Kant: morality, autonomy and the categorical imperative

autonomy-suiteKant famously holds that all moral laws are derivable from, and reducible to, what he called the categorical imperative. Kant describes the categorical imperative as:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

- Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

In simpler terms, the categorical imperative is a type of command thats jurisdiction is universal. Kant juxtaposes the categorical imperative with hypothetical imperatives. The hypothetical imperative has no universal applicability as it relies upon a persons wants or desires (i.e. it is a contingent or conditional imperative). For example:

Categorical imperative: Borrowed money must be paid back as if borrowed money were universally never remitted then the practice of lending (and the good that comes with it) would not be possible.

Hypothetical imperative: To obtain money, I must work.

An important part of the Kant’s moral edifice is the freedom of the human will. Kant rejects determinism and rather understands the will as free insofar as it can affect causal power (i.e. choice) without being caused to do so in a deterministic sense. But Kant faces a problem, because the idea of something acting without a cause is incoherent. His solution is to say that the free will acts under laws that it generates itself.

Note Kant’s radical departure from the natural law of medieval philosophy. According to natural law, what is good for a substance depends upon its nature (i.e. internal principles of change that govern its actions). Furthermore, in no way can man be considered the source of the nature that fixes his ends. Whereas for Kant, what is good for man is determined for man by man. The Kantian view of man is that of an autonomous self-legislator that is an end in himself, as opposed to the medieval view of a heteronomous agent that ultimately finds its good in an end outside itself.

Such is the pervasiveness of the Kantian moral revolution that terms like “human dignity” and “mutual respect” are the currency with which debates about moral and political issues take place in our contemporary western culture.


Kant: phenomena, noumena and skepticism

cant-get-there-signPreviously I have examined the manner in which Kant uses his anti-skeptical transcendental argument to prove the existence of external objects. In this regard, he is less skeptical than his empiricists counterparts, such as Hume. However, as Kant represents a type of middle ground between the rationalists and the empiricists, there is also a way that he is more skeptical in his rationalism.

Kant’s idealist and empiricist epistemology required him to further distinguish between two types of knowledge one may have of external objects. Kant called objects that were posited by the mind without any sense perceptions noumena. Conversely, objects of the senses were called phenomena.

This all sounds very similar to Plato’s allegory of the cave. In Kantian terms, the Platonic noumenal realm would be the world of ideas and the phenomenal world the sensible reality. According to Plato per his allegory, the noumenal realm is more real and certain than the shadowy phenomenal realm.

Because Kant eschews forms and final causes, his version of a noumenon was different than that of Platonic or Aristotelian philosophies. Kant equates a noumenon as a “thing-in-itself”, whereas the phenomenon is merely an event or property manifested by an object and perceived by the senses. In short, Kant asserts that a phenomenon is a perceptive representation of an object existing in the mind of a perceiver, rather than the object in itself.

Here is the origin of Kant’s skepticism of the noumenal world. While Kant will not go as far to say that such a world does not exist, he contends that human knowledge of it is impossible. For Kant, the a priori knowledge or conditions that the mind uses to understand the external world exist only to “order” phenomena (which are merely mental appearances). While Kant will go further than Berkeley and admit that for there to be an appearance there must be something for there to be an appearance of, he maintains complete skepticism about knowledge of these substances in of themselves.




Kant’s transcendental arguments

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420Previously discussed was Kant’s critique of the rationalists and empiricists, as well as his solution of transcendental idealism and empirical realism. So Kant has offered a new synthesis, but what are his arguments that support his claims? Kant’s proof rests on his ideas regarding how synthetic a priori claims can be made.

Kant’s method was to use what is now called a transcendental argument to prove specific synthetic a priori propositions. These kind of arguments proceed deductively from a mental act or aspect of experience which is supposedly undeniable, and then attempt to validate the conditions for which said act or experience are necessary.

Kant, in the Refutation of Material Idealism, uses the following example; “There are objects that exist in space and time outside of me”. Kant says that this statement cannot be proven either a priori and a posteriori while being a necessary condition for knowledge of one’s own existence. Kant goes on to assert that it would be impossible for him to know of his own existence if there were not something alien and distinct from him with which to distinguish himself.

For example, the argument could be written syllogistically:

1. I am aware of my own existence.

2. To be aware of my own existence requires something other and distinct from me.

Therefore, there is something other and distinct from me.

Using his transcendental method, Kant argues that he has managed to salvage empiricism without resorting to the questionable metaphysics of the rationalists. Kant successfully put the mind at the centre of his novel philosophical system, arguing that we cannot understand the external world until we understand the mind that makes understanding the external world possible.




Immanuel Kant: transcendental idealism and empirical realism

dialectic-3_textmediumPreviously, Kant’s critique of the modern rationalist and empiricist schools was examined. However, Kant was to offer more than a mere exposition of a dialectical struggle; he would ultimately produce a synthesis and a new philosophy that would change the face of modernism and shape the way we think today.

Rationalistic theses typically have a reliance on ideas that are known a priori (or before experience), and conversely a posteriori for empirical theses (or after experience). Kant begins his argument by stating that these two categories cannot provide an adequate description of the kind of metaphysical ideas in question.

Kant, inspired by Hume’s fork, describes two (nominally) new categories: analytic and synthetic truths. An analytic proposition is a statement where the subject predicate is contained internally i.e. all triangles have three sides or every effect must have cause (this is Hume’s relations of ideas). Contrarily, a synthetic statement does not contain the predicate i.e. this triangle is red or rain is an effect of atmospheric condensation (this is Hume’s matters of fact).

Kant contends that the dialectical struggle of rationalism vs. empiricism arises due to both sides conflating the analytic with the a priori and the synthetic with the a posteriori. The empiricists, Kant argues, had particular problems with synthetic a priori claims (i.e. the angles of a square always sum to 360 degrees) because they are true without experience but the predicate is not expressed within the statement. Similarly, the rationalists struggled with synthetic a priori claims which they attempted to prove analytically.

Kant focuses on problematic synthetic a priori claims in his synthesis. His solution is to view the mind as active rather than passive. According to the empiricists, pace Locke, the mind is a passive blank slate for the reception of information/ideas. For the rationalists, the mind is passive because it contains immutable ideas. The law of causality cannot be proven by experience, but a coherent experience is not possible without it as it describes the necessary operation of the mind during analysis. Kant’s point is that the experience required to form synthetic claims is not possible without the mind structuring perceptions in a meaningful way. In this manner, Kant is both a realist in regards to empirical knowledge while also being an idealist.


Immanuel Kant: a critique of rationalism and empiricism

indexImmanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) was a German philosopher and prominent Enlightenment thinker who became a pivotal figure in the development of modern philosophy. Kant is similar to Plato in that he set about solving the problems of the two major philosophical schools of his time through a new synthesis.

To understand Kant’s philosophy is to understand his motivations and their context. In the time of Kant’s major works, the dialectical struggle of the Continental Rationalists and the British Empiricists had reached its nadir with the skepticism of Hume and the rationalist optimism of Leibniz and his monadology. Kant’s most important writing in this regard is his Critique of Pure Reason, where his contention was to avoid the reliance of rational thinking on objects that could not be confirmed by experience and the inevitable skepticism of the empiricists. He offers a critique of both groups before proposing his solution.

Kant pinpoints the origin of recalcitrant skepticism in the empiricist project as Locke’s “blank slate” theory of the mind. Kant argues that some components of an experience of reality must be brought by the perceiving mind; in fact, he goes so far as to say that Locke in his theory presupposes the kind of apriori knowledge he was trying to refute. Kant goes on to assert that this problem necessarily infects the work of all empiricists (i.e. Berkeley and Hume).

The hallmark of the Continental Rationalists was their insistence that knowledge of the external world was best constructed from ideas possessed innately by the mind. The epitome of this kind of epistemology was Descartes’ use of cogito ergo sum and a further argument that God had provided man with accurate faculties of sensation. However, Kant opposes Descartes in saying that the ability to be aware of one’s existence presupposes the real existence of the external world. Kant also argued that the method of the rationalists lead to insoluble contradictions (or as he called them antinomies) – such as the universe is limited and limitless. Those antinomies are intractable because the rationalist epistemology takes for granted a kind of pure knowledge of external objects independent of any sensational experience.

Having discussed briefly Kant’s criticisms of modern empiricism and rationalism, the next post will examine Kant’s synthesis of transcendental idealism and empirical realism.

Rousseau: a radical reinterpretation of the state of nature

220px-Jean-Jacques_Rousseau_(painted_portrait)Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) was a French-Genevan Enlightenment philosopher known for his influential work in literature, music and, most importantly, political philosophy. During the French Revolution, Rousseau was the most revered theorist amongst the revolutionaries.

As discussed previously, one of the hallmarks of modern philosophy was the tendency to think of substances sans final causes. One of the consequences of this type of mechanistic inquiry was to view man as being in a “state of nature”, where he is removed of any qualities or attributes that are caused in him by social conditioning.

There are two important thinkers that precede Rousseau regarding the state of nature: Hobbes and Locke. For Hobbes, the state of nature is men aside from civil society, a state ruled entirely by the self-interest of the individual that inevitably leads to chaos, war and destruction. According to Locke, the state of nature is articulated through the natural and alienable rights of man. While Hobbes says that man can do no good aside from the state and must give himself to a sovereign in order to live, the Lockean man is capable of good on his own and thus the intervention of the state into his life should be necessary only when beneficial.

Rousseau’s innovation is to offer an inversion of Hobbes. Rousseau contends that the state of nature is a state of “uncorrupted morals”. Rousseau outlines three developmental stages of man. The first is the brute animal life state which is similar to the primitive man described by Hobbes. The second is a decadent man corrupted by the vices on offer in a political and civilised society.

The third is the natural man – a type of uncivilised savage. Rousseau argues that this man who has evolved beyond the primitiveness of apes but has not been spoiled by the decadence of civil society is best. Rousseau’s critique of Hobbes’ view of natural man is that he has taken civilised people and removed from them all concepts of laws, property and etc., and thus has failed to accurately characterise this type of man (only a gross abstraction). Like Locke, Rousseau admits that self-interest is an important motivation for human action but it is by no means the sole one.

Reading Rousseau’s passionate advocation of the virtues of a simpler man, it is easy to see how he inspired the French revolutionaries to rally against the indulgence of the French government of their time.

Voltaire: deism and the divorce of metaphysics from science

Voltaire-2Voltaire was the pen name for the French writer Francois-Marie Arouet (1694 – 1778). Voltaire was one of the central French Enlightenment thinkers, known for his daring literary attacks on authorities (including both church and state) and his advocacy of political and social freedoms. His most important influences include Newton in regards to the sciences and Locke in regards to politics.

As modern thinking began to gather momentum, the four part causal understanding of nature offered by Aristotelian thinkers began to be abandoned in favour of a mechanical theory of causality that would attempt to explicate nature through the action of a dessicated matter.

Voltaire was a staunch Enlightenment Newtonian in this regard. His contribution to modern philosophy is not a novel theory to rival Newton, such as Leibniz offered, but rather he was instrumental in guiding the course of modernism towards the adoption of an empirico-Newtonian epistemology.

The thesis of this new epistemology was the primacy of empirical facts uncovered through the new scientific method. The contrast to the Aristotelian method is the relegation of metaphysical inquiry to a handmaiden of scientific inquiry at best and uselessness at worst. One of the consequences of this approach was the requirement of so called “brute facts”. Voltaire argued that rational philosophy should reject speculations that could not be proved by empirical facts, even if it meant certain empirical facts went unexplained – thus arising the need for brute facts.

This is arguably the most important factor in Voltaire’s deistic understanding of god. For Voltaire, god is like a very powerful watchmaker who sets in the world in motion according to natural laws (which can be discerned by scientific investigation alone). According to Voltaire god is an idea empty of any religious or metaphysical content,  an ultimate brute fact.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.