Immanuel Kant VII. – Tribunal

Where we left Kant in the last Critique, he was explicitly denying the power of a human being to come to knowledge of God, the nature of the soul, the nature of all of existence, and so on, by means of both empirical experience and ratiocination. These topics and any deriving from them are our limits, past which we should not transgress lest we find ourselves adrift without any means of grounding our thoughts in any justification. However, he promises to fully flesh out why we can still assert a belief in God, the immortality of the soul, the existence of a hereafter, and such matters. These things will find their source not in theoretical reason, but in practical reason. What is practical reason? More or less, the rational inquiry into the question of what one is to do. And so we have the Critique of Practical Reason.

To begin, in summary:  Kant begins by delineating some concepts which will be employed throughout the text.

Practical principle – “… propositions which contain a general determination of the will, having under it several practical rules. They are subjective, or maxims, when the condition is regarded by the subject as valid only for his own will, but are objective, or practical laws, when the condition is recognized as objective, that is, valid for the will of every rational being.”

Maxims will be our subjective precepts for action which we cannot think as being universal, and laws shall be precepts for action which we can and should think as being universal. Is it possible to locate within pure reason a practical motive that will determine the will? That is to say, is there something that can be reached within each human’s pure reason that would serve as a universally valid principle from which a moral law could be deduced? For as Kant’s aim is to ground these things in reason, only if it is possible for reason to furnish us with a universally valid principle can we achieve a moral law that applies to every rational being.

He will spend a long time telling us that this principle cannot be grounded in desire, or the feeling of pleasure and pain, as this is based in experience alone. For Kant, this could never produce universally valid moral law, because objective necessity must be grounded a priori. The feeling of pleasure and pain can only furnish maxims. It is worth noting, that Nietzsche will give just this account of the origins of moral thinking.

Kant goes on to reiterate the freedom of will which was first announced in the first Critique as being a practically necessary postulate for us for have any discussion about what might determine the will as a moral law with regards to human beings making choices, and shown to be possible as he establishes humans being just as noumenal as anything else and this existing both within physical mechanistic causality and outside of it. It is this noumenal causality of a free will that Kant will infer as being possible to justify asserting it practically in order to establish morality.

The principle sufficient to determine the will is eventually arrived at and it is none other than the categorical imperative: “Act so that the maxim of thy will can always at the same time hold good as a principle of universal legislation.”

For Kant, this establishes the moral law and our relationship to it is one of obligation. He will defend this by telling a lot of stories about how in various situations people admire the majesty of moral action or they hold themselves as contemptuous and vile when they disobey the commands of the moral law. True morality can only be out of a sense of duty, and duty alone, and while pleasant feelings could accompany moral action (as Kant identifies the Stoics as pursuing as a doctrine, i.e. virtue is the only source of true happiness if you are thinking correctly about your life) they could never be the inevitable result of moral action in this life as the moral law and the natural law are not see as being congruous with one another.

Now we take the summum bonum, or the highest good (a notion originally of an ancient Egyptian provenance), within which virtue and happiness must be united. Kant says that this unification in the world “is the necessary object of a will determinable by the moral law…. This then must be possible, as well as its object, since it is contained in the command to promote the latter.” Now, Kant asserts that human beings can never achieve moral perfection, yet this state would be required for a true and all encompassing summum bonum. As would the bringing into harmony of the moral law and natural law. This is the practical justification for the belief in God, the immortality of the soul, and an unseen world or hereafter. Only God can create harmony between virtue and occurrence, only an infinite life can allow each being to achieve a moral perfection, and thus we could continue living after we pass out of this world in the other one.

Since Kant is saying that the summum bonum is the necessary object of the will that is determinable by the moral law, and thus the conditions for the realization of the summum bonum must be assumed to be possible. Why? Because all of this, Kant says, is posited by reason. We are not choosing anything but obeying that which commands us, and are completely justified in assuming that the ultimate ends of this thing which commands are possible. Kant distinguishes such suppositions based upon pure reason from functionally identical ones based upon only mere inclination.

The text ends with some thoughts on the doctrine of the method of this pure practical reason.

I do not know why educators of youth have not long since made use of this propensity of reason to enter with pleasure upon the most subtle examination of the practical questions that are thrown up; and why have they not, after first laying the foundation of a purely moral catechism, searched through the biographies of ancient and modern times with the view of having at hand instances of the duties laid down, in which, especially by comparison of similar actions under different circumstances, they might exercise the critical judgement of their scholars in remarking their greater or less moral significance. This is a thing in which they would find that even early youth, which is still unripe for speculation of other kinds, would soon Become very acute and not a little interested, because it feels the progress of its faculty of judgement; and, what is most important, they could hope with confidence that the frequent practice of knowing and approving good conduct in all its purity, and on the other hand remarking with regret with regret or contempt the least deviation from it, although it may be pursued only as a sport in which children may compete with one another, yet will leave a lasting impression of esteem on the one hand and disgust on the other; and so, by the mere habit of looking on such actions as deserving approval or blame, a good foundation would be laid for uprightness in the future course of life.

He goes on to express his distaste for sentimental works which applaud acts of merit or nobility, which is detestable to Kant “since whatever runs up into empty wishes and longings after inaccessible perfection produces mere heroes of romance, who, while they pique themselves on their feeling for transcendent greatness, release themselves in turn from the observance of common and every-day obligations, which then seem to them petty and insignificant.” He has no good feeling at all about these actions or celebrations thereof not born out of pure duty, a slow march towards the humble day-by-day perfecting of one’s character.

Ultimately, morality is going to require judgement on the basis on the categorical imperative, and here the moral law is determined by the faculty of the understanding in its capacity to judge. We have to decide what principles could follow from the categorical imperative, and in The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant offers us a few, and then judge regarding situations and these principles. And so he conceives of every human subject as having within them tribunals of judgement which pass sentence of every action they see.

Some caveats he provides: actions are only by intention (as in the famous hadith of the Holy Prophet) and only actions can have a moral character and not the subjects themselves.

Kant’s doctrine of universal morality rooted in human reason places him in some kinship to the philosophical position taken by the Mu’tazilites (see Dr. Sherman A. Jackson’s The Alchemy of Domination? Some Ash’arite Responses to Mu’tazilite Ethics and his book Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering). Their general position was that each action had an intelligible moral essence which was knowable a priori by the human reason. The Ash’arite position, which became dominant thereafter in some form or another, is that universal value can only be established by revelation and any moral judgement not based upon scripture is inevitably based upon the feelings and predilections of individuals.

Kant ejected Aristotelian intelligibles, he clearly is not positing moral values as ontological and objectively inhering in actions themselves. But he is saying that morality is entirely rational, that is that is has its whole existence springing from reason, and that it exists independently of knowledge of revelation. Kant doesn’t directly address the connection, but given his manner of regarding the Christian Bible in a few passages in this text you have the sense that he sees revelation as being a part of what we judge against the categorical imperative, perhaps on the grounds of whether or not it enhances or detracts from our formation of keener moral judgements and this part of our faculty of understanding. There were even one or two points at which he claimed that even God would be bound by this rational moral law.

Such notions lay bear the ultimately heretical premises at play here. We know that nothing binds God and that nothing compels God. God is omnipotent and fully self-sustaining and God sustains all of creation from each moment to the next and we depend utterly upon God but God does not need anything. Kant’s desire to privilege reason over all else leads him into manifest error which Hegel will go on to completely solidify into his system. In the midst of the 19th century’s madness and untethered rationalism we thankfully had Kierkegaard, who maintained that true religious devotion must ultimately supersede the ethical dimension of life entirely, as it is total submission to God and God does anything He wills.

Formal arguments against Kant’s specific claims here or more generally against deontology as a whole are numerous and I don’t want to spend time reproducing any here. Suffice it to say, I see here what I see everywhere these kinds of thoughts are advanced, namely, that rationality is being used as a mere smokescreen. The method for justification is being put forward as the source of the principle itself in order to hide what is at its bottom an earlier non-rational commitment to something. Kant’s supposedly universal moral feelings that he illustrates through fictitious examples would be somewhat alien to people without our specific moral heritage. Honestly, they probably really only appeal to cloistered Prussian thinkers with sincere and rigorous moral convictions. Here, the particular is universalized by way of an appeal to an ultimate moral principle in reason.

If reason is always the guide or the servant of inclination, be it religious or lower, then we may guess at what Kant’s were. There is a healthy literature on his strange affinity for Swedenborg which I mentioned a few months ago. Gregory R. Johnson’s paper From Swedenborg’s Spiritual World to Kant’s Kingdom of Ends traces the development of the titular notion in Kant’s thought directly from Swedenborg. Many other tendrils such of these seem to be weaving their way from Swedenborg into Kant’s philosophy. (See: Gregory R. Johnson’s Kant on Swedenborg: Dreams of a Spirit-Seer and Other Writings for more). Whether such things merely inspired his rationally defended insights or he remained something of a secret believer for his whole life it is probably not possible to say.

As for Kant’s doctrine of method, I think that it could only spring from the mind of somebody who hadn’t been involved in much actual moral education of people. Encouraging people to hone their moral capacities by participating in extended and “pleasurable” sessions of passing judgement over others seems to run counter to every method of purification of the heart that I am aware of. The ethic that I have always received has been to judge only yourself strictly and to make excuses for others. It makes a kind of sense when you consider that for Kant you could only discover morality via making moral judgements from your reason but in a world where your ethics is received from the divine revelation, there is no such need to involve yourself in other people’s affairs, whether ancient or contemporary. Not that we don’t have moral feelings in our reactions to hearing of this or that occurrence but there was never any need to hone this.

This system of morality is one that is shorn of its appropriate fealty to the revelation and sacred law that God revealed to the prophets and messengers. It enthrones reason as a principle in itself and in so doing turns the servant into the sovereign and brings the entirety of the kingdom to ruin, to use a Ghazalian metaphor. This kind of thinking exacerbates many ills of both society and man. But Kant did not originate this, we could probably place that closer to the mark with Descartes. He was merely trying to break the already running, wild horses of rationalism and empiricism with his critical project. To his credit,  he notices things that most do not and clears the openings for pathways, though he does not pursue most of them himself. It is a short work but one of depth, even if this depth is attended by error.

There is a lot more that could be said of this but all that needs to be said is that Muslims will have definite disagreements with this part of Kant’s critical philosophy. Muslims certainly aren’t the only ones. Various people since have wanted to remove some or all of it from their use of his philosophical system. You can see in the text’s occasional appeals to the bright future of scientific understanding that he saw this as the future moral edifice of a freed and enlightened society that pursued further and further material advancements in understanding via the rationally sound methodology of science and so on. You can imagine some pristine, large Prussian machine society where everything is just getting better and better. Kant could have turned his passion for Rousseau into a science fiction career perhaps. But our understanding of science has come a long way since then and it has turned out to be, as an institution, much more anarchic than anyone would like to believe and as beholden to the desires of powerful and moneyed interests as rationality is to the desires of the lower selves if it is not appropriately used.

We now move into the Critique of the Power of Judgement wherein Kant will explicate his theory of aesthetics, the sublime, teleology, and perhaps more. After we get into that, I plan to deal with Opus Posutumum in some manner, as it seems to be a bit of a neglected text. From there, it may be an occasion to read and comment on some of Kant’s smaller works, such as his thoughts on politics.


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