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.