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I would hope that any philosopher occupying the zeitgeist of the twenty-first century would already be keenly aware that the influence and utility of the philosophy of the past does not extend beyond the second half of the nineteenth century. But for the scholar or student, the past and its historicity is always worth one’s time and study. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is one of the towering figures within the philosophy of the past three centuries, and this tends to make him one of the philosophers guaranteed to be studied in undergraduate philosophy classes. Because of this and owing to the fact that I am a philosopher who has not matriculated to academia for my education or insight, I felt a little impelled to share some of my thoughts on this man and I wish to accomplish this task by focusing on Kant’s ethical system for a modest analysis.
Before one can examine Kant’s place within the sphere of German philosophy and the Aufklarung, one must first view him within the total compass of the history of occidental philosophy. Kant’s insight flows directly from the work of the British Empiricists, most notably (by Kant’s own admission) from the work of David Hume. For me, Hume thoroughly destroyed what remained of the ontological argument in the first half of the eighteenth century. Kant’s contribution to this cause was to make it ineluctable to deny the fatuity of the ontological argument by means of appeals to reason and the post-Newtonian scientific method, and he achieved this feat all the while reviling against Hume’s perfected Pyrrhonism. And in the purview of this current analysis one will find that while examining Kant’s entire corpus of work, it can be easily and defensibly asserted that a possible purpose behind his three Critiques was to lay down the groundwork for him to be able to try and construct an ethical basis and reasoning which would in turn supply the proof for god’s existence where the merely ontic could not. To put it another way, Kant assumed that if he was able to place reason in a well constructed and delineated box that this action would in turn leave room for faith in human existence even if science indicated otherwise. His attempt at this argument is to be found in what I regard as his ultimate work, not to mention his most mature, that being Religion Innerhalb der Grenzen der Blossen Vernunft, or Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793).
In light of Christian doctrine and theism in general, this attempt at a heteronomous reasoning of ethics, or as Kant might have put it using his concept of the Categorical Imperative free ethical determinism (I hope you see the contradiction here), was chimerical as well as fallacious. His main failure and folly was in refusing to acknowledge the non sequitur in reasoning that is found in the contention that heteronomy and autonomy can co-exist while simultaneously trying to conflate these two very disparate concepts. The other great flaw in Kant’s thought was his refusal to question or critique his main ethical assumption that there not only exists a transcendent moral realm but that values and judgments can be known from this realm a priori. These are just a couple of the many flaws in his ethics as a system, but I wish to focus more on his ethical insight which does in fact have value in the historic sense of the word.
Kant’s main contribution to ethics which can be culled from his Religion, is an intense and in depth inquiry into free will and its moral consequences. Kant clearly understood that personal responsibility has to be the axiomatic basis for ethical reasoning. This conception is what I feel is the most valuable and irrefragable in Kant’s ethics and is what bridges him in between Spinoza and the Utilitarians. Nonetheless, Kant’s use of the concepts of Wille and Willkur to explain the function of free will is a notion that is now rather antiquated, especially in view of modern cognitive science and psychiatry. The insights into our nature and behavior that these sciences now give us render all past philosophic inquiries into these subjects atavistic and this judgement is the least that could be said. Just imagine how Kantian ethics would be different if he had known about the existence of sociopaths and psychopaths, the people for whom the religious have no explanation for (according to them, man is made in the image of god?), but then again how could they?
The other essential element to Kant’s Religion is his exploration into the evil in human nature. Kant never strayed far from the Platonic concept of the inherent virtuous nature of man but he also freely acknowledged the inherent wickedness found in human behavior. Kant saw that the human disposition could produce evil intent and action but that there was no possible way for a human to be pure evil. If we take into account that the ideations of good and evil that Kant used are theistic in origin, we can at least find in the Religion the recognition that humans are not really truly virtuous or wicked but instead as Kant states, morally grey and ambiguous. His attempt to explain this phenomena was to gradate human character based on wickedness, impurity, weakness, and virtue–adherence to moral duty or deontological ethics–yet he always maintained some form of moral absolutes in his conception of free will. At all times Kant tried to maintain in his system the inherent autonomy found in human will but also simultaneously tried to maintain a transcendental causality or heteronomy in human behavior which contradicted his conceptions of Wille and Willkur being intrinsically free. He would have had to do this in order to maintain his attempt at an ethical grounding which could in turn prove the existence of god. Kant’s escape route from all of these rhetorical loose ends and contradictions was a concept that he had introduced in his first Critique, that being the-thing-in-itself. The idea that there is knowledge or awareness that our consciousness will never have access to is not in and of itself tangential thought by any means but when it is used as a means to justify an argument, it then becomes rhetorically unscrupulous and undignified for any deep thinker such as Kant.
In the end, Kant was such an exemplary practitioner of the dialectic and self-criticism that towards the end of his life he at least admitted to the inconclusive nature of his ethics. What he did not fess up to was his failure to show that ethics was a verifiable means with which to demonstrate the existence of a deity. I find this ironic because Kant clearly understood and states in his Religion that the Christian idea of vicarious atonement was and is intrinsically immoral and runs counter to the nature of freedom. He was well aware that one person, no matter how ostensibly virtuous, can not edulcorate another’s sin nor abolish their responsibility, but this concept is central to Christian doctrine. Since I see Kant’s Religion as less about religion than it is about ethics, the fact that Kant was only able to be apophatic in his attempt at a proof for god’s existence is a irony that I must admit brings a smile and bit of frisson every time I think about it. After all, this is just another example of the never ending supply of folly to be found in all theology.
Since the point of this inquiry was to put forth a rhetorical exercise into the value of Kantian ethics, I hope I have adequately made the case that there is still didactic value to be found in this endeavor. In terms of the practicality and utility of Kant’s philosophy to everyday life (the test of value for all philosophies), it is negligible at best, like most philosophy of the past. But the study of his thought process and dialectic endeavors is and will probably be for all time, roborant to any study and not just of philosophy.
This is an interesting exploration of Kantian Ethics, although I personally feel that the most distinctive aspect of Kant’s moral system is his emphasis on deontological principles, rather than consequentialist reasoning – something which is perhaps highly applicable in this day and age where we are often willing to fudge the boundaries of right and wrong and are more susceptible to moral subjectivism and moral relativism.
I myself lean more to the side of subjectivism, but I do believe that Kant’s emphasis on rationality and the cognitive self (as encapsulated by his Categorical Imperative) harbours some important lessons for our understanding of what it mean to be human.