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).

Potentiality, Actuality

Potentiality and actuality are Aristotle’s indispensable modal tools, providing resources for a variety of sophisticated analyses. Notable applications include a nonreductive, “dialectical” interweaving of is and ought that allows conditional “oughts” to be constructed subsuming applicable details of a contextual “is”. This allows something like structural causality to coexist with something like Kantian freedom.

Modern discourse on the relation of “is” and “ought” has generally oscillated between a reductive ethical naturalism that explains “ought” exclusively in terms of “is” on the one hand, and an unexplainable dualism of “is” and “ought” on the other.

With his explicit distinction between modes of potentiality and actuality, Aristotle had a better way. He also talked about the typical modern modalities of abstract possibility and necessity, but concrete potentiality and actuality are the crown jewels of Aristotle’s modal discourse. (See also The Importance of Potentiality.)