give meaning if it helps support others.

Yes, you can overdo it. There is more to life than work, and a life without ample space for family and friends is incomplete. But this much should not be controversial: Vocation—one’s calling in life—plays a large role in defining the meaning of that life. For some, the nurturing of children is the vocation. For some, an avocation or a cause can become an all-absorbing source of satisfaction, with the job a means of paying the bills and nothing more. But for many others, vocation takes the form of the work one does for a living.

The data shows lower-class neighnborhoods have changed much more than upper-class ones.

In 1960, 81 percent of Fishtown households had someone working at least forty hours a week, with Belmont at 90 percent. By 2008, Belmont had barely changed at all, at 87 percent, while Fishtown had dropped to 60 percent. And that was before the 2008 recession began. As of March 2010, Belmont was still at 87 percent. Fishtown was down to 53 percent.

Religious adherence - Catholicism in the case of Fishtown, which is based on an actual inner suburb in Philadelphia - has declined sharply.

The jury is still out on the metaquestion of whether secular democracies can long survive. But the last few decades have brought forth a large technical literature about the role of religion in maintaining civic life and the effects of religion on human functioning.

Social trust has also plunged.

The scariest message from the GSS [survey] does not consist of declines in specific activities that make up social capital, but this: The raw material that makes community even possible has diminished so much in Fishtown that the situation may be beyond retrieval. That raw material is social trust—not trust in a particular neighbor who happens to be your friend, but a generalized expectation that the people around you will do the right thing. As Francis Fukuyama documented in Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, the existence of social trust is a core explanation of why some cultures create wealth and other cultures are mired in poverty.

Diversity, for all its positive qualities, also erodes social trust.

Another problem regarding social trust, and one that may help explain the decline, has surfaced more recently: The key ingredient of social capital, social trust, is eroded by ethnic diversity. In the years after Bowling Alone appeared, Robert Putnam’s research led him to a disturbing finding: Ethnic diversity works against social trust within a community—not only against trusting people of the other ethnicity, but against trusting even neighbors of one’s own ethnic group. In addition, Putnam’s research found that in areas of greater ethnic diversity, there was lower confidence in local government, a lower sense of political efficacy, less likelihood of working on a community project, less likelihood of giving to charity, fewer close friends, and lower perceived quality of life.

The erosion of these institutions diminishes happiness. And there is a common notion of what happiness means, says Murray.

... the core nature of human happiness is widely agreed upon in the West. It goes all the way back to Aristotle’s views about happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics. Distilling his discussion of happiness into a short definition leaves out a lot, but this captures the sense of Aristotle’s argument well enough for our purposes: Happiness consists of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole. The definition in effect says that when you decide how happy you are, you are thinking of aspects of your life that tend to define your life (not just bits and pieces of it); that you base your assessment of your happiness on deep satisfactions with the way things have gone, not passing pleasures; and that you believe in your heart of hearts that those satisfactions have been worth achieving. It is not really a controversial definition—try to imagine a definition of happiness you could apply to your own life that is much different.

There seems to be a strong connection in survey evidence between the strength of Murray's four core institutions and happiness.

At baseline—unmarried, dissatisfied with one’s work, professing no religion, and with very low social trust—the probability that a white person aged 30–49 responded “very happy” to the question about his life in general was only 10 percent. Having either a very satisfying job or a very happy marriage raised that percentage by almost equal amounts, to about 19 percent, with the effect of a very satisfying job being fractionally greater. Then came the big interaction effect: having a very satisfying job and a very happy marriage jumped the probability to 55 percent. Having high social trust pushed the percentage to 69 percent, and adding strong religious involvement raised the probability to 76 percent.

I'll conclude looking at the book tomorrow.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Coming Apart

I read Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 the other day. Murray, of course, is controversial. I had lunch back in late spring with a liberal friend from work who mentioned the book in passing - and spluttered in outrage. I wasn't sure why. My friend didn't give arguments, but radiated hostility to the book. So I decided I should read it at some point, although I looked at Murray before, here.

Murray repeats and extends his arguments in the book, with much more data. He argues that America is increasingly not divided by race, but by class. Hence he uses statistical evidence to demonstrate massive declines in social institutions among whites since the early 1960s (specifically, the date Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, marking the end of an era), without needing to consider any racial differences or stereotypes about an underclass.

THIS BOOK IS about an evolution in American society that has taken place since November 21, 1963, leading to the formation of classes that are different in kind and in their degree of separation from anything that the nation has ever known. I will argue that the divergence into these separate classes, if it continues, will end what has made America America. ..

It is not the existence of classes that is new, but the emergence of classes that diverge on core behaviors and values—classes that barely recognize their underlying American kinship.

He has a marked libertarian view, but with a conservartive slant. Government is the enemy because it saps vitality out of the other institutions of society, the "little platoons" as Edmund Burke would have called them.

But the American project was not about maximizing national wealth nor international dominance. The American project—a phrase you will see again in the chapters to come—consists of the continuing effort, begun with the founding, to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems.

The most interesting thing by far is his discussion of the emergence of a new elite university-educated upper class which is heavily clustered into a few narrow districts, the "SuperZIPS". The value of brainpower started rising sharply in the postwar years, he says, as the economy developed from agriculture and manufacturing and towards more sophisticated services and technology. More people, and smarter people, went to college.

The average Harvard freshman in 1952 would have placed in the bottom 10 percent of the incoming class by 1960. The same thing happened throughout the college system.

And the graduates of selective colleges naturally associated with each other.

The human impulse behind the isolation of the new upper class is as basic as impulses get: People like to be around other people who understand them and to whom they can talk. Cognitive segregation was bound to start developing as soon as unusually smart people began to have the opportunity to hang out with other unusually smart people.

The shift in the upper class was dramatic and swift, with consequences that we are still feeling today. The new upper class is very different to the past, he says. He uses alumni data from Harvard and Yale, among other sources, to show that a huge proportion of the graduating classes live in just a few upscale suburbs and cities across the continent. Unsuprisingly, there are clusters in New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco and LA.

The new upper class is liberal, but not notably more so in most of the country. It is very much the four principal major cities which have very liberal upper classes.

They have increasingly little exposure to the mainstream of American life.They are isolated, mostly talking and interacting just with each other. (I of course live in one of those "superZIPS" in Manhattan).

That is not an argument for turning the clock back, he says.

..I have described the America of 1960 in ways that have sometimes sounded nostalgic. But if a time machine could transport me back to 1960, I would have to be dragged into it kicking and screaming. In many aspects of day-to-day life, America today is incomparably superior to the America of 1960.

The increased presence of brainpower in the upper reaches of society starting in the 1960s made a major difference in daily life:

That brings us to the timing of changes in the American standard of living. From the early 1960s to the late 1970s, not much changed in the technology of daily life. ... Then things took off. Beginning around the mid-1970s—the appearance of the Apple II in 1977 is a good symbolic opening—the cascade of changes has been unending. They range from the trivial (it was still difficult to get a really good cup of coffee or loaf of bread in most parts of America in the late 1970s) to the momentous (the Information Revolution is rightly classified alongside the Industrial Revolution as an epochal event). The design, functionality, and durability of almost any consumer product today are far better than they were in 1960.

The social changes are not simply a product of wealth, however. Taxing the upper classes to achieve greater income equality would make little difference in behavior or culture.

The new-upper-class culture is not the product of great wealth. It is enabled by affluence—people with common tastes and preferences need enough money to be able to congregate—but it is not driven by affluence. It is driven by the distinctive tastes and preferences that emerge when large numbers of cognitively talented people are enabled to live together in their own communities. You can whack the top income centile back to where it was in the 1980s, and it will have no effect whatsoever on the new-upper-class culture that had already emerged by that time. Places like Marin County are not fodder for cultural caricature because they are so wealthy.

This is very interesting.

Education and cultural change

He essentially says the cultural change is a natural outcome of sorting and acculturation by higher education. As I see it, perhaps it is a shift in society in a more priestly direction - the triumph of the brahmins, as opposed to the warrior, merchant or lower classes in the traditional fourfold Indian classification , for example.

In the past, a military aristocracy has often dominated society. Now the ruling class is the one which is more skilled at symbolic manipulation and arguments and moral deliberation - traditionally the role of the priests. We have a secular religion with its own upper class factions.

We have discussed before whether the massive social changes of the 1960s came about because humanity for the first time was not impelled by immediate survival needs. The possibility of abundance caused an outbreak of aquarian utopianism, followed by backlash.

Part of it was also technological, like the new possibilities opened up by the contraceptive pill.

And part of it was the rise of a more intellectual, educated upper class.

I'm not sure that higher education is inherently liberal or egalitarian in orientation. Rather, it was in a particularly liberal and secular phase in the 1960s and since. Harvard started off as a training center for the hardline Calvinist ministry, after all. The Jesuits have been famously highly educated, and not particularly liberal. The same applies to Chinese scholar-officials educated in the classics, or many Jewish Rabbis or graduates of the old Islamic Universities like Al-Azhar.

But having an upper class that did pass disproportionately through a few key institutions means it is likely to be stamped with the ethos of those institutions at a point in time. Most of the people would never have attended those institutions had they not become meritocratic. Hence there was natural self-interest in reinforcing those values.

We'll look at more of the book tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Shaking the British Establishment

It's interesting that Canadian Mark Carney has been appointed Governor of the Bank of England. Carney is very able. But it is a huge blow to BoE insiders like Paul Tucker, who had spent twenty-five years specifically working very are to get the top job someday.

Interestingly, it is a sign of much deeper disarray and loss of confidence in the British economic establishment. From the Guardian:

Rachel Lomax is practically the definition of establishment: Cheltenham Ladies' College followed by Cambridge and the LSE; principal private secretary to then-chancellor Nigel Lawson; deputy governor of the Bank of England for five years until 2008. Which makes what she said on Friday evening all the more startling.

This being a debate on the future of capitalism in the People's Republic of Bristol, the audience were satisfyingly radical – but Lomax was just as bluntly and disarmingly political. The former Treasury mandarin made no bones about admitting that she had been part of a project of "dismantling a version of capitalism" and replacing it with "Anglo-American neo-liberalism". You'd struggle to get scholars of Thatcherism to speak with such straightforwardness, but here it was coming from one of the era's key backroom players.

And now this co-architect of Britain's economic model as good as admitted that the system she had helped create was broken. But Lomax had one question: "Where is the revolutionary thinking?"

You surely couldn't ask for a better measure of the economic mess we're in, that even members of the establishment are now calling for revolution.

Striking as it is, such despair isn't exceptional. Indeed, it now appears endemic among the policy-making elite. Whether you look at Westminster or Threadneedle Street, Britain's economic officials reek of policy fatigue – of having riffled through all the pages in their textbooks without getting a good answer.

That also exists here in the US.


Monday, November 26, 2012

Companies which lose good ideas

I subscribed a month ago to a wonderful daily e-mail, delanceyplace, which provides excerpts from current non-fiction books, with links to Amazon which benefit a children's literacy project. Today's excerpt is from a book called Advocacy by John A. Daly, with remarkable examples of how people with good ideas could not get them accepted in their original companies. Check it out on the delanceyplace site. An excerpt from the excerpt:

"Business history is dotted with stories of opportunities lost because people within companies were unsuccessful in pitching their ideas. And those neglected opportunities were consequential. Competitors seized market share that could have been kept and increased if the good idea had been adopted. Take the minivan. Who came up with that idea -- Chrysler? No. Ford engineers came up with that idea -- they called it the van-wagon -- but they couldn't convince management that customers would buy it. In fact, one executive who endorsed it, Hal Sperlich, was fired and went on to lead the effort at Chrysler, which then dominated the minivan world for many years. Ford lost out. ...

"Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, started his career as a franchisee in the Ben Franklin chain of stores. Walton tried to convince the Ben Franklin executives that his model of buying directly from manufacturers and offering deep discounts would lead to incredible opportunities. They didn't listen, Walton implemented the idea himself, and Walmart became an international phenomenon. ...

The same applies to Intel, and many other companies. But the best example is Apple.

"Steve Wozniak, a cofounder of Apple Computers, was working at Hewlett Packard when he and Steve Jobs designed their first personal computer. Wozniak had signed a document at HP saying that whatever he designed as an employee belonged to HP. He said, 'I loved [HP]. That was my company for life. So I approached HP .... Boy, did I make a pitch. I wanted them to do it. I had the Apple I, and I had a description of what the Apple II could do. I spoke of color. I described an $800 machine that ran BASIC (an early computer language), came out of the box fully built and talked to your home TV: And Hewlett-Packard found some reasons it couldn't be a Hewlett-Packard product.'

"Later, when HP began work on a computer, Wozniak approached the project managers and asked to work on it. 'I really wanted to work on computers. And they turned me down for the job. To this day I don't know why. I said, 'I don't have to run anything,' even though I'd done all these things and they knew it. I said, 'I'll do a printer interface. I'll do the lowliest engineering job there is.' I wanted to work on a computer at my company and they turned me down.' Think how different the computer industry would be if Wozniak had successfully pitched his ideas to HP. ...

I read a good book about pitching ideas and overcoming objections a while back, Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down by John Kotter. I've had good ideas shot down nonetheless. Sometimes no amount of persuasion will work. 

The reason capitalism works better as a system is not because it's efficient or elegant - I was talking about this concerning General Electric the other day - but because in the medium term, in aggregate, fewer good ideas are shot down. So it is more adaptable and innovative.



Sunday, November 25, 2012

Food breakthrough?

This is pretty interesting. A new company is successfully growing food using just sea water and Australian scrubland.

Indeed, the work that Sundrop Farms, as they call themselves, are doing in South Australia, and just starting up in Qatar, is beyond the experimental stage. They appear to have pulled off the ultimate something-from-nothing agricultural feat – using the sun to desalinate seawater for irrigation and to heat and cool greenhouses as required, and thence cheaply grow high-quality, pesticide-free vegetables year-round in commercial quantities.

So far, the company has grown tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers by the tonne, but the same, proven technology is now almost ready to be extended to magic out, as if from thin air, unlimited quantities of many more crops – and even protein foods such as fish and chicken – but still using no fresh water and close to zero fossil fuels. Salty seawater, it hardly needs explaining, is free in every way and abundant – rather too abundant these days, as our ice caps melt away.

It could dramatically change world water usage.

It's an inspiring project, more important, it could be argued, than anything else going on in the world. Agriculture uses 60-80% of the planet's scarce fresh water, so food production that uses none at all is nothing short of miraculous.

I can't help wondering if there is a catch, or long-term problem that isn't evident yet. But a combination of hydroponic techniques and more efficient solar power may be durably effective.

It's bearing out some of the ideas and arguments and new technologies we discussed here.


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.