Kant and Morality

Kant and Morality – Howard Adelman 26.01.2013

1. Is Block’s interpretation of Kant’s categorical imperative correct, namely that there are propositions universal in their application to all humans absolutely?

Kant’s categorical imperatives are universal a priori propositions. That means they are not drawn from experience and are universal whether or not they apply in experience. Further, for Kant, they are a priori necessary conditions for having any moral sense whatsoever and that is what makes them universal moral propositions. If the first formulation of the categorical imperative is that one must act according to the maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will (my italics) that the imperative become a universal law, how can you will what is already a given universal moral law in nature? Categorical moral propositions are imperatives of reason, in the case of morality, of pure practical reason, that is, of a reason which legislates and prescribes rather than describes what is. That is why, for Kant, freedom and a self-conscious willing autonomous individual are transcendental a priori conditions inherent to having categorical imperatives and, hence, morality. If that is the case, then morality logically demands that every other human must be treated as a free self-conscious individual, in his formulation, as an end in itself and never as a means only. Further, given that each individual is an autonomous free and rational agent and given that each rational agent must treat every other human as a free and rational agent, then everyone must treat every other one according to a universal law as an end and never merely a means.

My depiction of Kant’s categorical imperative differs from Block’s in the following ways:

a) Though the categorical imperative inheres in all humans, all humans are not necessarily expressions of the categorical imperative even in a minimal sense. If humans are to be considered moral, they must treat every other human as an end, but if another human does not act on the basis of being a self-legislating being, but is a sociopath or a psychopath with absolutely no empathy for the other but just uses people, must that person who “appears” human be treated as a human? (I will have to answer this last query in a subsequent blog.)

b) Kant avoids linking the moral sense to natural proclivities versus Block who depicts the moral senses as akin to innate abilities and instincts, that is, empirical (and, hence, a posteriori) characteristics, for, in Block, respect for one another and a sense of justice” were imparted to humankind to enable “man to form societies and live together”. Quite aside from contradiction of introducing a consequentialist argument into a deontological account, this is an empirical account of moral sensibility as “basic emotions in man” that are innate rather than an a priori account that results from pure reasoning. Block writes: “I believe there is something innate about these feelings, such that we find it quite natural (my italics) to have them.”

c) For Kant, the good will which is the only thing good without qualification is a pure will, that is a will independent of and logically prior to any actual act of willing. Block writes that what, “one means by a good person is at least a person about whom one would say that it is unthinkable that this person could act unjustly or cruelly.” Not according to Kant. What one means by a good person is what he writes: a good person is one who can will that his actions be governed by universal moral principles and that that person treats every other human on the same basis. The judgement whether an actual individual is good is an empirical question about observing how the imperatives are made operational and not about the meta-ethics of imperatives themselves.

d) Block says that “there are no excuses for lying” for prudentially it would mean that no one would have anything to do with a liar. Quite aside from the contradiction of introducing yet another consequentialist argument in an anti-consequentialist deontological theory, and whether it is empirically valid to say that no one would have anything to do with a known liar – a proposition I believe could be easily falsified – let us simply look at Kant’s reasoning. The imperative not to lie is a perfect duty that follows from the categorical imperative because if lying were permissible, then anything anyone said could not be trusted and this would undercut the possibility of morality altogether. But what if Eichmann asked a woman whether she had a child hidden under her dress as he was ordering children onto a cattle car headed for Auschwitz, would she be permitted to lie i) to save her own life for if she told the truth she would be treating herself as a means only and not an end, a means to fulfill Nazi fantasies of extermination of the Jews; ii) to save the life of her child for if she revealed the location of the child, that child would be shipped to a death camp and exterminated? Block says that lying is never permitted. I say that what appears to be a lie is permitted in this case, possibly even for a Kantian because, as an imperative consistent with the categorical imperative, there is not only permission to tell what appears as a lie but a duty to deceive Eichmann if it means saving a human life. What one said would not be a lie in terms of the categorical imperative because it would not be a statement addressed to a person who endorsed the principle of the autonomy and freedom of every human individual. For Block, there are no excuses for not telling the truth, However, the categorical imperative itself provides the excuse, for an untruth in this case is not a contradiction to the categorical imperative but an expression of it; what would be said or left unsaid is not a lie per se in the meta-ethical sense of the injunction not to tell lies.

e) Goodness, for Kant, is not something concealed beneath a dark shell hidden in the soul but that which is readily visible to the pure light of reason when reason shines upon it. Nothing need be removed; the empirical realm only needs to be bracketed and the pure light of reason thrown on how moral reasoning takes place.

f) Is the categorical character of a proposition that which makes the judgement moral?
For Kant, definitely! For consequentialists, teleological moralists or Darwinian emergent or natural moralists (the moral sense is empirically innate), no. Kant, though still avoiding any empirical contamination to a pure a priori proposition of pure practical reason, does slip into teleology with his concept of a “Kingdom of Ends”. Block, on the other hand, confuses universal empirical and general empirical propositions with categorical ones. For him, goodness is a nascent ability that needs to be developed rather than a condition identified by pure practical reason as a condition of any morality whatsoever. A good will is a logical and purely rational precondition and not an empirical element that merely needs nurturing.

2. Are the core ideas of morality compassion and justice, and are compassion and justice basic moral senses? What is a basic moral sense – the fact that all humans are born with them, that is, moral qualities G-d gave man when he created the world? If someone is generally morally good does that mean that it is unthinkable or unimaginable that he would act unjustly, that he lacked compassion and/or a sense of justice?

When Adam was created, he demonstrated no sense of either compassion or justice. He did not even come close to compassion even for himself for he did not even recognize he was lonely. G-d had to tell him. And he did not recognize even his own body and his urges or that the erect phallus was part of himself for which he should take responsibility; the phallus was something other. He saw himself as made in the image of G-d creating things and bringing them into being by the sole act of naming them, therefore never even understanding the role of self-consciousness in naming and what Wittgenstein made clear, that the meaning of names of things are revealed by the role those names play in language as well as by the objects to which they refer. However, Adam not only failed to take responsibility for himself as an embodied creature and for his emotions (that is, as a moral being) and not only lacked any adequate insight into how language connected him with the world (that is, as a scientific being), but lacked any sense of the other. For though man is born of woman, Adam in his fantasy life and dreams saw Eve simply as a physical extension of himself rather than another autonomous being responsible for herself. So when they have sex, Eve acknowledges she allowed herself to be seduced. Adam, in typical male fashion, could only protest his innocence or ignorance. Only once thrown into the world of labour could and did man learn to become a moral being.

The knowledge of good and evil does not come from recognizing the good but by beginning to suffer the consequences of not taking responsibility for oneself, not understanding the other and not understanding that complaining that ‘its not fair’ starts from the opposite end of justice. So we do not begin with a nascent compassion and sense of justice but with a stubborn unwillingness to take responsibility for oneself, for being as anti what it should be to be a moral being as possible, and demonstrating both a lack of compassion and even recognition let alone lack of understanding for the other and an almost total lack of a sense of what justice means, for at that stage what is unjust is simply when anything bad occurs to you whether or not you deserved it. Rather than it being unthinkable or unimaginable that a moral being would act unjustly, that he lacked compassion and/or a sense of justice, the understanding of morality begins precisely by imagining what it is to be irresponsible, to lack compassion and to have virtually no sense of justice. And the core of immorality is the failure to take responsibility for oneself and one’s actions in the world. What happens when some humans remain frozen in that stage and thereby become sociopaths? I will discuss that in a future blog.

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