Dissing Kant

Eric Schwitzgebel reminds us of some of Kant’s more appalling views (on women, homosexuality, masturbation, servants, organ donation, and the legitimacy of killing bastards), and draws some interesting conclusions.

First, from our cultural distance, it is evident that Kant’s arguments against masturbation, for the return of wives to abusive husbands, etc., are gobbledy-gook. This should make us suspicious that there might be other parts of Kant, too, that are gobbledy-gook, for example, the stuff that transparently reads like gobbledy-gook, such as the transcendental deduction, and such as his claims that his various obviously non-equivalent formulations of the fundamental principle of morality are in fact “so many formulations of precisely the same law” (Groundwork, 4:436, Zweig trans.). I read Kant as a master at promising philosophers what they want and then thowing up a haze of words with glimmers enough of hope that readers can convince themselves that there is something profound underneath.

Second, we cannot expect ordinary people to be better philosophical moral reasoners than Kant. Kant’s philosophical moral reasoning appears mainly to have confirmed his prejudices and the ideas inherited from his culture. Therefore, we should be nervous about expecting more from the philosophical moral reasoning of people less philosophically capable than Kant.

14 thoughts on “Dissing Kant

  1. I’m no philosopher, but I’ve always felt the same way about his philosophy of mathematics. His claims about Euclidean geometry obviously (it was ‘synthetic a priori’, right?) the truth about how space works should be considered somewhat embarrassing, I think.

  2. Schwitzgabel makes a better go of the first objection in the comments. Reading Kant requires a lot of trust to begin to understand his system and conclusions. Based on the above BS, should we now extend our trust to someone who so clearly makes poor moral judgments?

  3. “Kant’s philosophical moral reasoning appears mainly to have confirmed his prejudices and the ideas inherited from his culture.”

    Yeah, but whose hasn’t? Philosophers tend ot look around at what they see, or what they think they would like to see in the future, and come up with a logical argument argument for either 1. maintaining the context or 2. using the tools available within their context to develop a new one. Look at Aristotle… he was perhaps just formulating what was virtuous in the demographic he liked in his time, rather than what is universally virtuous (if such a thing can even be said).

  4. I am struck by the remark:

    we cannot expect ordinary people to be better philosophical moral reasoners than Kant.

    That seems very questionable, and I’m surprised to see Eric say it. For one thing, it’s well recognized that there are kinds of brilliance that are wonderful with abstract principles, but not good at feeling empathy for other human beings. Of course, an incapacity for empathy is a controversial requirement for good moral reasoning (gasp!), but one could argue it is.

    In addition, we have standpoint theory that might well put into question whether Kant could even recognize many relevant considerations.

    In short, Kant really does seem a defective moral reasoner with gaps that needn’t plague all of us.

  5. I see Eric says “philosophical moral reasoner,” as though maybe ordinary people can have practical wisdom, but not enough to build theories. I think that, given what I just remarked above, I might say that they can be better at building parts of them.

    Perhaps we should say that moral theories should be built in groups of investigaters, where the group might be spread out over time, as one person builds on what others in the past have thought.

    I hope this isn’t muddying the waters!

  6. Does anyone find any similar objection to the Practical Imperative, to treat other persons as ends only and never merely as means, leaving aside who counts as persons? I think it is his best contribution to moral philosophy.

  7. It’s funny, in one way I expect that if philosophers like Kant and Aristotle were so smart, and so insightful, and so contemplative, then they should have been able to pierce through the fog of their own culture and recognize that certain ideas are just worn-out traditions and folk knowledge.

    And then I remember, that although they are geniuses, they’re still men. And some of the smartest, most brilliant, most insightful men that I know in my life think the stupidest things about gender. And some of the wisest, most insightful white people I know think the most inane things about race.

    It’s a shock to realize that some ideas run so deep, that even our most revered thinkers can be absolutely blind to them.

    And it’s a shock to realize that even though people like Heidegger and Wittgenstein could probably think circles around me on most occasions, I have seen connections and deduced patterns that went completely over their heads.

    But, although we should call out bad philosophy where we see it, unless we’re okay with abandoning most or all of Western intellectual thought, it’s too much to say that sexist gobbledy-gook is a symptom of overall gobbledy-gook.

    Sexism makes you stupid. But it doesn’t make you stupid about everything.

  8. sexism makes you ignorant, not stupid. -otherwise, how could we hope to educate people out of it?

    i’d rather eat my shoes than study kant, but it still seems important to point out that we none of us figured out what we know on our own. finding truth is a group effort. to the extent that we can see kant’s gobbledy-gook as gobbledy-gook, i suspect we can because thinkers before and around us have helped put all the little pieces together. kant wasn’t working with as many in-place pieces, just like we’re surely not working with as many as will be available in future. (but btw, jender, you forgot to mention animals. his views on animals are very sickening.)

  9. It might be worth bearing in mind here that, as he says in one of his comments, Schwitzgabel is inclined to think that Kant is distinguished by a “pattern of awfulness” which sets him apart from Hume (and, presumably, many other philosophers who held views we now immediately recognize as morally abhorrent but which don’t bear the sort of relation to their philosophical thinking which Schwitzgabel believes obtains in the case of Kant).

  10. I think this post is aptly titled.

    Kant’s infelicity with examples is well-known, and goes beyond his sexist interpretation of the moral law to much less-intricate problems, like the very-misleading example of the frugal shopkeeper in the Groundwork.

    I do think that Kant can be harnessed in anti-oppressive philosophical projects. Quite a few philosophers — mostly women — have invested quite a bit of effort in arguing for that point.

    Speaking as someone who would much rather study Kant than eat her shoes, the post and comments did not so much persuade, engage, or raise questions… but they did alienate me from the discussion.

  11. I have to admit that I worry sometimes about which of my “enlightened” views today will be seen as disgusting in the future, or whether I’m participating in some abhorrent practice for which future generations will condemn me. Can it really be that we have it all figured out?

  12. @ Lani post 7 I agree that the PI to always treat others as ends and never as mere means is an excellent contribution to philosophy, and one that has been useful politically as well (e.g. human rights, bioethics and informed consent, etc.).

    The only beef that I would have with the PI is when it is taken to constitute respect in its entirety (and of course the personhood issues you mention, as well as the idea that dignity is based only on rational autonomy). And, the PI is often taken to constitute respect for persons entirely. But this leaves out a number of things I think are also important to respect, such as care and working for social justice.

    Robin Dillon has an interesting article “Respect and Care” (1992) in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy that adds care to respect. Victor Seidler has an interesting book “Kant, Respect and Injustice” which is pretty critical of Kant because of how he isolates the moral from the social. Seidler would agree that the PI is important, but he thinks that it obscures social relations that are unjust and does not allow us to engage with or change those relations (and in fact discourages these changes).

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