REASONING IN KANT’S ETHICAL WORKS
D. R. KHASHABA
Kant’s moral philosophy is an amalgam of (1) his Pietistic upbringing, (2) insights of a morally wholesome personality, and (3) a needless adjunct of analyses and deductions that obfuscate the moral insight just as his laborious architectonic of analyses and deductions obscured the valuable insight in the Critique of Pure Reason. I have previously written on Kant’s moral philosophy (a) in “Free Will as Creativity” (included in The Sphinx and the Phoenix, 2009), and (b) in Chapter Seven, “Kant”, of Quest of Reality, 2013. In this essay I will concentrate mainly on the futility of argument in Kant’s two major ethical works. Scholars who concentrate on Kant’s arguments, whether to expound or to criticize, waste their time and what is more than their time, they waste what is truly valuable in Kant’s philosophy. In what follows I may seem to do what I blame those scholars for doing. Well, I do; but there is a difference. They – both admirers and beraters – examine the arguments and proofs to pronounce them good ones or bad ones; I pronounce them, good and bad alike, to be superfluous. I have said this before and will say it again: no original philosopher has ever reached his philosophical position inferentially. Argument, in the narrower sense of the word, is a surplus in philosophy. A philosopher argues in the first place to satisfy herself or himself, to clarify her or his basic notions, to assure themselves of the consistence of various elements in their thought, and to facilitate the exposition of their philosophy for the benefit of others. But argument can also hinder all that: it can distort and obscure the essential content of the philosophy. In this essay I will examine (1) the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, which sets out Kant’s fundamental moral insights, mainly to point out the superfluity of the theoretical argumentation, and (2) argument in the Critique of Practical Reason to show that it is not of the essence of Kant’s philosophy. In preparing this paper I have made use of my earlier writings on Kant’s moral philosophy, but what follows is not a repetition or revision of those writings but is a fresh approach.
GROUNDWORK OF THE METAPHYSICS OF MORALS (1785)
[All quotations in this section are from Mary Gregor’s translation (1997) of the Groundwork and cite the pagination of the standard German edition of Kant’s works, giving the volume number and page number preceded by the letters AK (for ‘Akademie’).
Kant says that in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals he intends to “work out for once a pure moral philosophy, completely cleansed of everything that may be only empirical” (Preface, AK 4:3890). To do that, obviously, we need to have immediate knowledge of what is moral, in other words, to have moral experience. Moral philosophy must start from the reality of moral experience. Before working out a pure moral philosophy Kant already had the essentials of that moral philosophy. All the analyses, deductions, and constructions do not serve to discover moral principles but only to display those principles. Al ethical theory, and indeed all theorizing in any sphere, is nothing but an extraneous dressing of original insight: it does not discover or reveal but only exhibits.
At the outset Kant introduces his concept of duty according to which for any action to be morally good “it is not enough that it conform with the moral law but it must also be done for the sake of the law” (Preface, AK 4:390). He had no need to find this concept by any analysis or any deduction; he brought it with him from the Pietistic edification of the Collegium Fridiricianum where he spent more than eight years, from age eight till age sixteen. It is this principle that constricted and narrowed his moral theory. He also came to the task of establishing the principles of morality already armed with the insight that the nothing is “good without limitation except a good will” (AK 4:393), and the insight that humanity must always be regarded “as an end, never merely as a means” (AK 4:429). These insights are the true foundation of Kant’s moral philosophy, not the theoretical principles and maxims nor even the concept of duty. Let me add: When Kant says that nothing is good absolutely but a good will and Socrates maintains that the only intrinsically good thing is a healthy soul, on the outside these seem to be different positions, but I see in them the same insight. We will see in what follows what Kant’s rationalizations of these principles and insights amount to.
Kant asserts that “because moral laws are to hold for every rational being as such” we have “to derive them from the universal concept of a rational being as such” (AK 4:412). In Chapter Seven of Quest of Reality I expressed disagreement with this view. I now see that, forgetting about the supposed derivation from a universal concept, Kant’s statement readily translates into the position of Socrates who saw that our whole worth and our particular excellence as human beings is in our rationality; to live under the guidance of reason makes our soul wholesome; to depart from reason harms the soul. Socrates had no need to derive this from any concept; for him the insight was the reality and shone in its own self-evidence.
Having enunciated the Categorical Imperative, Kant confesses: “Here, then, we see philosophy put in fact in a precarious position, which is to be firm even though there is nothing in heaven or on earth from which it depends or on which it is based” (AK 4:426). Indeed, there is nothing in heaven or on earth from which the principle could be derived. Nor could Socrates’ principle that to suffer injustice is better than to commit injustice be derived from anything in heaven or on earth. In the Euthyphro Socrates rejects offhand the soothsayer’s attempt to make piety dependent on what the gods approve of. (Albeit Plato at this point chooses to support the rejection with a logical argument.)
“So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (AK 4:429): Kant derives this ‘practical imperative’ from the principle that “rational nature exists as an end in itself”. No matter how many inferential steps we range between the principle and the imperative, in the end we have nothing but a circumlocution: a rational being is an end in itself; treat humanity as an end in itself.
At AK 4:430-431 Kant says that the principle of humanity as an end in itself is not borrowed from experience and must arise from pure reason — from pure reason maybe, but not by reasoning. (See note at bottom on ‘reason and reasoning’.) The very idea of humanity has been very slow in gaining ground even among the most highly civilized peoples; it has been the creative gift of generous souls; it is still alien to large sectors of humankind and in yet larger sectors it receives lip service but is ignored in practice, else humankind would not be in the miserable state we are in.
That autonomy “is the ground of the dignity of human nature” is the principle of every genuine morality: it is of the essence of Socrates’ position which amounts to maintaining that a human being is truly human only when her or his action flows from the ideas and ideals created by the human mind; it is at the heart of Stoicism; it is the core of Spinoza’s Ethics, as it is the cornerstone of Kant’s morality. And how do we come by the idea of autonomy as the ground of morality? Not by reasoning but by insight into our inner reality.
When Kant defines a free person as “one whose actions are not determined by any external force, not even by his own desires”, are we not being given a mere tautology? The phrase “not even by his own desires” is added in compliance with the Categorical Imperative: a person may be motivated by her or his desires without injury to their morality but then the action would not be ‘moral’ according to Kant’s narrow definition.
When Kant speaks of the will as the causality of a rational being, he is unnecessarily making for confusion and creating theoretical difficulties for himself. ‘Causality’ in the natural world and ‘causality’ in the moral sphere have nothing in common but a misapplied word. Perhaps it would be better to say that a moral act does not have a cause but a reason. As Socrates explained in the Phaedo, his remaining put in prison awaiting execution cannot be explained by physical causes but only by his moral principles. Confusing these is a source of much vicious reasoning.
Kant’s adherence to the causal determinism prevalent in his time confounds all his efforts to reconcile moral freedom with physical causality. He traps himself in an inescapable maze: “Hence freedom is only an idea of reason, the objective reality of which is in itself doubtful, whereas nature is a concept of the understanding that proves, and must necessarily prove, its reality in examples from experience” (AK 4:455). On these terms he wriggles in vain with abstruse and circuitous reasoning to escape his quandary. The “idea of reason” is its own reality, is what is really real, as Plato would say, while the “concept of the understanding” as applied to the phenomenal world is something we take on faith without rational justification, as Hume discovered. I am here reversing Kant’s use of the term ‘faith’: he assigns it to the moral sphere, I, following Plato, to the empirical.
Kant is wiser than he kens when he says that “reason would overstep all its bounds if it took it upon itself to explain how pure reason can be practical, which would be exactly the same task as to explain how freedom is possible” (AK 4:458/459). Indeed, reason cannot explain freedom; no reality can be or has to be explained, and freedom is the reality of our creative intelligence which is our reality and all the reality we know. “For we can explain nothing but what we can reduce to laws the object of which can be given in some possible experience” (AK 4:459). Again this is more meaningful than Kant intended and our modern scientists (and philosophers) have not grasped the meaning. Scientific ‘explanation’ does not give us understanding but an expedient tool. Only philosophy, in exploring the mysteries of reality, gives us true understanding in the sense of immediate awareness of the self-evidence of what is real, which we may call ‘insight’. If what I say sounds enigmatic it is because we are too much under the sway of the presuppositions that both rationalism and empiricism have enveloped us in, rendering us incapable of looking within to behold our inner reality. Kant’s ‘Copernican revolution’ was incomplete; he himself continued to see the outer world as real while he reduced the inner world to mere ideas or at best Ideas of Pure Reason; later philosophers reduced it to a ‘deus ex machina’ or at best to a negligible epiphenomenon.. I will say it bluntly: of all philosophers only Socrates-Plato knew where to look for reality. The mystics knew, and maybe Gautama the Buddha and the philosophers of India. The West has been blinded by the successes of science, and lest my reference to the West be misinterpreted I add: where I live we are drowned in the thickest darkness of stark ignorance.
I will not here discuss Kant’s desperate attempts in the Concluding Remark to escape with his religious beliefs through the impenetrable walls of his transcendental edifice. Kant intended the Groundwork as “nothing more than the search for and establishment of the supreme principle of morality” (AK 4:392). He could have saved himself the trouble, for at the very beginning we have the insight behind all that he laboured to search for and establish. It reads: “It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation except a good will” (AK 4:393). From this unfolds all the rest as a plant unfolds from the seed.
CRITIQUE OF PRACTICAL REASON (1787)
[All quotations in this section are in T. K. Abbott’s translation, 1996, and the page numbers refer to that edition.]
In the Preface to the Critique of Practical Reason Kant presents the notion of freedom in his convoluted style. We are told that transcendental freedom, freedom in the absolute sense, is required by speculative reason “in its use of the concept of causality in order to escape the antinomy into which it inevitably falls, when in the chain of cause and effect it tries to think the unconditioned” (p. 13). Underneath this knotted statement lies the simple insight that our mind, in its theoretical capacity, finding that the chain of cause and effect, followed objectively, extends to infinity, demands that the endlessly conditioned be rooted in the unconditioned and finds that only the idea of spontaneous free activity can render any becoming intelligible. If my statement is as convoluted as Kant’s don’t blame me but him. We are immediately aware of our freedom in the spontaneity of our moral and our creative activity. To try to rationalize our immediate and indubitable sense of freedom we have to clothe it in theoretical vestment. Those who feel that they need to justify or prove their freedom are deluded by the unjustified supposition of causal determinism which is no more than a useful scientific fiction which science can never prove to be absolute. (I have to go out of my way to affirm what I have explained repeatedly before, that confusing spontaneous creative freedom with choice vitiates modern thinking on the problem.)
In Kant’s transcendental philosophy our knowledge of the natural world is confined to the surface of phenomena behind which or underneath which we suppose there must be something real (the noumenon), but we can by no means validate this supposition empirically. It is in the moral act that we have our only communion with the noumenon and only there do we meet with genuine causality. if ‘causality’ is the word. (Etymologically ‘noumenon’ is simply what is thought, so obviously it cannot be found outside the mind, but, since Kant, it has come to mean what is real as opposed to the unreality of phenomenal appearances.)
Kant goes wrong in trying to establish the reality of freedom apodeictically. He says he is only establishing the possibility of the concept. To the Empiricists this is as nothing for they only acknowledge what can be established empirically. As for idealists who maintain that ideas are all that is real, what need have they for establishing the possibility of the concept when to do that we must already have the concept? Plato did not try to establish either the necessity or the possibility or the reality of the soul or of the Forms or of the Idea of the Good, for it is in these that we ourselves attain reality and know reality.
Reality, the reality that has its being and its home in the mind and nowhere but in the mind shines in its own self-evidence. To theorize about such reality can only be useful in leading us to probe and explore our own inner reality; otherwise all such theorization is inane.
Kant distinguishes three ‘Ideas of Pure Reason’: God, Freedom, and Immortality. These terms are ambiguous. If we take God to mean the unconditioned condition of all that is, Freedom to mean the spontaneity of creative intelligence, and Immortality to mean the supra-temporality of the soul or mind, then these are creative ideals that confer intelligibility and worth on our life and our world; ideas and ideals that make the experienced world meaningful and real foe us but do not actually exist in the world outside us. But Kant is untrue to his own transcendental system when he tries to find moral ground for affirming the actuality of these ideals in the world outside us.
Kant tries to resolve the incompatibility of causal determinism with moral freedom by distinguishing between the phenomenal subject and the noumenal subject. The phenomenal subject is part of nature and is subject to natural law; the noumenal subject is autonomous and free and is subject to the moral law. This enunciation fails to resolve the incompatibility: as long as we suppose causal determinism to be absolute, moral freedom must be seen as a delusion, just as belief in an omnipotent and omniscient personal God makes of free will a mockery. But we are immediately and indubitably aware of our creative freedom; it is causal determinism that lacks evidence and must be taken as a working approximation.
Problem I in the Analytic reads: “Supposing that the mere legislative form of maxims is alone the sufficient determining principle of a will, to find the nature of the will which can be determined by it alone” (p.43). Kant ‘finds’ that “such a will must be conceived as quite independent on the natural law of phenomena in their mutual relation, namely, the law of causality; such independence is called freedom in the strictest, that is in the transcendental sense; consequently, a will which can have its law in nothing but the mere legislative form of the maxim is a free will” (p. 43). Who will take this for proper deduction or reasoning? The circuitous wording of the ‘problem’ cannot hide that it is asking about the nature of a will that freely conforms to a maxim. The idea of freedom is implanted in the ‘problem’.
The idea of the Categorical Imperative, which stems from Kant’s Pietistic upbringing is the source of this equating of freedom, the quintessence of morality, with conformity to law; which is nothing but to be autonomous, that is, to follow one’s own law. But Kant in making the Categorical Imperative the all in all of morality narrows morality unnecessarily and impoverishes the concept of freedom. I have formerly defended Kant’s contention that only acts done out of duty are moral on the ground that that is the logical consequence of his definition of morality which does not deny the worth of acts done out of other good motives. Already in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals we find him affirming that “there are many souls so sympathetically attuned that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest they find an inner satisfaction in spreading joy around them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others” (AK 4:398). Yet in obedience to his own constricted definition of ‘moral’ he is forced to assert that such action is of no moral worth. I am for a wider conception of morality and freedom. A poet spontaneously pouring her or his joy or grief in song is free and morally good. A mother suckling her baby may do it instinctively but if she does it with love her act is free and morally good. It would of course be unfair and unreasonable to think that Kant’s narrow theoretical conception of morality reflects on his personality: a person who throughout his whole life was devoted to science and philosophy, who could speak of “souls so sympathetically attuned that … they find an inner satisfaction in spreading joy around them”, whose mind was filled with awe and wonder by the starry heavens above him and the moral sense within him, such a person must have been of a generous and kind nature, must have been a beautiful soul. Those who pour scorn on his austere ‘deontology’ (a term for which Kant is not responsible) should remember this.
Kant needlessly embroils himself in theoretical conundrums. Having asserted that what gives actions moral worth is “that the moral law should directly determine the will”, he goes on to say that “as to the question how a law can be directly and of itself a determining principle of the will (which is the essence of morality), this is, for human reason, an insoluble problem and identical with the question: how a free will is possible” (pp. 92-93). Why couldn’t Kant rest content with the self-evidence of an idea? For Socrates the self-evidence of the idea is the final goal of reasoning. For Plato the idea is the reality and the mystery. No theorizing and no reasoning can go beyond the reality and the mystery affirmed in Socrates’ statement: It is by Beauty that all that is beautiful is beautiful.
Kant’s response to the conflict between causal determinism and freedom of the will is to see causality as the law of the phenomenal and freedom as the law of the noumenal. This solution will not satisfy anyone who takes causality as an ultimate principle. Only when we dethrone causality and see it as a working fiction can we find it consistent with the freedom of the noumenal. We know spontaneous creativity immediately but know causality only as an inductive hypothesis. But in Kant’s time both Rationalists and Empiricists believed implicitly in the universality of the causal principle. We must give credit to Kant for refusing to throw freedom overboard. He characterizes this position as faith. (Hume was right in asserting that there is no rational justification for the notion of causality, but was wrong when he stopped at debunking the principle of causality. Kant, to rescue science, affirmed that causality is imposed by the mind on nature.)
For Kant (1) the existence of God, (2) freedom of the will, and (3) the immortality of the soul, are three Postulates of Practical Reason. But Kant, flouting his own transcendental system, labours to show that on moral grounds we are justified in accepting the existence of God and immortality as actual. He could not discard the doctrines inculcated in him in his childhood. In my view the idea of God as the unity of all being under the Principle of Integrity and Wholeness, the idea of immortality as the supra-temporality of the soul, and the idea of freedom as creativity, are realities in the Platonic sense, are ideas that confer intelligibility and value on our life and our world: that is their whole reality, a reality in and for the mind, a metaphysical reality which we err when we transform into actualities. Even freedom, the only reality of which we are immediately aware, cannot reasonably be projected into the world outside us. Kant’s arguments for the validity of these Postulates prove nothing and serve no purpose. They are, to say the least, redundant.
NOTE: In this paper I have been using ‘reason and ‘reasoning’ almost as opposites. Some explanation is due. By ‘reason’ I mean what Plato sometimes calls phronêsis and what I elsewhere prefer to call ‘intelligence’ in a special sense of the tem. Reason is reflection, is the mind probing the mind. is the ground and fount of rationality. Reasoning is argument in the narrower sense of ‘argument’ and it is not one uniform thing: reasoning in mathematics is other than reasoning in inductive science and this is other than reasoning in a law suit or in political debate. Reasoning always has limits defined by its subject-matter and the method proper to that particular subject=matter; breaching those limits leads to gross error. In philosophy, while reason is the all in all of philosophizing, reasoning is peripheral and only has incidental use: to elucidate, to facilitate exposition, to examine one’s own thought for clearing inconsistencies, contradictions and obscurities. Philosophers mistakenly thinking they have to vie with mathematics or science have done grave damage to philosophy.
Cairo, 24 February 2015.