History, reason and hope: a comparative study of Kant, Hayek and Habermas: dialogue on personal and political ethics.

Author:Day, Richard B.

In the Critique of Practical Reason, Immanuel Kant expressed awe and admiration for "the starred heaven above me and the moral law within me". With reference to the heavens, Kant was struck by human insignificance in "the incalculable vastness of worlds upon worlds, of systems within systems, over endless ages". Within this sensible order of cosmic proportions, man appeared to be but an "animal-like being", condemned to return to the dust of a planet which itself is "a mere speck in the universe". At the same time, however, Kant believed that every human consciousness contains within itself the universality of the moral law. As intelligible beings, we live "a life independent of animality and even of the entire world of sense". The moral law elevates human existence into "a world ... which can be sensed only by the intellect". Moral self-determination, said Kant, "radiates into the infinite". (1)

Lucien Goldmann's interpretation of Kant emphasizes the need to overcome this division between the sensible and intelligible domains. Kant conceived moral autonomy as an attribute of rational individuals, but he also contemplated a universal community, integrated through the practical Idea of human freedom--an "ethical commonwealth" and a "kingdom of ends". Goldmann argues that the absolute necessity of realizing this totality is "the centre of Kant's thought". (2) For a solution, he looks to Kant's philosophy of history. In The Contest of the Faculties, Kant claimed that it is possible to have "history a priori" if "the prophet himself occasions and produces the events he predicts'. (3) In the French Revolution, Kant saw evidence that "man has the quality or power of being the cause and.., author of his own improvement'. (4) Goldmann interprets Kant's view of history as opening the way to subsequent philosophies of totality in the work of Hegel, Marx and Lukacs. (5)

Jurgen Habermas claims, however, that the dialectical concept of totality has today collapsed into its "disjecta membra". (6) Instrumental and strategic reason have suppressed practical discourse, and economic and social "systems" objectify human subjects in accordance with systemic functional imperatives. Nevertheless, Habermas remains committed to Kant's faith in human reason. He argues that the personal and social pathologies resulting from systemic integration inevitably reproduce the human need for shared meaning and purpose. In the imperatives of language and everyday speech, he finds implicit an "ideal speech situation" which sustains the hope for human behaviour guided (in part at least) by "good reasons". (7)

Today the concept of totality has reappeared in an unexpected quarter. Friedrich Hayek, often regarded as the spiritual father of modern conservatism, draws upon Kantian influences in accounting for the "Great Society" and "extended order" of the market economy. In the liberal ideal of voluntary market exchanges, coordinated through universal laws, Hayek thinks Kant's aspirations have been fulfilled by modern capitalism. Hayek's pursuit of totality, however, takes a new twist. Whereas Hegel, Marx and Lukacs saw social reason as the ultimate determinant of human interaction, Hayek's evolutionary epistemology suggests the opposite: social evolution, both cultural and economic, turns out to be the author of human consciousness. By comparing Hayek's work with that of Kant and Habermas, I shall argue that Hayek collapses Kant's project rather than continuing it.

  1. Immanuel Kant: Reason as the Philosophical Explanation of History

    Kant considered the distinction between the inner compulsion of the moral law and the external causality of nature to be fundamental. The moral law transcends all particulars of time and space and is "distinct from all the principles that determine events in nature". (8) Facts, conventions and experience are absolutely inconsequential in moral judgements: "anyone so misled as to make into a basic moral principle something derived from this source would be in danger of the grossest and most pernicious errors." (9) A rational will acts according to the moral law out of reason's own pure interest and practical pleasure in the good. A good will is the only absolute and unconditioned good. To act on the basis of a good will is to take duty as the sole motive, with no regard to external context or personal desires. The "autonomy of the will is the sole principle of all moral laws", and duty is an inner "intellectual compulsion". (10)

    Kant acknowledged that his doctrine implied "holiness of will", something which finite beings can only hope to approximate. (11) But he also claimed that every reasoning being is "a metaphysician without knowing it" and enjoys a priori access to the moral law. (12) Moral judgements are a matter of "common sense". (13) If we cannot will, without contradiction, that our own maxims be universalized in their application, then we have not met the test of the moral law. Of the several formulations of the categorical imperative found in Kant's writings, H. J. Paton considers the following to be most significant: "So act as if you were always through your maxims a law-making member of a universal kingdom of ends." (14) In this formulation Kant combined the form of the categorical imperative (universality) with the matter (ends in themselves).

    "Persons", Kant declared, "are objective ends; that is, things whose existence in itself is an end." The supreme practical principle presupposes that "rational nature exists as an end in itself. Man necessarily conceives his own existence as being this rational nature...." (15) By the expression "kingdom of ends", Kant referred to "the linking of different rational beings by a system of common laws". Within such a system, "we are able to conceive all ends as constituting a systematic whole of both rational beings as ends in themselves, and of the special ends of each being", (16) Each individual is a member of the kingdom of ends through being subject to the common laws; each is a ruler by virtue of self-legislation which "is not subject to the will of any other", (17) Kant acknowledged that the kingdom of ends is "admittedly only an ideal", (18) for it required, among other things, that every member possess "unrestricted power" to act solely in accordance with the Idea of freedom in realizing the "independently existing end" of a good will . (19) Nevertheless, he believed that the sublime "dignity" of reasoning beings "makes every rational subject worthy to be a law-making member of the realm of ends. Otherwise, he would have to be imagined as subject only to the natural law of his wants." (20) A human being would be nothing more than a biological creature of nature.

    The kingdom of ends is an intelligible totality that can be conceived by reason but never experienced. Freedom itself is an Idea of reason. Because human beings cannot achieve "holiness of will", the categorical imperative addresses us in terms of duties. The duty to strive for freedom, however, implied the possibility of success. And because human beings are also natural beings, the Idea of freedom, in turn, implied the possibility of thinking of nature as if it were governed by a telos. Natural beings must pursue their intelligible ends within nature. The integrity of Kant's thought, therefore, required a philosophical exploration of reason at work within the human experience of the sensible world. Because our experience of the sensible world is our own history, Kant concluded that empirical history can be reinterpreted with reference to the a priori conclusions of pure practical reason.

    History is the history of human action, and the idea of action presupposes the Idea of freedom. Human history is, therefore, spiritual and moral at the same time as it is natural. Kant took the meaning of history to be enlightenment, or "man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another." (21)In the Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose, Kant suggested that nature contrives to promote the goal of human aspirations: "Nature has willed that man should produce entirely by his own initiative everything which goes beyond the mechanical ordering of his animal existence.., by his own reason." (22)

    Man's nature is his "unsocial sociability". But the result of competition for honour, power and property is gradual emergence of "a law-governed order". (23) Kant considered "freedom under external laws" to be the highest task set by nature for mankind. (24) The strictly intelligible Idea of freedom, as the presupposition for autonomous wills acting solely in compliance with the inner commands of reason, could not be realized in the sensible world. Nevertheless, the respublica phaenomenon, or actual political state, might approach the ideal of the respublica noumenon, if public laws were judged by the criterion of whether they might be authored by a universal will. (25) Kant believed that the social contract, itself an Idea of reason, must serve as the "rational principle" for judging any lawful constitution whatsoever. (26)

    In The Metaphysical Elements of Justice, Kant defined a constitution in terms of a common will which unites individuals in civil society for the purpose of authoring their own public laws. (27) Universal laws involve reciprocal obligations of legally enforceable (perfect) duties. Civil society requires "a collective, universal (common) and powerful Will" to produce legislation that is "backed by power". (28) The guarantee that power will be exercised legitimately is given by the requirement that only the "united and consenting Will of all" can legislate. (29) In these conditions, "each decides the same for all and all decide the same for each". (30) Political institutions are "so many relationships in the united Will of the people, which originates a priori in reason". (31) Reason is...

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