On Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Practical Reason’: Music at Midnight -part two
‘It is the most striking fact about human life that we have values. We think of ways that things could be better, more perfect, and so of course different, than they are; and of ways that we ourselves could be better, more perfect, and so of course different, than we are. Why should this be so? Where do we get these ideas that outstrip the world we experience and seem to call it into question, to render judgment on it, to say that it does not measure up, that it is not what it ought to be? Clearly we do not get them from experience, at least not by any simple route. And it is puzzling too that these ideas of a world different from our own call out to us, telling us that things should be like them rather than the way they are, and that we should make them so’.
- Christine Marion Korsgaard, (1952 — ), ‘The Sources of Normativity’
Rather puzzling indeed, not that we have values and beliefs that the world ought to be a certain way other than it is, but puzzling that anyone should be puzzled by something that isn’t particularly striking about human life anyway.
Perhaps Korsgaard’s odd opening statement can be better understood in the light of an even odder statement to follow:
‘Plato became Plato when Socrates made him see the problem. In the Phaedo he asks: why do we say that the two sticks are ‘not exactly equal?’ Instead of seeing two sticks, lying side by side, that’s that, we see them as if they were attempting something, endeavouring to be something that they are not. We see them as if they had in mind a pattern that they were trying to emulate, a pattern of equality that was calling out to them and saying ‘be like me!’ And if we see them this way then the pattern must be in our own minds too. You cannot look at two sticks and say: ‘Oh look at the two sticks, trying and failing to be equal!’ unless your own mind contains an idea of the equal, which is to say, the perfectly equal. Plato called such a thing a form, because it serves as a kind of pattern, and said we must have known them in another world’.
[See my article On Plato’s ‘Phaedo’ — Forms of Life’]
But according to Aelian:
‘Plato, the son of Ariston, at first pursued poetry and used to write heroic verse. But he soon burned it all because he despised it, since he reckoned that his poetry was far inferior when compared to Homer’s. He then tried tragedy and even completed a tetralogy, and he was about to enter the competition, even to the point of giving the verses to actors. But right before the Dionysia, he went and heard Socrates; and once he was seized by that Siren, he not only withdrew from the competition, but he also gave up the writing of tragedy for good to immerse himself in philosophy’.
- Claudius Aelianus (c. 175 - c. 235 AD), 'Various History'
Well, maybe not a totally reliable source, but suppose Plato became Plato (the father of Western philosophy), because he was a failed poet?
'No, Plate, No'
by W.H. Auden (1907–1973)
No, Plate, No:
I can’t imagine anything
that I would less like to be
than a disincarnate Spirit,
unable to chew or sip
or make contact with surfaces
or breathe the scents of summer
or comprehend speech and music
or gaze at what lies beyond.
No, God has placed me exactly
where I’d have chosen to be:
the sublunar world is such fun,
where Man is male or female
and gives Proper Names to all things.
I can, however, conceive
that the organs Nature gave Me,
my ductless glands, for instance,
slaving twenty-four hours a day
with no show of resentment
to gratify Me, their Master,
and keep Me in decent shape,
(not that I give them their orders,
I wouldn’t know what to yell),
dream of another existence
than that they have known so far:
yes, it well could be that my Flesh
is praying for ‘Him’ to die,
so setting Her free to become
I asked a question at the end of the first part of this series and left it hanging, how can morality ever be objective? Well, one attempt to answer that question (apart from evoking God as though moral values and duties acquire objectivity through having their origin in divine subjectivity) is moral constructivism, which I will now delve into although I find it a rather distasteful subject albeit that is a good reason for delving into it, to explain why I feel that way. Moral constructivism, the thought there is that principles and values (those things of which why we have them in the first place is such a mystery remember) within a given normative (norms or standards of behaviour) domain can be justified based upon the fact that they are the consequence of a suitable (that is, a ‘rational?) constructivist device or procedure. Therein lies the problem for me, connecting reason with morality in that way as if to be immoral is to be irrational. Moral values are normally distinguished from aesthetic values but I see them as pretty much the same thing. Might not Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804), have been a better moral theorist had he not been so impervious to the charms of music (apart from military marches)?
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted.
- William Shakespeare, (1564–1616), ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Act 5, Scene 1
But are not aesthetic values a matter of personal taste?
Well no actually although there I find myself on the side of Kant, a place I do not want to be, so I need to sort this out .. I will get around to the ‘Critique of Judgement’ later.
In the section concerned with practical reason in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s, (1770–1831), ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, we find consciousness having embarked upon an individualistic turn is unable to find the wisdom and virtue that it had hoped for, indeed chasing after pleasure merely led it into unhappiness, the law of the heart (one’s personal belief about what should be the case for humanity) becomes a frenzy of self-conceit, (consciousness acting in accordance with the law of the heart discovers endless amounts of opposition to its own law as each consciousness out there has its own law which does not parallel with one’s own and if it is to insist upon its own law it has to engage in an authoritarian form of self-conceit, that is, what I believe is the best is best for everyone!), … and virtue reveals itself as highfalutin hypocrisy. (Hegel does a very good job of showing how vacuous virtue is, it is worth familiarising yourself with his thoughts on that topic, though he died a long time ago I find he helps me get my bearings in this modern world). Then in the section that follows, ‘Individuality Which Takes Itself To Be Real In And For Itself’, Hegel inquires into alternate ways whereby contemporary individualism makes it so difficult to dodge moral failures of a similar kind.
It begins with a subsection with a very appropriate title (see my remarks above about other animals beside ourselves who manifest a spiritual dimension as we do), ‘The Spiritual Animal Kingdom and Deceit, or the ‘Matter In Hand’ Itself’. Hegel examines a highly significant feature of this individualistic turn, which is to say, the subject evaluates him or herself in terms of his or her works, that is, his or her deeds and products, which he or she regards as an expression of him or herself, coming to know what he or she is through what he or she can do:
‘Consciousness must act merely in order that what it is in itself may become explicit for it; in other words, action is simply the coming-to-be of Spirit as consciousness … Accordingly, an individual cannot know what he [really] is until he has made himself a reality through action.
- ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, §401
In this manner it may appear that the individual would allow him or herself to be judged upon the grounds of his or her actions but as a matter of fact every act of self-expression is regarded as unique and of equal value:
‘It would only be put down as a bad work by a comparing reflection, which, however, is an idle affair, since it goes beyond the essential nature of the work, which is to be a self-expression of the individuality, and in it looks for and demands something else, no one knows what’.
- ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, §403
This form of consciousness thereby assumes a non-judgemental attitude and it has been suggested that one can find similar ideas in the historicism of Johann Gottfried von Herder, (1744–1803), although Hegel, as I have argued elsewhere (though where exactly escapes me for the moment though my basic premise was historicism is a wide ranging enough a term as to be useless), was not an historicist. Be that as it may, the consequence is that Reason takes up an attitude of gleeful oh so happy self-affirmation:
‘Therefore, feelings of exaltation, or lamentation, or repentance are altogether out of place. For all that sort of thing stems from a mind which imagines a content and an in-itself which are different from the original nature of the individual and the actual carrying-out of it in the real world. Whatever it is that the individual does, and whatever happens to him, that he has done himself, and he is that himself. He can have only the consciousness of the simple transference of himself from the night of possibility into the daylight of the present … The individual, therefore, knowing that in his actual world he can find nothing else but its unity with himself, or only the certainty of himself in the truth of that world, can experience only joy in himself’.
- ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, §404
On the one hand the individual’s scheme of values is really quite relativistic while yet on the other hand his or her sense of him or herself is so vacuous that he or she feels that nothing he or she does can possibly be held against him or her so that he or she can shake off all the spiritual alienation he or she has so far experienced, and see him or herself as ‘an absolute interfusion of individuality and being’. (‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, §405). But as always happens things are not quite as satisfactory as they appear, for the difficulty is that consciousness discovers that its works are an unstable form of self-expression because they persist while it, consciousness, changes, and at the same time the significance of the work is open to the interpretation of others, (don’t we just hate that?), so that its work now appear to stand against it:
‘Consciousness is thus made aware in its work of the antithesis of willing and achieving, between end and means, and, again, between this inner nature in its entirety and reality itself, an antithesis which in general includes within it the contingency of its action’.
- ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, §408
Confronted with this antithesis consciousness now endeavours to guarantee that it will be well thought of by others by making sure it can be associated with whatever is the current big thing or matter in hand, (does not this ring oh so true with these unfortunate times we are now living through?) as then it knows it will be thought of as honest. This honesty is however, a grand baloney as the individual will attempt to assert he or she is part of this worthwhile project even if he or she has done nothing, by asserting that at least he or she has inspired others, or was not in a position to do anything (even though he or she wanted to), or by claiming credit for things he or she has not done. Such baloney rapidly becomes evident to others who percieve that the individual has associated him or herself with their project merely to look good in their eyes, and all individuals thus come to seem hypocritical to one another, as it comes to appear that all action is self-promotion:
‘It is, then, equally a deception of oneself and of others if it is pretended that what one is concerned with is the ‘matter in hand’ alone. A consciousness that opens up a subject-matter soon learns that others hurry along like flies to freshly poured-out milk, and want to busy themselves with it; and they learn about that individual that he, too, is concerned with the subject-matter, not as an object, but as his own affair’.
- ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ §418
Happily ecstatic self-affirmation is thereby transformed into noxious and pernicious cynicism and consciousness then comes to accept that others will participate in the matter in hand and that it cannot expect to keep this to itself, and in so doing it thereby comes to see that the matter in hand is something universal:
‘[The matter in hand’s] nature [is] such that its being is the action of the single individual and of all individuals whose action is immediately for others, or is a ‘matter in hand’ and is such only as the action of each and everyone: the essence which is the essence of all beings, viz. spiritual essence … [I]t is the universal which has being only as this action of all and each, and a reality in the fact that this particular consciousness knows it to be its own individual reality and the reality of all’.
- ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, §418
And as consciousness comes to see that its projects form part of a wider enterprise it no longer capitulates to the self-regarding jealousies and competitions of the spiritual animal kingdom and rather comes to perceive in its actions a moral purpose instead of the mere expression of self that derives from creative activity:
‘Thus what is object for consciousness has the significance of being the True; it is and it is authoritative, in the sense that it exists and is authoritative in and for itself. It is the absolute ‘matter in hand’, which no longer suffers from the antithesis of certainty and its truth, between universal and individual, between purpose and its reality, but whose existence is the reality and action of self-consciousness. This ‘matter in hand’ is therefore the ethical substance; and consciousness of it is the ethical consciousness’.
- ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, §420
Which brings us to reason and morality and you see the problem, reason is a mere tool, like a pair of shears, what are you wanting to use it for? Oliver Mellors trimming Lady Chatterley’s bush? (I throw in such literary allusions to give my ratiocination some gravitas while making sure you are paying attention .. a joke that doesn’t even make any sense but you get the point about tools). A transition proceeds from action perceived as self-expression to moral action undergone to fulfil ethical purposes, and to begin with consciousness is aware of no great complication in setting out to act morally for it happily makes the assumption that each individual can see for him or herself what is right and thereby behave accordingly:
‘It expresses the existence of the law within itself as follows: sound Reason knows immediately what is right and good. Just as it knows the law immediately, so too the law is valid for it immediately, as it says directly: ‘this is right and good’ — and, moreover, this particular law. The laws are determinate; the law is the ‘matter in hand’ itself filled with significant content’.
- ‘Philosophy of Spirit’, §422
Ah but consciousness only has this confidence because it believes that it can decide upon how to act in a particular situation by merely consulting certain self-evident and universally valid moral rules which will tell it immediately how to behave, rules such as ‘everyone ought to tell the truth’, or ‘love thy neighbour as thyself ‘, where it appears that these imperatives in themselves provide guidance for action.
‘Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds’.
- St. Paul, (c. 5 — c. 64/65 AD), ‘Colossians’ 3:9
‘For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a sinner?’
- St. Paul, ‘Romans’ 3:7
Well lying for God is fine if it serves a higher purpose (and what purpose could be higher?) Hegel argues so very persuasively that such imperatives are not of much use at all when it comes to guidance about what we ought to do, for whether or not I should act in a certain way in a certain situation is not something I can determine immediately by consulting rules of this sort, indeed they require additional qualification if they are to provide me with proper guidance, and this qualification makes determining the right action harder than reason at first supposes so that in particular cases these rules may not assist me in the least. For instance, with regard to the rule ‘everyone ought to tell the truth’ this most assuredly cannot mean ‘everyone ought to say whatever they believe’ for people may, and do, believe things that are false, but were we to modify the rule to ‘everyone ought to tell the truth if what they say is true’ then as my beliefs are clearly fallible I cannot be certain in a particular situation whether I should say anything or not. And, with regard to the rule ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, oh very fine sounding indeed, just what we need as a universally applied principle yes? But it can only lead to a good action if I love my neighbour intelligently, according to Hegel, that is to say, do things for him or her that are in his or her real interests, not just in his or her interests as I happen to see them for then my action is little more than a self-indulgence on my part. And yet in a particular case my neighbour’s real interests will in fact be hard to determine so that the rule when properly developed does not really provide me with much guidance at all and appears rather empty.
Hence the notion that determining how to act rightly merely requires nothing over and above grasping a few self-evident moral rules has transpired to be riddled with problems and yet consciousness persists in believing that the individualistic stance of reason can be made to operate nonetheless in virtue of various moral rules making the right action easy to determine, because the individual does not have to rely upon these rules but can instead apply a procedural test to his actions (this is moral constructivism) to guarantee that his or her actions are ethically justified. And that test is the Kantian test of universalizability whereby the subject asks him or herself if the maxim of his or her action can be conceived of or willed as a universal law upon which everyone acted.
In the subsection on ‘Reason as Testing Laws’ Hegel critically discusses this endeavour by reason to present to the individual a way of determining the content of morality. This is his grand and glorious critique of Kantian ethics albeit his attack upon the formalism and emptiness of the Kantian position has been subjected to much nit-picking by those who scarcely understand what he is about and lose sight of his big picture. Hegel’s critique is taken to be the claim that the universalizability test (moral constructivism) itself is empty in the sense that every maxim can pass the test. For instance, Kant argued that making lying promises or obtaining property by stealing from others cannot be universalized (because the practice of promise-keeping relies on participants keeping their word, and the institution of property depends on participants respecting the rules of ownership), and on this view the maxim of these actions can be universalized without difficulty. Well, maybe Hegel never specifically argued that for instance promising could continue to function in a situation where everyone lied or that property could continue to exist in a world where everyone stole from everyone else. And then there is the free rider problem, yeah well, you stick to your ‘universal’ moral principles while I don’t and hitch a ride. But some maxims just cannot be universalized and even if the test is not empty it is insufficient in assisting us in determining how we should behave, for we also need to be told why it would be wrong to act in such a way as to undermine the institution in question in this manner and no formal test of contradiction can tell us that.
In the ‘Critique of Practical Reason’ Kant gives an example of the keeping of deposits:
‘The commonest understanding can distinguish without instruction what form of maxim is adapted for universal legislation, and what is not. Suppose, for example, that I have made it my maxim to increase my fortune by every safe means. Now, I have a deposit in my hands, the owner of which is dead and has left no writing about it. This is just the case for my maxim. I desire then to know whether that maxim can also bold good as a universal practical law. I apply it, therefore, to the present case, and ask whether it could take the form of a law, and consequently whether I can by my maxim at the same time give such a law as this, that everyone may deny a deposit of which no one can produce a proof. I at once become aware that such a principle, viewed as a law, would annihilate itself, because the result would be that there would be no deposits. A practical law which I recognise as such must be qualified for universal legislation; this is an identical proposition and, therefore, self-evident. Now, if I say that my will is subject to a practical law, I cannot adduce my inclination (e.g., in the present case my avarice) as a principle of determination fitted to be a universal practical law; for this is so far from being fitted for a universal legislation that, if put in the form of a universal law, it would destroy itself’.
Hegel does not direct his attention to whether or not the keeping of deposits would undermine the institution of property but he does consider whether or not Kant can supply any reason to demonstrate that a world without property would fail any sort of formal test, for at most Kant’s criterion demonstrates that a certain institution that a given maxim presupposes could not be sustained or given a certain generalized principle and yet the question of stealing depends upon our evaluation of the institution of private property. Hegel’s thoughts upon property focus upon the formal test of non-contradiction to inform us whether the institution of property is to be preferred to that of non-property rather than on whether a maxim like deposit keeping can be universalized and if the test of non-contradiction we apply is to see whether there is some sort of dialectical tension in the position then both property and non-property are contradictory for a system of common ownership involves a system of distribution according to need (in which case some get more than others) and distribution according to equality (in which case all get the same), while a system of private property involves a tension between a thing belonging to an individual (in which case it doesn’t matter how their possession of it affects others) and that individual feeling they are just one amongst many individuals (in which case it does). On the other hand there is nothing logically contradictory in either system and so this kind of testing is inconclusive when it comes to delivering a verdict upon either institution:
‘Consequently, property is just as much an all-round contradiction as non-property; each contains within it these two opposed, self-contradictory moments of individuality and universality. But each of these determinatenesses when thought of as simple, as property or non-property, without explicating them further, is as simple as the other, i.e. is not self-contradictory. The criterion of law which Reason possesses within itself fits every case equally well, and is thus in fact no criterion at all’.
- ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, §431
Let us go deeper. A test of non-contradiction is inconclusive in the matter of institutions but is it that apparent that switching from testing maxims of actions to testing institutions is one that Kant is under an obligation to make? Well, perhaps such a switch is required because otherwise it is not at all apparent why the contradiction test as applied to maxims discloses anything of ethical significance (ethical significance indeed .. note how our moral intuitions are forever obtruding) for even if making lying promises undermines the institution of promise-keeping (for instance) in the absence of promising being shown to be a morally sound institution then this would not show lying to be wrong. Concur how so ever we like that in these circumstances the whole institution of giving and accepting promises would collapse without possibility of revival it follows not that a world without promises would be morally inferior to the existing world. It is a presupposition of Kant’s argument that it is right to keep promises, the very conclusion his appeal to the universalization test (moral constructivism) is supposed to justify.
It gets worse. Demonstrating that a maxim contradicts an institution it presupposes displays nothing about the moral standing of the maxim until we know something by some alternate means , about the moral standing of the institution. Kantian may well retort that this underestimates and misidentifies the moral force of the universalizability test as applied to maxims for this test demonstrates that if the agent acts as he or she is planning to do (by making a false promise or whatever) he or she would be free-riding (see above) by acting in a way that can only succeed if others do not do the same and it is this that demonstrates his action to be wrong in a way that is independent of our ethical evaluation of the institution on which his action depends. I hesitate to quote from Korsgaard who as we know is confused on these matters but: ‘What the test shows to be forbidden are just those actions whose efficacy in achieving their purposes depends upon their being exceptional’.
Does it? Morality I always have the sensation when it is dealt with in this manner to be such a dull affair, what great tests are needed to demonstrate the rightness or wrongness of an action? Moral constructivism as theories go is unbelievably absurd. Does not the the test demonstrate that my action can only succeed if I use the fact that others participate in the institution in order to control their behaviour? The miserable failing of the universalizability test in itself has moral significance and hence it is not at all apparent why the moral standing of the institution relevant to the maxim (property, promise-keeping, or whatsoever) needs to be brought in to determine this. It is apparent that the objections to the formalism of reason as testing laws are somewhat flimsy.
Well, being motivated by kindness I am happy to throw the Kantian moralist a lifeline, what do you expect to achieve? If the test of non-contradiction is purely formal it is not apparent that failing the test discloses anything of moral relevance, and why, if a maxim fails the test, does this show that acting on the maxim would be wrong? And yet on the other hand if the test is seen as a way in which the agent can discover whether or not by acting in a certain manner he or she would be free-riding then it is not evident that the test ‘compares a content only with itself’, (‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, §429), as it then presupposes some moral content as part of the test, that is to say, the wrongness of free-riding, or of manipulating others, rather than determining what is right and wrong through the test and so is no longer purely formal in this sense.
Ah well here Hegel makes a transition from Kantian morality to Greek ethical life for the Kantian must indeed confront a dilemma whereby either the Kantian treats the universalizability test as purely formal but then why should passing this test matter from a moral perspective? Or he accepts that the test has some moral content (in which case he has not shown that reason can distinguish between right and wrong actions on a purely formal basis). The Kantian can thus either threaten the authority of morality itself by attempting to determine what is moral by using a purely formal (morally empty) test or he or she can accept that the test is not purely formal but itself part of morality in which case we have not in fact got beyond a kind of moral foundationalism which just takes certain moral principles (concerning the wrongness of free-riding, for example) as given.
And so Hegel makes a transition from the Kantian standpoint back to the ethical life of the Greeks who were simply prepared to accept the foundational nature of moral principles in precisely this manner, without any attempt to ground or derive them in some extra-moral test. Of course Kant may retort it was never his intention to propose a formula of the universal law and then Hegel can retort ok well you haven’t added much to the way in which we ordinarily determine the rightness or wrongness of our actions by assessing them in terms of substantive moral principles. And so to the Greeks, for whom the whole idea of testing actions using certain formal (non-moral) criteria would have been an anathema. In contrast to the position of reason as testing laws Hegel characterizes the Greek position as follows:
‘The relationship of self-consciousness to them [the laws] is equally simple and clear. They are, and nothing more; this is what constitutes the awareness of its [self-consciousness’] relationship to them. Thus, Sophocles’ Antigone acknowledges them as the unwritten and infallible law of the gods.
They are not of yesterday or today, but everlasting,
Though where they came from, none of us can tell.
They are. If I inquire after their origin and confine them to the point whence they arose, then I have transcended them; for now it is I who am the universal, and they are the conditioned and limited. If they are supposed to be validated by my insight, then I have already denied their unshakeable, intrinsic being, and regard them as something which, for me, is perhaps true, and also is perhaps not true. Ethical disposition consists just in sticking steadfastly to what is right, and abstaining from all attempts to move or shake it, or derive it. Suppose something has been entrusted to me; it is the property of someone else and I acknowledge this because it is so, and I keep myself unfalteringly in this relationship … It is not, therefore, because I find something is not self-contradictory that it is right; on the contrary, it is right because it is what is right. That something is the property of another, this is fundamental; I have not to argue about it, or hunt around for or entertain thoughts, connections, aspects, of various kinds; I have to think neither of making laws nor of testing them’.
- Hegel, ‘Phenomenology of Spirit, §437
The failure of the Kantian standpoint is to take consciousness back to the ethical life of the Greeks whereby consciousness did not see itself in and for itself as individual and as having the capacity to step back from the moral world and ground it in some way but rather it was simply immersed in that world, living unreflectively within its teachings and precepts. And so, at this point, consciousness discovers itself prepared to ‘put its merely individual aspect behind it’, (‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, §436), and so to move from reason to Spirit where consciousness is equipped to see that maybe something fundamental has been lost as well as gained in the transition from the outlook of the ancient to the outlook of the modern world, and that this has resulted in the one-sidedness of reason, (to the devil with moral constructivism) and hence consciousness turns from a consideration of Kantian morality back to an inquiry into Greek ethical life.
by E.R. Dodds (1893–1979)
We are the partly real ones
Whose bodies are an accident,
Whose phantasies were never meant
To fix their unsubstantial thrones
Inside a house of blood and bones.
All day we creep about the brain,
Benumbed and deafened with the noise
Of carnal pains and carnal joys,
That thrust their stupid joy and pain
Across the peace of our disdain.
But when the grosser senses swoon,
Then with dances privily
And the wordless litany
A million ghosts will importune
Our vestal mistress, Lady Moon:
“O undefiled, O lucid Moon!
Hear our attenuated cry!
O little fish of the cold sky,
O swimmer of the void lagoon,
O Moon, shall our release be soon?”
To be continued …