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Kant & Co.

Having Trouble With Kant?

Peter Rickman says you’re not the only one.

A competitor on a BBC quiz show thought that Immanuel Kant was a football player. As a layman he can be forgiven; even if philosophy were more widely taught in schools, it would probably not include Kant for kids. It is harder to forgive those who teach philosophy, yet getting Kant wrong is something a surprising number of eminent philosophers do, and sometimes in interesting ways.

The late Anthony Quinton is an outstanding example. Having been a fellow of several Oxford colleges, President of Trinity College and President of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, he was clearly part of the UK’s philosophical establishment. He was the author of several philosophy books, and a life peer. In the very first sentence of an article ‘The Trouble With Kant’ published in the journal Philosophy in January 1997, Lord Quinton claimed that the fundamental trouble is that Kant is “a wild and intellectually irresponsible” arguer. This is a strong claim, particularly as Coleridge once described reading Kant “as if being gripped by a giant’s hand” and Goethe compared it to “walking into a lighted room.” True, these were poets, but they were considerable thinkers as well. Quinton found that “none of the commentators of Kant that [he had] read drew attention to [a] radical weakness in Kant.” He drew some reassurance from there not being any Kantians – which would only be true if one meant by this term a philosopher who accepted every word of the master. In that case there would be no Platonists or Aristotelians either. But, of course, German Idealism, Neo-Kantianism, Phenomenology, Logical Positivism etc, were all profoundly influenced by Kant. In fact, as Cassirer said, to account for the influence of Kant is to write a history of modern philosophy. At the end of his article Quinton admitted that Kant is a great philosopher and also expressed some tentative doubts: “Am I making a complete fool of myself? Have I fundamentally misinterpreted his meaning?” he asks. Sadly the answer is emphatically “Yes.” So what was this radical weakness that Quinton thought he detected in Kant, and why was he wrong? To understand that, let’s take a brief look at Kant’s metaphysics.

Kant’s Epistemology

Kant’s ‘transcendental idealism’ is his theory that the human mind itself imposes the forms of our experience onto the information given to us through our senses. To order this raw information into anything meaningful we need concepts such as space, time and causality, fundamental organising principles of thought which are not themselves derived from experience but which are necessary for us to experience objects at all. Unlike his idealist successor, Hegel, or for that matter Schopenhauer, Kant refused to speculate on what ultimate reality was like when not becoming part of our mind-constructed experience.

Kant offered his transcendental idealism to account more modestly than, for example, rationalism, for particular types of certainties called a priori certainties (ie, things that we know without having to look at the world, or as a matter of pure logic). Geometry is a good example. The specific arrangement of the colours of coloured rings within a circle is purely a matter of observation; but we know a priori that an outer ring will be larger than an inner ring. Similarly, we only learn from experience what causes what, but for Kant we do not acquire the notion of causality itself by induction (that is, from experiencing repeated regularities). Instead, the notion of causality is presupposed in all our thinking. If my car fails to move or my foot hurts, I look for a cause; and if someone says “Perhaps there is no cause” then although ignorant of motor mechanics or medicine, I would reply, “But there must be a cause.” Kant’s transcendental deductions in The Critique of Pure Reason (1781) claim to show that the forms of ‘intuitions’ (what we might call ‘experiences’), the ‘categories’ [of how the mind shapes thought], and the knowing ‘I’, are necessary conditions of our knowing the world at all.

Quinton asserts that Kant’s transcendental idealism – his idea of the ordering of sense data by the mind – would make experience arbitrary. Quinton accepts such Kantian doctrines as that time and space are ‘empirically real’, as Kant would put it (meaning that we can only ever experience in terms of space and time), and that form and content cannot be separated. He also appreciates that Kant treated time and space and the categories of thought as transcendentally ideal – as part of our mind’s ordering of the world for experience. However, he begins to go wrong when he argues that “It is not easy to see how one could make a spatial arrangement out of items which are, themselves, not spatial.” If by ‘items’ he simply means objects in the empirically real world of our ordinary experience, he is, of course, absolutely right, and this matches Kant’s view. If, however, he has some metaphysical hankering for an ultimate reality outside the terms of our experience which matches the objects as we experience them, and criticises Kant for denying such a world, he has missed the point. Kant does not claim that the world in itself (ie beyond our experience of it) consists of non-spatial items, because he unambiguously insists that it is nonsensical to attribute characteristics we experience such as ‘spatial’ or ‘non-spatial’, to something lying outside of experience. We cannot step outside of our human perspective to see what lies outside it.

At the heart of Quinton’s trouble lies a failure to be clear about Kant’s distinction between the ‘transcendental’ and the ‘empirical’. The confusion is not his alone, and is worth dispelling. In Kant’s terminology, the ‘empirical world’ is the world we know, both in everyday and scientific terms. Kant thought philosophy could be brought into disrepute if it were to throw doubt on everyday knowledge or the results of genuine science. Thus, a ‘transcendental enquiry’, such as Kant was engaged in, does not seek a contrary type of knowledge of the world, but rather, seeks knowledge about knowledge. So a transcendental enquiry is a ‘second level’ investigation of things ­– an investigation of what is involved or presupposed in our knowledge of the world. Only this type of investigation can be the proper job of the epistemologist. However, it is not idle speculation, but has practical significance: a clearer understanding of what is involved in knowing provides us with criteria for what constitutes genuine knowledge. Some years ago the American TV show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In brilliantly made this point. At the beginning of the show a man, when asked why he thought some knowledge was unreliable, answered, “I feel it in my bones.” Near the end of the episode the same man, asked why he thought he was developing arthritis, replied, “I feel it in my bones.” It is clear that in the first case there is no acceptable evidence for his beliefs, while in the second there is.

Kant’s critical philosophy – his transcendental idealism – offers justification of our claims to knowledge by spelling out its nature, range and limitations. By showing that and how our knowing is confined to the human perspective, it rejects both radical scepticism and the arrogant claims of metaphysicians to lift the veil from ultimate reality. Of course, any philosophical system can be criticised, but it should be clear that a criticism of Kant’s metaphysics based on a failure to distinguish what we know from how we know it, is condemned to futility.

Kant’s Moral Philosophy

Kant’s influential moral philosophy has at times caused analogous confusion. Kant’s famous ‘categorical imperative’ is that we should not subscribe to any principle of action (or ‘maxim’) unless we could will it to be a universal law. His second formulation of this imperative is that we should treat other people as ends in themselves and not merely as means to our own ends.

Over the years various people concerned with moral philosophy have expressed worries and disagreements regarding Kant’s ethical system (a good introduction to which is his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785). Probably the oldest and most widespread is the accusation that Kant took a negative attitude to feelings, even those of sympathy, pity or friendship. Another criticism is that Kant’s ethics is entirely about motives and not actions. A third criticism, fairly recently articulated by Geoffrey Scarre but referring back to MacIntyre, questioned Kant’s ‘universalising of maxims principle’. Fourthly there is the question whether the universality of such Kantian principles as ‘All lying is wrong’ can be sustained in the face of such familiar cases as the mad axe murderer looking for his victim [on this, see also p.23 of this issue]. Finally in my list, is scepticism about the logical derivation of Kant’s categorical imperative, as spelled out by J.J. Kupperman. I believe that there are perfectly good defences against all these criticisms.

Kant’s view about feelings certainly needs clarifying. He argued that only a basis in reason could justify the commonsense belief that morality is not purely subjective, based only on feelings, but is something we can reason about. If our moral sense were based merely on feelings, it would not only vary from person to person – just as some gentlemen prefer blondes and others don’t – but could also vary within a person according to his state of health and experiences. However, Kant did consider feelings such as sympathy, affection and the like morally valuable, and, indeed, said they were needed to counterbalance selfish feelings that pulled against the call of duty. What is frequently misunderstood is a purely epistemological point, about what we can know. Kant said that it was difficult, if not impossible, to gauge our own motives – it is only too easy to think that we are acting from (moral) duty, when in fact we’re prompted by vanity or ambition. Kant’s sensible suggestion, therefore, was that we are more likely acting from duty when we dislike what we are doing. This does not however mean that we need to dislike or be indifferent to what we are doing in order to be moral.

The belief that Kantian morality is merely about motives and not actions is a relatively simple misunderstanding. It is true that doing the right thing for the wrong reason, ie for a non-moral reason, makes it a non-moral action. You can claim no moral credit for helping someone merely in the hope of gaining a favour in return. However, the right motive may be a necessary, but it is not a sufficient condition of morality. To Kant our motives must imply the utmost endeavour to actually achieve what we consider is right – which demands action, or restraint from action.

The charge that it is nonsensical to try to ‘universalise all maxims’ (as Kant maintains is a necessary aspect of morality) derives from a misunderstanding of what Kant means by a ‘maxim’. His critics assume that, when Kant defined, in a footnote, a maxim as a ‘principle of action’, it covered such choices as ‘I shall always shop on Tuesday mornings’ – but that same footnote makes it clear that a maxim is confined to ‘a practical rule determined by reason’. The decision when to shop is clearly not something like that; and it is no argument against Kant that to universalise such an arbitrary choice would not only be absurd but counterproductive. Maxims, in Kant’s sense, are imperatives; and Kant makes a further distinction to avoid the absurdity of which he is charged: the distinction between hypothetical and categorical imperatives. The former, hypothetical type of imperative depends on a condition. If I say “Take an umbrella” its authority rests on the implied, “If you don’t want to get wet” just as “Don’t have another drink,” is underpinned by, “If you are to avoid drunken driving.” Kant makes it crystal clear that if you remove the condition – if you don’t mind getting wet – there remains no force in a hypothetical imperative, so again, to universalise such a maxim would be nonsensical. However, there remain the categorical imperatives, which derive their authority from reason itself (more about this presently); and the only thing reason abstracted from actual information about specific conditions can command is consistency. This is why the universality criterion can be used here.

We come next to the vexing problem of telling the truth to the axe murderer. The axeman knocks at our front door and, with a mad gleam in his eye, asks if his intended victim is inside. Should we answer truthfully that he is, or should we lie? Could we perhaps rephrase the principle concerned into ‘truth telling is usually right’ or, ‘truth telling is right unless there are compelling reasons against it’? Kant would claim – and is he not right? – that these formulations do not sound like moral principles. Furthermore, as Kant argues forcefully, these formulations would undermine the credibility of all communication. No-one would know when there was a good reason for lying, and so when they were being lied to.

So do we have to abandon the axeman’s intended victim to his fate? Here we need to make a point clearly stated by Kant himself, and distinguish between general principles, and their application in concrete, individual cases. One cannot emphasise enough that general principles – whether those formulated by Kant, or Aristotle, or enshrined in the Bible – cannot lift the burden of personal judgement from individuals. You cannot feed your principles into a computer and just press a button. Every actual case has unique features to be taken into account.

We can be a little more specific about such choices. Staying with the axe murderer, it should be plain that more than one imperative/moral principle is relevant to the situation. Certainly we should tell the truth; but do we not also have a duty to protect an innocent man from harm? Further, do we not have an obligation to fight evil? We are confronted with a conflict of values here. Unfortunately, as far as I know, there is no explicit discussion of this issue in Kant. One could assume, however, that his general approach of distinguishing the lesser from the greater evil should be applied. I think Kant might say that although lying is never right, it might be the lesser evil in some cases.

The Logic of Kant’s Morality

I turn finally to Professor Kupperman’s case against Kant’s moral system. He claims from the very beginning of his article ‘A Messy Derivation of the Categorical Imperative’ (Philosophy, Vol.77, no.302, 2002) that Kant has provided no reason-based derivation of his categorical imperative. I am puzzled by Kupperman’s failure to see the logical grounding of Kant’s case, because I am not aware of any gap in it, as I read the stages of Kant’s exposition – as follows:

1. The commonsense view that there are moral imperatives which are not purely subjective and can be reasonably discussed presupposes a rational grounding for those imperatives. Knowledge of the facts, although indispensable, is therefore not enough, and feelings cannot provide a reliable basis, for they are subjective and may even change within a person through changing circumstances.

2. So if reason as a guide to action (ie, practical reason) is to be a necessary presupposition of genuine morality, what guidance can it offer? Once we have taken away any guidelines rooted not in reason but in human nature or in the nature of the world (which would be guidelines based on facts rather than reason), only one imperative (the categorical), based on the nature of reason itself, remains. This is: be consistent!

3. Such an imperative does not tell you what to do – just as ‘be logical!’ does not tell you what to say in an article. It can only act as a criterion for any principle of action you are considering. Like its traditional popular equivalent formulations, such as ‘Do unto others…’ or ‘What’s sauce for the goose…’, it just insists on impartiality, or fairness. It is breached if you want to make an exception for yourself or a special group of people.

4. Good will, that is, a will determined by practical reason, is the only thing good without qualification. To creatures such as us, who are not purely rational, this imperative presents itself as a duty. All this, according to Kant, is implied in our taking morality seriously. To Kant, the capacity to legislate for our actions by the reason within us makes us free and distinguishes human beings from everything else in the world, which is governed instead by external laws – as we too are when we simply follow our instincts. Rather, this freedom, the capacity to act morally, gives us dignity, and makes us deserving of respect.

5. Because making free choices guided by reason is good without qualification, a version of the categorical imperative tells us not to prevent the exercise of such free choices in any rational being – as long as they do not interfere with the choices of others. This is Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative in the second Critique, which bids us to treat humanity, in ourselves and others, as an end and never as a mere means.

All this is clearly not Kant’s random invention, but spells out – as in his other Critiques – what is implied in beliefs we take for granted. It strikes me as a coherent argument. Where are the logical gaps in his argument here?

© Prof. Peter Rickman 2011

Peter Rickman was for many years head of the (now-closed) philosophy unit at City University in London.

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