Thursday, June 6, 2013

Introduction to Kant's Practical Philosophy, Part 2

In part one of this two-part series I introduced Kant's practical philosophy in relation to practical philosophy in general, and I argued that Kant provides a unique solution to the problem of normativity grounded in the first-personal perspective. In this post I'll try to show how Kant's first-order moral philosophy arises out of this fundamental practical perspective.

For Kant one of the most basic objects studied by moral philosophy is something called a maxim, which is an intention adopted by the will, or roughly speaking a plan of action. There is some controversy about the interpretation of maxims, but for our purposes it will do to think of them as having the form “I will do action A in circumstances C in order to bring about end E.” All actions involve commitment to some maxim or other, though the maxim of an action need not be explicitly and consciously adopted at any time, let alone prior to acting. Maxims form a hierarchical structure, with more general or fundamental maxims rationally constraining more particular ones. For instance, if I adopt the maxim “I will exercise on the weekend to improve my health,” I can't rationally adopt the more particular maxim, “I will watch TV all weekend to catch up with Game of Thrones,” but I can adopt the maxim “I will go for a hike on Saturday to stay in shape.”

Since all actions involve commitment some maxim or other, the will can't be determined to action except by adopting a maxim. In particular, the will can't be determined just by the force of a desire, or what Kant calls an inclination. This is a key difference between Kant's philosophy of action and that of his empiricist predecessors and many present-day Anglophone philosophers. Contemporary philosophers often conceive of action as the result of a belief plus a desire. On this model, an agent combines a belief that the world is a certain way—for instance, “there are no cookies in the cupboard”—with a desire—such as “I want cookies”—and this combination generates an action, such as going to buy cookies. Of course, in most cases people have various conflicting desires. On the belief-desire model, the action that the agent performs depends simply on whichever desire or set of desires is strongest. If the agent in our example desires to eat cookies but desires even more strongly to lose weight, they will not go out to buy cookies.

For Kant, however, action can never be merely the result of forces acting on an agent. Desires may well produce all sorts of effects in a person without any conscious input from that person, but an action is necessarily something that a person can be responsible for, which means that it can only come about through a manifestation of that person's spontaneity. Specifically, desires or inclinations can only contribute to an action to the extent that the agent incorporates them into their maxim.

For example, the person who desires cookies but also desires to get in shape may reflect on each desire and determine that they ought, all things considered, to abstain from eating cookies in order to get in shape. In that case, they incorporate the inclination to get in shape into their will, forming a maxim not to buy cookies. Their decision to incorporate this inclination into their will has nothing to do with the relative strengths of the two inclinations. The inclination to eat cookies may well be stronger in a psychological sense than the inclination to get in shape, but on Kant's model this does not preclude the person's incorporating the latter inclination into their will. The formation of a maxim is an essentially spontaneous or free act that cannot be determined by psychological forces.

This spontaneity of the will is Kant's basic solution to the problem of normativity. It is the core of what I referred to in the previous post as his first-personal voluntarism. As I argued there, from the first-personal practical perspective determinism and naturalism do not have to be theoretically disproven in order to vindicate whatever norms govern the first-personal perspective. (The scope of our knowledge about determinism does have to be shown to be limited to the world of experience, as opposed to the world of things in themselves, but that topic is beyond the scope of this series. If you're interested in this issue, check out my introduction to Kant's theoretical philosophy here.) What emerges from Kant's first-personal reflection on the nature of action is that we are all inescapably committed to the practical reality of normativity, and we reaffirm that commitment every time we act. Because adopting a maxim is essentially an act of spontaneity, it is always something for which the agent who performs it is responsible. It is not something that merely happens to the agent, but rather something that the agent does, thereby affirming their commitment to whatever norms govern the practice of adopting maxims.

Another way of putting this is to say that an agent can only act “the idea of freedom,” as Kant puts it in section 3 of the Groundwork (448). What this means is that in deliberating about what to do I cannot assume the truth of determinism. If I do, I will never act at all, but will simply wait indefinitely to be determined to act. By acting I instead affirm my commitment to my practical freedom, regardless of the theoretical status of determinism. I commit myself to the proposition that I could, in some sense, have acted otherwise, and therefore I am responsible for justifying my decision to act in the way that I did.

The kind of freedom immediately at issue is what I previously have followed Kant in calling “spontaneity.” Spontaneity is a limited kind of freedom, in that it only involves the capacity to choose between various inclinations. It is more than what Kant characterizes as the “freedom of a turnspit” in his later Critique of Practical Reason (97), meaning it is more than just the “freedom” to be determined in more than one way, as a turnspit can be opened or closed. Rather, it involves a rational choice between multiple inclinations, such as the inclination to eat cookies and the inclination to get in shape. However, it is constrained by the realm of inclination. It does not involve the ability to determine oneself to do something for which one has no inclination at all.

This may sound like hardly any limitation at all, since it is not clear what it would mean for agents to determine themselves independently of inclination entirely. However, Kant claims that this is precisely what they can do. In addition to freedom in the sense of spontaneity, agents also possess freedom in the sense of autonomy, or the capacity to determine their will independently of all inclination.

The argument for this conclusion is similar to the argument for the conclusion that agents can only act “under the idea of freedom.” In deliberating about whether I should act in accordance with one of my inclinations, or in accordance with some requirement of morality which I have no inclination to act on, I cannot assume that it is impossible for me to act on the latter simply because I have no inclination to do so. This is not because it would be wrong to assume so, but simply because from a first-personal practical perspective I encounter no limitation that prevents my will from determining itself independently of inclination.

Kant discusses this issue in the Critique of Practical Reason. He gives the example of a man threatened with execution if he refuses to give false testimony against a man the prince would like to destroy (30). There is no reason to suppose that he has any inclination to give up his life for the sake of the other man, and yet when he reflects from his first-personal perspective on what he ought to do, he can find no grounds for denying that this it is possible for him to do so. He may well intend not to, but there is nothing in the first-personal practical perspective to justify the conclusion that it is impossible, even though it is contrary to all his inclinations. A philosopher committed to the belief-desire model of action would have to reject this possibility and conclude that the man must either secretly desire to give up his life for the sake of duty, or that it is in fact impossible for him to do so. This analysis is forced, and again there are no grounds for it in the first-personal practical perspective. Therefore, the will really is autonomous from a practical perspective. Kant calls this conclusion the “fact of reason.”

So what sort of fundamental maxim should I, a person with an autonomous will, act on? Given that every other person's will is equally autonomous, whatever maxim it is, it must be capable of serving as the fundamental maxim for every person's will. At the same time, of course, it must remain a maxim that I myself can will. Once the problem is posed like this, the solution becomes surprisingly obvious: the fundamental maxim must be, “I will act only on those maxims that I can at the same time will as fundamental maxims for all other persons.” Technically, this is not a maxim in Kant's terminology but rather a practical or universal law, which is like a maxim except that it is capable of determining all persons' wills independently of inclination. This is also what Kant calls a categorical imperative, and the categorical imperative we've just arrived at is what he calls the moral law. Restated in this terminology, we have Kant's famous formula of universal law, the first formula of the categorical imperative: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Groundwork 421).

What does it mean in practice to act only on those maxims that one can at the same time will as universal laws? The formula of universal law establishes two tests that a maxim must pass in order to be morally permissible. First, it must pass the contradiction in conception test, which means it must be conceivable as a universal maxim. In order to perform this test, I ask whether I can even conceive of a world in which everyone (including me) acts on the maxim in question.

A classic example of a maxim that fails the contradiction in conception test is a maxim of false promising. If I want to set myself the maxim of making a false promise in order to get some benefit, I must ask myself whether I can even conceive of a world in which everyone (including me) makes false promises in order to get that benefit. As it turns out I cannot, because if everyone made false promises to get the benefit in question, people would no longer take promises seriously (or at least promises concerning the benefit in question), and the institution of promising would effectively cease to exist. Therefore, my maxim could not even conceivably be acted on in a world in which it had become a universal law.

Because the maxim fails the contradiction in conception test, there is a perfect duty not to act on it, which means that I must never act on it under any circumstance. This can also be called a negative duty, because it forbids certain maxims without prescribing any particular other ones. (It emerges in Kant's 1797 book The Metaphysics of Morals that the perfect/imperfect distinction between duties may not be precisely equivalent to the negative/positive distinction, but we don't need to go into that here.)

Even if a maxim passes the contradiction in conception test, it may still fail the second test of the formula of universal law, the test of contradiction in volition. This test asks whether the maxim could not only be conceived as a universal law, but whether I could also will that it serve as a universal law. A classic example of a maxim that passes the contradiction in conception test but fails the contradiction in volition test is a maxim of universal nonbeneficence, or a maxim of never helping others. I can conceive of a world in which nobody ever helps anyone else, but I cannot will that such a world come to be, because like everyone else I too will need help at some point in my life. Generally, one cannot will that a maxim become universal law if doing so would require willing something contrary to a practical interest that belongs to all human beings as such, such as receiving help from others. Another maxim that fails this test is a maxim of never improving one's own skills, or the capacity of one's will to set and pursue ends (including ends required by morality). Some skill is by definition necessary to achieve any end at all, so a maxim of entirely neglecting one's skills is contrary to a necessary interest of the will, and therefore fails the test of contradiction in volition.

If a maxim fails the contradiction in volition test, there is an imperfect duty not to act on it. This means that one must not adopt the maxim as it stands, but one may adopt a maxim which is something less than the negation of the original maxim. For instance, although I must not refuse to help others all of the time, I needn't agree to help them all of the time either. Instead, I can adopt a maxim of sometimes helping others. Imperfect duties can also be called positive duties, because unlike negative duties which merely forbid maxims, positive duties also require the adoption of certain other maxims.

As we've just noted, however, the maxims required by imperfect duties do not require that we take any particular actions in order to remain committed to them. For instance, I can remain committed to a maxim of sometimes helping others even if I decline to help them on an indeterminate number of possible occasions. Of course, if I pass up every opportunity to help, it becomes less and less plausible to claim that I am still committed to a maxim of sometimes helping. The question of which kinds of practices satisfy and do not satisfy imperfect duties, like the question of which maxims a person is committed to in general, is plausibly a matter of interpretation.

That, then, is the formula of universal law. As we've seen, it specifies two tests for the moral permissibility of maxims, resulting in perfect and imperfect duties not to act on maxims that fail those tests. Now, you may have noticed that the formula of universal law itself doesn't look exactly like a maxim. It specifies a general act to be performed in all circumstances—only to act on those maxims that can at the same time be willed as universal laws—but it doesn't specify an end for that act. Although, as I noted before, the categorical imperative is not technically a maxim, it does still have the form of one, which means that it too has an end.

What, then, can that end be? As with the “act” portion of the categorical imperative specified in the formula of universal law, whatever the end is, it must be one that the will can legislate to itself autonomously, that is, independently of inclination. As with the formula of universal law, once the question is posed in these terms the answer becomes surprisingly obvious: the end of the categorical imperative must be the will itself. There is no other end that the will can set itself that is independent of inclination.

What does it mean for the will to set itself as its own end? Clearly it can't be exactly the same thing as setting other sorts of ends. In most cases we set ourselves as ends things that we don't already have, and by setting them as ends we commit to bringing them about. This can't be what it means to set the will itself as an end, because the will of course already exists. Nor can it mean committing to bring about more wills, i.e., more persons, as a utilitarian would interpret the imperative.

What it does mean becomes clear if we reflect again on the significance of the autonomy of the will. As we saw before, the actions of the will are essentially spontaneous, meaning that inclinations cannot determine the will except by being incorporated into its maxims. This also means that they cannot be normative or reason giving independently of the will. Only by being incorporated into an agent's maxim does an end become normative for the agent who incorporates it. This does not, of course, mean that there are no ends that are universally normative—as we've just seen, the will itself is just such an end. But it does mean that the will only becomes normative through its own autonomous action. And when the will sets itself any other end, the normativity of that end is conditional on its being set by the will. Another way of putting this point is to say that all ends other than the will itself are conditional ends. That is, their normativity is conditional on their being set by the will. The will itself, by contrast, is an unconditional end, because it is the source of its own normativity. Because of its autonomous nature, it is rationally committed to setting itself as its own end and treating itself as the source of the normativity of all its other ends.

The unconditional/conditional distinction is one of two basic distinctions that can be drawn among ends. As we've seen, it is just the distinction between an end whose normativity has no condition or is its own condition (the will), and an end whose normativity is conditional on the existence or activity of something else, as all ends other than the will are with respect to the activity of the will. The other basic distinction is between ends that are intrinsically normative and ends that are merely instrumentally normative. An intrinsically normative end is normative for its own sake, not merely as a means to some other end. For instance, I may take my friendships to be normative for their own sake, so that I would continue to find them worthwhile even if they didn't produce any side benefits for me. An instrumentally normative end, by contrast, is normative only as a means to some other end. For example, I may eat quinoa because it's good for me, even though I don't really like the taste. If it weren't good for me I would no longer eat it, because it's not intrinsically normative for me.

As you may have noticed, the unconditional/conditional distinction and the intrinsically normative/merely instrumentally normative distinction are somewhat independent of one another. Both friendship and quinoa are merely conditional ends, of course, because the will is the only end that is unconditionally normative. In other words, conditional ends can be either intrinsically or merely instrumentally normative. Indeed, the same end can be both intrinsically and instrumentally normative, though of course it can't be both intrinsically and merely instrumentally normative.

The unconditional end that is the will, however, cannot be merely instrumentally normative. As the source of all normativity, if it were not normative in itself then nothing else would be normative either and so there would be nothing for it to serve as a means towards. Like other intrinsically normative ends, it may of course also be instrumentally normative—the will helps us achieve all sorts of other ends—but it cannot be merely instrumentally normative. Therefore, the will is an unconditional and intrinsically normative end.

Kant's technical term for the will is “humanity.” This term has no necessary relation to the biological species homo sapiens. Rather, it applies in principle to the end-setting capacity of any rational being which has that capacity. As a matter of fact Kant does not believe that animals are rational in the requisite sense, though that doesn't mean that he denies that they are rational in any sense at all. If Kant turned out to be wrong about animals, they too could be said to have “humanity.” Using this new term, we can now formulate the conclusion of the previous discussion, which turns out to be the second formula of the categorical imperative, or the formula of humanity: “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” (Groundwork 429). In other words, treat humanity or the will like the unconditional, intrinsically normative end that it is, not like a merely conditional or instrumentally valuable end.

What this means in practice is a matter of some dispute, but like the formula of universal law it has a negative and a positive component. Indeed, Kant claims that all of the formulas of the categorical imperative are just different aspects of one and the same moral law, so they should produce the same duties. One plausible interpretation of the negative component of the formula of humanity is that it requires us not to treat any person (including ourselves) in a way to which that person could not consent. The modality (“could”) is crucial here. The issue is not whether the person actually does consent, or even whether they would consent if given the opportunity. Rather, it is whether they could consent given their status as autonomous rational beings. Things to which persons as such could not consent include coercion, whether violent or not; manipulation, including being lied to; and having their rational capacity destroyed, whether by injury or death (including, Kant thinks, by suicide). All of these cases involve the circumvention, manipulation, or destruction of a person's rational capacity.

To return to the lying promise example from the discussion of the formula of universal law, if I want to extract some benefit from you, I have two basic options: I can either try to persuade you to grant me the benefit, in which case I recognize that the decision whether or not to grant it ultimately lies with your own will; or I can attempt to circumvent your will, for instance by lying to you. In the latter case you could not consent to my maxim of making a lying promise in order to extract the benefit, because if you were aware that it was my maxim it would no longer be possible to act on it, for reasons similar to those discussed with regard to the contradiction in conception test of the formula of universal law. If you knew that my maxim was to lie to you, it would be conceptually impossible for me to act on it, since lying requires at least possible ignorance on the part of the person being lied to. As with the formula of universal law, when a maxim violates the negative requirements of the formula of humanity—when it subjects a person to some treatment to which they could not consent—there is a negative, perfect duty not to act on that maxim.

The basic positive duties required by the formula of humanity are the same as those required by the formula of universal law: to improve one's own skills and to adopt some of the ends of others when they are morally permissible (Groundwork 430). These duties can be derived independently of the formula of universal law by reflecting on the nature of ends in general. As we saw in introducing the formula of humanity, an end doesn't have to be something nonexistent that we aim to bring about. However, it does have to be something we can aim at and realize in some sense or other. Therefore, if humanity is to serve as the end of the moral law, it must not be a merely negative end (one that generates negative duties forbidding the adoption of maxims), but also a positive end (one that generates positive duties requiring the adoption of maxims).

In other words, we must aim at the fulfillment of humanity in some sense. There are two basic ways in which we can do this: by working to fulfill the ends set by a person, or by working to improve the skills which a person can use to achieve their own ends. With regard to ourselves, the former cannot be a duty, because the fulfillment of one's own ends—what Kant calls happiness—is by definition what one aims at in setting any ends at all. Since it's not even conceptually possible to fail to aim at our own happiness, it cannot be a duty to do so. We can, however, fail to improve our skills, so we have an imperfect duty to see to it that we do improve them. The converse is true with regard to duties to others. We can help others achieve their ends, so we have an imperfect duty to do so. We cannot, however, directly help them improve their skills, as skills in Kant's sense are a matter of the autonomous activity of the will, which no force outside of the will (including another person's will) can effectively determine. Therefore, the duty to fulfill the end of humanity entails the imperfect duties of improving one's own skills and helping others achieve their morally permissible ends.

There is one more feature of the categorical imperative related to but distinct from its end. You'll recall that in introducing maxims I mentioned that they are organized hierarchically, with the more general or fundamental ones rationally constraining the more applied, particular ones. As we've seen, the categorical imperative ought to be one's most fundamental maxim, or, properly speaking, it ought to constrain all of one's maxims as a practical law.

This is more or less what is meant by Kant's famous (to some, infamous) claim in the opening sentence of the Groundwork that nothing “could be considered good without limitation except a good will” (393), or as he later puts it, that “an action from duty has its moral worth not in the purpose to be attained by it but in the maxim in accordance with which it is decided upon” (399). To have a good will is (or at least centrally involves) making the categorical imperative or the moral law one's fundamental maxim (properly speaking, practical law) and setting one's other maxims in accordance with it. An action that exemplifies a good will is morally worthy, and its moral worth derives not from the end of the maxim but rather from the maxim itself's being chosen in a way that is compatible with the moral law being one's fundamental practical principle.

These claims are relatively straightforward, but they have probably resulted in more misunderstanding and misrepresentation than any other single feature of Kant's philosophy. As with most such cases, one could wish that Kant had expressed himself more clearly, but the bulk of the blame must lie with interpreters who have paid insufficient attention to what he actually wrote. The main problems with the understanding of the notion of moral worth have concerned its relation to inclination, which as we saw before is roughly equivalent to desire. Many Anglophone interpreters, especially before the renaissance in English-language Kant studies in the 1960s and '70s, read Kant as claiming that moral worth is opposed to inclination, so that an action could only be morally worthy if it was done without desire or even in a manner contrary to all desire. These interpreters paint a picture of Kant as a stuffy old Prussian moralist, admonishing us to do our duty by submitting to an arbitrary and legalistic moral system, according to which our actions only have moral worth to the extent that performing them makes us miserable.

As with most misinterpretations, there are some quotations that, taken out of context, can seem to support this reading. These include Kant's claims that an action that is motivated solely by inclination is merely “in conformity with duty” as opposed to “from duty” and therefore has “no inner worth” (Groundwork 398-9), and that if I am to perform an action “from duty” I must “put aside entirely the influence of inclination” and be motivated by the moral law “even if it infringes upon all my inclinations” (400-1).

These quotes do make it sound as though Kant sees action from duty, and therefore moral worth, as entirely incompatible with inclination. However, his talk of the “influence of inclination” can be misleading. All of these quotations are from section 1 of the Groundwork, where Kant is seeking to elucidate “common moral cognition,” with the aim of discovering the content of the categorical imperative and determining how it could determine the will. As we've seen, the autonomous nature of the will means that the categorical imperative cannot itself be grounded in inclination. However, that does not mean that action from duty or from the categorical imperative must exclude maxims of inclination entirely. It only means that such maxims cannot serve as the categorical imperative, or the fundamental principle of the will.

The real contrast Kant is drawing with the distinction between actions from duty and actions merely in accordance with duty is between the actions of a will whose fundamental principle is the categorical imperative, and the actions of a will whose fundamental principle is a maxim of inclination (what Kant calls a maxim of self-love), but which nevertheless sometimes sets itself derivative maxims that happen to agree with the maxims that would be set by a good will in the circumstances. These maxims are morally right—which just means that they are in accordance with the requirements of morality—but they do not have moral worth, because they are derived from a fundamental principle of self-love rather than morality. They are merely in conformity with duty rather than from duty.

Such actions are possible precisely because the requirements of duty do in fact sometimes coincide with the inclinations of self-love, contrary to what the caricatures of Kant would lead one to believe. For example, Kant claims 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 so far as it is their own work” (Groundwork 398). The fundamental maxim of such a person might be, “I will help others whenever possible, because it pleases me.” Kant describes the actions of such people as “amiable” and “honorable,” and even deserving of “praise and encouragement,” but not of “esteem” (398). This is because the fundamental principle of these actions is that of self-love rather than that of morality. The actions of “sympathetic souls” may be in conformity with what the moral law requires, but that is only because such souls have been lucky enough never to find themselves in a situation in which the requirements of the moral law are in tension with those of self-love.

If such souls were to fall on hard times, Kant suggests, their inclinations might shift so as to no longer be in agreement with the requirements of morality. In that case, if they continued acting on the fundamental principle of self-love, their actions would no longer even be in conformity with duty. If, however, one came across a person afflicted by suffering and without the benefit of a natural love for humanity, who nevertheless helped others just as reliably as the sympathetic soul during good times, then one could be sure that one was dealing with a person acting from duty rather than merely in conformity with duty. Because such a person would by definition have no inclination to act as morality requires, one could be sure that any of their actions in comformity with duty would also be from duty, that is, motivated by a fundamental commitment to the moral law.

This by no means entails that it is impossible for the actions of a sympathetic soul to also have moral worth. They perfectly well can have moral worth, as long as the sympathetic soul makes the moral law rather than the principle of self-love their fundamental principle. Again, Kant's purpose in section 1 of the Groundwork is to elucidate common moral cognition, so he has chosen examples that he believes make particularly stark the contrast between actions from duty and actions merely in accordance with duty. He does not mean to claim that inclination is excluded from morally worthy action altogether, only that it must be subordinated to the moral law. Otherwise the will would not really be acting autonomously at all, but would at best give the appearance of so acting. The requirement to act from duty as opposed to merely in conformity with duty, then, derives from the same ground as the categorical imperative itself: the autonomy of the will.

There is far more to say about Kant's moral philosophy, but if you've followed along until now, you'll have a solid understanding of his fundamental ideas. There are two (some people count three) other formulas of the categorical imperative introduced in the Groundwork, which deal with aspects of Kant's larger practical philosophy, which I discussed in the first part of this series. Specifically, they deal with the relation between his practical and his theoretical philosophy, and with what might be called his social philosophy, which is discussed in his 1793 book Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. Like the formula of universal law and the formula of humanity, these formulas are meant to reveal different formal aspects of the moral law while generating the same content or duties as the other formulas. There are also many other features of Kant's moral psychology and first-order moral philosophy discussed in the Religion book as well as in the Metaphysics of Morals which the Groundwork was meant to prepare for. These issues are beyond the scope of this series, but feel free to let me know in the comments if there's any particular issue you'd like me to write more about.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Carl von Clausewitz - On War Volume 1 Audiobook

Here's another multipart LibriVox audiobook for you, Clausewitz' On War Volume 1 (Books 1-4). Check it out on the Philosophy Owl YouTube channel here:

Monday, May 27, 2013

Introduction to Kant's Practical Philosophy, Part 1

This is part one of a two-part series. In this part I discuss practical philosophy in general and introduce Kant's practical philosophy in relation to it. In part 2 I discuss Kant's moral philosophy in light of the issues discussed in the first part.

Kant's moral philosophy has come to occupy a strange place in philosophical pedagogy. It's the area of his thought most commonly taught in intro philosophy courses and most commonly known outside of academia, but in these contexts it is almost always represented independently of Kant's theoretical philosophy, and even of his broader practical philosophy. This is understandable, because Kant is a difficult thinker, and his moral philosophy is probably the easiest area of his thought for a new student of his to get a grip on. Nevertheless, the detachment of his moral philosophy from the rest of his thought is regrettable, as it leads to a superficial and inaccurate understanding of his moral philosophy, which Kant himself saw as forming part of an organic whole along with his theoretical thought.

That said, I won't attempt the gargantuan task of investigating that unity here. What I will try to do is provide an introduction to Kant's practical philosophy that is accessible to those who have never studied him before, without being distorted or superficial. In particular, I would like to present it in a way that is relatively faithful to Kant's own arguments, so that readers can evaluate it rationally rather than by appeal to “intuition,” which is the prevailing standard in most contemporary Anglophone philosophy, where it is put to uses, including in the evaluation of Kant's moral philosophy, which Kant himself explicitly and insightfully condemned.

Kant's practical philosophy evolved throughout his career, but its first mature statement came in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, published in 1785. This text is divided into three sections, corresponding to a division which Kant made use of throughout his work. In the first two sections Kant makes use of what is called the analytic method to draw out the implications of what he calls “common moral cognition.” In other words, he analyzes commonly held moral concepts in order to understand their structure and their relations to other concepts, without making any claims about whether there is anything in the world which instantiates these concepts. Therefore, these first two sections don't make essential use of any substantive knowledge about the world. Rather, they depend only on knowledge of commonly held concepts. Kant's goal in these sections is to make explicit and to clarify the moral philosophy which he believes everyone already holds, albeit in a confused and inchoate form.

In the third section Kant turns to the synthetic method, which means that he introduces substantive claims about the world—claims which, unlike analytic claims, are true not merely by definition—in order to justify the common moral philosophy he has just elucidated. His goal here is to rule out the possibility, left open at the end of the first two sections, that common moral beliefs—or indeed, any moral beliefs at all—are mere “chimeras of the brain,” that is, concepts without objects or delusions. Moral error theorists, also called moral skeptics or nihilists, insist that this is the case, but by the end of section three Kant believes he has proven them wrong.

Throughout all three sections, both analytic and synthetic, Kant argues a priori, that is, without drawing on propositions that can only be known as a result of experience. This is easy enough to see with regard to the analytic sections. You might think that Kant must implicitly be invoking experience of people's moral beliefs in order to justify his claim to be investigating “common moral cognition,” but he sees himself as analyzing concepts that all persons possess simply in virtue of being persons, rather than making a generalization based on experience. What may seem harder to understand is how the third, synthetic section can also be a priori. How can a substantive claim about the world whose truth depends on something more than the definitions of the terms involved by knowable independently of experience? This is one of the central questions of Kant's philosophy, but it is not one that he addresses explicitly in his practical philosophy, so we won't go into it here. If you want to learn more about Kant's justification of synthetic a priori knowledge, take a look at my introduction to Kant here.

Now that we understand the basic structure of the Groundwork, let's take a look at the text itself. The best way to understand the text is not to follow its exact order, but rather to reconstruct Kant's argument from its foundations. I will, however, follow the analytic-synthetic order described above.

The first thing to understand is the basic framework within which Kant conducts his investigation. This is not an uncontroversial issue, but I believe that the best way to understand Kant's practical philosophy, as well as his philosophy as a whole, is to see it as presupposing that all human activity, theoretical as well as practical, philosophical as well as nonphilosophical, is carried out from an inescapable first-personal perspective. In other words, all human activity must begin with and remain oriented and constrained by the features and limitations of the human mind, considered from the perspective of a subject who (very roughly speaking) is such a mind. In asking any question, philosophical or otherwise, a person must start with “I”—what should I think?, what should I do?—and whatever answer he or she arrives at must be one that can be adopted from that perspective—I should think x, I should do y.

This may sound like a trivial thesis, but it is far more controversial than it may seem, and understanding it is essential to understanding Kant. As I have stated it, it is vague enough that it could probably be interpreted in a form that would make it acceptable to most contemporary philosophers, excepting only the most radical skeptics about subjectivity, that is, those who don't believe that subjects or persons exist in any sense at all. However, in the sense in which Kant holds it, it is a distinctly minority position. Most contemporary Anglophone philosophy presupposes an essentially third-personal perspective, and considers the first-personal perspective, if at all, only at the end of inquiry, when it comes time to issue prescriptions—one should believe x, one should do y. What's at issue is the application of a conclusion arrived at third-personally to the demand by a subject or group of subjects for action-guiding advice. Even in this context the judgement is only trivially first-personal, as I have suggested by using “one” rather than “I.” It is not essentially guided or constrained by any feature of the subject considered first-personally; rather, it is mechanically derived from a conclusion which takes no account of the first-personal perspective.

To see how this works in practice, consider one standard argument for utilitarianism, which is the moral theory that holds that only well-being is intrinsically good (good in itself rather than as a means to an end), and that the fundamental moral imperative is to maximize well-being. This argument invites us to consider our intuitions about the goodness of various things that people take to be good. Take money, for instance. People don't value money for itself, the argument claims, but only as a means to happiness or well-being. If acquiring more money didn't contribute to well-being, people would no longer want to do it. Therefore, money is only instrumentally good, that is, it is only good as a means to well-being. The same can be said for any other thing we value other than well-being. Therefore, well-being is the only good which is intrinsically valuable, and all other goods are good merely to the extent that they contribute to it. For that reason, one ought always to act so as to maximize well-being.

This is a simplified version of the argument, but it is good enough for our purposes. As you can see, it begins with a third-personal premise about the things that people value, then analyzes the way in which they value those things in order to reach the conclusion that they value them only as means to the end of well-being. The argument might be recast in terms of what “we” value or what the reader values, but this would be a merely verbal change, as the argument would still not depend on any features of the subject other than the structure of his or her desires, which is in principle just as accessible from a third-personal as from a first-personal perspective. Therefore, the argument is essentially third-personal, and only first-personal in the trivial sense that it results in an action-guiding conclusion which can be applied from a first-personal perspective.

As I have said, most of contemporary Anglophone philosophy is conducted in this manner, that is, from an essentially third-personal perspective, drawing on the intuitions of the reader or the philosophical community. The problem with this perspective is that it tends to lead to either dogmatism or skepticism, because it fails to address one of the fundamental problems of philosophy: the problem of normativity. I alluded to this problem above in discussing Kant's turn to the synthetic method in section III of the Groundwork, which was necessary in order to prove that morality isn't a mere “chimera of the brain.” In other words, Kant's challenge is to justify the belief that morality has legitimate authority over us. More generally, the problem of normativity is to determine whether not only morality but reason in general has any legitimate authority over us. The question is, do we have any reason to believe or do anything at all, and if so, why?

Put this way, the question may seem trivial. It may seem obvious that we have reason to do all sorts of things, including most basically whatever we want to do, assuming there is no countervailing reason not to do it. However, this response begs the question by assuming that desire itself is normative. This assumption is so common in both philosophy and common discourse as to be almost invisible, but it is not in any way obvious or exempt from the need for justification. The problem of normativity is not that of justifying the authority of any particular reason by showing how it can be reduced to some other reason-giving source, such as desire, but rather that of showing how any claim of reason whatsoever can be justified.

Still, it may be hard to understand why the problem of normativity is a genuine problem. Almost all of us believe that we have reason to do at least some things, and there's no obvious reason to believe that we're mistaken, so why should we doubt our commonsense belief in normativity? There are a variety of ways to motivate the problem, some of which presuppose some degree of commitment to Kantianism, but there is also a motivation that should be compelling to non-Kantians, at least those who endorse what has been called the “modern scientific worldview.”

The modern scientific worldview is a loose collection of views including the following: nontheism, or the view that gods do not exist or at least that we have no reason to believe in them; physicalism, or the view that everything that exists is physical or in some sense reducible to something physical; and naturalism, or the view that science is the paradigm method of knowledge acquisition, and its results are therefore generally to be believed and its methods imitated in other domains whenever appropriate. The modern scientific worldview or something like it is increasingly hegemonic among philosophers and nonphilosophers alike, and yet it does not seem, at least superficially, to leave any room for normativity. In ancient and medieval philosophy, god was often identified as the source of normativity, on the ground that the will of a supreme being is authoritative at least for finite beings. This view is called metaethical divine command theory (metaethical because it concerns the foundations of ethics or moral philosophy). However, the nontheism of the modern scientific worldview excludes divine command theory. If no gods exist, then of course they cannot be the source of normativity.

Other philosophers, from antiquity through the present, have thought that normativity arises from properties such as pleasure or pain, goodness or badness, or rightness or wrongness, which supposedly exist independently of any mind or subject at all, whether human or divine. This view is called metaethical realism. However, the modern scientific worldview leaves no room for realism, as the properties in question, with the possible exception of pleasure and pain, do not seem to be physical, and in any case science does not make essential reference to any of them. Psychology makes reference to pleasure and pain, of course, but not as normative properties. Nothing in the content of scientific theories supports the idea that there is any way the universe “ought” to be, and indeed it seems as though this is not the kind of belief that science could ever reach even in principle, since normative properties are not empirically confirmable, at least not in anything like the way in which other scientific properties are.

If neither divine command theory nor realism can justify belief in normativity, what can? A third theory which rose to prominence in the early modern era is called voluntarism, because it holds that normativity arises from human acts of will or volition. Unlike realism, this theory does not posit the existence of mind-independent normative properties, but rather locates the source of normativity in the will, a prima facie plausible place to locate it. The assumption which I mentioned above in motivating the problem of normativity—that desire is unproblematically normative—is a kind of voluntarism, and its pervasiveness testifies to the plausibility of the theory. What's more, unlike divine command theory, voluntarism does not posit the existence of any suprahuman or divine will, so it is compatible with nontheism.

As it is usually formulated, however, voluntarism has similar problems to those of the the desire-satisfaction theory already discussed, as well as more loosely to those that undermine realism. Although it may be plausible to suppose that the will is the source of normativity, this intuition does not suffice in place of an argument. Furthermore, voluntarism, again as it is usually formulated, does not really fare any better than realism when evaluated by physicalism and naturalism. For one thing, the will itself is not obviously a physical thing or an essential concept in any science, though there may be theories of the will which make it physicalistically and naturalistically acceptable.

More importantly, however, regardless of the status of the will itself, the normative properties which supposedly arise as a result of its acts are not any more acceptable to the modern scientific worldview than those which moral realism posits as existing mind independently. Even if it is more plausible in the eyes of common sense to locate such properties in the will, this does not render them any more empirically verifiable or otherwise acceptable to science, let alone necessary to it. Again, psychology and the other social sciences theorize the will in some sense—they describe the structure and content of people's desires and preferences, they investigate what people believe about rationally and morality and how these beliefs affect their actions—but all of this is a purely descriptive enterprise which makes no essential reference to the purported normativity of the phenomena in question. Most people certainly believe in normativity, including moral normativity, but from the perspective of science their beliefs may perfectly well be “chimeras of the brain.” This does not entail that normativity positively does not exist from the perspective of science, only that science provides no evidence for its existence, which leaves it without support from the perspective of the modern scientific worldview.

Things do not look good, then, for voluntarism as it is normally formulated. However, as you may have guessed, Kant offers a kind of voluntarism which is different from the normal formulations, precisely because it is formulated from the first-personal rather than the third-personal perspective. This is where the radical nature of the first-personal perspective emerges. Remember that in introducing this perspective I characterized it by saying that all enquiry conducted from the first-personal perspective must begin with and remain constrained by features of the human subject, considered from a first-person point of view. This means that no other perspective, including the modern scientific worldview, can supplant the first-personal perspective. The modern scientific worldview and other third-personal perspectives may perfectly well be added on to the first-personal perspective, but they can never become fundamental, and if they conflict with the first-personal perspective they cannot be endorsed, at least not in any simple or obvious manner.

Now, this does not mean that Kant is a theist in any traditional sense, and it certainly does not mean that he absolutely rejects the authority of science. It only means that he rejects the claims of science to be absolute or fundamental, that is, to supplant the first-personal perspective. Scientific investigation plays an essential role in Kant's philosophy, but like all other human activity, it can only be conducted from the first-personal perspective and in accordance with whatever commitments, beliefs, and norms this perspective entails. The investigation of just what these commitments, beliefs, and norms are will be the subject of the next post, which will lead us into Kant's moral philosophy proper.

Jeremy Bentham - An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation Audiobook

Just finished uploading another audiobook to the Philosophy Owl YouTube channel. This is one of the founding texts of utilitarianism, Bentham's Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Check it out here:

Monday, May 20, 2013

Immanuel Kant - Critique of Practical Reason Audiobook

Just finished uploading Kant's Critique of Practical Reason to the Philosophy Owl YouTube Channel. Here's the playlist:

And here's a PDF of the translation the audiobook is based on:

Introduction to Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in the Prussian city of Konigsberg, where he lived until his death in 1804. His work is divided into two basic periods: the precritical years of 1747 to 1770, and the critical years of 1770 to his death in 1804. In his precritical period he was a rationalist in the tradition of Gottfried Leibniz, the great 17th century philosopher whose students dominated the Prussian philosophical scene of Kant's school years. In order to understand Kant, we'll first have to take a quick look at Leibniz and his followers.

Leibniz was committed to the idea that the world of phenomena, or the world of everyday experience, is in some sense ideal or dependent on the human mind, and therefore not fully real. Rather, what is fundamentally real is the world of what Leibniz calls metaphysical reality, which consists of things called monads. Monads are simple immaterial substances with varying degrees of consciousness, each of which contains all of its determinations within itself. That is to say, it contains the power to determine its entire "life history" without interacting with any other monad. Indeed, monads never do interact with each other, and the apparent interaction that a monad such as a human subject experiences in the world of appearances is just a phenomenon resulting from its own self-determination in the world of metaphysical reality.

Because space and time are relational properties—that is, they involve relations between objects, such as “prior to,” “later than,” “to the left of,” etc.—they too are merely ideal abstractions from the nonrelational properties of monads. This can be called a kind of material idealism, because the “matter” of everything that exists is in fact mental or ideal. Metaphysical reality consists of mental substances, and phenomenal reality consists of mental abstractions from their determinations.

Due to the limitations of our cognitive capacities, we humans can merely grasp indistinctly at knowledge of metaphysical reality. Only god can know that world fully as it is in itself. However, we do have innate ideas, or concepts which we possess prior to any experience and which enable us to know things a priori, that is, independently of experience. In particular, Leibniz believes we can know the truths of mathematics, geometry, logic, metaphysics, morality, and theology a priori. By means of innate ideas and conceptual analysis—that is, breaking concepts down into their constituent parts—we can increase the clarity and distinctness of our knowledge, though we can never have absolutely clear and distinct knowledge like god.

In his precritical period Kant's philosophy was structurally Leibnizian, in the sense that it was based on Leibniz' basic conception of the distinction between metaphysical reality and the world of appearances. Already in this period Kant rejected various substantive Leibnizian principles, most notably the principle of metaphysical noninteraction, but we don't need to go into that for our purposes. In the 1760s, however, Kant read the work of David Hume, one of the greatest philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, and the seeds were planted in his mind for a radical break with the Leibnizian tradition.

Hume had attacked the kind of a priori knowledge which Leibniz claimed to have established, arguing that we can only have a priori knowledge of what he called "relations of ideas," never of "matters of fact." These categories correspond to what Kant would call analytic and synthetic judgements. Analytic judgements, or relations of ideas, have truth values that depend solely on the meanings of the terms involved. For instance, the judgement "all bachelors are unmarried men" is analytic, because "unmarried man" is just the definition of bachelor. Synthetic judgements, on the other hand, or matters of fact, have truth values that depend on more than just the meanings of the terms involved. For instance, the judgement "it is raining today" is synthetic, because nothing in the definition of "today" implies that it is raining, or vice versa.

Hume's argument was that there can be no synthetic a priori knowledge of any sort. Rather, all a priori propositions must be analytic, and all synthetic propositions must be a posteriori. Hume's rejection of synthetic a priori knowledge was based on his empiricism, that is, his belief that all of our ideas are derived from experience. For Hume, there is nothing comparable to Leibniz' innate ideas which could give us a priori cognition of matters of fact. Without such a faculty we have no way of knowing substantive truths about the world independently of experience. As a result, Hume concluded that all philosophical truths are merely a posteriori and justified, if at all, on the basis of psychological habit.

Kant saw this conclusion as a threat to the very possibility of philosophy. If philosophical cognitions were based on mere habit, Kant believed, they would lose their normativity and necessity. That is, we would have no reason to believe that they were true at all, much less that they were true in all possible worlds, which Kant considered an essential feature of philosophical truths. We might as a matter of psychological fact be unable to cease believing them, but that is no substitute for the traditional aim of philosophy, that is, to investigate what we ought to believe rather than just what we do believe.

Kant had been gradually moving away from his Leibnizian heritage since the beginning of his career, but his reading of Hume brought him to the conclusion that a radical break was needed with what he would come to call the dogmatism of the rationalists. This didn't mean that the rationalist heritage was to be rejected entirely, but it did mean that it would have to be critically reassessed and placed within strict boundaries to prevent the excessive and unjustifiable claims that had rendered it vulnerable to Hume's critique.

This was the project that Kant undertook in his Critique of Pure Reason, first published in 1781 after a decade of near-total philosophical silence (his so-called "silent decade"). As Kant described it, his fundamental project in the Critique of Pure Reason, also known as the first Critique, was to explain the possibility of synthetic a priori judgements. In order to do this, he needed to introduce a fundamentally new perspective or metaphilosophy, which he called transcendental idealism.

Transcendental idealism is to be contrasted with Leibnizian or material idealism, which as we saw is the doctrine that the matter or stuff of appearances is an ideal or quasi-illusory abstraction from fundamental metaphysical reality. Rather than being a material idealism, transcendental idealism is a kind of formal idealism, meaning that what is ideal is not the matter of experience but only its form, that is to say its spatiotemporal and conceptual characteristics. To understand what this means, it will help to look at the other word in the term, namely, "transcendental."

Transcendental is a term of art that Kant uses to characterize his fundamental subject of inquiry in the Critique: the investigation of how a priori knowledge of objects is possible. His fundamental move in this regard was to introduce a conception of knowledge that marked a radical break with all philosophers who had come before him, both rationalist and empiricist. This radical break consisted in arguing that the objects of our knowledge are not things in themselves, but only phenomena, or things as they appear to us. This may sound like Leibniz' idealism after all, but there are several features of Kant's theory which make it fundamentally different. The most important difference concerns the possibility of knowledge of things in themselves. For Leibniz, as you'll recall, we can attain some knowledge of things in themselves by means of conceptual analysis, although this knowledge can never be as clear and distinct as god's knowledge is. For Kant, by contrast, we can never have any knowledge of things in themselves at all, not even unclear or indistinct knowledge.

To understand why Kant believed this, we need to examine another fundamental break that he made with the rationalist tradition 11 years before writing the first Critique. In his Inaugural Dissertation of 1770, Kant distinguished between two basic faculties of the mind: understanding and sensibility. Understanding is the faculty of concepts, or general representations, whereas sensibility is the faculty of intuitions, or singular representations. Kant claims that we need both faculties for cognition, and that neither can be understood as a merely deficient form of the other. The Leibnizians were his targets here, as they understood sensibility as a merely confused form of understanding. That was how they made room for finite creatures like us with limited faculties of understanding to have some grasp of the world of metaphysical reality. We might not have god's perfect or intellectual understanding, but we do have a faculty that is fundamentally continuous with it—namely, a sensible understanding—which can be improved through conceptual analysis, granting us some knowledge of metaphysical reality.

By rejecting this single-spectrum theory of the relation between understanding and intuition, Kant foreclosed on the possibility of knowing things in themselves. This is because the understanding requires intuitions to work on in order to produce cognition, but our sensible faculty of intuition is passive with respect to its matter. That is, it can only receive its contents as a result of being affected by things in themselves; it cannot actively grasp them as they are in themselves. In other words, we can only know things as they appear to us or as they are in the phenomenal world, not as they are in the world of things in themselves. Rather than drawing a continuum between knowledge of the phenomenal and metaphysical worlds like Leibniz did, Kant placed a precise barrier between the two. The project of placing this barrier and investigating its implications for knowledge is what Kant means by “transcendental.”

Armed with this understanding of the first term in “transcendental idealism,” we can now return to the second and see how Kant's idealism is fundamentally different from Leibniz'. What is ideal in transcendental idealism are the spatiotemporal and conceptual forms that objects in the phenomenal world have as a result of interacting with formal features of our faculties of intuition and understanding. The matter we use to constitute phenomenal objects is not ideal—it comes from things in themselves affecting our faculty of intuition—but in order for us to form a cognition on the basis of that matter, it must pass through the spatiotemporal forms of our intuition and the fundamental conceptual forms of our understanding. This makes the resulting object (the phenomenal object, the object of our cognition or knowledge) ideal in the sense that its form depends on features of the human mind. Whereas for Leibniz both the form and the matter of the phenomenal world are ideal, for Kant only the form is ideal; the matter is "real" in the sense that it is given by the thing in itself. This is the essence of transcendental idealism.

So how does transcendental idealism help Kant achieve his fundamental aim of explaining the possibility of synthetic a priori cognition? The answer lies in what is called Kant's "Copernican turn," which Kant describes in the introduction to the second edition of the Critique as follows:

"Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find out something about them a priori through concepts that would extend our cognition have, on this presupposition, come to nothing. Hence let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition."

What Kant's suggesting is that we use what we've just discussed about transcendental idealism as the grounds for a fundamental reorientation of philosophy comparable to Copernicus' revolution in astronomy. Just as Copernicus reoriented the center of the universe from the earth to the sun, Kant was suggesting that we reorient philosophy from a position that takes objects as they are in themselves as its starting point to one which takes human cognitive capacities as its starting point. Rather than attempting to cognize things in themselves—which we've just seen to be impossible, and which leads to the dogmatic excesses of the rationalists—philosophy, Kant suggests, should turn instead to investigating the cognition of objects of experience, or what I've been calling phenomenal objects.

Because these objects are formally ideal—because they depend on forms of the human mind—they are in a sense "ours," and that allows us to know truths about them a priori, including synthetic truths. The rationalists' attempt to justify synthetic a priori cognition fails because they have no way of explaining why it is that the objects they are concerned with (things in themselves) should conform to anything accessible a priori to humans. If the objects rationalists are concerned with exist independently of the human mind, what grounds do we have for believing that they conform to innate ideas in the mind? Our innate ideas, if such things exist at all, might just as well be what Kant calls "chimeras of the brain," totally unrelated to things in themselves.

If, however, the objects of philosophy are not things in themselves but rather things as they appear to us, or phenomena, this danger disappears. Because these objects are produced in accordance with the forms of our mind, we can cognize them using those same forms. If some forms of the mind are necessary to have any experience of objects at all, then they must be accessible to us a priori—otherwise we wouldn't be able to have any experience with which to acquire them—and thus we can use them to attain synthetic a priori knowledge. The bulk of the Critique is dedicated to exploring precisely this possibility, that is, to showing that certain forms of intuition and understanding are necessary for experience, and therefore do provide us with synthetic a priori cognition.

Sunday, May 19, 2013