The Slavery of Kant’s Maxim

Kant’s Maxim is well known in philosophy – perhaps one of the most well known maxims in philosophy, in fact. Roger Scruton calls the moral philosophy within which the maxim fits ‘one of the most beautiful creations the human mind has ever devised’, (‘Modern Philosophy’, p. 286). And yet, despite the liberating intentions of the maxim, a strong case can be made for the idea that the maxim is a slave-master more than a liberator.

The maxim itself is a short one: ‘Act only on that maxim which you can will as a law for all rational beings.’ Our actions refer to reason alone, discounting any and all empirical considerations. This is how Kant derives the universal validity of his maxim such that by doing what reason demands of us we are doing something that is binding on all rational beings.

‘The demand of reason is a demand that I respect reason – that I allow reason the final say in my decisions. This means respecting reason not only in myself, but also in others. All rational beings have a claim to my respect, and this too is a fundamental axiom of morality. I cannot override another’s reason, as though it counted for nothing. I must try to persuade him, to secure his rational consent for those projects in which we are engaged together.’ (‘Modern Philosophy’, p. 285)

Kant’s moral philosophy presupposes freedom in order to make sense of our fundamental moral intuitions, the most important of which is the idea that something ought to be done – call this ‘duty’. Contained within the idea of duty is the idea of being able to fulfill it. Etienne Gilson notes how this leads to positing some difficult ideas in Kant’s moral theory:

‘Now, to be able to determine oneself according to a certain law is to be free. Consequently, freedom must be presupposed as a property of the will of all rational beings. Moreover, since man is not free as a member of the world of sense, it is to be supposed that man, as a moral agent, is a member of another world, purely intelligible, where no sensible motives can interfere with the exigencies of morality. We are thereby confronted with the necessity of accepting, as inseparably connected with practical reason, certain theoretical positions wholly “withdrawn from any possible insight of speculative reason.” The will to act from pure respect for duty postulates the possibility of a perfect moral order; if that order is impossible in this life, it has to be possible in another; hence the soul is immortal. Again, such a perfect moral life, undisturbed by the ceaseless strife between reason and sensibility, must needs possess happiness – happiness, not as the end of morality, but flowing from it. And what is moral law as cause of eternal happiness if not God? Thus God is posited by practical reason, which means that reason has to posit His existence, although speculative, or theoretical reason can know nothing about it.’ (Etienne Gilson, ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’, pp. 188-189)

The difficulties that arise as a result of these postulations are well-known, but the most obvious is that when taken to their conclusion, Kant ends up with a picture of man torn between living in the order of nature and in the order of morality, since both orders are, as Gilson notes, bound to the same man.

The most severe difficulty, though, is that in trying to preserve a freedom for man to act rationally, Kant ends up a victim of dogmatic (in the worst sense) theology, forced by his own morality to postulate things for which there can be no reason other than necessity to believe in.

‘Failing a rational justification of morality, and granting that morality is inseparable from human life, there is nothing else to do but take morality as a self-justifying fact. But when morality does not flow from what we know, it becomes free to prescribe for us what we ought to believe…having refused to hold metaphysical conclusions on metaphysical grounds, Kant had been necessarily dragged from metaphysics, to ethics, and from ethics to theology.’ (‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’, pp. 187-191)

Thus, by attempting to derive a universal morality grounded in pure reason alone acted on in freedom, Kant, by way of his maxim, is the victim of dogmatism. Such is the slavery of Kant’s maxim.

Virtue, Narrative, and the Moral Identity

Virtue ethics and narrative ethics (or, more accurately, narrative approaches to ethics) have both made something of a comeback in modern moral philosophy, with many ethicists and moral philosophers claiming that virtue ethics simply make more sense in the modern than, say, ethical theories built on laws and duties. Narrative ethics, with its more psychological approach to understanding the self and moral action, also seems to make a good deal of sense with its grammar of self-actualization and elevation of the history of the self as constitutive of the whole person.

Both approaches tend to focus on character and dispositions as being of prime importance. Narrative ethics see the unfolding of the moral life as coherent only within a narrative framework – that is, only within a framework where a history is seen as an account of a series of temporally connected events. The immediate result of this is, as noted above, a kind of psycholog-ization of ethics. The narrative concept of the self is fundamentally subjective – the self is seen as constituted primarily by this history, a history constructed in the form of personal narrative.

Virtue ethics tends towards the less psychological, focusing more on ‘how to be’, which though at first glance also seems to invite psychologism is a more objective approach, since the virtues that the person seems to acquire are, generally and broadly speaking, objective kinds of things. Honesty, justice, courage are all things that we, as virtuous people, should strive to acquire regardless of our personal narratives – our disposition, habits and desires should be educated so that we desire and acquire the virtues.

These are rough sketches but serve well enough for me to note the strengths and weaknesses of each before attempting a synthesis of the two. Narrative approaches to ethics highlight the very important role that narrative plays in our thinking and in our life – our actions, habits and dispositions are all temporally connected and when viewed in this light our moral lives acquire a kind of meaning that cannot be had by thinking of moral actions as isolated, atomistic things. We can trace the developments of virtues, vices and character in a narrative framework and can easily see the impact of our choices and actions. The weakness here lies in the conception of the self as constituted by a narrative history when it can be strongly argued that our narratives selves are far more often than not smokescreen of self deception.

Virtue ethics showcase strongly how we should be – we should strive to be virtuous. However, the theory can falter in a few telling ways one of which is as follows – how do we prioritise the virtues? Suppose we have to choose between A and B where A is honest but unkind and B is kind but dishonest – both actions are virtuous, but to simply assert that we must act virtuous gives us no answer and leads to either infinite regress or appealing to something outside the framework of virtues. Thus, a pure or radical virtue ethic cannot be the whole story – we need something outside the virtue framework to really give it coherence.

Here I would offer a possible theory that may be a step forward: consider virtue ethics and narrative ethics as ethics of action and ethics of identity, respectively. Virtue ethics tells us how we should be, and we achieve that through action, through habit and actually doing whatever virtuous thing is at hand. Narrative ethics gives a framework for articulating the unfolding of our actions and their consequences. Virtue ethics, then, shows us how we should be and how we can achieve that, while narrative ethics gives us a grammar for articulating it.

Put another way, the essence of the moral identity is fundamentally found in action which unfolds and is primarily understood in a narrative form.

What this ‘theory’ avoids is the psychologism of normal narrative approaches by focusing not on the narrative of the inner life as constitutive of the self and determinative of the moral identity but rather focusing on the actions as constituting the self. Character is shaped and developed by action and is therefore primarily (but not exclusively) public. The inner narrative can be checked, as it were, against the character displayed in the moral actions constituting the essence of the moral identity.

By locating the essence of the moral identity in our public actions, we have de-psychologized the narrative approach while retaining its fundamental insight, and by retaining this fundamental insight have given a grammar to the ethics of virtue.

More Notes on Augustine’s Ethics

– Nicholas Wolterstorff charts a transition in Augstine’s though – a movement from roughly Platonic/neo-Platonic ideas of ascent and hatred towards this-worldly goods and relationships to an moral vision much more informed by Biblical ideas.

Reading Wolterstorff’s treatment of Augustine in Justice: Rights and Wrongs, I’m struck by how much Augustine modifies and breaks the ancient eudaimonism – while God alone will fail to disappoint love, our mutable neighbours are, in fact, love and disturbance-worthy, while locating the much sought after tranquility in the life of the world to come. To quote Wolterstorff, in this life, love trumps tranquility.

An example:

Augustine never loses the idea of tranquility or happiness being that which we should strive for – he holds that along with the various pagan schools quite firmly. What he does, however, is to modify and in some cases break away from the eudaimonism of those schools. His idea of tranquility becomes grounded not in an ascent to the heavens but in the eschatology of the life to come – we are not to seek tranquility among the evils and miseries of the world but to acknowledge these evils, and, in his most dramatic break with the eudaimonistic traditions, be compassionate towards others, feel sorrow, joy, and anger for people and events. To do otherwise is to deny our created nature.

– Augustine’s emphasis on compassion is probably the most non-eudaimonistic aspect of his ethical and moral thought – compassion being a profoundly kenotic kind of thing, opposed to eudaimonism and certainly opposed to (explicitly so) the Stoic conception of ethics:

‘Unlike such emotions as fear and grief, it (compassion) does not have a eudaimonistic basis. Because it does not presuppose any investment in the well-being of the other, it cannot have as its basis the perceived or threatened impairment of one’s investment. On being moved to compassion, the (Good) Samaritan proceeded to care for the man in the ditch; he invested himself in his recovery. The compassion evoked the care, the investment, not the other way around.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, p. 218)

Quick Notes on Augustine’s Critique of Pagan Ethics

– Reading on Augustine’s ethics in the ‘Cambridge Companion to Augustine’ has been very enjoyable – it certainly has put to rest any idea that Augustine was a dualist of any stripe. Augustine firmly believes that this-worldly goods are, in fact, good – and that sometimes, the delight we get from them exceed any kind of practical or instrumental value. Some things, for Augustine, are just delightful because they’re delightful.

– His engagement with Epicurean/Stoic ethics is interesting. He essentially takes the view of the Stoics to be absurd – he simply cannot see how anyone can truly be happy while, say, being tortured on the rack. If anyone says or thinks they are, Augustine simply declares that they are simply wrong or in thrall to an ideology. When it comes to Epicurean ethics, it’s a bit more detailed – he argues that on the Epicurean conception of happiness (as he understands it) that immortality is required to be ultimately happy, on the grounds that, since we have to be alive to be happy, more life = more happiness. But, as Martha Nussbaum notes, true pleasure for the Epicureans is not additive – i.e. having it for longer or having more of it does not make it better.

‘Epicurus insists on this: when once ataraxia (tranquility) and aponia (absence of pain, trouble, etc) are attained, the agent is at the top of his life, and nothing – not even prolongnation or repition of the same – can add to the sum of her pleasures.’ (Martha Nussbaum, ‘The Therapy of Desire’, p. 212)

– So it seems that he somewhat misunderstands the Epicurean conception of happiness

Short Ramble on Meta-Ethics

I’m not really confident in the application of analytic philosophy to the realm of ethics/moral philosophy. Consider non-cognitivism, which states that moral utterances have no truth-value. The opposite of this would be cognitivism, which states that moral utterances do in fact have truth-values (basically).

Both of these hinge on a common assumption in contemporary philosophy – that for something to be true it must be a proposition. If something isn’t a proposition, it has no truth value – moral utterances do not assert propositions, ergo, no truth-value and hence no moral knowledge can be had. This all hinges on various developments in philosophy in the 20th century (Frege, Russell, etc), so there’s a lot going on in the background here. Most of the time knowledge tends to be thought of in the ‘knowing-that’ sense.

So in a nutshell, moral knowledge can’t be had, because moral utterances can’t be true, because moral utterances don’t assert propositions, and you can’t know something that isn’t true.

It seems a bit odd to restrict knowledge to such a tight scheme, though. I mean, it seems that we know lots of things that aren’t strictly propositional – intuition of course can be very wrong about things though. But a more concrete example could be Polanyi’s tacit knowledge – non-propositional, non-codify-able, knowledge. ‘We know more than we can tell.’ Sure, this isn’t ‘known’ in the same sense as a proposition with a truth-value, but I can’t really see that too much follows from that (unless such knowledge is thought to be the only kind that matters, I guess). Interestingly enough, Polanyi investigates formal propositional logic and concludes that the tacit element is present even there. If that’s true, then maybe strict logic can’t completely meet the standards set by non-cognitivism. If we can only know something which is true, and the only things that can be true (have a truth-value) are propositions, and if there is a tacit (non-formal, non-codify-able) element in propositions, then it seems that there’s a bit of an awkward problem.

But that was a bit far afield – my basic point is that, granting that ethical ideas don’t assert propositions, based on the above considerations it doesn’t seem to follow that moral knowledge can’t be had. Maybe I’m on to something here, maybe not.

Thought Notes 9/22/2014

A significant but overlooked contributor to the topic of justification in Paul is Nicholas Wolterstorff, whose roughly forty page discussion in his book ‘Justice in Love’ is just outstanding, focusing on the traditional medieval definition of the ‘dik’ words as ‘justice’. He fleshes out the content of Gods covenant and the justice thereof to a degree not really seen in a lot of discussions on the subject. Locating the topic of justice within the broader picture of God’s covenant faithfulness is a good way to advance the debate on Paul’s thought. Here’s a great review/interaction of/with the book. To quote from the review:

‘Whereas, for Wright, what is revealed in God’s justification of the Gentiles is his “covenant faithfulness,” for Wolterstorff it is God’s “justice”: not the “mere fact” of covenant fidelity but its substantive content.’

I continue to think on the nature of civil government, war, etc within the context of Christian theology. Wolterstorff makes a great point (somewhere, not exactly sure where off the top of my head) that government is essentially a rights-respecting entity (Wolterstorff thinks of rights as inherent). This allows for the state to ‘wield the sword’, to paraphrase the book of Romans, in the service of rights-defense.

I go back and forth on how important I think secondary sources are in philosophy/theology. I like sticking to primary sources myself. I haven’t read lots of commentaries on various philosophers and their thought – and all too often it seems that reading a secondary source is required to really understand said philosopher.

Here’s a comment I wrote regarding the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. It’s kind of a quick overview.

‘Kant was a transcendental idealist. His entire project was to overcome what he saw as the weaknesses of the dominant positions in epistemology, empiricism, where all knowledge comes thru the senses, and rationalism, where all knowledge is a priori. He also developed the analytic/synthetic distinction in a posteriori/a priori knowledge, which has been further developed by Saul Kripke into the necessary a posteriori and contingent a piori, and rejected by W.V.O. Quine. Kant’s project here was to figure out what the mind must be like for us to have any experience at all – which lead to his famous idealism, where he posits causality, space and time as constructions of the mind as well as his phenomenal/noumenal distinction.

His ethic is called the categorical imperative, which can be summed up in his famous maxim about acting in such a way that can be universalized as a moral law for all people. His ethics stem from his attempt to figure out how to make sense of our moral experience – its not too far removed from his method in epistemology. We have this inescapable sense of right and wrong, of duty, the sense of ‘ought’. Thru a long process I won’t go into here, Kant postulates
both freedom and God as necessary conditions for this experience of our moral life.

The categorical imperative derives from his grounding morality in reason alone – ethical reasoning for Kant cannot be derived from empirical data. Once you do this, that is once you discount the empirical, your moral reasoning is grounded in pure reason alone and hence is universal and hence binding on everyone else. Hence why Kant was able to assert that lying, for example, is always wrong.’

A lot of discourse in the area of ethics and moral philosophy (at least since Moore, Russell, et al) seems to try and use the tools of analytic philosophy to derive ethical truths (using ‘truths’ loosely). I’m not really sure how sympathetic I am to this approach. It appears rather unwise to use analytic tools to solve existential problems, and ethics is nothing if not existential.

Ethical Notes

– Being a Christian, my ethical approach takes on a decidedly (obviously enough) Christian tone . I generally fall within the virtue ethics camp – I think that the moral character of a person, specifically an ethicist, is of huge importance (though I’m predominantly influenced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer). While anyone can utter correct moral tidbits (a murderer can tell you not to murder, and it’s still sound advice despite the status of the person uttering it), when one attempts to articulate a comprehensive moral way of life, surely their character must be taken into account.

– Christian ethicists have an even stricter standard – or at least I think they should. When a Christian ethicist lives in a way that is profoundly at odds with the doctrines and values they preach, while not invalidating the truth of what they say in a strictly logical sense (again, someone can say something true even if they don’t follow it themselves) that is serious cause to stop and reflect on whether or not they are a good source to be drawing ethical ideas from.

– To repeat: whether someone is of impeccable character or not doesn’t logically invalidate the truth of what they may say, but behaviour and action do provide a window to the heart, which, for the Christian, is ultimately the most important part of the person as a whole.

– The basis of Christian ethics is the invalidation of the knowledge of good and evil (Bonhoeffer) – hence the importance of the heart in ethics and by extension the importance of character and action as well.