Monday, August 26, 2013

Was Monty Python Right About Kant?

     Perfectly rational beings give themselves laws from a position of pure objectivity without inclinations or impulses to the contrary that they would wish to be universal and that all rational beings follow.  This natural law is what constitutes the whole of moral law and serves as a binding obligation on all who are rational.  A moral act is one that comports with this universalized natural law and is done out of a sense of duty to do the right thing.  If it is done for any other reason the act is no longer considered morally good, though it may still be prudent.  However, I believe there are at least two problems with Kant’s moral theory.  By elevating reason as the primary factor for determining the moral value of any given act and by treating human emotions primarily as problems which should be overcome with reason Kant has begun his entire theory by making a value judgment on which aspect of humanity (which we are to treat only as an end and never only as a means) has value and which does not, and does so while making the assertion that his theory is in accordance with so-called natural law.  The natural law is also referred to as the moral law.  In addition to this a moral act stems purely from the correct use of reason regarding the moral law which results in actions that are done from a sense of duty.  This duty can only exist in circumstances when there are other acts that an agent would prefer to do, or at least cause the agent to prefer not to act on said duty.  This is only possible when there are inclinations such as emotions at play in opposition to the duty, and the perfectly rational being would have no such inclinations, and would therefore only act according to reason, in my opinion, have no humanity.  Many inclinations stem from the relationships forged between family, friends, and others in a society, and the degree of importance each person gives to these various relationships.  These relationships and the emotions, desires, and inclinations people have to act in particular ways to strengthen them, or distance themselves from them, could rightfully be seen as morally permissible, or even obligatory, from a practical (prudent) standpoint.  For example, it is doubtful that a new mother would willingly allow her newborn to be killed for the sake of not violating a universalized maxim against lying, and while it’s possible, it is also doubtful that Kant would support a public outcry against a woman for committing what his theory would adjudge a morally reprehensible and wicked act.  “For to deviate from the principle of duty is beyond all doubt wicked…”  Kant’s elevation of reason and rationality to the pinnacle of a moral theory, dividing beings into those who are imperfectly rational and those who are perfectly rational, a seems little more than an application of his own anthropocentric values to his religious beliefs in an attempt to tie religion and ethics into a nice, tidy package.
      Kant begins his argument for a moral foundation with the assertion that the only possible good that is good in itself is a good will.  A good will is good not because of what it seeks to bring about or effect but good simply as a result of its volition, or ability to choose and determine a course of action.  This ability to choose, or will, must be based on purely objective reason and it must be free from subjective inclinations or impulses which could make an act the result of heteronymous forces brought about by circumstances and not a purely autonomous act.  Rational beings, by using objective reason, are ideally suited to determine practical laws of reason that may be applied universally and serve to delineate the duties and obligations that they have toward themselves and others.  This is how Kant sets the stage for the categorical imperative.  There is only one categorical imperative that has several formulations, though the formulations do not lend themselves to articulating a single overarching statement from which each formulation provided can reasonably be extrapolated.  The first of his formulations of the categorical imperative is, “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”  Based on Kant’s belief that all things in nature act according to laws he is able to rephrase the categorical imperative as, “Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.”
     Kant adds to the aforementioned precepts his assertion that rational beings exist as ends in themselves, and “not merely as [a] means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will.”  His discussion in this section focuses on how objects of the inclinations only have conditional worth and as such are subjective in nature, the value of which would be nonexistent void of the relevant inclinations which give the object value.  Furthermore, Kant separates the value of beings into two broad categories as far as inclinations are concerned; non-rational beings which he calls things and have only a relative value as means, and rational beings which he calls persons and have objective value and must be respected as rational agents.  Based on this reasoning, Kant further asserts, regarding inclinations, “ must be the universal wish of every rational being to be wholly free from them.”  From here Kant is able to formulate his categorical imperative in a third way, “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only…,” which is to say that all beings that are capable of rationality are to be respected for that capability and should be treated as autonomous, self-directed beings, and supported in their reasonable pursuits to a reasonable degree.  Kant bases this on the principle that rational nature exists as an end in itself.  Furthermore, based on what Kant said at the beginning of the piece, it appears that Kant believes the more perfect the rationality, the more good the individual’s will is likely to be.

            The will is the ability to make a conscious choice for a reasoned purpose (volition), and a good will chooses as its purpose the fulfillment of universal duties when there are inclinations to not act according to these duties.  Kant has claimed, as natural law, that mankind’s reasoned purpose ought to be morality, as he sees it, by acting in ways that are void of inclination and in ways that if all rational creatures acted in similar fashion there would be a “Kingdom of Ends,” or a Rousseau-like utopia where everyone knows and adheres to the (moral) general will, flourishing in commodious peace and harmony.  But that particular end cannot be the reason for any action, not even for striving to eliminate those inclinations that would inhibit bringing about such an end even though Kant claims we must attempt to be wholly without them.  Apparently we have an imperfect moral duty of self-perfection to eliminate all inclinations that put us at risk of not acting according to moral law, and Kant supports this belief with his snippets of scripture; the divine commands are, “Be holy,” “Be perfect!” and, “If there is any virtue, if there is any praise, aspire to it.”  Kant has taken one aspect of what constitutes the whole of humanity, reason, and has decided it must be the foundation for a moral theory.  He did not choose love, or empathy, or kinship, or self-preservation, or desires for power or indolence, or any other of the numerous traits that when agglomerated make up what I believe to be the whole of what is called humanity.  I personally see no particular reason that man’s unique (as far as we know) ability to reason should be more valued than other traits, or should serve as a foundation for a moral theory in place of any of the other traits.  Not only did Kant choose reason above the rest, as previously mentioned, he urges the removal of inclinations altogether.  I think his wish for man to be wholly without inclinations would tend to make humans less than human and remove their humanity, or at least cripple it and deform it to the point of being unrecognizable.
            Kant is likely to disagree with how I view humanity in this case.  Perhaps he would state that humanity is really not all of the traits, and more, that I have referred to, but instead is nothing more than the presence of rationality regardless of any other traits that may or may not be present, and it is this rationality that defines humanity and makes it necessary to treat the possessing “person” as an end in himself.  This would mean, according to Kant, that a creature with the traits I am referring to, without rationality, would be a “thing” unworthy of being treated as an end in itself, and he does state as much at one point of the writing.  Perhaps Kant would also urge me to read other writings of his where he elaborated on the specific differences between inclinations, desires, and emotions.  I think he would have to admit that he did not do a good job of differentiating them in this particular piece, and that sometimes things get lost in translation.  Kant would probably tell me that he used humanity in reference to other imperfectly rational beings and it is implied that perfectly rational beings, with or without the characteristics present which I would deem necessary to possess humanity, must also be treated in the same manner as universal law dictates we treat imperfectly rational beings, though in this case it would not be because of their humanity (which Kant may or may not say they possess), but because of their perfectly rational nature.     
     In closing, and on a personal note; Kant is slippery! Just when I think I’ve grasped a given concept it slips beyond my understanding as soon as I see related concepts and try to tie them all together. This rewrite forced me to look more fully into the self-development section of the piece, where Kant makes a good case for humanity, including all the messiness I believe is inherent in humanity. However, he is able to somehow slip around the imperfect duty of eliminating inclinations by allowing for each individual’s reasoning to be used to find a sort of Aristotelian balance between perfect rationality and the more animalistic and emotional aspects that make us human. The end result of Kant’s allowance for and understanding of humanity in general is what leads to his “kingdom of ends” where people are free to seek a reasonable, autonomous end for themselves within society. Also, I know I’m verbose, but to fully explain what I think Kant is saying and to state with clarity and detail what I’m thinking in response to him does NOT lend itself to a mere four pages. As far as the title goes…no, Kant is not a piss-ant as Monty Python claims, but he is slippery as an eel!

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