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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (section 3g - Kant)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

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3g)      Kant


I shall now turn back from these broader themes in the history of eternalist ideology to the more specific philosophies of leading figures in the post-Renaissance era who helped to perpetuate and develop eternalism in the rapidly changing conditions which Protestant individualism, capitalism and the development of science helped to create. Probably the most important of these, because of both his originality and the degree of his philosophical influence, was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).


i)                    Kant’s background and psychology


Both in terms of his psychological background and in terms of the psychological effects of his philosophy, Kant is a product of the Protestant ethic of rationalism and duty which, as I have argued above, is the extreme manifestation of a dualism innate in the Christian culture which dominated Europe since Constantine. He lived in an eighteenth-century Prussia in which this Protestant ethic had been applied politically towards collective ends “under a regime of harshest compulsion and extreme penury”[1], yet that regime was still founded on the individual Protestant conscience in a way which gave it a particular political strength in the subsequent shaping of Germany and of Europe. This peculiar combination of individualistic questioning put at the service of collective ideals strongly shaped Kant’s Pietist upbringing and education[2] and enabled him to shape this atmosphere of psychological repression in an original way, whilst still being subject to it.


Whilst popular stories about Kant’s personality probably caricature his extreme rationality and stoicism (in the popular sense), even Kant’s biographer Cassirer, who is concerned to justify Kant against such caricature, recognises the problematic relationship between Kant’s sophisticated rational ethics and the extent to which Kant was able to embody these high ideals in personal life.

For how can one comprehend the fact that the further this [Kant’s] philosophy develops, the more thoroughly it is permeated by a tendency towards the purely general, toward the objectively necessary and universally valid – while simultaneously the individual in shaping his life seems to fall prey more and more to sheer particularity, idiosyncrasy, and crotchetiness?[3]


In fact few other individuals seem to embody so fully the discontinuity of eternalist ethics as Immanuel Kant. Few thinkers ever seem to have so fully inhabited such an absolute and idealised world of abstraction, and though Cassirer tries hard to portray him in a favourable light and bring out incidents which show an undoubted kindness and sagacity in Kant’s character, he nevertheless leaves an impression of intense narrowness and formalism, with a range of interest which could only perceive the particular application of his ethics within a highly conventionalised sphere. A short while before Kant’s death, whilst he was evidently suffering from a certain amount of intermittent senile dementia, Cassirer recounts that a doctor called on him, and despite great physical weakness, Kant stubbornly refused to sit down until his guest had done so and suddenly said “the sense of humanity has not yet abandoned me”[4]. Whilst Cassirer recounts this episode with admiration, it requires a Kantian attitude to do so, in which personal worth is to be completely alienated and no variation in circumstances justifies the bending of a rule. Cassirer’s apologetic tone in summarising the significance of Kant’s life betrays exactly the same problematic features that will be encountered in his philosophy:

The personal forms of life and of existence here had no independent worth purely as such; their whole significance is merged into their becoming the stuff and means of the life of abstract thinking, which moves according to its own law and by the force of its immanent necessity. On this relation of person and thing is founded the entire form and structure of Kant’s life, is founded that which constitutes its profundity and that which might appear to be its peculiar limitation and narrowness. Full devotion to purely impersonal goals seems eventually to have as its inevitable consequence impoverishment of the concrete substance and the individual fullness of life, but on the other hand, it is only here that the full, compelling power of the universal emerges – that universal expressed equally as a theoretical and as a practical idea in the world of Kant’s thought and of his will.[5]   


ii)                  Dualism and non-dualism in Kant


In giving an account of the eternalistic nature of Kant’s thought it is also important to recognise the (superficially) non-dualist features which made it in some ways a more profound philosophy than its predecessors and continue to give Kant’s ethics widespread influence. Kant’s central quest seems to be the attempt to find a middle way between the extremes represented by the rationalism and empiricism of his time. The rationalism of his time, still basically Cartesian and represented particularly by Wolff and Leibniz, provided an absolute standard of moral judgement, but did so by making unacceptable metaphysical assumptions such as that of the “the Principle of Sufficient Reason[6], which attempted to provide a rational justification for belief in cosmic justice. The empiricism, represented particularly by Hume, denied anything but relative and conventional status to ethics, but used the similarities between human desires as the basis for an early version of utilitarianism. Kant wanted to maintain a clearly universal and objective basis for ethics, whilst maintaining the truth of the empiricist recognition that no absolute perspectives can be reached on the basis of experience. He also wanted to provide common grounds of judgement in science, ethics and art, showing the relationship between factual and moral truth. As goals, attempting to address weaknesses which are symptomatic of eternalism and nihilism respectively and place judgement on a footing which overcomes their false dichotomies, these all seem highly compatible with non-dualism.


Some features of the way in which Kant set out to achieve those goals are also compatible with non-dualism. In The Critique of Pure Reason he set out to undermine speculative metaphysics by showing the dependency of metaphysical claims about reality on the phenomenal world of empirical observation. At the same time he made clear the ways in which empirical claims themselves depend upon prior assumptions, and that these prior assumptions provide the basis for a greater degree of generalisation about our experience than that commonly allowed by empiricism, since those generalisations merely show the assumptions we need to make in order to understand the phenomena before us. This results in a transcendental idealism which insists both that our prior assumptions partly determine experience (undermining empirical realism) and that some sort of reality exists beyond our experience (undermining empirical idealism). Again, if Kant’s argument restricted itself to this searching-out of a middle way in terms of generalisations (rather than absolutes), and if ethics received similar treatment, it would provide at least a useful adjunct to a non-dualist approach.


However, Kant can only be seen in this light by abstracting from the heavily dualist tendency of his philosophy overall. In fact Kant’s philosophy is highly systematic, and provides a whole from which it is difficult to abstract in this way without creating inconsistencies. At the heart of his dualism is this systematic rationality itself, which leads Kant both to require and to expect certainty about the a priori basis both of scientific generalisations and of values. In this expectation he appears to differ little from Descartes or Plato: for although his conception of the a priori as a categorial framework of knowledge was revolutionary, the function he wished it to serve in providing a foundation both for knowledge and for ethics was similar to theirs. In psychological terms, this function can only serve to support the ego in its drive to fix a framework of belief which excludes alternative frameworks[7] and avoids recognition of our ignorance. Kant’s fundamental dualism thus lies in his belief that synthetic a priori propositions provide a universal framework of truths which are not merely analytic and yet beyond individual subjectivity. In doing so he takes philosophical propositions to be closer to truth than psychological states. From a non-dualist viewpoint the error lies in blindness to the ways in which rationality is a function of the ego, so that attempts to systematise which are not understood in entirely provisional terms will only suffice to further entrap the mind in its dualistic constructions. It matters little whether we attribute this error to Kant’s context or his individual psychology (for the two are not entirely distinguishable): the case I want to make is that the dualism of his philosophy is unlikely to result in much real ethical advance either for Kant as an individual or for others.


This dependency on rationality imbues Kant’s philosophy with all the characteristic features of dualism and eternalism given above. Indeed Kant often gives a more systematic and internally consistent account of these features (particularly in the cases of freewill and cosmic justice) than ever existed before him. The remainder of this section will be devoted to a survey of these features as they appear in Kant’s philosophy.


iii)                Representationalism/ Expressivism


In the transcendental deduction of The Critique of Pure Reason[8] Kant presents an implicit theory of meaning. Explicitly he is attempting to provide a priori grounds for the existence of concepts which are a prior requirement for the identification of objects in empirical experience, but in doing this he also implicitly provides at least the basis for an explanation of what makes any particular association of representations with experiences a meaningful one. Kant argues that we receive a mass of empirical impressions which in themselves (as raw data) have no particular relationship to one another, but that the experiencing subject imposes meaning on these impressions by relating them to pre-existent concepts. It is the experiencing subject who imposes a unity on experience through the synthetic[9] process of transcendental apperception, and the meaning of an experience consists in its relationship with that unity, in which it is compared to conceptualisations of prior experiences. On the one hand, Kant thus argues that we could not have meaningful experiences without prior concepts, and on the other, that the unified self is the ground of those concepts.   


Kant could thus be seen either as a representationalist or as an expressivist, and in fact illustrates the lack of any final distinction between the joined horns of this dichotomy. He wants to avoid attributing meaning to truth-conditions in a noumenal reality to which we have no access, but nevertheless believes that the ways in which we can experience meaningfully are both universal and fixed. On one level this fixedness consists in the categories, which provide foundational ways of  structuring our conceptual understanding of experience in terms of substance, causality, multiplicity etc.. On another level this fixedness is based on the existence of the faculty of the imagination[10], which limits our ability to relate concepts to experiences according to whether we can find a common element in both within the range of both our experience and our conceptual ability. The universality of the limitations within which we can understand experience thus provides a counterpart to the similar limitations provided by reality according to an empirical realist account, and Kant’s understanding of meaning could still be seen as involving a shadow of representationalism.


A different interpretation of Kant’s attitude to noumena might stress his use of the regulative employment of ideas as a means of meaningfully discussing not only empirical but noumenal objects. Henry Allison argues that Kant’s discussion of noumena in several places implies the meaningful use of noumenal terms outside the context of their phenomenal relationships, even though this implies that we cannot know anything about noumena[11]. On this interpretation, then, Kant appears not even to be representationalist in a shadowy fashion, for it is not merely the categories through which we perceive the empirical world which provide the basis of meaning, but rather, it is implied, a still more fundamental a priori function of the mind, which can consider both synthetically-understood experience and analytically-considered objects in themselves.


This alternative type of interpretation could lead us onto the alternative hypothesis that Kant is an expressivist. Kant’s association of meaning with the unification of experience in the transcendental self could provide grounds for this argument. He is careful to distinguish the transcendental self from the empirical self in an attempt to avoid the possible solipsism of Descartes and Plato, for the transcendental self consists in the mere synthetic unity of our total experience, not in any particular internal or psychological experience. It may thus be argued that he does not assume any metaphysical self of which meaningful representations may be taken as expressive. However, in terms of its implicit theory of meaning Kant’s transcendental self is just as dualistic as the empirical self, for it still assumes a single locus[12] of significance through which past experiences are related to current ones. This self, which provides a unity through which the diversity of experience can be interpreted, is set against the chaotic jumble of sense impressions which we can take to be all that exists prior to this interpretation. In this sense meaning is necessarily the expression of the self, even if this self has no individuating features other than the unification of experience.


The analytic consideration of noumena does not fit into this explanation either, though, for the attribution of meaning through the synthesis of the unity of experience appears to exclude noumena, beyond the sphere of direct experience, from meaningfulness. It  thus appears that Kant’s implicit model of meaning must either be incoherent or pragmatic. But although he sought universality in the subject of experience, what Kant clearly was not was a pragmatist, for although Kant distinguishes practical reason as a  separate sphere of  significance from that of pure reason, he does so in terms of a further field of understanding produced through categories which, although not identical to those of pure reason, are analogous to them[13]. Rather than understanding the significance of empirical experience and its cognitive categories in terms of the mutual causality of their interrelationship with empirical purposes, Kant understands the significance of empirical purposes in terms of their relationship to the cognitive categories he has first created to provide an account of empirical experience. To interpret him as a pragmatist one would have to entirely abandon the categories, which are central to his philosophy, and stress only the regulative ideas. Moreover the motive behind Kant’s discussion of the noumena and apparent attribution of meaning to such a discussion, beyond that of the categories, seems to have been to enable the later positing of God’s existence: if this is so his apparent pragmatism in the cognitive sphere is  inseparable from his dogmatism in the moral sphere.


If we take this apparent pragmatism to be primary, however, it could rescue Kant from many of the problems created by his dualism. One of the biggest of these is that of how noumena can be understood as causing phenomena, given that causation is a phenomenal category. This difficulty is created by representationalism, under the assumption of which representations are either meaningful by virtue of their relationship to a categorial framework or they are not. Under representationalist assumptions we therefore cannot meaningfully ascribe any causal properties to noumena without losing their noumenality and turning them into phenomena. Under a pragmatist theory of meaning, however, the dichotomy between meaningful phenomena and meaningless noumena disappears, since an incrementality of meaningful specificity becomes possible relative to the distinctions required for differing purposes[14]. Whilst reference to noumena lacks specificity it can be taken as meaningful relative to the general moral goals Kant applies to it (even if Kant then over-specifies in his reference to noumenal features far beyond the level that this degree of meaningful generality will bear).


Such a perspective can cannibalise Kant’s implicit theory of meaning to be used for non-dualist purposes, but is too far from his perspective to accurately represent him. We are thus left with a picture of Kant either as a representationalist or an expressivist, though not coherently either. Kant succeeded in showing that subjective and objective significance ultimately depend upon the same assumptions, but in the absence of any credible alternative explanation of significance the effect of this could only be to reinforce the shared egoistic assumptions which create the gap between them.


iv)                Linguistic idealism   


Whilst Kant made a major contribution to the philosophical discussion of idealism, his terminology must be distinguished at the outset from the Nagelian definition of linguistic idealism on which I am working here, provisionally defined above as “the view that language which does not directly represent or express, and thus appears not to be correlative to our experience, cannot be meaningful”[15]. The implicit view of meaning which I have suggested above is the basis of Kant’s transcendental deduction appears to also imply this linguistic idealist view, for since the categories define the limits of our understanding there could clearly be no meaningful reference beyond the boundaries of egoistic meaning they erect.  Although Kant claimed that his transcendental idealism also implied empirical realism, if his empirical realism is correct it is none the less linguistically idealist.


Nevertheless it is perhaps worth examining whether Kant’s arguments about idealism can make any difference to this categorisation. In one version of his argument against idealism Kant appeals to the arguments in his transcendental aesthetic as to the a priori nature of time and space[16]. He links transcendental realism, in which time and space are taken to be real and separate from the subject, to empirical idealism, where self-existent objects are thus taken to be problematic because they consist of  mere appearances within this separate framework of perception. On the other hand, he claims, transcendental idealism in which time and space are understood as a priori frameworks of understanding allows empirical realism, since it must be assumed that objects are real as part of this framework of understanding.


The success of this first argument depends on the assumptions both that there is an unavoidable and universal a priori intuition of time and space, and that such an intuition requires the assumption of real objects.  Kant’s second argument[17] seems stronger because it appears not to appeal to the previous points about time and space in the transcendental aesthetic, but to appeal only to our experience of self-consciousness. He argues that the same preconditions which we assume for our own existence apply equally for the existence of  objects beyond ourselves, for both kinds of determination presuppose a temporal ordering of objects of experience, whether these objects of experience be “internal” or “external”. If we assume our own existence as the basis on which we order our “internal” experiences, we must likewise assume at least one external object as the basis on which to organise our “external” experiences.


Kant’s argument here bears a resemblance to the private language argument of Wittgenstein[18], for in both cases the interdependence of the prior assumptions involved in internal and external perceptions is asserted. If interpreted merely as such an assertion of interdependence, it clearly reveals the presupposed cognitive distinctions of the ego, without which action would be impossible, as action consists in the creation of a change of relationship between assumed subjects and objects. Kant does not offer this argument as a practical postulate, however, but as a cognitive a priori conclusion. On this abstract level there is no reason to assume the distinctions of the ego, which distinguishes perceived objects relative to a framework of belief which serves its purposes, even at the most general level at which “internal” and “external” objects are distinguished. Without this element of distinction in the perception of objects it can be argued that there is no longer any grounds for a distinction between appearances and objects, for if we assert the existence of a single unified “object” of experience purely on the grounds of the synthetic unity of experience, this “object” consists in nothing other than the whole of our experience[19]. Kant, then, is either arguing at so abstract a level as to make all distinctions between realism and idealism irrelevant, or relying on egoistic premises which do not follow from his a priori starting point supposedly beyond any experience of self-identification. It may be true that if we assume our own existence, we must also necessarily assume that of an object or objects beyond ourselves, but, at this level of analysis, why should we assume our own existence?


It is thus only on the basis of dualism that Kant can argue that there is any distinction between transcendental and empirical idealism. We have no grounds to believe in any distinction between real and apparent objects other than pragmatic ones, but Kant, perhaps motivated by a desire to find secure foundations for scientific knowledge, wanted to make this distinction an indubitable one and was thus led into a dogmatic judgement as to the foundational nature of what is in fact a coherentist position based on egoistic assumptions. His attempt to support empirical realism thus fails because it lacks any final foundation of “reality”, and he is left, through the inevitable binary logic of such distinctions, as an empirical idealist[20].


Here I still use the term “idealist” in a sense that Kant would recognise. This empirical idealism is not necessarily unhelpful from a non-dualist perspective, provided that its prior assumptions are recognised. It is Kant’s linguistic idealism in the Nagelian sense that contributes directly to the failure of his ethics, because it supports his rationalism and his inability to see goodness in the ambiguity of the unknown. However, the two types of idealism are linked in the sense that it is only because of his linguistic idealism that Kant cannot recognise the prior assumptions of his arguments about idealism, which are thus a symptom of his dualism rather than a direct cause of it. I imagine that for him it would simply not be meaningful to discuss a non-egoistic perspective in the sense I have been putting forward, since going beyond the egoistic perspective for him could only mean rational universality. This is due to the psychological limitations of his context, beyond which he could not be expected to go. His more modern successors have an opportunity for liberation from the limitations of this linguistic idealism which Kant himself did not have.  


v)                  Freewill


I shall now move on to the specifically eternalist (rather than just generally dualist) features of Kant’s ethics. In particular, Kant’s view of freewill is fundamental to his account of ethics and to the eternalist nature of that account. His view of freewill gets its first important expression in the third antimony of the Critique of Pure Reason[21]  and its solution[22]. Kant faces the complete contradiction between the viewpoints characteristic of freewill and of determinism and attempts to resolve it by placing freewill, not in the empirical realm of phenomena but in the intellectual realm of noumena beyond. Just as Kant has claimed that we necessarily create an intellectual organisation of phenomena into assumed real objects as we perceive them, so he likewise claims that we must intellectually assume ourselves as free agents in relation to phenomena as a necessary precondition of action, even where this conflicts with a determined view of ourselves as phenomena in which universal sufficient causality must be assumed. Kant thus recognises the necessity of holding two different views of ourselves in tension without seeking a premature philosophical resolution of that tension. So far, this account has the merit of recognising the limitations of any single given set of premises in the interpretation of  the issue (even if the attribution of freewill to the noumenal rather than the phenomenal realm is highly debatable): but again, Kant’s drive for rational systematisation does not allow him to rest content with the ambiguities of this position.


 So Kant also seeks a universal rational status for each mode. An understanding of the world according to sufficient causality provides a lawlike scientific explanation of phenomena, whilst one according to freewill provides the basis for a rational moral law. The exact connection between freewill and moral law, between spontaneity and autonomy, is elusive in Kant but well explained by Onora O’Neill:

The thought is roughly that if there are beings who can choose freely, in the sense that their choosing can be lawlike yet not determined by alien causes, they must be capable of imposing lawlikeness on their actions, that is, of acting on universalisable maxims.[23]


Acting according to freewill is thus identified with acting  for a reason as opposed to through the determination of a sufficient cause. If this reason is an empirical desire, however, Kant sees the reason as heteronomous (heteronomy being the basis of spurious principles of morality), whilst it is only by acting autonomously that one can act according to reason[24].  The difficulty here lies in the further assumption that the autonomous will, acting according to its subjective rationality, is therefore also objectively rational and moral. Kant himself is aware of this difficulty but chooses to override it:

For how a law in itself can be the direct motive of the will (which is the essence of morality) is an insoluble problem for the human reason. It is identical with the problem of how free will is possible. Therefore, we shall not have to show a priori the source from which the moral law supplies a drive….[25]


In his very conception of freewill Kant does not see the absence of an expected order, but the existence of an order of practical reason. This order or law is not merely the ordering of forces by the ego to achieve its relative purposes, since Kant identifies the ego only with empirical desires, but an expression of law at a cosmic level. In other words, whilst Kant’s argument about freewill and the way he connects it to morality is highly original, the conception of morality which he attempts to support through it, and his motives for offering such support, are of a traditional eternalist kind. He believes that acting autonomously will bring us into harmony with the intelligible natural law.


The appeal to “autonomy”, however, can only lead Kant deeper into dualistic assumptions. For the rationality of the supposedly autonomous self  is one which continues to make distinctions, even if these distinctions are those between what is judged to be absolutely “good” and absolutely “evil[26]. What is not in accordance with absolute judgement continues to be excluded from the sphere identified with the ego. Any supposedly absolute rational criteria will therefore turn out to be egoistic and therefore relative ones. The goodness stemming from autonomy turns out to be the basis of more conflict.


The identification of autonomy with goodness has in fact only been achieved through recourse to dogmatism. Kant achieves this through the device of the realm (or kingdom) of ends. All rational beings are conceived as ends in themselves, whilst their rational nature requires them (through the categorical imperative) to consider their own agency only in relation to the universal ends of all rational beings, the effect of which, if all rational beings followed this imperative, would be to bring about the realm of ends[27]. But why should it? Kant assumes some divine programming of the autonomous will so as to bring about the greatest good simply by adopting a rationally disinterested approach, but there is no guarantee that the conditions of the universe will enable such an absolute end to be achieved. The issue here is not merely that of whether the realm of ends will be achieved, for risks of failure are present in the effort made towards any end, but of whether autonomy results in the kind of actions which would even contribute towards it being achieved in the event of the ideal conditions in which all other beings also worked to the same end. In effect the connection (even between autonomy and a purely regulative realm of ends) is dogmatically asserted. The appeal to a final consequence has been made to provide a moral strategy which avoids identification with merely empirical consequences, but the conditions for the achievement of a final consequence are just as contingent as for empirical consequences.  We find ourselves, through this devious route, back in the realm of cosmic justice: I shall say more about Kant’s conception of this later in this section.


vi)                Ethical Foundationalism


Whilst it is clear that Kant wants ethical foundationalism in the sense of an absolute basis for moral reasoning, it is not entirely clear what he regards this absolute basis as being. Several approaches are possible, but none of them seem to offer the absolute rational justification Kant seeks.


At first sight the best candidate for an ethical foundation might be the appeal to autonomy.  The categorical imperative is based on the universalisability of maxims which are to be followed in the realm of ends, in which each agent autonomously follows the policies best adapted to the rational ends of all. Kant argues that this categorical imperative is universally normative, not so as to achieve such a realm of ends (for that might lead back into an empirical desire for such a future end) but in any case.

Such a realm of ends would actually be realised through maxims whose rule is prescribed to all rational beings by the categorical imperative, if they were universally obeyed. But a rational being, though he scrupulously follow this maxim, cannot for that reason expect every other rational being to be true to it, nor can he expect the realm of nature and its orderly design to harmonise with him as a fitting member of the realm of ends which is possible through himself. That is, he cannot count on its favouring his expectation of happiness. Still the law: Act according to the maxim of a member of a merely potential realm of ends who gives universal law, remains in full force because it commands categorically.[28]


Why does it still command categorically? Kant appeals to “simply the dignity of humanity as rational nature without any end or advantage to be gained by it” and that “the sublimity of the maxims and the worthiness of every rational subject to be a law-giving member in the realm of ends consist(s) precisely in the independence of his maxims from all such incentives. Otherwise he would have to be viewed as subject only to the natural law of his needs”. But this only amounts to a reiteration of the claimed connection between autonomy (conceived in terms of freedom from the conditioning of empirical desires) and normativity. There do not appear to be any foundational norms here.


Elsewhere Kant indicates that he believes there to be a drive behind moral rationality. This only manifests itself negatively as a restriction on our sensuous drives, and we thus experience it as making arduous demands on us[29]. This drive consists only in respect for the moral law and is thus distinct from empirical desires, providing only an incentive to check and control the empirical desires. One could take this drive, with its associated energies, to itself constitute the basis of normativity, except that there appears to be no reason to follow this drive rather than the empirical drives in their raw form. The effect of the distinction between this “good” drive and other drives is only to reduce the overall energy which can be devoted to moral effort, since so much energy must be given to negating “irrational” empirical desires. It seems that if desire is to form the basis of normativity, it must be in an entirely undivided form unlike that which Kant presents[30].


The categorical imperative itself, because of its universalisable nature, attempts to be entirely formal and in this way to take on an absolute status. It may be argued that this alone provides the foundation of Kant’s ethics, without any need for recourse to the idea of the realm of ends. If one can universalise a maxim without contradiction, it is claimed, this will provide that maxim with the absolute normative status of the categorical imperative simply through its form. This leads onto a long-standing criticism of Kant’s ethics: that the categorical imperative is in fact an empty formula which cannot be applied to any specific content. I do not intend to go through the well-known arguments about this criticism[31], but merely to offer a stronger version of them based on a non-dualist perspective. In order to apply the categorical imperative as a test for the universalisability of a maxim which encapsulates an agent’s reasons for acting, one must first arrive at such a maxim. But the idea of there being such a maxim itself depends on the metaphysical assumption of the unity of the self. Over time (perhaps between consideration of an action and performing it) motives are liable to change, raising the same difficulties as those I have already suggested apply generally to conceptions of cosmic justice[32]. But even if we restrict ourselves to consideration of motives at any one time, the formulation which a given agent will give as her “maxim” for a given contemplated action will reflect only the identification of the ego with that formulation at that time, saying little about the complex of conscious and unconscious forces which actually determine action and entirely excluding parts of the psyche beyond the ego. If no maxim can represent the actual motives of action, how can the categorical imperative be applied?


It is true that Kant recognises the strength of these kinds of criticisms in his insistence that the demands of morality in the abstract should be entirely distinguished from our knowledge of any particular examples.

It is, in fact, absolutely impossible by experience to discern with complete certainty a single case in which the maxim of an action, however much it might conform to duty, rested solely on moral grounds and on the conception of ones duty.[33]


He then goes on to implicitly recognise the possibility of unconscious motivations in talking of “secret incentives” and “inner principles”, before arguing that “our concern is not whether this or that was done, but that reason of itself and independently of all appearances commanded what ought to be done”[34]. However, our knowledge of what ought to be done here seems entirely to rest on the applicability of the categorical imperative. We cannot apply the imperative without knowing what our maxim actually is, and the extent of its normative power depends on the extent of its applicability. If the assessment of the maxim is based only on the rational assessment of the ego, then its normative power (even if we assume mere universalisability to provide a basis of normativity) will not extend over other parts of the psyche or provide any grounds for their inclusion.


Given the failure of these three possible rational foundations, I would suggest that Kant in fact relies, not on an entirely new rational basis of ethics, but on a naturalistic foundation which differs little from that of the eternalistic tradition I have discussed so far. There are several indications of this. One is that Kant makes an explicit appeal to conventional ethics and does not expect his philosophy to result in any new understandings of practical ethics beyond what people already believe, only to strengthen the authority of the existing “common sense” of ethics[35]. Such a “common sense” of ethics in his time was undoubtedly overwhelmingly an eternalist conception based on Christian tradition. Even in the appeal to reason alone Kant is obliged to attribute the source of this capacity for rationality to nature: “Man…” he writes “is bound to act only in accordance with his own will, which is, however, designed by nature to be a will giving universal law[36] A further indication is that Kant in several places is obliged to have recourse to naturalism in order to apply the categorical imperative to his examples. Thus in order to argue that suicide is incompatible with the categorical imperative he is obliged to assume that “man …must always be regarded in all actions as an end in himself”[37], an assumption which cannot be derived from the universalisability maxim alone but must be based on an assumption of the innate goodness of the instinct of self-preservation.


These examples of naturalism occur even in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, before the explicitly naturalist appeals to cosmic justice which occur in the Critique of Practical Reason and the Critique of Judgement[38], which I shall be examining in the next subsection. In relation to this general foundation for Kant’s ethics, however, it must observed that, as well as accounting for the conservatism of Kant’s practical ethics, this explanation for the eternalistic basis of Kant’s ethics also provides an account of its failure to enable ethical behaviour. For despite the rationalistic basis of his justification, Kant’s ethics exhibit the same discontinuity between absolute and relative standards that I have been tracing through the eternalist tradition from the time of the Stoics. The abstract form of the categorical imperative is of no greater relevance to the enablement of ethics than the Stoic ideal of the wise man, the Platonic idea of the good, or the perfection of God, whilst its relative forms turn out not to be incremental expressions of the path to perfection so much as the offspring of a conventional ethics which is rationalised through the use of the abstracted idea of the perfect measure.


Kant perhaps shows greater awareness of this discontinuity than any previous thinker.

Since…all concepts of things must be referred to intuitions which, for us human beings, can never be other than sensible, and which thus let objects be known not as things in themselves but only as appearances, appearances being a series of the conditioned and their conditions in which the unconditioned can never be found, it follows that an unavoidable illusion arises from the application of the rational Idea of the totality of conditions (and thus of the unconditioned) to appearances as if they were things in themselves….[39]


Kant sees it as his task to investigate and help remove this illusion through his “dialectic of pure practical reason”, but his prescription for the removal of the discontinuity between conditioned and unconditioned  merely involves the postulation of the same illusions under which previous generations had laboured. He recommends belief in God and the immortal soul.


vii)              Cosmic Justice


Kant’s advocacy of belief in cosmic justice appears at the outset to have slightly different grounds from those of the Christian tradition. He does not advocate belief in it because of a claim that it is unequivocally true so much as because it is a good idea to believe in it.  Happiness as a return for goodness occurs only contingently in the empirically-observed system of nature, Kant claims, but necessarily in the intelligible world posited by practical reason.

Thus, in spite of this apparent conflict of a practical reason with itself, the highest good is the necessary highest end of a morally determined will and a true object thereof; for it is practically possible, and the maxims of this will, which refer to it by their material, have objective reality. At first this objective reality was called in question by the antinomy in the combination of morality with happiness according to a general law; but this difficulty arose from a misconception, because the relationship between appearances was held to be a relationship of the things in themselves to these appearances.[40]


Here Kant seems to reveal the naturalism which lurked from the beginning in his conception of freewill as noumenal, as the relationship of the world of experience to a posited objective reality is swept aside. In its place we are urged to take the intelligibility of the world as a more important basis of practical belief than our experience: a move that is almost transparently dogmatic. In the guise of the “rationality” of the intelligible order, in fact, is merely a new cloak for the old eternalist projection of our desire for order onto the universe. The dogmatism is not one of an absolute factuality, for Kant is not claiming that it is incontrovertibly factually true that cosmic justice exists, only that it is possible: the dogmatism is that of value, based on the claim that it is incontrovertibly true (by a priori reasoning) that we should believe in such cosmic justice[41].


If one interpreted Kant’s arguments here within a pragmatic framework, it could be suggested that the position that Kant promotes through this argument is one of  the merely provisional adoption of an eternalistic framework of belief for the sake of moral progress. But Kant’s epistemology is not pragmatic, and he does not offer, nor could consistently offer, any empirical evidence that the adoption of a belief in cosmic justice is pragmatically helpful. Instead, the beliefs which are the basis of cosmic justice are offered a priori in the form of the postulates of pure practical reason, each of which he defines as “a theoretical proposition which is not as such demonstrable, but which is an inseparable corollary of an a priori unconditionally valid practical law[42]. The first of these postulates is the immortality of the soul, which he believes is necessary so that we can believe in the infinite moral progress required to reach “the perfect fit of the will to moral law…, which is a perfection of which no rational being in the world of sense is at any time capable”[43]. The second is the existence of God as “a cause of the whole of nature, itself distinct from nature, which contains the ground of the exact coincidence of happiness with morality[44]. These two postulates amount to the subjective and the objective poles of cosmic justice belief: that our future selves experiencing reward or punishment are identical to our present selves, and that the just reward or punishment will actually occur. In both cases there does seem to be a major empirical assumption made: that these beliefs would actually be helpful to moral progress[45]. This assumption appears to have been uncritically adopted from Kant’s context.


Kant’s superficial incrementality here could be just as confusing as his superficial pragmatism. Though he discusses the adoption of these beliefs as a practical postulate to enable (presumably incremental) moral progress, the beliefs that he offers as practical postulates are not of incremental intensity. He believes it to enable moral progress if we adopt a belief in cosmic justice as an absolute whole : we either adopt such a belief or we do not.  If we do not adopt such an absolute belief, it appears that we are left again on the relative side of the eternalist discontinuity, for we have no reason to believe that any apparent coincidence of happiness with morality in a limited sphere will continue to be true beyond that sphere, so that we do not benefit from any relative form of the effects of the belief. Kant’s later development of his position in Religion within the limits of reason alone makes it clearer that for him even relative progress depends on belief in God (who is, of course, an absolute quantity admitting no gradations of belief in himself) because it is only through such faith that it can be believed that the ultimate desired effect of happiness as reward for moral virtue can be believed in at all.

Reason does not leave us wholly without consolation with respect to our lack of righteousness valid before God. It says that whoever, with a disposition genuinely devoted to duty, does as much as lies in his power to satisfy his obligation (at least in a continual approximation to complete harmony with the law), may hope that what is not in his power will be supplied by the supreme Wisdom in some way or other (which can make permanent the disposition to this unceasing approximation). Reason says this, however, without presuming to determine the manner in which this aid will be given or to know wherein it will consist; it may be so mysterious that God can reveal it to us at best in a symbolic representation….[46]


Thus although Kant suggests that we would still have a reason to be moral without these postulates, they nevertheless offer an attempted way of bridging the eternalist discontinuity between absolute and relative through faith. It is only faith, he seems to be saying, that can turn our “continual approximation” into perfection and hence to happiness. We can rely, it seems, on divine grace to bridge the divide. Such a reliance on grace might provide a basis for recognising our ignorance of conditions, were it not itself part of an extended scheme of rationalism where such ignorance is insufficiently recognised. Instead it merely provides the basis of a fideism which allows the psychological assumptions of Christianity to flourish unchecked without any examination of their relationship to experience.


viii)            From Conservatism to Liberalism


Whilst Kant’s rationalism seems to have made little difference to practical ethics at an individual level compared to the established Christian basis of ethics, at a political level Kant reflected changes in attitude which had been developing since the Reformation. The greater stress on individual responsibility to establish eternalist ethics, which emerged around the time of Luther, finds its expression in Kant in the form of the stress on autonomy as the basis of ethics. In the political sphere such a stress on autonomy implies an understanding of the role of the state not only as enforcing foundational eternalist morality, but as enabling individuals to discover and practise morality autonomously. Kant’s doctrines imply a view of human nature as capable of reaching a universal morality through autonomous activity which may have a value even if he was mistaken about the solely rational source of that morality. One of the key conditions for autonomous morality is thus political freedom, which was beginning to be seen as the friend rather than the foe of eternalist ethics.  Such a view of human autonomy both expressed and contributed to  the core of the emergent liberalism of Kant’s time, and is most strongly expressed in Kant’s essay What is Enlightenment?[47].


In fact Kant’s political philosophy puts forward a dual view of human nature as both flawed by its weakness for empirical desires (hence needing  social or political restraint) and capable of acting for the sake of reason (hence needing freedom). This duality provides the basis of his distinction between the philosophy of freedom and the philosophy of right, the former requiring no constraint but “internal duty” and the latter consisting in “external duties” produced on at least a notionally contractual basis, whether this contract was an explicit one between individuals or the regulative one of the social contract theory of the state[48]. External duties such as those imposed by the state are thus only indirectly ethical, and are concerned only with outward behaviour, not with motive[49]. Nevertheless, Kant derived his first principle of right from the categorical imperative: “Every action is right that in itself, or in its maxim is such that the freedom of the will of each can coexist together with the freedom of everyone in accordance with universal laws[50].” A framing principle of law is thus that the political freedom it creates must be universalisable, creating the basis of a liberal political theory which in many respects resembles the libertarianism of Mill.


Whilst the application of Kant’s political theory might result in rather more emphasis on the motives of legislators and less upon the predictable results of legislation than that of Mill, it seems likely that in practice the two would result in very similar legislation based on the shared concern to maximise freedom within the practical limits created by human disruptiveness. Both reflect the liberal consensus which has gradually emerged as a result of the impact of Reformation individualism, together with the capitalism it helped to produce, on the eternalist political philosophy which had held sway since Constantine. Whilst this individualism produced nihilism, it also produced more individualistic forms of eternalism of the kind which Kant represents.


Kant’s liberal eternalism, like that of Mill, can only exist under the tension of a discontinuity between public and private morality. In Kant this is reflected in the division between the philosophy of freedom and the philosophy of right, in Mill in the similar tension between libertarianism and utilitarianism. Their adherence to freedom as a determining value of political philosophy is in a direct relationship to the strength of their belief in an eternalistic ethic for the individual, but this faith in the forces of individual reason involves a neglect of the irrational in the human mind, which is to be contained by legislation rather than recognised and incorporated. The public sphere hence becomes one of containment rather than of positive value, as distinguished from the private sphere where positive values, whether these are eternalist or nihilist, can hold sway in the individual.


This liberal picture has in part become the scene of a sort of collusion between eternalistic and nihilistic forces, whereby the discontinuity between public and private worlds allows a sort of modus vivendi. Whilst this liberalism gained increasing prestige, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, during the nineteenth-century, however, its limitations were also revealed by Hegel and Marx, who returned the eternalist tradition more strongly to the political polarisation found in the Christian tradition. Their criticisms of Kant reveal particularly the extent to which he relied on an abstract idea of individuality divorced from its real social context[51]. This false idea of individuality is one perpetuated by the doctrine of freewill in eternalistic tradition, the role of which I have already mentioned in perpetuating both medieval and modern capitalist employment systems with their increasing tendency to produce alienation. This alienation is naturally one to which Kant’s rationalism also contributed.


[1] Cassirer (1981) p.37

[2] ibid. p.13-21

[3] ibid. p.10

[4] ibid. p.412-3

[5] ibid. p.415-6

[6] I shall be discussing Schopenhauer’s version of this principle in 3.j.iii

[7] Kant’s liberalism, which will be discussed later in this section, does not encourage the political exclusion of different frameworks of belief, but this expedient for the perpetuation of eternalism through autonomous rather than authoritarian means should not obscure the way in which Kant’s philosophy encourages the psychological repression of alternative voices in much the same way as his conservative eternalist predecessors.

[8] Kant (1929) A96-B169

[9] In the second edition of the Critique Kant described this process as analytic (see comments later in this subsection).

[10] Described in the Schematism: Kant (1929) A137/B176 – A147/B187

[11] Allison 1983 p.237-242

[12] A “locus” of experience pre-supposes space, where Kant’s transcendental self exists prior to time and space. However, no alternative term could wholly avoid such a presupposition.

[13] Kant (1993)  67 [references to this text and Kant (1995) are given according to the Academy Edition of 1912]

[14] See 4.e.iii & 5.c.i

[15] above 2.a.iv

[16] Kant (1929) B274-5 & A367-380

[17] ibid. B275-9

[18] The arguments also have similar weaknesses: see 4.e.iii.

[19] This aspect of Kant’s argument was taken up and developed by Husserl. I comment on Husserl’s treatment of it in 4.h.ii.

[20] For a positive non-dualist argument for how the dualism between idealism and realism may be resolved where Kant failed to do so, see 6.b.ii.

[21] Kant (1929) A444-451/B472-9

[22] ibid. A490-567/B519-595

[23] O’Neill (1989) p. 53

[24] Kant (1995) 446-453

[25] Kant (1993) 72-3

[26] This is explicit in Kant (1993) 58

[27] Kant (1995) 437-440

[28] ibid. 438-9

[29] Kant (1993) 73

[30] This problem reappears in the Kantian Kohlberg’s account of moral development (Kohlberg 1981). He interprets the evidence of childhood moral development in cognitive terms by dividing it into stages of cognitive moral development, the earlier stages of which manifest different types of heteronomy (conformity to authority or to peers) and the more advanced stages of which manifest autonomy. The very highest stages manifest the Kantian definitions of adequate moral judgement, being justified by principles that are universalisable and prescriptive. In each of these stages moral autonomy grows because affect is increasingly channelled by reason. Thus, although Kohlberg has here abandoned Kant’s idea of an independent rational drive, Kohlberg’s model of reasoning is not extended far enough because it continues to rely upon a metaphysical understanding of developing  individuality as consisting only in a rational capacity (see 6.d.iv). If we extend his cognitive model of the stages of moral development to a still higher stage of moral reasoning, this would include a Sceptical dissolution of metaphysical dualisms so as to result in an abandonment both of the purely cognitive model and of its individualism. This would make clear the way in which gaining and applying an adequate theorisation requires adequate recognition of the desires which correlate with less adequate beliefs as well as the dominant egoistic models.


[31] These are well summarised in Norman (1983) p.106-118

[32] See 3.b.ii

[33] Kant (1995) 407

[34] ibid. 408

[35] ibid. 404

[36] ibid. 432

[37] ibid. 429

[38] Kant (1987)

[39] Kant (1993) 107

[40] ibid. 115

[41] ibid. 121

[42] ibid. 122

[43] ibid. 122

[44] ibid. 125

[45] See 3.b.ii for my arguments that they would not.

[46] Kant (1960) p. 159 (Kant’s emphasis)

[47] Kant (1995) p.83-90

[48] Williams (1983) p.52-67

[49] ibid. p.67-9

[50] Kant (1965) p.35

[51] Williams (1983) p.69-74


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A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



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