Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Twelve Rounds with Kant (part ten)

Alexej von Jawlensky, Abstract Head: Inner Vision-Rosy Light (1926)

Well, here we go again.

I'll admit I haven't given too much additional thought to the "theory" outlined in the last Kantpost. Can it even be called a theory? It's more of an inkling, an idea. How could such a thing be substantiated? What sort of data would be required, and how would one go about gathering it? What sort of pattern would we seek to find in it?

I wish I shared Kant's faith in rationalism as a divining rod towards truth—and that I had his meticulous genius for analysis and systematic thought. For that matter, I wish it were possible for me to just take two months off from work and contemplate the problems of free will and morality for six hours a day. Ah, well.

Anyway: in what's going to be my final post on The Critique of Practical Reason (1788), I'd like to touch on Kant's three postulates of practical reason: freedom (free will), immortality of the soul, and the existence of God. According to Kant, these are suppositions which reason must adopt to ensure the moral law's sufficiency, and the rational agent is constrained to accept them. Even though theoretical reason can only problematically entertain such ideas, their indispensability to the purposes of reason in its practical use gives them objective reality, but only so far as their intersection with ethical matters is concerned. (It's complicated.)

Please note: I am, as usual, flying completely by the seat of my pants here. This is less an exercise in scholarly analysis than in expatiation.

Let's start with the big one.

FREE WILL

But what that God forwoot mot nedes be,
After the opinioun of certein clerkis.
Witnesse on him, that any parfit clerk is,
That in scole is greet altercacioun
In this matere, and greet disputisoun,
And hath ben of an hundred thousand men.
But I ne kan nat bulte it to the bren,
As kan the holy doctour Augustin,
Or Boece, or the bishop Bradwardin
——Wheither that Goddes worthy forewiting
Streineth me nedely for to doon a thing
——'Nedely' clepe I simple necessitee——
Or ellis, if fre chois be graunted me
To do that same thing, or do it noght,
Though God forwoot it, er that it was wroght;
Or if his witing streineth never a del
But by necessitee condicionel.

I've been reading Canterbury Tales (1387–1400) and couldn't resist transcribing an apposite quote. Let me have my fun—and observe that the "free will" question predates the mechanistic conception of the universe ushered into the Western worldview by Newton et al., though the controversy was framed in completely different terms.¹

I'll come clean: reading and rereading the second Critique, I feel a sort of mental constipative tension whose cause can only be cognitive dissonance. I don't think I'll be cured by the time I finish typing this thing. But even if Kant's admonitions regarding free will ultimately don't move me (see what I did there?), I am truly dazzled by his treatment of the problem.

To recap: as per the Critique of Pure Reason (1781–87), Kant asserts the sovereignty of mechanistic cause and effect processes over the order of appearances, and human beings as existents in space and time are no less subject to those laws than a row of dominos. But as we are rational creatures, with one aspect of ourselves driven by material exigencies and another which is receptive to the supersensible and receives its legislation from reason, we are capable of asserting an autonomy that countervails the deterministic causality of animal impulses and appetites. This autonomy manifests itself through moral feelings and the moral consciousness; it is my reasoning self's protest against the "blind and servile" inclinations of my animal nature.

For example: the part of me which I experience as a material entity in the world who craves his roommate's unattended donuts in the kitchen can be reined in by the other part of me which is an irreducible and self-governing consciousness. My reasoning faculty exerts its control over my pathological pleasure-seeking tendency with the imposition of practical laws (in the form of categorical imperatives) and various positive and negative incentives toward obedience.

To repeat: Kant claims that free will must be taken as a given because a priori moral laws don't make sense without it.

As he points out, nothing gives credence to the notion of spontaneity and autonomy as effectively as the moments of indecision during an encounter with a concrete practical dilemma. As I hover over my roommate's donuts, pondering whether I ought to eat his donuts or act the way I'd like him to act if he was thinking about taking my donuts, the outcome is uncertain, even to myself. It is possible for me to steal a donut or to walk away, and I cannot ascribe whichever action I'll take to coercion from another party. From Kant's perspective, it is a question of the will which determines my choice: is it autonomous or heteronomous? Is it an abstract categorical imperative that holds true in any situation like this ("don't take food that isn't yours") or my desire for these donuts, right now that guides me?

If we are to believe there is a definitely right and a definitely wrong decision I can make here, it is necessary to postulate the personal agency I exercise in the act of choosing.

Treating the choice as a foregone conclusion is incompatible with the structure of our experience—and, more importantly, Kant believes that a deterministic, empirical formulation of morals inevitably lends itself to self-serving behavior. ("I am a slave to the mechanism of nature and my stealing a donut was ordained by forces beyond my control"). If reason urges us toward moral action (and Kant is pretty damn certain that it does), we cannot attribute the choices made by rational beings to deterministic physical processes: doing so undermines reason's own aims by giving us an excuse to relieve ourselves of moral responsibility.

But how is this compatible with the verdict of the first Critique, which found that free will is a concept that reason can neither authenticate nor enlarge upon without overstepping its bounds?

On the causal efficacy of the categorial imperatives which can determine behavior, Kant has this to say:

Since the mere form of a law can be represented only by reason and is therefore not an object of the senses and consequently does not belong among appearances, the representation of this form as the determining ground of the will is distinct from all determining grounds of events in nature according to the laws of causality, because in their case the determining grounds must themselves be appearances.

As we said before: this is just spooky. But Kant has to find room for self-determining agency somewhere, and in a way that's consistent with the rules he set down in the first Critique. In these terms, I feel he succeeds in what he set out to do—though the aptness of those terms may yet be called into question.

Here I'd like to quote Kant at length, and for two reasons. First: for the sake of showing the dexterity of the philosophical high-wire act where he asserts the absoluteness of conditioned causal connection and the necessity of free will at the same time. Second: to make clear why it took me so fucking long to get through a book that's only 130 pages. (So feel free to skim or pass this one over.)

The determination of the causality of beings in the sensible world can as such never be unconditioned, and yet for every series of conditions there must necessarily be something unconditioned and so too a causality that is altogether self-determining. Hence the idea of freedom as a faculty of absolute spontaneity was not a need but, as far as its possibility is concerned, an analytic principle of pure speculative reason. It is, however, absolutely impossible to give anywhere in experience an example of it, since among the causes of things as appearances no determination of causality that would be that would be absolutely unconditioned can be found; hence we could defend the thought of a freely acting cause, when we apply this to a being in the sensible world, only insofar as this being is also regarded on the other side as a noumenon, by showing that it is not self-contradictory to regard all its actions as physically conditioned insofar as they are appearances and yet also to regard their causality as physically unconditioned insofar as the acting being is a being of the understanding and thus making the concept of freedom a regulative principle of reason; by it I do not cognize at all the object to which such causality is attributed——what the object may be——but I nevertheless remove the obstacle inasmuch as on the one side, in the explanation of events in the world and so too the actions of rational beings, I grant the mechanism of natural necessity the justice of going back from the conditioned to the condition ad infinitum, while on the other side I keep open for speculative reason the place which for it is vacant, namely the intelligible, in order to transfer the unconditioned into it. But I could not realize this thought, that is, pure practical reason now fills this vacant place with a determinate law of causality in an intelligible world (with freedom), namely the moral law. By this, speculative reason does not gain anything with respect to its insight but it still gains something only with respect to the security of its problematic concept of freedom, which is here afforded objective and, though only practical, undoubted reality.

From the admission that it isn't impossible that that human mind enjoys an independence from causal connection, it doesn't follow that such a thing is probable. It's just too big a claim to accept when it contradicts so much of what we've come to understand about human behavior in the two centuries since Kant developed his ethics. I wouldn't get so hung up on this if I didn't find so much of value in Kant's ideas, or if free will wasn't so crucial to his system of morals.

Alexej von Jawlensky, Meditation (1936)

Let's change tacks for a bit, and peer at the connection between free will and morality from a different perspective. Much of Kant's project is concerned with sussing out the a priori formats of knowledge and experience than with the content and impact of the empirical. The binding of freedom with morality is a matter he examines in terms of the rational actor's experience of himself. But I wonder if Kant errs in declaring as inborn and invariable those cognitive habits which requires socialization and verbal training to "activate."² Unless a person who is brought up in isolation and reaches adulthood with no language training possesses those tendencies and reservations that indicate a "moral consciousness"—and it is likely he would not—we ought to have some license to introduce the content of experience into Kant's moral discourse.

How might our experience of other people influence the formation of our own moral consciousness?

It's easy to get upset with a mosquito for jabbing her proboscis into your thigh, or at a gopher for helping himself to your vegetable garden—but we don't hold them responsible. The squirrel hogging your birdfeeder can be chased away, but he'll return if he's hungry the next time he passes through your yard. You can hang the feeder in an inconvenient place, but he won't take the hint: if his little limbs can take him there, he'll go for it.

We can talk about "instinct" or rhapsodize about "nature," but the simple fact we're stabbing at is that experience has shown us that animals can't be reasoned out of doing what they do. When we say we can't ascribe morality to the actions of animals because they're unintelligent or non-sentient, what we might really be saying is that, unlike humans, we can't control their behavior (or be controlled by them) through verbal means.

The dog is an interesting in-between case. He is Homo sapiens' only true friend in the animal kingdom, primed through millennia of selective breeding and symbiotic cohabitation with humans to be legible to us like no other non-anthropoid. We can read dogs' emotions; dogs can read ours. When we live with a dog for a while, we get an idea of what he's about—we see what motivates him, we understand who he likes and what gets on his nerves, and we might not be fooling ourselves when we believe that one dog is guided by a genuine desire to be of help to her human "parents," and another is a sybaritic creep driven by his foul appetites. If that sounds oddly specific, it's because I have in mind my folks' dogs: Gigi the yellow lab and Dexter the pug.

It's curious that dogs plainly exhibit personality and intelligence, but we still don't think of their actions as possessing any moral dimension one way or another. Maybe it's because my stepfather made his career out of applied animal behaviorism, but even though I'm apt to refer to Dexter the pug as a depraved and malevolent being (he's eaten my sister's cigarettes, covertly pisses on my the dresser in my old bedroom, performs blasphemous acts with his doggy bed, and has attempted to kill people for stepping over pet gates), I know it's not true. His behavior is merely the product of genetics and conditioning: pugs are a generally shrewd, stubborn, and gluttonous breed, and frankly, the folks were never such stern disciplinarians with Dexter because he's too small and ungainly to do any real damage. That's not to say he's poorly trained—getting him to stop whatever mischief he's up to is as easy as saying "Dexter, no," or "Dexter, come"—but he's opportunistic, and has been conditioned more by rewards than punishments. Dexter can't be reasoned with; he can only be incentivized.

We see humans entirely differently. We call ourselves rational actors, we claim to possess agency, and we say that we're able to understand the significance and consequences of our own actions. It isn't hard to understand why Aristotle differentiated man from the rest of the animal kingdom by attributing to him a "rational soul" stacked on top of the "nutritive" and "sensible" souls.

The connection between the behavior of non-human animals and their surroundings is fairly evident, at least on the molar level—hence the ease with which one may determine that animals are brutes, driven completely by instinct, impulse, and appetite.  If this is our understanding, there is no point in asking whether or not an animal possesses free will: he goes wherever his hunger takes him, and follows the goading imperatives of instinct at every turn.

But if even a kernel of truth is contained in the corpus of behavioral science (and I believe there's more than a kernel), then human beings are no different than any other animal in that a person's actions are a function of incentives, obstacles, his history of conditioning, his bodily constitution at a given moment, the particulars of the stimulating environment, etc. It seems to me that the difference between us and the rest of the animal kingdom is that verbal behavior enters into our determining arithmetic.

A fox can't respond to "if I see you by the chicken run again, I'm coming out with a shotgun" the way an English-speaking human can. A dog can't "listen with understanding" to the statement: "if you eat my cigarettes again I'll be really upset, so please don't okay?" The same dog cannot formulate self-directed verbal rules (such as "don't be an asshole") that might come into play the next time he comes across an unattended pack of American Spirits on the foyer stairs. But as verbal human beings, we can "narrate" our behavior to ourselves and explain it to others. We can communicate what we want, why we want it, and what we can/are willing to do to get it. We can threaten, encourage, and instruct. We can predict what we may do and share our forecast to others. We can describe past events to people who weren't there; we can tell people what we're thinking and feeling, and what we thought and felt in the past. "Explaining" our past, present, and prospective actions to ourselves can augment our responses to future events; giving reasons for our conduct to a listener may dispose them to behave different towards us; constructing narratives of somebody else's behavior (telling them how their actions are perceived) may change how they act in the future.³

Given the complexity and subtlety of the control which verbal stimuli exert over language-trained humans, and the gulf of separation between events in the nonarbitrary environment and speech/text/thought as casually efficacious agents, it's easy to understand why people are commonly perceived as possessing both rationality and agency. When somebody does something we did not expect them to, we might as how or why they acted as they did. In all probability, their answer will refer to or imply private behavior (thoughts, feelings, etc.) beyond our means to perceive, as will ours when somebody else asks us to explain the circumstances that led to us acting in one way or another. The obvious inference is that thoughts and feelings cause people to behave as they do.

BF Skinner often pointed out we don't examine our private lives until they become of interest to others, meaning that introspection is something we must be trained to perform. In all probability the abstract terms and relations a verbal community establishes to report private events inform the way those events are perceived; it's not unreasonable to suppose that the autonomy we seem to understand ourselves to possess, and the consciousness of moral duty that admonishes us when we would take an opportunity to gratify ourselves in sprite of social strictures, emerge as they do because of community practices, which often boil down to schedules of reinforcement and punishment.

When my roommate leaves a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, greasy pans on the stove, and empty beer cans all over the kitchen table before disappearing for the weekend, I'm (understandably) angry with him. I hold him to a different standard than the raccoon who keeps trying to pry the lid off the trash can in the backyard because I know my roommate is able to frame his actions in relation to a conceptualized self ("I am not a jerk, I am a good roommate"), to self-directed rules ("I shouldn't leave messes for Patrick to clean up, I shouldn't be a dick"), to events in his history ("the people I live with have asked me multiple times in the past to clean up after myself"), and so on.

I can either say my roommate is a rational agent endowed with free will who arrived at the decision to skip town and leave a trashed kitchen behind—or I can observe that his history of conditioning and present environment failed to elicit the behavior I would have preferred of him. On an intellectual level, sure, I believe the latter is the case. But even BF Skinner in this situation, and in the moment, would probably direct his ire towards the inconsiderate housemate, not the housemate's history of reinforcement. This would be doubly true in a case where the housemate wasn't absent from the situation—say, if Skinner walked into the kitchen to find me eating his donuts. He can't yell at my history, he can't excoriate my parents, teachers, and former roommates, and he can't get angry at Dottie's for making such fantastic donuts, but he can get angry and shout at me.⁴

We can't reasonably hold somebody responsible for their actions unless we presuppose their status as freely acting agents who could have chosen to do otherwise. This dovetails with Kant's remarks about the a priori status of moral laws, though not in the way he would conceptualize the matter: we're biologically formatted for emotional reactions against people who irritate, inconvenience, or harm us, which readily "translates" into the social constructions of liability, culpability, responsibility, etc. used to determine consequences.

It seems all we've done here is approach Kant's conjunction from a different avenue. It appears to be necessary to assume free will in order to treat people like people. Would it be possible for us to consider a vicious dictator or a serial rapist as unfortunate consequences of defective social environments instead of as competent actors who willfully abused their agency? Could you shrug off partisans of odious politics as blameless people whose worldview was developed under different circumstances than yours? How capable are we of learning to treat people who lie to, cheat, and steal from us with understanding condescension, the same way we do poorly trained dogs who simply never learned to behave themselves?

It's hard to say. I don't think any society has ever tried, and I doubt many would want to.

But that's one of the hooks the second Critique has got in me: when the rubber meets the road, is possible not to ascribe agency to people in the moment? If it's not possible, does nonbelief in free will have more theoretical than immanent meaning?

Alexej von Jawlensky, Savior's Face: Distant King—Buddha II (ca. 1921)

IMMORTALITY OF THE SOUL

'And whil we seken thilke divinitee
That is yhid in hevene prively,
Algate ybrend in this world shul we be.'
To whom Cecile answerde boldely:
'Men mighten dreden wel and skilfully
This life to lese, mine owene deere brother,
If this were living oonly, and noon oother...

Heh. More Chaucer.

Though he carries on about free will for half the book, Kant doesn't have much about the other two postulates until the Dialectic of Practical Reason. The first postulate, freedom, is so integral to his conceptual edifice that it is given special treatment. However, immortality and the existence of God are equally required (Kant says) to keep the structure upright. The antinomy of pure practical reason and Kant's resolution of it explain why.

In short, the antinomy is this: the highest good for a person is to be happy and virtuous, and the highest good for a possible world is one in which everybody is perfectly happy and perfectly virtuous. This is the end towards which our reason would have us strive. However, being virtuous does not ensure happiness—and, in fact, a strong moral compass can often lead toward unhappy outcomes. (Any number of corporate or government whistleblowers can tell you that.) Between a self-sacrificing and thankless life of virtue and a life abundance and happiness won through pragmatic, self-serving amorality, the latter probably makes a stronger case for itself. If virtue does not lead to happiness, then our reason is in conflict with itself, dispatching us on a snipe hunt. Ergo, the moral law is illusory bunk. 

In his first remarks toward resolving the antinomy, Kant speaks of contentment with oneself as sort of the thinking man's happiness: not liberation from the pathological inclinations that conflict with the moral duties dictated by reason, but an intellectual consciousness of duty and the satisfaction of adhering to it, even though one extracts no sensual or material gain from doing so. But—Kant is quite strict about his terminology, and when he says that the highest good is "happiness distributed in exact proportion to morality," he's not talking about mere contentment. It would appear that reason is still having us strive towards something that cannot be attained in our lifetime, and the antinomy still stands.

It would appear, then, that reason's only way out is to extend its conception of what's possible beyond the human lifespan and perceptible reality. And when practical reason conflicts with theoretical reason, Kant gives the former considerable latitude to force a compromise with the latter:

But if pure reason of itself can be and really is practical, as the consciousness of the moral law proves it to be, it is still only one and the same reason which, whether from a theoretical or practical perspective, judges according to a priori principles; and then it is clear that, even if from the first perspective its capacity does not extend to establishing certain propositions affirmatively, although they do not contradict it, as soon as these same propositions belong inseparably to the practical interest of pure reason it must accept them——indeed as something offered to it from another source, which has not grown on its own land but yet is sufficiently authenticated——and try to compare them with everything that it has within its power as speculative reason, being mindful, however, that these are not its insights but are yet extensions of its use from another, namely a practical perspective; and this is not in the least opposed to its interest, which consists in the restriction of speculative mischief.

Kant purports to solve the antinomy by postulating the existence of the immortal soul and of God. He shows due diligence in making clear that even though we cannot make any definite statements about God and the soul (because they're totally outside the possibility of experience), we can adopt them as presuppositions because it is in reason's interest to do so. If the moral law is a priori necessary, it must have impediments against efforts toward realizing the highest good removed.

First, then: the immortal soul. Kant doesn't follow the tack I expected him to here: I anticipated he'd use the possibility of happiness in a life to come as an incentive towards virtuous but materially unrewarding behavior in this life. But I seem to have forgotten that the first pages of the second Critique explicitly declare that material practical principles (which presuppose a reward at the end of a prospective course of action) can never be deemed moral. A blissful afterlife, then, must be ruled out as an incentive of pure practical reason.

Instead, Kant observes that happiness preconditioned on virtue is only a feasible proposition if we assume an unlimited duration of time. Therefore, we must suppose an immortal soul that can go on perfecting its moral virtues after the body expires. Perfecting is the key word here: as total conformity with the moral law is beyond any human's ability, all any of us can hope to do is to continually and asymptotically approach that perfection—which, again, requires the assumption that we'll be given an infinite amount of time to keep at it. Additionally, the expectation of an afterlife erects a conceptual guard rail against shirking one's moral duty through the rationalization that if fifty or sixty years were not enough to satisfy a moral ideal, there probably isn't any point in wracking one's conscience for the comparatively little time he has left.

This is a little kooky, and probably the result of Kant's desire to preserve and validate some of the content of Christian doctrine within his system. Once again, I wonder if there is an alternative formulation that satisfies the same function in Kant's overall scheme without compelling a citizen of the twenty-first century to consent to ancient (and unfeasible) religious dogmas in order to impose coherence upon their worldview.

In my insignificant opinion, the same functions could be served by a belief structure—or an inculcated network of relations between the verbally conceptualized self and the conceptualized world—in which the individual's selfhood is understood and defined in terms of its relatedness to the world and its processes.

There's already a germ of the empirical in Kant's ethical framework. When we determine that the choices we make and the actions we commit to must be those we would have everyone do under the same circumstances, we cannot do so without modelling the consequences. A priori practical principles remain empty and meaningless until somebody on actual Earth applies them to possible events. This version of the machinery is just programmed to look outwards at an earlier stage than Kant's model.

Kant maintains that we must postulate an immortal soul to prevent a moral lenience "conformed to our convenience;" but I don't think it's impossible that a worldview in which—

(1) One conceptualizes that the impact of his actions is eternal, and carries his mark even as its consequences continuously ramify until the end of time

(2) One understands moral action to unquestionably improve the world in the moment it is performed, and that it increases the possibility of good outcomes conditioned on the initial event

(3) One supposes that his approach toward moral perfection "injects" more and more good into the world (which, conceptualized, he values as he values himself), while conversely, dereliction from responsibility makes the world/himself a little worse

—would cultivate a consciousness of moral responsibility, provided one's identification as a unique entity existing in, integrated with, and given definition by a world composed of interrelated events is strong enough. 

Such a belief might be a little easier for the modern mind to accept than a nondenominational adaptation of Abrahamic eschatology, though it would never hold up to the scrutiny of a skeptic. But the point—and the dilemma, perhaps—is that acting as if such ideas were true might beneficial to everybody.

The most evident wrinkle here is that this substitution of a modified doctrine of karma for a modified promise of heaven cannot assure happiness as the eventual outcome of moral duty. Contentment is still possible, however. And maybe contentment is what our intelligence, our faculty of reason, our homeostasis-seeking biology, or however you want to imagine it, is actually shooting for.

But I feel like that's another conversation in and of itself.

Alexej von Jawlensky, Abstract Head: Sun–Color–Life (1926)


THE EXISTENCE OF GOD

I didn't happen upon any serendipitously relevant lines from Chaucer for this one. My apologies. 

This has got to be one of Kant's most interesting tricks.

In the first Critique, he firmly ruled out the possibility of metaphysical proofs of the existence of God. An all powerful, omniscient, and invisible deity? Where's the evidence? How can we claim to know anything about its existence one way or the other? The most we can do on theoretical grounds is admit that its reality is not impossible, and then sedulously leave it at that.

However, he did leave himself a deceptively ample amount of wiggle room—by doing away with the possibility of knowledge to leave room for belief (to paraphrase his own terms). While it's still totally impossible to prove the reality of God or enlarge on our knowledge of his nature (assuming the object of our cogitations isn't wholly imaginary), Kant hinted in the first Critique that there are good reasons for believing in the existence of a deity on practical grounds. In the second Critique he goes a step farther, claiming that presupposing God is given objective necessity by the imperatives of the moral interest:

[W]e ought to strive to promote the highest good (which must therefore be possible). Accordingly, the existence of a cause of all nature, distinct from nature, which contains the ground of this connection [between happiness and morality], namely of the exact correspondence between happiness and morality, is also postulated. However, the supreme cause is to contain the ground of the correspondence of nature not merely with a law of the will of rational beings but with the representation of this law, so far as they make it the supreme determining ground of the will, and consequently not merely with morals in their form but also with their morality as their determining ground, that is, with their moral disposition. Therefore, the highest good in the world is possible only insofar as a supreme cause of nature having a causality in keeping with the moral disposition is assumed....

[T]he moral law laws through the concept of the highest good, as the object and final end of pure reason, to religion, that is, to the recognition of all duties as divine commands, not as sanctions——that is, chosen and in themselves contingent ordinances of another's will——but as essential laws of every free will in itself, which must nevertheless be regarded as commands of the supreme being because only from a will that is morally perfect (holy and beneficent) and at the same time all-powerful, and so through harmony with this will, can we hope to attain the highest good, which the moral law makes it our duty to take as the object of our endeavors.

Do you remember the Martin Luther King quote about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice? It's an eloquent and inspiring piece of rhetoric, provided we take it as face value. What happens when we interrogate it—when we ask how sure we really are that we're never at risk of backsliding into the barbarism of a new dark age? In the event of a global collapse of civilization and an interregnum marked by chaos and violence, can we be sure that the societies that emerge will be more just and enlightened than ours before they fall? What if the rising oceans and expanding deserts spark an international conflict, a ticked-off head of state deploys the nuclear weapons, and every other nation with ICBMs empties their silos? What of the moral arc of the universe then? 

The only way we can countenance the idea of general moral progress—and of any connection between virtue and happiness—is to assume the existence of some agent, or otherwise of some process, guiding us toward the light at the end of the tunnel, whether through the deliberate application of a beneficent intelligence or as the outcome of some universal mechanism which we can neither perceive nor comprehend. 

If Kant's moral law isn't to cannibalize itself through the contradiction between the ideal outcome with the probable outcome, we're constrained to posit a universe that's constituted such that it keeps score. Reason can only conclude that moral duty is arbitrary and ultimately optional if it cannot discover (or posit) a cosmos that ineffably, imperceptibly works towards apportioning happiness in accordance with virtue. Either that cosmos must be intelligent and morally interested in and of itself, or it is otherwise overseen by an ultimate and morally interested architect. Moreover, the rational agent must be constituted such that his reason invariably tends toward the conclusion that harmonizing his will with that of this ultimate rational agent (acting such "that the maxim of [his] will could always hold at the same time as a universal law") is correct. Moral behavior merely affords one worthiness to be happy; immortality must also be postulated in order to conceive of the possibility of somehow and someday earning happiness in accordance with his virtue.⁵ 

Confession: I'm in over my head here.

On first glance, there's not much of a way out of this if we desire more from our morals than culturally contingent systems of norms and taboos. Any conception of objective, definite, non-negotiable right actions and wrong actions must be grounded upon a transcendent standard. Even the sensible-sounding declaration that "all human life is sacred" needs to be grounded in something—something not given to us in experience. We have to go beyond the empirical to get to it.

Maybe a black-and-white view of virtue isn't what we want. Perhaps we find the whole notion of moral objectivism untenable and opt to be pragmatists, taking a strictly situational and utilitarian conception of right and wrong. On paper, it certainly makes sense—but do we feel that, in effect, we're transferring our faith from the transcendent to the lucidity and impartial goodwill of technocrats? Exceedingly logical people have made some fairly insane moral pronouncements—the best example, to my mind, being the famed rationalist (and undoubted genius) who asserted that he'd consent to allowing somebody to suffer torture for fifty years if doing so resulted in nobody getting a dust speck in their eye ever, ever again.

Of course—in this situation, Yudkowsy could very well claim to observing the categorical imperative, acting as he would have anyone and everyone act in the same scenario.⁶ How dependent is Kant's supreme principle of morality on the way in which the actor frames his situation to himself?

For that matter, I wonder how would Kant negotiate the following dilemma: choose that either one person be painlessly killed in their sleep, or that fifty people are tortured for forty-eight hours but guaranteed to survive (and sure to come out traumatized). Which choice more upholds his principle of respect for persons?

I'm not sure there's a right or wrong answer, and I certainly haven't gotten deep enough into Kant's head to guess which choice he'd aver to be the verdict of an objective and universal reason. 

The question I keep coming back to is this: does belief in God, or otherwise in a nondenominational moral universe where a person's actions are understood to always matter and are objectively judged as right or wrong (in terms of their predication on some formulation of a golden rule or categorical imperative), tend to produce better or worse individual outcomes in terms of life-satisfaction, healthy relationships, social stability and equity, responsible consumption of resources, and so on?

If the answer is "better," then apparently the rational choice is to postulate the irrational. But then there's no telling how that evaluation would be made—and where there's religion, there's sectarianism, and where there's sectarianism, there's strife.

I just don't know. I need to put this book back down a while.

The two Critiques (I can't think of them as independent texts) are wondrous, fascinating, and vertiginously profound documents, and I doubt I'll ever truly understand or agree with them. And what gives me such an itch is knowing that my criticisms of Kant are like arrows breaking against the walls of a stone fortress. Kant's system is too architecturally stable to be endangered by a cavillous layman.

I find myself guilty of the same faults I saw in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953). Picking holes in a conceptual system presupposes another system, whether or not you've laid it out for yourself and stress-tested it; and if you haven't, you can't be certain of the internal consistency of your perspective. Arguing with Kant, it's hard not to feel like you're stepping onto the proverbial debate stage wearing only your underpants.

I'll read the third and final Critique next year. Maybe I'll know more about what I think by then.


1. I haven't read much Boethius, so I'll just copypaste an excerpt from an anonymous document yielded by a Google search for "conditional necessity:"

[Boethius] says we must distinguish between two kinds of necessity:

(1) "Simple" necessity (e.g., all human beings are mortal; the Sun rises)

(2) "Conditional" necessity (e.g., IF you know that a man is walking, then it is necessary that he is in fact walking).

(2) does not entail (1). With (2), the necessity does not flow from the thing’s NATURE, but rather from the CONDITION (of knowledge). In this way, "the same future event seems to be necessary when it is referred to divine knowledge, but complete and absolutely free when weighed in the balance of its own nature." (ibid.) In short, in God’s mind, there IS necessity. In the event itself, there is not.

2. See the previous Kantpost.

3. There's nothing spooky about any of this. It doesn't require any transcendent principles or numinous "faculties" but the human being as a behaving organism that can be trained to derive stimulus relations, respond to one stimulus in terms of another, transform its response patterns to stimuli via contact with dissimilar and arbitrarily related stimuli (i.e., language), etc. We grant that self-consciousness is indeed ineffable, but what's happening in the "mind" directly correlates to complex events in the body, delineated by the same rules of causal connection which regulate events in the material world at large. What we experience as a moment of introspection is in fact a physiological process which we are uniquely capable of observing, and which we cannot intelligibly describe in any terms but those consistent with what we observe and the manner in which we observe it.

Many casual explanatory narratives of behavior (ours and others') are prone to to the inaccuracies and inventions of interpretation, but that's not to say we understand ourselves and others so poorly that none of our observations touch on the actual variables and relations at work.

4. Philadelphia's own Dottie's Donuts. Delicious and incidentally vegan. Yes, yes—in my ten-volume fanfiction series, BF Skinner sometimes visits me in town and eats vegan donuts.

5. Our "karma" postulate alternative to Kant's immortality postulate makes the same assumption. Fascinating, the way these two "lesser" postulates necessitate each other.

6. What would Yudkowsy say if the lottery chose him to to be waterboarded for fifty years so nobody would ever have to blink and rub their eyes again?

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