Review: The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers

Zak Penn and Joss Whedon; film, directed by Joss Whedon (Manhattan Beach, CA:  Marvel Studios, 2012)

            “It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”   Loki of Asgard

If, as Hamann thought, there is more joy in hearing five words of truth from a blasphemer than in a chorus sung by legions of angels, then there is little more delightful than finding philosophy in a Summer Smash’em Up Blockbuster Film.  That was the joy I found from this movie.  It makes the whole Ph.D. student debt thing totally worth it.

The movie revolves around a super-secret organization , S.H.I.E.L.D.  (for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) attempting to exploit an alien artifact of immeasurable power, and the trouble caused when beings who understand and can control that power far better arrive on Earth to claim it.  Thus put, the premise doesn’t sound much more exciting than the motivating force of the aliens in Plan Nine from Outer Space.  Human hubris leads to tinkering in Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, which in turn attracts the attention of powerful beings who feel they were meant to know, and then the wackiness ensues.  The philosophy, however, is deeper than that, and involves the very essence of human nature:  freedom.  Freedom is the ultimate question.  Are we mere organic mechanisms seeking nutrition and procreation, material complexes with no more freedom than a rock finding its way down the hill?  Or are we beings that create ourselves at least as much as we are created, choosing our own goals and values?

Given that the movie is largely driven by the sibling rivalry of two Aesir, it is fitting to analyze it through the eyes of Teutonic philosophers.  Loki seems to be the most philosophically inclined character, or at least the most philosophically verbose; so I shall start with him.  Loki presents himself not as a tyrant, but as a savior.  He has come, he says, to bring peace and joy to all humanity.  And he will do that, he says, by taking away human freedom.  Freedom is a burden, an oppressive responsibility; surrendering freedom allows one to enjoy the pleasures of life while allowing others to make the big decisions.  In essence, Loki seems to have put his finger on the problem of anxiety.  As discussed by Vigilius Haufniensis, anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom.”[1]  When confronted with a real, significant choice, good/or evil, life/or death, salvation/or damnation, the individual is overwhelmed by his or her own sense of power—-the power to go wrong.  The individual may know what choice he or she ought to make, as Adam knew not to eat the apple; but all the individual concretely knows is that a possibility exists.  There is no rational reason why the individual would choose evil; there is only the vertigo of freedom, the anxiety of possibility, and the individual swoons.  When the individual realizes he or she has chosen wrong, it becomes all the more difficult to deal with the continued burden of freedom, compounded now by the actual knowledge of good and evil (as opposed to the mere possibility of freedom with no first-hand knowledge of the alternatives).  Most individuals, Haufniensis says, find the burden of freedom intolerable, and seek to give up their individuality.  Freedom becomes the very thing they flee; conformism, philistinism, determinism become salvation. Haufniensis calls this attitude “the demonic.”[2]

Loki is the very personification of the Kierkegaardian demonic.  Your pain, Loki says, comes from the unending, wearisome task of constantly making oneself, the burden of freedom.  I will take that burden from you, and I will tell you what you are and what you may become; then you will have peace.  Haufniensis would say that whether we know it or not, most of us take Loki’s offer.

And in the scene where Loki makes this offer to a crowd of terrified Germans, who is the one individual who stands up and chooses to die rather than live as a slave?  It is the one who has first-hand experience with a previous offer of this sort.  This too fits the philosophy:  Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, among others, drew on Kierkegaard’s explanation of anxiety and the demonic to explain the appeal of Hitler and Stalin in their own day.  It is perhaps unfortunate that the man did not die; his being saved by Captain America could seem to symbolize the idea that individual freedom is protected by the United States, and I don’t think that was the intention.  From the Kierkegaardian perspective, expecting any human agency to safeguard your personhood would be to surrender your personhood.  On the other hand, of course, Captain America doesn’t make the man free; he did that for himself.  All Captain America can do is show up later and try to shield the individual from the physical risks of having declared himself to be an individual.

But before I try to discuss the superheroes, I want to look at Loki himself.  He says of himself, “I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose….  I come with glad tidings, of a world made free (from) freedom.  Freedom is life’s great lie.  Once you accept that, in your heart… you will know peace.”  This is from the opening scene of the movie, and it is the most Nietzschean thing he says.  In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche writes that freedom is a lie, invented to make men responsible for their actions—to make them guilty.  By telling them they were free and hence guilty, they could in fact be bound by their sense of guilt.  By contrast, the immoralists proclaim the psychological theory that there is no freedom, that all human action is determined by the instincts, and hence there is no guilt.[3]  Loki has come to free humanity from the burden of freedom, and thus to give them peace.  And in fact, he himself is not free, either.  He says of himself that he is “burdened.”  Banner says of Loki, “That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats, you could smell crazy on him.”  He is not free; he is driven by forces beyond his control—-by the bargains he made to get an army, by his ambition, by his hubris, his envy, and in short, by his instincts and his will-to-power.  If he has come to free humanity from freedom, he has started by liberating himself from its burden; now he is in thrall to his “glorious purpose.”

This very lack of freedom is what gives Loki his strength, and what initially weakens his opponents.  As he describes them, “You were made to be ruled.  In the end, it will be every man for himself.”  Hobbes comes to mind here; the only escape from war of each against all, says Hobbes, is when all surrender their freedom to a greater power that will enforce peace between the rest.[4]  Without an absolute monarch or other overwhelming leader, there is anarchy; no one can trust another so none can cooperate.  Initially, that seems to be the truth of the so-called Avengers:  “we’re not a team, we’re a time bomb.”  As free men, they struggle against each other, each determined to be the High Alpha of all Alpha Males.   As Hobbes would put it,  “All men (are) by nature equal… From equality proceeds diffidence…. From diffidence (proceeds) war.”[5]

The turning point in this story of superheroes is the death of a perfectly ordinary person, Phil Coulson.  In fact, it could well be said that he is the one who saves Earth.  Everything up to that point has shown Loki pulling everyone else’s strings, either literally turning them into puppets through his mind control “spell” or metaphorically by playing them off against each other.  The superheroes have spent more time bashing each other, or spying on S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, than they have fighting their supposed enemy.  Loki’s plans come to fruition when he finally traps Thor, turn the Hulk loose to fight the others, and cripples S.H.I.E.L.D. ‘s command ship.  He seems to have won.  At the moment of his victory, he is confronted by a perfectly ordinary S.H.I.E.L.D.  agent with a more-than-ordinary gun.  He’s still no match for a god, though, and Loki mortally wounds him.  The scene continues:

[after dropping Thor to earth, Loki turns to leave but Coulson stops him]
Agent Phil Coulson: You’re gonna lose.
Loki: Am I?
Agent Phil Coulson: It’s in your nature.
Loki: Your heroes are scattered, your floating fortress falls from the sky. Where is my disadvantage?
Agent Phil Coulson: You lack conviction.
Loki: I don’t think I…
[suddenly shoots Loki through the wall with the Phase 2 weapon which blasts out fire]
Agent Phil Coulson: So that’s what it does.

Minutes later Coulson dies, but not before expressing his belief that his death would be the catalyst that would bind the superheroes together as a group.  And in fact, that is precisely what happens.  With his self-sacrificial death, the heroes gain a sense of unity.  They become a team, “The Avengers,” their proclaimed goal to protect the Earth but their more pressing motive to avenge Coulson.  His sacrifice, his willingness to do his duty even when all logic said it was hopeless, moves them to put aside their rivalries and to work together for a higher purpose.  They gain conviction.  Loki lacks conviction.  He has no cause, no “idea for which I may live and die.”[6]  It is not his nature to put anyone or anything first, to “get behind” a cause.  And ultimately, that means he will abandon any cause that seems to be failing in order to try to save himself.  It is thus in his nature to lose, rather than to take the risks or make the sacrifices necessary to win.  By contrast, the superheroes sacrifice their safety, and what is more important to them than safety; each sacrifices his own personal sense of his superiority and independence.  Each must sacrifice a little pride, a little sense of self-sufficiency, to become part of a team.  When each subordinates his pride to the higher cause, they are able to win as a group.

Ultimately, The Avengers is about two conflicting paths to unity.  Loki’s path is the abandonment of freedom.  In this conception, “freedom” is an intolerable burden for the individual and fatally divisive for the group; the only way to attain personal peace or group success is to recognize freedom as “the great lie,” and to instead subordinate the people to the unifying will of a leader who is himself only a pawn for forces he barely recognizes and cannot control.  The other path accepts the individual differences and disagreements, rivalries and conflicts, personalities and freedom; but these are subordinated to a conviction.  When individuals freely accept a cause for which each can live and die, they have a unity without slavery.  They can accept authority for the purpose of achieving a task, and the one with authority can accept the individuality of the other and join it to the group rather than treating others as threats to his (or her) own status.[7]

It’s not my purpose to write a review that will tell people whether to go or not go to this particular movie.  My guess is that whether or not one enjoys a film has more to do with individual taste; and in any case, enjoying a movie because it got a good review is like laughing at a joke because someone else told you it was funny.  And I don’t suppose it even makes much sense to tell you that if you do go to see this movie, you should enjoy it for the philosophy rather than for the special effects or clever dialogue.  But there is joy in finding truth where one did not expect it, and that is a joy that anyone may experience who is open to it.  When one finds that joy oneself, one wants to share the news of one’s good fortune; that is what I have done here.  And if reading this helps anyone to be more open to reflecting on the moral and philosophical values of his or her own experiences and entertainments, so much the better.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety:  a simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin; edited and translated, with an introduction and notes by Reider Thomte in collaboration with Albert B. Nelson (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1980) p. 61

[2] Concept of Anxiety, pp. 118-54

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York:  Penguin Books, 1978) pp. 499-500

[4] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan:  or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, edited by Michael Oakeshott, with an introduction by Richard S Peters (New York:  Simon and Schuster Inc.  1997) pp. 98-141

[5] Leviathan pp. 98-99

[6] as Kierkegaard writes of seeking for himself; it was this sort of conviction that Kierkegaard said led him ultimately to turn from egoism to the ethical-religious life.

[7] Even the Hulk can be a team player, when Captain America gives the proper order:  “Hulk:  smash.” I can think of no better example of a leader who recognized the individual strengths and needs of each team member, and who gave “orders” that allowed each to apply his or her uniqueness most appropriately.

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34 Responses to “Review: The Avengers (2012)”

  1. Nemo Says:

    Interesting review. I have a question though. How is sacrificing for a higher cause different from surrendering to an authority? After all, one of the main reasons why Hitler came to power was because he masqueraded himself as the champion of a higher cause for the German people.

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      Thank you for the question.

      Well, Kierkegaard’s answer would be that a person is not a “higher” power—-it’s giving yourself up to something that is no better than you are. Kierkegaard refers to eternal principles. His thought is in line here with Kant’s categorical imperative; the truly moral cause is universalizable. Hitler clearly was not “universalizable;” Nazism was against at least as many people as it was for. It treated a partial goal (Aryan culture and blood) as if it were an absolute goal. And as paradoxical as it might seem, the truly universalizable is liberating, while the totalitarian devotion to a partial goal destroys individuality. After all, if I am devoted to my moral duty, I am the one who has to figure out how to apply these universal principles to my individual situation.

      To put this in the context of the film, look at Loki’s approach to authority vs. Captain America’s. Loki is proud to call himself “a god,” and expects others to kneel to him. In exchange, he promises to free them from all the difficult decisions that come with personal freedom. Captain America gives orders and takes them, but both his obedience and his commands are conditional and limited to achieving a task. When he feels that SHIELD might be betraying higher moral principles, he is willing to sneak around and do some investigating on his own. When he gives an order, he expects it to be obeyed not because he is the strongest, but because it is a good order. Even the stubborn individualists in the group accept his leadership for the sake of attaining the goals of the group; but they never surrender their autonomy. This is because they are not surrendering to Captain America or even to The USA; they are surrendering to duty, to the Higher Good, the moral law in the Kantian sense (or perhaps the Millsian sense). Kant would say that when you act for the sake of your own pleasure and advancement, you become unfree and less of an individual because you are a slave to external circumstances and stimuli; when you act for the sake of the good, you are free because you are autonomous (literally, “self ruled” or “self-lawed”) acting for the sake of your own conscious regardless of what the world throws at you as temptations or obstacles. And again, Captain America affirms the individuality of his team; Loki ceases to erase individuality. The old man in the crowd is right to see that sort of totalitarian conformism as equivalent to Hitler’s rule. The “higher cause” that I am trying to define does not erase one’s personhood; it affirms it and supports it. Without it, you “lack conviction” and it is your nature to lose—lose yourself.

      Nazism is a “higher cause” than mere egoism; it does give one a sense of belonging to something “bigger.” At the same time, the roof is comfortably low; it is human, confining, a psychological womb: it offers everything to the person contained in it, except freedom to act independently. If anxiety is like agoraphobia, a truly “higher cause” as I mean the phrase is like a Gothic cathedral; the roof is high, drawing the eyes upward and drawing you out of yourself, and you still have a whole lot of space to move around so you have to find your precise place in the whole. A lesser cause is a prison, where you know your place and how it relates to all the other places, and nothing is really expected from you except that you follow the rules and do as your told. And that sort of regimented, proscribed existence can be very comforting, as compared to the dizziness of freedom. TTFN

      • Nemo Says:

        If you like the question, there are plenty where that came from. 🙂 Since I have not seen the movie, I won’t comment on that but focus on the philosophical question instead.

        How do you define”higher”?Whether it be a cathedral or prison, the space in which one can move is still very confined. What I’m looking for is a qualitative not quantitative difference.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Well, the Kierkegaadian perspective is “eternal” or “absolute” goals vs. partial, aesthetic goals. In Either/Or the ethical pseudonym Judge William urges the reader to “realize the universal human.” These are universalizable duties; that is, they can apply to everyone. For example (something I will come back to later), it is the duty of every man to work for a living (I’ll use gender-specific language here since Judge William does in the book). William further specifies that one’s work should be a vocation, not merely busywork; it should be the best possible to fully express and fulfill one’s nature. By contrast, the aesthetic author of the first volume of Either/Or says that every person should avoid commitments, and that one’s work should simply be the time-out between doing the things one really enjoys and really suit one’s nature.

        In the movie terms, I think Captain America may illustrate what I’m trying to get at in non-Kierkegaardian terms. He is clearly the character most comfortable with giving and following orders, and he is utterly devoted to his nation. However, his devotion is to the idealized America, the values and ideals and aspirations of the American spirit. His devotion to those higher values even allows him to disobey and question his superiors. Both his patriotism and his willingness to go beyond patriotism show up even in the first movie. He is willing to disobey orders, to save lives or to really fulfill his nature as a “superhero” instead of just taking the easier (and arguably also vital) role of propaganda symbol. His devotion is not to the Army; it is to the cause that he sees the Army defending, and the values inherent in that cause: individual liberty for all people, protection of the innocent, loyalty to comrades. The false patriotism I want to describe is illustrated best in the real-life figure of Himmler. Heinrich Himmler seems to have been tortured by the evil he did. He was physically ill with what seem to be a range of stress-related issues. He admonished his Gestapo officers not to lose their humanity, not to let the deeds they had to do for the Fatherland rob them of their ability to feel. Yet, even though he seems to have been aware that what he was doing was arguably “wrong,” he still did it because his devotion to Nazi Germany was greater than his devotion to any “eternal” moral values. Nazi Germany was his god, and it is a god that was too small. It is clearly not a god who cares about everyone, or can be taken up by everyone. In Kierkegaard’s language again, Nazi Germany was not an absolute telos; it was only a relative, partial, aesthetic telos being treated as if it were the absolute. Any human, earthly telos would be too small, too partial. We should hold such relative values relatively, and only the absolute telos absolutely.

        Does that express the “quality” of “higher” adequately?

      • Nemo Says:

        A universal principle, by definition, applies equally well to an individual as well a nation. IOW, if something is truly good for a nation, it must be universally good as well; Otherwise, it’s not good for that nation either.

        So the question remains, how is the path that the Germans took “lower” than what Capt. America did, if what they did was good for their country as they had believed?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        I think the difference is that Capt. believes that what is good is good for America, whereas Himmler believed that what was good for Germany was therefore good absolutely. Does it benefit us because it is absolutely morally good, or is it good because it benefits me or mine? What is the source of value: what Kierkegaard called “the eternal,” or some worldly, basically selfish object?

  2. Nemo Says:

    “Does it benefit us because it is absolutely morally good, or is it good because it benefits me or mine?”

    From a Platonist (and also Kantian, if I understand it correctly) pov, what is truly beneficial must also be good, what is truly expedient must also be honorable as well. One cannot benefit from evil. Ironically, if Himmler believed that what was good for Germany was therefore good absolutely, he was correct, his downfall was thinking what they did was good for Germany.

    “What is the source of value?”

    A person who believes in God would likely say that it’s God; an atheist would likely think that it is himself or the world, and because neither he nor the world is absolute (in the word of Kierkegaard, he is an existing spirit in the process of becoming), not the absolute Spirit, therefore he can not attain to the absolute / universal.

    Hope that makes sense. I have yet to think it through.

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      Plato would say that, but wouldn’t he qualify that to say the “truly” beneficial, or something like that? That is, if something makes you a lot of money, or grants victory in a war, but damages your soul (or character), then it wasn’t beneficial by the Socratic/Platonic model. However, when most people do what they think will benefit them, they aim at very tangible goals like pleasure, money, power, status etc. There is no Form of Good at which they consciously aim. As for Kant, “good” means to do your duty, which means to follow the Categorical Imperative: Always act so that you can consistently will that the maxim of your action should become a universal law. Consequences don’t enter into it. If you act for the sake of consequences instead of for the sake of the Categorical Imperative, you aren’t being moral. Motives are what determine moral worth, not consequences. The only benefit from being moral is that you are acting as a rational, autonomous person; it may well mean you and those around you end up with less happiness etc. (in this life; Kant’s religious thinking does qualify this somewhat). Himmler, by contrast, had no higher good than the State; Nazi Germany defined what was “good” or “evil” to him. Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuerher. Nothing else mattered to him. He would allow nothing else to matter to him, and if his subconscious seemed to be at war with his actions, he still continued to do heinous deeds and endure the stress-induced illnesses that seem to have been his conscience trying to escape from the grave he’d buried it in.

      Kierkegaard’s three spheres of existence would imply that the ethical person would be devoted to abstract moral principles very much like Kant’s categorical imperative. They are “eternal” not in the Platonic sense of being transcendent, but in the way mathematical or logical truths are eternal–they are the same everywhere and always for any rational being. De Silentio says that the ethical always bankrupts itself (I think Taciturnus says the same thing), since the ethical demand is unconditional so the individual always ends up failing in some way, and thus in need of forgiveness (a concept beyond the ethical). This is why de Silentio, Taciturnus, Haufniensis and Climacus all say that the ethical is a transitional stage on the way to the religious—-Climacus even conflates them and often writes of the “ethical-religious” vs. the esthetic. The devotion to abstract eternal standards cannot survive the moral failure of the individual. As de Silentio puts it, “An ethics that ignores sin is a completely futile discipline, but if it affirms sin, it has eo ipso exceeded itself.” (Hong translation of Fear and Trembling, pp. 98-99). Judge William remains in the ethical sphere precisely because he has not followed the ethical road all the way to its ultimate conclusion, and hence cannot really realize that he is in fact himself also “the exception,” who is unable to fulfill the demands of the ethical.

      In Sickness Unto Death, Anti-climacus seems to have a different objection to the ethical: that it fails to recognize that the self is a synthesis that was constituted by another, and hence cannot be fully self-aware and honest unless it affirms itself not only as a synthesis but also as created by God. But even given the differences between the pseudonyms, one point where all Kierkegaard’s personae agree is that the aesthetic life of absolute devotion to the relativities of the world is something very different from the absolute devotion to the absolute with merely relative relationships to the relative. Whether you call that “God” or “duty,” it is commitment to a “higher” value, beyond the temporal, transitory and particular objects of our desires in this world.

      Your comment that the existing spirit cannot ever really attain the absolute is well taken, but even Judge William doesn’t really think it can. Even the ethical person recognizes that life is an ongoing process of expressing the universal ethical values through the actions of one’s life, until it ends.

      P.S. Don’t know if this is your view, but I have seen many writers who have implied that the problem with the self is that it is temporal; if we were eternal we would not be separated from God, but because we are merely created beings we are cut off. Climacus specifically rules this out in the Fragments, but I don’t think his comments ever get enough attention. He argues there that we can’t possibly be cut off from God by something that we got from God; we can only be cut off by something we got from ourselves, which would be our sin. As God’s creations, we are related to God; it is only as rebels that we are separated. We can never be God, as Kierkegaard thought Hegel said we would; but if we had no sin our lives of striving would be striving always to express God’s will in the world, and hence we’d always be in relation to God.

      • Nemo Says:

        Plato says that one has to have knowledge of the good in order to aim for it, but most people are ignorant of the good, so they seek things that are harmful to themselves. You can’t truly fulfill your duty without the knowledge of good either, because duty means we are required to do good, but it doesn’t indicate what is “good” or “moral”.

        “Always act so that you can consistently will that the maxim of your action should become a universal law”

        It just dawned on me that the mathematical representation is infinite multiplication. But, zero multiplied infinitely is still zero. It doesn’t get us much further in understanding the nature of good or moral.

        Himmler may have thought he was fulfilling his duty to the people and nation, and that everyone on the planet should act like him. Can you prove him immoral from a Kantian pov?

        (P.S. I don’t think temporality is the cause of the problem. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be eternal life and punishment, which are the consequences of one’s decision in his temporal life.)

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Well, Kant has two formulations of the Categorical Imperative. The so-called second form is, “Always treat rational being, whether in yourself or another, as an end in itself, and never as a mere means.” Clearly, Himmler used others as mere means all the time. He even said that if an old Polish woman got worked to death digging anti-tank ditches, his only concern would be whether or not the ditch got dug before she died. As to the more formal “universalizability test,” the question would be whether his maxim is one he could truly universalize. If his maxim is, “Every person should give ultimate loyalty to the State,” then he would have to morally approve both the fanatical defense of Germany and the Holocaust, but also the fire-bombing of Dresden and utter destruction of Germany—-and it seems pretty self-contradictory to say that your nation’s destruction and its own destruction of others are both equally moral. If he says his maxim is, “Everyone should love Nazi Germany above all,” then many rational beings would have to will their own destruction; and that would be self-contradictory since one is duty-bound to preserve one’s own existence as a rational being. After all, Jews, Gypsies, gays, Slavs etc. were all slated for destruction. In fact, Nazi moral claims were based on a mutilated version of Nietzsche, which said that so-called “morality” like Kant’s was basically decadent; only devotion to the superior person (Aryans) was truly good. So Himmler’s morality did not even pretend to be universalizable; it was only intended for Aryans and “honorary Aryans” like the Japanese. The only moral duty for most of us was to die and make way for Aryans.

      • Nemo Says:

        “Always treat rational being, whether in yourself or another, as an end in itself, and never as a mere means.”

        Hmm. Reason and human being are two distinct entities, how can it constitute one end? For instance, if someone is more rational than others, and rationality is the end, then shouldn’t the less rational being serve as means to the more rational?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Rationality is a quality, not a quantity. It’s an either/or. People are rational. God is rational. The only semi-exception would be beings that are not fully rational but are part of a rational class—-for example, children. Children can’t be treated as mere means, but they can’t really be given full autonomy, either, since their rationality is still developing; so Kant says we have to govern them, but for their own good and not for another’s.

        Modern day Kantians may debate how this principle should be applied. For example, I’ve read some Kant-based arguments in favor of allowing abortion (at least in some cases) since to do otherwise reduces the pregnant woman to a mere means to another person’s ends; other Kantians would extend the concept of personhood to any being with the likely future of attaining rationality, including zygotes. But rationality is not an IQ test; a being is rational or it isn’t.

      • Nemo Says:

        It’s true that binary values (“either or”) don’t admit of degree, but they are quantities not qualities. Qualities admit of degree. When you say a child is still “developing” rationality, you’re already implying that it is by degree.

        In additional, when an adult governs or teaches a child, he is serving as a means to the child’s end (of developing rationality). So the “never as a mere means” argument doesn’t hold up either.

        Speaking of “the likely future of attaining rationality”, why not extend it to dust as well? “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.”

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        There’s a difference between treating someone as a “means” and treating that person as a “mere means.” Arguing based on the moral duties of children won’t really work, since children are by definition not yet fully persons and so can’t be expected to obey the categorical imperative yet. Instead, I’ll try another example: When I walk into the grocery store, I have my own ends—to obtain food and other necessities for myself and my household. The cashier has his or her own ends—to earn a paycheck. So whichever way you look at it, each of us is treating the other as an means to a goal. But in selling me what I want at the agreed upon price, the store is respecting my ends; and by shopping from a store (instead of stealing the goods or employing slave labor) I am respecting the ends of the owners and employees of the store.

        A child is not fully rational, and thus not really able to understand the Categorical Imperative; I would say that for Kant, the ability to reason morally is identical with the claim that a being is rational per se (regardless of whether or not most people actually choose to behave morally, Kant claims that all are capable of it). But it is the aim of the parent to have a child and to raise a future generation. And Kant does appeal to our commonsense perceptions sometimes, so I would point out that we do, ordinarily, think something like this. We expect children to be selfish, but we expect them to learn to respect others and to treat others decently. Most of the moral responsibility, though, goes with the adult guardians (“You’re the grown-up here; act like it!”). If an adult demands a child do chores around the house, that is justified if the child is emotionally nurtured, if the chores are such that the child can handle them, if they help teach the child responsibility, or even if they contribute to the household in a way that all benefit, including the child (the little girl feeds the chickens, so all can have eggs). If the child works solely for the profit of the adult, we condemn the adult and call the relationship “abuse” or “child slavery.” Kant would say that it is up to the adults to determine what the legitimate ends of the child are and to see these are met, and to determine what the legitimate duties of the child are and to raise that child to fulfill them (it is probably worth noting that Kant was a bachelor, so he had little or no real knowledge of parenting).

        I think we do respect “dust” or the dead. I think Kant would say we respect the image of rationality even when it appears in what was once rational; to do otherwise would damage our own characters. So we treat dead bodies differently than we treat other pieces of meat (and that is also why cannibalism is such an effective trope in horror movies today; there’s something particularly disturbing about a seemingly rational being that has fallen so far from rationality that it would fail to recognize its own kind, but instead treat them as food; but I don’t want to follow that up since Kant didn’t discuss horror movies and I’m not interested in most horror movies today). Interestingly, some animals seem to treat their own dead differently than they treat other objects in their environment; and when we see elephants apparently reacting to the bones of a dead elephant differently than they would to sticks, we treat this as a sign of possible personhood.

        To get to your first point, I can’t avoid the cliché any longer: You can’t be “just a little bit pregnant.” You are or you aren’t. You many show it more or less, but the quality “pregnant” either applies or it doesn’t. One woman may appear very pregnant, may be physically or emotionally affected by it more and may thus behave differently; another may not even know she is pregnant, and thus may behave just like anyone else. But both are equally pregnant. I suppose the analogy to rationality holds here too: One may be “very rational” and may be affected by it, may show it in her or his behavior more; another may barely realize he or she is rational and act more or less on pure stimulus-response (as Kant would say, you can act autonomously and freely by following your moral law discovered within your own reason, or you can act on inclination and in pursuit of pleasure). But the quality “rational being” is still applicable, and both are capable of acting rationally just as a woman is capable of having a baby whether or not she knows she is pregnant.

      • Nemo Says:

        I’m not sure that pregnancy is a good analogy for rationality. Being pregnant means “having a child developing in the body”. So there is a quantitative relation between the woman and the child. The woman may not know that she has a child, just as a man may not know that he has inherited a fortune, but the quantitative relation exists regardless.

        The same can’t be said of rationality, which is a quality. A man cannot be rational without knowing it himself, because self-awareness is part of the characteristic of rationality. Moreover, as a quality or state, rationality admits of degree. Some men are more rational than others, and a man may be more rational in some stages of his life than in others.

        You might argue that all human beings, including children, have the capacity for reason, i.e., there is possibility or potential. But then, you would have to extend that potential to almost everything under the sun, because even the dust has the potential to become man and thereby become rational. Man no longer has monopoly of rationality, and therefore ceases to be the only legitimate “end”.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        “A man cannot be rational without knowing it himself” is not self-evident. For example, in The Concept of Anxiety, Vigilius Haufniensis (Kierkegaard’s pseudonym for his psychologist persona, literally “The Watchman of Copenhagen”) traces the progress of anxiety, which he identifies with original or inherited sin. At the start, this is simply anxiety over the possibility of doing wrong; in a state of innocence (“without knowledge of good and evil”) one doesn’t know what “wrong” is. You only know sin by becoming a sinner. This intensifies the anxiety, since now one has a guilty conscience; instead of the anxiety which is realization of one’s freedom without really knowing the consequences, one has freedom and the knowledge that one has misused freedom and could do so again. Eventually, Haufniensis says, the individual may well seek to escape anxiety by trying to escape freedom itself, by submerging himself or herself in the worldly, social roles, materialism or whatever. In effect, one can seek to blind oneself to the truth of one’s own freedom, self-awareness and rationality. In such a state, the individual may come to see any call to rationality as a threat, since the awakening of rationality means the awakening of freedom and hence of anxiety. This is what Haufniensis labels the state of “the demonic,” or anxiety not over the possibility of evil, but the possibility of the good, since the good calls the individual to selfhood and being a rational self is such a burden.

        I’m trying to summarize a very subtle book in one paragraph, so I can only hope I’m doing it some justice. The point I’m trying to make is that even a “rational” person may choose to reject this rationality, preferring instead to like a basically irrational or thinglike “existence.” A person may decide he or she prefers to be a cog in the machine. (This has also been represented lyrically in Jackson Brown’s “The Pretender,” and mythically in the character of Cypher in “The Matrix.”) Rationality means freedom, freedom means responsibility; for many and perhaps for most people, the choice to reject freedom and hence rationality is easier and more pleasant, whether they do so through intoxication, consumerism, political collectivism or whatever. Kant recognized this too, when he said that people have to choose to live as autonomous moral beings guided by pure practical reason, versus living as phenomenal beings governed by pleasure/pain stimuli and the law of cause and effect.

        To say a child has the capacity to become rational is perfectly true, which is why Kant thinks it is moral to eat animals or yoke them to a plow, but not to treat children thus. We must treat children with respect for the rationality of which they are bearers, even though it may be just a seed at this point. (Whether that respect extends to the unborn is a debate among Kantian philosophers, and not one I’m going to be able to resolve here.) An animal will never become rational (Kant says) and never was, so it does not have absolute value as a rational being does. A rational being has infinite worth or “dignity,” because rationality itself is of infinite worth. Whatever is not a bearer of rationality only has value insofar as it is valued by a rational being. (Again, beginning in the 20th Century, the debate over “rationality” widened. To Kant, it was obvious that all animals lack freedom and self-awareness, and hence lack rationality. Today, there is increasing evidence that some animals have self awareness, which would imply the potential at least for freedom and hence personhood. Kantians are divided on the issue of animal rights. (For a modern illustration of these issues, I would refer you to Star Trek: TNG “The Measure of a Man.”)

        You are right that in the 20th Century and beyond, philosophy began to extend the concept of “personhood” further than Kant anticipated, and that this complicates Kantian moral philosophy since if, for example, chimpanzees turn out to have at least a spark of rationality we would have to seriously rethink how we treat them in experiments or zoos. The range of our moral obligation seems to slide into darkness; the border that Kant thought so sharply defined turns out to be rather fuzzy. However, there is still a great difference between a child, a chimp and dust. A child is on the way to becomming a rational being; it is an undeveloped person, and must be treated as both a person, but a not-yet-fully-capable one, still needing governance and discipline but for the child’s own good and not primarily the benefit of the supervisor. A chimp either is a person (limited in relation to a human but still possessing the essential elements of personhood) and thus entitled to moral consideration, or else an animal through and through. Dust is not now rational, without any doubt. It will not become rational without ceasing to be dust. We may all be billion-year-old carbon, but not all carbon is us. When that carbon is integrated into a living system capable of rationality, then it will acquire absolute moral worth. To accept your argument would blur the distinction not only between persons and nonpersons, but even between animate and inanimate. So far as I know, only Jain morality does that, and it does so by proclaiming that all things have souls and are in a sense “animate.” (That being the case, the highest Jain morality is to starve to death, since even breathing kills microbes and even walking treads on the spirits of the dust; but even Jains draw distinctions, and the vast majority accept the principle of eating vegetables, reshaping inanimate objects to suit human needs and so on.)

        I think I have stated my point, but just to defend my original example a bit: Yes, pregnancy progresses. But still, there is a qualitative difference. At some point, it begins; and at some point, it ends. We know full well that some people are not pregnant (men, for example). We know that there is a difference between a woman who is pregnant and one who is not; we may not know which is which but we know there is a difference. And I don’t even know what you mean by saying that a man’s wealth is “quantitative.” It seems to me that existence is a quality, and the money either exists or doesn’t exist. One may be ignorant of one’s possessions, and believe one is rich when in fact one’s accountant has stolen it all, or believe one is poor when one has an inheritance from a rich uncle. But insofar as there is a concept “rich” which can be sufficiently defined (say, “More than enough to meet one’s needs and most or all of one’s wants for the rest of one’s life’), one either does nor does not possess that quality.

        TTFN

      • Nemo Says:

        You wrote, “Rationality means freedom”. If I understand Kierkegaard correctly, freedom and rationality are mutually independent. Rationality is neutral, it doesn’t awaken or suppress freedom, just as knowledge does not lead to either belief or doubt. The sinner has knowledge of his state of sin, but he can’t reason his way out. Instead, he has to take the leap of faith (a choice of will). I don’t see how this contradicts my statement that “a man cannot be rational without knowing it himself’, though.

        I find it unsatisfactory to set rational human being as the ultimate end, because rationality and human being are two different things, and cannot constitute one sole end. To say that “a rational being has infinite worth, because rationality itself is of infinite worth” is a rather weak attempt to gloss over the differences between rationality and human life, between the infinite and the finite.This type of approach is bound to run into myriads of difficulties.

        As for the 20th century’s notion of rationality, I’m reminded of a saying that when the scientists, after exhausting time and resources, climb to the top of mountain of knowledge, they will find the philosophers and theologians already there waiting for them. 🙂

        I’m not a Jainist, but if they’re willing to accept the idea that some beings are more rational than others, they won’t have any misgiving about eating vegetables and even animals, “reshaping” (to borrow your word) less rational beings into more rational ones.

        To belabor my point about pregnancy: a woman can have either no children, or one or more children developing in her body. You can quantify her pregnancy using a binary value, “either/or”, either she is pregnant, or she is not. It’s not the quality of the woman per se, but the quantity of children in her body. The same with the man and his possession. He may be unaware of his inheritance, even though it belongs to him. Wealth is not a quality of the man per se, but the quantity of material goods in his possession.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        I’ll probably have more than one response to this. To start, though, I see that part of the confusion is that we’re mixing different philosophers and different definitions of “rationality” or “reason,” and that isn’t helpful. For one thing, Kierkegaard views freedom as essential, and did not see the passions as separate from freedom. However, he also has his theory of the three spheres of existence, and freedom, reason, and the passions all mean something different from the different perspectives of those spheres.

        For Kant, there are only two “spheres:” the phenomenal world and the noumenal world. The first is the world as it appears. In this world, cause-and-effect rule, because that’s the way everything must appear to our human minds. Our minds structure the perceptions we have into a world, and one of the rules we use is that every event has a cause. The second world is the world as it is, apart from our perceptions of it; but of course, by definition, we don’t perceive that world directly. We never encounter things in themselves; we only encounter them as our human minds shape them. The one exception to this is ourselves, and only to a very limited degree (far more limited than Descartes thought, for example). When we look at ourselves, we see ourselves as part of the phenomenal world and perceive our own actions as having causes beyond us. We can never perceive our freedom by looking for it, and certainly never will see it in others. From the empirical perspective, Kant says, Hume is right; all human action is motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.

        But Kant believes that when we focus not on theoretically understanding the world but rather on acting, we encounter a different reality. We can realize that there are things we simply ought to do. Some things are good and some things are evil. And we implicitly know that using others is wrong, and respecting the ends and goals of others as much as we do our own is good. Kant’s moral philosophy, he says, is simply making explicit and clear what we basically realize whenever we have the experience of wanting to do one thing, but knowing we ought to do something else.

        For Kant, then, acting on the basis of feeling is always unfree; it is to treat oneself as a part of the phenomenal world and to follow its rules. To act on the basis of pure practical reason is to free oneself from the causal nexus and to act purely on the basis of what one’s own practical reason has shown one ought to do. Kierkegaard would partly agree with this picture, as his ethical sphere is largely based on Kant’s description of morality; but Kierkegaard thinks the passions are as central to the self as is reason. Both would agree that to act on the basis of feeling alone is to be unfree, and that the essence of the ethical is to act for the sake of duty rather than inclination; but while Kant appears to reject feelings, Kierkegaard says that the ethical life contains an “equilibrium between the esthetic and the ethical.” Kant seems to make one’s feeling irrelevant to moral action; Kierkegaard claims feelings or passions are integrated into the ethical life—-no longer central to it, but still part of it. (I’m exaggerating Kant’s rationalism a bit for the sake of contrast.) And the religious has another view of freedom, since it has entirely different categories (sin, repentance, and so on) that Kant either rejects or reinterprets by taking the specifically “religious” elements out and replacing them with philosophical explanations (for example, his reinterpretation of the Atonement in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.

        Still, I think Kierkegaard would agree that “rationality means freedom” IF this is properly interpreted. The esthetic self, the self prior to reflection, is not really free. The esthete thinks he or she is free whenever he or she can follow the promptings of appetite without hindrance; but in reality, the esthete is bound by those appetites. Don Juan in Either/Or is not free, and is not really even a person; he is totally enslaved and even absorbed by his passion. The ethical is the sphere of reflection, and it is only in reflection that one can begin to free oneself from bondage to stimulus/response. Of course, this very reflection also awakens anxiety. At that point, either one flees anxiety by fleeing freedom, or turns to God and lives by faith in the midst of anxiety.

        When Kierkegaard denounces “Reason” in the Fragments and elsewhere, he doesn’t mean what Kant means. He seems to limit “Reason” to theoretical reason only, and denounces the person who retreats into an impersonal stance as an unengaged investigator of life instead of living. And when you identify “rationality” with science, you are doing the same thing. But that is not what Kant means by saying that rational being has infinite worth. It’s almost a category mistake, using a word one way when the author means it another. Pure practical reason, for Kant, means the ability to guide one’s actions by reason alone. It is his statement that Hume was wrong; reason need not be the slave of the passions. A rational being is one that is capable of saying, “I want to do this, but I ought to do that, so I will do that which I ought.” Kant knows this is easier to write than to do, but he believes it is the essence of human beings to have that capacity—whether or not a particular individual chooses to do so or even wants to admit it. For Kant, to be rational is to be free, and to be irrational is to be unfree, since “free” is precisely the ability to act according to one’s own moral reason and not the determination of the world. TTFN

      • Nemo Says:

        Thanks for the quick course on Kant. Since I haven’t read his works at all, but am only learning from you on the fly , I must have misrepresented his ideas many times already. Even if I have read them, there is still the issue of translation and interpretation, so my understanding is most likely different from the author’s, but I’m sure I’m not the only one. 🙂

        One question for starters: How exactly does Kant determine what he “ought” to do through practical reason?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        There are several editions of Kant’s books on-line. Since I have a fondness for the Gutenberg Project, I’ll suggest this link:

        Kant’s introductory book, Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals aka Fundamental Principles for the Metaphysic of Morals lays out the framework of his theory. It is very short and, for Kant, very accessible. Kant’s general purpose in philosophy was to reply to David Hume’s skepticism, by establishing completely certain principles of knowledge. He does this by basing knowledge not on the world we examine, but on the structure and requirements of our minds. In morals, Hume had used an empirical approach: “good” means “feels good,” pleasure. Hume avoided complete egoism by arguing that when we say something is “morally” good, we mean not only that it is pleasant but also that all (or most) people should find it pleasant too. When I say “chocolate is good” I am merely stating my personal preference, and I don’t really care whether you agree or not. When I say “feeding the hungry is good,” I am saying it is good not just for the hungry and not just in my opinion, but that everyone should agree. Hume argued further that we have inborn instincts such as sympathy for others, which lead us to judge such things as kindness and generosity as “good” even when we ourselves do not benefit. So Hume does not base morality on reason, but on feeling; Hume said “Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions.”

        Of course, it is a fact that some people just don’t have very soft hearts. Maybe you just don’t care about others. If there is no rational foundation for morality, how can I say your feelings are wrong; or how can you say mine are wrong? Furthermore, Hume’s moral theory is based on the consequences of actions; what I do is good if it brings more happiness (defined as = pleasure) to others. If I intend to do good but end up doing harm, my actions were evil; my motivations don’t really enter into it. So Hume’s moral theory, like the rest of his philosophy, leads to uncertainty. The most you can hope to do is act in a way that is most probably going to lead to greater happiness for society and for individuals.

        Kant thought philosophy should seek knowledge that was certain. If Hume’s empiricism leads to skepticism, we need to start again. Kant’s solution was to look at the structure of pure practical reason itself. When reason turns from understanding the world (theoretical reason) to acting in the world, it issues directions, or imperatives. Most imperatives are hypothetical, dependent on conditions in the world and on attaining a specific goal. For example, “Close the window” depends on the the situation that the window is open now, and it is hot outside and I don’t want to air condition the whole neighborhood. It is really shorthand for, “If you want to keep the house cool, shut the window.” That is a hypothetical imperative: it is relevant in a certain place at a certain time for a certain reason. For Hume, and for utilitarians in general, all imperatives are of that sort: if you want to attain this goal, do this.

        Kant wanted moral principles that were as certain as the laws of physics (which he also felt were universal, as opposed to Hume, but I’m trying to avoid going too deeply into his critique of pure theoretical reason). He sought a “categorical imperative:” an imperative that is always true, everywhere, for any rational being. Such an imperative would have to be completely abstract; if it had any conditions, it could not be universal. Kant’s formulation of this Categorical Imperative was, in every action, always act in such a way that you could wish that the maxim of your action should be also a universal law. That is, whatever you do, the guiding principle behind your choice should be something that you could wish everyone always did. One example he gives is this: Suppose I need money, and I know I can obtain it by promising to repay even though I have no intention or even means to do so. The maxim of my action would be, “When one needs money, one should like to get it from others.” Could I wish that this be a universal law? Logically, I can’t. If this were a universal law, no one would believe promises anymore; the whole notion of making a promise relies on the other person believing that promises are binding on the promise maker. If my principle were a universal law, it would be the end of promises altogether; so the principle is self-defeating. That maxim fails the universalizability test. But if my maxim were, “Whenever one needs money, one should try to get it honestly, either by work or if necessary at least by honestly asking for a gift,” then there’s nothing self-refuting about the principle. I could wish that everyone did this, and was honest in dealing with others; and if they did it would not negate itself since honest begging doesn’t prevent anyone else from also begging. After all, if I’m asking honestly and the other person can’t afford to lose the money, he won’t give it to me. I may not get what I wanted, but the world doesn’t revolve around me—and that is the real difference between good and evil. Evil is basically saying that everyone else should play by certain rules, and I want to make an exception for myself.

        Kant offers another formulation of this principle, which is “Always act in such a way as to treat rational being as an end in itself, and never as a mere means.” Kant thought the first formulation implied the second; some have argued that, but whether it does or doesn’t, this second formulation is even more influential in moral philosophy than the first. Rational beings have goals, values, intentions. To treat another person in a way that recognizes this is to treat that person with dignity; that is, it is to treat that person as an end in himself or herself. When I go to the store, I use the clerk to get what I want, and the clerk uses me to make a living. We both respect the other’s intentions and fairly trade with one another. If I steal, then I am using the clerk and the store owner as a mere means to my own goals, and disregarding the needs and wants of the other people. So again, acting in a way that treats myself as special and others by different rules is morally wrong.

        Another point of Kant’s theory is that just as I should treat others as ends in themselves, I am also an end in myself. I should not let others mistreat me any more than I should mistreat them. I should treat myself with dignity as well as treating others with dignity. Kierkegaard says the same thing, in his upbuilding discourses for example, where he says that the poor should not allow themselves to be humiliated in accepting charity if it is given in a condescending or degrading fashion; but since Kierkegaard is generally writing for people who are capable of giving rather than being compelled to receive, most of his instructions are directed towards the rich. For example, see his second discourse on “Every Good and Perfect Gift is From Above” from the four upbuilding discourses of 1843. (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, Hong translation pp. 141+ and esp. the last two pages)

        Kant is determining this by pure reason, since his moral principles don’t depend on seeing the world, anticipating likely consequences or anything like that. The categorical imperative is completely abstract, completely rational; one knows one’s actual duty in the situation by thinking of what the maxim is of the action one is considering, and testing to see if it can be universalized. If it can’t, don’t do it; if it can, it is permissible.

        Does that help? I do recommend reading Kant’s Groudwork (or Fundamental Principles) for the Metaphysic of Morals; as I said, it is really, really short. But if what I’ve written is tolerably clear, then it should be enough for our purpose here.

      • Nemo Says:

        Thanks for the recommendation. I downloaded Fundamental Principles to my e-Reader. It’s a sure sign of laziness when the only incentive for reading a book is that it is “really, really short”. 🙂

        I think I’ve understood your expositions reasonably well — they are clear as usual, but I didn’t phrase my last question properly. What I’m trying to get at is the real groundwork of Kant’s ethics. What are the criteria that he uses to discern good vs. evil?

        The Categorical imperative is like a magnifying glass. It allows you to see a thing more clearly, but unless you know beforehand whether or not the thing itself is good, magnifying it infinitely won’t help at all. An evil thing may very well be propagated universally due to our ignorance or “inclination”. (For instance: what is there to keep everyone from living his whole life pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain?)

        Setting the rational human being as the ultimate end is rather self-serving, on the part of the human being, as well as reason. Even Reason is selfish, why else would it set itself as the ultimate end, why doesn’t it pay deference to passion and desire, which are also part of human nature like itself? Even Kant concedes that Reason doesn’t extend beyond the human mind, and therefore it is not truly universal or infinite.

        I think in Fragments (or Scraps as you call it), Kierkegaard uses “Reason” in the same sense as Kant does, i.e., he uses it to represent Man, the true Man with his limitations. In “Works of Love”, Kierkegaard calls friendship “group selfishness”, I think he would agree that setting rational human being as the ultimate end is “species selfishness”, viewed from the religious sphere.

        (I’ll be back after reading Fundamentals. Might take a while)

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Well, my limitation as to “human” knowledge was too strong, perhaps. Kant believes that all perception is shaped by our reason. We encounter all these sense stimuli coming at us from the world, and we organize it into three-dimensional space, linear time, cause-effect, substances/accidents and so on. His reason for this move as pretty straightforward: since Hume’s empiricism leads to skepticism and Leibnitz’s rationalism pretty much the same, it seems none of the traditional attempts to base knowledge on the world was capable of giving knowledge of the world. Instead, Kant proposed a “Copernican Revolution” of philosophy. Just as Copernicus solved the problems of astronomy by putting the Sun at the center, Kant is trying to solve the problems of epistemology and of ethics by putting the mind at the center. We don’t know things in themselves, says Kant; we know things as they appear. But there are universal truths because there are universal structures of the mind. Every human being perceives time as linear and unidirectional; I know, before I enter any new place, that time is going to move forward. I could not have that certainty if I relied on observation; the most I could say was, “Time has always moved forward, so I can expect that it will again tomorrow.” I can only be certain that time will always move forward if that is a necessary condition of experience. Of course, that is not the only way experience could be structured. God (if God exists) might perceive everything in an instant. God would not perceive space as we do, since God is omnipresent and thus there is no “here” or “there” or “far” for God. But humans have to perceive reality this way, so we can confidently say that all human experience will conform to these principles. In arguing this, Kant is trying to make physics (in his day, Newtonian physics) possible and philosophically explainable. Today, it is a real conundrum to try to figure out how quantum mechanics etc. could fit a general Kantian framework. But his basic observation is that our experience shapes the world as much as our world shapes the experience: “Concepts without intuitions are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind. Only in the unity of the two can knowledge arise.” (Note: Kant’s word translated “intuitions” is more what we mean by “perceptions.” Critique of Pure Reason, quoting from memory). So Kant is taking all those metaphysical concepts that philosophers had tried to find in the world, and arguing that they are in fact structures of thought and not of things in themselves.

        When he moves to ethics, he is doing something similar. Instead of looking at the world and human nature as an outside observer, and trying to find such concepts as “good” or “evil” or “freedom,” he is looking at the structure and necessary preconditions of human choice, valuation and action. When he says that there is nothing that is absolutely good except a good will, isn’t that pretty much what we really assume to be true? If pleasure is the only good (as Hume says), then when Jeff Dahmer ate his victims it was good, and a happy killer has more goodness than a sad victim. But really, we think that the pleasure makes the act less moral, not more. A killer who is unhappy seems less evil than one who is happy; so it is not true that we all agree that happiness is an unqualified good. Intelligence is usually considered good, but again, an intelligent plotter seems worse than an impulsive criminal. The only thing that we can say, without qualification, is absolutely good is the will to be good. So how can we define the will to be good, apart from all situational considerations? Kant starts by saying that the good will is the one that acts for the sake of duty alone; but he still has to define “duty.” So he goes further to define “duty” as following the law that every being ought to follow. And if I say that I am acting for the sake of a law that everyone ought to follow, I am saying that my motivating principle (maxim) is one that I could logically wish to be a universal law.

        Kant is basing his moral principle on the necessary structure of pure practical reason alone. Any rational being that seeks to direct its actions by reason will have to direct it in this way. And since God (if God exists) is a rational being, then even God thinks this way about morality. Even God obeys the categorical imperative, in a sense. The difference between us and God would be that we have feelings and desires and must work to overcome the temptations to be selfish and to exempt ourselves from doing our duty; God’s will is holy, motivated only by the moral law itself. So for God, it isn’t a question of “obeying” the categorical imperative, as if there were a part of God that would rather not; the moral law is not experienced as an outside force, but as God’s own nature. It is our own nature too, since the moral law is the essential element of any rational being; but we also exist in the phenomenal world of sensation and perception, so we have to work at it and sometimes perceive it as if it were a burden rather than our own true nature.

        It isn’t enough to ask whether or not all people agree on some point, as for example, “You have heard it said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” That sort of approach is still empirical and still uncertain; how do we know who is my enemy? Might I make a mistake? Does everyone think this way? Do we all in fact agree who is the bad person? Kant is asking, what moral principle is logically universalizable, not simply apparently universal as far as my observations go. Kant wants laws of morality that are just as certain as the laws of nature or the laws of logic, and for the same reasons: for Kant the laws of ethics, nature and logic are all inextricably rooted in the mind, so that to think at all is to follow them.

        In the Fragments Kierkegaard is not using “reason” in a Kantian sense, but more in a Hegelian one, or at least in the sense that his Danish Hegelian contemporaries practiced it. The closest he comes to Kantianism is in his character Judge William, who criticizes “philosophy” (by which Kierkegaard almost always means “Hegelian philosophy,” the dominant philosophy of his day) because it cannot tell a poor individual what he is to do. William argues that one should strive to realize the universal human, which is very much like saying that one should recognize universal moral principles and seek to live them out. Even here, though, William is not purely Kantian. When Kierkegaard writes (in Fear and Trembling, Stages on Life’s Way and Concept of Anxiety) how the ethical bankrupts itself, how the ethical is an infinite demand and thus inevitably drives one towards the religious, he is also using a Kantian notion at that point of moral reason; one never exhausts one’s duty, one is never perfect and duty is perfect so there is no slack, etc. (There is also some influence of Hegel here, and some influence of Paul’s notion that the function of the Law is to drive one to recognize one’s own sinfulness and thus one’s need for the Gospel. But I digress.) Kant would not understand such language as “Reason is selfish;” in his terms, that is like saying “Logic is selfish” because logic denies you your right to square circles. Kant would agree that the Greek notion of a friend (a friend is “another I”) is selfish. Kant famously attempts instead to explain the moral principle, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It is impossible, Kant says, to command a feeling, so of course that is not what the command means. Instead, it means you should regard your neighbor’s interests as equal to your own, and act as if your neighbor were no less (or more) important than you yourself—“as an end in himself, and never as a mere means.” Kierkegaard accepts the Kantian claim that “ought implies can;” if I ought to do something, I can do it. For Kant, that means (1) there is such a thing as free will; if there weren’t I wouldn’t experience the conflict between what I want to do and what I know I ought to do; and (2) there is no moral duty to feel love, since I cannot feel love at will; there can only be a duty to act as if I “loved” my neighbor as much as I love myself. For Kierkegaard, if there is a command to love, then it must be possible; so I can feel love for my neighbor, and the God who commands that I love everyone can and will make it possible for me to do so.

        (Interestingly, as far as the Torah goes, it seems Kant is closer than Kierkegaard to the original sense. In ancient Near Eastern treaties, it was common for the stronger nation to command the weaker king to “love” his overlord in all things, by which they meant that the weaker ally was obliged to protect the interests of the stronger, obey commands and so on. The Torah follows the general format of a standard suzerainty treaty in many respects, so it seems likely that what is being commanded is that you should act in such a manner, not feel in such a manner. Kierkegaard is working more with the New Testament promises of the Holy Spirit, the command to have the mind of Christ within you and so on, so he is not bound by the human impossibility of fulfilling the command; if God commands it, God will make it possible. But I digress again.)

        Kierkegaard does have many criticisms of Kant, some of which are based on Hamann’s original criticisms of Kant. In particular, both criticize the Kantian assumption that the essence of human nature is reason alone, and that the feelings are not central. Both think Kant trims reality to fit his system so he can obtain certainty; Kierkegaard follows Hamann in embracing uncertainty and choosing to believe the truth without conclusive evidence. But in his identification of “the ethical” with “the universal” and with individual moral striving to do one’s duty (with feelings pushed out of the center of one’s life), Kierkegaard follows Kant pretty closely and seems to be defending a Kantian definition of the ethical against Hegel’s criticisms.

        That’s all I got.

  3. “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” by Immanuel Kant « Books On Trial Says:

    […] I've had a stimulating discussion with another WP logger on ethics, which all started with his review of the movie "The Avenger". He recommended this book to me. Since it is on my to-read list anyways and "really, really short", […]

  4. Nemo Says:

    I owe you a thank you for recommending Kant. I’ve read “Groundwork” and “Critique of Practical Reason” so far, and enjoyed them both. Is there a specific edition of “Critique of Pure Reason” that you would recommend?

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      Well, the Prolegammena to Any Future Metaphysic is shorter than The Critique of Pure Reason and hits most of the main points; it was written as something of an introduction to the longer book, or as an undergraduate text. But if you want to read the full Critique of Pure Reason, most scholars choose something like the Norman Kemp Smith translation. It includes both the A and the B texts, which are two editions of the same text; at times Kant says something in A that he removed in B but which readers today really like, so the Smith text has places where both texts are presented side-by-side.

      Here’s a list of everything by Kant that I used in my dissertation:

      Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Practical Reason. Translated, with intro. by Lewis White Beck. Bobbs Merrill Educational Publishing; Indianapolis, I.N. 1956.

      Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. St. Martin’s Press; New York. 1965.

      Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. Translated by Thomas K. Abbott, with an intro. by Marvin Fox. Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing; Indianapolis, I.N. 1949.

      Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. Revision of the Carus translation ,with an intro. by Lewis White Beck. Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing; Indianapolis, I.N. 1950.

      Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. Translated with an intro. and notes by Theodore M. Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson; with the essay “The Ethical Significance of Kant’s Religion” by John. R. Silber. Harper & Row, Publishers; New York. 1960.

      • Nemo Says:

        That’s interesting. What’s the title of your dissertation? Why Kant of all philosophers? He seems to have a reputation for bad writing, but I find him quite logical and accessible.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Since I’m still preserving some shreds of anonymity, I can’t really tell you my dissertation title. It was on Kierkegaard, primarily on his treatment of the religious, the ethical, freedom and so on. I included Kant because he was very influential on Kierkegaard, and particularly on Kierkegaard’s description of the ethical sphere. On the other hand, Kierkegaard’s epistemology was more influenced by Hume, though indirectly since he didn’t read English; he got his Hume indirectly through Johann Georg Hamann.

      • Nemo Says:

        The more I read Kant, the clearer I see his influence on Kierkegaard’s conception of ethics. I wonder whether there is also a connection in their aesthetics. Have you read Critique of Judgment?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        No, I haven’t. I think Kierkegaard’s aesthetics was more influenced by Hegel and the Romantics; certainly, the poets with whom he seems to be having a covert war with in Either/Or were influenced by them (particularly Heiberg). I’d really like to read Kant’s CoJ someday, but right now it is on the long list of things I want/need to read.

      • Nemo Says:

        On second thought, has Kierkegaard ever openly acknowledged Kant’s influence in his writings or private journals?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        I haven’t read much of his journals. I have read some good commentaries discussing his university days, the instructors he studied under and what philosophy they taught, and so on. I recommend Bruce Kirmmse’s Kierkegaard in Golden-Age Denmark. The first half discusses the various philosophical, cultural and political forces in Denmark, including Kantianism; the second half discusses how Denmark received and understood Kierkegaard during his lifetime.

      • Nemo Says:

        I was just wondering how scholars deduce “influence”.

        Just because Kierkegaard was exposed to Kantianism doesn’t necessarily mean that he bought into it. To use a courtroom analogy, just because a guy was at the right place at the right time doesn’t mean he did it. As far as I know, Kierkegaard never once acknowledged Kant in his writings. So we don’t have a confession to support our case either.

        One might say that he obscured German influence on purpose. But still it is possible that he came to the same conclusions independently, or that they both got their ideas from another source. So how exactly do the scholars prove that Kierkegaard was indeed influenced by Kant?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        In this case it is done by similarities (Judge William’s writings have more than a passing resemblance to Kant’s, and Frater Tactiturnus and Johannes Climacus describe the ethical in rather Kantian ways), through historical studies (who he studied under in school and who those people acknowledged as influences), and private correspondence (I haven’t studied Kierkegaard’s journals so I can’t speak to that), through intermediary influences (Kierkegaard acknowledges influence by Schelling, Hegel and others who were in turn influenced by Kant), and sometimes just by shared interests and apparent conversations. In this last, Ron Green’s Kierkegaard and Kant: the hidden debt is important. He argues that much of Kierkegaard’s discussion of religion (particularly Fear and Trembling is a covert argument with Kant’s Religion Within the LImits of Reason Alone. By saying the debt is “hidden,” Green is admitting that it isn’t obvious or certain; he is making a case that there is a debt. Personally, I found the argument convincing and helpful, and Green is quite readable.

        Since Kierkegaard wasn’t interested in scholarly writing, he often doesn’t acknowledge his sources or influences. This makes him harder for later scholars. Perhaps we could read his journals, or read someone who has read his journals (like Green) to get a better idea.

  5. “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” by Immanuel Kant – Nemo's Library Says:

    […] This post is the upshot of a stimulating discussion on ethics I had with another WP blogger, who recommended this book to […]

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