In the first section of his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant remarks that “[n]othing in the world– indeed nothing even beyond the world –can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will” (393). What, then, is a good will according to Kant? Later Kant goes on to remark that,
…the first proposition of morality is that to have genuine moral worth, an action must be done from duty. The second proposition is: An action done from duty does not have its moral worth in the purpose which is to be achieved through it but in the maxim whereby it is determined. Its moral value, therefore, does not depend upon the realization of the object of action but merely on the principle of the volition by which the action is done irrespective of the objects of the faculty of desire…
The third principle, as a consequence of the two preceding, I would express as follows: Duty is the necessity to do an action from respect for law. (399 – 400)
For Kant, then, it is the intention that animates an action that determines whether or not the action is an action of a good will, not the consequences that follow from the action. Regardless of whether or not the action produces happy consequences the action is an action of a good will if it is done for the sake of duty alone. Likewise, it is not my desire to produce a better world, insure that my daughter has opportunities, etc., that determines whether or not the action is an action of a good will, but rather whether the action is done for the sake of duty alone.
It is crucial to understand that for Kant we do not arrive at our duties extraneously (or in Kant-speak, “heteronomously”) through education, sacred texts, etc., but rather through reason. Our duties both arise from reason and are given to us through reason. Our duties thus do not come to us from the outside as in the case of a monarch giving his people certain laws. Rather, our duties are given to us by our own reason. We are both the authors of the moral law, the legislators, and our own judges. For Kant, the vocation of reason lies in the formulation of such moral laws. To demonstrate this thesis, Kant presents a rather dated argument from design. As Kant writes,
In the natural constitution of an organized being (i.e., one suitably adapted to life), we assume as an axiom that no organ will be found for any purpose which is not the fittest and best adapted to that purpose. Now if its preservation, its welfare, in a word its happiness, were the real end of nature in a being having reason and will, then nature would have hit upon a very poor arrangement in appointing the reason of the creature to be the executor of this purpose. For all the actions which the creature has to perform with this intention of nature, and the entire rule of his conduct, would be dictated much more exactly by instinct, and the end would be far more certainly attained by instinct than it ever could be by reason. And if, over and above this, reason should have been granted to the favored creature, it would have served only to let him contemplate the happy constitution of his nature, to admire it, to rejoice in it, and to be grateful for it to its beneficent cause. But reason would not have been given in order that the being should subject his faculty of desire to that weak and delusive guidance and to meddle with the purpose of nature. In a word, nature would have taken care that reason did not break forth into practical use [moral use] nor have the presumption, with its weak insight, to think out for itself the plan of happiness and the means of attaining it. Nature would have taken over the choice not only of ends but also of the means, and with wise foresight she would have entrusted both to instinct alone. (395)
In the preceding paragraphs Kant shows all the ways in which reason is poorly suited for achieving happiness, and how it even generates unhappiness when exercised (Kant will make this point even more forcefully in the Critique of Practical Reason, where he suggests that the more we obey the moral law the more demanding it becomes, thereby anticipating the Freudian concept of the superego and pointing the way to an account of why those who strive to be moral are often wracked with the greatest sense of guilt). The argument is thus that because every organ is designed for a purpose that is well suited to exercising a particular function, and because reason is poorly suited for producing happiness, the vocation of our faculty of reason is not happiness, welfare, or survival, but rather morality.
My aim in this post is not the evaluation of Kant’s particular moral philosophy, but rather the formulation of the problem that lies at the heart of the work that Jeff Bell, Joe Hughes and I are currently exploring. In my last post, I proposed an archeological form of reading that approaches philosophical texts not in terms of their letter (though such a reading certainly attends to the letter of a text), but which, rather, seeks to uncover the problem, the problematic field, that animates the text. In connection to Kant we can thus ask what problem concepts such as “good will”, “duty”, “reason”, etc. respond to?
Initially we might respond that Kant’s problem lies in the question of what morality is, how we evaluate right and wrong, how we determine what our duties are, and so on. However, while Kant is certainly grappling with these issues, they don’t properly constitute the problem to which Kant is responding. Rather, if we are to understand the problem to which Kant is responding, we would have to ask why his moral thought is posed in precisely these terms and not others. There is a marked contrast, for example, between the moral thought of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Kant. In the former case the ethical aim consists in achieving peace of mind, freedom from anxiety, and in overcoming fear of death. Whereas in Kant’s moral framework these concerns are outside the domain of morality altogether because they are projects that are motivated by a purpose or an aim, not a duty.
So really, our question is why does Kant’s moral thought take the form of duty rather than aiming for happiness or eudaimonia? To what problem does the concept of duty respond? It seems to me that we find the clue to answering this question in Kant’s concept of reason. Put more abstractly, reason is that faculty which thinks the universal, the whole, and totalities. For example, when Newton formulates equation for gravity, he is using reason. Why? Not because he is “thinking logically” or “rationally”, but because he has formulated a principle that underlies a heterogeneity or diversity of phenomena. This equation shows one and the same principle underlying the falling of a feather, the trajectory of a cannon ball, the relationship of the earth to the moon, and the relationship of the earth and moon to the sun. What the equation for gravity thinks is the universal underlying the diverse. Likewise, when an ecologist examines the manner in which different species enter relations of dependency with one another and how climate is dependent on these interactions between species and interactions of species are dependent on climate, they are in the domain of reason. If this is the domain of reason, then it is because it thinks a totality or how elements are related to one another within a totality.
Thus, on the one hand, reason thinks universals, totalities, and wholes, whereas understanding is the domain of analysis, breaking things down into smaller parts. The periodic table of elements, for example, is an instance of the work of understanding as it breaks complex matter down into simple parts, whereas string theory and quantum mechanics are instances of reason as they strive to think the system that relates all of these heterogeneous elements to one another. Likewise, an inventory of the phonemes that compose a language is an instance of understanding, whereas an account of how all these phonemes relate to one another in a system is an instance of reason. Reason is synthetic, whereas understanding is analytic.
Now, the key point not to be missed is that reason goes beyond or transcends the given. In thinking a whole or totality, we go beyond or transcend what is immediately given, instead thinking the system upon which this given is dependent. This simple observation about the nature of reason, I think, allows us to formulate the problem that Kant is responding to. The root problem at the heart of Kant’s moral philosophy is not “how do we determine our duties, the difference between right and wrong, etc.”, but rather how is it possible to transcend the given?
What does this mean? Remember Kant is responding to the empiricists and, in particular, Hume. In my view, Kant’s reading of Hume is rather unfair (cf. Jeffrey Bell’s reading of Hume for a sophisticated account of empiricism in Deleuze’s Hume: Philosophy, Culture, and the Scottish Enlightenment, but his worry seems to be that empiricism ineluctably leads to the conclusion that we are nothing but bundles of habits produced by our past experiences. If this is the case, then we are marionettes of our environment. Put in Kant-speak, our wills are determined heteronomously, rather than autonomously.
As a consequence, if, for example, I were raised in an abusive, alcoholic family, then I would be incapable of imagining any other way of existing and behaving because this environment exhausts my experience. Likewise, if I’ve grown up as a man or woman prior to women’s suffrage movements, I would be incapable of thinking any other form of gender relations (and likewise growing up in the South prior to civil rights or in Nazi Germany). The limits of my experience (the given) would define the limits of the possibilities that I can conceive or imagine. The result would thus be that action can do nothing but reproduce the environment within which it finds itself because action is based on cognition and our cognitive possibilities are internalizations of the environment in which we find ourselves.
The question of how it is possible to transcend the given or our environment is thus pressing for two reasons: First, the ability for us to think and live otherwise is dependent on our ability to transcend the given, to go beyond the given, so as to envision other ways of existing. Second, if responsibility is to be possible, then this requires the autonomous determination of action. If action is determined heteronomously through the internalization of the environment or the given defining the field of what it is possible to imagine, then there can be no real question of being responsible for our actions. The Nazi here would not be responsible for his treatment of Jews because his attitudes towards Jews are nothing but an internalization of his environment.
This question of how it is possible to transcend the given can be seen all over the place in contemporary theory. When Badiou and Zizek, for example, raise the question of how a subject is possible, they are essentially asking how it is possible to transcend the given (global capitalism, ideology, reigning beliefs, etc). On the other hand, we have orientations of theory that seem to argue that we are nothing but products of the given (Althusser’s theory of ideology, Foucault’s account of power, linguistic and social constructivisms, and so on).
Having made some progress towards uncovering the problem that animates Kant’s thought, it seems to me that there are two particular problems with his solution, one ontological, the other practical (moral/political). Ontologically, Kant’s conception of mind and reason fails to fit with the nature of being as processual, developmental, or genetic. The faculty of reason “just is” something we have, and thus we have the capacity, by virtue of possessing reason, to transcend the given. However, in a universe where everything else is a product of a genesis, such a conception of reason fails to hold up. Kant treats reason or the capacity to transcend the given as a given that need only be exercised to transcend the given. In Deleuze’s Hume, Jeffrey Bell, following Deleuze, argues, by contrast, that we must think a genesis of transcendence from within the given. In other words, our question should be how it is possible for such transcendence to emerge from the given. And here, in a social and political context, I would suggest that we should cease speaking of subjects, but rather of collectives. Here the question would be that of how it is possible for collectives to emerge that are capable of transcending the given.
On the other hand, Kant’s solution suffers from a practical problem or an ethical/political problem. Because he locates transcendence as a capacity that is already given within the subject by virtue of the fact that the subject possesses the faculty of reason, he is necessarily led to ignore the context or environments within which subjects exist. Indeed, Kant actually builds this into the very fabric of his moral theory, arguing that in applying the categorical imperative we should ignore all circumstance, specificity, or context, attending only to the rule or maxim. As a consequence, Kant gives us an ideological conception of the subject where we can safely ignore contexts, fields, environments, networks, etc., because the subject always-already has the capacity to transcend these things. The result is that we ignore these things altogether, treating ethical and political questions as if they could be posed in a ideal, normative vacuum where no analysis of fields is necessary. For example, the Lockean liberal in the United States insists up and down that the poor person is free, ignoring the fact that the poor person has no way of exercising her freedom. We encounter similar problems with Badiou and Zizek. In Badiou we encounter a paucity of situational analysis precisely because Badiou’s subjects are self-determining agents, free of all constraints. Likewise, Zizek’s subject is always able to break with any situation through a self-constituting Act. What we thus get is an abstract theorization of the relationship between subject and situation.
What we require is a theoretical framework that is able to simultaneously or concretely think both the genesis of a transcendence within the given and the structuration of fields. In his early work Absolutely Postcolonial, Peter Hallward draws a distinction between singular orientations of thought, specified orientations of thought, and specific orientations of thought. Singular orientations of thought treat some agency as completely self-determining such that it is subtracted from any heteronomous constraints. Here Hallward gives the example of Spinoza’s substance, but also orientations of thought such as that of Badiou’s or Zizek’s. Specified orientations of thought treat agencies as purely determined heteronomously by other forces such as biology, language, culture, power, and so on. Here we get racial and gender essentialisms, certain sociobiologies, as well as a number of social and linguistic culturalisms. The specific, by contrast, refers to forms of agency that emerge from a broader field, which are engaged with that specific field, but which are also capable of transcending the given. What I am looking for is an ethical, social, and political theory capable of thinking the specific against the specified and singular.