Wednesday, March 10, 2010

That Catastrophic Spider Immanuel Kant

Nietzsche once remarked that Immanuel Kant was a Catastrophic Spider. By this he meant that Kant's moral Philosophy sucked the life out of human beings. I suppose today we might refer to Kant as a "vampire" hence the image I have placed here of Nosferatu resembling the sage of konigsberg.

It is not hard to see why Nietzsche thought this. For Kant all our personal drives, goals, and inclinations must be sacrificed to an abstract and absolute duty. This is even worse then it sounds. Kant makes it quite clear that if we do good deeds out of natural inclination our actions have no moral worth. We must act, Kant asserts, out of a pure respect for duty; it is not enough to do our duty, we must do it simply because it is our duty. No other reason has moral worth.

Kant uses two examples to illustrate his bloodless claim that we must act for the sake of duty alone. First, Kant explains - one can almost hear the stern Prussian lecturing and imagine him wagging his finger at us - that a person who is naturally kind and charitable toward others (the "friend of humanity" Kant calls him) cannot be morally praised. He is good to others because his character is kind. This will not do, he is acting out of inclination, not a purely rational sense of duty.

Kant then asks us to consider a man of "cold temperament" a genuine misanthrope who has no desire to do good for others, but makes himself do so out of sheer duty. This man's actions have moral worth. He is, for Kant, a moral hero. In much the same vein, Kant would be forced to say that loving parents who raise their children well out of natural affection cannot be morally praised, but hateful parents who despise their children and yet strive to do right by them for the sake of duty alone are morally commendable!

Something has surely gone wrong here. Kant acts as though our character, the kind of person we are, is not something for which we can be morally praised. On the contrary, he argues that a good character seems to prevent us from being authentically moral. An impoverished theory if there ever was one.

Can any one honestly believe that we are only moral to the extent that we act against our character and inclinations? This is perverse! Surely who we are matters at least as much as what we do.

To see just how impoverished Kant's morality is check out the correspondence between Kant and Maria Von Herbert. That entire correspondence with scholarly commentary can be found here. The gist of the conversation is as follows. Von Herbert wrote Kant explaining that she was seriously contemplating suicide but knows from reading Kant that suicide is not morally permissible.

As the correspondence continues, we see that Von Herbert is chronically depressed. She writes:
My vision is clear now. I feel that a vast emptiness extends inside me, and all around me - so that I almost find my self to be superfluous, unnecessary. Nothing attracts me. I'm tormented by a boredom that makes life intolerable. Don't think me arrogant for saying this, but the demands of morality are too easy for me. I would eagerly do twice as much as they command. They only get their prestige from the attractiveness of sin, and it costs me almost no effort to resist that.
The commentator notes that Kant is here confronted with a Kantian moral saint. The woman has no passions and therefore simply acts out of a concern for duty alone. In a very telling passage Von Herbert wonders if Kant himself is as empty and lifeless as she is:
I beg you to give me something that will get this intolerable emptiness out of my soul. Then I might become a useful part of nature, and, if my health permits, would make a trip to K├▒nigsberg in a few years. I want to ask permission, in advance, to visit you. You must tell me your story then, because I would like to know what kind of life your philosophy has led you to - whether it never seemed to you to be worth the bother to marry, or to give your whole heart to anyone, or to reproduce your likeness. I have an engraved portrait of you by Bause, from Leipzig. I see a profound calm there, and moral depth - but not the astuteness of which the Critique of Pure Reason is proof. And I'm dissatisfied not to be able to look you right in the face
Kant, unable to see this woman as anything other than a "crazy lady," dismisses her letters and refuses to respond. Ten years later she finally did commit suicide. I concede that Von Herbert is not really the "perfect Kantian" she has no passions to master. For Kant an act appears to be moral to the extent that we have mastered our natural passions which run contrary to this. But her chief motivation is duty, and her lack of passion poses no problems for a Kantian. For Kant must, in the end, regard our natural impulses and desires as something we would be better off without. Maria Von Herbert lacks these impulses and desires and the result is chronic depression. She rightly sees that Kant's philosophy pushes us all in that direction. This is a very serious problem.

Kant's total failure to see, in this woman, a profound criticism of his philosophy as lifeless is damning. I would not, however, consider it worth the bother of a blog post if this were just about Kant.

Throughout his work Kant stressed that he is simply the philosophical spokesmen for common sense morality. I fear he is right. Kant's cold, impersonal, and inhuman ethics are the logical conclusion of a very common conception of what morality is. Many of us think of morality as essentially prohibitive. It is a set of external commands that, more often than not, forces us to oppose our natural impulses and normal inclinations, that demands we obey regardless of our happiness or well-being. Kant builds his theory with the dreadful consistency of a math problem on just this conception.

One need not reflect all that deeply to see that this conception of morality and the moral life is the spider Nietzsche said it was. An ethic that makes enjoyment and character, well-being and fulfillment the enemy of duty is a sick one.

Whatever the proper theory of ethics is, this is not it.

We must think again.

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  1. I really appreciated this post as I am currently writing an M.A. thesis on Kant. I am also very interested in the lineage leading from Kant to Freud (of which Nietzsche is certainly a part). You write that you fear that Kant is write insofar as he is just trying to espouse "common sense" morality. I think that is also the exact thing Freud spent his life trying in trying to diagnose the problems that arise thereby. That said, I think if we read Kant as waging a war primarily against his utilitarian contemporaries, he gives us a sense of something quite human, namely the desire that our actions carry a meaning beyond the simple calculation of what may or may not provide some kind of gratification. Of course, insofar as Kant has a horribly impoverished conception of eudaimonia, his notion of happiness is equally impoverished. I guess i'm writing not so much in defense of Kant (really I just wanted to write in response to the enjoyment I got out of you post), as I am to say something like "yes, and also..." I really have a hard time making sense of Kant without resorting to talking out of both sides of my mouth :) Although I'm not convinced that's such a horrible methodology...

  2. Perhaps Kant's view rests on the notion that we are depraved and fallen. Therefore, natural kindness rests on fallen nature. The naturally positive disposition could be a camouflage device for furthering some deeper selfishness or attachment to evil much as the trap snaps down on the mouse having baited it with all natural cheese.

    Kant and others may see duty orientation as the only hope for sustained individual change from worse to better. If all are sinners, then all are in some state of "worse" and need a guiding light to get there.

  3. As a layman and limited in knowledge of all things philosophical...

    I think Kant expressed his theory that only through self-restraint of human nature, we achieve moral standing: Not worthy of praise, but honoring God.

    Kant recognized this by reading the Bible. There is a passage about a father knowing what is good, and how he gives to his son... Any earthly (rational) father gives good things to his offspring.

    So as a citizen of any town on earth obeys local laws, for their own well being... this is earthly. A citizen may derive a feeling of "goodness" from being a good citizen for it's own benefit.

    Non-earthly "Goodness" is achieved IMHO by S-A-C-R-I-F-I-C-E, and submitting to a higher purpose.

    eg. It is easy to be charitable with other peoples money. Who garners honor in that transaction?

    Read up on Diogenes thoughts on philosophers... and charity, money.

    Diogenes was right, we are all slaves to convention and sacrifice mankind's well being.
    Kant was right in the submission...
    Too many high minded elites try to tell us po folk what to do and say and believe.

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Comments from many different points of view are welcome. But I will not publish any comments that are hateful, insulting, or filled with profanity. I welcome and encourage dialogue and disagreement but will not publish any hate speech.