Metaphysics and Its Ethical Consequences.


UPDATE: While I was writing the post below, Levi posted his own take, I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, so if some issues are already addressed, I apologize.

While clarifying what Kantian ethics is really about is a noble task, I would like to point out some things that might have been unclear from my initial post on realism’s possible ethical stance as i cited Kant’s third Critique (§76). I think that Levi’s questions concerning the connection between metaphysics and ethics are legitimate, but are directly addressed in Kant’s corpus – I would even say that Kant is extremely concerned with ethical outcome of any sort of metaphysical exercise and this concern is found throughout his writings. In §76 Kant is basically imagining a different kind of human cognition, the one that lacks the distinction between intuition and understanding/reason, a kind of cognition that would have an immediate knowledge of the actual (things-in-themselves), if I am reading it correctly. Kant’s argument is simple, I think, and consists of very simple steps: human cognition distinguishes between appearance and things-in-themselves as it has knowledge of the former and only posits the latter, if we imagine a cognition that distinguishes between the two yet knows both, the very distinction is then shown to be unnecessary, now we are talking about a thought experiment, only God’s cognition would fit a hypothetical scenario, yet if we take realism and its claim that there is a world out there and (important “and” I think) we have a direct access to it and can know it as it is in itself, then we know things-in-themselves via a sort of “intellectual intuition,” i.e. Kant’s point about heterogeneity of intuition and understanding can be disregarded. I then go on to ask a question: what would the world of things-in-themselves look like if indeed we have direct knowledge of it? Kant states, and again we may or may not agree with his argument, that in such a world things would simply be, simply exists – I thought of such a world as a sort of a nightmare precisely because without space/time (form of intuition, of course) and without potential/actual distinction (being a form of causality, causality being part of mind’s work, not something found in things themselves) life would be a nightmare.

Ok, let’s throw all that Kantian jargon and Kantian arguments out of the window – there’s a lot, I know, so I’m going to give you some time…

My point is this: metaphysical picture of reality necessarily covers all aspects of existence (and non-existence, I suppose), metaphysical appeal, at least for me, is in its comprehensive view of reality. Leibniz is a fascinating thinker to read, for example, because he talks about how everything is constituted. Let’s say we describe the world as necessary and without any freedom (freedom being an illusion), if we provide long and detailed account of such world, it is impossible to then claim that we are not interested in ethics because our metaphysical picture has direct consequences for any ethical theory – that was all I was trying to say, i.e. what kind of ethical theory would a realism like “speculative realism” might produce?

Let me address some issues then:

Levi: “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.”

I think Alexei’s response to this comment has already covered the basics of Kant’s ethics. However, I would like to say that I am trying to stay away from a kind of exegetical approach to Kant in order to keep the conversation at the level where we can all discuss the issues without necessarily trying to explicate Kant’s specific views. I’m pretty happy with Kant’s ethics and I would defend it against any sort of consequentialism, but it’s not my point here. My point is this: of course consequences matter, they matter for Kant as much as they matter for you and me – Alexei pointed it out nicely – think, for example, of famous “What can I hope?” question, however, the problem of ethics is the problem of “ought” and therefore of normativity and I would argue with Kant that any theory of action that does not deal with normativity does not deal with ethics. Elizabeth Anscombe called for the elimination of “ought” as a sort of a Christian atavism and generally ridiculous notion. We can argue about this, of course, but if we have different views of what ethics is, we will never agree.

Levi: “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?”

I don’t think that realist would completely reject the discrepancy between for-us and in-itself and therefore find himself in the nightmarish reality where everything just is that Kant hypothesizes about in §76. Here’s my problem, however, stated simply: if a realist position claims to know both objects-for-us (secondary qualities) and objects-in-themselves (primary qualities), and I’m assuming that this would be a pretty sensible realist position, then where does one get the criterion to distinguish between for-us and in-itself? In other words, if I claim to know how the world really is in itself, yet I am also aware of the fact that I see it a bit differently from others (otherwise there would be no disagreements or errors, if we remember our Descartes, and no secondary qualities, of course), then where does the criterion of truth come from? Or, to put it a bit more intuitively, at least for me, if we look at objects and agree that our perception of them is a mixture of what the mind brings in and what the object’s own characteristics are, what allows us to distinguish between the two sources of data?

Levi: “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.”

Alexei: “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.”

We could “see norms and values as secondary qualities” but then we have no business telling Nazis not to kill the Jews or Sudanese government to stop killing its people. I mean we could, of course, and we do, but there’s no normative basis to suggest that genocide is morally wrong, it’s just not very nice. I am certainly exaggerating for the sake of the argument, the world is not going to fall apart if we announce that there is no “ought,” however a world without normativity is not the world that Kant wants to live in precisely because there’s no way to guarantee happiness and peace, there’s no necessary scenario in which we all live happily (even if this scenario is an imaginary one), no way to argue for a republican constitution, human rights and personal freedoms. Aristotle’s virtue ethics is well-suited for a small community, I have serious personal doubts that it is fit for globalized world of today and tomorrow, but that’s just my opinion.

That is why I think I agree with Alexei’s assertion about “human flourishing” – it is great if we can make sure that humanity flourishes and we stop some abuses of power that lead to unnecessary deaths from hunger and disease, but we cannot simply proceed with a kind of “trial-and-error” approach here, it’s too important, we need to know that things will work because they are suppose to work. Kant’s argument seems to be, and please correct me if I am wrong, very simple: ethical behavior, because it is rational, if practiced by all will necessarily lead to a better world, consequentialisms of any sort cannot guarantee a better world if their theories are practiced by all. What I do today, if I act morally, does influence everyone else, and not just potentially in the future “kingdom of ends,” but actually and very significantly – the beauty of Kantian position is its overcoming of cheap individualism and his view of CI is often misunderstood as a kind of personal ethical tool, a sort of an ethical machine (input/output) – I think that CI is much more than that, Kant’s argument works on an individual level, but it’s main goal is a cosmopolitan level.

Levi: “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.”

Human happiness is certainly a great motivation, but not for ethics, according to Kant, because ethics deals with a necessary (because rational) action not unlike that of logic or mathematics – adding my $10 and my $20 and sum being $50 would make me very happy and allow me to flourish, but it is impossible. Again, if we define ethics the way Kant does, desire for happiness is secondary and, in fact, some of the moral actions will go against my personal preference and happiness, and in this case I better know damn well why I am depriving myself of pleasure in order to be ethical. I think, of course, there are very legitimate points of conflict here and we are disagreeing clearly based on knowledge and understanding of our different ways of looking at ethics, but my point is this: normativity is a type of causality, causality is a matter of metaphysics, realism is a metaphycs, therefore it must address not only the issues of things as they are, but also things as they ought to be, and I am yet to see a good argument in this area.

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124 thoughts on “Metaphysics and Its Ethical Consequences.

  1. M.E.,

    I agree, normativity is a type of, or at least implicit in, causality. That is to say, there is a normative force implicit in the very capacity to coherently speak and interpret causal relations.

  2. True, but according to Kant, causal relations are not relations found in things themselves but are added to their intuited perceptions by understanding, therefore, again according to Kant, if we lose the distinction between sensibility (that deals with things themselves) and understanding/concepts (that deals with sensible input), we lose any coherent idea of causality and therefore of normativity as a type of causality.

  3. Yes. In my view this is a great mistake. To think that normativity resides in concepts and not in the relationship between organisms as organisms is simply to be asserting a categorical difference between human beings and all other lifeforms. I can see how one could think like this in the 18th century when still under the spell of Christianity, where in human beings are made distinct from the rest of creation, but human beings are animals.

  4. Certainly, but that doesn’t mean that human beings are not different from other animals in some aspects – one can easily read Kant as suggesting that we only know what our cognition is like therefore we can only say things about it, but that, of course, does not mean that there are no other types of cognition (like the cognition he alludes to in the text I discuss) – we can speculate, for sure, but we don’t know, so when it comes to our claims to knowledge and our behavior, this is all we have.

    I don’t remember Kant saying anywhere that we as humans are categorically different from “other lifeforms” because due to our limitations we simply cannot know this even if it was in fact the case that we are somehow God’s special little children… Are there any other “rational beings” like us? Certainly, we can assume that. Does Kant mean that we as rational being are superior to non-rational ones, probably, but that’s his 18th century baggage and it’s easy to throw out without compromising the overall argument, I think.

  5. To me the distinction is implicit in the hierarchial distinction between sensibility and conceptual understanding, but I will not pursue it here. Thanks for the time you gave.

  6. Do the realists accept the distinction between primary and secondary qualities? I thought that distinction was correlative with the bogus choice between idealism/realism — once you accept the primary/secondary distinction, you might as well concede the match to the idealists.

    Here is a brief history of primary qualities, I’m not sure where I found it:

    Descartes: figure, extension, local motion
    Newton: extension, hardness, impenetrability, mobility and inertia
    Post-Newtonian physics: force, mass, velocity, acceleration, momentum, and energy

    Are these the primary qualities the realists want to defend? Some are more fundamental than others . . . no acceleration without mass and velocity, for instance.

    A good realist lives in a world full of objects, hence object oriented philosophy. Aristotle makes the argument in the Parts of Animals that horse and cat are more fundamental than what horse and cat may have in common, such as motion or mass.

    But once the realists concede the primary/secondary distinction, they’re stuck defending acceleration, it would seem, as more real than cats and horses.

  7. Echoing Kvond’s point about both relations between organisms, and context fixing, I’m led to ask the only somewhat farcical question: what about cyborgs? By a cyborg I mean, following Haraway, human-machine-nature assemblages. Doesn’t Kant’s understanding of the categorical imperative, especially in its third formulation, implicitly entail an untenable essentialist conception of the human? In applying the categorical imperative I’m supposed to ignore all context and circumstance. But if we are indeed cyborgs, doesn’t technology and our relations to nature change our being (by virtue of relations)? Thus, in abstracting from all context and circumstance, it’s very likely that the categorical imperative would tell me that either a) it is immoral to use birth control, or b) that I shouldn’t have pre-marital sex. But doesn’t the necessity of these things change with the advent of birth control for men and women? In other words, the reason I shouldn’t have pre-marital sex is that I could have children without being able to support them. Yet when birth control is readily available all of that changes. Likewise, wouldn’t the categorical imperative lead to the conclusion that at least one parent shouldn’t work? Etc.? I’m sure examples could be multiplied.

    I appreciate your passion in the previous thread about how we can’t wait around with experimentation and discovering what does and doesn’t work. Yet this strikes me as a red herring. First, when applied it seems to me that the categorical imperative often leads to gruesome consequences and is guilty of the very horror you wish to avoid. Second, with respect to our ethical reasoning, we have all the resources of inductive and abductive reasoning when encountering new circumstances. Yes, in our ethical reasoning as to what will best promote harmony, peace, and flourishing we will occasionally be mistaken, but so too in the case of Kant. At least with consequentialist approaches we investigate the world around us, analogize from existing practices to new events from those practices that have produced flourishing, can take account of changing circumstances, and, in the domain of moral persuasion when trying to convince others, are able to appeal to their self-interest, desire for happiness, and can cite consequences. That strikes me as allowing us to make a far more compelling case for, say, why universal healthcare or education are tax dollars well spent or why it is not a good idea to lock people up in prison without legal recourse, torturing them, as in the case of Gitmo, or trying to forcefully impose new governments on other people through military means. Especially in the last case the psychologists, sociologists, and historians have all to teach us about the likely success of such a strategy. With the deontologist all this falls by the wayside.

  8. LS: “In applying the categorical imperative I’m supposed to ignore all context and circumstance.”

    Kvond: This is really core to what I don’t get. The very meaning of actions is in reference to context and circumstance. Is Poker an immoral or unethical game because it requires that we actively attempt to deceive people?

  9. Exactly, Kvond. And we could also ask, why do people’s positions change disproportionately based on level of education as well as life experience (i.e., traveling the world). Could it be that in being acquainted with human psychology, sociology, science, literature, history, etc., they arrive at a different understanding of relations between cause and effect that impacts their own decision making process? I’ll never forget what an impact my first sociology course had on me in highschool. One day the teacher was lecturing on inner cities. Being the white male middle class guy I was, I just thought that these were “bad, lazy people” and that was why they were poor and had so many social problems such as drug use, violence, etc. The teacher explained the concept of feedback loops, pointing out the absence of viable jobs in these areas, the absence of good education in these areas, linguistic barriers due to an inability to speak English in the same way as the ruling elite, endemic drug use and child abuse among caregivers, etc. This information fundamentally transformed my understanding of the situation and, for the first time, introduced me to networked relations, systems, and social forces. Were I a Kantian that abstracted from all circumstances and context I would conclude that these are just people that fail to follow the categorical imperative and our duty to work hard and improve ourselves. I would vote and act towards these people accordingly. Pretty beastly if you ask me.

  10. Levi/Kevin (unlikely allies, I must say)

    In applying the categorical imperative I’m supposed to ignore all context and circumstance.

    Not sure I follow this one – how does CI imply “ignoring all context and circumstance”? CI is a formula of universalizing the maxim that one acts on. Take Alexei’s example of running the red light – you’re not universalizing the rule”I will run the red light” because that is not the maxim, that’s what you are planning on doing, maxim is always something more abstract like “I would like to break the rule that I also think is essential” – if that means “ignoring all context and circumstance” then so does any abstract move of philosophy, any talk of “perception” for example is ignoring all context because you are not talking about perceiving this or that but simply about perceiving…

    I am sure that I can successfully counter all these seemingly anti-Kantian moves – not because I am clearly superhumanly intelligent, but also because they are minuscule and silly issues that are easily dealt with (not to suggest you guys are not smart enough to get them and be offensive), I just don’t think it’s my job to do Kantian Ethics 101 stuff, but I will if there’s enough sincere interest…

  11. Taking you up on your 101 offer:

    I don’t know how you get to the maxim ““I would like to break the rule that I also think is essential” at the heart of “running a red light”.

    I don’t consider traffic lights essential at all (what do you mean by “essential”, essential for what). There are any number of circumstances I would think it is adviseable to run a red light.

    Also, I really am unclear why Poker would not be an unethical act. One is suppose to not lie under ANY circumstances, is that not right?

    (all of these “silly” examples, are of course connected to real “serious” ones).

  12. Bjk, you seem to be constantly stuck in Spam, I don’t know how to fix it because I clearly cleared your email and all, in any case, I apologize if you get stuck sometimes, you make good points. Maybe you should stop adding at the end of your comments phrases like “Need an erection?” or “Best Russian brides for you!” 🙂

  13. Kevin, I promise I will try to get to your questions tomorrow, I just got back from NARAL fundraiser dinner where I unsuccessfully bit on a cool autographed photograph of Andy Warhol in LA and lost, so I am clearly not happy, but I think that Kant’s discussion of maxims and all that is probably the most confusing and misunderstood part of his ethics…

  14. I look forward to your clarification of this. Please, if you would, have forbearance for any follow-up questions I may have. While I suspect that I will not be convinced, my present understanding of the argument is such that I can’t even imagine a senseable person actually holding it (so full of holes, and lack of applicability does it seem to have). I suspect that this surely rests in me not seeing something clearly in the argument itself, and how it is to be applied to real world circumstances.

    I would be much happy disagreeing with a more formidable argument.

  15. Mikhail,

    My understanding of how to apply Kant’s categorical imperative is based on what I’ve read of Kant himself. He tells me that I’m supposed to ignore anything empirical. That would involve anything contextual. Insofar is the contextual is necessarily contingent and particular, it can’t fall under the application of the categorical imperative.

  16. Levi, I suppose I am a bit confused about the phrase “applying categorical imperative” as you used it, I think I know what you mean, but certainly one does not apply an imperative, one follows it, right? “Thou shall not murder” – imperative, me not murdering is applying it, so I think I know what you would mean here, but you seem to be using that expression to describe the formulation of imperative – in the example above it would be something like the process of legitimating “Thou shall not murder”…

    I think we’re probably closer here than we think, let me think this through and address Kevin’s questions and maybe somewhere there it will all clear up. I still think you are right in calling my ethical musings not so “Kantian” as I think that much of dislike vis-a-vis Kant’s position is oartly his own fault of not being very clear on exactly what he means, but partly it’s the fault of the long line of Ethics textbooks that pigeonhole him into a “deontological ethics” and give him a page or two, but that’s just my take…

  17. Do the realists accept the distinction between primary and secondary qualities?

    I think I have the same question – this is what I meant when I asked how one can distinguish between the for-us and in-itself when I claims to know the difference: it should be either all be for-us (Kant) or all be in-itself (“real realism”), right? Am I mistaken?

  18. I know I’m intervening on this discussion somewhat “late,” but I’m confused. There seems to be an idea running through here that Kant does not seem very interested in the way he concretizes his formal imperatives by finding an appropriate content or “matter” for moral behavior, when he tests the maxims that are prompted by our (natural, universal, and inevitable) striving for happiness. Any understanding of Kant’s ethical theory I think, needs to point out the intimate union of his rational and purely formal imperatives with our natural, normal and as such “naive zeal” that aims at satisfaction, without which our will would not be able to do anything. My own view, however, is that Kant’s universal principles or laws tends to/actually alienates us (I don’t think I’m the first to point this out, however). I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but this seems to be behind Levi and Kevin’s criticisms/concerns.

    What is it that makes the will good? Kant’s answer to this question is simple: rationality, that is, its unconditional determination to act in accordance with the Moral Law, a principle of pure practical reason. I tend to take the tack that someone like Levinas does: it is not rationality that makes the will good but responsibility for the Other. I know, so 90s, but this actually entails the adoption of maxims of nonreciprocal and non-universalizable action and presupposes the spontaneous capacity to act independently of pure practically legislative reason. It’s not that the Kantian good will is **not** good. What is problematized is the Kantian claim that a complete account of moral willing can be given in terms of universal law. I think the concerns above which draw out the difference between people/situations, may be cashed out as nothing less than the suggestion that moral goodness resides in the capacity of the will to disregard reason no less than in its capacity to follow reason. A relatively simple point, I know, but not without consequences.

  19. M. E.: “certainly one does not apply an imperative, one follows it, right? “Thou shall not murder” – imperative, me not murdering is applying it, so I think I know what you would mean here, but you seem to be using that expression to describe the formulation of imperative – in the example above it would be something like the process of legitimating “Thou shall not murder”…”

    Kvond: Wittgenstein has a very interesting bit that says that we follow rules without reasons, blindly:

    “All the steps are really already taken” means: I no longer have any choice. The rule,
    once stamped with a particular meaning, traces the lines along which it is to be
    followed through the whole of space. –– But if something of this sort really were the
    case, how would it help?
    No; my description only made sense if it was to be understood symbolically.—I
    should have said: This is how it strikes me.
    When I obey a rule, I do not choose.
    I obey the rule blindly.” – PI 219

    But surely this is not what you mean, and I’m not even sure that Wittgenstein has a point in the simplicity he is trying to evoke. In order to follow an imperative one has to interpret it, see it as valid or applicable in this instance, at this moment in time. At times our action falls into blind rule-following in that our determinations are part of a recognition of habit (that is, the reasons we might give for action are rather unconscious), but this is not at all what Kant is thinking about. He is thinking about (at least he seems to be) how we make fully conscious ethical decisions. Should I do this or that? The entire analytical pragmata of supposing counterfactuals that help us universalize the imagined maxim (and I still don’t have a sense of exactly how the maxim is to be phrased, or very good examples of actual maxims that should be universalized), involves thinking about and interpreting the application of languaged imperatives. If your imperative is “Thou shalt not murder” it makes no sense to think you are attempting to follow it or violate it when thinking about whether one should steal a pen from the office. Maxims it seems have to be interpreted, and interpretation takes context, it would seem.

  20. Kantian ethics is empty and formal unless we supply it with content.

    I think I would agree with this, but I’m not sure how it could be a criticism of Kant if emptiness and formalism (and rigorism for that matter) are all intended, i.e. intentionally presented as such. I see your point about alienation and all, but somehow I think that Kant’s not the only one to blame for it. In some cases when I read certain texts, I feel that Kant’s ethical positions are quite sober in a sense that they present us with a world of humans responsible for their actions and therefore there’s always a chance of either a nightmare of something like 20th century or a possibility of “figuring things out” and making a better reality – but there’s no god that will help us, not supernatural force, I think the burden of such responsibility can be too heavy, so it’s not so much the formalism that alienated, it’s the human tendency to disavow such heavy responsibility and hide in small “virtue ethics” communities without any real attempt to understand what guides our actions. Think about something like studies of Holocaust: one way is always to discard any rational discourse with “Nazis were evil, they had no logic in their extermination of Jews, we must not try to understand it” – but understand we can and should, I think…

  21. In order to follow an imperative one has to interpret it, see it as valid or applicable in this instance, at this moment in time.

    […]

    Maxims it seems have to be interpreted, and interpretation takes context, it would seem.

    I think the trick here is to see Kant’s ethics as a part of his larger practical philosophy: Kant’s insistence (after Rousseau) that freedom equals only following the law one gives to oneself means that all maxims as “subjective principles of volition” and all laws as “objective principles of volition” [4:401note] are thought of only as part of rational agent’s very rational activity of analysis of the situation/decision. In order to isolate the principle of one’s volition, one ignores context (the same way any movement of abstraction ignores differences, it seems that we are all fine with abstract thinking when it comes to logic but somehow get all worked up when it comes to ethics), maxim is a principle and therefore as any principle will be a formal principle, in this case of volition.

    Of course we can act without thinking about a maxim of our action, in a sense, any action is based on an underlying maxim, not just an ethical action, in fact, an action will become ethical in certain formal circumstances – in this sense typing up this comment is an action that is based on a maxim, a subjective principle of volition, what that maxim is requires thinking, so maxims are not interpreted, I think, they are articulated because they are always already there as an essential part of volition.

  22. Pingback: Running The Read Light, Being Late For A Poker Game. « Perverse Egalitarianism

  23. Two quick remarks on this topic, if no one minds:

    1) for a post that tried to avoid an exegesis of Kant — and Kant’s ethics in particular — there’s a lot of discussion about Kant! What’s more, none of the disputes that have emerged really have much to do with Mikhail’s — central, shall I say? — insight: normativity (rather than ethics, which is a subdomain of the normative) is ‘the essence’ of conceptual activity, and guarantees the intersubjective, social character of our experience and ‘concrete’ action; consequently the act/potency distinction, which cannot be reduced to a primary/secondary one, produces the ability to exchange reasons in a compelling way (Kvond, notice how the idea of ‘exchanging reasons’ is totally absent from Spinoza’s ethics; one simply understands that blessedness or virtue consists in associating with others who increase one’s power, and the knowledge of how to determine this; it’s really not an “ethics,” and more of a rational egoism), so that an ‘ought’ can arise as a compelling albeit non-objective (‘unreal’) force. Moreover, the normative/factual distinction can be accounted for in a way that the primary/secondary qquality distinction really can’t be.

    And, since this ought is not to be found in the space of things (actuality), but in the space of reasons (potentiality/virtuality/Reason/logos, Space of Meaning, Geltungsbereich, whatever), an ontology actually needs to account for this difference. Kant’s critical philosophy does, but the fancy new realisms seem to have a problem (especially when they insist that human concerns aren’t really that important; Brassier seems to make this claim, from the papers I seen online).

    2) the only serious objection I’ve seen in the comments is Shahar’s, viz. the problem of the Will — especially since Kant’s ‘will’ provides him with his moral ontology, and hence grounds his discussions of every concrete instance of ethical action. It also contains, in effect, the differentiation between the individual will and the general will (Wille and Willkür), which will lead to the Terror in Hegel’s Phenomenology. In point of fact, Hegel’s criticism of Kant’s ethics has little to do with alienation — alienation is a good thing insofar as it prepares the ground for an objective world/Spirit, reconciliation, and forgiveness — and everything to do with Kant’s understanding of the will.

    Anyway, Mikhail, I think you’ve put your finger on the precise problem with the fancy new realisms. Good job.

  24. Mikhail,

    I don’t see any contradiction between talk of applying the categorical imperative and talk of following the categorical imperative. Insofar as moral reasoning belongs to the domain of the synthetic a priori, it is expansive rather than analytical. That is, when I conclude I shouldn’t murder, I have arrived at a knowledge of something new, just as when I conclude that 7 + 5 = 12. This requires me to apply the categorical imperative. However, in going through my moral deliberation, I think follow what reason has dictated.

    One of my beefs with Kant– very closely connected to Kvond’s criticisms –is its formal nature. Kant explicitly tells us that we are to ignore anything pathological (any emotion, affect, psychology, etc) and that the law is completely unconditioned (that it makes no reference to circumstance, historical setting, the person’s involved, etc). For example, in the famous example, it makes no difference that the person at your door is a crazed murderer or a Nazi, the categorical imperative still forbids you to lie about having Hannah Arendt in the back room. The circumstances or the context are irrelevant because they’re all empirical.

    Now with respect to the point about ignoring the pathological, I think we’ve had a number of critiques throughout history that cogently argue why this is a very bad idea where morality is concerned. We have, as I cited over at my blog, St. Paul’s account of moral psychology in Romans and the problem with law bound ethics (regardless of whether they’re given by us or by some outside agency). We have Kierkegaard’s critique of the law in Fear and Trembling and the deadlock it falls into. We have Kafka’s critique of the law in The Trial. We have Nietzsche and Freud’s critique of the hidden sadistic drive component of the law. Finally we have Lacan’s critique of the law in “Kant avec Sade”. In each of these cases what is demonstrated is the functioning of a hidden pathological element at work beneath and behind the law that subverts its functions, drawing both an illicit enjoyment from the law based on sadism and turning it to ends that are very different than the ethical. If we ignore the pathological, our nature as organisms, or psychology or how we’re put together, etc., we run into a whole slew of very serious problems ethically. Yet this is exactly what Kant does in his formulation and transcendental analysis of morality. I simply do not think we can draw a neat distinction between the pathological and the rational in the way that he would like to, and that our attempts to purify a pure rational moral kernel in this way are, in fact, ethically dangerous.

  25. I forgot to add that yes, the realist does draw a distinction between primary and secondary qualities. I’ve written three posts on this in the last week with respect to Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism, entitled Meillassoux I, II, and III, so I won’t repeat the arguments and analysis here.

    I am unclear as to why the fact that inquiry is governed by norms is somehow fatal to the realists position. All the realist needs is the reality of certain properties we discover as being in things independent of mind. Nothing prevents the realist from saying yes, at the level of secondary properties (relational properties) humans employ norms in structuring their investigation of nature teleological. Bhaskar would call this the distinction between the transitive and the intransitive, where the transitive refers to the human dimension of inquiry where all sorts of things like values, theories, norms, etc., are operative in inquiry… For example, undertaking a particular inquiry to resolve a political dispute or to create some desired technology.

  26. I mean obviously in undertaking scientific investigation at all the scientist wants to know something about the world (i.e., there’s a teleology at work in his engagement). Why would the realist have to deny that? It’s a curious sort of criticism.

  27. A good realist would be perfectly fine with the for us/in itself distinction, as long as there was a path to ascend from the for us to the in itself. If you simply assume an unbridgeable gulf, you already have your answer. Nearly every treatise of Aristotle begins with a reflection on the method of ascending from the for us (or opinion) to the in itself. Likewise, the whole point of phenomenology is to avoid making assumptions like there are five primary qualities — ok, now where does that leave us? With some sort of idealism, as is the case with Kant, who simply assumes a fully developed modern physics and the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. The “realist” who also defends the primary/secondary distinction is doing it wrong.

    OK, now that I’m done with that . . .

  28. Levi, moral reasoning isn’t a form of cognition, synthetic, analytic, a priori or a posteriori. It’s a form of thinking, which occurs within the purview of pure practical reason. So it has nothing to do with knowledge claims.

    Now all this said, there is of course a formal element to Kant’s thought. But formalism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can’t have a teleology unless you have a formalism, for instance. So I think you need to motivate this criticism a little better, since, as it stands, I can only shrug at it.

    More importantly, though, all of this talk about ‘law’ seems to miss the point entirely. it’s not the law of some big Other that Kant has in mind when he uses phrases like ‘moral law.’ What’s really at stake, without any metaphysical or psychoanalytic baggage, is simply that rational activity is rational insofar as it can make explicit the criteria governing ‘correct’ action within a given set of circumstances. As Brandom would put it, ‘rational’ means making what is implicit in an action — in our particular case ethical action — explicit. So it’s not like the Pauline case you keep bringing up where there’s a pre-existent law (mosaic commandment, or whatever). Rather that on the basis of my particular circumstances I try to make explicit the normative criteria governing my proposed course of action, and then extrapolate — counterfactually, ‘as if’ — a series of consequences based on the universal application of these criteria.

    Simply put, although Lacan and Freud, and Paul may have very good reasons to criticize a certain form of the law, the position they criticize has almost nothing, if anything at all, to do with what Kant actually suggests. The positions these men attack is not the one that Kant holds.

    Nietzsche’s case is a bit different. And I don’t know what to say about it really — other than that I don’t see any contradiction in Nietzsche’s account of the noble’s affirmation and Kant’s ethics; Nietzsche’s innovation is to inquire into how ‘no saying’ becomes productive. but that’s not a criticism of Kant’s position at all, since no-saying isn’t a feature of Kant’s ethics; in fact there’s a significant sense in which Nietzsche really just reads Kant’s work through an expressly aesthetic lens, one that emphasizes the sublime (from Kant’s early, pre-critical essay on the sublime no less!), rather than the architechtonic of reason.
    But now I’m rambling. The simple point is that I don’t see Nietzsche’s critique of slave-morality as applicable to Kant, precisely because Kant’s morality is not something externally imposed upon the subject, but something externalized by rational reflection and affirmed in action.

  29. Alexei, if you begin from the premise that moral reasoning isn’t a form of cognition then there’s nothing more for us to talk about because you’ve already stacked the deck. I begin from the premise that thought cannot be separated from the body, our organism, our neurology, and our psychology and conclude that any position that denies this is a priori absurd and not worth even debating. I adopt this position not simply based on what naturalized psychology has taught us from Spinoza onwards through Freud, cognitive psychology and neurology, but also from what phenomenology has demonstrated to us about the nature of our lived experience. Insofar as I side with what the evidence indicates as for as our empirical observations of humans show, rather than what an idealized transcendental argument shows us, there’s little point in even entertaining such a silly thesis.

  30. What Paul, Freud, and Lacan say has everything to do with what Kant is arguing. In fact, in their analysis of ethics, both Freud and Lacan engage in extensive textual engagements with Kant’s moral thought and duty bound ethics. Where the law comes from is irrelevant in the case of the psychic effects that the law produces. It’s not the source of the law that is at issue, but the manner in which prohibition functions in producing a particular structure of desire that is at issue. Almost all of Lacan’s seventh seminar is devoted to the analysis of this structure in terms of Kant. He choose Kant precisely because of this formalism and with how clearly this psychological structure is there in Kant’s thought. You are, of course, free to reject all of that psychoanalytic analysis as nonsense and suggest that somehow the Kantian law is immune to this. However, in my own clinical experience I have seen this structure at work again and again and therefore have very little doubt that it is the case.

  31. I begin from the premise that thought cannot be separated from the body, our organism, our neurology, and our psychology and conclude that any position that denies this is a priori absurd and not worth even debating

    I haven’t denied any of this, nor do I see how it follows from what I have said. I’ve simply invoked Kant’s distinction between cognition and thinking, between understanding and reason. There’s nothing mysterious about it, nor do I think I’ve stacked the deck. If anything, I pointed out a feature of Kant’s thinking, which you seemed to have overlooked. No harm there, and no foul.

    I mean really, If ‘knowledge’ is objectively valid, then nothing in the normative sphere can be knowledge, since it’s at best subjectively valid or transcendental. You can disagree with Kant on this, and that’s fine. But then your disagreement with him has less to do with ethics — let alone moral law — as it does with what constitutes knowledge in the first place. But that’s a very different subject from the one we’re discussing.

  32. ooops, the first sentence after the blockquote is misleading. it should read,

    I haven’t denied any of this, nor do I see how what I’ve said would lead one to think that I endorse some such separation of mind, body, etc.

  33. Ah, I understand better now what you’re saying. When I say that moral judgment is synthetic a priori– and it is a judgment –I’m just pointing out that we’re not born knowing what our moral duties are. We have to reason our way to them. Perhaps “knowledge” is the wrong word here.

    I’m glad to hear you don’t exclude the psychological and the affective, however it seems that you have been repeatedly excluding the concerns or observations of psychology with respect to moral reasoning in this discussion.

  34. What I am denying, Levi, is simply this: the psychological and affective elements of my life do not delineate either necessary or sufficient conditions for identifying ethical behaviour or phenomenon. Whatever ethics ‘is,’ it isn’t described or exhausted by psychological or affective features, however important these elements may be to my own daily interactions.

  35. Alexei, that may be. But these psychological and effective features can show, I would argue, that a particular ethical theory is wildly mistaken and even dangerous ethically because of the psychology and set of affects it produces by virtue of its structure.

    As I said earlier in this thread, however, I’m not at all sure what you’re referring to by “ethics” or why it is important. When Shaher evokes her Levinasian ethics I can get what she’s saying and see the value of responsibility to the other. A society that held responsibility to the other as its grounding principle would probably be a pretty nice society to live in, i.e., it would promote human flourishing. I can understand Kvond’s Spinozist ethics and the aim of attaining joy and fraternity among men. I can understand Aristotle’s ethics of eudaimonia, happiness, or human flourishing as ethically making sense. I can understand J.S. Mill’s utilitarianism and the process of deliberating in such a way that we seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. I cannot understand the point of Kant’s “ethic” at all or what possible value it has.

    A good ethical theory should, in part, have the power to assist us in persuading others. That is, a good ethical theory should help to provide us with the ability to give reasons to develop consensus and collective behaviors. Kant’s ethical theory just doesn’t do this. Mill can do this. He can say “look, if we do this, then we will maximize happiness for all these people and therefore fair better ourselves”. Shaher can say “look, if we attend to the other we’ll have a much better society”. I can say “look, if we have public schools we’ll have a better educated polis that will be less likely to engage in violence towards others and that will be much more productive”. Kant’s moral reasoning just doesn’t work well in this way. Kant says “well what would happen if everyone did this?” The other person thinks to themselves “but there’s never a circumstance in which everyone does this and besides, there’s that guy dying in the back of my car”. It’s silly.

    Listening to the two of you guys it’s as if you think that absent Kant’s categorical imperative we’re suddenly going to have something like the Holocaust or Stalin’s gulags all over again. First, it was people reasoning in a Kantian way that led to things like the Holocaust and the Gulags. Because they began from axiomatic, dogmatic principles they felt warranted in doing anything to achieve their goals. Second, we learn from history and can see how horrific these things were. Third, we don’t need principles to tell us to take care of the bleeding man in the alley. Phenomenologically we encounter this man as “like us” or as Shaher says “as an other that calls to us”. A principle is not going to make us any more or less likely to attend to this man, nor is it going to make us any less likely to kill or torture or maim. Some people have these intuitions, others do not. These intuitions seem to increase the more you’re exposed to literature, art, history, other cultures, sociology, anthropology, etc., because your ability to empathize with others grows in proportion. A morality like Kant will not foster this sense and can very well produce a number of psychological structures that are downright menacing to our own mental health and the harmony of the social world. Mikhail is terrified that without Kant and the “ought” we’ll fall into social chaos and repeat the gulags. I’m terrified that the more we think in these sorts of terms the more likely we are to fall into chaos and repeat the gulags.

  36. First, it was people reasoning in a Kantian way that led to things like the Holocaust and the Gulags. Because they began from axiomatic, dogmatic principles they felt warranted in doing anything to achieve their goals.

    Ok, let’s not get carried away here, Levi. This statement is nonsensical – you might as well blame every philosopher starting from Plato’s Republic. Kant does not begin with dogmatic principles, he attempts to deduce his principles from reason, if he fails, that’s fine with me, but I don’t think he does.

    A good ethical theory should, in part, have the power to assist us in persuading others. That is, a good ethical theory should help to provide us with the ability to give reasons to develop consensus and collective behaviors. Kant’s ethical theory just doesn’t do this.

    Again, simply because you do not find Kant’s ideas persuasive does not mean others do not as well, plus since when did we switch to an argument from authority? Kant’s moral theory is bad because it is not persuasive enough? That’s not really an argument at all – what are we talking about here?

    Kant says “well what would happen if everyone did this?”

    Ok, I was trying to be charitable before, but this is not accurate – that is not how CI works, no one cares what would happen if everyone did X, it’s a very crude way of putting it. What is being test is a rationality of one’s maxim, i.e. whether it is contradictory or not, just like one looks at a syllogism. Contradictory maxims lead to immoral actions. How does one find out whether a maxim is good or not? One way is to see if one can will it becoming a universal law, not imagine, not assume, not wonder “what if this was so an so,” but will and there goes a whole lot of other things Kant has to say about this. Again, if you don’t find Kant’s argument in Groundwork persuasive, fair enough, but at the very least do not misrepresent it and then mock it.

    Mikhail is terrified that without Kant and the “ought” we’ll fall into social chaos and repeat the gulags.

    I am not terrified actually, partly because we do still have plenty of gulags (think about US secret jails in Eastern Europe or Guantanamo Bay) and people running them are not Kantians, but utilitarians for the most part believing that they are actually making people safe and all (like Dick Cheney). Please, I lost the thread of this conversation – all I was asking was this: is there normativity in realism? What you’ve said so far is this: there are primary qualities and secondary qualities. I asked then: fine, but how do you know which ones are which? where does your criterion come from? Kant’s point is that if you cannot answer this question, you cannot have any sort of “ought” including the moral one. If there’s no normativity in realism, fine – what does that mean then to live in a world without obligation and duty and law? Am I terrified of lawlessness? Certainly. I would not like to live in the state of nature (either Rousseau’s or Hobbes’s), I like civilization and order and law. Am then an uptight moralist jerk? I certainly hope not, and if I am, it’s not really Kant’s fault, is it?

  37. LS: “First, it was people reasoning in a Kantian way that led to things like the Holocaust and the Gulags. Because they began from axiomatic, dogmatic principles they felt warranted in doing anything to achieve their goals.

    M.E.: Ok, let’s not get carried away here, Levi.

    Kvond: ME, I don’t understand why you think that this is getting carried away. Clearly one could aid in carrying out the Nazi Holocaust by following the maxim “One should obey all laws of one’s recognized governement, without exception”. And one could certainly plan the Holocaust if you simply followed the maxim “One should work to purge the race of all wholesale genetic weaknesses” (under a certain theory). The previso that humans should be ends in themselves (that version) could easily be met by seeing Jews and homosexuals as being so depraved that killing them is a mercy and justice done to them. This is not getting carried away, it is using imperatives to justify one’s actions.

  38. LS: “Listening to the two of you guys it’s as if you think that absent Kant’s categorical imperative we’re suddenly going to have something like the Holocaust or Stalin’s gulags all over again.”

    Kvond: This certainly seems implicit in Badiou’s Maoist univeralism of the loyalty to the event, the genericization of truth procedures.

  39. Clearly one could aid in carrying out the Nazi Holocaust by following the maxim “One should obey all laws of one’s recognized government, without exception”.

    One certainly can aid the Nazi Holocaust by fulfilling one’s duty to the government, that is why Eichmann’s defense is so distressing, but not to a Kantian only, to any human being – how can one person claim that fulfilling his duty as a civil servant somehow trumps all the other duties that he has toward other human beings? You are blaming instrumentality, not Kantian ethics, instrumentality comes from a mechanical application of any ethical principle (see my example of Cheney-type justification of torture and illegal detention). Nazis for all it matters were more utilitarian than Kantian, Jews were enemies, they needed to be eliminated to save the German race, to increase the amount of happiness…

  40. M.E,

    The point is that one can JUSTIFY actively gassing Jews by invoking the maxims of the Categorical Imperative.

  41. No, Kvond, you can’t do that. Mikhail explained why by differentiating between instrumentality and the moral law.

    To make your claim requires a gross misreading and oversimplification.

  42. Kevin, I don’t think so because to justify killing other people one would have to will a maxim that is contradictory, according to Kant, one can still go ahead and gas as many people as one wants, but one cannot consistently will a maxim for an action and therefore that action will be immoral.

    Why go to gassing of Jews? Did you know that for Kant, if you help out an attractive girl with her bag and you are doing it for the sake of making a good impression and not because you think it is a good thing in itself, you are acting immorally? These are the cases that I find to be pretty controversial (even if I agree with Kant’s logic), not gassing of Jews. Nazis clearly knew that they were committing crimes, because they carefully hid the facts of extermination of Jews, even from their own citizens in many cases…

    I wonder what Shahar thinks about this whole Holocaust angle, I know he use to teach a class on Holocaust, he must have some input here.

  43. Mikhail, your observations about Gitmo with respect to Cheney and instrumentalism are interesting. When I think of the last administration, I don’t think of a group of people that were utilitarians or instrumentalists, but a group of people that suffered from a sort of very Kantian moral certitude (even if only in a perverse and twisted form). It was that moral certitude that allowed them to engage in the sort of acts they were engaged in. Now, among a certain type of ethical and political thinker utilitarianism gets a pretty bad rap. It’s believed that somehow a consequentialist ethic leads to precisely this sort of thing. But I don’t see how that follows. Because consequentialisms are based on hypothetical imperatives, utilitarian forms of thought are very much bound up with empiricism or the empirical investigation of policies that are effective and policies that aren’t. Had the administration been instrumentalists, they would have bothered to consult the loads of social science research indicating that these sorts of practices are ineffectual. Likewise, they would have bothered to consult sociologists to determine the likely effectiveness of imprisoning people without legal recourse or representation and invading another country as a way of bringing about “freedom”. They didn’t do any of this because they believed they had an “a priori” knowledge that people intrinsically want freedom and that this can be brought by the point of a gun. Likewise, they were absolutely certain of the justness and goodness of their actions. This is not unlike the Maoist or Stalinist revolutionary who, convinced of the justice of their actions, feel they are justified in anything. I think these forms of thought are very Kantian in character in that they’re “axiomatic” and lead to moral and political dogmatism.

    I noticed above that in this thread or the other one you talk about a hierarchy of duties. Again, this is a misreading of Kant or a way of flying fast and loose with his text. Kant is very clear that our duties are unconditional. That entails that one duty cannot trump another duty.

    A final point. It might seem obvious that the Nazi is violating the third formulation of the categorical imperative when he gasses Jews. For the Nazis the Jews weren’t humans and therefore didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the categorical imperative. They had a whole eugenics program designed to prove that the Jews weren’t humans.

    A final point, final point. Above you take me to task about moral persuasiveness and suggest I’m making an argument from authority. You miss my point. Part of what we want from an ethical theory is to be able to persuade others. We’re looking for the reasons we can give to others to persuade them to adopt certain actions and policies. This, after all, is what reason is all about. Reason is what is public and shared. From this perspective, deontological moral theories just don’t have a lot of traction. Not only do they lead to very bizarre results, but they do not provide grounds or reasons to others that create consensus. A consequentialist ethical system, by contrast, is far more effective in this. If your goal really is promoting a better, just society as you’ve emphasized in a number of contexts, then Kant just is not the way to go in achieving that aim.

    As an aside about primary and secondary qualities I must have misunderstood what you were asking about. The primary/secondary quality distinction pertains to metaphysical issues, not ethical issues. It is a question of what properties are in things themselves, rather than properties that exist only in relation to humans. For example, the taste of wine is only in relation to humans. The wine does not itself have taste in it. Meillassoux gives criteria for drawing these distinctions that you’ll find in my diaries on this topic. I will not repeat them here. I am not sure what any of this has to do with ethics.

  44. M.E.: ” I don’t think so because to justify killing other people one would have to will a maxim that is contradictory.”

    Kvond: I simply don’t see it. I want to speak of specific maxims, real linguistic sentences, not vague feelings or “the nazi’s knew that they were committing crimes”. The question is, Is the process for arriving at moral action that is offered by Kant, moral? And that process requires the forming of a maxim (I don’t know why Kantians skip this).

    One can certainly justify killing other people by forming the appropriate maxim:

    Assisted suicide can be justified by the maxim, “Kill those who are in unbearable pain” There is no problem universalizing this law.

    The leap to JUSTIFYING the killing of Jews or homosexuals along the same maxim thinking is certainly not contradictory, as far as I can see.

    M.E.: “Nazis clearly knew that they were committing crimes, because they carefully hid the facts of extermination of Jews, even from their own citizens in many cases…”

    Kvond: I can’t say what they knew or didn’t know. The question is can you arrive at the same actions via the Imperative, and you can. Hiding facts of extermination could also be explained by the notion that the common public did not have the stomach to see how the Law itself can appear inhuman. (One might very well hide the fact that you let Nazi’s in to kill a neighbor just because you can NEVER lie. In fact if you followed that classic example, I would suggest that if you were the common European you probably “knew you are commiting a crime” or acting unethically, even as you let the Nazis in.

  45. LS: “It might seem obvious that the Nazi is violating the third formulation of the categorical imperative when he gasses Jews. For the Nazis the Jews weren’t humans and therefore didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the categorical imperative. They had a whole eugenics program designed to prove that the Jews weren’t humans.”

    Kvond: A very good point, which show that the very terms of either the maxim, or the version of the Imperative itself are not universal in meaning, but require contextual interpretation.

  46. The question is, Is the process for arriving at moral action that is offered by Kant, moral? And that process requires the forming of a maxim…

    No, it is not, “moral” is a characteristic of an action based on a maxim that is not contradictory and that is done for the sake of the duty, not any other motivation.

    No, the process does not require forming a maxim, every action already has an implicit maxim.

    I don’t think you understand what Kant means by “maxim”

    Assisted suicide can be justified by the maxim, “Kill those who are in unbearable pain” There is no problem universalizing this law.

    No, it cannot be justified using that maxim, it’s not a maxim at all, maxim is a subjective principle of volition.

    One does not “universalize” a law, law already implies that it is universal, that’s what makes it a law as in the “law of nature” or “law of reason” – legal statutes are not real laws because they are contingent and contextual. We used them as examples, as illustration (all that red light business), but Kant’s morality is not about a set of regulations imposed on all, it is based on the idea of autonomy and freedom – of course, because it is also based on reason, it claims that if we follow our reason, we will eventually come up with the same results, like in logic or math – that’s a point of contention that I’d like to see addressed, not, no offense here, some minute exegetical issues that can be easily addressed by a simple afternoon of reading a wikipedia article on Kant’s moral theory.

    The point is not justifying things, the point is figuring out what is and is not moral – in the beginning, there is no moral code for Kant, no commandments, no virtues/vices, there’s a way of making a decision concerning what is moral and what is not – forget your traditional connotation of “moral” – Kant is giving this game a whole new set of rules, that’s the cool part of it…

  47. Levi:

    I don’t think of a group of people that were utilitarians or instrumentalists, but a group of people that suffered from a sort of very Kantian moral certitude (even if only in a perverse and twisted form).It was that moral certitude that allowed them to engage in the sort of acts they were engaged in.

    I don’t think Kant or Kantians have moral certitude at all – “moral” has to do with a decision making process, circumstances of life are contingent and unpredictable, you can never know what is going to happen, but you do have a principle of deciding what to do and formality of this principle ideally would not allow you to set any sort of moral code in stone.

    Plus, American administrations always had a history of illicit activities based on the vague concept of “American interests” – let’s not pretend that Bush/Cheney were completely out of the mold in this case. I know it’s cathartic to do so, but unfortunately it’s not the case – thinks Nixon (my favorite US president by far, it’s a gift that keeps on giving).

    Kant is very clear that our duties are unconditional. That entails that one duty cannot trump another duty.

    Where does he say that? I will gladly stand corrected.

    I am basing my distinction between duties on a number of Kant’s texts regarding various duties, not one duty – for example, see table on 6:240 (perfect and imperfect duties)…

  48. Ok, I’ll weigh in on this. I’m a bit delirious what with all the pollen and fiberglass I’ve been inhaling this weekend, but here goes. By the way, I thought the initial impetus of the post, e.g. where is the normative in realism, was an interesting questions. I got distracted by the initial comments regarding Kantian ethics and favor a different approach, but anyway…

    Per the famous example of the Nazi wanting to kill Jews to “straighten out the human race” I would say this: if we go by the first formulation of the categorical imperative, clearly Kant is problematic. And I am quite sympathetic with the tack Levi has taken. Yet, one way of interpreting Kant’s other formulations is that it requires us to treat people in a way they can consent to. It may appear then, that the focus on say, consent, rules out deceit. Behind this angle I think lies another: if we think about this for a moment then Mikhail can’t actually consent to my deceiving him. That is, if Mikhail’s agreeing to let me lie to him, then I’m not really deceiving him, since he already knows not to trust what I say.

    Similarly, you can’t really consent to my coercing you. For if you consent to what I do to you, I’m not really coercing you. Since Levi brought this angle up, we could even make this claim about abuse. To make it effective we’d have to define “abuse” as deliberately harming someone without that person’s (rational) consent. If you rationally consent to my physically harming you, what I do isn’t abuse, it’s called teaching (har har).

    At bottom, the question is this: where should we focus our attention? On what one actually consents to, or what is possible for one to consent to. Suppose Mikhail borrows my collection of jazz cd’s. I could rationally consent to his not returning the cds (and vice versa). If the focus is on what one could consent to (whether or not Mikhail actually does), then is Mikhail’s not returning my cd’s permitted? If we answer yes, then the categorical imperative seems to be screwy.

    Ok, but I think a different way to read: “treat people always as ends in themselves and never merely as means” is to think of it as requiring us to treat people in ways that they actually do consent to, or would consent to under appropriate conditions.

    This changes things a bit with the Nazi’s gassing Jews, no? Even with a ideology of racial superiority and pseudo-science driving the bus, it makes it a bit harder to completely pin down Kant here…

    This was something like a rejoinder somebody gave me when I threw the Nazi example in their face sometime ago, and it’s a worthwhile response I think, but veers in a direction that may not be “Kantian” enough. However, as I think someone pointed out in the comments here, there is the whole thing about the moral law. In my view, there is a better way to circumvent/deal with that issue, as I indicated above.

  49. Where does he say duties are unconditional? He tells us right in the open of the Groundwork where he introduces the concept of the good will and of the CI. Moreover, this conclusion is entirely clear from his essay responding to the lying critique with respect to the murderer at the door. I think your problem is that you play fast and loose with Kant and don’t think rigorously about what he’s claiming. Kant therefore becomes a justification for whatever moral intuitions you happen to have and can never be wrong, rather than a real transcendental philosopher proposing a decision making procedure that has very strict and rigorous constraints and criteria. The thing to remember with Kant’s moral philosophy is that no admixture of the empirical can ever be admitted as that would return his moral philosophy to the domain of the “pathological”. You keep wanting to introduce these considerations– and believe me, I’m glad that you do! –but that’s not Kant, that’s Mikhail being a utilitarian or a consequentialist who wants a good world. I like the Mikhail that’s passionate about being a consequentialist and having a good world. I don’t like the Mikhail that attaches this to Kant because I simply don’t think this consequentialism is there in Kant.

    I like Shahar’s reading of the third formulation of the maxim and it’s one that in my own ethical philosophy I could probably endorse on virtue ethics grounds. However, it seems to me that there’s a deep tension between the third and fourth formulation. From the standpoint of moral phenomenology (our lived experience of the ethical), I think this third formulation gets at something very real pertaining to our moral intuitions. It’s not by mistake that slave owners and the Nazis have to engage in all sorts of intellectual acrobatics to prove that somehow Jews and “negros” are lesser humans and that therefore their treatment of these groups is unjustified. My bearded Buddy Mikhail brings up a good point when he says they felt compelled to hide their actions. Given the developmental processes we go through and how “normal” attachment takes place during infancy, it’s hard not to look at these other faces and think how we’re behaving towards these people is right.

    Aside: I find it remarkable that Aristotle doesn’t really comment on things like rape, murder, torture, etc., in his moral philosophy. He makes a passing reference to these things under the title of monstrosity and bestiality. Lesson? Aristotle understood that these things are forms of sickness, that those who engage in these activities are wired wrong or developed wrong, and that therefore these issues fall outside of ethics. Perhaps we make too much of cases like murder, rape, theft, in our modern ethical discussions, and not enough about these other virtue based issues.

    Resume: But if we take Shahar’s tack, it seems to me that there’s a huge conflict between the first and third formulation (as he points out). They yield two very different ethical systems. The first is very legalistic and is going to “feed out” any considerations of how the other wants to be regarded. The third is very Levinasian and will be very situational, examining what is called for in this relation between these two people beyond any law or rule. That is, the third formulation would be closer to Kant’s formulations regarding judgment in the Third Critique where we no longer have any law or universal to rely on. But then we’re already beyond Kant in another domain entirely. We’re in the domain of inventing sociability and communicativity, rather than the domain of evoking a pre-existent standard. The domain of ethics as Kant understands it in the second Critique thereby comes to require a very different formulation and different problematic.

  50. Oh, and I should add, that while you and Alexei really make my blood pressure rise, at least this has been a philosophical discussion about ethics, rather than a discussion about Kant… Even though Kant has been the touchstone. Good work one and all. I pat you on the back and owe all of you a good German beer!

  51. Patting on the back is a bit condescending in this case, especially since you don’t really give me much evidence in support of your claim that I play fast and loose with Kant’s texts simply because my interpretation of Kant differs from yours.

    But oh well, no harm done, I would still like to hear an answer to my realism and primary/secondary qualities distinction criterion question – maybe it will take us back to my original point and out of the Kantian exegesis and our eternal “I know Kant better” competition…

  52. Wasn’t meant as condescending. I don’t understand the primary/secondary distinction question in the context of ethics. It seems to me that questions of ethics are inherently relational, pertaining not to things as they are in themselves but rather to how humans relate to things.

  53. My original point was that without the possibility to clearly distinguish between for-us and in-itself, without a clear criterion, you have a metaphysics that cannot distinguish between actual and potential (Kant’s #76), between primary and secondary (even if you state that the difference exists, not knowing how to find it doesn’t really make it very useful) therefore there’s not distinction between “is” and “ought” – this is where we got off talking about Kant and all, but you didn’t seem to deny the need for “ought” in ethics, a need for normativity and Kevin wasn’t so sure we need a strong “ought” (I lost the train of thought there, honestly). In other words, if you claim that there are primary and secondary qualities and, importantly, you know how to tell the difference, then how do you tell the difference? Let’s just address this issue and forget about ethics for now.

  54. Well again, I don’t understand the question. The distinction between the actual and the potential is continuously operative for us because we’re temporal beings with memory. As for how to make the distinction. Meillassoux argues that properties of objects that can be mathematized are primary qualities or are in the things themselves. As for the epistemological question of how we make this distinction, I think that’s a question of scientific practice or methodology. I’m not all that concerned with answering the question in the absence of a compelling critique of Meillassoux’s argument and rejoinders to the counter-arguments against correlationism, and in the absence of an answer to the question: are ancestral statements meaningful? Yes or no.

  55. And I only say this because the question of where we stand on these scientific issues will define the epistemological problem and what counts as epistemologically absent. If you say no, then you’re the equivalent of a Christian fundamentalist creationist. If you say yes, we can have knowledge of the world prior to the existence of humans then you either have to explain how a transcendental-correlationist account can make room for this or modify your epistemology in realist terms accordingly.

  56. uh, about this:

    Where does he say duties are unconditional? He tells us right in the open of the Groundwork where he introduces the concept of the good will and of the CI

    Kant actually says that the concept of duty is unconditional, not that we have unconditional duties. And the argument concerning duty has to do with Kant’s attempt to differentiate it from obligation. Kant’s discussion of duties (imperfect and Perfect) is in the Groundwork of the metaphysics of Morals, which is interesting but should probably have been called something more pretentious.

  57. Are ancestral statements meaningful? Yes or no.

    No. I am a Christian fundamentalist creationist then – great conversation. No, really, I mean it. You found your new idol, Levi, I hope you worship him well.

    Seriously, you’re are just going to pose the issue in such a childish way? Are you simply pretending not to understand my question so you don’t have to answer it? Issues of epistemology come first before you can say anything about ancentrality. You claim that there are primary qualities and secondary qualities, you claim to know the difference, you claim that you know the difference because you can identify the primary qualities, the rest is secondary.

    Meillassoux argues that properties of objects that can be mathematized are primary qualities

    Excellent. Kant argues the opposite – who is correct? You were the one who was lecturing me a while ago about everyone having their own argument and how none is really true and we are lost in the world of arguments etc etc. Now I am asking you a very simple question – I answered yours, I am now a creationist, you answer mine and please not with “Meillassoux said so”

    I am looking at a table – which qualities of the table are primary and which are secondary and how do you know the difference ? If you say that its spacial measurements are primary (“mathematized” unless I don’t know what mathematized means), how do you know it? Because Meillassoux told you so? How did Meillassoux learned it? In a dream? Why should I accept Meillassoux’s premise?

    Ok, let’s imagine that I did, so the spacial characteristics of my table are primary qualities – what does that say about the nature of space then? Is space an objective characteristic of things? Is it a substance? Zeno’s paradox (space is in space is in space) is back and you’re in all sort of trouble again.

    In any case, I appreciate your enthusiasm for Meillassoux but the burden of proof is not on me, but on you and your new theory. I don’t see how “mathematized quality” is a primary quality at all because mathematics in this case can claim as much as it wants to describe things as they are in themselves, I don’t see how speaking of n-dimensional spaces in analytical geometry can get me anywhere near things-in-themselves?

    For the sake of clarity, I think Meillassoux’s book is brilliant, it poses old questions in a new refreshing way, it is written well, but it fails to persuade me, because I am a Christian fundamentalist creationist, right?

  58. If you say yes, we can have knowledge of the world prior to the existence of humans then you either have to explain how a transcendental-correlationist account can make room for this or modify your epistemology in realist terms accordingly.

    For the record, I don’t see any problem with an idea that world existed before humans, that there is a world outside of my perception of it, that there are things-in-themselves. In fact, as Kant would also affirm, we must necessarily posit the existence of the world in itself, outside and before us, what exactly is the problem with that assumption? We can still see light from the Big Bang (Shahar tells me, I’m no scientist), we find all sort of evidence of life before humans appeared – Meillassoux’s whole deal about ancenstrality is spectacular and breath-taking but utterly useless because he sophistically sets up the problem with only a couple of solutions (the way you do in your comment) – either a creationist (he actually never says it this way, I believe it’s you own contribution here) or a big big problem. It’s all magic tricks, the objections that he imagines are pretty strong and I like the book precisely because it does contain a counterargument, but we are talking about issues here and I started this with a reference to Kant but ultimately with a number of issues that I wanted to discuss without any reference to Kantian philosophy.

    I think ultimately you need to decide if you are interested in talking philosophy or talking exegesis – we both know our sources back and forth and we both can spend hours citing and reciting this author or that authors, but at the end of the day, it’s the arguments that matter – you continuously agree with me on that point, yet you also continuously run away and hide behind names and books, I’m not arguing with Meillassoux, I am arguing with you – let’s have an honest open exchange without names – hell, I’ll even drop Kant for the sake of it and never mention him again if it helps the cause. For someone who constantly bitches about “Continental tradition” and how it never really addresses problems but only does “book reports” you really are not that different, you know? Which is fine with me on a personal level, but irritates me on a philosophical level because I never know which Levi I will be arguing with – an issues-and-problems Levi or a this-and-that-author-said-so Levi.

    I do appreciate the chance to battle it out though, I think we’ve established that, I hope.

    Cheers

  59. Shahar: “treat people always as ends in themselves and never merely as means” is to think of it as requiring us to treat people in ways that they actually do consent to, or would consent to under appropriate conditions.”

    Kvond: I’m curous as to the foundation of this transformation. Clearly we can treat people as ends in themselves (forgetting completely that the definition of what constitutes a person is historically contingent), without having to rely upon their consent. We certainly raise children with any number of practices which they would not consent to, and a great number of political policies are “for their own good” of persons. However would a Kantian put persons in prison for crimes under such an interpretation of the imperative? (I find it hard to believe that Kant does not believe in emprisonment or criminal fines.) I don’t understand this transformation at all. But perhaps you can make it more clear.

  60. M.E.: “No, it cannot be justified using that maxim, it’s not a maxim at all, maxim is a subjective principle of volition.”

    Kvond: Then perhaps you can do what I have seen no Kantian do, provide 20 or so maxims which are to be universalized. These would be very instructive.

  61. I like Shahar’s invention. I am not interested in textual support, rather, I am interested in how it would guide ethical action. It seems that Sharhar’s interpretation would make unethical any number of social practices that I suspect Kant would support.

    Most obviously, there would be no prisons or criminal penalties under this thinking.

  62. Mikhail, the question is simple and straightforward. Do you believe the big bang took place, that we can have knowledge of this, and that there was a time prior to humans or don’t you? From a correlationist point of view these claims are completely unintelligible because they presuppose a knowledge of the completely non-given. If you believe that we have knowledge that these things actually took place, you are obligated to give a correlationist account of how that knowledge is possible. It’s as simple as that.

    You are hedging with your remarks on Kant on the in-itself, and again showing how you fly fast and loose on your interpretation of his thought. Yes, Kant agrees that the in-itself exists. But he nonetheless claims that we can have no knowledge of whether the in-itself is like our knowledge of appearances or phenomena. This is the dividing line between realisms and anti-realisms. The realist says yes, we can have knowledge of the in-itself, not just phenomena. The anti-realist says no, we cannot. The issue is not whether Kant believes there’s an in-itself, but whether we can know the in-itself. Within a framework where it was assumed that humans had existed as long as the universe had existed this posed no problem. But within a post-evolutionary framework where the universe is known to be billions of years old this claim becomes extremely problematic. So again, do you believe you know there was a time prior to humans and givenness or not?

  63. And as for your call to drop names I think that’s extremely dishonest. We’ve done nothing here but talk about what Kant “really means’ and whether or not people are being fair in their interpretation of Kant. I’ve taken the time to carefully outline Meillassoux’s argument in three posts. It’s the arguments that matter here, regardless of your silly allusion to “new heroes”. Your job is to show where those arguments go astray. But given your penchant for making Kant a master-signifier for whatever seems reasonable to you rather than for following what his texts actually say, I suspect that you won’t be providing an argument. You’ll come back and say that you find big bang theory and Kant perfectly consistent, suggest that he’s being read uncharitably and that the rest of us simply don’t understand him or haven’t read his entire text, and again engage in wooly headed reasoning to support your point without actually addressing the argument. It all comes down to the very simple question of whether you’re going to believe Kant or your lying eyes.

  64. I think I answered the question – do I believe the Big Bang took place? No, I don’t. I know it took place because science tells me that it did and I believe science, because I am not a scientist and I don’t know the theory, but I’m sure scientists know all about it, I fail to see how this is relevant here.

    From a correlationist point of view these claims are completely unintelligible because they presuppose a knowledge of the completely non-given.

    I must not be a correlationist then, or your version of correlationism is a caricature. Are scientists proposing that there was a Big Bang somehow different from me because they went there and saw it? Why are their claims completely intelligible to me even though you say that they are not? Am I playing fast and loose with my own statements and thoughts and I am just an irrational moron who doesn’t know what he is saying?

    If you believe that we have knowledge that these things actually took place, you are obligated to give a correlationist account of how that knowledge is possible.

    Why do I have to give a correlationist account? Do you have actual empirical evidence that those things took place? I will take them as I would take any empirical evidence – I don’t see a problem here.

    The issue is not whether Kant believes there’s an in-itself, but whether we can know the in-itself.

    Ok, how can you know the in-itself? what is knowledge in your case? For Kant it’s being able to experience something in space and time. But let’s leave Kant alone. This was my question all along – you say Kant is wrong and we can in fact know things as they are in themselves, we don’t need no sticking correlation, we can know what this table is like both for-us and in-itself, right? You don’t deny the existence of for-us, I think. My issue here is how do you know that what you claim to know about the table is truly what it is like in-itself? All that business of ancestrality is cool, but I fail to see how it helps you today right now to tell me what are primary and what are secondary qualities of my very table.

  65. Kevin, sorry I saw Lou’s comment for a second there and then it disappeared, not sure what that was, he probably cracked a joke and then thought it wasn’t appropriate enough…

    All maxims can be universalized, that is, tested again only the first test, i.e. an ability to will one’s subjective principle as a universal law. If you have time, Kant has a series of examples, with explanations, in Groundwork – 4:421ff. – everything from suicide to borrowing money without intending to repay to helping others.

    As for prisons/punishment, Kant has a very simple distinction between legality and morality – prisons are for criminals, not immoral people, breaking the legal statute is not in itself immoral, that’s the beauty of Kant’s argument – or perhaps I’m playing fast and loose with his texts here. You can’t tell if someone is being moral or not, because you can’t tell which is their motivation is acting – they can conform to the general legal standards and be immoral, they can break the law and be moral, if the law is, for example, to kill all the Jews and they wouldn’t.

  66. Mikhail,

    I take it that the point about ancestrality is that here we have an example of an event where correlation was not operative, yet which is nonetheless true and intelligible. In other words, when we say “the big bang happened” we’re making a claim to know something about being in-itself, not being as a phenomenon. The reason that this is a claim about being-in-itself rather than phenomena was because there was no phenomena at the point of the big bang. Indeed, there was nothing approaching phenomena until about 3.5 billion years ago. So here we have two contradictions:

    First, we have the scientist claiming that we can make claims about the nature of the universe prior to givenness or correlation,

    And second, we have the scientist telling us that correlation actually came into being at a particular point in time (through the emergence of human consciousness in the process of human evolution about 200 million years ago).

    The key point is that these ancestral claims require us to think a time and world that is not the time and world of correlation. That is, they require us to claim that we can know the in-itself. So long as we begin from the premise that humans and world have always existed together, correlationism posed no problem, but with evolution all that changes.

    I think your question about how we can distinguish between primary and secondary qualities is a fair question. And, to be perfectly fair, I don’t have an answer to that question yet. What I know is that correlation is inadequate when it comes to thinking ancestral statements. This opens the door to the broader thesis that correlation is inadequate to science in general. The question of how to distinguish between primary and secondary qualities then becomes a burning philosophical problem or question within realist epistemologies and ontologies. In short, we know that such a distinction is somehow made in science and our question as philosophers becomes that of how this is done.

  67. Why do I have to give a correlationist account? Do you have actual empirical evidence that those things took place? I will take them as I would take any empirical evidence – I don’t see a problem here.

    Because correlationism, on the surface of things, appears to contradict correlationism by positing a time anterior to givenness or correlationism and claiming that we can know about the beings populating that time. Yes, there is empirical evidence of these events in the form of the radioative decay of isotopes and how light emitted from stars is measured.

    Ok, how can you know the in-itself? what is knowledge in your case? For Kant it’s being able to experience something in space and time. But let’s leave Kant alone. This was my question all along – you say Kant is wrong and we can in fact know things as they are in themselves, we don’t need no sticking correlation, we can know what this table is like both for-us and in-itself, right? You don’t deny the existence of for-us, I think. My issue here is how do you know that what you claim to know about the table is truly what it is like in-itself?

    Right, I don’t deny the existence of the for-us or relational properties. In this regard, I don’t think a table has the dimension of being something in-itself because being-a-table is a relational entity through and through which can only be understood as a table through something like the intentionality of consciousness or maybe some semiotic account of tableness. Of course, you’re probably talking about the materiality of this object that we call the table. All the non-correlationist needs is the fact that certain events took place in-themselves and not just as they appear for us. From there, then, all the epistemological work starts.

    The point is important, even if you’re dissatisfied with the realist empistemology, because absent the thesis that these events really took place in-itself and not just for us, we have no means of arguing against, say, the creationist. The creationist can always turn around and say, “sure, it appears that things took place in this way, that the universe is 40 billion years old, and all of that, but by the lights of your own epistemology you concede that you can only ever know things as they appear for-us and not as they are in themselves. Therefore in-themselves they could be entirely different and have occurred as my creationist account suggests. You have no way of disproving this by the lights of your own epistemology.”

  68. And finally, I would say that given that you are committed to the claim that the big bang or evolution took place, it sounds like you are indeed a realist. Your concern is the epistemological question of how realism is possible. This is great, now to the philosophical work!

  69. That is, they require us to claim that we can know the in-itself.

    Ok. so they require us to know the in-itself – how do we actually know the in-itself? You admitting not to be able to tell the difference between primary and secondary qualities is what is at the heart of our discussion – I know that you can tell me as much as you want about how we need to know the difference, but it’s not going to help us actually know it. That was my point all along and as much as I appreciate your effort in explaining Meillassoux to me, I can’t see how it is helpful at all. You’re stuck, period.

    What I know is that correlation is inadequate when it comes to thinking ancestral statements. This opens the door to the broader thesis that correlation is inadequate to science in general.

    My table is a nice antique table, it’s very comfortable and I like, but it is not an adequate table for a very specific task, i.e. it’s not able to accommodate a dinner party of four in case I have decided to use in that way. This particular lack is not really bothering me, but following your logic I can say something like this:

    That my table is inadequate for a task of dining opens a door to the broader thesis that tables in general are inadequate pieces of furniture when it comes to arranging for a meal – let’s eat on the floor? One specific flaw, a flaw that I am really yet to see, in so-called “correlation” doesn’t mean you have to throw it out – just because it is unable to show how ancestral statements are possible, according to you, of course, doesn’t mean it needs to go.

  70. Hi, Mikhail. Your question regarding primary and secondary qualities is a good one. Ultimately, as you know, Meillassoux is reacting to what he deems as Kant’s “Ptolemaic counter-revolution” which tries to get away from Kant’s privileging the limits of sensibility over against mathematical science, e.g. a return to the Cartesian in-itself which turns out to be some sort of a mathematization of nature that takes its form wholly separated from (mathematically). I think QM writes something to the effect that math thinks the absolutely possible since its not confined by the sensible. Hence, a world completely indifferent to us. It’s rather odd to read about favoring a “return” to the primary and secondary quality distinction. As far as I understand it, the reason why one may go about answering this is that those statements Levi brought up above allows for such a move. Yet, no good answer regarding how one could distinguish p and s qualities. The better question is what happens to them when we leave correlationism behind?

    FYI, here’s the last two paragraphs from Critchley’s review of AF:

    Lastly, what about secondary qualities ? If we accept the need for a distinction between primary and secondary qualities, and also accept the critique of correlationism as confining us to the latter without access to the former, then what happens, if anything, to those secondary qualities ? Is the thought that once we have access to an absolute conception of the world, then the messier, subjective life of secondary qualities will disappear or drop away ? If so, then how ? Furthermore, the question of primary and secondary qualities contains within it a very tricky problem of the relation between the absolute and the relative. If mathematical physics grants us access to a world as it is in itself regardless of how that world appears to us, and given that it is undeniably the case that different societies and historical periods see the world in very different ways and are therefore relative to one another, then is such relativity simply meant to evaporate when we see truly into absolute reality ? Is the thought that we should somehow live ethically in relation to the realm of primary qualities, like philosopher kings ? Or is it that, like Bernard Williams, we need to accept the absoluteness of primary qualities and the relativity of secondary qualities and thereby make a distinction between the activity of science and ethical life ?

    The irony of the philosophical situation , evoked by After Finitude is palpable. Just when a certain strand of Anglo-American philosophy (think of John McDowell or Robert Brandom) is making domestic the insights of Kant, Hegel and Heidegger and even allowing philosophers to flirt with forms of idealism, the latest development in Continental philosophy is seeking to return to a Cartesian realism that was believed to be dead and buried. Thereby hangs a funny story. A. J. Ayer met that most excessive of Continental thinkers, Georges Bataille, in a Parisian bar in 1951. Apparently, Merleau-Ponty was also in attendance and the conversation lasted until three in the morning. The thesis under discussion was very simple : did the sun exist before the appearance of humans ? Ayer saw no reason to doubt that it did, whereas Bataille thought the whole proposition meaningless. For a philosopher committed to scientific realism, like Ayer, it makes evident sense to utter ancestral statement such as “The sun existed prior to the appearance of humans”, whereas, for a correlationist like Bataille, more versed in Hegel and phenomenology, physical objects must be perceived by an observer in order to be said to exist. Bataille concludes, “Yesterday’s conversation produced an effect of shock. There exists between French and English philosophers a sort of abyss”. The virtue of Meillassoux’s book is that this abyss might be elsewhere than we previously thought. We should watch where we place our feet.

    Interesting indeed.

  71. Shahar, I did see this review, I thought it was sort of a “book report” really, but enough there to get the conversation going. I am puzzled by the need to talk about primary/secondary qualities myself – I find a lot of thought-provoking ideas in QM and Levi’s discussion of them is also very fascinating. However, when Levi admits that he is not able to tell the difference between primary and secondary qualities, I don’t see how any of the other stuff matters anymore – if we must differentiate between in-itself and for-us, yet we cannot, then what is the point? At least for Kant “ought” implies “can” – but in this case we have a sort of a cruel joke: You must be able to tell the difference, but we won’t tell you how, in fact, it’s basically impossible, but we will keep you wanting anyway.

    Again, why not just posit the difference, i.e. assume that there’s a difference between in-itself and for-us and propose a criterion: what can be experienced in space and time is for-us, everything else is in-itself.

    Critchley’s point about historical, cultural and so on differences is an excellent one indeed…

  72. so far as I can tell, guys, QM’s ‘primary quality’ seems to be simply ‘existence.’ It’s the only thing I can think of that distinguishes a realist interpretation of mathematics form an anti-realist one. If that’s right, then the debate with SR is really, really old: whether existence is a predicate.

  73. M.E.: As for prisons/punishment, Kant has a very simple distinction between legality and morality – prisons are for criminals, not immoral people, breaking the legal statute is not in itself immoral, that’s the beauty of Kant’s argument – or perhaps I’m playing fast and loose with his texts here.

    Kvond: I’m not asking whether the people who commit crimes are immoral or not. That does not matter. I’m saying that the act of imprisoning someone against their will violates Sharhar’s interpretation of the Imperative, that one should only act towards persons in a manner to which they themselves do or would consent to. It was this interpretation that supposedly allows him to claim that gassing Jews is against the CI.

  74. p.s. Lou’s flickering comment was not a joke (as far as I could tell), but merely whether I was asking for the textual support for Sharhar’s interpretation, or its rationality. It also expressed an appreciation that Sharhar had made him think about this version of the CI in a way that he had not before (if I recall correctly; it was there for but a moment).

  75. Sorry, fellows – I left a comment stating that it is actually I who is the Kant expert here trying to poke fun at a sort of “question the self-proclaimed Kant expert” approach that everyone’s gotten into in the end – no offense, Mikhail, I know you do love your Kant, but it seemed that in your heated defense of all things Kantian, you’ve lost the thread of the argument. But the joke didn’t seem to work and I thought I’d comment later in full – I didn’t realize Kevin was commenting in “real time”…

    I do think Shahar’s take in terms of seeking consent being part of the third formulation of the categorical imperative is a cool way of looking at it, I’d like to hear more.

  76. Hi, Kvond. I was only intending to provide a sufficient, and not a necessary condition for getting Kant off the hook with regards to Nazis. I think that the first formulation of the CI leads us down a rather “yucky” path, of course, strictly speaking, we may even argue that based on Kant’s theory it is only other rational beings that have any intrinsic value. In turn, as Levi and you have both pointed out above, Kantian ethics does not prevent us from doing whatever we want to say, infants, senile grandmothers and the mentally retarded, for instance. I think with questions regarding imprisoning people we’re moving into another area, the doctrine of right, in particular, independence/autonomy.

    Kant’s distinction between means and ends provides us with an understanding of the ways in which one person can interfere with the “independence” of another, either by drawing that person into purposes that he or she has not chosen (imprisonment I suppose), or I could deprive Mikhail of his means. In the former case, I think fraud is a good example while say, my paying Levi and Alexei to cause bodily harm to Mikhail is an example of the latter.

    However, in doing either, if I start messing with Mikhail I am not really respecting his capacity to set his own purposes (e.g. self legislate), treating him instead either as a means to be used in pursuit of my own or someone else’s purposes, or as a an obstacle to be gotten around (so I get some hired guns). Clearly, you are right, interference with another person’s freedom creates a form of dependence. Now for Kant, independence mandates that that Mikhail is not subject to my choice.

    My own way of thinking through Kant’s understanding of independence is that it’s not really a feature of the individual person considered in a vacuum, but instead of relations between persons. Yes, personal autonomy contrasts with dependence on circumstance. Independence contrasts with dependence on another person, e.g. Mikhail being subject to this or that person’s choice. Perhaps then, independence is better thought of as relational and in turn cannot really be predicated of a particular person considered in an anechoic chamber. And I think the difference is somewhat important. Think about it, in principle if Mikhail is my slave but I am a rather goodhearted master and favorable circumstances could be autonomous in a “technical” sense. That is, a slave Mikhail could never be independent, because what he is permitted to do is always dependent on either my choice or generally good nature.

    Now, it takes on another shade: independence seems to be more of an entitlement that cooks up the normative measure of legitimate institutions. That is, for Kant independence is the basic principle of right because it seems to guarantee equal freedom, and in turn, would require that no person be subject to the choice of another. I think you can see where this is going… I could say more, but I have to run. My intent is not really to “save” Kant. There is certainly a Kantian response, but I tend to find it somewhat lacking and have made it no secret that in this manner, I’m far more in tune with the supra-situationalism of someone like Levinas or even the opposing command to “Love Me!” we see carry through Rosenzweig. Hope this helps clarify some things, though I just realized you alluded yesterday to the origins of the “Don’t use people” aspect of the CI.

    PS What was Lou’s comment, anyway?

  77. Right Mikhail, it’s quite a conundrum. On the one hand, ancestral statements are only intelligible if they are taken to be real events independent of any correlation. On the other hand, there is the whole question of how we come to know such a thing. If we can’t come up with an account of how we can know such things, then we are obligated to throw out these particular scientific finds as nothing but dogmatic speculations that claim to be capable of knowing things in themselves. At the level of epistemology, I don’t think it’s very difficult to draw the distinction. Primary qualities turn out to be those properties of an object that can be mathematized. These properties are the properties that are discovered through scientific investigation with a variety of tool and experiments employed. In short, we discover primary qualities through empirical investigation and experimentation.

    It seems to me that as Kantians go, you’re a very moderate Kantian. I think, if I’ve read you correctly, you are more than happy to say something like the big bang was a real event and that humans evolved. In other words, you think of these as things that belong to things-themselves, not simply phenomena for-us. As such, if I’m following you correctly, you read Kant’s epistemology as simply giving us the framework within which knowledge occurs. For you, any scientific claim about an object makes a claim about something in time and space, subject to one of the twelve categories, and so on. The realist, I think, is happy to agree with a lot of this. The realist holds that objects are in time and space, that objects are governed by causality, etc. The realist and the Kantian part ways in that the realist says these things belong to the things themselves, whereas the Kantian says no, this is only how phenomena themselves are structured for us and we have no idea whether or not things-themselves are structured this way. Yet you seem to hold that for Kant we can know things themselves. It also seems that you would reject Husserl’s thesis that nature cannot be a condition for consciousness, because consciousness is the condition of nature. That is, you wouldn’t be opposed to the theory of evolution or neurology, where nature is the condition of consciousness, not the reverse.

    I still don’t understand your table example. As I said before, a table is a relational entity. Tables are only tables for us and our particular needs, teleology, etc. As such, the fact that your table is not adequate for a large dinner party has nothing to do with the table itself, but rather is restricted to the correlation between your needs and the table. By contrast, when we talk about the ancestral we’re talking about something independent of correlation that would be what it is regardless of humans.

  78. Shahar, I address Critchley’s question a bit in my third post on Meillassoux over at Larval Subjects. As I understand it, the retrieval of primary qualities does not abolish the existence of secondary properties. Secondary properties are, according to Meillassoux, a genuine phenomenon. For example, the color of my coffee cup is a secondary property. It is not in the coffee cup itself, but has to do with the frequency of waves of light traveling through space and how these frequencies interact with my eyes and neurology. These interactions are real and exist. There is no reason– that I can see, at least –that we cannot have a whole science of various secondary qualities. In many respects, I think this is just what is studied in fields like phenomenology and the various semiotic disciplines.

    The advocate of the primary/secondary quality distinction is, of course, going to claim that there are cultural views of the world that are just false as descriptions of the world. However, does this undermine the study of various cultural formations and how they correlate to the world? Why would it? Moreover, why would we be any less inclined to study and investigate these many “world versions” which have very real consequences for human social relations and bodies? It seems to me that there are two types of relativism: hard and soft relativism. Hard relativism or correlationism makes the claim that all “world-versions” are on equal footing as models of the world. Consequently, the hard-relativist would say that the Christian fundamentalist creationist model of the world is every bit as true and valid as the scientific model of the world and that they are ontologically on equal footing. The soft-relativist would agree that different communities have different “world-versions”, but that only a very small portion of world-versions model the world as it really is. This soft-relativism wouldn’t undermine the importance and fascination with studying these various world-versions, it would just argue that the tribal explanation of, say, a woman shouting obscenities, shaking, seeing spirits, etc., is not the result of demons but, perhaps, schizophrenia.

  79. Shahar: “My own way of thinking through Kant’s understanding of independence is that it’s not really a feature of the individual person considered in a vacuum, but instead of relations between persons. Yes, personal autonomy contrasts with dependence on circumstance. Independence contrasts with dependence on another person, e.g. Mikhail being subject to this or that person’s choice. Perhaps then, independence is better thought of as relational and in turn cannot really be predicated of a particular person considered in an anechoic chamber. And I think the difference is somewhat important. Think about it, in principle if Mikhail is my slave but I am a rather goodhearted master and favorable circumstances could be autonomous in a “technical” sense. That is, a slave Mikhail could never be independent, because what he is permitted to do is always dependent on either my choice or generally good nature.”

    Kvond: Yes, but there is no independence per se, only variable degrees and qualities of dependence, much of it hierarchized, and all of it qualified by community. Rights are regularly restricted by laws, and people excluded from community under a great variety of instruments and reasonings. The problem is, all of these actions are actions taken by people under specific historical circumstances, and simply cannot be universalized under a single prescription.

    I still don’t understand though. Do you or don’t you think that Kant’s CI prohibits persons being imprisoned by other persons.

  80. It’s worthwhile to recall that for Kant punishment, imprisonment, and even capital punishment is a moral duty. Kant argues that in engaging in these activities we are showing respect for the dignity of the person who committed the crime.

  81. I still don’t understand your table example.

    I really need to spend more time away from my desk/table. My point was simply this: if you find a problem with correlationism’s inability to explain how we know that Big Bang took place, it does not in itself mean that correlationism is to be thrown out and is absolutely useless. Your argument seems to be suggesting that correlationism is such a strong and consistent position that if we find one flaw, we can dismiss it completely, but that’s very simplistic – it’s like the arguments of fundamentalists against any sort of alleged
    “sexual immorality”: today we let them marry their gay partners or abort babies, tomorrow they will marry goats and murder our children in daylight…

  82. LS: “It’s worthwhile to recall that for Kant punishment, imprisonment, and even capital punishment is a moral duty. Kant argues that in engaging in these activities we are showing respect for the dignity of the person who committed the crime.”

    Kvond: Then this would pretty much disallow Sharhar’s interpretation that consent is a constituent factor in deciding whether human beings are ends or means.

    I would argue that this is precisely the same kind of thinking that reads euthanasia in terms of the dignity of the person. One need only read Jews and homosexuals as suffering under their depraved conditions, putting them “out of their misery” so to speak (I don’t think that this is far fetched). Of course similar thinking governed the use of torture and stake-burning in the Inquisition.

    In a certain regard there are two paths taken, paths related to Kant’s desire to separate out the pathological (which is often attributed to the “animal” in us) and the purely rational (attributed to the soul). When one is torturing or killing another class of persons, they become, or are seen as “inhuman” in their pathologies as so do not fall under the CI (Levi comments upon the Nazi view that Jews were not human), but also, there is a double image of their rational dignity, something that has to be purged of its pathologies, even to the point of death. This division between the rational and the pathological, at the heart of the CI, is I think what is behind much of the logic of some the more abusive policies in history.

  83. I would add as well, this is the strict advantage of Spinozist ethics over Kantian ones. Spinoza, although a deep rationalist, or at least a believer in the powers of the rational, is commited to not reading a categorical division between the pathological and rational. Pleasure is not cut off from what is Good, but connected to it. Within this framework he constructs an entire “human flourishing” theory whereby one pursues the freedom of human beings in every way possible, with none of the difficulties of Law-like imperatives.

    Many of the same difficulties of a potential for historical evil that haunt Kant I think also haunt Spinoza (though I have never seen this acknowledged), but without the self-satisfied excuse, “I am just following a law” and the claim that I have no pleasurable stake in it.

  84. Do you or don’t you think that Kant’s CI prohibits persons being imprisoned by other persons.

    Here’s Kant: Punishment is acceptable because it is what the criminal deserves. However, punishing prisoners as a way of preventing crime is using people as a means to an end and rehabilitation is a violation of the autonomy rights of the individual to choose what sort person they want to be. People should be punished simply because they have committed a crime, no? So, punishment for crime should be “proportional,” e.g. seriousness of the crime should determine the penalty. So, what of the justification of the punishment? As I said, for Kant, we must treat people as an end-in-themselves. To treat someone as an end is to treat them as a rational being. To treat someone as a rational being is to treat a person as capable of reasoning about his or her conduct and freely deciding what he or she will do. Here’s the key: when we decide what to do to those who do wrong to us we look to the categorical imperative they have endorsed by their own actions.

  85. Levi,

    Thanks. I will have a look at your Meillassoux II and III posts.

    I like this tack and share the same sentiments (I’ll have to think more about this in relation to Alexei’s comment about primary qualities as existence):

    There is no reason– that I can see, at least –that we cannot have a whole science of various secondary qualities. In many respects, I think this is just what is studied in fields like phenomenology and the various semiotic disciplines.

    I too have a mound of papers to attend to, but this is far more entertaining. No matter how hard I try to design interesting paper assignments grading still reeks of tedium…

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

  87. I’ve been away from the blog for a bit, and the issue seems to have died down, much to Mikhail’s relief I can assume. Apart from my many questions on the framing of maxims and their application, there is one thing that no Kantian seems to have taken me up on, and deserves to be repeated. Since maxim making is an integral part of the ethical prescription that Kant provides, how come nobody wants to actually present maxims, literal sentences in language that can be put to the test in real world circumstances? One would think that if Kantian morality is to have ANYTHING important to say about real world consequences, and real lives, (and not just an interesting, impressional theory), the construction of maxims would be very high on the list. By now it would seem that we would have at least 20 mainstream maxims that we could then apply as universalized laws, where the tires hit the road, so to speak. If not 20, how about 5?

    Perhaps this question is because I simply don’t’ understand what a maxim is, as Mikhail claims. But because I have so few examples to chose from, I can only operate from what I understand maxims to be and what I know of Kant. If anyone would be so kind to provide a list of maxims I probably would be much enlightened.

  88. Kevin, I think the issue might be that ethics for Kant is something that always deals with an individual decision and it’s “inside” as opposed to issues of politics and law that are “outside” – I personally find that part of Kant’s theory could be more clear in terms of the very relationship between “inside” and “outside” – for example, one cannot be coerced into doing something for the sake of the duty, i.e. no coercion in ethics, but it’s ok in law as one can clearly be coerced to obey the law that is defined in terms of specific actions. So maxims are subjective principles, as I wrote before, and they can only be externalized in the form of objective laws. There’s of course a connection between morality and legality in Kant and there are discussion of it here and there. There’s a great section about morality and politics and comparison between “moral politician” and “political moralist” in Perpetual Peace [8:370ff]

    When you say that no one gives maxims, I’m not sure what you mean – Kant gives plenty of examples of maxims, actual sentences, in Groundwork. Again, because maxims are subjective, I cannot say: “You should act on this maxim” as a command to you, since there’s no way for me to check if you are indeed acting on that maxim. There’s then objective law, and we have plenty of laws, don’t we? Let me know if this makes any sense, if it does not I will try to explain it in a different way maybe…

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  90. When you say Kant gives “plenty” I have encountered very few. Perhaps you can list them because they are so plentiful.

    But of course this is the larger problem, there is an extreme disconnect between the subjective volition that is actually not linguistic at all, and then the condensation into a linguistic forumal, and then lastly, the turning of this formula into actual concrete laws that have to by applied to real world circumstances of an infinite variety. To put it briefly, you cannot get there from here.

    So, when Kant says, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law,” the “…it should become universal law” there is a change in domain. The maxim “should” becomes universal law only of in making it a law, an actual law in the real world, such a law would go into effect.

    But really, all you have to do is trace the process out for me. Give me volitions, then give me the actual maxims, and then give me the laws, and I’ll understand the force of the claim. (How come Kantians, and you seem to have done this even here, don’t want to talk about and effectively list these maxims? It is not enough to say, Kant lists plenty of maxims. These maxims should be front and center, jewel pieces of the theory, don’t you think?)

    The Stanford Encyclopedia lists the form of the maxim as:

    “‘I will A in C in order to realize or produce E’ where ‘A’ is some act type, ‘C’ is some type of circumstance, and ‘E’ is some type of end to be realized or achieved by A in C.”

    If this is accepted, because “C” in infinitely qualifiable, not to mention that qualifications of A and E are also in play, the Imperative allows the framing of almost any act as ethical.

  91. Kevin, the issue of language isn’t really relevant here — and there’s no ‘transformation of something into a concrete law.’ Levi has this reading too, but it’s not supported by the text. Kant’s point is — emphatically — not that what I judge to be the ethical course of action in a particular situation must become a legal mandate that everyone must follow on pain of being punished for failing to do so.

    Rather, the CI functions as a kind of counterfactual (an ‘as if’) thought experiment. the form of ethical reflection Kant outlines provides us with a kind of thought experiment machine. “what would happen if I, along with everyone else in the world, were to do A in C in order to produce E?” That’s it. the initial volition isn’t changed, there’s no condensation, etc. What makes the moral law binding is the fact that we are all — ideally — free, rational beings who self-legislate. We follow the moral law because it gives our interpersonal dealings a further strata of meaning, which we find inherently compelling. If there’s a criticism of Kant in all of this, it’s the one Shahar pointed out ages ago, concenring the good will. The will is good by definition — but that’s a weird kind of Platonic “no one does evil knowingly” kind of argument.

    I think Mikhail’s resistance to an particular example stems form the fact that each example could be tweaked in order to pass the universalization test. But the examples are just that, examples. If you understand the the “mechanics” you don’t need the examples.

  92. When you say Kant gives “plenty” I have encountered very few. Perhaps you can list them because they are so plentiful.

    I referenced a section in Groundwork where Kant goes through four examples of ethical situations, lists maxims and explains how his theory would work.

    So, when Kant says, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law,” the “…it should become universal law” there is a change in domain.

    Actually the formula of universal law is just one of the several formulations of the categorical imperative – “willing it to become a universal law” is a test of whether your intended maxim is a good consistent one, i.e. if it can reasonable be universalized as a test of its consistency, not because you then must universalize it. Again, all of this is in Kant’s examples in Groundwork. You can read it here – 4:422ff.

    But really, all you have to do is trace the process out for me. Give me volitions, then give me the actual maxims, and then give me the laws, and I’ll understand the force of the claim.

    I’m sorry but that’s why Kant wrote Groundwork, do you really want me to give you a run down? I’m not Kant, you know? I can, but it seems to me that there are plenty of introductions to Kant – what exactly is the question? You think about a potential ethical dilemma, you think about what to do in a situation X, how do you go about making a decision? You act as though no one ever thought of this before but Kant. Look at Kant’s examples: each example gives you the run down – problem, maxim, solution (principle of volition, i.e. what rule I will follow while doing what I’m intending on doing, analysis of that maxim, if contradictory, then immoral, if not, then it’s fine)

    How come Kantians, and you seem to have done this even here, don’t want to talk about and effectively list these maxims? It is not enough to say, Kant lists plenty of maxims. These maxims should be front and center, jewel pieces of the theory, don’t you think?

    No, maxims are not what’s unique about Kant’s moral theory, plus you are confusing maxims and commandments/laws – what’s important about Kant’s ethics is not that is has maxims, he didn’t invent maxims, but how one concludes, on the basis of maxims, what actions are moral and what actions are not. Each maxim is a subjective principle, I cannot objectify my maxim and make it a law arbitrarily, that’s what legal order is for and it has its own theory. Why do you keep asking me to give you a list, I am giving you a reference to an exemplary list and you tell me that it is not a list?

    The Stanford Encyclopedia lists the form of the maxim as:

    […]

    the Imperative allows the framing of almost any act as ethical.

    We are not talking about Stanford Encyclopedia, we are talking about Kant, who again did not create the notion of a maxim.

    No it doesn’t, because you’re looking at a definition of a maxim, it’s just a principle of volition, action that is based on the maxim will be moral or immoral, so I how actually act will matter, but according to Kant (and others before him), I cannot act without a maxim, therefore in order to decide what to do and whether it will be moral, I need to look at a maxim and not, say, consequences or circumstances or anything else. “I am explaining these things to you because I would like you to understand what I mean” – this is a maxim, a principle on which I base my writing this comment. How do I know if my action of writing is moral/immoral? I look at the maxim – this is where Kant’s theory comes in. If you are to judge an action to be moral/immoral, you have to have a criterion – what’s yours? I don’t know. Kant has his own, it’s called “categorical imperative” etc etc…

    Again, to recap: maxims are not commandments, maxims are not a concept Kant invented, maxims can be listed if you ask anyone (not just Kantians) why they do what they do, morality for Kant is a way to think about maxims and the way to figure out whether an intended action is going to be moral or not. Morality for Kant is based on the assumption that humans are free and autonomous, you decide what is moral and immoral for yourself – as long as your actions are not interfering with my actions, you are free to do whatever you please, you are bound by external legal laws that guarantee my freedom and your freedom – no one is there to judge you and tell you whether something you do is moral or immoral – this is where Levi’s image of Kant as a grumpy old hardass moralist is way off – does it make sense?

  93. Alexei: “Rather, the CI functions as a kind of counterfactual (an ‘as if’) thought experiment. the form of ethical reflection Kant outlines provides us with a kind of thought experiment machine. “what would happen if I, along with everyone else in the world, were to do A in C in order to produce E?”

    Kvond: Last I checked, laws are written in languages, and one would presume that any maxim made, or law universalized would be in a language. It is not enough to imagine that one simply dealing with counterfactuals. Any counterfactual imagined situation would simple be one that can be described accurately in language. (Again, a Kantian who refuses to present actual maxims.)

    Be that as it may, as I already have pointed out, the counterfactuals themselves to be imagined are infinitely qualifiable. Whether imagined situations x is really the same as situation y (the one I am in) is always up for framing.

    M.E: “Actually the formula of universal law is just one of the several formulations of the categorical imperative – “willing it to become a universal law” is a test of whether your intended maxim is a good consistent one, i.e. if it can reasonable be universalized as a test of its consistency, not because you then must universalize it.”

    Kvond: Switching to anothe version of the CI (versions I have already addressed) does not change the inherent weakness in THIS version. Any (or nearly any) act can be qualified by this version by simply framing the comparable situations which help define this act in an appropriate way.

    M.E.: “No, maxims are not what’s unique about Kant’s moral theory, plus you are confusing maxims and commandments/laws – what’s important about Kant’s ethics is not that is has maxims, he didn’t invent maxims, but how one concludes, on the basis of maxims, what actions are moral and what actions are not. Each maxim is a subjective principle, I cannot objectify my maxim and make it a law arbitrarily, that’s what legal order is for and it has its own theory.”

    Kvond: I love how the Kantians run from their maxims. No Kant did not invent maxims (which before him existed as linguistic sentences that you could write down and others can read), but he invented what you are supposed to do with them to discover whether the action that is according to them is ethical. Now, apparently maxims are for Kant floating in a non-linguistic aethersphere, such that no one dare utter or write them down. The entire point is that one can objectify any maxim, as long as it is appropriately framed to its condition (not arbitrarily).

    This is going in CAPS:

    PLEASE, SOME KANTIAN PRESENT ACTUAL MAXIMS THAT THEY USE IN ACTUAL CIRCUMSTANCES. PUT THEM IN ENGLISH USING GOOD GRAMMAR.

    Now, let’s take an example from my side of the fence. I will use the Standford Encyclopedia version of Kantian thinking because it simply is more informative than the one I am hearing here.

    Speeding.

    I am tempted to break the speed limit because others around me are doing the same, there are no cops around and it seems very unlikely that I will get caught.

    Now, what is the maxim by which I would say to myself, “I should speed”.

    “In traffic situations where there is no obvious way to be caught, and the majority of drivers are driving at what seems like a safe limit, though in excess of the legal limit, one should match the flow of traffic so as to create a harmonious and effective travel”

    This is exactly the kind of maxim, so qualified, that describes what most people think when they speed on the highways near my house. And it seems quite likely to me that they would have no problem universalizing it, as they suspect that this is how it works. There is nothing in this maxim or its universal law of application as a subjective principle, which prevents its coherence.

    M.E. “It’s weird, I did see your comment – and now it’s gone?!”

    Kvond: A second time a comment has disappeared. I think Cultural Parody has hacked into your weblog (guessed that your password is “Fromrussiawithlove”) and is wreaking havoc.

  94. Kevin, I gave you examples of Kantian maxims from Kant’s very own text – why do you keep asking for them?

    The entire point is that one can objectify any maxim, as long as it is appropriately framed to its condition (not arbitrarily).

    I’m beginning to think that you a) don’t get Kant, b) refuse to accept any explanation as an explanation because you disagree with it, c) keep repeating the same question again and again even though I think I answered it several times already but because I’m not doing it the way you like me to you keep coming back to it. Have you read the section of Groundwork I pointed out? DO I NEED TO COPY AND PASTE IT HERE IN CAPS? There are FOUR examples of maxims there, all in perfect English – they look exactly like the maxim you cite for your speeding up, how is it that you don’t get it?

    There is nothing in this maxim or its universal law of application as a subjective principle, which prevents its coherence.

    This sentence shows me that either you are intentionally just fucking with everyone or really do not understand a word of what Kant wrote about ethics, no offense – there is no “universal law of application of the maxim” – yes, your maxim is coherent, no, you are not testing it the way Kant describes it therefore you do not have a Kantian ethics. Any other questions?

  95. Kevin, I haven’t offered a maxim simply because I’m stubborn, not because I’m a Kantian. I honestly don’t see what point there is in offering one. but if you really need one, here:

    keep your promises

    Now, I didn’t say that language doesn’t figure into the framing of a maxim or a law, only that it’s not relevant here. If you think it is, please explain how. And of course there’s an issue of ‘framing’ as you say. No one has ever denied that. I don’t see why we’re still stumbling over this point. As I’ve said, and I think Mikhail too (if not Shahar as well), Kant is not arguing for a contextless, disembodied, non-linguistic sphere of anything. All of these notions are in play. What he is trying to do is provide a mechanism, which is not subject to capriciousness, for decided whether a given course of action is ethical or not.

    ‘Bout your speeding example: you’re conflating a moral situation with a legal one. The legal speed limit is, so far as I can tell, totally arbitrary (go to the Autobahn in Germany, you can go as fast as you like, you just can’t travel below 100km/h). The relevant maxim you need to test, then, isn’t about speeding, because a speed limit is arbitrary. Instead, in this situation the maxim is something like

    respect the legal code of the land

    .

    Now, try to run the thought experiment again, and see what happens.

  96. Seriously, I think this conversation exhausted itself – if it helps, I am officially admitting that Kant’s ethical theory is incoherent, idiotic, without any logical merit, confusing, non-linguistic, mystical, crude, and I think its breath very clearly stinks…

    I refuse to further explain anything to you, Kevin, because I don’t really feel like playing a role of an introductory Kant textbook – you don’t like what Kant has to say, fine by me – I’m going to go get a tasty burrito and I’m going to enjoy it. I really feel like I’m wasting my time explaining things to you that you don’t need explained – I will pray for you to my Kantian God once I’m done with a burrito, ok?

  97. I’ll skip responses to Mikhail since he peeved and believes that if I simply understood Kant I would agree with him (buried in this assumption apparently is if anyone would actually read the Grundwork, they would become Kantians).

    Alexei, thanks for making an attempt and keeping it very simple.

    Example 1:

    Alexei: “keep your promises”

    Kvond: I’ve made a promise to purge the land of all races that are degenerate.

    Alexiei: “respect the legal code of the land”

    Kvond: As such, I have worked to pass laws to exterminate Jews (believing as well that Jews suffer in their state of Jewishness, and are not truely human).

    Example 2:

    Alexei: “keep your promises”

    Kvond: I’ve made a promise defend human dignity at all costs.

    Alexiei: “respect the legal code of the land”

    Kvond: I believe that the Nazi regime is an illegitimate State power, having seized it in illegal ways. I act in every way to save Jews against this illegal legal code.

    According the CI, which of these two positions is the authentic ethical position?

  98. I’ll skip responses to Mikhail since he peeved and believes that if I simply understood Kant I would agree with him (buried in this assumption apparently is if anyone would actually read the Grundwork, they would become Kantians).

    Thanks, I really don’t have any more patience left for you.

    The assumption I actually had was that if I give examples that I am asked to give and then you come back asking me to give examples and I give them to you again and you ask where the examples are, there’s clearly a misunderstanding here about the basic meaning of words – as someone who’s been pushing for linguistic clarity and “this is a cat” kind of stuff, I’m only assuming that you are, of course, correct and it is I who doesn’t understand what is going on.

    If you simply understood Kant, Kevin, you would not agree with me, you would cease asking for something that was already given to you on several occasions – we never really got to the level of understanding anything – clearly I need to work more on my communication skills as I am unable to communicate a very simple message such as “here are the examples you asked for” – “where are the examples?” – “here, right here, I’m linking you to the book, you don’t even have to get up” – “where are the examples?” – “right here” – “obviously, you Kantians are idiots, I’m asking for examples and I don’t see any” – “fuck it, whatever”…

  99. No offense, fellows, I know you’re very diligent here with your Kantian arguments and all, but whoever this “kvond” dude is – it’s pretty clear that he is either a complete moron or is just fucking with you. You can’t win them all, this is just painful to watch.

    Hey kvond, go read a fucking book, will ya? Your “examples” routine is excruciatingly idiotic – so you got yourself off, you showed up these upright Kantians, can you just crawl back into your hole?

  100. “According the CI, which of these two positions is the authentic ethical position?”

    I got this one, friends, I took a Kant class last semester, I’m sure my elementary knowledge will suffice:

    NEITHER, because you don’t understand how Kantian CI works – as in, you need to read some Kant first.

    I don’t condone Jackson’s language – please, let’s be polite – but I concur with his sentiment: instead of asking elementary questions about how Kant’s ethical theory works, why not go and read about it a bit? I know that Mikhail will probably explain it to you for as long as you bother him, but it will not help, you clearly have some sort of a perverse pleasure in repeating your questions again and again and again.

  101. Mikhail,

    I’ve looked at the section that your referred me to, as I have, as I have many times in the past. It is ludicrously thin in concept, and the examples are nearly substanceless.

    An example:

    “The categorical says that •I shouldn’t lie even if lying wouldn’t bring the slightest harm to me. So the categorical imperative must abstract from every object thoroughly enough so that no object has any influence on the will; so that practical reason (the will), rather than catering to interests that are not its own, shows its commanding authority as supreme law-giving. Thus, for instance, I ought to try to further the happiness of others, but not in the spirit of ‘it matters to me that these people should be happier, because . . .’ with the blank filled by a reference to some preference of mine, whether directly for the happiness of the people in question or indirectly via some satisfaction that is related to their happiness through reason. Rather, I should to try to further the happiness of others solely because a maxim that excludes this can’t be included as a universal law in one and the same volition.”

    Okay, I’m not supposed to lie, and I’m supposed to make people happy. Nice. Unfortunately these aren’t even substantive concepts. They are infinitely qualifiable. What lying is and what happiness is are under a great variety of interpretations. Is story telling lying? Is poker playing lying? Are homosexuals “happy” or do we need to make them happy against their will? What if “telling the truth” violates our imperative to make people happy? The idea that you can simply refer to Kant and say something like “Its all explained there!” is pretty silly.

    I’m asking for real examples from your own life. Somehow when I asked you for an example eariler you have me a very bizarre “maxim/rule” having to do with red-lights that appear broken very different from the vagueries of Kant’s “don’t lie” or “make people happy”.

    Now take Kant’s maxim “preserve yourself”:

    “(4) It is a duty to preserve one’s life, and moreover everyone directly wants to do so. But because of ·the power of· that want, the often anxious care that most men have for their survival has no intrinsic worth, and the maxim
    Preserve yourself has no moral content. Men preserve their
    lives according to duty, but not from duty. But now consider
    this case:

    Adversities and hopeless sorrow have completely
    taken away this unfortunate man’s relish for life. But
    his fate has not made him ·passively· •despondent or
    dejected. He is strong in soul, and is •exasperated at
    how things have gone for him, ·and would like actively
    to do something about it. Specifically·, he wishes for
    death. But he preserves his life without loving it, not
    led by any want or fear, but acting from duty.

    For this person the maxim Preserve yourself has moral content.

    Now yes, we get the idea of what duy is for Kant, but the maxim is ridiculous since one can fulfill any number of other maxims, through the sacrifice of oneself, and fail to fulfill them through preserving oneself. In fact no one would ever join the military if one followed this maxim. It is an incoherent maxim when put in the context of other maxims and other maxims as well.

    The idea that Kant’s section of examples somehow clears everything up is pretty much ridiculous. He gives enough examples (only a few) to illustrate his idea of duty, the evacuation of self-interest and personal enjoyment, but the examples he gives are woeful when put within the CI itself.

  102. Thanks Lou:

    “I don’t condone Jackson’s language – please, let’s be polite – but I concur with his sentiment: instead of asking elementary questions about how Kant’s ethical theory works, why not go and read about it a bit?”

    Read him many times. Found it incoherent when put into the context of real world applications.

    How about, if you want to know why Jesus is your lord and savior, read the Bible. Its all there.

  103. Lou: “You’re right, we’re all idiots here – Kant is incoherent, weak and impractical – can you leave us alone now? Please?”

    Kvond: Feel free to delete my responses, or simply leave them unanswered (if that is how you feel that Kant would instruct to you act).

    In the mean time, I am hoping that Alexei who seems to be the only one to engage my questions directly gives me his thoughts on the matter.

  104. So I step outside and there’s profanity!

    Kevin, it’s clear to me that you are asking me to change your mind about something you’ve already maid up your mind about way ahead of time – what is the purpose of your questions? what do you want to achieve? Show me the error of my Kantian ways? Tell me what to think and how to do philosophy? Who to agree with and who to disagree with? Where does your zeal come from? Too much time on your hands? Seriously, I was always sincere in my attempts to answer your questions and all I get in return is half-assed retorts filled with elementary lack of understanding of what I am talking about…

    Ok, let’s assume you’ve read and understood Kant and you find him to be lacking – what do you want me to do about it? Confirm that you are correct in your assessment? Confess to my internal doubts and cry on your shoulder?

    What you’re doing is bullying me into responding to your comments that are anything but attempts to learn or to understand, why should I continue with this exercise?

    Kant is not Jesus, by the way, he is not instructing me to act in any way. Why do you even bother with Kant if he is so unpersuasive and impractical? Why do you want to know about maxims and categorical imperatives?

  105. Jackson, you’re free to express your opinions here anytime, I’d appreciate it though if we kept it civilized or I may choose to erase your comments – that’s just my Kantian sense of duty and moralistic ways talking, of course…

  106. First of all I find it hilarious that defenders of a moral theory (and pretty exacting one at that), at times act rather rude when it is questioned, and I am not speaking of you Mikhail. My comment about the Bible was meant for those who offered a “dogmatic” response to my questions.

    I”ve explained many times why I ask these questions, I find the Kantian CI to be incoherent in application in very elementary ways and cannot understand why intelligent persons find it persuasive. I’m largely a Spinozist, there are people who find aspects of Spinoza utterly incomprehesible, for instance is treatment of the Attributes and substance dualism. When I engage them I don’t tell them, “Go read the first 20 propositions of the Ethics!”

    While I have appreciated your attempt to make things clearer (as you see them), I have to say that your answers have been wildly inconsistent and rather vague. They have gone from claiming that maxims also can be “maxim/rules” having to do with very specific circumstances (like broken traffic lights), to saying that all one has to do is look at the Groundwork for examples of what a maxim is, like “preserve yourself” (I suppose), to denying that the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy interpretation of the maxim formula is necessarily wrong simply because it isn’t what Kant wrote. In short, your answers have been all over the map. What am I supposed to do?

    I have encountered a very similiar kind of reaction when I have questioned the truths of Wittgenstein to Wittgensteinians (I thinker I have a good deal of affinity for at times). When you take the claims literally and apply them to circumstances outside of the rhetoric of a very specific context (for instance, Kant’s maxim examples are primarily designed to illustrate what selfless duty is, and are far too unqualified to operate in real circumstances), the defenders of the theory raise up their arms screaming.

    It really comes down to this it seems. In order to accept the argument in these cases you have to adopt a great deal of interpretative charity. You have to say, “what are all the meanings and circumstances that have to be in order for what is being claimed to be convincing?”. Unfortunately, this does not give me satisfaction. Once I understand the point of a thinker, and I believe I understand Kant’s point, one has to test the thinker, put the claims into circumstance beyond the tidy scope that is the friendly confines of the thinker’s purview. When I do this to Kant’s PI I find dramatic incoherence at a very elementary level. What can I say? Does one have to be a “true believer” in order to be a Kantian?

    As to why I bother with Kant, I love philosophy. I bother with all kinds of thinkers I don’t necessarily agree with.

  107. In short, your answers have been all over the map. What am I supposed to do?

    How about conclude that I don’t know what I am talking about, point it out and move on? So Kant is dramatically incoherent, this must translate to his “followers” like myself, right? I think you’ve done your best to expose Kant and his errand ways – I don’t see how else to deal with this issue. I don’t think my reading of Kant is that incoherent and wrong, but maybe I’m just wrong?

  108. Let me give it a shot here, masters:

    Kvond:

    Example 1:

    Alexei: “keep your promises”

    Kvond: I’ve made a promise to purge the land of all races that are degenerate.

    You should keep your promise then, since you gave a promise. What is so difficult to understand here? If you personally judge Jews to be sub-human and you want to kill them, go ahead – in most countries it is illegal to kill others, regardless of your view of them, so you will be punished.

    If you are in Nazi Germany and Jews are considered to be sub-humans and you are in charge of killing them and you don’t think they are humans, you should go ahead and kill them then. Other non-Nazi people will judge your views about Jews to be wrong and after you lose your war, you will go on trial and be hanged.

    If at some point you realize that Jews are human and you cannot kill them in good conscience, you will have to break your promise to kill them and, guess what, no one will punish you for breaking your promise because it is not a sin, as long as it is not illegal, you can break as many promises as you want – you’re a free human being, no one can tell you want to do.

    This is the price we pay for our freedom/autonomy and our ultimate responsibility – there’s no Jesus looking over us and telling us what to do. There is a chance we can create a better world, but there’s a chance that we can screw it up even more.

  109. Well, your explanations have been incoherent or at least erradic (I would rather speak of your arguments rather than you as a person. Very often I find your points on other issues clear). And in the last 20 minutes I read once again Kant’s first chapter, and yes, it was unconvincing, sweeping over vast difficulties in a few short strokes.

    Take for example his classic qualification:

    “I ought never to act in such a way that I couldn’t also will that the maxim on which I act should be a universal law.

    •Could I say to myself that anyone may make a false
    promise when he is in a difficulty that he can’t get out
    of in any other way?

    Immediately I realize that I could will •the lie but not •a universal law to lie; for such a law would result in there being no promises at all, because it would be futile to offer stories about my future conduct to people who wouldn’t believe me; or if they carelessly did believe me and were taken in ·by my promise·, would pay me back in my own coin. Thus my maxim would necessarily destroy itself as soon as it was made a universal law.”

    Is one not allowed to question Kant’s reasoning here? Is it really the case that if I lied in very difficult situation because if I did no one would believe me again? Is it not the case that morality functions according to a measure of circumstances? If an honest person (at least in the past) lied to me, I would ask, “Why did they lie?” And if I found there to be extreme extenuating circumstances I certainly would consider them truthful enough that I would not start lying to them willy nilly. As for making a universal law about lying, indeed, the law would not be “all persons should lie” (notice how Kant simplifies lying under difficult circumstances to simply “the lie”) but rather that we should tell the truth except when under instances of extreme cohersion. Such a law would make a very good universal law (in fact we could argue that it is in keeping with the duty Kant claims we have to safeguard our happiness, and likely any number of other duties depending on how we are cohersed).

    Part of the problem is Kant’s “axiom” that presumes that the following of duty is a neat and tidy world in which duties will not collide:

    “We take it as an axiom that in the natural constitution
    of an organized being (i.e. one suitably adapted to life) no
    organ will be found that isn’t perfectly adapted to its purpose,whatever that is.

    Every dutiful act is an organ in a closed system of references. His point is most interesting when he contrasts duty with self-interest, as if self-interest provides the primary contrast and only reason why one would not do “one’s duty”. But the point of fact is that there are all kinds of ways to frame “duty” and we might even say that duties regularly conflict.

    I remember a dramatic moment in my own life when I found a deer with a broken leg in the woods, and forced myself to drown the very strong animal in a river. I had two duties as I felt them (at least). To charitably put the animal out of its misery, and to let Nature take its course.

    One might be compelled by one sense of duty to violate another sense of duty. If fact this might be considered the very height of moral action, choosing between duties. Unfortunately, the coherence of universal law making is of little aid when chosing between duties.

  110. Lou, perhaps you miss my point. The point is that if examples 1 and 2 both form ethical actions (the Nazi and the human rights anti-Nazi), and are opposed to each other, then any duty-framed acts can be deemed moral acts.

    I do not think that Kant would agree with this, but if this is your interpretation of Kant I would find this much more interesting and compelling. Which is to say, following ultimate good and ultimate evil are indestinguishable in form. This I believe is Lacan’s point in regards to Kant.

    In a certain sense, this follows Badiou’s appropriation of Kant in a Maoist-like faithfulness to the event.

  111. since I started this last round of discussion, I suppose I should respond to Kevin:

    In Dungeons & Dragons parlance, your promise to exterminate everyone of a particular race or creed would mean that you’re lawfully evil. In Kant’s terminology, you’re probably radically evil. See Mikhail’s post from a couple of years ago on the subject. You can also see the good old Stanford encyclopedia entry on the matter here.

  112. Thanks Alexei, I like the D&D translation.

    According to the SEP article I can’t say that the promise to exterminate degenerate races from the land (those deemed inhuman) qualifies necessarily as “radical evil”:

    SEP: “We thus inculcate in ourselves a propensity to make exceptions to the demand of the categorical imperative in circumstances when such an exception seems to be in our own favor.”

    This precisely what is not happening. Instead the CI is invoked, dutifully, without regard to our own favor, or even or own feelings (we exterminate even though we at times have some kind of sympathy).

    In addition, it seems we must also assume that even IF we have made even a “radically evil” promise, the CI would compell us to keep that promise (otherwise we would logical/potentially erode all promises all human beings would ever make).

    [casts Darkvision, rolls die]

  113. Kevin, you should write down all of these awesome problems and concerns that you have with Kantian ethics and publish them as a book, I’m sure it will be a great hit since you are so right about everything. Have you ever thought that maybe you are smarter than all of us here (except for Alexei, I can’t speak for him)? Really, I mean it – why do you expect me to answer your questions coherently? Am I a famous Kantian scholar? Do I channel Kant? Clearly, I like reading Kant and I think he is brilliant, but why do you expect me to proselytize everyone?

    There’s no blogger and commenter contract, you’re not a student in my class and I am not obligated to respond to your questions, yet I do again and again – and you take my willingness to try as a license to abuse my hospitality and pile a comment on comment accusing me of basically being an idiot because I don’t see what is so obvious and incoherent…

  114. Sorry about swearing, it’s just that I see that your initial post about normativity was completely ignored and hijacked by a couple of idiots – one with his constant pretension of being an expert on every single living philosopher, another with a diarrhea of questions that can be easily answered by simply googling of “Kant” and “ethics” – with all due respect, Mikhail, but you’re letting these people run all over you, calling you an incoherent and uninformed moron (basically) and you’re still answering a question after question after question – you should be more like Adam Kotsko or Graham Harman and just ignore people or close comments – you need some arrogance and self-importance…

  115. Thanks, Jackson but I rather like my present personality and I’m too old to change anyway.

    Kevin, “be more like Graham Harman” is too abstract to be a subjective principle of volition aka “maxim”…

  116. Come on Mikhail, I know you can do it. Shut down your blog, start it up again without the comments!

    (I’m sorry that I offended you. So you that know, in my mind you are always free to ignore my comments and questions. I do not take that personally.)

  117. The beauty of having a blog with other authors is that I can’t just decide what to do with it. As for Harman, he can blog in whichever way he wants, I liked the older incarnation better, now he blogs like Brian Leiter – I think they should meet and chat over a beer, they’ll have a lot to discuss in term of their passion for lists and ratings. Maybe Adam Kotsko should join them as well, as a junior colleague…

    Kevin, you didn’t offend me, your questions were not clear to me and I was annoyed, that’s all.

  118. Pingback: Naturalism, What is it Good For? « Now-Times

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