Reading17-RichardTaylor-ACritiqueofKantianism

Reading17-RichardTaylor-ACritiqueofKantianism - A Critique...

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Unformatted text preview: A Critique of Kantianism Richard Taylor Richard Taylor (1919—2003) was a professor of philosophy at the University ' i of Rochester, Brown, and Columbia, among other places. He was the author of numerous books and articles, including Good and Evil (1970), Virtue, Ethics {1991), and Understanding Marriage (2004). He was also an expert on bees. Taylor criticizes Kant’s moral philosophy for being too abstract and intellec- tual. We ordinarily:_thiak___of a person of goodwill as someone with a kindly ' " _ _ Not so for Kant. His person of goodwill acts from __ I ' 7.2.To Kant, acts done solely out of kindness and sym- pathy have no moral Worth. Taylor recommends a moral system less abstract and metaphysical and more compatible with human nature. From Good and Evil.- A New Direction by Richard Taylor (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000), pp. 147-156. © 2000 by Richard Taylor. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. RICHARD TAYLOR: A CRITIQUE or KANTIANISM 245 Kantian Morality- It is not my intention to give any detailed exposition of Kant’s ethical system. 1 pro- pose instead to discuss certain of Kant’s basic ideas in order to illustrate a certain approach to ethics that I think is essentially wrong. For this I could have chosen the ideas of some other modern moralist, but I prefer to illustrate my points by Kant’s thought. I am doing this first because of his great fame and the reverence with which many philosophers still regard him, and secondly because it would be diffiu cult to find any modern thinker who has carried to such an extreme the philosophi- cal presuppositions that 1 am eager to repudiate. i shall, thus, use some of Kant’s ideas to show how the basic ideas of morality, born originally of our practical needs as social beings and having to do originally with our practical relations with each other, can, under the influence of philosophy, become so detached from the world that they become pure abstractions, having no longer anything to do with morality insofar as this is a practical concern. Philosophical or metaphysical morals thereby ceases to have much connection with the morality that is an abiding practi- cal concern and becomes, instead, a purely intellectual thing, something to contem- plate and appreciate, much as one would appreciate a geometrical demonstration. Its vocabulary, which is the very vocabulary of everyday morals, no longer has the same meaning, but instead represents a realm of pure abstractions. Intellectually satisfying as this might be, it is nevertheless highly dangerous, for it leads men to suppose that the problems of ethics are essentially intellectual problems, that they are simply philosophical questions in need of philosophical answers. The result is that the eyes of the moralist are directed away from the world, in which moral pro- blems are the most important problems there are, and toward a really nonexistent realm, a realm of ideas rather than things. The image of philosophical moralists, who are quite lacking in any knowledge of the world and whose ideas about it are of the childish sort learned in a Sunday school, is a familiar one. These are moralists whose dialectic is penetrating and whose reasoning is clear—he grappleSwith many philosophical problems of morality and have many subtle answers to philosophical difficultiesflbut who has little appreciation of the pain and sorrow of the world be— yond the knowledge that it is there. Duty and Law Laws, as practical rules of human invention, find no place in Kant’s metaphysical morals. The Moral Law that replaces them is sundered from any practical human concerns, for it seemed to Kant that our moral obligations are not only quite differ- ent things but, more often__.._than not, are actually opposed to each other. Obligations, which were origirtally'only relations between people arising from mu~ tual undertakings for mutual advantage, similarly disappear from the Kantian mo- rality, to be replaced by an abstra'ct'sort of mom} obligation that has no conneCtion whatsoever with any earthly good. Duties—which were originally and are still im» posed by rulers on subjects, masters on servants, employers on workmen, and so on, in return for certain compensations, privileges, and rights—are replaced by Kant with Duty in the abstract. This abstract Duty is deemed by him to be the sole proper motive of moral conduct; yet, it is not a duty to anyone, or a duty to 246 MORAL DOCTRINES AND MORAL THEORIES do any particular thing. The notion of duty to sovereign or master has always been well understood, and Christians understand the idea of dutylfGod. In such cases duty consists simply of compliance with commands. But in Kant’s system, duties are sundered from particular commands, and Duty becomes something singular and metaphysical. We are, according to this system, to do always what Duty requires, for no other reason than that Duty does require it. Beyond a few heterogeneous exam- ples for illustration, we never learn from Kant just what this is, save only that it is the obligation to act from respect for the Moral Law. You must cling to life, for example, and give no thought to suicide—not because any lawgiver or God has commanded it, not because things might work out all right for you if y0u stick it out a little longer, but just because Duty requires it. YOu must also help others in distress; not, again, because any man or God has admonished you to, not just be- cause they need you, or because yOu care! for them, or because you wants to see their baneful condition improved—indeed, it is best that you have no such feelings at all—but just because it is your Duty. The Good Will It is in such terms that Kant defined the good will, declaring it to be the only thing in the universe that is unqualifiedly good. Now we normally think of a person of good will as one who loves others, one whose happiness is sympathetically bound up with theirs, one who has a keen and constant desire to abolish suffering and make the lot of neighbors more tolerable than it might be without a helping hand. Not so for Kant. Indeed, he dismisses the actions of such persons, “so sympatheti- cally constituted that . . . they find an inner satisfaction in spreading joy, and rejoice in the contentment of others which they have made possible,” as devoid of any moral worth. Human conduct, to have any genuine moral worth, must not spring from any such amiable feelings as these; these are, after all, nothing but human feel- ings; they are not moral incentives. To have genuine moral worth, according to this moralist, our actions must spring from the sense of Duty and nothing else. And you act dutifully if you act, not from love or concern for others, but from respect for the Moral Law. The Categorical Imperative The Moral Law assumed, in Kant’s thought, the form of an imperative, or com- mand. But unlike any command that was ever before heard on earth, this one issues from no commander! Like a question that no___o_ne ever asks, or an assertion that no one ever affirms, it is a command that man ever promulgates. It is pro- mulgated by Reason. Nor is this the humblerationality of living, mortal beings it is Reason itself, again in the abstract. And unlikewhat one would ordinarily think of as a command, this one has no definite content. It is simply the form, Kant says, not of any actual laws, but of The Law, which is again, of course, something abstract. It has, unlike any other imperative of which one has ever heard, no purpose or end. It is not the means to the achievement of anything; and it has no relation to what any- one wants. For this reason Kant called it the Categorical Imperative, a command that is supposed to command absolutely and for its own sake. The Categorical Imperative does not bid us to act in a manner calculated to advance human well-being, for the RICHARD TAYLOR: A CRITIQUE 0F KANTIANISM 247 weal and woe of human beings has for Kant no necessary connection with morality. It does not bid us to act as we would want others to act, for what people want has no more bearing on morals than what they happen to feel. This Imperative does not, in fact, hid us to do anything at all, nor, indeed, even to have any generous or sympathetic motive, but only to honor some maxim or rational principle of con- duct. We are, whatever we do, to act in such a manner that we could, consistently with reason, will this maxim to be a universal Law, even a Law of Nature, binding on all rational beings. Kant does not ask us to consider how other rational beings, thus bound, might feel about our maxims, for again, how anyone happens to feel about anything has no bearing on morality anyway. It is Reason that counts. It is not the living and suffering human beings who manage sometimes to be reasonable but most of the time are not. It is not our needs and wants, or any human desires, or any practical human goods. To act immorally is to act contrary to Reason; it is to commit a sort of metaphysical blunder in the relationship between one’s behav- ior and some generalized motive. Human needs and feelings have so little to do with this that they are not even allowed into the picture. If someone reaches forth to help the sick, the troubled, or the dying, this must not be done from any motive of compassion or sentiment of love. Such love, as a feeling, is dismissed by Kant as “pathological,” because it is not prompted by that rational respect for Duty that filled Kant with such awe. Indeed, Kant thought that such human feelings as love and compassion should not even be allowed to cooperate in the performance of Duty, for we must act solely from Duty, and not merely in accordance with it. Such feelings as love, sympathy, and friendship are therefore regarded by Kant as positively dangerous. They incline us to do from sheer goodness of heart what should be done only from Reason and respect for the Moral Law. To be genuinely moral, you must tear yourself away from your inclinations as a loving human be- ing, drown the sympathetic promptings of your heart, scorn any fruits of his efforts, think last of all of the feelings, needs, desires, and inclinations either of yourself or of others and, perhaps detesting what you have to do, do it anyway—solely from respect for the Law. Rational Nature as an End This Moral Law is otherwise represented by Kant as respect for Rational Nature, something that again, of course, exists only in the abstract but is, presumably, somehow exemplified in humanity and, Kant thought, in God. Indeed, it is the only thing in us that Kant considered worthy of a philosopher’s attention. Because we are deemed to embody this Rational Nature, human nature is declared to be an End in Itself, to possess an absolute Wozrth,-"or_-Dignity. This kind of absolute End is not like ordinary ends or goals, something-relative to the aims or purposes of any creature. It is not anything anyone wants or would be moved to try to achieve. it is, like so many of Kant's abstractions, an absolute end. And the Worth that he sup- poses Rational Nature to possess is no worth for or to anything; it, too, is an ab- stract or absolute Worth. Kant peoples a veritable utopia, which he of course does not imagine as existing, with these Ends in Themselves, and calls it the Kingdom of Ends. Ends in Themselves are, thus, not to be thought of as those men that live and toil on earth; they are not suffering, rejoicing, fumbling, living, and dying human 248 MORAL DOCTklNES AND MORAL THEORIES beings; they are not beings that anyone has ever seen, or would be apt to recognize as human if he did see them, or apt to like very much if he did recognize them. They are abstracr things, reifications of Rational Nature, fabricated by Kant and now called Rational Beings or Ends in Themselves. Their purpose, unlike that of any creature under the sun, is not to sorrow and rejoice, not to love and hate, not to beget offspring, not to grow old and die, and not to get on as best they can to such destinies as the world has allotted them. Their purpose is just to legislate—to legislate morally and rationally for this rational Kingdom of Ends. The Significance of Kant Kant’s system thus represents the rational, logical conclusion of the natural or true morality that was begotten by the Greeks, of the absolute distinction that they drew, and that people still want to draw. This is the distinction between what is, or the realm of observation and science, and what ought to be, or the realm of obliga- tion and morals. No one has ever suggested that Kant was irrational, and although it is doubtful that his ideas have ever had much impact on human behavior, they have had a profound impact on philosophy, which has always prized reason and abstrac- tion and tended to scorn fact. Kant’s metaphysical system of morals rests on notions that are still a part of the fabric of our intellectual culture and inheritance. His great- est merit is that he was consisrent. He showed us what sort of metaphysic of morals we must have—if we suppose that morality has any metaphysic, or any logic and method of its own. He showed what morality must be if we suppose it to be some— thing rational and at the same time nonempirical or divorced from psychology, anthropology, or any science. That general conception of morals is, of course, still common in philosophy, and still permeates judicial thought, where it expresses itself in the ideas of guilt and desert. A man is thought to be “deserving” of punishment if he did, and could have avoided doing, something “wrong.” Our basic moral presup- positions, in short, are still very much the same as Kant’s, and Kant shows where they lead. We still assume, as he did, a basic dichotomy between what in fact is and what morally ought to be, between what the Greeks called convention and nature. Like the Greeks, and like Kant, we still feel a desperate need to know what, by nature or by some natural or rational moral principle, ought to be. Kant was entirely right in insisting that no knowledge of what in fact is—no knowledge of human nature, of history, of anthropology, or psychology—can yield this knowledge. But Kant did not consider, and many philosophical minds still think it somehow perverse to consider, that there may be no such knowledge—and not merely because no one has managed to attain it, but because there may really-fire nothing there to know in the first place. There may be no such thing as a t-irue._.;tno_rality. Perhaps the basic facts of morality are, as Protagoras thought, conventions; that is, the practical formulas, some work- able and some not, for enabling us'to achieve whatever ideals and aspirations happen to move them. In the Kantian scheme, such considerations have nothing to do with morality which is concerned, not with what is, but with what morally ought to be, with what is in his strange sense commanded. According to the Protagorean scheme, on the other hand, such considerations exhaust the whole subject of morals. Here we are, human beings, possessed of needs, feelings, capacities, and aims that are for the most part not of our creation but are simply part of our endowment as human -.=mm_a. RICHARD TAYLOR: A CRITIQUE OF KANTIANISM 249 beings. These are the grist, the data, and the subject matter of morals. The problem is how we get from where we are to where we want to go. It is on our answer to this question that our whole happiness and our worth as human beings depends. Our prob- lem is not whether Our answers accord with nature or even with truth. Our problem is to find those answers that do in fact work, whose fruits are sunlight, warmth, and satisfaction in our lives as we live them. ...
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