Saturday, September 21, 2013

Achieved and ascribed identities

Here's an interesting piece in the Guardian, in the wake of the first recorded bar brawl over Kantian philosophy: two men in Russia got into a pub brawl over Kant, and one shot the other.

Kant cropped up again earlier this week while I was having coffee at my house with David Goodhart, the director of Demos, a thinktank that describes its mission as "to bring politics closer to people". We were recording a programme about community for Radio 4, in the course of which he said something extremely interesting: that the problem with the political class, and the reason they are often so emotionally and politically distant from many ordinary people, especially in settled working-class areas, is that their identities are often achieved, not ascribed.
What he means is that politicians, like many "successful" people, have achieved success by finding a route beyond the limitations of their background. They have come to define themselves not by where they are from, their community, but through what they have achieved in terms of education, qualifications, career and personal aspiration. Community is thus often a nostalgic background hum for many successful people, but not something they are completely embedded within. And if they find a new community, it is one they have chosen, not one ascribed to them by birth.
This, in a sense, is the Kantian ideal. "How recognisable, how familiar to us is the man so beautifully portrayed [by Kant]," wrote Iris Murdoch. "Free, independent, lonely, powerful, rational, responsible, brave, the hero of so many novels and books of moral philosophy.For Kant, the human being is at his or her best when they have successfully self-authored. It's all about self-determination. For such as these, freedom is about breaking free of allegiance, of the restrictions of the local and the particular. In such a world, loyalties are simply a temporary convenience.

Autonomy is not the whole of ethics.


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