Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the putative “Sage of Königsberg,” in a rare moment of lyricism states “Two things fill the mind with ever new and ever increasing admiration and awe, the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Like the laws of physics governing the heavens, Kant’s “moral law” is to apply universally and without exception, and both are discovered via reason.
Kant has a “duty” theory of morality called “deontology.” His moral philosophy is explicitly antagonistic to utilitarianism and Aristotle, the other main moral theories taught in most contemporary English-speaking university departments.
With regard to Aristotle, what analytic philosophers have come to call “virtue ethics,” Kant objects that Aristotle’s traditional view of ethics as a theory about how to live a flourishing life – eudaimonia – literally having a good indwelling spirit – is incompatible with morality. Kant radically reduces the scope of “ethics,” life and how to live it, down to “morality,” the right treatment of oneself and others narrowly conceived.
Kant mentions that Aristotle included courage and moderation among his virtues. However, if these qualities characterized a criminal and killer, they would make the murderer even more evil and worrisome. Scared, lazy, undisciplined, and preferably stupid killers are infinitely to be preferred to overachieving criminals. Talents of mind, like intelligence, qualities of temperament, like courage, and gifts of fortune, like power, wealth, health, and complete well-being can all be used badly. They are only unequivocally good when used by the good will and only someone with a good will seems to deserve to be happy. So, for Kant, Aristotle has little if anything to tell us about morality.
When it comes to utilitarianism, Kant objects to it not because it is a new, especially repulsive form of scapegoating, and not because it abandons the concepts of justice, fairness, and innocence from its moral calculations, but because it appeals to happiness and tries to guess the consequences of various proposed courses of action, and because it falls on the side of the empirical – the objective world studied by science. Kant was appropriately skeptical of the ability to predict consequences. And he was resolutely opposed to connecting morality to what is useful, which is a crucial insight. For Kant, a good will is good in itself, not because of any good consequences it produces. A good will is governed by reverence for the moral law and the duty to follow it. Once usefulness becomes the criterion of action then morality is abandoned. What is useful will cut right
across questions of right and wrong and sanction killing, lying, cheating, fraud, hypocrisy, slander, doxing, anything so long as the consequences are deemed good, but that means to simply give up on morality all together.
Kant’s idea of duty is immune to empirical considerations. He argues that were there to be no loyal friends in fact, it would still be someone’s moral duty to be a loyal friend. If all actions are in fact done out of self-interest – a cynical and supposedly “scientific” contention popular at the time and later – it would still be a person’s duty to do what is morally right rather than follow self-interest. Thus science (the empirical) has nothing to tell us about morality. This seems an attractive rejoinder to those who study the brain in the hopes of deepening understanding of morality, such as finding the neurological basis for empathy, or noticing the role of mirror neurons, etc. That seems like deciding where to drive for a vacation by finding out more about how your car’s engine works. Who cares how the feat is accomplished?
Kant’s ideas concerning motive are not those of common sense. For him, the appropriate motive has nothing to do with good intentions, and nothing whatsoever to do with love, compassion, or kindness. Kant has multiple objections to that kind of motive. One is that feelings come and go, and they cannot be commanded. Feelings are too unreliable a thing to base morality on. Better to have a duty to perform moral actions regardless of feeling. This has a definite plausibility. Making morality depend on mood seems asking for trouble. And then the Biblical injunction to love your neighbor as yourself is a bit of a puzzle. Is it actually possible to command anyone to love? Kant thought not. And if someone does not love his neighbor, what should he do about it? He seems in an impossible position.
Duty must be the basis of morality, Kant proposes. The duty to follow the moral law renders feelings and inclinations irrelevant. The moral law applies to all as commands of reason whether it happens to coincide with someone’s feelings or not. In India, siblings will look after mentally or physically handicapped family members at home, themselves, out of duty, irrespective of feelings or desires. Happenstance feelings and inclinations, being subjective and contingent are not universalizable. They do not apply to all, and moral duty cannot be a matter of determining whether someone feels like it or not, Kant contends. Feelings are also empirical and Kant argues that anything empirical compromises morality because it exists in the realm of nature governed by determinism which excludes the freedom necessary for morality to function.
Kant thinks reason must exist for a purpose and that purpose, contrary to utilitarianism, is not happiness. If happiness were the goal, Kant suggests instinct would function better. Reason introduces doubt and complications and can get in the way of enjoying life. Instead, reason must be there to produce a will that is good in itself, not as a means to something else. Reason exists to discover the moral law and to conform the will to it.
It is important not to confuse the phrase “good will” with the English expression “having good will towards all men.” Kant means something technical, namely, that a “good will” is one governed by a respect for the moral law. Respect, as opposed to love, was something Kant thought people had some control over. A parent or teacher, for instance, might reasonably say “I don’t expect you to love me, but I do expect you to show respect.” It is not enough to act in accordance with the moral law. The act must be because of the moral law. A selfish shopkeeper might be honest because “honesty is the best policy,” and it is good for business. Such behavior is consistent with the moral law, but has no value because not motivated by respect for the moral law.
What is the moral law? It is the categorical imperative (a command admitting no exceptions) with three formulations:
- Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.
- Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.
- Every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.
With his training in physics, among other subjects, Kant is well aware that the realm of objects, the “objective,” is governed by the laws of physics. Here determinism, and the laws of cause and effect hold sway. Kant’s innovation is to make a distinction between the noumenal world, which is fundamentally unknowable, and the world of phenomena – things. The noumenal world permits the existence of free will. It is an interior realm governed, inexplicably, by freedom. Without freedom there are no agents, who are conscious centers of decision-making, and no “will.” “Will” only exists if freedom exists, otherwise mankind is reduced to automata governed by the external forces of physics and natural laws only.
Nikolai Berdyaev notes that Kant’s “freedom,” while of immense importance to philosophy, and a hugely significant contribution to understanding the human condition, is still very narrow and too limited. It is merely the freedom to will to act in accordance with the moral law which is discoverable
by any rational agent and is the same for all. We have the freedom to have all our actions governed by an unalterable moral law determining the actions of all rational agents with zero deviation, hence the name “categorial imperative.”
Berdyaev contends that Kant is right to distinguish the noumenal from the phenomenal. The noumenal is the realm of spirit for Berdyaev and it is only in spirit that freedom exists. And freedom is far more than something like a logical prerequisite for morality. Meonic Freedom is the Great Mystery that preexists God the Creator and gives rise to choice, and thus good and evil. Freedom, the Ungrund, is acausal and determines nothing, otherwise physical determinism is just being replaced with spiritual determinism. It is infinite and resides within every human breast. Its infinite, acausal nature, means there are no laws, or rules, governing it and it is thus unknowable. Freedom is a part of every conscious being, and it is the reason why human beings will never be entirely predictable nor knowable, even to God. God the Father, on this view, is a Mystery to a degree, even to Himself. Like us he creates from nothing and nowhere – dragging things from He knows not where into the light of day. Without Freedom, creativity does not exist. Without Freedom, all action would be algorithmic. All would be known, and light of day. And, in principle, a computer program (an algorithm) could be written that would exactly emulate or duplicate human consciousness, or God’s for that matter.
God is spirit, not being. He is not the universe of objects, which is the mistake of pantheism. When we look at other human beings their faces symbolize their inner spirit. When someone dies, his body remains – every atom and every molecule lies right where it was – but the person has departed never to be seen again in that form. Trees, plants, and every living thing may be conscious, and walking through beautiful natural environments may seem especially spiritual, but what is seen is only surfaces; objects. The spiritual is not objective and is not subject to deterministic forces. In human action, spiritual freedom intrudes into the sphere of objectification permitting human agency.
Near death experiences are all very well, but what is described is not interior. It is a heavenly landscape, and people with spiritual bodies are frequently described, but this is still a tale of surfaces and objects. Now they are just heavenly surfaces and heavenly objects. The transcendent is not on top of regular reality; a heaven in the sky: it is a matter of interior depths that are fundamentally unknowable.
Berdyaev comments that a conception of morality as a matter of laws and rules is extremely primitive. These would include commandments and prohibitions such as the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, or the Jewish Law. Kant’s moral philosophy exists at this crude level of moral revelation. The New Testament attempted to reform Judaism by emphasizing the importance of the inward, and someone’s motives. St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians says “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” It is not enough to do the right thing, but it must be done for the right reason. The Pharisees prided themselves on knowing and doing the right thing, but if it is done out of pride, or as a calculation as to how to get into heaven, or for any other reason not stemming from love of man, then it is morally worthless. Kant’s moral legalism is a step backwards.
Berdyaev writes that this second revelation is to be followed by a third, which is man’s revelation to God. God’s creative act in creating man awaits man’s creative response and real morality requires creativity. In a fallen world, moral perfection is not possible. Even when we do what we think we should do, we often have to do a wrong. One value clashes with another one. Loyalty to a friend may conflict with honesty. If your friend steals minor things from his and your boss, what should you do? What if the items stolen get more expensive? Should you tell your friend that his girlfriend is cheating on him? He might resent you for it.
The correct answer will depend on the exact people involved and, for instance, the exact nature of their relationship. Aristotle was right that there can be no moral theories in the sense of providing rules governing all situations. The values that rules embody conflict and one must be sacrificed to another. Then it is a matter of judging which value supersedes another in each particular case.
Kant is worried that each person tends to want to bend the moral laws to suit himself; in favor of “the dear self,” and he makes a good point. By making morality categorical, this impulse is obviated.
Categorical imperatives can also be contrasted with hypothetical imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives are dependent on goals and are involved in means/ends reasoning. “If you want to succeed at your job interview, clean your shoes first.” Such an imperative is conditional and depends on whether you are going for a job and whether you want to get it or not. Kant wants morality to be impervious to wishes.
Kant’s emphasis on interiority and motive means that moral exemplars do not exist, including Jesus Christ. It is never possible to know the actual motive upon which someone has acted, he thinks. We can verify that something is done in accordance with duty, but not that it is really done for the sake of duty and so has moral value. This skepticism concerning knowing intentions has connections with the “New Criticism” of the mid-twentieth century in which authorial intention was deemed unknowable and formalism, restricting oneself to what lies between the covers of the book, was promoted. This arbitrary and wrongheaded perspective divorced books (later the “texts” of post-modernism) from context, rendering some of their meanings imperceptible, and later promoting the notion that books say whatever you want them to, regardless of what the author had in mind.
Berdyaev claims that the concrete (non-abstract) Person must be the highest ideal subservient to nothing else. Not society, the common good, happiness, progress, science, feminism, environmentalism, well-being, the moral law; nothing. Every other moral viewpoint is willing to kill, murder, and torture the innocent if its goal is promoted. Thus every moral position other than Personalism, is a sacrificial cult bent on the murder of the victim whenever such death is considered necessary. In the process, truth and justice will be subordinated to this goal too. Kant’s deontological moral theory seems like it will be consistent with Berdyaev. “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” This sounds anti-sacrificial. It seems as though Kant will protect the innocent at all costs. However, this is not the case. The clue to understanding the true situation can be found in that most famous of all Kant’s quotations: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and ever increasing admiration and awe, the starry heavens above and the moral law within.”
The thing that fills Kant’s mind with admiration and awe is not the Person, but the moral law. The moral law is an abstraction. Kant claims that human reason exists precisely to ascertain the moral law, not happiness as Aristotle, to a degree, and utilitarianism claim. Instead, it might be more accurate to say that the moral law is an invention of human reason that is then hypostasized – i.e., imagined to be a concrete thing projected out into reality.
Kant could not love the Person, it seems, but his moment of poetry suggests he could bring himself to love the moral law and it turns out that Kant is willing to sacrifice the Person for the sake of the moral law. Kantian deontology turns out to be yet another sacrificial cult. The case that provides evidence for this appears in Kant’s own writings.
Here he discusses the possibility of a would-be murderer knocking at your door and asking if his intended victim is inside. Every student knows that the correct answer in that instance is to lie. This is a minor case of lying in order to prevent a major instance of harm to the innocent. Infamously, Kant’s answer is that the categorical imperative admits of no exceptions so the householder should tell the truth. Kant states that the householder is completely innocent of the negative consequences of truth-telling. If, however, he lies and unbeknownst to him the intended victim is not in the house and the killer finds the victim because of the lie, now the householder is morally guilty
Kant is willing to sacrifice the life of the victim in order to remain loyal and true to his beloved moral law. The Person is not the end after all, but merely a means. Kant values moral purity above all in a world where moral purity is just not possible in the long term. It seems likely that it is Kant’s own moral purity he held so dear. In the actual moral world, the tragedy is that each one of us compromises his cherished values at some point in the name of some other value.
Kant has tried to use reason and logic to derive moral truth, and reason and logic have let him down. Human reason uses concepts and these concepts come to be seen as real existent things when really they are just abstractions – often necessary and useful though they be. The moral law, an abstraction, blinds Kant to the concrete Person.
Kant uses logic to try to show that it is never morally permissible to make a lying promise. The first version of the categorical imperative is “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.” The “maxim” is the subjective principle of action, e.g., whenever I am in financial difficulty, make a lying promise to someone promising to pay him back if he will lend you some money, while having no intention of honoring this promise. Kant then asks if it is possible to “universalize” this maxim. This means to make the maxim apply to all people in all circumstances. This changes the maxim to something like “whenever anyone is in any troubling circumstance, make a lying promise to get out of the situation.” However, Kant points out, the whole point of a promise is that someone is saying he will do something no matter how inconvenient he might later find it, and paying back loans can be very inconvenient! Therefore, universalizing lying promises means that the whole social custom of making promises will cease to exist. If everyone in making a promise is effectively adding the phrase “if it is convenient” then no one is promising anything. Thus, the maxim fails the universalizing test and is therefore not moral for Kant.
Notice, that Kant is not arguing that there would be bad real world consequences if people made lying promises. His theory is deontological, and does not concern itself with consequences. Were the existence of humanity or the world to depend on doing something immoral, it would still be wrong to do it for Kant. Instead, he is saying that the subjective principle of action cannot be universalized purely as a matter of logic.
Similarly, if someone announced his intention to steal something, the test of whether this is moral or not would be to universalize this intention. “Whenever someone wants something, he should steal it.” If this became a universal law, then the institution of private property would cease to exist, and thus, it would not be possible to steal anything. The maxim becomes self-canceling. Again, this argument is not consequentialist. It is not arguing that theft should be eliminated because otherwise chaos would reign. It is strictly a matter of logic and attempting to universalize the maxim.
These are supposed to be examples of using reason to figure out what the correct moral thing to do is. And these principles “don’t lie,” and “don’t steal” are supposed to be discoverable by all rational beings, including, interestingly, aliens if they happen to exist.
All rational beings are considered by Kant to be legislators in the “kingdom of ends.” The kingdom of ends consists of all rational beings, all of whom may not be used as means to some other end, subsumed under common laws. They are both the law makers and subject to the law.
Suicide is morally forbidden in Kant because in killing yourself you are denying your intrinsic value, and you would be using yourself as a means to further your own happiness – on the assumption that you would be happier dead.
One of the seemingly paradoxical features of Kant’s philosophy is related to his divorce of feelings and inclinations from morality. Not killing yourself because you love life has no moral worth for Kant because someone is simply following his egotistical desires. But, when life seems to hold no value and someone anticipates only misery ahead of him and desperately wants to kill himself, now his not killing himself has moral value because it is done (or not done) solely on the basis of moral duty. Similarly, where someone who is good and kind to others because he is filled with fellow feeling and loves mankind, this has no moral worth either. But when absorbed with his own troubles and thus has no sympathy for others due to his own sorrows, and now is only good out of duty, then this is morally praiseworthy.
Kant certainly has some insights and identifies some truths, particularly in insisting that “useful” does not mean “moral,” and the prominence he gives to freedom, but like all moral theorists he hypostatizes an abstraction. He holds up as one’s duty to follow the moral law, a purely conceptual product of ratiocination, at the expense of the Person, contravening his own injunction never to use people merely as means, but always also as an end.
The realm of spirit is one of intuition, imagination, and creativity. It is not objective, light of day, nor accessible to concepts or knowledge, for the most part. All people have an intuitive apprehension of the truth of justice, fairness, and reciprocity. Like Gödel’s Gödelian propositions, they are self-evidently true, but not provable by reference to something else. Out of these moral perceptions can come reflections and analysis and the perception might be altered and refined as a result. However, the abstractions and concepts of rational analysis must not be substituted for moral perception. Kant’s attempt to isolate morality from the intuitive and experienced is understandable, but mistaken. The realm of noumena can be intuitively apprehended to a degree, while remaining inexplicable. How do we know that “one good turn deserves another?” No idea. But it does! Not all truth can be proven to be true. Experience, including intuitive experiences, provides the subject matter for philosophy. Taking mere concepts and abstractions and worshiping them as the moral law is idolatry. Someone who so loves social justice that he would be willing to kill, torture, and destroy in its name, is a fanatic who has lost touch with an essential component of his humanity – the intuitive, imaginative, and creative. Kant cripples his humanity and humanness by falling in love with airy specters of his own creation. He gets it wrong about what belongs to noumena and what to phenomena. Abstractions, and concepts, must not be treated as objective things having real existence. He is right that noumena means freedom and is required for freedom to exist, but the moral law is not consistent with freedom, creativity, and higher level morality. The moral law suggests we know exactly what to do in every circumstance, which we do not. Freedom cannot be only the freedom to follow the moral law which is the same for everyone. That is “freedom” on train tracks railroading rational beings to a predetermined end regardless of inclination and with no account taken of feelings, intuition, and creativity. Real morality requires creative responses to unique circumstances involving very individual people with their own characteristics in a way identified by Aristotle thousands of years ago. At least this negative aspect of Aristotle, the idea that ethics is not amenable to normative theory, seems correct. It is not enough to simply not murder, not steal from, not engage in mimetic rivalry, in order to be living well and flourishing. Legalism in morality is just too crude and primitive to get us very far. The whole idea of a moral law is retrograde. Moral legalism is a good first step, but does not take us far on the road of moral refinement. Compare Kant with Berdyaev: “Every single human soul has more meaning and value than the whole of history.” Or “A human prefers to be a slave because gaining freedom is always difficult.” Kant has found a way of invoking and denying freedom at the same time. The moral law can be found by freedom, and followed by freedom, but it is itself a despot. And Kant’s fanatical admiration for the moral law, turns his philosophy into yet another sacrificial cult – immolating the concrete Person in the name of an abstraction.