Monday, March 08, 2010

Kant on Killing Bastards, on Masturbation, on Wives and Servants, on Organ Donation, Homosexuality, and Tyrants

I'm going to be dissin' on Kant. If you loathe that sort of thing, maybe you'll enjoy reviewing the results of last year's poll by Brian Leiter, according to which Kant is the third most important philosopher of all time -- which should remind you that Kant's reputation is plenty safe from the likes of me.

According to Kant in The Metaphysics of Morals (not to be confused with his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals):

(1.) Wives, servants, and children are possessed in a way akin to our possession of objects. If they flee, they must be returned to the owner if he demands them, without regard for the cause that led them to flee. (See esp. pages 278, 282-284 [original pagination], Gregor trans.) Kant does acknowledge that the owner is not permitted to treat these people as mere objects to "use up", but this appears to have no bearing on the owner's right to demand their return. Evidently, if such an owned person flees to us from an abusive master, we may admonish the master for behaving badly while we return what is rightly his.

(2.) Homosexuality is an "unmentionable vice" so wrong that "there are no limitations whatsoever that can save [it] from being repudiated completely" (p. 277).

(3.) Masturbation is in some ways a worse vice than the horror of murdering oneself, and "debases [the masturbator] below the beasts". Kant writes:

But it is not so easy to produce a rational proof that unnatural, and even merely unpurposive, use of one's sexual attribute is inadmissible as being a violation of duty to oneself (and indeed, as far as its unnatural use is concerned, a violation in the highest degree). The ground of proof is, indeed, that by it a man surrenders his personality (throwing it away), since he uses himself as a means to satisfy an animal impulse. But this does not explain the high degree of violation of the humanity in one's own person by such a vice in its unnaturalness, which seems in terms of its form (the disposition it involves) to exceed even murdering oneself. It consists, then, in this: That a man who defiantly casts off life as a burden is at least not making a feeble surrender to animal impulse in throwing himself away (p. 425).
(If masturbation caused a permanent reduction to sub-human levels of intelligence, this argument might make some sense, but as far as I'm aware, that consequence is rare.)

(4.) On killing bastards:
A child that comes into the world apart from marriage is born outside the law (for the law is marriage) and therefore outside the protection of the law. It has, as it were, stolen into the commonwealth (like contraband merchandise), so that the commonwealth can ignore its existence (since it rightly should not have come to exist in this way), and can therefore also ignore its annihilation (p. 336).
(5.) On organ donation:
To deprive oneself of an integral part or organ (to maim oneself) -- for example, to give away or sell a tooth to be transplanted into another's mouth... are ways of partially murdering oneself... cutting one's hair in order to sell it is not altogether free from blame.
(6.) Servants and women "lack civil personality and their existence is, as it were, only inherence" and thus should not be permitted to vote or take an active role in the affairs of state (p. 314-315).

(7.) Under no circumstances is it right to resist the legislative head of state or to rebel on the pretext that the ruler has abused his authority (p. 319-320). Of course, the ruler is supposed to treat people well -- but (as with wives and servants under abusive masters) there appears to be no legitimate means of escape if he does not.

These views are all, I hope you will agree, odious -- even if there are some good things too in The Metaphysics of Morals (e.g., Kant condemns slavery on p. 329 -- although that was hardly a radical position for a European at the time). But why bring out these aspects of Kant? Shouldn't we expect him to be a creature of his time, an imperfect discoverer of moral truths, someone prone to lapses as are we all?

I mention these aspects of Kant to draw two lessons:

First, from our cultural distance, it is evident that Kant's arguments against masturbation, for the return of wives to abusive husbands, etc., are gobbledy-gook. This should make us suspicious that there might be other parts of Kant, too, that are gobbledy-gook, for example, the stuff that transparently reads like gobbledy-gook, such as the transcendental deduction, and such as his claims that his various obviously non-equivalent formulations of the fundamental principle of morality are in fact "so many formulations of precisely the same law" (Groundwork, 4:436, Zweig trans.). I read Kant as a master at promising philosophers what they want and then effusing a haze of words with glimmers enough of hope that readers can convince themselves that there is something profound underneath.

Second, Kant's philosophical moral reasoning appears mainly to have confirmed his prejudices and the ideas inherited from his culture. We should be nervous about expecting more from the philosophical moral reasoning of people less philosophically capable than Kant.

95 comments:

Jakob said...

This reminds me of Gazzaniga's take on Kant in The Mind's Past, page 121-1, where he speculates that Kant developed a massive left prefrontal tumor and then began writing his major works. This might begin to explain the lack of empathy concerning bastards, women and servants etc. Gazzaniga: "Is it possible that all those Kantians have saluted a man who was writing nonsense - a philosophy for those who do not have a normal cognitive and emotional system?".

Manolis said...

The Kant you cite above is certainly not gobbledy-gook. Gobbledy-gook, as far as I'm unaware, is something that's not understandable. In what you cite above, what Kant has to say is certainly understandable, so certainly not gobbledy-gook (although I do concede it's bullshit).

I also claim that the Trancendental Deduction is not gobbledy-gook. In fact, I wrote my honours thesis on it based on, amongst other things, the Bernstein lectures on Kant that are available on the web.

And, finally, even if I had no opinion on the Transcendental Deduction, just because Kant might have written bullshit on a particular subject in a particular area does not mean that on other subjects in other areas he has no contributions to make.

Wagner was an anti-Semite, hence a complete fool with respect to race and politics. But it's rather clear that musically he was no fool.

Manolis said...

Oopsies...

That should say "as far as I'm aware", not "as far as I'm unaware".

David said...

Manolis: The arguments he marshals in favour of the prejudices listed here are, I assume, the gobbledygook in question. It seems clear to us that he began here with some silly moral beliefs, and then constructed some Kant-flavoured rationalizations for them. Those would probably have sounded convincing to people who agreed with him then, just like the ones people still take seriously sound convincing to us now. But, apparently, this style of moral argument can be a touch too flexible in what it makes appear to be superficially convincing, which might cause us to cast reasonable doubt on Kant's other moral arguments that proceed from 'duties to self,' etc.

Anibal said...

Our beloved Kant was also a racist. In "Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View" he left us with these precious words:

"Humanity exists in its greatest perfection in the white race. The yellow Indians have a smaller amount of talent. The Negroes are lower, and the lowest are a part of the American peoples"

I shoud diss Kant too :-)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Jakob: Interesting reference. I've read that book, but for some reason I'd forgotten about that part of it!

Anibal: Thanks for adding that additional painful quote.

Manolis & David: Unsurprisingly, I find myself tending to agree with David here. I acknowledge, Manolis, that the fact that Kant writes BS ("gobbledy-gook", whatever, I don't intend to put too fine a point on it) does not imply that everything else is BS. But devoting the time to try to understand Kant requires considerable antecedent trust. It also requires considerable trust to develop a "charitable" reading in light of the surface text. The question is whether that trust is warranted. Would you extend that trust to Plotinus? To Zhu Xi? What is the basis for it?

praymont said...

But the antecedent trust in Kant's work is warranted by the many excellent points he made, particularly in the course of exposing the silliness of classical empiricism. Speaking of which, Hume was another one for putting his racism into print:

http://www.jstor.org/stable/3654076

Matthew J. Brown said...

I think "nonsense" should probably be the null hypothesis for historical interpretation of philosophical texts, in the sense that our default position should try to marshal evidence against it. But I don't think our principles of charity should go so far as to never allow us to accept it under any conditions. We should try to show that the obvious nonsense Eric cites can be "walled off" from the core of Kant's ethical theory; if it can't be done convincingly, so much the worse for Kant's ethical theory. Likewise, if after hundreds of years no one has made convincing sense of the Transcendental Deduction, maybe the general view ought to be that it is a failure (isn't this already the general view?). That doesn't mean that the rest of the Critique is worthless, or that the question isn't worth re-investigation.

I think, though, that the tendency amongst particularly analytic philosophers was towards the dismissive and uncharitable. So it doesn't seem like we need encouragement in the direction Eric urges. Generally, we need the opposite.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Praymont. I hadn't come across that Hume quote before. However, I'm inclined to think that in Kant there is a *pattern* of awfulness -- including in features of his prose style (including the elitism implicit in his obscurantist writing) and his meta-philosophy (including his apparent arrogance) -- that is lacking in Hume.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Matthew: I'm not sure I agree with you on either of your points. First, I'm inclined to start out with an assumption that the text makes sense and offers reasonably sensible, well-thought out arguments -- as I would assume about most non-philosophical texts. But I would hold that assumption only weakly. (Maybe this is only a difference of nuance.)

On your point about the dismissiveness of analytic philosophers I'm somewhat ambivalent. I guess I'm inclined to think this: Among those who actually bother to *read* historical philosophy, there is a tendency to be overly charitable -- among Kant scholars particularly, for some reason. (One possible reason: By the time one has invested time enough to become expert in Kant, one is highly motivated to see his work as worthwhile; otherwise one appears to have wasted one's time.) Among the uncharitable folks, few actually bother with historical philosophy. What I think we need are more philosophers who read the history of philosophy but do so uncharitably. The uncharitable reading of historical philosophy is valuable in illuminating cultural differences, metaphilosophical issues, facts about the diversity of possible opinion, and to recover issues that are no longer trendy. At least, that's what I get out of it!

ToneMasterTone said...

Eric, you're assuming that the philosophers who people bother to read from the past have been selected at random. They haven't -- they've already gone through a process of analysis that has commented on whether or not they're worth pursuing.

Heidegger, Deleuze and Guattari and Derrida are philosophers who've been controversial and difficult to read in the 20th century. I would say that only Heidegger's difficult prose will be read in 100 years or more, and I say that because the people who've grappled with him have nicer things to say about his work (and, I freely admit, I say this because of my own predispositions).

With older philosophers, the selective process has already taken place, so nobody bothers to read Malebranche anymore, for example, because he has little to offer in comparison.

And, finally, Kant is the bomb. Don't take it only from me, take it from people like Popper and Schopenhauer, who admonish Hegel for his ridiculous prose that, in their opinion, masquerades philosophy of minimal worth, yet have the highest esteem for Kant and his ridiculous prose.

Interestingly too, both Popper and Schopenhauer think Kant's second and third critiques are trash. I've not read those later two critiques, but I do think that that first Critique is unbelievably good.

In fact, I would say that philosophy ever since Kant has been a slow rediscovery of Kant.

The later Wittgenstein, for instance, is all in the first Critique.

Manolis said...

That previous comment, by ToneMasterTone, is actually by me, AKA Manolis.

Sorry about accidentally changing names on you all.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm not assuming philosophers judged great are selected at random, but you're right that I am assuming that the selection process is not a trustworthy one. Even if Hegel is not rated as highly as Kant, that Hegel could get so high in the process is evidence of its problems (though I say this knowing less of Hegel than of Kant.

I'll admit, too, that there's something cool about the Transcendental Aesthetic.

Brandon said...

I think a critical eye to in this regard is important, but it's also very important in such cases to be strictly accurate when we do so, so that the complaint is not based on misunderstanding. It's especially important with Kant, who both uses technical terminology and borrows terminology in use at the time but only in order to change its meaning. And I think you are clearly failing to do this in two of your examples.

For instance, with regard to (1), you are overlooking the fact that Kant is very clear that wives also own husbands, children also own parents, and servants also own masters -- the possession is reciprocal, because 'possession' here means 'one's own, such that one has rights with regard to them that someone else doesn't have'. And Kant explicitly denies that wives, servants, and children are possessed "in a way akin to our possession of objects"; if they were possessed in such a way they could be seized or impounded, but Kant denies they can -- if your child runs away, you have no recourse unless you can prove the child is yours (there's that possession, that we apply labels like 'my' -- my wife, my child, my valet -- to people), and even then it only establishes a duty for the child to return. It's worth pointing out that as a society we do exactly what Kant says to do in each of the three cases: we treat spouses as having a duty not to cheat, we treat parents as having a right to raise their children (and we return runaways to their parents where we have no clear evidence of abuse), and we hold employees to their contract. This is a danger of this sort of criticism: you have the beginnings here of a rather rigorous criticism of our society which operates on principles very similar to Kant's, but instead you insist on criticizing Kant's position here as 'odious' using a case where it's not, in fact, clear that Kant himself would take the route you claim he would (given that abuse is using someone as a means rather than an end, and we both have a duty to prevent ourselves from being used in such a way and a duty not to help others do it). The condemnation may hold, but let's not let our own prejudices prevent us from seeing that it falls on us just as much as it does on Kant; the fact that we use a somewhat more euphemistic terminology does nothing.

Likewise, while it may be silly to regard masturbation as a vice in some ways worse than suicide, your response seems to miss the point; the point is not that masturbation reduces intelligence but that it involves treating oneself as a means rather than an end. (The fact that several of your examples involve sexual ethics is no accident; it is very difficult to make any sort of sex at all consistent with the categorical imperative, or anything like it, because any sort of sex involves doing things that consist in treating other people, or allowing oneself to be treated, as means to some sort of an end.)

Rob said...

This forthcoming volume may provide some handy source material for this discussion.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Brandon, for those thoughts. I agree that Kant is clear that wives also possess husbands and can insist upon their return. I'd be interested, though, to see your basis for saying that Kant says that servants own masters. In the passages I recall, it always seems to go the other way around (although the *contract* is reciprocal).

On the issue of whether children, spouses, and servants are possessed in a way akin to objects, Kant may explicitly deny it in some places but he also explicitly states it repeatedly: e.g., in marriage "one person is acquired by another as if it were a thing" (p. 278) and "Servants are included in what belongs to the head of a household and, as far as the form (the way of his being in possession) is concerned, they are his by a right that is like a right to a thing" (p. 283). If there is a contradiction here, though, it is only superficial: They are possessed in some ways like objects (e.g., they can be returned against their will and without inquiry) and in other ways unlike objects (e.g., they cannot be "used up").

You are too charitable to Kant, I think, assimilating his views too much to what seems reasonable to us now. Contemporary law does not hold that a wife must be returned to the control of a husband or a servant to the control of his master against their will and without inquiry in the cause of their flight.

As far as treating oneself "as a means" or other people "as a means" vs. "as an end" is concerned, this is in my mind just part of the gobbledy-gook. "Means" are actions and "ends" are goals. It is ontological nonsense to regard people either as one or the other. Charitably, we can get roughly the idea of what Kant had in mind in saying these things by looking at his examples, but I'm not sure the idea survives being pressed on -- at least not without the interpreter who presses on it bringing in thoughts of her own that are not in the Kantian text and perhaps alien to it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Rob, that looks interesting!

James Beebe said...

Where's the 'like' button on this thing?

Brandon said...

Eric,

Possession in the case of servants is constituted by the contract, so if the contract is reciprocal, so must the possession; Kant explicitly says in the Science of Right that the connection is determined by the contract. Kant insists that, since the master-servant relation by its nature cannot legitimately involve abuse, servants are equally competent with masters to determine whether there is abuse, and may terminate the contract -- only within the terms of the contract, where those terms themselves are not abusive, can the master compel the servant to return. We are no different on this; this is exactly the way employer-employee relationship is viewed in our society. Kant says early on in the science of right that all members of the household -- which is constituted by these three relations of husband-wife, parent-child, and master-servant -- reciprocally possess each other.

The more I read Kant on these possession-based rights, the more clear it seems to me that your abusive case goes wrong; in the master-servant case, and it is implicit in his concept of right: the relation is constituted by use and broken by abuse, and there is no right except as established by the relation. Children can be unilaterally compelled to do things, but only within the context of the juridical parent-child relation; they can be compelled to return if they run away, but the only grounds for this is their duty as established by the parent-child relation. Children are a tricky case because they lack full use of their personal faculties and are in tutelage. I don't recall where Kant says that children have to be returned without inquiry. But Kant is clear that the only compulsion available in any case of acquisition is that which is required by civil society -- securing possession does not pertain to right as such but to the enforcement of it that is required by civil society. Again, I think you are 'reading' our own social norms in a massively more charitable way than you are reading Kant's; the only point at which we have changed from these basic scenarios is that we have added a few additional restrictions (mostly on the spousal relationship). Husbands and wives can still unilaterally compel each other to do things; parents can still unilaterally compel children; employers can still unilateraly compel employees; we've added just a few more impediments. And most of those have been in our lifetimes, I might add.

I agree that the problems Kant has with mixing sex and the categorical imperative show problems with the whole means-end division; but it does not show that it is 'gobbledy-gook' but merely that it is probably wrong, which is a different thing entirely. And in any case, even if it is gobbledy-gook, we need to assign problems created to the right gobbledy-gook, or we cannot honestly say we are giving a reasonable critical reading, and that was my primary point.

Rob said...

The first section of the SEP entry for "Feminist Perspectives on Objectification", published today, is devoted to Kant.

Anne Jacobson said...

Hi Eric, I've argue against a similar trend in interpretation of Hume, and have tied to read his work in terms of the norms it does clearly meet, as opposed to the ones we think it should met - and indeed will meet if we just fiddle with it enough.

It's a fun game to try to find the most strong and consistent reading of a philosopher, but it's not clear that that is particularly true to the texts. And of course Hume does not go around saying "O, I must be consistent at all costs, please disregard any inconsistencies or try to explain them away."

I'm less clear to me what Kant says about his devotion to perlucid arguents. I don't remember.

I'm wondering what would be the result if we looked at the passages you've picked out and saw them as fine bits in Kant's eyes, or at least as seeing Kant as accepting the standards they in fact meet. What might that tell us about his methodology and his criteria for success.

I'm not sure that I'm getting at a clear thought here. I guess the bottom line is to recomment that we consider the passages not just as bull shit mistakes but rather as answering to some standards Kant accepted.

Of course, one fears there might be another dynamic that might have him saying to himself: "I am a very fine philosopher and here are things that I really do not like. So I shall rationally condemn these abominations with my fine philosophy and since I know in advance it is so fine, I don't have to worry very much about what I'm saying. It is sure to be fine."

Scu said...

His position on animals, that they exist merely to be the means to human's ends, may not be as universally agreed upon as wrong, but it gives us insight into his silliness on the topic of masturbation. Masturbation is a problem because it makes us into animals (he doesn't use as strong a language, but he denouncing dancing in some similar ways). As Adorno noted "Nothing is more abhorrent to the Kantian than a reminder of man’s resemblance to the animal. This taboo is always at work when the idealist berates the materialist. Animals play for the idealist system virtually the same role as the Jews for fascism.” Beethoven: Philosophy of Music, p. 80

Brad C said...

Anne's question about Kant's commitment to consistency, brings to mind this gem from the 2nd Critique:

"Consistency is the highest obligation of a philosopher, and yet the most rarely found. The ancient Greek schools give us more examples of it than we find in our syncretistic age, in which a certain shallow and dishonest system of compromise of contradictory principles is devised, because it commends itself better to a public which is content to know something of everything and nothing thoroughly, so as to please every party."

peter kirwan said...

my personal favourite:

“cutting one’s hair in order to sell it is not altogether free from blame.”

MM: 6:423

it's repeated TWICE in the lecture notes of vigilantius by the way.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Brandon: I can see somewhat where you're coming from. But still: If Kant says P multiple times and also says Q and R, in other places, which together imply not-P, Shouldn't we go with P as the interpretation?

Anne: I'm pretty much on board with all of that. Problem is, I have a soft spot for Hume! Why? Somehow I like much better the character that shines through the text. Is this in any way justified? I have no idea.

Rob: Thanks for the link!

SCU, Brad, and Peter: Thanks for those tidbits too!

Brandon said...

Eric,

My first thought would be that, since interpretation is matter of approximation on the basis of evidence, that we'd need to make doubly sure that Kant actually did say, P, Q, and R, which yield the contradiction, rather than P', or Q', or R', where those might be weak enough to avoid it. This can be complicated; in the 'possession' passages, for instance, Kant appears to be adapting legal terminology already in use; and thus when he says 'x' he may sometimes mean 'x, taken as the legal phenomenon we can point to in our legal system' as opposed to 'x, taken in its more general colloquial sense'. But yes, if we do establish satisfactorily that Kant says, P, Q, and R, and that Q and R in the Kant means them would have to imply ~P, then it is plausible to attribute P, Q, and R to Kant, as well as the (wrong) belief that they are consistent. Wrong beliefs about consistency are pretty common, so it's a plausible enough diagnosis once the interpretation has been established as reasonably secure.

T. said...

Acc. to Kant, only Salomon Maimon really had understood him. Here an old text I once wrote (for my own use) on him, maybe amusing.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Brandon: Yes. I was thinking something like that after I had posted my simpler comment above. How much weight to give to the P interpretation instead of the P' interpretation depends on a variety of factors, one of which is one's inclination to charity. I am a low-charity reader, myself, and I think that in the case of Kant especially most historians err too much toward the side of charity. But it's a judgment call.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

T: I would recommend making fewer comments and briefly explaining their relevance to the post rather than just linking to various things you have written.

T. said...

Hi Eric, it is simply that this sort of light discussion made me dig out the text on Maimon, because it is written in a similar attitude.

Conc. the theme: Why do you think that is relevant in view of Kant? Just picking out some isolated statements does not refute a way of theorizing, e.g. no-one would doubt the value of Eddington's 1928 "The internal constitution of the stars" despite it's statements about it's theme are for us now like from a weird sf story. Which "features of his prose style" do you refer to? Kant's prose is usually redarded as clear, his KrV is usually redarded as redable for everyone.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Critique of Pure Reason is generally regarded as clear and readable to everyone? My perception is that very few philosophers regard it as an example of a clear, easily understood text.

T. said...

That would be great! But unfortunately only his language is easy. I guess english translations should be even better, as e.g. engl. translations or comments on Hegel are even preferable to the original version? Most philosopers I know read KrV at age ca. 16 and usually only parts of it (as I did). Some years ago I had tough work with students of philosophy on a many pages long extract of single obscure quotes they had made, and my job was to go through that. Happily I have forgotten all of that. A later march through Adorno's Aesthetic theory was IMO much easier.

T. said...

Conc. Kant's language: Goethe called Kant's precritical texts "the best popular philosophy", Kant himself oriented at Hume and M. Mendelsohn as models for a clear and easy to read writing. The KrV is different, not through the long sentences, only (as far as I remember) when the use of his terminology is unclear. Aside that, he tries to use as little strange terminology as possible and tries to induce nonverbal associations in the reader. But I have to admit that I never read in his other books.

J said...

(6.) Servants and women "lack civil personality and their existence is, as it were, only inherence" and thus should not be permitted to vote or take an active role in the affairs of state (p. 314-315).

That's no gobbledygook, but like Reason itself...

We should read Kant in historical context, sir, as yr fellow hackademics would probably remind you. Few intellectuals of the day were sensitive PC types (say Voltaire, who often waxed anti-semitic, AND dissed muslims as well, not to say anglo WASPs, etc). Hume at times made some racist remarks as well did he not.

What's more, a few odd or unpleasant comments on politics, morals, culture, etc. don't suffice to overturn the arguments of the KrV itself (to claim so is really a sort of veiled ad hominem--"X said something racist/sexist; therefore, anything X says is wrong". ) .

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, my argument is ad hominem in a certain sense (though not quite as bad as your cartoon of it, I hope). I want to undermine the immense trust in Kant's genius that seems to underlie the efforts to make sense of certain other parts of his work.

J said...

Well, yr in good company, sir. Professional philosopher Im not, but Kant-haters--like Nietzsche and Aynnie Rand, or the Ayn-Rand-lites, like Leiter even--seem to do pretty well.

T. said...

Conc. "Kant-haters": Kant's claim that a moral philosophy could deduce statements in a logical way from clear principles opens his statements for critique. Therefore questioning his statements and wondering if his idea of a theory about ethics is a part of his idea and not "Kant-hating".

His concept of theorizing on ethics had quite revolutionary implications, just think that his claim of a reasonable jutifyability of ethical conclusions implies that they are expressed in public, that the generality of his moral principle empowered everyone to get involved. When he wrote his books, the aristocratioc elite did not even speak german, publications were usually written in latin, even in the mid-1850's conservative intellectuals wanted to declare law books as state secret, so that the governed could not start discussing or questioning things. Kant's insitance on a rational justifyability of ethical propositions implyed that those who decide have a minimum intellectual and moral level, what was rarely the case. When Kant *wrote* about women's non-rights etc., Goethe *sold* peasants of the country he governed as slave-soldiers.

J said...

Reasoned critique's acceptable, yes, but "Kant-hatred" describes Nietzsche and Aynnie Rand's approach pretty well (and other naturalists and anti-rationalists).

Which is to say, undermine the
Weltanschauung (like buh Bye, synthetic a prior-ee), and then one can dispense with the ethical and political themes which follow, at least supposedly from the Welt. (tho' I would probably agree the cat. imperative does not establish necessary ethical obligations (ie. doesn't overcome Hume) in the way some think it does, but is still "consequential" as they say).

Usually tho' the naturalist critique goes something like, "Kantian idealism is wrong because we really see a real world"--and that's about it. WYSIWYG-ism. Or "Existence exists" in...AynSpeak

Michael said...

Given the length of commentary, I'm surprised no one has mentioned that the quote about killing bastards is snipped out of context in a way worthy of Glenn Beck: Kant is giving reasons why infanticidal mothers of illegitimate children, while being morally guilty of murder, should not be put to death by the state. Far from being a callous advocate of childkilling, Kant (the famously "inflexible" moralist!) is doing some special pleading on behalf of female reproductive control.

That's an illustration, I think, of why uncharitable reading is just as bad as overly charitable reading. Is it too Kantian to suggest that two wrongs don't make a right? ;-)

T. said...

This (film online, acc. to google) excellent reconstruction with help of original documents etc. shows the world in which Kant lived and which served as his "reference frame". American viewers may like the insight in the background of early 19th century imigration from Germany. If one were really interested in an assessment of Kant's ethics, one could do some parallel readings with the trial documents.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Michael: My sense of that passage is that Kant is bending over backwards to save his view from its patently absurd and inhumane implications (re infanticidal mothers). But he does so in a way that fails to avoid other patently absurd and inhumane implications (re the bastards).

T: Thanks for the links.

Michael said...

Gobbledygook is different from arguments for conclusions I don't agree with.

If those arguments are bad arguments, it is incumbent on me to explain why they are bad.

If they are good (or have any goodness to them) it is incumbent on me to modify my views (perhaps only partially).

****************************

On another matter: means and ends.

Eric, you say that ""Means" are actions and "ends" are goals." The first part of that seems to me to be just plain false, if read universally (as it must be for your point to stick).

Means can be actions, but they can also be the instruments employed in actions. (Consider the expressions "a man of means," "has the means.") It is in the latter sense that Kant is employing the term.

Here are some examples taken from a quick google search for "the means": "If you have the means, we highly recommend picking one up" "the Israeli's don't have the means to hit the Iranian nuclear plants" "Developing the Means for the Use of Modern Lighting" "means of communication which of their nature can reach and influence not merely single individuals but the very masses and even the whole of human society" etc. None of these refer to actions.

Michael Kremer (not the earlier Michael)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for your comment, Michael. Of course for serious Kant interpretation what really matters is German usage (Mittel vs. Zweck). You make a good point about "means" in English. Maybe that transfers to German, too. (My German is mediocre so, I won't try to evaluate that.) Can you save "ends" in a similar way?

Transparently bad arguments vs. gobbledy-gook -- I'm not really drawing a distinction between those. Do you deny that Kant's arguments against masturbation and against the rights of bastards are transparently bad?

Chike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chike said...

(typo corrected)

I thoroughly enjoyed this discussion of some of Kant's most confusing/disturbing moments. My one complaint is grammatical: one does not "diss on" someone, one "disses" someone. Please remember this so that future usages of the term will permit you to collect your duly earned cool points.

T. said...

Here is an interesting article on related discussions in the 19th century. BTW, conc. "goals" and "means": Had not even Aristotle a more complex idea of "goals"? If I remember what I saw browsing him, he distinguished between two concepts of "telos", one (poesis) was the result of an activity, the other (praxis) was the accompaining process in the human performing an activity. E.g. learning something is "poesis" insofar it is focussed on the aquired skill, but it is "praxis" insofar it would make sense even if the pupil drops dead in the middle of it (as his personality developed).

Anonymous said...

I think you are unfairly singling out Kant. You can read the works of just about any great historical figure and find passages that are strongly discordant with contemporary moral attitudes. Shouldn't Kant's pitfalls (as well as the pitfalls of numerous other great philosophers of the past) first and foremost remind us that we ourselves might (or even probably) have moral attitudes that people generations from now will find egregious? Isn't it conceivable that contemporary work in ethics will likewise be perceived by future philosophers as pathetic rationalizations of those moral attitudes? Shouldn't the main lesson therefore be humility?

Anonymous said...

If these htexamples show anything about Kant's philosophy, they cast doubt on his moral philosophy, not the first critique. There is crazy stuff in Kant, but it *may* be possible to come up with a Kantian moral philosophy that retains the Kantian spirit without the crazy stuff. This, I take it, is what contemporary Kantians try to do.

Here is a prima facie case for taking the Critique seriously:
Historically, Kant writes this book, people are confused by it, but they keep reading it, in fact the next 50 or so years of philosophy in Germany can only be understood as a reaction to the Critique.

I assume that the German philosophers of this time were not morons. They could tell gobblygook from serious stuff.

Of course it could be one big delusion, but to decide that you have to actually read and think through,e.g. the Transcendental Deduction.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon, Oct. 18: I agree with your first point to some extent. There are any number of philosophers whom one could pick through to find noxious views -- though few, of course, as eminent as Kant (and among those few, I'm inclined to think that Kant is the most diversely noxious).

On your second point: Kant's reception creates a prima facie case, but I don't think that it makes a compelling case. In different traditions, Plotinus and Derrida got a lot of academic attention for what also seems to me to have been more or less gobbledygook. (Perhaps you disagree with me there, too?)

And for the record: I have read the transcendental deduction and several prominent commentaries on it.

Aaron Gavin said...

Well Eric, you said that you prefer Hume to Kant, but does this paragraph from Hume render itself any less Noxious than the ones you have posted.

Remember, this is Hume, the great empiricist, who supposedly only makes claims that can be confirmed by the senses. I especially point you to the end where Hume compares successful and accomplished Negroes to parrots.

“I am apt to suspect that negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, nor arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient GERMANS, the present TARTARS, have still something eminent about them, in their valor, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are NEGRO slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity, tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMACIA indeed they talk of one negro as a man of parts and learning; but ‘tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments like parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.”

I only bring this up because it is important to remember that most Enlightenment thinkers are steeped in saying awfully immoral things. The whole tradition is drenched in it.

This is not to say that nothing good has come from the Enlightenment. I would argue that the core attitude of the Enlightenment - its critical attitude - is something to be preserved. Let's just not be revisionists - pick any thinker from that time and you will see terrible statements.

Eric Winsberg said...

I think you are being unfair to Kant: his argument for the immorality of masturbation isn't nearly as bad as the transcendental deduction. Heck, I don't see anyone running for the position of Senator from Delaware on a platform involving the categories, so the former argument obviously has greater contemporary currency.

et tu Hume?

Dean said...

"[P]ick any thinker from that time and you will see terrible statements" seems to be the obvious and right response to this - just think of Jefferson's (of all people) views on women and slaves.

Another interesting case for comparison (vis-a-vis the original argument that an author's being a crank in one area of research gives us some kind of inductive warrant to brand their other work crankish) would be Newton: surely the touchstone of rationality for centuries, but with (what now look like) bizarre views on the trinity, on alchemy, and on morality. It is quite simply a non sequiter to use our present-day distaste for these things to argue against his other work (someone mentioned Wagner earlier: another obvious example). It's also just bad historical practice. In any case: we can be good at one thing and crap at another, and unfortunately we don't often know that we're crap!

Eric R said...

Backing up Dean's comment, Kant's awful views on homosexuality and masturbation remind me of those of another still-venerated thinker, Thomas Aquinas, and his taxonomy of sexual sins. Under his system, sodomy was second only to bestiality (and was less sinful than rape!) as the most severe sexual offenses. Masturbation, too, was a more severe SEXUAL offense than rape. Aquinas does have an argument to separate the sexual nature of the crime of rape from the other bad elements (the forcible intervention into someone else's life) but the case still sounds pretty bad to me.

I realize that Aquinas' views don't carry as much weight to most philosophers, particularly secular ones, but the parallel at least seemed appropriate.

Dan Speak said...

Great stuff, Eric. And, as usual, you are a model of how to conduct and continue philosophical discussion. I'm just wondering if the esteemed Andrews Reath knows about your anti-Kantianism.

I'm telling.

Anonymous said...

Generally I agree with many of the responses that are pointing out an issue with denouncing one work, because of comments in other works, is not a sign of the highest intellectual pursuit. These quotes are at least correlative to his most referenced works, and shows possible consequences that we may not wish to accept or even greater insight into his morality. I for one, though have not read most of his writings, disagree with much of what I have read. These posts seem to support my positions on Kant.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Dan: Feel free to tell Andy that he makes more sense to me than does Kant!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Anon, Dean, and Eric W.: I see merit in what you are saying, but the form of my argument isn't: X says garbage about A, therefore what X says about B must be garbage too. Rather my argument is: X says garbage about A, therefore he can produce garbage, therefore we should consider the interpretative possibility that what he says about B is really also garbage, even if it has an air of profundity. I want to undermine *trust* in Kant. The equivalency of the three formulations of the categorical imperative seems patently absurd. Kant is (as MM shows) capable of quite patently absurd arguments. So maybe what he says about the CI is not, after all, inpenetrable profundity.

Anonymous said...

Professor Schwitzgebel,

OK, but I think what those posters would say in reply is that you could equally well (although you'd probably disagree on the "equally" part) apply your trust-undermining argument against many other prominent philosophers -- and even non-philosophers; I liked the Isaac Newton example.

And is the purported equivalency of the three formulations of the CI really *patently absurd* to you? I agree that Kant does not demonstrate the equivalence, but the formulations do seem to me to share something deep in common, namely their foundation (in some sense) in human autonomy, although I'm hard-pressed to spell out what exactly this amounts to, and I concede that it might amount to nothing. On the other hand, perhaps Kant really just meant to make the comparatively mundane claim that the formulations are extensionally equivalent (i.e. they lead to the same precepts), as has been suggested by some moral philosophers.

Anonymous said...

(I am the same Anonymous as the author of the previous post.) On second thought, disregard my previous comment; it see now why it's a bad one.

phil in nyc said...

Hi Eric -

So if I understand you correctly, your line of thinking is as follows (not an argument, just numbered for ease of exposition):

1. Many, many philosophers trust Kant so much that they don't seriously question whether there is in fact very little profound in most of his work.

2. Kant said some things that are not only false but morally hideous.

3. Kant also wrote very twisted prose that is extremely difficult to decipher.

4. #2 gives us reason to suspect that the prose cited in #3 is gobbledygook and so is not decipherable at all.

5. #2 and #4 give us reason to be less trustful about Kant in general and so to stop trying to decipher even passages that are not extremely difficult to decipher. In other words: stop trusting that there is anything to Kant.

Am I correct that this is more or less your line of thinking (not an argument - just roughly your line of thought)?

But is there any part of K's corpus that you haven't signaled is bunk? I mean, you nail both the GMM and the heart of the First Critique. And we all know that the two other critiques aren't even nearly as cool as the first. So, is all Kant mostly trash?

And how far do you want to take #5? How much of Kant's writing do you think should be off the table? And, what is the standard by which we are to determine gobbledygook? Is there a recognized metric?

Furthermore, can we generalize your point? As one person above mentions, Newton believed some really false stuff. The guy was an alchemist, for crying out loud. Also, he probably chose to be a virgin his whole life: weird! Consign to the flames?

And hey - have you looked at "Language, Truth and Logic" lately? Cookoo stuff! So is Ayer out, despite his lucid prose? Why are people still reading that dude, anyway?

And hey let's not get started on Plato and Aristotle. I mean, Aristotle thought that there are natural slaves, women are subhuman, and had some really really nutty ideas about ontology. Does anyone really understand Metaphysics Zeta? And hylomorphism, anyone? Is anyone not laughing, yet? I mean - why do people trust that there is anything there in Aristotle?

Look, Eric, tee up all you want on Kant. That's what a good philosopher would do. But, when the same philosopher isn't careful and doesn't generalize, it starts to look like that philosopher is driven by some sort of mania for empiricism.

Frankly, this whole thing of doing some knee-jerk teeing up on anything that smells faintly of rationalism is just getting a little tired. If someone doesn't like philosophy, then don't do it. Go get a psych degree and go survey some undergrads.

phil in nyc said...

So, Eric, is your line of thinking roughly as follows (not an argument, just numbered for ease of exposition):

1. Many, many philosophers trust Kant so much that they don't seriously question whether there is in fact very little profound in most of his work.

2. Kant said some things that are not only false but morally hideous.

3. Kant also wrote very twisted prose that is extremely difficult to decipher.

4. #2 gives us reason to suspect that the prose cited in #3 is gobbledygook and so is not decipherable at all.

5. #2 and #4 give us reason to be less trustful about Kant in general and so to stop trying to decipher even passages that are not extremely difficult to decipher. In other words: stop trusting that there is anything to Kant.

Am I correct that this is more or less your line of thinking (not an argument - just roughly your line of thought)?

But is there any part of K's corpus that you haven't signaled is bunk? I mean, you nail both the GMM and the heart of the First Critique. And we all know that the two other critiques aren't even nearly as cool as the first. So, is all Kant mostly trash?

And how far do you want to take #5? How much of Kant's writing do you think should be off the table? And, what is the standard by which we are to determine gobbledygook? Is there a recognized metric?

Furthermore, can we generalize your point? As one person above mentions, Newton believed some really false stuff. The guy was an alchemist, for crying out loud. Also, he probably chose to be a virgin his whole life: weird! Consign to the flames?

And hey - have you looked at "Language, Truth and Logic" lately? Cookoo stuff! So is Ayer out, despite his lucid prose? Why are people still reading that dude, anyway?

And hey let's not get started on Plato and Aristotle. I mean, Aristotle had terrible views. And, does anyone really understand Metaphysics Zeta? And hylomorphism, anyone? Come on!

Look, Eric, tee up all you want on Kant. That's what a good philosopher would do. But, when the same philosopher isn't careful and doesn't generalize, it starts to look like that philosopher is driven by some sort of mania for empiricism.

Frankly, this whole thing of doing some knee-jerk teeing up on anything that smells faintly of rationalism is just getting a little tired. If someone doesn't like philosophy, then don't do it. Go get a psych degree and go survey some undergrads.

Sam Rickless said...

Dear Eric,

I think that Matt Brown was onto something early in this thread. The question is which, if any, of Kant's views can be walled off from the rest.

Look, like all of us, Kant is a creature of his time. He thinks, like most people in those days, that masturbation and homosexuality are morally wrong. But he gets this result by misapplying his own moral principles. The formula of universal law does not condemn either M or H. Nor, for that matter, do the other two formulations of the moral law. The formula of humanity does not speak against treating oneself as a means, but against treating oneself as a *mere* means, i.e., as a means without also treating oneself as an end. And here the issue seems to be whether one can consent to the relevant activity. And consent is not, as far as I am aware, inconsistent with M or H. I'll leave it to you to apply the formula of autonomy to these cases.

Why does Kant misapply his own moral principles? Because he wants them to entail results of which he approves for other reasons. So Kant was human, fallible, and probably self-deceived in this case. No big surprise. It happens to the best of us. Including you and me.

What do we learn from all of this? You want us to draw the conclusion that we should be suspicious of other things Kant says. I think that suspicion is reasonable where we have independent reason to think that Kant would be the victim of motivated irrationality (such as self-deception). This is surely the case with social taboos and deeply ingrained prejudices. Otherwise, I think the suspicion is not justified, and the text should be allowed to speak for itself.

You also want us to worry about the truth and intelligibility of Kant's moral theory. Here I think you go too far. If Kant's crazy conclusions result from the misapplication of his own theory, then the problem lies with the misapplication, not with the theory itself. Or, at least, if there is a problem with the theory, it's not that it entails crazy conclusions. The real question is whether the argument for the theory is any good, and whether there are any really good counterexamples to it. On this question, the jury is out. But it's just too glib to say that it's all just a lot of BS.

cheers,
Sam

Sam Rickless said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sean said...

phil in nyc (and others): it seems to me that you are massively misinterpreting Eric's point, despite his repeated clarifications.

You suggest that Eric's approach would also lead us to doubt Newton. Well: yes, it would. Suppose that you had never read Newton, but had heard a great deal about how wonderful and thinker he was, and then you read his stuff about alchemy and whatnot. Quite naturally you would doubt that Newton was all he was cracked up to be.

So why is Newton different from Kant? Three reasons:

1. Nobody teaches the weird bits of Newton as serious thought anymore. Much of Kant's apparently nonsense stuff is still taught as part and parcel of his philosophical framework.

2. The weird bits of Newton can easily be separated out from the good stuff. Newton's views on alchemy, the Trinity, etc don't obviously have anything to do with his views on motion and forces. Kant's views on the moral status of women, bastards and hair cannot easily be separated from his moral philosophy.

3. Newton's good stuff holds up. If you persevered past the alchemy and got to the Laws of Motion, you would realise that he did think some brilliant things as well as some very strange things. A great deal of Kant, on the other hand, doesn't hold up as well if you don't go in with the assumption that there must be something profound hidden behind it all.

Christopher Hudspeth said...

I think Rickless makes the point about differentiating between the rule and the application of the rule better than I. But I would like to add a caution about the judgment of "goobledygook."

since you are more partial to Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature was considered goobledygook when it was released, hence Hume's famous admission that it "fell still-born from the press."

But even in the 20th Century Prichard said "It could be wished that the student of philosophy could be spared all contact with Hume, and thereby the trouble of rooting out some of the more gratuitous forms of confusion common in philosophy" (yay! Hackett introductions), which is a fairly strong judgment of "goobledygook".

It seems that judgments of goobledygook are at least as historically situated as the presuppositions we utilize in deploying our rules.

Tony said...

Sean,

If you didn't know anything about Newton, heard amazing things about him, and read the alchemy, why wouldn't the appropriate response instead be: "well, I guess what I've just read on alchemy isn't the stuff everyone is talking about"?

1. In what sense do people still teach Kant's views on women and masturbation as 'part and parcel of his philosophical framework'?

2. Relatedly, what makes you think that Kant's views on women, etc. can't be easily separated from his moral philosophy?

3. And on what basis do you say that a great deal of Kant doesn't hold up? What parts do you have in mind? His epistemology? Metaphysics? And which historical philosophical, in your opinion, does hold up?

Tony said...

Sorry, typo. I meant 'historical philosopher'

phil in nyc said...

Oh come on, people.

Plenty of what Kant said still "holds up," at least if by "holding up" is meant "is still taken seriously by intellectuals around the world."

So, Newton : Physics :: Kant : Moral theory & Metaphysics (among other things)

Also, it's not like Eric's post is some sort of shocking news about Kant. The only news in it is that Eric might suffer from the same science envy that X-phi people suffer from.

Serious Kant scholars openly engage the bad stuff and struggle to figure out how it is related to the other stuff. A lot of the conclusions that are reached have already been mentioned: much of the unpleasantness in Kant is the consequence of Kant attempting to apply his theory with an eye towards supporting his pre-theoretical commitments. Turns out he did a bad job of *that*. But, does that mean we should consign it all to the flames?

As people have noted, inasmuch as we can detach bad work from the rest, then keep the rest. And, hell's bells, we've done that liberally with Hume as well as with all of Eric's other historical favorites, insofar as he has any historical favorites.

Also, sorry for the double post.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Sam: I agree that something like self-deception or motivated rationalization was probably part of what is behind Kant's views about homosexuality, etc. And to the extent that we are licensed to think that there isn't the same kind of self-deception or motivated rationalization behind other aspects of Kant's views, that's at least one reason to be less suspicious of the latter. But I'm inclined to think that philosophers, including very likely Kant, are highly motivated toward certain types of views -- even fairly abstract ones -- and so I'm inclined to think that the psychological pressures toward rationalization are operative also in Kant's more abstract metaphysics and moral theory. It's just harder to see. I suppose I'm pretty much a full-on Nietzschean on this point.

As for theory vs. application: That's also a good point, but I favor an example-driven view of philosophical theories: I think the examples have an important role in giving abstract philosophical theories their content and meat, so I wouldn't divide theory and application are sharply as you seem to be supposing.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Phil in NYC: You're getting closer to what I think, but I'd like to try to clarify once more. Sean's response captures part of what I am thinking, but in a way it's simpler. I'll tell it as a personal psychological narrative, distilled to its essence.

Phase 1: I read lots of Kant's famous stuff. I spend considerable time on it, including reading multiple commentaries. Many of the core ideas make no sense to me or seem to contradict each other. (I do rather like the Analytic, though.)

Phase 2: Evaluate Option A vs. Option B below.

Option A: It's as bad as it seems to be, and those who adore it are more or less reading their own views, or at least views they are attracted to, into what is pretty much a Rorschach.

Option B: Really, there's deep insight behind it that is too profound to put into clear words that will be widely agreed upon.

What favors A vs. B? Well, the seriousness with which the tradition takes Kant is a huge prima facie argument in favor of A. However, I think the power of this consideration can easily be overrated. If one thinks (as I am inclined to think) that there are at least some cases of major philosophers putting forward nonsense or incoherent or bizarre views that are taken very seriously by their tradition but are confusingly enough put -- and temptingly enough put, with glimmers of hope of showing what their readers would like to be true -- then it's not impossible that Kant could be such a case. Some candidates might be: Plotinus, Derrida, Hegel, Zhu Xi, traditional Indian metaphysics -- but I haven't struggled as much with these authors as with Kant, so maybe there's more to some of them than I think. So be it. My case really requires only one example to establish the possibility.

So I think Option B is live, despite how seriously Kant is taken. Now, if Kant were clearly a brilliant thinker about philosophy across the board, and a good applier of his own arguments, then that would undercut Option B. But instead, when Kant gets away from the abstract, starts applying his theory (and I think examples of application should be regarded as specifying part of the content of abstract theories), and says things that are easier to evaluate... well, then it often seems to be transparent crap. In my view, this supports Option B.

None of this is to say that Kant *couldn't* be brilliantly profound in the Deduction or the three formulations of the CI. If we could look at those things and see that they are brilliant on their own merits, then so be it. (And here's where Newton and Kant merit different treatment.) And I suppose that many Kant interpreters think that this is what they have done -- but interpreters' lack of consensus is one reason to be suspicious of such claims. (Where there's lack of consensus on Hume, Plato, etc., too, there may be less behind their remarks than meets the eye; but for them at least there are islands of clarity.)

Daniel Nagase said...

On the killing of bastards, Allen Wood has a more sensible reading of this passage that I would like to share. The quotation is rather lengthy, but I believe to be worthy quoting in full (from Kant's Ethical Thought, p. 370 n31):

"About infanticide, when performed by the mother in order to escape the dishonor of unmarried motherhood, he regards it as a crime of murder which, however, is not properly punishable by death and perhaps is not properly punishable at all. (In
the same passage, Kant takes a similar line about dueling among military officers.) At first he suggests that the killing of an illegitimate child might be ignored by the state because the child has come into existence in a way which the state is not required to recognize (MS 6:336). This argument has horrified more than one reader, because they take it to mean something Kant
never affirms and obviously does not intend: namely, that the fact of illegitimate birth might deprive a person (perhaps even in adulthood) of the right not to be killed. Kant's concern here, however, is manifestly restricted to the killing of illegitimate infants by their unmarried mothers and has to do not with the child's juridical status but with the way the mother's act of homicide is to be viewed. Thus his final pronouncement on the issue leaves the horrifying thought entirely behind and takes quite a different tack:

Here penal justice finds itself very much in a quandary... But the knot can be undone in the following way: The categorical imperative of penal justice remains (unlawful killing of another must be punished by death); but the legislation itself (and consequently also the civil constitution) as long as it remains barbarous and undeveloped, is responsible for the discrepancy between the incentives of honor in the people (subjectively) and the measures that are (objectively) suitable for its purpose. So the public justice arising from the state becomes an injustice from the perspective of the justice arising from the people. (MS 6:336-337)

In a less barbarous society than the present one, people would set less store by the present ("subjective") criteria of honor, and the bearing of an illegitimate child would not be such a disgrace that the mother would be impelled to end its life. In such a world, infanticide by the mother would be a crime punishable by death. But as long as current attitudes prevail, such cases of infanticide
must be treated with leniency, because the blame for the crime rests more with social attitudes than with the woman who kills her child. Analogously, in a more rational society, the honor of a military officer would not depend on his fighting in a duel when challenged. But in our society, his honor is perceived to be at stake and hence we must regard killing under such circumstances as different from a case of murder. Although no reasonable person could simply equate abortion with infanticide, Kant's verdict on the latter issue in his own day may still be able to teach us something about the issue of abortion as we presently face it, namely this: If society took greater responsibility for the living conditions of illegitimate children and their parents, abortion would cease to be the only acceptable choice many women have."

I think that's a more interesting reading than the one you provided, which also furnishes a new (and, to my mind, congenial) perspective on a contemporary debate. This kind of reading (as practiced by Wood himself in his excellent Kantian Ethics, for example) seems to me more productive than simply picking passages out of context in order to ridicule this or that thinker.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Phil in NYC: You're getting closer to what I think, but I'd like to try to clarify once more. Sean's response captures part of what I am thinking, but in a way it's simpler. I'll tell it as a personal psychological narrative, distilled to its essence.

Phase 1: I read lots of Kant's famous stuff. I spend considerable time on it, including reading multiple commentaries. Many of the core ideas make no sense to me or seem to contradict each other. (I do rather like the Analytic, though.)

Phase 2: Evaluate Option A vs. Option B below.

Option A: It's as bad as it seems to be, and those who adore it are more or less reading their own views, or at least views they are attracted to, into what is pretty much a Rorschach.

Option B: Really, there's deep insight behind it that is too profound to put into clear words that will be widely agreed upon.

What favors A vs. B? Well, the seriousness with which the tradition takes Kant is a huge prima facie argument in favor of B. However, I think the power of this consideration can easily be overrated. If one thinks (as I am inclined to think) that there are at least some cases of major philosophers putting forward nonsense or incoherent or bizarre views that are taken very seriously by their tradition but are confusingly enough put -- and temptingly enough put, with glimmers of hope of showing what their readers would like to be true -- then it's not impossible that Kant could be such a case. Some candidates might be: Plotinus, Derrida, Hegel, Zhu Xi, traditional Indian metaphysics -- but I haven't struggled as much with these authors as with Kant, so maybe there's more to some of them than I think. So be it. My case really requires only one example to establish the possibility.

So I think Option A is live, despite how seriously Kant is taken. Now, if Kant were clearly a brilliant thinker about philosophy across the board, and a good applier of his own arguments, then that would undercut Option A. But instead, when Kant gets away from the abstract, starts applying his theory (and I think examples of application should be regarded as specifying part of the content of abstract theories), and says things that are easier to evaluate... well, then it often seems to be transparent crap. In my view, this supports Option A.

None of this is to say that Kant *couldn't* be brilliantly profound in the Deduction or the three formulations of the CI. If we could look at those things and see that they are brilliant on their own merits, then so be it. (And here's where Newton and Kant merit different treatment.) And I suppose that many Kant interpreters think that this is what they have done -- but interpreters' lack of consensus is one reason to be suspicious of such claims. (Where there's lack of consensus on Hume, Plato, etc., too, there may be less behind their remarks than meets the eye; but for them at least there are islands of clarity.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

(Whoops, in my early version of that previous comment, I flipped "A" and "B", so I had to delete and repost.)

Sam Rickless said...

Dear Eric,

The idea that Kant would be irrationally motivated to adopt highly abstract theories seems highly suspect. It can happen, I suppose. I fall out with philosopher X, X is pushing theory T, so I find myself wanting to push against T. But really, now, you need some evidence of this sort. In the absence of such evidence, what you say is not much more than uncharitable speculation.

On theory vs. application, it really doesn't matter, with respect to your criticisms of Kant, whether *you* favor example-driven theorizing. The relevant question is whether *Kant* does. And I don't think I'm going out on a limb in saying that he doesn't. What Kant should have said, but didn't, is that the moral principles for which he argues a priori (without depending on examples), do not speak against M or H. That he did not do so reveals no more than that he was self-deceived about what his theory entails. Importantly, the fact (if it is a fact) that he rails against M and H therefore provides no reason whatever to worry that there is some deep problem with the principles themselves.

Let me be a little more forceful about this. I think it's a really bad reason to diss a philosopher's principles merely because the philosopher says that the principles entail views that you (rightly) find despicable. What you need to show, and haven't in this case, is that Kant's principles really entail that M and H are wrong.

Of course, feel free to criticize Kant the person for holding these despicable views, though your criticism should be tempered by the knowledge that Kant would have been thought a freak by all his friends (and surely ostracized, or worse) if he had defended the consistency of M and H with his moral principles. But criticizing Kant the person gives you no brief to criticize the principles for which Kant argues.

I don't really take this to be a deep, or even controversial, point. But it is important, because it really does strike at the heart of your criticisms.

best wishes,
Sam

Chris said...

"I want to undermine the immense trust in Kant's genius that seems to underlie the efforts to make sense of certain other parts of his work."

Then you need to engage with his arguments, and not poke holes in his small print. :)

Failure to anticipate contemporary trends in moral thought marks Kant as a bad futurist... was anyone suggesting he was such a thing? >:)

So far, each Kant I have tackled has proved very rewarding. Demanding, yes, but ultimately worthwhile. I shall certainly be tackling more in the future.

Daniel Nagase said...

Eric said: "And I suppose that many Kant interpreters think that this is what they have done -- but interpreters' lack of consensus is one reason to be suspicious of such claims. (Where there's lack of consensus on Hume, Plato, etc., too, there may be less behind their remarks than meets the eye; but for them at least there are islands of clarity.)"

I'm not sure if the situation is that different with Kant. In the specific case of the B Deduction, for example, at least since Dieter Henrich's article, there is a remarkable consensus on its structure, its aims and scope. Obviously, interpreters diverge on the details of what it's about and how it intends to argue its point, but I think this divergence operates on a wide background of agreement.

Furthermore, at least since the publication in the early 90's of the works of Brandt, Wolff, and Longuenesse, there is also an overall consensus on how to understand Kant's logic (both in its general and in its transcendental variety) and how it relates to the Deduction as a whole. In fact, this consensus in Kantian scholarship is, to my mind, a notable achievement and a good testimony to the possibility of progress in understanding a philosophical text.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Sam: Perhaps I put my point about the relationship between abstract theory and example too self-attributively. What I should have said is that it is in fact the case that abstract theories get an important dimension of their content from how they apply to examples. Their content is often rather indeterminate independent of application, so when we look at Kant's applications, we see the content of his abstract theories. Now someone *else* might want to resolve similar-sounding abstractions into a different content, but I'm not sure that should be regarded as Kant interpretation.

And I think you are quite off base about the attractions of abstract theories, for the weird sort of person who becomes a philosopher. For example, some people find various forms of realism attractive, while others find various forms of antirealism attractive. Some find weird, radical views exciting, while others find them annoying. Etc. These attractions arise very early in people's philosophical educations, before they have any good knowledge of the arguments pro and con.

Carbondale Chasmite said...

Calling a historical text filled with gobbledly-gook bespeaks several things that come to mind. First, it comes from an entire tradition of analytic philosophy that is lazy with respect to its history. This trend is exemplified in several ways, but among my favorite is for top analytic programs to substitute logic for the language requirement that would allow one to read the history of philosophy. Moreover, it contributes to the growing insularity of philosophy departments in the English speaking world to generally not look outside of its own tradition for any type of philosophy other than what passes for philosophy in Anglo-American countries

After one is capable of reading a text in, say, German and acquires the historical sense of Kant, I can assure you that Kant's Critique of Pure Reason does become intelligible. It is only at the point where one is willing to engage with the actual history that constitutes the possibility of having a philosophical conversation that one begins to cross the threshold of the hermeneutic challenges in doing philosophy. Any analytic worth their weight will object fervently that we can ahistoricize a problem, rip it apart from history and conceptually engage with it to the point that you start to get examples of "cottage industries" of papers. Yet, the point is always a sobering one. You cannot do philosophy without the historical situated character that has made possible your having that conversation in the first place. This is the chief reason we pay attention to the history of philosophy, and why the gobbledly-gook comment is so out of place.

A friend of mine working on moral psychology at a mid-range PGR-ranked school has also lamented to me this dearth of history. He said he was scared going on the job market a year from now, and being so over-specialized to the point that his dissertation, prospectus and comprehensive exams were bound to his overly specialized focus. His knowledge of scholarship is a blemish that can be rectified but not in the time allowed while he writes his dissertation. Now, the reason I mention this is simple. It is only from such an analytic style of philosophy that would deny the very history that makes our being philosophers possible.

phil in nyc said...

Carbondale -

Methinks that Eric and his ilk secretly - and perhaps subconsciously - wish philosophy departments would get folded into psychology/cog sci departments, linguistics departments and possibly physics departments.

Consign all else - except Lewisean metaphysics, of course - to the flames!

No big shock, then, that Kant gets the gobbledygook treatment.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Carbondale and Phil: I can see why you might assume that is my perspective, since I think you are right that it is the perspective of some people who say similar things. However, if you read my work you will see that there is a fair bit of history in many of my papers. In fact, I have two published papers that are straight history of philosophy: One on Zhuangzi's skepticism and one on the idea of "human nature" in Mencius, Xunzi, Hobbes, and Rousseau. In fact, my most recent (non-humorous) blog post is a complaint about the quality of the translation of Comte. I also published a brief essay in an APA newsletter chiding Anglo-American philosophers for not knowing classical Chinese philosophy. Although I am not fluent in any non-English language, I have enough reading knowledge of German, French, Spanish, and classical Chinese to struggle through texts in those languages when there is no good English translation or when it is important to me to get the interpretative details exactly right. I even sometimes brave Greek and Latin if I am highly motivated (but then only very short passages).

I believe that am egalitarian in my view of gobbledygook: I won't accept it from contemporary philosophers, whether "analytic" or otherwise, but neither will I accept it from the giants of history.

UNiMEDiA said...

I've always thought that this was the simplest explanation of what is wrong with Kant:

"This…is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of Kant’s system. How we conceive of reality–that is, the structure and content of our thought about reality — is itself just a part of reality, not something that could intelligibly be set in opposition to reality as a possible object of our knowledge, in the way that the rest of reality is allegedly not.” E J Lowe

D. Ghirlandaio said...

"Second, we cannot expect ordinary people to be better philosophical moral reasoners than Kant. Kant's philosophical moral reasoning appears mainly to have confirmed his prejudices and the ideas inherited from his culture. Therefore, we should be nervous about expecting more from the philosophical moral reasoning of people less philosophically capable than Kant."

The aristoi are stupid but we can't expect the hoi polloi to be better than those who are nonetheless their betters.
So who are "We", Kemo Sabe?

Lesson #3472.5 on why philosophy professors should stay away from politics.

Timmo said...

Hello Eric:

Have you considered that the two lessons you draw in the post are contradictory? You say, on the one hand, that transcendental deduction is "gobbledy-gook" and that Kant is a master at "effusing a haze of words" that deceive philosophers into thinking there is "something profound underneath." At the same time, you say that we should not expect too much insight from ordinary people who are not as "philosophically capable" as Kant. You are maintaining that Kant is an exceptional philosopher, but also maintaining that he has nothing profound to teach us.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Why is that contradictory? Pessimism could be true.

Timmo said...

I am not quite sure how pessimism, either in the ordinary or philosophical sense, really comes into play here. In your post, you assert two propositions:

(1) Kant's work is gobbledy-gook.

(2) Kant is an exceptional philosopher.

A contradiction will arise if we add the third proposition:

(3) If Kant's work is gobbledy-gook, then Kant is not an exceptional philosopher.

It follows from (1), (2), and (3) by elementary logical rules:

(4) Kant is an exceptional philosopher and Kant is not an exceptional philosopher.

Now, one can avoid the contradiction (4) by denying (3), that is, by attenuating the notion of "exceptional philosopher." If we drop the idea that being an exceptional philosopher requires better work than gobbledy-gook, then we can consistently maintain (1) and (2).

So, logical consistency requires that you hold it to be possible for an exceptional philosopher to produce a gobble-gook corpus. But that's a meaning of "exceptional philosopher" I don't think we should accept.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Right, except I didn't say the whole corpus was gobbledy-gook, just some of it.

Roy said...

Kant denied the right to lie or deceive for any reason, regardless of context or anticipated consequences.

Dumb.

Roy said...

Sorry that I posted here earlier - it was an accident - I forgot that this was an older post of yours and not the recent one. And I agree that you were right not to accept it.

And not to worry, I'll not make any further comments on this blog in future. I'm not a professional philosopher, and should not expect comments from my peanut gallery to be taken seriously.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Roy, you're welcome to post comments. The old posts were getting a lot of spam, so I put up a filter, and I need to approve them first -- that can take a day or two sometimes.

Shalom Beck said...

If our moral judgments are unquestionably right, moral philosophy is really a waste of time, no?

G.E. Moore said...

I don't see the issue with those arguments. They are unsound, but they are not *laughably* or otherwise ridiculously unsound. They are perfectly reasonable arguments to make. They could only be interpreted as unreasonable by someone begging the question against them. The premises are perfectly sensible for someone in 2012 or someone in 1800 to believe, just as the premises in, say, arguments about abortion, like thomson's violinist or Marquis' future-like-ours argument, are.

For instance, isn't it a clear intuition people have that giving into animalistic desires makes one less human? C.f. rape, hunting animals with your bare hands, running naked in the streets, etc. It seems clear you could make an argument from that to the conclusion that masturbation is depreciates your humanity, etc.

G.E. Moore said...

I don't see the issue with those arguments. They are unsound, but they are not *laughably* or otherwise ridiculously unsound. They are perfectly reasonable arguments to make. They could only be interpreted as unreasonable by someone begging the question against them. The premises are perfectly sensible for someone in 2012 or someone in 1800 to believe, just as the premises in, say, arguments about abortion, like thomson's violinist or Marquis' future-like-ours argument, are.

For instance, isn't it a clear intuition people have that giving into animalistic desires makes one less human? C.f. rape, hunting animals with your bare hands, running naked in the streets, etc. It seems clear you could make an argument from that to the conclusion that masturbation is depreciates your humanity, etc.

Mike H said...

Kant's morality certainly follows from his metaphysics.

If all we can know are "appearances" and not objects in themselves then of course his morality would perfectly reflect and amplify the corrupt morals of his generation.

These observations and rules are not objective, but rather how they appeared to Kant. He had no method for this madness other than "how do things appear to me?"

This line of thinking has even corrupted modern physics. http://peacerevolution.podomatic.com/entry/2012-08-12T08_45_48-07_00

Anonymous said...

I agree with Kant with regard to masturbation, wives, gays etc. That is why I love him so much that I am calling myself 'a Kantian philosopher'.



Tom, Ph. D., Poland

bostonkid9096 said...

I try and take the bad with the good. Nobody is 100% perfect, my grandma is equal or more racist than Kant she is also one of the top 3 most influential people in my life but of course her racist remarks are disregarded waste. I think we are all guilty of waste to some degree. I enjoyed your blog, thanks