Ethics and the common good: abstract vs. experiential.

Author:Baldacchino, Joseph

In "History, Reason and Hope: A Comparative Study of Kant, Hayek and Habermas," (1) Professor Richard B. Day endorses the theory of communicative action put forth by Jurgen Habermas as further contributing to Immanuel Kant's ideal of an "ethical commonwealth" in which every individual is treated "always at the same time as an end, never simply as a means." Conversely, Day holds that Friedrich Hayek's vision of a spontaneous order of free markets facilitated by limited, constitutional government "collapses Kant's project rather than continuing it" and is therefore inimical to the Kantian ideal.

I shall argue, on the other hand, that Kant is not the final word on personal or political ethics. Indeed, his thought suffers from a fundamental weakness that is retained by both Habermas and Professor Day and, to a lesser degree, by Hayek. The latter theorists have failed to incorporate into their thinking several advances over Kant's ethics and epistemology that profoundly affect how we ought to think about universals, including most especially that of the ethical. The result of this failure is a highly abstract view of ethics, both personal and political, that does not take into account the concrete circumstances of morality and also does not consider that rigid adherence to abstract principle may have adverse, even disastrous, consequences. There is an alternative to this flawed view which holds that moral universality and practical action can be synthesized. Contributors to the latter approach include Irving Babbitt, Benedetto Croce, and the contemporary theorist Claes Ryn, among others. In what follows, I shall demonstrate the deficiency, first of all, of Kant's ethical philosophy and, secondarily; of the positions espoused by Habermas and Day. I shall also present reasons why the alternative theory, sometimes called value-centered historicism, is superior when judged by its experiential results and why Hayek's social and economic prescriptions are largely compatible with this alternative theory.

In order to complete the critique of Kant, it will be necessary to contrast the epistemological foundations underlying his ethics with those underpinning the more recently developed ethical theory mentioned above. The latter epistemology was made possible by the emergence of philosophical insights that recognize the creative imagination, or intuition, as synthetic activity. Explicating the concept of synthetic imagination, for which ironically Kant's own work prepared the way, is essential to showing the possibility of man's grasping the particular situation in which he must act, including the likely consequences of pursuing alternative possibilities. The creative imagination points the way to remedying a major defect in Kant's ethics and in derivative ethical theories.

Before the conception of the creative imagination was formulated, intuition had been viewed as images in memory that resulted from the more or less random combination of discrete sense impressions. From this perspective, all that mankind could know directly from experience were isolated and transitory particulars that lacked any comprehensive meaning. To surmount this problem classical and Christian thinkers from Plato through St. Thomas Aquinas and beyond envisioned a realm of universals in which the good, the true, and the beautiful existed as eternal and unchanging forms. Man, according to this line of thought, could escape from meaninglessness in this world by adhering to unchanging rules of ethics, rationality, and aesthetics as determined by reason. For centuries morality in the West was defined as following eternal rules, which could be applied to different circumstances through casuistry. Gradually, however, the hold on man of universals that were no longer part of specific experience weak ened together with the authority of unchanging moral rules. After the skeptical criticism of Hume took hold in the eighteenth century, leading thinkers believed that there was little certainty remaining except in mathematics and abstract logic, which did not depend on knowledge from outside the mind itself.

The invaluable contribution of Kant (1724-1804) was to rescue thought from this philosophical cul-de-sac with his revolutionary concept of the "synthesis a priori," which was elaborated in the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant agreed with Hume that the discrete representations of intuition are insufficient to provide true knowledge of the world outside our individual minds. But, he argued, our reasoning faculty is so structured that it combines or synthesizes what is manifold in different intuitions into "pure concepts of the understanding," or "categories of reason." For Kant, these categories, along with derivative concepts that logically follow from them, enable us to have a priori knowledge of external objects but only as they appear to us through their surface manifestations (as phenomena), not as they truly exist in themselves (as noumena).

Through his categories of reason Kant restored to the Newtonian laws of cause and effect much of the respect that they had lost under the pressure of Humean skepticism. For Kant these laws were sufficient to explain all that occurs in nature and in human behavior. But though these laws could account for the workings of human behavior, they could not possibly be associated with morality, in Kant's view. Only autonomous actions--actions freely chosen--could be moral. And mankind cannot freely choose behavior that is causally influenced by laws that we cannot even comprehend at the deepest (noumenal) level, much less independently control.

Kant's "Categorical Imperative" Deficient

From his belief that universal knowledge concerning empirical experience was utterly inaccessible, Kant deduced that, for morality to exist, it must be based on a priori reasoning. While the natural scientists could establish ostensibly universal laws by inductive reasoning--that is, by raising particular experience to the level of generality--"it is otherwise with moral laws. These are valid as laws only in so far as they can be seen to have an a priori basis and to be necessary." (2) For Kant, in other words, moral laws must be universal, which meant for him that they must always be present in the same way in relation to every possible action.

Like Aristotle, Kant held that virtuous actions must be chosen for their own sake, but he disagreed with Aristotle's definition of morality as comprising the kind of actions that will contribute to a special form of sustained happiness that is distinct from the temporary pleasures that result from indiscriminately indulging one's fluctuating impulses. (3) Not recognizing the qualitative distinction drawn by Aristotle and other thinkers, Kant viewed every form of happiness, satisfaction, or feeling of wellbeing as influenced by natural impulses, which are experienced through the senses in ways that differ from one situation to the next. And since Kant believed the senses--and hence all experience dependent on them--to be utterly free of man's initiative or control, it followed that actions whose success was dependent on their particular experiential consequences could be neither autonomous nor universal and hence could not be moral. Kant therefore concluded that, for actions to qualify as moral by meeting the requirements of universality and autonomy they must be based on a principle of pure reason sufficient to stand on its own internal logic and wholly independent of the practical results to be expected in any particular instance. To be virtuous, one must consciously act according to rules previously calculated by reason to be right or just, and the incentive for observing those rules must be respect for duty alone.

Kant believed he had found the rational principle on which to ground morality in his famous "categorical imperative," which he formulated variously in different writings. One version calls upon individuals to act only on a maxim that you can at the same time will to become a universal law. Another holds that one should act so as to treat humanity in oneself and others only as an end in itself, and never merely as a means. A third formulation says to act so that your will can at the same time regard itself as giving in its maxims universal laws. Kant believed each of these versions to be logically implied by the others. To act only according to rules that each individual would be willing for all persons to follow meant, for example, that no one should treat others merely as means and not ends, since no person would want to be treated that way in turn. (4)

Yet, notwithstanding a superficial plausibility, the categorical imperative proves inadequate as a basis for ethical universality. In the first place, Kant claimed to have entirely excluded from his conception of moral principles anything that "can be learned from experience," declaring that, "if one let himself be so misled as to make into a moral principle anything derived from this source, he would be in danger of the grossest and most pernicious errors." (5) But what Kant actually had done was to take certain conclusions drawn from parts of his own personal experience that were especially appealing to him--e.g., that justice requires certain types of egalitarianism but not others--and to make of them a priori principles from which all other principles were to be derived by logical deduction. In effect, his premises and logical methods became a closed dogmatic system to which all were expected to subscribe on pain of being considered not only immoral but insufficiently "rational." That Kant's premises were no less grounded in dogmatic faith than the church doctrines that he dismissed as immature and unenlightened can be seen in his principle of inevitable human progress. Despite what all of history tells of the rise and fall of civilizations and the flourishing and disintegration of cultures, Kant declared as a rational...

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