…amending absolutism

image-placeholder-titleIn today’s class we discussed Kant’s categorical imperative and I offered Philippa Foot’s thought experiment, whereby willful suicide could be seen as universally permissible. That if a comrade were severely injured on the battlefield and we were faced with the decision to shoot him or to let him be captured by the enemy, we should, according to Foot, let the decision rest on the will of our comrade. It stands to reason that such a difficult decision, to let somebody exhibit their own free will to die by a merciful gunshot, or to be left to the enemy, must be universal. In other words, Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to the maxim by which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” is easily applicable. Letting someone decide for themselves whether they should live or die is a decision that can easily become a universal rule.

Then we add to the complication of Kant’s “perfect duties” whereby a perfect duty (a duty without exception) is a duty to not commit suicide. Now is this contradictory with Foot’s battlefield thought experiment (which by the way, is intended to illustrate virtuous behavior when considering euthanasia)? If we take Kant’s categorical imperative on his own absolutist rules, the answer is simply yes, the application of the categorical imperative in the Foot example is contradictory. For Kant, it is our “perfect duty” to not, in any circumstances, commit suicide.

Yet, we might allow for a meaningful amendment by suggesting that Kant simply could not think of every future application of the categorical imperative. It is commonly pointed out that a flaw in Kant’s categorical imperative is highlighted by the problem of dishonesty. For all intents and purposes, the absolution of the categorical imperative would indicate that we should never tell a lie. For instance, when a crazed murderer is looking for an innocent person who has taken refuge in your house, you should not lie when the murderer stops by your house asking you the whereabouts of this person. Most of us would have the conscientiousness to imagine that we’d immediately break Kant’s categorical rule and lie. In this case, it’s easy to see a slight amendment: when a crazed murderer asks you to give up the person you’re hiding, it’s clearly a universal rule that you lie to the murderer. Most people would agree that such a case of lying (as odd as it is) is universalizable.

All of this is to argue that, yes Kant was an absolutist and also it is impossible for him to have anticipated all applications of his theory. On the other hand, I think we can still safely say that both extreme cases, Foot’s virtuous behavior on the battlefield, and lying to crazed murderers are not radical misinterpretations of Kant’s categorical imperative. To be sure, we should be able to amend Kant (or any other philosopher’s ideas) in a meaningful way, provided we do not do so with gross distortions of the original claims. This is not to suggest that we simply change their ideas to meet any of our arbitrary whims, but rather that our changes are thoughtfully and rationally considered in light of evolving and expanding our ethical and philosophical wisdom.

Lastly, I hope to add power to my argument with reference Kant’s famous essay from 1784, “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?” whereby Kant proposes the idea that when religious organizations are laying down guidelines, documents, and contracts for future generations to follow, these ideas should not be written or understood in such a way as to be unalterable and unamendable (as indicated in the following quote:)

“But should not a society of clergymen, perhaps a synod or a venerable classis (as it itself names itself among the Dutch), be entitled to bind itself on oath between each other to a certain unalterable symbol, in order to carry such an unceasing guardianship over each of its members and by means of them over the people, and even to perpetuate this? I say: that is completely impossible. Such a contract, which would for always seal to hold off all further enlightenment from the human race, is absolutely null and void; and should it even be ratified by the highest power, by imperial diets and the most solemn peace accords. One age cannot form an alliance and then conspire to put the following into a condition in which it must be impossible for it to enlarge its (especially so very urgent) cognitions, to purge of errors, and in general to step further in the enlightenment. That would be a crime against human nature, whose original determination consists precisely in this progress; and the descendants are therefore perfectly entitled to it to reject those decisions as unauthorized and taken in a malicious way.”

…on kant’s epistemology

transcendental idealismKant’s Epistemology
What is Transcendental Idealism?

Transcendental idealism can be understood on two ways. On a topical level it can represent the whole of Kant’s enlightenment philosophy, and in the context of his epistemology, transcendental idealism is to be distinguished from rationalism & empiricism. Kant’s philosophy is often thought of as a blend of rationalism & empiricism and transcendental idealism became a way to identify Kant’s particular contribution. However, this way of defining transcendental idealism does not actually define what the term means in Kant’s overall project (it merely describes his philosophical position as a blend of empiricism & rationalism).

The easiest route is to divide the term in half, first looking at the term: transcendental. This can be understood as a ‘going beyond’ the matter at hand. To transcend something means to ‘go beyond’ what that something actually is in experience. The classic example: ‘all bachelors are unmarried’ is one such example of this ‘going beyond’. In other words, we ‘go beyond’ experience with the epistemological claim that bachelors are unmarried—we have no need to go out into the world to have certainty that bachelors are unmarried. Such knowledge is known “beyond” experience. Now also acknowledge that what we are describing here is also the way a priori thinking is understood.
With Kant, whatever is transcendental, at the same time describes the particular way in which we think using our a priori reasoning. When we conclude with certainty that a bachelor is unmarried our thought, our cognition, our knowledge is transcendental—we ‘go beyond’ experience in order to affirm this type of a priori knowledge about the world.

Idealism, the other half of the term, is the philosophical (epistemological) position whereby the content of the way in which the world appears to us is mind-dependent. Kant’s epistemology is often characterized by the notion that the world as it is known to us is dependent on the very reasoning we use to understand it. That the world of experience, for example, has a certain causal order is not something we simply observe, but it is the way in which the world is understood by us in a rationally ordered way. Our rational mind constructs the way the world is experienced. A sequence of causal events is not just an observation it is also a construct of our a priori knowledge. This is idealistic because the way in which the world appears to me is mind dependent.

So idealism is different from realism in the sense that realism claims that if a tree falls in the forest & we’re not around to hear it, it still makes a noise. With Kant’s idealism a tree falling out of ear-shot would describe something that falls outside of the way the world appears to us, therefore it might be what Kant named the “thing-in-itself”, that part of things we’ll never have a grasp of.

How does Kant’s transcendental idealism move from Hume’s empiricism?

Hume’s critique of causality awoke Kant from his ‘dogmatic slumbers’ because Hume was astute enough to observe that there is no necessity to be found in any causal connection. Hume is an empiricist who based all the way we know of the world is through sense experience alone. When Hume called into question the very notion of necessity as absent from causation, his empirical skepticism pointed to something we typically identify as reason itself. Kant seizes this opportunity to make a claim for the necessary connection Hume is finding absent in experience. Why?—because it is reason that supplies the connection according to Kant. Hume was on to something & Kant resolves it with a priori reasoning. This is the missing part of Hume’s critique that Kant grabs onto as obviously product of reason itself. In other words, a causal relationship is one that is considered to be a ‘category of understanding,’ for Kant, which is a fancy way of saying it involves reasoning alone to understand a cause & effect relationship at its necessary core. The necessary connection is not found in experience as Hume empirically observed. Kant agrees with this & shows that the necessary connection is not a matter of habit as Hume posited, rather it is an act of reason that supplies the necessary connection we find when one an effect causes something to happen.

Even if we understand causation rationally, we need the experience of it in order to know what to do with it. Kant shows us that we cannot have one without the other. Say for example, I already know that reason supplies the necessary connection between an effect & cause. That’s a pretty minimal way in which to understand the world, given that cause & effect relationships are everywhere. We need to think of the particular empirical manifestation of casual relationships so as to know how to understand their specific relationships & significance.

–aurelio madrid