Moral Faith Is Not Dualism

Leading Kant scholar Allen Wood argues in the front matter to his early work Kant’s Moral Religion (1970) that previous mainstream interpretation of Kant was mistaken in treating his views on religion as a weak point of his philosophy. This post is limited to Wood’s valuable orienting remarks in the preface and introduction, so it won’t get to the core of what Kantian moral faith is supposed to be.

According to Wood, Kant’s own concern with very detailed argument has led interpreters to focus on these details to the detriment of a broad view of the outlines of his philosophy as a whole, in which the as yet unelaborated notion of “moral faith” will be of fundamental importance. He aims to recover such a broad view.

(It was Brandom’s original synoptic suggestion of similarly broad outlines cutting across the theoretical and practical parts of Kant’s philosophy that first led me to radically re-assess my previous very negative view of Kant, which had been based on negative remarks in Hegel and Nietzsche and my own earlier lost-in-the-details reading of Kant himself. See Kantian Intentionality; Kantian Freedom.)

For Wood, Kant’s philosophy is at root a philosophy of human self-knowledge in the Socratic tradition. He disagrees with those who have found an irreconcilable (and untenable) dualism at the heart of Kant’s thought.

“The ‘dualism’ in Kant’s view of human nature arises because human activity in all its forms is at once subject to the necessary principles of man’s reason and to the inevitable limitations of his finitude. Humanity for Kant is not composed of ‘two irreconcilable natures’, but there does appear throughout the critical philosophy a kind of irreconcilable tension between man’s rational destination and the finitude within which his reason is destined to operate. This tension, in Kant’s view, is the destiny of man as such, and defines the problems which confront human existence” (Kant’s Moral Religion, p. 3).

To be finite for Kant, according to Wood, is to be subject to the conditions of sensibility. Sensibility constrains the kind of intuitions that we can possibly have. What are called the conditions of sensibility are not just empirical facts, but have to do with the kind of beings we are. Kant asserts that we are beings that have a “blind” sensory intuition of being affected in this or that way, but do not have any infallible “intellectual intuition” that could legitimately give us immediate truths.

Noting that Kant’s epistemology has often been characterized as “empiricist” because of its emphasis on experience, Wood says it is actually founded on a view of the finitude of human nature as a whole, and not on an epistemological dogma that all knowledge must be grounded in immediate sensation. (Like Hegel, I would note) Kant operates with an extremely broad notion of human experience.

Kant famously defends naturalism in science, while simultaneously rejecting what analytic philosophers have called ethical naturalism, or the idea that ethics can be reduced to naturalistic explanations. The thrust of Wood’s argument is that this rejection and Kant’s strong rhetoric about freedom should not be taken to imply a dualism (which latter, as it seems to me, would introduce a supernaturalism about human persons alongside a naturalism about all else).

The logical claim as I reconstruct it is that one can consistently be a naturalist in matters of natural science, but not an ethical naturalist, and at the same time not a dualist and therefore not a supernaturalist about persons either. This seems possible, but more needs to be said. Where is the Aristotelian mean that avoids all the associated dilemmas? As a first indication, it seems to me to characterize a space that includes the ethics of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel.

“Man’s finite and hence sensibly affected will is a condition for the possibility of moral life, in Kant’s view. If man were not subject to inclinations (if he possessed a divine holy will), obligation would not be the necessary feature of moral life that it is. The very concept of a holy being excludes the possibility of obligation, for such a being would by its own inner nature follow the law, and would not need the constraint which the concept of obligation presupposes. A holy being could not be ‘autonomous’, since an ‘autocracy’ of reason would necessarily govern all its willing. Such a being would no longer be subject even to moral imperatives. Human sensibility is thus a condition for the possibility of our moral life, as well as of our empirical knowledge” (p. 4).

The hypothetical “human holy will” to which Kant contrasts the actual sensibly affected will would be perfect, in the sense of being a perfectly good will such as we might attribute to God.

Such a posited perfection of goodness, I would note, is independent of questions of power or efficacy. Traditional theological views have sometimes attributed total counterfactual omnipotence — an ability to do absolutely any arbitrary thing — to God, but that is a logically separate move. There is an old counter-argument that the state of the world suggests God must not be both all-good and all-powerful. GwenaĆ«lle Aubry in her outstanding Dieu sans la puissance: dunamis et energeia chez Aristote et Plotin (2006) argues that for Aristotle himself as distinct from the commentary tradition following Plotinus, the notion of God as pure act makes questions of power inapplicable.

While speaking in language that is deferential to tradition, Kant stresses divine goodness over divine power, and moral faith over faith in miracles.

Wood says in effect that a hypothetical perfect human will could not even be autonomous in Kant’s sense. Presumably this kind of perfection would render ethics irrelevant, because everything would already be decided for it. I don’t consider it the job of philosophy to speculate about impossible what ifs, but this is interesting for shedding further light on the nature of Kantian autonomy as requiring finitude.

Here I find a further argument that leads to the same conclusion as Wood’s. Autonomy in the Kant I want to read presupposes activities like Aristotelian deliberation and practical judgment, which presuppose that we have less-than-perfect understanding. Therefore, on my own view that will is not really distinct from our reason and feeling but just a different way of talking about them, a less-than-perfect “will” is necessarily a prerequisite for Kantian autonomy.

Wood says that for Kant, reason inevitably suggests the idea of something unconditioned, which is always at least thinkable even if we can never experience it. This makes it tempting to just assume it also has reality. This takes me a step closer to a sympathetic reading of the Antinomies of Pure Reason, which I still have a hard time with.

Contrary to Kant, I still think the Antinomies are due to conflicting assumptions that should not be blamed on any dialectical illusion inherent to reason itself, since I don’t think Reason itself immediately gives us anything at all, be it truth or illusion. Conclusions follow not from Reason alone, but only in combination with particular premises. Therefore I think the direct opposite of what Wood quotes Kant saying, to the effect that dialectical illusions “are sophistries not of men but of pure reason itself” (p. 7).

But the broader Kantian point that Wood makes is that independent of that detail, reason does at least suggest the idea of something unconditioned, which precisely as he says must necessarily be in tension with our finitude. “The tension, the problematical condition in which man finds himself, is thus a result not of ‘two irreconcilable natures’ in man but of the natural conflict between man’s finite limitations and his rational tendency to overcome them. Critical self-knowledge thus reveals human nature not as ‘dualistic’ but as dialectical” (pp. 6-7). Here Wood seems to take Kant’s thought toward a more positive connotation of “dialectic”.

“The dialectic which leads to moral faith is a dialectic not of theoretical but of practical reason. It results not from our limitations as regards knowledge, but rather from our limitations in the pursuit of our unconditional and final moral end” (p. 7).

“The critical philosophy, then, views it as essential to the human condition for man to be concerned with the awesomeness and nobility of his rational destiny, and yet to be aware of his finitude, his inability ever to gain a firm hold on that which reason proposes as his destiny” (p. 8).

Here I prefer to bend Kant in the direction of Hegel, while simultaneously bending Hegel in the direction of Kant in a way that I think Hegel himself suggests. There is more to getting a hold on that which reason proposes as our destiny than a simple on/off state. We do get as far as a firm hold, but that firm hold is still never final or complete.

“Socratic self-knowledge does not end, of course, with a mere recognition of man’s situation, but rather functions as part of man’s higher aspirations themselves…. [It] involves also an appropriate response of a rational and active being…. Moral faith is for Kant the rational response of the finite being to the dialectical perplexities which belong essentially to the pursuit of the highest purpose of his existence” (ibid).

Ricoeurian Choice

Part 1 of Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature is devoted to a rich discussion of choice. He says that to will is to think (p. 41), and that deciding is a kind of judging (p. 43). But also “I project my own self into the action to be done. Prior to all reflection about the self which I project, the myself summons itself… it becomes committed…. Prereflexive self-imputation is active, not observational” (p. 59; emphasis in original).

He develops at length how the interdependence of the voluntary and the involuntary can be seen in processes of choice. “The circle of ethics and practice repeats the more basic circle of motive and decision” (p. 77). Motives partially determine us in certain directions, but in deciding we choose which motives to put first. Deciding involves a combination of analysis and judgment with creativity and risk.

We should not think of a decision as an atomic act coming from nowhere. Hesitation and indecision are valid moments of a genuine process of considering alternatives, and this has implications for the self as well. “[T]his inchoate, problematic mode of myself must be grasped as it presents itself. We have no right to substitute for it the image of the triumphant self which is invariably one” (p. 140). The ambiguity inherent in our embodiment means that our decisions cannot be simply governed by a present totality of inclinations or an evident hierarchy of values (p. 143).

Neither an intellectualist approach that tries to reduce decision to air-tight determination from reasons nor a voluntarist one that turns decision into a creation from nothing is valid. “A living dialectic constantly brings us back from one aspect of choice to the other: choice as the peak of previous growth and as the surge of novelty” (p. 164; emphasis in original). “Thus we must say simultaneously that ‘choice follows from the final practical judgment’ and ‘a practical judgment is final when choice irrupts‘” (p. 181; emphasis in original). “Determination of the act and indetermination of the power do not actually represent two separate moments” (p. 186). (For more on the same book, see Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Voluntary Action; Consent?. In general, see also Fallible Humanity; Ricoeurian Ethics; Oneself as Another; Choice, Deliberation; Practical Judgment; Potentiality, Actuality; Brandomian Choice.)

Structural Causality, Choice

I now have an Aristotelian account of structural causality. It is exercised by the combined form and materiality of actually used means to desired ends, and behaves like a contextual unmoved mover. As usual with Aristotelian “causes”, this puts it in the context of an expressive semantics, rather than any mechanical metaphor. (See also What and Why.)

We choose among available means to our ends (and, I think, also among alternative derived ends, due to the interdependence of derived ends with means). Then through structural causality, each such choice brings with it a block of consequences that are not up to us. This reconciles structural causality with contingency and Kantian freedom. (See also Potentiality, Actuality; Structure, Potentiality; Efficient Cause.)

(Often, ends are things we just tacitly accept, but we also have the possibility of critically examining what we have tacitly accepted, and possibly changing our commitment as a result.)

Notwithstanding Brandom’s negative comments in passing about structuralism, I think a similar account of the place of structural causality can be applied in the context of Brandomian choice and practical endorsement of commitments.

Brandomian Choice

Aristotle had a reasonable, noninflationary concept of real choice. Choice is up to us, but it is far from arbitrary. Unfortunately, later treatments have largely oscillated between extremes of voluntarism and determinism, making choice either arbitrary or only an unreal appearance.

One of Brandom’s great contributions to ethics is a new account of choice that is reasonable and noninflationary like Aristotle’s. Aristotle developed a notion of real but nonarbitrary choice by defining it as the result of an open deliberation subject to normative standards of inquiry. Brandom reaches a complementary conclusion following a different path. The core of it is a combination of two theses. First, there is a view he associates with the Enlightenment that makes values binding on us only when we have implicitly or explicitly endorsed them. This secures the practical reality of choice, without any ontological assumptions. Second, there is Brandom’s own view that the meaning of the values we endorse is not up to us, but depends on articulation in the space of reasons. As with Aristotle’s notion of deliberation, this establishes the nonarbitrary nature of choice. (See also Intentionality; Self, Subject; Fragility of the Good; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

What and Why

I want to say that questions of what and why of the sort asked by Plato and Aristotle are of vital importance for all ethically concerned people. These are questions of interpretation, and of what I have been broadly calling meaning. For the moment, I’m leaving aside obvious questions of what to do, in favor of these broader questions that implicitly inform them.

What something is and why it is the way it is — or should be the way it should be — are deeply intertwined. Aristotle provides many good illustrations of this. Also, at any given moment, our thinking about why depends on many assumptions about what we are concerned with that may call for review. Conversely, our thinking about each what implicitly depends on many more detailed judgments of why.

It is not practical to question everything at once, so we do it serially as the need arises, striving to be deeply honest with ourselves in our assessments of the relative levels of such needs. We seek the appropriate best balance of considerations, as well as a good balance between thoroughness of questioning on the one hand, and practical responsiveness or needed decisiveness on the other. (See also Context.)

The question why is quite open-ended. It asks for reasons or causes — and then potentially for more reasons or causes behind those — sincerely seeking to explain or justify, in the spirit of Hegel’s notion of a faith in reasonableness without presupposed truths. It arises in ethical deliberation, in general dialogue, and in many other practical circumstances, as well as in more broadly philosophical considerations. It always involves a dimension of explicit or implicit judgments of value and importance, and often interrelates with questions of fact or interpretation of fact. We should pursue it in a spirit of mutual recognition and expansive agency. Brandom’s normative pragmatics provides a good outer frame for why questions, and valuable technical tools for addressing them. (See also “Why” by Normative Pragmatics.)

The question what honestly faces the provisional character of our implicit and explicit classifications and identifications of things. As Kant might remind us, the what-it-is that we “immediately” apprehend depends upon complex processes of synthesis. Every what encapsulates many judgments and inferences. That does not mean our apprehensions are necessarily wrong — far from it — but it opens another huge space of questions an ethically concerned person should be aware of as possibly relevant, and should monitor for potential warning flags. As with why, questions of what also interrelate with questions of fact or interpretation of fact. Brandom’s inferential semantics provides a good outer frame and technical apparatus for approaching what questions. (See also “What” by Inferential Semantics.)

Theory and Practice

Unlike Plato, Aristotle did not make theoretical knowledge an ethical criterion, although he played a great role in the development of many fields of inquiry. Nonetheless, he placed intellectual “virtue” alongside friendship or love as an essential component of the highest ethical development.

I previously suggested there is an indirect way in which any inquiry can help make us better deliberators. Knowledge can of course help, but only if it is relevant to the question at hand. But the ethical value of inquiry lies more in a kind of theoretical practice than in the particular knowledge that may result. Intellectual virtue, I want to say, has to do especially with practices of free and well-rounded interpretation.

Aristotelian Virtue

Aristotelian ethics is not just about cultivating virtue as a kind of good character. Although he does emphasize it a lot, ultimately character is just a means and a potentiality for actualization of the real goal of that part of living well that is under our power. The actualization itself comes from good practice (praxis), grounded in sound, well-rounded deliberation and choice. Aristotle also says the very best life is that of the philosopher. Not only is philosophy valuable in itself, but it also helps us deliberate.

The best deliberation and choice is supported by intellectual virtues, a concern for justice, and a spirit of friendship or love, but it would not even get off the ground without progress in the classic “moral” virtues, which are all said to pertain to our emotions or passions, and to how we are affected by pleasure and pain. Aristotle characterizes each of these emotional virtues as a kind of mean, or balanced emotional state.

Thus, courage is presented as a mean between rashness and cowardice. Temperance is a mean between self-indulgence and insensibility. Interestingly, justice and prudence are also included among emotional virtues, and subjected to a similar analysis. Other emotional virtues are presented as following the same pattern. Unlike the Stoics, neither Plato nor Aristotle advocated suppressing the emotions.

Kantian Maxims

Kantian maxims are a kind of subjective rules providing rationale or justification for concrete ethical choices. A proper Kantian maxim should be a function from a list of conditions and a motive or aim to a uniquely determined conclusion that a particular concrete choice is or is not permissible for a moral being. It does not tell us exactly what to do, but it is expected to definitively tell us whether something is okay or not okay. It is a kind of inference rule.

Many maxims will fail to be universalizable. Kant says we should only trust the ones that can pass testing by the categorical imperative.

Where Aristotle had stressed an open-ended rational inquiry and the irreducibility of ethics to an exact science, Kant recommended focusing deliberation more narrowly on a search for deterministic functions satisfying the categorical imperative that will tell us if possible actions are okay or not.

Another important difference is that Kantian deliberation stops at what is permissible, whereas Aristotelian deliberation extends all the way to what to do, so the Aristotelian kind has a strictly broader scope.

The question is whether by thus narrowing the scope of ethical inquiry in conjunction with his other moves, Kant really succeeded in making the narrowed scope fully deterministic.

Kant talked much more about testing maxims than about searching for them or formulating them. If we were searching, presumably we would try to match on the conditions and aim that would be the inputs to the function. There might be questions about the granularity with which the conditions and aim are specified. To adequately address the complexities of real life, we would need a huge array of possible functions.

It is hard to even imagine a procedure for initially formulating the function-body of a maxim that would tell us specifically how to get from the inputs to a deterministic output. All we have is tests whether an already formulated candidate maxim is universalizable or not. Actual formulation of maxims thus seems to be left to trial and error. Kant might say the important thing is the ability to test, but it seems to me that if we cannot deterministically say how maxims are to be formulated, we cannot really claim to have a deterministic solution to the whole problem of ethical decision-making.

It seems as though Kant was successful in establishing that valid ethical conclusions do have necessary conditions that no one before him recognized, but unsuccessful in defining conditions that would be both necessary and sufficient to derive those conclusions, even at the level of just considering what is permissible. Thus, we still need Aristotelian open-ended deliberation and practical judgment, or an ethical analogue of Kant’s own notion of free play in aesthetics. I also still like the Leibnizian principle of wise charity — within reason, doing more and demanding less than what is nominally required of us.

Kantian Obligation

Kantian ethics is explicitly governed by a spirit of universality. Universality is the one principle that drives everything else. Arguably, a concern for universality has been implicit in rational ethics since Plato and Aristotle, but Kant made it explicit and absolutely central; formulated it in a more rigorous way; and suggested several informal tests for it (the different formulations of the categorical imperative) that could be used in deliberation. Because it is possible to test maxims for compliance with the categorical imperative, Kant’s one principle can actually serve as a criterion, unlike Plato’s undefinable Good.

Universality implies no exceptions, so it can underwrite a kind of unconditional moral necessity that had no precedent in rational ethics before Kant. It seems that Kant wanted to contest Aristotle’s conclusion that ethics can never be an exact science. Kant borrowed talk about duty from what Brandom has called the traditional one-sided authority-obedience model of morality, but gave it new, rational, universal content. For Kant, every ethical decision should be approached as an instance and application of universal law. This means that in deliberation, we are not just deciding for ourselves what is right here and now, but what would be right for any rational being in similar circumstances. Kant wants us to act as universal legislators, and to respect the principle of humanity in every person.

There is something compelling about this, even for a convinced Aristotelian such as myself. Kant really did come up with something new. But also, Aristotelian sensitivity to particulars has been to an extent historically abused and hijacked by people with “particularist” agendas that Aristotle did not countenance, so a nudge in the direction of universality and respect for all humans is a welcome corrective.

This is not the end of the story. As I’ve noted numerous times, the absolute necessity of the categorical imperative applies only at an extremely abstract level, quite some distance from real-world application. I think this is at the core of Hegel’s impatience with Kantian “formalism”. Hegel is not quite fair to Kant, but Kant often seemed to want to claim he had reduced the whole of ethics to necessity, while directing our attention away from the parts he actually left open.

Next, I need to take a closer look at Kantian maxims, which are supposed to provide the bridge to real life. (See also Categorical Imperative; Kant’s Groundwork; Necessity in Normativity; Deontic; Binding.)

Freedom Through Deliberation?

All sincere deliberation cumulatively contributes to opening our minds.

Kant did not discuss Aristotle directly, but he clearly wanted to assert a stronger notion of freedom than emerges just from Aristotle’s distinction of willing from unwilling actions. This relative kind of voluntariness was not enough to ground the kind of freedom Kant was after. For Kant, as long as we are under the sway of our own internal impulses, we are not free, so a lack of external compulsion is not sufficient. But that is not the end of the matter.

“Will” for Kant turned out to be a rational, positively developed alternative to impulse, grounded in a concept (i.e., thoughtful interpretation) of law. Aristotle’s version of thoughtful interpretation in this context is deliberation. It makes sense that active deliberation would positively, incrementally contribute to deautomatizing our tendency to act or respond impulsively. So, I think the closest analogue for what Kant would call true freedom in Aristotle is action on the basis of deliberation. Everything Aristotle says about what is in effect acquired emotional intelligence is also relevant to these Kantian considerations. (See also Beauty, Deautomatization.)