The Nightmare of Things-In-Themselves.


Having tried to follow the recent discussions of various realisms, I have always wondered about the sort of a picture of reality that one would have were one to agree with a realist position, even if a very speculative (and entertaining) one – Harman does a good job of describing his fictive reality, yet still one wonders what it would be like to actually live in one. I think my main (philosophical) concern has always been with the peculiar distinction between “is” and “ought” both in a metaphysical and ethical sense: metaphysically, if I am using this term correctly, of course, the distinction could be the one between “actual” and “potential”; ethically, it is a distinction between “I do” and “I ought to do” – at least this is what it seems like to me. Before I cite some passages from Kant (as I usually do), I’d like to summarize my issues, if you’re interested in a specific text I am thinking of, you can read on and see if my reading of it makes sense.

As I think about a philosophical view that would claim that there is no significant philosophical problem when it comes to the distinction between the way we perceive things and the way they are in themselves, i.e. the distinction itself is affirmed (I’m yet to see a realist position that completely disregards the fact that it is humans who perceive objects) but it is not presented as a major issue, I wonder if there is any possibility of prescription in such a view of reality. In other words, if we ask an old question – why should I be moral? – then the issue here is not simply of moral motivation (self-interest, pleasure, utility etc etc), but of the possibility of any sort of moral necessity, in fact, if we take Kant’s moral theory as a model here, then any necessity, period. Does reason prescribe at all, or does it simply describe?  It seems to me that in the world of things in themselves (assuming that our perception of them coincides perfectly with the way they are in themselves), of things without any input from human understanding, there can never be any sort of a consistent ethical or political theory. That is, no knowledge of what is right, only a competition of opinions.

That metaphysical pictures do have ethical (and maybe political) consequences could be illustrated by an interesting passage from Kant’s third Critique – closer to the end of the book’s second section on teleology, Kant paints a picture of the world where things as they appear to us are in fact things as they are in themselves – not in so many words, but I think one can certainly see the description in §76:

It is absolutely necessary for the human understanding to distinguish between the possibility and the actuality of things. The reason for this lies in the subject and the nature of its cognitive faculties. For if two entirely heterogeneous elements were not required for the exercise of these faculties, understanding for concepts and sensible intuition for objects corresponding to them, then there would be no such distinction (between the possible and the actual). That is, if our understanding were intuitive, it would have no objects except what is actual. Concepts (which pertain merely to the possibility of an object) and sensible intuitions (which merely give us something, without thereby allowing us to cognize it as an object) would both disappear. [5:402]

This section, of course, is a continuation of Kant’s central argument that we need to distinguish between sensible intuitions, categories of understanding and concepts of reason – see your Kant 101 for more on that. Now Kant will argue that this triple constitution is this way and not any other way in the whole of his critical work, and, of course, not everyone can agree with that, so I think if we keep the Kantian jargon to the minimum here, we can still see the point of his observation about the necessity to distinguish between “possible” and “actual” – let’s imagine, Kant says, what it would be like if we knew things as they are in themselves, i.e if there was no distinction between the way I see this table and the table as it is in itself; let’s imagine, in other words, that I am looking at this table without asking a question of correspondence between my subjective perception and its objective reality, because if these two coincide, then there’s no reason to make the distinction.  To put it differently, let’s go through Cartesian meditations and establish that what appears “clearly and distinctly” is, in fact, the way it appears. If a very simple definition of any realism is that is accepts the idea that things exist independently of my perception of them (in which case, by the way, Kant would be a realist), in this case, when I discount any possible discrepancy between the way I see the table and the way it is (of course, taking into consideration, again, Cartesian argument about the possibility of error) I basically state that I can know things as they are in themselves (whatever method I choose to do so).

So, what do we have then? I am certainly a human with a specific perceptual apparatus, I don’t think anyone denies the fact that it is I who perceive all these objects, but since I am able to both perceive things and know what those things are like when I am not perceiving them, i.e. since things as they appear to me and things as they are in themselves are same things (basically, of course,  we can incorporate observations from, say, phenomenology concerning things like adumbrations and such), does that mean that the distinction between “potentiality” and “actuality” is gone? Kant does not suggest, it seems, that things no longer come into existence or cease to exist, but that human understanding requires that we are able to distinguish between potentiality and actuality, regardless of all the other Kantian doctrines that we might or might not agree with. That is, let us assume that Kant is only correct on this one matter: human understanding needs to distinguish between what is actual and what is not, that this is the most basic and fundamental distinction that is absolutely necessary in order for any knowledge to be able to take place.

Kant continues:

Now, however, all of our distinction between the merely possible and the actual rests on the fact that the former signifies only the position of the representation of a thing with respect to our concept and, in general, our faculty for thinking, while the latter signifies the positing of the thing in itself (apart from this concept). Thus the distinction of possible from actual things is one that is merely subjectively valid for the human understanding, since we can always have something in our thoughts although it does not exist, or represent something as given even though we do not have any concept of it. The propositions, therefore, that things can be possible without being actual, and thus that there can be no inference at all from mere possibility to actuality, quite rightly hold for the human understanding without that proving that this distinction lies in the things themselves.

The distinction between “actual” and “potential” is the distinction that human understanding makes, it is not found in things themselves. Kant, of course, assumes that his long critical project and accompanying explanations and arguments are successful so he does not have to explain himself in this case in great detail, but let’s assume we know nothing of that sort of argumentation and just take the passage as it is: we can certainly think of things that are not actual, that cannot be found in reality – let’s say we thought up a unicorn and then, assuming that we can know things as they are in themselves, we took a careful look around (and maybe read some books that have other people’s observations) and we agreed that unicorns do not exist actually, but only potentially. In other words, one does not need to be a Kantian to accept the above paragraph’s validity.

This is where I think Kant’s argument is going: if we all accept the validity of the distinction between possibility and actuality and that we cannot infer actuality from possibility (see old arguments regarding the ontological proof of the existence of God, for example), then all that means (minimally) is that we distinguish between thinking (potentiality) and intuiting (actuality). Whatever Kantian arguments about the mechanics of intuition, understanding and reason are, this distinction between thinking and sensing has nothing really controversial about it, does it? However, if we imagine a being without such distinction, it would be something like this:

For an understanding to which this distinction did not apply, all objects that I cognize would be (exist), and the possibility of some that did not exist, i.e., their contingency if they did exist, as well as the necessity that is to be distinguished from that, would not enter into the representation of such a being at all. [5:403]

For a being of that sort, in other words, all objects just are. There is not only no need for moral language here, there’s not possibility of any sort of “ought” in general – things just are, let’s say that they are in accordance with a complex system of necessary laws, laws of nature, absolute necessity of scientific picture of the world. My issues here is that with all the admiration directed at science, all the envy of scientific precision and progress in describing reality, I don’t see how scientific picture of the world can actually concern itself with ethical dimension of life? It seems that the kind of admiration one has for precision of mathematics is an admiration for calculability and efficiency. There is no room for ethics, no room for any sort of prescriptive code of human co-existence, no room for law either, no room for any sort of prescriptive politics, no room for the discourse on human rights and so on.

To cut this postshort, i.e. to skip some logical step for the sake of brevity, one might say that there is really no freedom in the world without the distinction betwen possible and actual. The lack of the distinction between what is (actual) and what could be (possible)  is making it impossible for us to decide what should be:

Now since here, however, the objective necessity of the action, as duty, is opposed to that which it, as an occurrence, would have if its ground lay in nature and not in freedom (i.e., in the causality of reason), and the action which is morally absolutely necessary can be regarded physically as entirely contingent (i.e., what necessarily should happen often does not), it is clear that it depends only on the subjective constitution of our practical faculty that the moral laws must be represented as commands (and the actions which are in accord with them as duties), and that reason expresses this necessity not through a be (happening) but through a should-be: which would not be the case if reason without sensibility (as the subjective condition of its application to objects of nature) were considered, as far as its causality is concerned, as a cause in an intelligible world, corresponding completely with the moral law, where there would be no distinction between what should be done and what is done, between a practical law concerning that which is possible through us and the theoretical law concerning that which is actual through us.

In other words, there is no way to argue for a necessity of a moral action – no “should be” – in the world without the distinction between “potential” and “actual” (things as they appear to us, as they are intuited and thought, and things as they are in themselves, assuming we have an access to them independently of our understanding), there is no moral obligation, as Kant understands, there is no absolutely necessary duty, there are no commands. Methodical extermination of Jews in such a world would be as justified as Nürnberg‘s trials arguments against the Nazi crimes…

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31 thoughts on “The Nightmare of Things-In-Themselves.

  1. Hey Mikhail,

    Just wanted to say that this strikes me as exactly right! The fault lines separating ‘correlationist’ and ‘speculative realist’ thinking really seems to be a rather basic either/or of normative/metaphysical, which can be variously reformulated in terms of potency/act, possibility/actuality, ought/is, concept/intuition, etc.

    Do you think, then, that SR is somehow reductive in its philosophical method, perspective?

  2. I thought I would lure you out of hiding with a Kant post – actually, I don’t really know if I can yet answer the question concerning SR or any other realism, it seems to me that, although the passage above is something Kant talks about all the time, it seems, I think the real implications of a realism (not naive, of course, I’m not trying to be mean here) need to be thought through before we commit to it.

    I know that in Kant there’s a tendency to present his conclusions as solid and established, so it’s never really a matter of choice – and he certainly has the right to do so after hundreds of pages he spends justifying his views – but even if we dismiss him as a “correlationist” and if we do so because his views are too constricting, say, when it comes to our appreciation or even use of science, we need to ask ourselves a series of questions about the practical implications of realist position. I think there’s a certain joy in being freed from the old traditional position, a kind of emotion that prevents us from asking important questions.

    Of course, my observations would only matter if it is a matter of choice between Kant’s view (although one is advised to say “idealism” here, it is of course not the case, see Kant’s refutation of idealism) and realism, and I don’t know if it is so…

  3. I think the short version would be going back to our discussion of normativity – how can (speculative) realism ground normativity? where does the “ought” come from? and not just a “moral ought” but any “ought” – anything from “I ought to go for a walk now before it starts snowing again” to “one ought not to pay women less than men for doing the same job”…

  4. Ha! I suppose I’m nothing if not predictable….

    About Realism: yes I agree. Although, from my limited experience with various forms of realism (ethical, epistemological, metaphysical, mathematical), I have a hard time thinking of it as a position that can be coherently presented (in fact, it’s this weird feature of realism that constantly pushes into idealism — or into some kind of Adornoian philosophy of non-identity, rather than say ‘difference’).

    Ultimately, ‘Realism’ seems to founder on a basic ‘representational’ problem: what makes a representation ‘accurate,’ ‘true,’ ‘meaningful,’ ‘rationally motivating,’ ‘ethically binding’ — take your pick — is something ‘out there’ in the world. Simply put, Realism involves a theory of reference (this is certainly true for Meillassoux, although he tries to avoid the problem by talking about the meaning of scientific statements, rather than the reference of scientific notions, or propositions). But reference is a particular form of correlation (for Meillassoux, the reference fixer is Mathematical, but I fail to see why math is any less correlational than husserlian intuition). So, in a certain sense, I take the normative problematic to be a thin edge of the wedge, which ultimately separates realism from coherent, anti-realist positions.

  5. [not to break up the Kant party]

    Mikhail,

    I think my big problem with Kant is that he partakes in a primary philosophical mistake, which is to epistemically treat the philosophical problem itself as a Self/World binary. The mind on this side of the equation, the World on that side. However do we connect them? When he passes into moral theory he comes closer to the answer, but he does not connect it all together. The connection between the concepts in the mind and the world is through others, a third point which composes a triangle. This is what makes up the normative component in any description (and no binary correlationism is needed). Norms are implicit in any description, but one must move to the interlocking relationships of the social (and not into the depths of the categorical mind) to find them.

    Anyone who pays attention to how we actually learn the meaning of words, and what things “are” understands that this is primarily a subjective/intersubjective/objective triad, something that develops over a process of interaction with both the world and other persons.

    I do agree with you that SR suffers from an ethical disjunction, but I don’t think that Kant provides the answer here. The world is more material, bodily and pragmatic than that.

    I wonder what you would think of my is/ought post of the past:

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2008/05/29/thinking-about-is-and-ought-how-to-get-ought-from-a-fork/

  6. I would also add…

    M.E: “In other words, there is no way to argue for a necessity of a moral action – no “should be” – in the world without the distinction between “potential” and “actual” (things as they appear to us, as they are intuited and thought, and things as they are in themselves, assuming we have an access to them independently of our understanding), there is no moral obligation, as Kant understands, there is no absolutely necessary duty, there are no commands.”

    Kvond: Are you under the belief that if such a theory did not exist that duty, or commands or moral obligation would pass away? As it turns out the world by and large operates quite fine without a theory of ethical action. I also wonder, how much ethical activity does one imagine was actually generated by Kant’s argument since its inception? How many people have been convinced to do this rather than that, or be this rather than that? Do you consider Kant’s ethics a moral force?

  7. Kevin, there’s no way to break up this Kant party (or should we say das Kantfest), it’s always on.

    I don’t think it’s fair to say that Kant deals with the same self/world distinction that philosophers before him (or after him) dealt with, that’s his whole project of overcoming rationalism/empiricism dualism (rationalism is on the side of self, empiricism – the world) – I think Kant overcomes the mistake that you point out, he does not partake in it.

    Norms are implicit in any description, but one must move to the interlocking relationships of the social (and not into the depths of the categorical mind) to find them.

    I’m not sure I understand this, if you don’t mind elaborating a bit – how is prescriptive implicit in descriptive? I think Kant’s argument is precisely that one cannot arrive at any sort of necessity or obligation from any empirical evidence.

    …the world by and large operates quite fine without a theory of ethical action.

    Sorry, taking a bit out of context, but I don’t think this is a statement that can really be justified in any sort of argumentative way, it’s too general – I mean I can either agree or disagree here, but certainly we won’t be arguing, we would be comparing notes. Does the world operate without a theory of ethical action? How would one even begin to answer this question? Ask people of the world?

    Whether Kant’s ethics is a moral force I don’t know, I know Kant’s way of thinking about ethics was and is very influential in philosophical circles, but then again how would one argue for such an assertion? I think Kant does pose the problem of the “ought” in a very thought-provoking way, the way that, say, “virtue ethics” or just simple “this is how we do it” approaches fail to do…

  8. I point out in my linked post that once one makes the linguistic turn, “This is cat” (ostensive defintion, pointing) certainly contains the imperative “You should call this a cat”. The obligation is the coherence of communication, implicit in forming a community of language users.

    As to whether the world operates with calls to duty and the following of commands without a great portion of it never having heard of Kant I think is a pretty non-contestable observation.

  9. One doesn’t have to know of Kant to operate “with calls to duty” – in fact, I think it’s precisely the point of Kant’s moral theory being deduced from the assumption that we are all rational beings. I thought your initial proposition was that “the world by and large operates quite fine without a theory of ethical action” – I am a bit confused now: are you saying that people are just fine without any ethical theory or that they are ethical without ever having read or heard of Kant?

    Again, what is a non-contestable observation to us is not so non-contestable to someone else, even if all of us agreed (somehow) that something is pretty non-contestable, it does not make it absolutely necessary, according to Kant, as far as I can tell, it makes it all “common sense” and Kant has plenty to say about that.

    “This is cat” (ostensive defintion, pointing) certainly contains the imperative “You should call this a cat”.

    I really don’t see how – do I have to accept the rules of the “linguistic turn” in order to see this? why should I? If I point to my TV and say “This is cat” what happens then? I don’t think that normative is such an easy thing to come about as a simple pointing, at least for Kant “is” is never quite easily transformed into “ought”…

  10. If you continue to turn to make the kinds of tv/cat confusions in the world, no longer will you be in a community of language users, and your imperative will have no weight.

    As to whether or not people follow calls to duty, the point is, you have argued that if we follow SR, we will have no rigorous metaphysical theory of ethical action. And I say, who cares? What does a theory of ethical action do for you?

  11. Good points. I still don’t see how pointing leads to imperatives unless you mean something like “forcing” or “violence” in which case it is a command but it does not have the necessary “ought” attached to it, just brute force.

    I didn’t actually say anything about “rigorous metaphysical theory of ethical action” – I wondered what kind of ethics a realism (any realism) would have to have based on the fact that I find it difficult to see how one comes up with a normative statement that is more or less rational and not, as in case of pointing and naming, a simple case of an arbitrary commands – if enough of “us” refer to TVs as “cats” then it will be “you” who are excluded from the community of language users, not “us” – might makes right.

    As for “who cares?” – I care, because I find the assertion that people act ethically without knowing what “ethics” is a bit strange, it simply means that they are either following orders (Eichmann defense) or are irrational and therefore do not really make any sort of ethical choices – there’s a habit, there is no ethics…

  12. Great post, Mikhail! Of late, I’ve really been enjoying these conversations. Somehow they seem to have become much more polite and friendly, and also much more productive. It’s terrific. One of the things that strikes me in your discussion of Kant’s is/ought distinction and his moral theory is that your position doesn’t sound very Kantian at all! I do not intend this as an insult, but as a good thing. What I have in mind is that if I understand Kant’s deontological ethics properly, the consequences of an action are irrelevant to its moral worth. The categorical imperative, Kant tells us, is a fact of reason. It doesn’t take on its moral worth or value with reference to its consequences. Consequently, for Kant, I am obligated to tell the truth even if that truth, say, leads to the destruction of the world. What strikes me in your discussions of the ought is that you’re constantly referring to the consequences of a world without the ought and the beneficial consequences of a world with the ought. That is, your position seems to fall more in the utilitarian camp than the Kantian camp insofar as you seem to find these issues important by virtue of their ability to bring us collective happiness and to diminish human suffering. As an ethical consequentialist myself, I’m very sympathetic to this position. An ethics that isn’t about promoting happinness, bringing about flourishing communities, insuring social justice and peace, increasing freedom, etc., just doesn’t strike me as worth a whole lot. But these are all consequentialist aims.

    I’m confused as to how realism leads to the destruction of the ought or the absence of morality, as moral theory strikes me as being distinct from metaphysics. The realist is committed to the claim that certain things are is they are independent of humans. Thus, if the big bang took place it was a real event, independent of humans, that really occurred. What the realist rejects in Kant is the idea that we can only know the world for-us and must remain skeptical as to whether or not it is this way in-itself. But this is a strictly metaphysical issue pertaining to the being of objects. How does this prevent us from talking about norms or values? Recalling that Meillassoux distinguishes between primary and secondary qualities, Meillassoux in no way suggests that secondary qualities don’t exist. Meillassoux is perfectly happy, for example, to agree that secondary qualities like the taste of my coffee are relational such that they do not exist in the coffee itself, but only in the coffee’s relationship to my body. Why couldn’t we see norms and values as secondary qualities are relational, pertaining to how humans relate to the world and other around them. This, for example, was how Spinoza thought about values as can be seen in the appendix to part one of the Ethics. Conceivably one could be a Kantian about morality, advocating a deontological ethics, and a realist about metaphysics. This, indeed, would be the predominant position of modern thought, distinguishing between the world of the human (values, culture) and the world of nature.

    Additionally, I’m also unsure as to why realism entails the absence of epistemology. The realist, of course, is obligated to give an account of how we come to know primary qualities. The realist can agree that we have to perceive things or sense them (though I think models of knowledge based on perception fail to understand how science works as a collective enterprise), that we only encounter things in profiles, that we need an account of reference, and all the rest. All the realist is committed to is that there are some things that we can know as they exist in themselves.

  13. Hey all,

    I don’t mean to answer for Mikhail, viz. Kant and consequentialism, but I think a quick response might in fact be enough to clarify Levi’s question. First off, Kant’s ‘litmus test’ for ethical action depends entirely on consequence — although ‘consequence’ is understood in terms of the coherence or consistency of one’s individual action with those around oneself — Hence why he talks of a kingdom of ends (the ultimate consequence of all ethical action, something like a heaven on earth, actually). So, for example, when determining whether I should blow through a red light in my car because I’m in a hurry, I propose a counterfactual situation in which everyone does that, and quickly realize that no one could safely drive a car, etc. The universalization of my action — treating it as if through my will alone it could become a natural law — generates a situation that is unliveable. etc etc. From at least my view of Kant, Mikhail has actually distilled the essence of Kant’s moral thinking.

    Now, Kant excludes the immediate consequences of an action for more or less the same reason as he excludes one’s motivations, or habits. There’s nothing inherently ‘ethical’ about the maximization of happiness, nor is there anything ethical about instinct, or habit (I can train a monkey to make me martinis, but there’s nothing ethical in either the enjoyment I receive form martinis, or from the monkey’s making them on command; in fact it would be a category mistake to say that the monkey acted unethically when it failed to produce a martini upon being asked/commanded). Although happiness and instinct can coincide with ethical action, they are neither necessary nor sufficient for it.

    Kant’s point in excluding them is simply that Ethics is a rationally compelled/compelling human endeavour, not an emotively, or hedonistically conditioned one. Simply put, one can take pleasure in acting ethically, one can attempt to maximize happiness, etc, but these are incidental to any ethical consideration. True ethical dilemmas, I would say, are the ones in which we feel torn between the Right and the easy or self-serving. And I think Kant’s ethics captures these kinds of dilemmas quite nicely

    As for global consequence, I think one needs to look at Kant’s cosmopolitan, political writings, which synchronize with his ethics, in order to figure out what he has to say about consequences in general. Mikhail, I suspect, knows more about Kant’s politics than I do, but the basic idea seems to be something like a fine liberalism, which acknowledges our imperfect characters, and tries to limit human capriciousness, rather than promote one form of human realization or flourishing over another.

    Maybe the following is too strong a formulation, but I think that, for Kant, ‘human flourishing’ isn’t good enough, isn’t by itself rationally motivating. There’s nothing intrinsic to the idea of flourishing that also makes it ethical. Human flourishing itself is a product of something like universal ethical action, but it’s a by-product rather than the goal of individual ethical action. Or, so I read Kant’s ethics.

  14. Ah, forgot to mention the crucial point about Kant’s ethics, viz. habit, happiness, etc. Ethics is the realm of Freedom, and hence is ‘free’ from the lower registers of compulsion. where I’m not free, there’s no question of ethics; where I’m compelled by force or threat, I’m not within the space of reasons. ‘Ought implies can’, and the ‘ought’ is a rationally persuasive notion.

  15. Thanks Alexei, but I think we have to deal with real consequences and logical consequences. What interests us ethically is not abstract universal consequences were everyone to do a particular action, but real consequences if this persons were to engage in that action. Thus for example, while it is certainly true that if everyone ran red lights driving would become all but impossible, I have an ethical duty to run a red light if the person in my backseat is dying of a heart attack. That time delay could mean the difference between life and death. I think this sort of situationality is what is lost in Kant’s ethics. In this connection, I think Hegel’s critique of the categorical imperative with respect to the Reign of Terror is a compelling critique of where this sort of moral thought leads. Deontological ethics becomes its precise opposite (i.e., it treats humans as means to an end rather than ends in themselves) by subordinating persons to this abstract universality where all concreteness, situationality, etc., disappear. As a result, at the phenomenological level, it ends up violating a number of our ethical intuitions, rightfully producing an affect of horror.

    I am also unclear as to why the desire for happiness or human flourishing isn’t strong enough to give an ethics that is rationally motivating. I think this thesis only follows if we adopt Hobbes’ position of thinking of ourselves as first atomistic individuals that only subsequently enter into social relations. If, by contrast, we begin with the premise that we are primarily social beings and then individuals, matters look very different. In this connection, I’m always struck by the opening of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. There it will be recalled that Aristotle argues that political science is the highest science and that ethics is knowledge of political science. To modern ears this cannot but be a jaw dropping thesis. What Aristotle has in mind, I think, is that we are social beings through and through and that ethics is the science of how to live well within a social setting. Because my being is relational or always bound up on others, my happiness and flourishing is bound up with my relations to others. I thus have a rational and self-interested motive for attending to those others and wanting a society that promotes their flourishing as well.

  16. About this:

    Deontological ethics becomes its precise opposite (i.e., it treats humans as means to an end rather than ends in themselves) by subordinating persons to this abstract universality where all concreteness, situationality, etc., disappear. As a result, at the phenomenological level, it ends up violating a number of our ethical intuitions, rightfully producing an affect of horror.

    Fair enough. That’s basically Hegel’s criticism of Kant in the Phenomenology (after the Terror). For my part, as I’ve said elsewhere, I think that mistakes the prescriptive with the descriptive. And it focuses on the justification, rather than the act it purports to justify.

    For my part, I don’t think we should mistake a decision theoretical justification for what it purports to justify. For in the first instance, if I were to make the situation more precise, then I could probably universalize anything (say simply by including the day, time, and year), since the event is by definition non-repeatable. But somehow, all of the so called-limit cases that one finds in Ethics somehow miss the point, don’t they? Consider youraddendum to my car example. I took a fairly common situation in order to illustrate the mechanics of Kant’s ethical reflection, and then we push it to the limit to see if, and where, it breaks down. I’ not sure your example actually identifies a limit though, since I’m sure a precise definition of the situation would be universalizable. But, even if the counter example did Identify a limit, what would happen if I amended your addendum: what if the guy dying in the back seat will go on to murder babies for 12 years without getting caught if he survives. It’s ridiculous, I know, but there’s a sense in which modifying the original example is similar. For both ammendations distort the issue being exemplified. There are always exceptions in ethics. But that hardly amounts to a critique of Kant’s position in general.

    Now about this:

    I am also unclear as to why the desire for happiness or human flourishing isn’t strong enough to give an ethics that is rationally motivating. I think this thesis only follows if we adopt Hobbes’ position of thinking of ourselves as first atomistic individuals that only subsequently enter into social relations.

    I don’t think this follows at all, since (1) Hobbes view is anything but atomistic — it’s just absolutely agonistic in its sociality. And (2) The sine qua non of Kant’s ethics is rationality, and is therefore inherently social. But maybe you could explain a little more why you think human flourishing alone is sufficient for an ethics. For my part, such a claim strikes me as purely axiomatic, if not dogmatic. As I’ve said already, I don’t see what human flourishing has to do with ethics at all. I mean, Hobbes Leviathan is all about human flourishing, which is only possible under a monarch, etc. But that’s not an ethical claim. If anything, it’s a claim that follows from the nature of human sociality in general (nasty, brutish, mercifully short), whose response is political precisely to cirumvent the impossibility of ethical action within such a social condition.

    But for all this, I don’t see a conceptual connection between human flourishing and ethics.

    Finally, I don’t think Aristotle’s claim is really that jaw-dropping. All he says is that the sufficient condition for the good life is ethics and the necessary condition is politics. That’s fine, but not surprising. That’s basically the line of the Republican party! If you have ethical people, you don’t need a big Government, because you don’t need to legislate the good life.

  17. Alexei, I’ll have to think some more about some of your points here, but I think it’s worthwhile to address your final paragraph. It seems to me that you reverse Aristotle’s point in the final paragraph: if we have ethical people we don’t need big Government. The problem here is that this is placing ethics in the domain of individuals, rather than in the domain of the social. Aristotle’s point, as I understand it, isn’t that ethical behavior produces a good polis, but precisely that I strive for excellence so as to live well among others. It is relational through and through. This includes the formation of institutions that promote harmony and flourishing among those individuals. For example, as Mill clearly saw, the availability of good education for everyone as well as social welfare nets is directly beneficial to my flourishing because my quality of life is improved by having an educated polis and because social protections like cheap and readily available good healthcare, safety nets for those who have lost their job, etc., both promote productivity and help to diminish crime. Because we are empiricists we don’t take the Republican line of arguing that we don’t need government because we know that many people are not ethical and that things do not always work according to plan.

    Your point about Hobbes makes me wonder if I have any ethics at all, but am rather purely political in my thought process. Following your conception of ethics, I don’t see what I gain practically by introducing the ethical over and above the question of pursuing human flourishing and enlightened egoism. For every example you can give me of an ethical action I can think of a “hedonistic” reason as to why I would do it. I keep my contracts not because of the categorical imperative, but because others will not deal with me if I don’t and my life will become explicitly complicated if I don’t. Moreover, my standing among my fellows will diminish if I gain a reputation for being unreliable. I work hard and try to do the best work I can because, again, I will gain the ill will of those I work with and for if I don’t, thereby diminishing my potential for happiness. And so on and so forth.

    Following Kvond, part of whoms argument I repeated in my prior post, one might present the counter-argument against consequentialism that, if consequentialism is true, there is nothing to prevent something like the rounding up of political opponents or other ethnic groups for utilitarian reasons to bring about that social flourishing. However, it seems to me that we can objectively evaluate the effectiveness of these techniques for achieving social flourishing. Did they work out well or not? In terms of cost in human suffering, the profound conflict they generated, the brain drain they caused, etc., these techniques seem very poor indeed, much like the technique of bringing Iraqis freedom from the muzzle of a gun haven’t proven very effective either.

    Likewise with Hobbes’ defense of monarchy. First, we can ask himself if he has an accurate picture of human nature (his nasty, brutish, and short schtick). Ethnogrophy seems to indicate that this is a highly contentious account of what it is to be a human being. If that’s the case, we knock down one of the key premises of his argument for the necessity of monarchy. Likewise, through the comparative study of history we can ask whether monarchy delivers the human flourishing that it promises or whether there are more effective political ways of achieving these ends.

    It’s interesting that you see my claim about human flourishing as axiomatic or dogmatic, because this is exactly how I encounter Kant’s deontological ethics. That is, Kant evokes the categorical imperative as a fact of reason that is not itself grounded in anything else. All we can do is either accept it or not. By contrast, my claim about human flourishing is grounded in the phenomenology of our nature as humans, our ardent desires and needs, and the relationship between actions and consequences. I have all of the human sciences there at my disposal to examine– and I very much think ethics is an experimental and observational science –those actions, forms of life, etc., that promote happiness, well being, health, etc. Beginning from the premise that we all want happiness, we can look at those lives that most seem to embody that ideal and those ways of relating to one another that destroy peace of mind and happiness and those ways of life that don’t.

  18. Just to clarify, when I say that Aristotle’s claim about political science is jaw dropping, I say this not because I take him to be making the claim that good citizens produce a good polis, but because I take him to be saying that the questions of ethics are in reality a subset of the question of the polis. That is, they will be inclusive of the sort of institutions and social arrangements (“big Government”) we should form in order to promote eudaimonia.

    In my remarks above I’m just outlining how I deliberate about ethical issues or the sorts of grounds that make up my thought process with respect to how I should live my life, how I should relate to others, where I stand on political issues and so on. It could be that I am secretly a Kantian without knowing it– Kant, after all, says that he’s just formalizing the way we already think without knowing it –but it doesn’t seem that way to me. The way you describe ethics in contrast to politics makes, to my ear, the ethical sound like some strange residue that makes no difference in the world and exerts no causal influence of any sort.

  19. Well, I come back from lunch and I see you guys are all over this one, now I will have to find time for a good response…

    I hope no undergrad gets here by googling “Kant and ethics” and then just copying and pasting it into “his/her” paper on the subject.

  20. quick point of clarification: I didn’t mean to claim that, for Aristotle,

    if we have ethical people we don’t need big Government.

    (Well maybe I do think that the GOP thinks this, although I haven’t really thought it through. I suppose the emphasis would have to be on the adjective ‘big’ in order for the thought to be coherent.) I just wanted to point out that Aristotle treats ethics as a sufficient condition for the good life, and politics as a necessary one. That is, you can’t live a good life unless you have a politics and an ethics. Although for Aristotle, that is tantamount to saying you can’t live the good life unless you’re a male noble. In any event, I take my point concerning necessary and sufficient conditions to be uncontentious.

    But I don’t understand what distinction you’re trying to draw, Levi, between the domain of individuals and the domain of the social. I mean, so far as i understand Aristotle (and I’m by no means an expert), the domain of individuals simply is the domain of the social; the relevant distinction between politics and ethics for Aristotle has to do with collective will formation, and that requires as its antecedent condition people who can make up their own minds in an ethical way — who already have phronesis.

    Now, for folks like Arendt we can draw a number of distinctions between the sphere of individuals and the social, but it’s not clear to me they apply to our given scenarios. So I’m a little confused about yourr comments here.

    I’m also unclear on the emphasis you’re giving to relations in your last comment. I mean, minimally, ethics (and politics) is only possible as an intersubjective endeavour. so to the extent that it’s intersubjective, it’s relational. I assume that you mean something more, but I don’t know what, exactly.

    Perhaps all this has to do with how to conceive and distinguish ethics and political theory. I’ll offer the most minimal definition, and you can then tweak it for me, so that I understand where you’re coming form.

    Political theory = an investigation into the constituent ‘elements’ of our basic structure (understood via Marx and Rawls) along with their ‘optimal’ arrangement (this notion needs some supplemental theory [justice/distribution of the sensible, whatever]), and distribution of social goods.

    Ethics = an investigation into the rational grounds, or lack thereof, governing interpresonal activities in order to develop and clarify the normative language of ‘right,’ ‘wrong,’ ‘ought,’ ‘ought not,’ ‘obligation’ ‘entitlement’ etc. and that either describes a ‘moral ontology’ [metaethics] or outlines a set of prescriptive rules to govern one’s day to day behaviour [ethics].

    Depending on what modifications you make to these really basic sketches of politics and ethics, we might be able to clarify whether we’re really disagreeing about anything.

    As for the rest, let me say this. the categorical imperative isn’t axiomatic for Kant. It’s derived — From the fact of reason, no less. But Reason is a fact, since, as Kant argues, we use it daily. To deny the fact of reason would be to deny the intelligibility of the world and our actions in it. So it’s sorta self-defeating to say that Vernunft, plato’s Logos, isn’t a fact.

    About the fact that you can achieve equivalent results from hedonistic reasoning, as you can through deontology: Yes fine. There’s no law of excluded middle being proposed here; it’s not like either deontology or consequentalism alone can produce ethical action. That line of thought strikes me as missing the point. The interesting question has to do with what constitutes the source of our ethical judgments. Kant’s claim says that it’s the character of the act itself, independent of intention and outcome, that eeds to be evaluated. consequentialism says the opposite. sometimes the two forms of argument agree on the rightness of an act, but for diffferent reasons. there’s no paradox there.

  21. Pingback: Beyond Good and Evil: Towards an Experimentalist Ethics « Larval Subjects .

  22. M.E.: ” if enough of “us” refer to TVs as “cats” then it will be “you” who are excluded from the community of language users, not “us” – might makes right.”

    Kvond: It is more than simply “might”, it is the might of performative force over time, something that requires a coherence of beliefs and pragamtically imbued consequences. In otherwords, “enough of us” can’t all be imposing a coherence without the coherence eventually having to gain traction within the world.

    “Enough of us” do call cats “gato” and in presence of “us” this is how one “should” call them. It is not mere imposition. It is the power to act through a community of users engaged in the world.

    Perhaps, if you have time, look at this 10 min explication of Davidson’s theory against Skepticism (its enjoyably done). One cannot have universally false beliefs because our very ability to interpret that person as even speaking and engaged in the world is undercut.

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2008/05/24/skepticsm-refuted-in-under-ten-minutes/

    It is the same with the normatives implicit in description. This or that normative can be disregarded, but discourse itself holds together through its normativity, it prescriptive force, as it makes communities of users cohere together.

    As for “who” cares if one has an ethical theory. I did not mean that I don’t care. I meant literally, “who?” cares. What exactly is it to be used for? Does one go up to non-believers in your theory, point to actions of theirs, and then point to Kant’s theory (like how one might point to the Bible), and say “What you are doing is unethical!” It is not a simple dichotomy of “all orders must be followed” vs. “order following is just a habit”. As much as we want to find a meta-law for laws (what in the past was known as “GOD”), it is an asethetic mix of rationality, principle following, self-interest perception, expressiveness, and any number of factors that determine whether a command should be followed.

  23. Pingback: Metaphysics and It Ethical Consequences. « Perverse Egalitarianism

  24. Kevin, in fact my Kantianism is very evangelical, I literally approach people on the street and chide them their behavior with my copy of The Groundwork!

    Of course, I do see your point. I think might point is that our conversation is, if compared to the Bible example, like that of theologians discussing proofs of the existence of God or various intricacies of latest redemption theories – to disagree is one point, to point out a theory’s general uselessness when it comes to laymen is another. Surely we can talk about ethical theory and the justifications of “ought” (which, I would argue, we need to distinguish from “should” – I should respond to your objections because I respect your views etc etc but I certainly do not think that I “ought”) without a “common folk” test, right? I do think that most people do have an ethical theory even if they don’t know what it is, that’s the basic assumption of any consistent rationalism, but we can disagree about this, of course.

  25. I see ought and should only in degrees, wherein ought carries a greater weight of the requirement of reasons to be given if the ought is ignored.

    As to the “power” of Kant’s argument. It has been around for a very long time now, and a fair number of brilliant people have read and rejected it. Is it your opinion that the argument is so powerful, so coherently rational and convincing that all those who have rejected it simply do not understand it? The failure of Kant’s argument to convince falls solely upon its readers?

  26. I don’t think it’s a fair way of putting the question – a fair number of brilliant people are vegetarians, yet I am not, do I mean to say that they are not so brilliant because I do not find their arguments persuasive enough? Certainly, I suppose. I think Kant’s argument is strong and convincing enough for me to think that it is the best we’ve got when it comes to normativity, yet if I was guided solely by what others have or have not accepted, I would be guided by public opinions and not reasons – I might as well go into politics then…

  27. M.E.: “I don’t think it’s a fair way of putting the question – a fair number of brilliant people are vegetarians, yet I am not, do I mean to say that they are not so brilliant because I do not find their arguments persuasive enough? ”

    Kvond: Last I checked, vegetarianism does not rely upon the pure rational force of its argument to govern behaviour. But if there were some branch of vegetarianism that claimed that its practices were moral due to their complete rationality, this is a “fair” question I would ask of them as well.

    M.E.: “I think Kant’s argument is strong and convincing enough for me to think that it is the best we’ve got when it comes to normativity, yet if I was guided solely by what others have or have not accepted, I would be guided by public opinions and not reasons – I might as well go into politics then…”

    Kvond: Yes, but Kant is not speaking to you (or if you think he is, perhaps this would explain your love for him). He is speaking to all human beings, persons who if they were rational enough they would all agree with him. Yes, I understand that you like his argument, but for it to have real force in the world, you would also have to believe that all these people who have rejected it, simply do not understand it, is this not so? It is endemic to its rational appeal.

    As a sidenote, and I don’t if this was brought up in the last bit of commentary, but there are two problems with Kant’s imperative dream, and I would love to have them explained. For one, the problem is with the maxim for me. Simply attempting to universalize a maxim by counterfactuals makes little sense to me. I might go through a red light now, but it is literally impossible to imagine everyone else in EXACTLY my same position (the entire context with its entire history). My occasion can ever be qualified with greater uniqueness until the categorical no longer has any force.

    My second problem is that does not Kant’s theory require that it would be impossible to have two conficting imperatives. “Don’t lie” “Obey all lawful orders”: “Here, the President orders you to lie”. Doesn’t he require that there literally cannot exist such a contradiction as a matter of pure rationality.

    I don’t really present these as arguments so much as questions. They are so bothersome I could never really take Kant’s theory very seriously, and I would love to have them explained by a Kantian.

    And lastly, when you say “it is the best we’ve got…”, because Kant’s argument is not an approximation, but rather is a categorical claim. It is not enough for it to be ‘better than others”. Its very categorical, rationality claim requires that it has no exceptions. One does not fudge the categories.

  28. He is speaking to all human beings, persons who if they were rational enough they would all agree with him.

    I think I sense a basic misunderstanding of what Kant means by rationality here, I’d love to go on explaining Kant but I am not really a Kant defender, even if I end up arguing my positions based on Kant, I don’t know if I am interested enough at this point of the conversation in persuading you that Kant is in fact coherent in his arguments about ethics, I can certainly try, but it seems that you have already made up your mind…

  29. Thanks for the time offered. I’m glad you enjoy Kant. I wish I could say the same for myself. But clearly, as someone who enjoys Spinoza I run into countless others who have not care for him.

    As far as having my mind made up, it is question of percentages. It is largely made up. When I ask what the Kantian answer is to these two rather obvious objections (they are so obvious I assume that there must be readymade counterpoints I am not aware of), it is simply a point of interest. I have no desire to argue the points thoroughly. So if any Kantian does come and visit, I’d be glad to here the standard answers to:

    1). Maxim formulation can ever be contexually qualified.
    2). Maxims must never conflict.

  30. Pingback: Time, Turtles, Kant, and Correlationism « Larval Subjects .

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