A Gauntlet

Anyone (I’m looking at you, Nates) care to defend Kant against these charges:

http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2010/03/kant-on-killing-bastards-on.html

I must confess that it’s hard to square conventional wisdom that Kant is one of if not the greatest moral philosopher ever with moral beliefs like the ones expressed in these passages.

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9 Responses to A Gauntlet

  1. Nates says:

    Well, those are definitely some nasty opinions. I certainly have no thought of trying to spin his moral beliefs in a positive way. But I do want to address one of the lessons Eric Schwitzgebel thinks we should learn from these examples. He writes:

    “…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… I read Kant as a master at promising philosophers what they want and then throwing up a haze of words with glimmers enough of hope that readers can convince themselves that there is something profound underneath.”

    This strikes me as being a terrible way to of reading Kant, or any other philosopher. First, there’s the obvious point that if one reasons poorly on one topic, it doesn’t mean that one is reasoning poorly on other topics. Eric grants this much, but insists that it gives us reason to be suspicious. What he misses is that people are unusually likely to reason poorly when it comes to deeply held religious or ethical beliefs. That seems to be a general fact about human nature, and Kant is no exception. So, Kant erred in applying his moral theory in support of problematic views he already held. I don’t see how this tells us anything interesting about the theory itself or about Kant’s reasoning in general. It just tells us what we already knew: that he was a human, prone to human prejudice.

  2. Nates says:

    Maybe it’s also worth emphasizing the point that moral theorizing is not really aimed at making us better at determining what’s right and wrong. The point (or, at least, the main point) is simply to understand morality better. I don’t think there’s much evidence that ethicists are more ethical than regular people, but it would be a mistake to see this as a problem for ethics as a philosophical practice.

  3. David says:

    Despite Nates spirited and intelligent remarks in defense of Kant, I still have some doubts–or rather, I find the evidence adduced by Schwitzgebel somewhat damaging to Kant’s reputation as a moral theorist.

    Nates writes: “It’s also worth emphasizing the point that moral theorizing is not really aimed at making us better at determining what’s right and wrong. The point (or, at least, the main point) is simply to understand morality better.”

    By ‘understand morality better’ I take it you mean: understand what *makes* right actions right and wrong actions wrong, which is admittedly distinct from correctly identifying which are the right actions and which are the wrong actions. (So the *phronimos*, for example, may have a knack for always doing the right thing without having much to say about *why* it’s the right thing.)

    In the Kant case, however, the absurd and somewhat horrifying judgments E.S. identifies represent Kant’s own attempts to draw out the implications of his moral theory. So it seems to me like there are two possibilities, neither of which reflects particularly well on Kant qua moral theorist. First, Kant is correct–his theory has the implications he suggests. In that case, his theory must just be wrong. Second, and much more plausibly, of course, his theory has no such implications, in which case Kant fundamentally misunderstood the implications of his own theory. That must also count against his ‘moral acuity,’ right?

    Nor am I particularly swayed by the remark that Kant was human, and subject to human prejudice just like the rest of us. I don’t deny that this is true, but is it unreasonable to expect the man many call the greatest moral thinker in our tradition to be less susceptible to the kind of gross moral conventionalism that lesser lights are susceptible to? (Not to mention that I have doubts about whether the views E.S. cites were even conventional by the standards of Kant’s own place and time, but I don’t know enough about the history to assert this with any confidence.)

    In sum: I don’t think it’s enough to point out that many great moral thinkers are bad people. Kant isn’t being called out for behaving badly; he’s being called out for *thinking* badly. And if that doesn’t negatively affect his status as a moral philosopher, what would?

  4. Nates says:

    OK, imagine this scenario: Sam was a brilliant 19th economist who theorized about how financial markets work. Through this work he developed a powerful set of equations that revolutionized our ability to predict these markets. Unfortunately, the equations were complicated and time consuming. Sam was a lousy calculator, notoriously clumsy with a slide rule. So, in using his own theory to guide his personal investments, he regularly misapplied his own calculations, going broke as a result.
    It seems to me that it would be very strange to claim, after looking at his empty bank account, that Sam is a lousy economist. His failure is of a wholly different sort. And, it would be just as odd to say that he’s “thinking badly” in these cases. I mean, that’s true, but thinking seems like an overly broad concept here. One can be very good at some kinds of thinking, and very bad at others. Like Sam.

    If you buy the Sam story, then I don’t see how the Kant story is importantly different. After all, it’s not like applying Kant’s categorical imperative to particular moral situations involves deep philosophical reasoning. All the philosophically interesting thinking has already happened by then. (Kant repeatedly emphasizes this point: applying the categorical imperative is exactly what everyone is already doing pre-philosophically when they decide questions of right and wrong. He insists that he doesn’t meant to change the way people make moral determinations. It’s just not part of his philosophical program.) His errors in these cases have nothing to do with the philosophical skills he employs in moral theorizing. It’s just his unwillingness to let go his biases–and his willingness to deceive himself into believing they fit the theory. So, yes, he’s thinking badly, but it’s a kind of thinking that has nothing to do with what makes him a useful philosopher.

  5. David says:

    Thanks for the response, Nates. I doubt that misapplications of the “Categorical Imperative” are as ‘theory-independent’ as mathematical miscalculations, so I question how close the fit is between the Kant story and Sam’s story. Nor is it entirely clear to me that Kant was misapplying his own principles–a somewhat different possibility is that contemporaries have chosen to interpret those principles in ways more amenable to our contemporary moral sensibilities. (This points to another disanalogy between the two cases–moral principles are open to various interpretations in ways that economic equations are not.)

    Also, is it so obvious that Kant was confused about the implications of the CI when it comes to lying to protect human life or the implications of the ‘formula of humanity’ when it comes to the permissibility of masturbation? I don’t think so.

    In any event, I never meant to raise doubts about Kant’s “usefulness” as a philosopher, nor his genius, so perhaps these points are moot. (There is also the “companions in guilt” issue–i.e., there isn’t one moral philosopher from the relatively distant past in whose work we cannot find statements that now strike us as egregious.)

    One last quibble, though. You write: “Kant repeatedly emphasizes this point: applying the categorical imperative is exactly what everyone is already doing pre-philosophically when they decide questions of right and wrong.”

    Well, surely he was wrong about that. “What if everyone did what I am contemplating doing?” is only one among many thoughts that inform our pre-philosophical thinking about right and wrong.

  6. David says:

    Come to think of it, there are plenty of moral philosophers who seem to do much better than Kant when it comes to avoiding bad faith rationalizations of their own moral prejudices–Bentham and Mill come to mind.

  7. Nates says:

    David asks:
    “…is it so obvious that Kant was confused about the implications of the CI when it comes to lying to protect human life or the implications of the ‘formula of humanity’ when it comes to the permissibility of masturbation? I don’t think so.”
    I don’t know if it’s obvious, but I do think it’s true. I have some thoughts on this issue, so I’ll try to develop this into a separate blog post later.

    In the meantime, I have the nagging feeling that I’m losing sight of what you’re looking for in this discussion. Are you denying that there are important differences between theory formation and theory application, such that one do one well, but not the other? That strikes me as being a very weird thing to deny.

    If, on the other hand, you accept some form of this distinction, then we have the makings of an explanation for why a great philosopher would end up holding such lousy beliefs. So, for example, we could point to the fact that the two practices involve somewhat different skill-sets. Or, we could note that biases are more likely to creep in at the theory-application stage (since it’s then–and not when one is focusing on abstract, general principles–that conflicts are more likely to arise with one’s pre-philosophical beliefs).

    My hunch is that both of these things are true: that Kant was better at (and more interested in) foundational theorizing than theory application; and that his ethical biases were more likely to creep in at the point of application. But either one would suffice as explanation. The alternative seems to be to follow Eric in insisting that Kant must have been a bad philosopher. His blog post strikes me as being a reductio of this strategy, but, as they say, your mileage may vary.

  8. juan says:

    schwitzgebel’s doubts about the cogency about Kant’s reasoning can be seen like this: in order to derive some consequences from whatever theory, you are using some principles of reasoning.but surely, to establish that theory in the first place, you must have got it from somewhere by using at least some of the same principles of reasoning.so if you misapplied those principles of reasoning once in the derivation of the consequences of your theory, there may be reason to suspect that you misapplied them also in getting to your theory from whatever data you started from.that is true in the math case as well.to formulate his theory of economics,Sam had to use math.now suppose we look first at how he uses that theory,and see that he misapplies it a lot.wouldn’t that be a reason to be like ‘hold on a second, this guy is not really good at doing the math here,shouldn’t we take another look at his theory and see if he really got it right?’

    if it’s claimed that kant’s ethical biases got the better of him at the application stage (the only other thing that could have gone wrong is misapplication of logic, but that’s unlikely,so the bias explanation is indeed more plausibe), the question is why those biases could not have influenced the theory as well.we have reason to think they might have.look at it this way: if theory construction is so pure and universal and not likely to be affected by biases, then why didn’t Aristotle and Mill come up with (roughly) the same moral theory as Kant, and differ only in the applications?

    otherwise,schwitzgebel’s claim is weak.it only says that maybe Kant got it wrong in other places as well,but doesn’t claim that’s actually true.the skepticism is mild and welcome.

  9. I. Kant says:

    This Schwitzgebel fellow is a real nincompoop.

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