how we use Kant today

Michael Rosen’s wonderful book The Shadow of God: Kant, Hegel, and the Passage from Heaven to History explores the seriously theological aspects of German idealist philosophy. Rosen’s core insight is that philosophers from Kant to Hegel (as well as Marx) tried to solve the problem of arbitrariness by identifying free individuals with something abstract and rational–morality, the state, or history–which could take the place of a traditional Abrahamic God; but these were impersonal constructs that were unable to forgive or love us. “Two powerful drives–the desire to see the world as personal and human and the desire for human beings to be subject only to relationships that are rational and transparent–are in fundamental conflict” (p. 216). The German idealists chose the latter. They thus traded the “alienation of arbitrariness” for the “alienation of impersonality” and bequeathed to us a lonely world in which we became vulnerable to totalitarianism.

Although Rosen covers much more ground, here I want to mention his interpretation of Kant and explore what it suggests about moral philosophy today.

Kant is mainstay of undergraduate ethics courses, and we usually present him as offering a plausible–but also controversial–procedure for addressing moral questions, such as whether it is ever permissible to lie. We ask students to compare and contrast Kantian ethics to other theories, notably utilitarianism.

According to Rosen, Kant presumed that people already knew what was right to do. Kant was a “moral unanimist.” He agreed with–and was deeply influenced by–Rousseau’s claim that “the heart of man is always right about everything that does not relate personally to him” (p. 126). When we act and think wrong, it is because we are biased (Kant says, “seduced”) by self-interest. We don’t need a procedure to help us choose among options when we are sincerely confused or ambivalent. We need a reminder to be moral, in which case the right answer will be obvious. And we want to understand how human morality relates to freedom in a deterministic universe and how people can be free when the deity is omnipotent and omniscient. These are meta-ethical questions rather than ethical ones. Rosen cites previous commentators–H.R. Paton, plus others who are unfamiliar to me–who anticipate his approach to interpreting Kant.

Very few people are “moral unanimists” today. To varying degrees, we are aware of four kinds of plurality:

  1. Personalities vary, and it’s hard to adjudicate when individuals are drawn to different values, at least among basically decent ones.
  2. Cultures and eras have characteristic values or perspectives on ethics.
  3. A given person may feel compelled by real obligations that are in mutual tension (cf. p. 312).
  4. Human beings as a species may be hard-wired by evolution to value things that other species would not.

Even people who are convinced that there should be one right way for all creatures to answer all moral questions will generally concede that unanimity does not prevail. Few share Rousseau’s faith that all uncorrupted human beings agree about moral matters. Even if a single moral position is correct, it is pretty obvious that well-motivated people do not all see things that way.

At a time when people are deeply aware of–and often anxious about–moral disagreements of various types, it’s tempting to turn back to Kant for actual answers to our moral quandaries. Some find his theory persuasive and prefer it over utilitarianism or other available views. Others would relativize it in various ways, seeing Kantianism as: 1) a personality type, perhaps reflecting a tilt toward Jonathan Haidt’s “moral foundations” of fairness and freedom, 2) a cultural inheritance, probably Protestant, bourgeois, and European, 3) a view that favors certain goods–especially freedom–and ignores others, or 4) a fancy way of describing instincts that evolved in human beings as social animals.

Despite these and other disagreements about how to read Kant, most are convinced that he proposes views about contested moral issues. Rosen suggests, instead, that a deep historical gap separates Kant from all of us. Kant is not interested in deciding what is right, because he assumes that is an obvious matter. For our part, we are so unsure what is right that we search Kant’s abstract principles and his rather unconvincing examples for actual moral guidance. This may say more about our circumstances than it does about Kant’s thought.

I find Rosen’s interpretation of Kant’s texts persuasive. At the same time, I continue to be interested in the contrast between Kantian and utilitarian applied ethics. For instance, the influential Effective Altruism movement is worth paying attention to. If nothing else, it challenges some prevalent hypocrisies and inconsistencies. Yet I can’t accept it because it seems to view the donor as the sole moral agent and the recipients as essentially passive. I find modern Kantian ethics–and some passages by Kant himself–useful for articulating the intuition that all people should be accorded the dignity of self-determination and that human beings should relate to each other as moral equals with rights, not as means to any end. Rosen acknowledges a “connection” between Kant’s philosophy and modern theories of rights (p. 257), notwithstanding the historical gap discussed earlier.

It could be that Kant would be a bit mystified by the debates about effective altruism and other issues in applied ethics and surprised to see his arguments deployed on one side of these controversies. Yet these are worthy debates, and Kant is more than just a famous name that we can cite as a token of respectability when we want to emphasize abstract duties and rights. In this case, intellectual history and practical ethics come somewhat apart. Kant may have been thinking about theodicy (how can God be good if there is evil in the world?), but we can find ethical advice in his principles and examples.

See also: qualms about Effective Altruism; why ambitious ethical theories don’t serve applied ethics; structured moral pluralism (a proposal); why ambitious ethical theories don’t serve applied ethics; etc,.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.