On Kant’s ‘Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals’​ — Good will hunting — Part Two

‘Morality’

by Matthew Arnold (1822–1888)

We cannot kindle when we will

The fire which in the heart resides;

The spirit bloweth and is still,

In mystery our soul abides.

But tasks in hours of insight will’d

Can be through hours of gloom fulfill’d.

With aching hands and bleeding feet

We dig and heap, lay stone on stone;

We bear the burden and the heat

Of the long day, and wish ‘twere done.

Not till the hours of light return,

All we have built do we discern.

Then, when the clouds are off the soul,

When thou dost bask in Nature’s eye,

Ask, how she view’d thy self-control,

Thy struggling, task’d morality —

Nature, whose free, light, cheerful air,

Oft made thee, in thy gloom, despair.

And she, whose censure thou dost dread,

Whose eye thou wast afraid to seek,

See, on her face a glow is spread,

A strong emotion on her cheek!

“Ah, child!” she cries, “that strife divine,

Whence was it, for it is not mine?

“There is no effort on my brow —

I do not strive, I do not weep;

I rush with the swift spheres and glow

In joy, and when I will, I sleep.

Yet that severe, that earnest air,

I saw, I felt it once — but where?

‘I knew not yet the gauge of time,

Nor wore the manacles of space;

I felt it in some other clime,

I saw it in some other place.

’Twas when the heavenly house I trod,

And lay upon the breast of God’.

‘Le combat entre le Bien et le Mal, Saint Michel Archange contre Lucifer’, 1897, Luigi Capello

Prior to presenting Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s, (1770–1831), criticisms of Immanuel Kant’s, (1724–1804), moral imperatives a more schematic exposition of Kant’s account of practical reason and the categorical and hypothetical imperative is in order. Recall that for Kant a human being is rational but only partly so, a hodgepodge of reason and desires, for to be free is not to be without desires but to have reason in control of those desires. an idea that is found in Plato, (c. 429–347 B.C.), see my article On Plato’s ‘Phaedrus’ — The Madness of Love, for whom the soul is like a winged charioteer driving a team of horses, the charioteer, if inspired by love of the ideal, is reason or intelligence in control of the good horse (will) and the bad horse (passion). A very dubious notion but one that has persisted down through the centuries. ‘The mere impulse of appetite is slavery’, said Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (1712–1778), (in his ‘Social Contract’), ‘while obedience to a law which one has prescribed to oneself is freedom’. According to Kantian moral psychology practical reason in the form of the pure autonomous will can ‘determine actions’, as he explains in the ‘Critique of Practical Reason’, it is an ‘inscrutable faculty’ in which ‘the concept of causality is already contained … in relation to the moral law which determines its reality’. Practical reasoning has an autonomy which theoretical reasoning can never achieve in virtue of the latter having ‘as its given basis the form of intuition (space and time) which does not lie in reason itself but which rather has to be taken over from sensibility’. Whereas in the former ‘the practical concepts a priori in relation to the supreme principle of freedom immediately become cognitions, not needing to wait upon intuitions in order to acquire a meaning … they themselves produce the reality of that to which they refer’. One may see in this a positive aspect of formalism, the ‘unity of thinking and willing’ of which Hegel supported in fact regarding the two as identical. ‘Since reason is required in order to derive actions from laws, the will is nothing but practical reason’, he said.

Kant was a deontologist whereby the moral worth of an action is derived from the fact that it is performed from duty and he distinguished between, first, the duty to perform an action together with the inclination to do so, and second, between the duty to perform an action and the ‘purpose to be attained by’ it. Hegel, it is said, misinterpreted one or both of these distinctions in that he took the first distinction to imply that only behaviour adopted from duty and counter to inclinations is moral, hence ‘the harmony of the sensuous and the rational … abrogates morality; for that consists in this very opposition of reason to the sensuous’. The same point is made by Friedrich Schiller, (1788–1805), in a dialogue between an ordinary man and a philosopher:

‘Gladly I serve my friends, but alas I do it with pleasure.

Hence I am plagued with doubt that I am not a virtuous person’

To this the answer is given:

‘Sure, your only resource is to try to despise them entirely,

And then with aversion to do what your duty enjoins you’.

Kant did not believe that duty and inclination were entirely incompatible. In his first distinction Kant is not advocating the opposition, on the contrary, but is maintaining that if a person is to act morally he or she must follow duty on principle and not merely contingently, and he or she must do so even where the demand of duty conflicts with that of desire. And the second distinction is also vulnerable to misinterpretation if one were to read it as commanding the moral agent to act irresponsibly and ignoring the consequences of his or her actions. Kant is rather opposing eudaemonism, (Aristotle, (384–322 BC), a system of ethics that bases moral value on the likelihood of actions producing human flourishing or a life well lived), or utilitarianism, (theory of morality advocating actions that foster happiness or pleasure and oppose actions that cause unhappiness or harm), of a sort that would undermine the validity of any general moral principles. As Herbert James Paton, (1887–1969), puts it: ‘If Kant had said merely that we must not allow our desires for particular consequences to determine our judgement of what our duty is, he would have avoided a great deal of misunderstanding’.

Well, ‘I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves’, as Ludwig Wittgenstein, (1889–1951), is supposed to have said although I have never been able to source it so he probably didn’t, but we can imagine him saying it as we can with Kant. Kant’s remarks concerning happiness are certainly equivocal though hardly misanthropic in that the distinction of the principle of happiness from that of morality is not for that very reason an opposition between them and pure practical reason does not expect of us that we should renounce the claims to happiness, rather it expects of us only that we take no account of them whenever duty is in question, it can indeed be a duty in certain respects to provide for one’s happiness partly in virtue of it containing means to the fulfilment of one’s duty and partly in virtue of the lack of it containing temptations to transgress against duty. Taking care of one’s own happiness is a duty in itself albeit indirectly, we know what discontents can be like, and discontent with one’s state weighed down with cares and unsatisfied desires may easily enough become a great temptation to the transgression of duty.

Together with his unappealing deontology Kant also built a system of moral psychology whereby he wished to characterize a particular kind of behaviour, that is to say, moral behaviour, in terms of its specific form of subjective motivation as well as its objective standard of conformity to the moral law. The real and authentic motivation (Triebfeder) rests in the law itself for which the moral agent feels respect (Achtung) and instead of happiness (Gluckseligkeit) Kant suggests we cultivate a more stoical psychological state, that of ‘self-contentment’ (Selbstzufriedenheit) or ‘satisfaction in one’s own existence’. Reverence for the moral law is inspired not merely by its majestic universality but in addition by the realization that its source of legitimation is the moral subject himself: ‘although reverence is a feeling, it is not a feeling received through outside influence, but one self-produced by a rational concept’.

And while the first source of wonderment may seem somewhat distant the second one may very well remind one who has read Jean-Paul Sartre’s, (1905–1980), descriptions in ‘Being and Nothingness’ of the anguish experienced by the agent at the realization of his own absolute freedom:

‘But as soon as a distance separates me from my undertaking, as soon as I am directed back to myself because I have to await myself in the future, I suddenly encounter myself as the person who bestows meaning on the alarm clock, the person who prohibits himself — on the basis of a signpost — from walking on a flowerbed or a lawn, the person who lends the boss’s order its urgency, the person who decides the interest of the book that he is writing, the person who, finally, makes values exist in order to determine his action in accordance with their requirements. I emerge alone and in anguish to confront the unique and basic project that constitutes my being; nihilated by my consciousness of my freedom, all barriers and safeguards crumble. I have no recourse, and I cannot have recourse, to any value to set against the fact that it is I who maintain values in being; nothing can insure me against myself, cut off from the world and from my essence by this nothingness that I am. I have to actualize the meaning of the world and of my essence: I decide it alone, without any justification or excuse. Anguish is therefore freedom’s reflective self-apprehension… ‘

‘What Freedom!’, 1903, Ilya Repin

Objective and subjective factors are thereby united in the principle of moral autonomy: ‘there is nothing left able to determine the will except objectively the law and subjectively pure reverence for this practical law and therefore the maxim of obeying this law even to the detriment of all my inclinations’. This law itself, the law of morality, is founded by Kant upon a particular type of imperative which ‘represents an action as objectively necessary in itself apart from its relation to a further end’. All other imperatives are hypothetical, in that they ‘declare an action to be practically necessary as a means to the attainment of something else that one wills: their object is ‘good for some purposes’.’ The typology of imperatives and this primary distinction can be represented in tabular form while within the realm of hypothetical imperatives possible and actual goods are secondary in Kant’s schema. Hegel does not address either distinction directly but his counter-model to Kantian Moralität is that of embodied Sittlichkeit, (ethical life or ethical order), to be understood in part as an endeavour to re-imagine the schema whereby the legitimating function of the pure autonomous will is re-valued raising a question concerning the sharp separation between possible and actual goods.

Through a re-imagining of the schema Hegel rehabilitated two factors of Aristotlean moral and political thought that had been put out of the picture through Kantian dualisms. First, Aristotle holds that a combination of intellectual and moral virtues is necessary for the citizens of a civilized community, and these include the practical intellectual virtue of prudence (phronesis) that relates to ‘ultimate particular things’, a form of educated perception both of one’s own interests and of those of one’s fellows, and the ethical virtue of temperance (sophrosyne), which regulates the individual’s enjoyments, promoting ‘such pleasures as conduce to health and fitness … in a moderate and right degree.’ Second, for Aristotle there was no sharp divide between the sciences and the virtues of the individual, on the one hand, and those of the community, on the other: ‘Prudence is … the same quality of mind as political science, though differently conceived’. What Hegel is about in moral and political philosophy can be partly understood as an endeavour to breathe some life into the Aristotelian idea of the political community as an embodiment, a form of expression and flourishing of both intellectual and moral virtues, while at the same time making room for the wholly modem divide between public and private spheres and the enhancement of value of the latter at the professional as well as the familial level.

TYPES OF

IMPERATIVE:________HYPOTHETICAL_______CATEGORICAL

RELATE TO

CERTAIN

CLASSES

OF OBJECTS,

THOSE THAT ARE:____GOOD FOR SOME____________GOOD IN

______________________ PURPOSE__________________ITSELF

_________________POSSIBLE_____________ACTUAL

__________________GOOD_______________GOOD

THESE

IMPERATIVES

FOUND TYPES

OF

PRINCIPLE:_____PROBLEMATIC_____ASSERTORIC_____APODEICTIC

________________PRACTICAL________PRACTICAL______PRACTICAL

________________PRINCIPLES______PRINCIPLES______PRINCIPLES

WHICH ARE

MEDIATED

BY:_____________SKILL:ABILITY_____PRUDENCE____NO MEDIATIONS

________________IN ATTAINING______ABILITY IN___THE PRINCIPLE

_______________ARBITRARY END___ATTAINING_____ENJOINS THE

__________________________________ONE’S_________ CONDUCT

________________________________HAPPINESS____IMMEDIATELY

THUS THE

TWO-FOLD

TYPOLOGY

CAN BE

RE-PHRASED

AS A

THREE-FOLD

TYPOLOGY

OF IMPERATIVES:___TECHNICAL________PRACTICAL_________MORAL

_________________IMPERATIVES_______IMPERATIVES___IMPERATIVES

WHICH

CAN BE

GENERALIZED

INTO

NORMS WITH

DIFFERENT

DEGREES OF

NECESSITATION:_RULES OF SKILL____COUNSELS OF__COMMANDS OR

__________________________________PRUDENCE_________LAWS OF

___________________________________________________MORALITY

WHOSE

OBJECTS

IN TURN ARE: __ART (Kunst)________WELL-BEING___FREE CONDUCT

_________________________________(Wohlfahrt)________AS SUCH, i.e.

________________________________________________WITH MORALITY

_____________________________________________________(Sitten)

Notes:

Assertoric: stating a fact, as opposed to expressing an evaluative judgment.

Apodeictic: clearly established or beyond dispute.

For the different formulations of the categorical imperative in the ‘Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals’ see my previous article. And for Kant morality presupposes the categorical imperative and the categorical imperative presupposes autonomy.

First formulation: ‘Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’.

Second formulation: ‘Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end’.

Kant, as I covered in my previous article, applies these two formulations to the same set of four examples, suicide, promise-breaking, failure to develop one’s own talents, and failure to help others in misfortune.

‘Duty’, 1883, Edmund Blair Leighton

Turning now to the first formulation of the categorical imperative and Hegel’s critique of it. ‘Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’. Kant uses the first formulation to show that the forms of behaviour (suicide, promise-breaking, failure to develop one’s own talents, and failure to help others in misfortune) are all flawed by inconsistency.

In virtue of the desire to commit suicide being held to be a form of self-love when that desire is universalized: ‘It is seen at once that a system of nature by whose law the very same feeling whose function is to stimulate the furtherance of life should actually destroy life would contradict itself and consequently could not subsist as a system of nature’.

Promise-breaking is proscribed on similar grounds: ‘the universality of a law that everyone believing himself to be in need can make any promise he pleases with the intention of not keeping it would make promising and the very purpose of promising itself impossible’. Kant employs a similar example in the ‘Critique of Practical Reason’ where he proscribes the’‘maxim to increase my property by every safe means’. Acting upon that maxim, I ‘make the law that every man is allowed to deny that a deposit has been made when no one can prove the contrary. I immediately realize that taking such a principle as a law would annihilate itself, because its result would be that no one would make a deposit’. Hegel criticizes this version of the example as a case of the ‘emptiness’ or lack of ‘content’ of the categorical imperative, for the standard of non-contradiction can be applied only when a given institution or practice (in this case private property) is presupposed: ‘there is no contradiction involved in theft; if there is no such thing as property, then it is not respected’. An enduring theme of Hegel’s critique. Recall these passages from ‘Elements of the Philosophy of Right’:

‘Since action for itself requires a particular content and a determinate end, whereas duty in the abstract contains nothing of the kind, the question arises: what is duty? For this definition [Bestimmung], all that is available so far is this: to do right, and to promote welfare, one’s own welfare and welfare in its universal determination, the welfare of others’.

‘Addition: This is the very question which was put to Jesus when someone wished to know what to do in order to gain eternal life. For the universal aspect of good, or good in the abstract, cannot be fulfilled as an abstraction; it must first acquire the further determination of particularity’.

‘These determinations, however, are not contained in the determination of duty itself. But since both of them are conditional and limited, they give rise to the transition to the higher sphere of the unconditional, the sphere of duty. Hence all that is left for duty itself, in so far as it is the essential or universal element in the moral self-consciousness as it is related within itself to itself alone, is abstract universality, whose determination is identity without content or the abstractly positive, i.e. the indeterminate’.

‘However essential it may be to emphasize the pure and unconditional self-determination of the will as the root of duty — for knowledge [Erkenntnis] of the will first gained a firm foundation and point of departure in the philosophy of Kant, through the thought of its infinite autonomy — to cling on to a merely moral point of view without making the transition to the concept of ethics reduces this gain to an empty formalism, and moral science to an empty rhetoric of duty for duty’s sake. From this point of view, no immanent theory of duties is possible’.

The standard of non-contradiction is ‘empty’ according to Hegel in virtue of its compatibility with a range of different social arrangements and does not enjoin one rather than another, so the ‘content’ is imported more or less accidentally from a given social order. Kantian might retort that the presupposition of an institution or practice does not devalue the moral injunction thereby presupposed. Hence the injunction: ‘You should not cheat at cards’ applies only within a ‘culture’ of card-playing to those who themselves play, but that particular injunction embodies a higher injunction: ‘You should not cheat’, which in turn may stand as an end point of moral injunctions or may embody a higher one still. It is in those terms that the promise-breaking version of the example is defensible and the Kantian retort would be that any social order deprived of all trust and commitment would be untenable hence the proscription of promise-breaking would thus figure nearer the source of all moral injunctions. And so while this may invalidate the general form of the Hegelian criticism of illicit presupposition nonetheless it brings to the fore Kant’s failure to integrate systematically many of his particular examples, thereby the ‘content’ of the suicide example does indeed seem to be imported from some external functionalist account of the human condition, whether theological or biological in character, a criticism with yet stronger application to the third and fourth examples.

Of failure to develop one’s talents, Kant concedes that ‘a system of nature could indeed subsist under such a universal law’, yet one ‘could not possibly will that it should become a universal law of nature or should be implanted in us as such a law of nature by instinct. For as a rational being he necessarily wills that all his powers should be developed, since they serve him and are given him for all sorts of possible ends’. Equally, failure to help others in misfortune, practised as a universal law, is compatible with the survival of mankind, yet it would be impossible for a rational being to will such an attitude as a universal law, since he may himself one day need ‘love and sympathy from others’. This does rather look like the principle of avoiding quod tibi fieri non vis, alteri ne feceris, (‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ .. not a principle I follow.. if I was to do to others as I would have have them do unto me they would probably have me arrested’), which Kant elsewhere in the ‘Groundwork’ excludes on the grounds that it appeals only to selfish inclinations and not to duty. The rationale of the example depends, to put it another way, upon facts about empirical psychology.

A possible Kantian reply to Hegel’s criticism of the first formulation of the categorical imperative may run like this. Whilst conceding that many of Kant’s examples are vulnerable to Hegel’s criticism of ‘abstraction’ and ‘emptiness’ a defence of his general approach can be developed beyond the points already established about the innocence of the use of ‘presuppositions’, in cases where those ‘presuppositions’ are not alien imports but are themselves capable of validation within Kant’s own system. H. L. A. Hart, (1907–1992), distinguished between two components of ‘the idea of justice’: ‘There is a certain complexity in the structure of the idea of justice. … It consists of two parts: a uniform or constant feature, summarized in the precept ‘Treat like cases alike’ and a shifting or varying criterion used in determining when, for any given purpose, cases are alike or different…. (I]t is plain that the law itself cannot now determine what resemblances and differences among individuals the law must recognize if its rules are to treat like cases alike and so be just. Here accordingly there is much room for doubt and dispute. Fundamental differences, in general moral and political outlook, may lead to irreconcilable differences and disagreement as to what characteristics of human beings are to be taken as relevant for the criticism of law as unjust’. For Hart the law has no resources within itself to decide which resemblances and differences are relevant to substantive questions of justice, and for Hegel Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative is equally lacking in resources and enjoins only the first formal procedural requirement of consistency.

But does not even the bare requirement of consistency enjoined by the first formulation (minus any functionalist accretions) imply two strong exclusion clauses, a refusal to privilege yourself or exempt yourself from commands you apply to others and a refusal to apply arbitrary standards of inclusion or exclusion? In applying the formulation thus understood the Kantian would argue that he is entitled to exclude certain classes of social, political, and economic arrangement in the same way that the Hegelian is. But then once again the Hegelian might seize (ad hominem, but see my previous article on the ad hominem and how it is not so much of a fallacy when applied to Kant in the context of his pronouncements upon ethics) upon the blatant set of exclusion clauses, reactionary even for the times, operated by Kant in his ‘Metaphysical Elements of Justice: Part I’ of ‘The Metaphysics of Morals’ (Rechtslehre), to deprive women of most legal rights, albeit it may be objected that Hegel is not exactly in a strong position for criticizing Kant’s position on women. ‘On the relations between man and woman’, he said, ‘it should be noted that a girl loses her honour in the act of physical surrender, which is not so much the case with a man, who has another field of ethical activity apart from the family. A girl’s vocation [Bestimmung] consists essentially only in the marital relationship; what is therefore required is that love should assume the shape of marriage, and that the different moments which are present in love should attain their truly rational relation to each other’.

And not just to deprive women of equal rights but also of participation in politics, and wage-earners of the suffrage. Kant following a tradition of franchise restriction familiar in English political philosophy from James Harrington, (1611–1677), and John Locke, (1632–1704). As always of course the writings of such are open to interpretation. Locke apparently advocated universal and equal suffrage for all citizens (adults, non-lunatics, not otherwise devoid of rights) and for all persons in the state of nature who had accepted the social compact to join the ‘political society’ thus formed and who were compelled to decide on the ‘frame of government’ were necessarily regarded as equal members of the constituent assembly for ‘by nature’ all men (and women?) were equal and equally free, and none had a claim to legal superiority over another. As for the restriction of the franchise to non-lunatics that would considerably reduce the numbers eligible to vote in these current times.

The Kantian may well retort that it is a strength rather than a weakness of the first formulation that it acknowledges that choice between different social arrangements is underdetermined by reason, it simply demands a rigorous consistency in the operation of any particular arrangement within the irreducible diversity of types of possible arrangement. A somewhat cautious, defensive position, for if the Kantian must restrict himself or herself to the first formulation then it is the only position he or she can adopt and it is still open to the Hegelian charge of ‘emptiness’ and ‘abstraction’. On its own, the first formulation may not entail the reactionary exclusion clauses of the Rechtslehre but it leaves room for them.

‘The Promise’, 1888, Henry Scott Tuke

Moving on now to the second formulation of the categorical imperative. A radical Kantian could escape the Hegelian charge only if he or she were to move on to the second formulation of the categorical imperative: ‘Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end’. He or she must be allowed to develop the idea of acting and treating persons as ends rather than means into a standard of legitimate social organization. Such an approaches to legitimacy in our own times inspired by Kant include J. Rawls’, (1921–2002), ‘A Theory of Justice’. (See my article On Plato’s ‘Crito’: Truth in Action). A Kantian would thus attribute legitimacy only to those social organizations whose members operate as autonomous agents in determining the course of their lives within structures of rules which they themselves have formulated and endorsed. As Kant put it in ‘Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch’, 1795:

‘A republican constitution is founded upon three principles: firstly, the principle of freedom for all members of a society (as men); secondly, the principle of the dependence of everyone upon a single common legislation (as subjects); and thirdly, the principle of legal equality for everyone (as citizens) … [M]y external and rightful freedom should be defined as a warrant to obey no external laws except those to which I have been able to give my own consent. Similarly, external and rightful equality within a state is that relationship among the citizens whereby no-one can put anyone else under a legal obligation without submitting simultaneously to a law which requires that he can himself be put under the same kind of obligation by the other person’.

From such a perspective different societies can correspond more or less closely to the standard of legitimacy, and applying to political theory formula of the ‘Groundwork’ that ‘who wills the end, wills (so far as reason has decisive influence on his actions) also the means which are indispensably necessary and in his power’, we can say that he who wills the form of legitimate social organization specified in the second formulation wills the institutional and material conditions necessary for its realization. The nature of the necessity remains open but the Kantian conception of approximation to an ideal type expressed as an als ob (as if … an assumption made so that action, thought, or further assumption is possible. Hans Vaihinger, (1852–1933), for instance, proposed that certain ‘fictions’ such as free will, immortality, and objective morality, should be supported and lived as if (als ob) they were true, because there is biological advantage in doing so) so much derided in the Hegelian and Marxist traditions as an illicit abstraction (easy to see why they thought so in the Vaihinger case) is indispensable to this approach. (For Karl Marx, (1818–1883), see my articles The Visible Divinity — parts one to three). To quote again from Kant’s ‘The Metaphysics of Morals’: ‘Thus it is no longer a question of whether perpetual peace is really possible or not or whether we are not perhaps mistaken in our theoretical judgment if we assume that it is. On the contrary, we must simply act as if it could really come about (which is perhaps impossible) and turn our efforts towards realizing it and establishing that constitution which seems most suitable for this purpose …’

Without itemizing in detail the kinds of condition that might be necessary they perhaps would include the principle of constitutionality, a fuller development of Kant’s own principle of ‘republican government’ allowing for fair adjudication between citizen and citizen and between citizen and government, (a Lockean condition or principle towards which Hegel had some misgivings putting it mildly given the dread that it would dilute the unity of the State, and after all he did evince hostility to contractarian theories of political legitimacy), and the principle of equality, which includes not only political and legal equality (universal franchise and equality before the law) but also that level of economic and institutional equality which allows each to have a genuine, rather than a sham, engagement in the processes which determine his or her life, (Rousseau’s condition, for Kant takes over this idea of Rousseau’s in the definition of ‘republican government’ mentioned above albeit he restricts it more closely to relations of legal reciprocity than Rousseau does. Rousseau extended it to include economic equality)

Kant endorses at the very least formally both those principles but perhaps his most novel contribution is the principle of peace, for in the absence of it all the components of the civilized state of law (Rechtsstaat) are at risk, both from without, in the sense that all institutions are threatened by armed invasion and a fortiori by annihilation, and from within, in the sense that, under threat of war, all claims to the rights guaranteed by a Rechtsstaat (individual freedoms, pluralism, privacy, freedom of information, and so on) can be overridden on grounds of raison d’etat. Kant presented a case for the need for perpetual peace (to which Hegel was hostile) as one of the conditions of true ‘republican government’. (The Kantian condition, that of peace).

While the second formulation is thus more concrete than the first the Hegelian critic may well still object that it is still merely negative in virtue of its exclusion of certain social arrangements without positively enjoining a specific institutional embodiment of itself. So, an Hegelian may contend, even this formulation is neutral with respect to forms of property. To this the radical Kantian could retort that the approach may be called negative but not neutral, indeed, it can be used as a powerful critical tool for excluding forms of property which would reduce persons to the status of means to others’ ends. And upon such a ground as that it would exclude forms which Hegel too excludes for their ‘irrationality’ in the ‘Philosophy of Right’:

‘Only my entitlement to a partial or temporary use of something or to partial or temporary possession of it (a possession in the shape of the partial or temporary possibility of using it) is therefore to be distinguished from the ownership of the thing [Sache] itself. If the whole extent of the use of a thing were mine, but the abstract ownership were supposed to be someone else’s, the thing as mine would be wholly penetrated by my will … while it would at the same time contain something impenetrable by me, i.e. the will, in fact the empty will, of someone else. As positive will, I would thus be at the same time objective and not objective to myself in the thing — a relation of absolute contradiction. — Ownership is therefore essentially free and complete ownership’.

‘The distinction between the right to the whole extent of the use of a thing and abstract ownership is a product of the empty understanding … ‘

Excluding for their irrationality are slavery and feudalism in which the worker’s status as a means receives legal expression, but it could be given a more radical reading so as to exclude also forms of property in which a worker, though legally free was yet reduced to being a mere ‘living appendage’ (as Marx puts it) of the machine to which he is economically enslaved. If Marx’s account of the role of the proletariat under capitalism carries any weight then Kant’s second formulation excludes capitalist property relations and by elimination points the way to albeit it does not positively enjoin an alternative distribution of power relations in society, whereby all of its members could operate as autonomous ends in themselves. (Here remember we are addressing the principles of the ‘Groundwork’ whilst disregarding the reduction of women’s and workers’ (in particular ‘servants’ ) autonomy in the Rechtslehre).

The words ‘never simply… but always at the same time’ in the second formulation leave a fortuitous loophole through which the ‘right Kantian’ if we may so designate them can escape in that he or she can argue that capitalist property relations are compatible with that formulation in that they presuppose the institution of legal-political equality and freedom of citizens as ends in themselves whilst at the same time allowing those same citizens to be used as economic means in the production process. But the left Kantian can retort that the second formulation sets a standard for comparing different social orders as more or less successful approximations to the goal of maximizing human autonomy, whilst no order can wholly eliminate means/ends relationships between individuals and groups, some can come closer than others in all spheres, legal, political, economic, familial, to embodying the kingdom of ends.

‘Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice’ (‘The Cheats’), c. 1618 to c. 1620), Valentin de Boulogne

Ethics, like love, is no easy ride. Perhaps the subject of ethics, like that of love, should be left to the poets, ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’, as Percy Bysshe Shelley, (1792–1822), called them.

‘Hudibras’ (excerpt)

by Samuel Butler (1613–1680)

Is not the winding up witnesses,

And nicking, more than half the bus’ness?

For witnesses, like watches, go

Just as they’re set, too fast or slow;

And where in Conscience they’re strait-lac’d,

’Tis ten to one that side is cast.

‘The Hatmaker’

by René Chalupt (1885–1957)

The hatmaker is surprised to note

That his watch is three days slow,

Though he has taken care to grease it,

Always with first-quality butter.

But he allowed crumbs of bread

To fall into its gears,

And though he plunged his watch in tea,

This will not advance it any further.

To be continued …

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David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.