Philosophical Ethics: “But Why MUST I?” Kant’s Ironic Formulation Of Liberty As Duty

In a series of posts this semester, I am going to blog all (or almost all) the lecture topics for the two Philosophical Ethics classes I am teaching this semester. Each of these posts will primarily explicate the reading or a theme that dominated class discussion in a way that should be accessible to novices (such as my students are). I will also offer some degree of analysis of the ideas considered and then pose suggested discussion questions. These posts will usually feature more speculation than argumentation from me as I try to stimulate your thinking rather than stake out my own positions. Some of my students will be responding to these short discussion primers in a private forum through the university. I’ve told the students they are free to discuss the blog post versions of these discussion primers as well, so they might show up here. The text we are using and from which all citations will be taken is Ethical Theory: classical and contemporary readings, edited by Louis Pojman. Wadsworth: California, 2007). This post explores the ironic way in which Kant interprets duty which reverses its sense from being something arbitrarily imposed upon people to being that which protects people from being imposed upon in arbitrary ways ever at all.

Immanuel Kant is more closely associated with duty-based ethics than any other philosopher.  According to Kant you have a categorical imperative to always act in such a way that you could will the maxim of your action to be a universal law.  And you must always treat humanity, whether in yourself or in another, as an end in itself and never merely as a means.  You must always act as though you were both the sovereign and the subject in a kingdom of ends in themselves.  For every action you undertake, the reason on which you act must pass these universality tests.  You must ask yourself, is this a reason that I could will consistently that everyone used in choosing their actions when they are in the same formal circumstances in which I am presently?  Would it make any sense if everyone acted on the reason that I am acting on?

And for Kant, if you realize that an action is ruled out by the categorical imperative, you must not do it.  You have a moral duty not to do it and the only way to be moral is to obey that duty and to obey out of a respect for duty itself and not for any other motive—be it love or fear, the desire for good consequences or for pleasure, obedience to people you love or respect, etc.  The only good motive is to act out of respect for duty alone.

Given Kant’s emphasis in all of this on the unyielding character of duty and the absolute moral necessity that one obey one’s duty, it is at first counter-intuitive to think that Kant is a philosopher who makes his philosophy centrally about autonomy or self-rule.  Kant insists that as rational beings we should only serve laws we give ourselves rather than be subject to any external authority outside our own wills.  So how does this square with his simultaneous insistence that we must be dutiful above all things, respecting and obeying our duty in all things?

The answer is that this absolute duty we have comes to us from our own reason.  The categorical imperative which we must obey is not derived from any source external to our own reason but derives from our proper exercise of it.  But on first glance it hardly looks like there is really much room for self-ruling in “legislating” Kant’s categorical imperative which he thinks all rational beings would legislate the same.  The idea that we would all come up with the same imperative hardly makes it feel like something that involves really deciding for ourselves.  On one level Kant is telling us to think for ourselves and legislate only in accordance with our own reason and will but then he is telling us what our reason should come up with and what we should will.  And so it sure can feel like Kant is trying to impose something on us as a duty we just have to accept, which really does not result from our independent will or ideas.

But the radical thing about Kant is that Kant really is standing up for our right to think for ourselves in a crucial way.  He is arguing that no one can come along and just impose their own arbitrary ideas of what is good on you.  Every rational agent must give reasons to every other rational agent.  No one—not your family, not your peers, not your colleagues, not your friends, not your culture, not your tradition, not your industry, not your government, not your god can tell you to do anything without appealing to your reason.  No one can make a rule for you that is not justifiable according to your reason.  No one can insist that you simply accept their dictates because they are more powerful, because you owe them for some good they’ve done for you, because of the way things have always been done, because they’ll make you afraid if you disobey or love you if you obey.

What Kant is insisting is that your reason gives you the right to veto any demands on you that violate your conscience and that you are not beholden to any authority who does not have adequate reasons to persuade you of the rightness and justice of their dictates.  Yes, you too are bound by reason.  Yes, you too will have to accept that your reason dictates certain actions lead to practical contradictions and so are impermissible.  You will have to accept that it would be hypocritical for you to act by a different standard than that to which you expect all others to adhere and, therefore, you must constrain yourself to act in a way that is formally consistent and in which you would demand others to act.  You must accept that there is a limit on your own ability to force others against their own wills to serve your ends.  These are curbs on your freedom.  But as they are also curbs on others’ freedoms, they liberate you from the tyranny of others.

Your duty is only to answer to your reason and to what can be made rationally clear to you.  There is no arbitrariness in this.  That constrains you from being able to act capriciously irrationally but it also spares you any obligation to others’ capriciousness and in that way liberates you to pursue any end you want which does not entail your being unfair and living in practical contradiction.

So, while this is a philosophy of duty, it’s the exact opposite of a philosophy for forcing anything on other people.  In fact, whenever someone argues that we should not force beliefs or ways of life on people against their will, it is a precisely Kantian spirit which they manifest.  It is the Kantian ethos which says there is something fundamentally unfair about being forced to say or do things which contravene our will.   But force should not be confused with reason.  I may not force my will on you but I may appeal vigorously to your reason because if your reason can be persuaded you will be persuaded.  Reason is the force which most fundamentally opposes violent force.

Often debates about morality and religion take place between people who try to appeal to things other than reason.  They try to bully with threats or fear tactics or manipulate with offers of love and community, they cite arcane and often archaic and fundamentally dubious “authorities” that tell you to believe or do things simply on their unverifiable word that what they say is right.  Reason is precisely the opposite of that and morality founded in reason is the precise opposite of that.  To be a Kantian is to insist that unlike debates between arbitrary assertions that are rooted only in traditions or scriptures and which admit of no independent corroboration, debates about morality should appeal only to the authority of our own reason.  I can force you to accept no arbitrary assertion about what is good or bad, right or wrong.  I can force you to accept no tradition, no scripture, no cultural preference that does not make an appeal to your reason.

There is a worrisome tendency in the west to overcorrect for the danger of violent imposition of ideas and to feel threatened by any adamant insistence on an idea or a moral precept and consider it to be simply an expression of force.  But we should never lose sight of the difference between an argument that appeals primarily to someone’s reason, which does not insist they accept anything arbitrary but only raises for their consideration what their reason can confirm for itself on the one hand and the attempts through emotionalistic, authoritarian, or political power to impose practices and beliefs on people that their reason alone could not be expected to accept were these other forces not at play.

There is a difference between, on the one hand, reasoning passionately and persuasively on the common ground of reasons available to all and, on the other hand, trying to subvert others’ reason by trying to make their will bend to emotional, social, political, and other irrational forces that contradict what their reason would tell them if they were fully informed and able to rationally investigate all the formal implications of what they are being asked to do or believe.

Ironically, although Kant is insistent that we be dutiful, his philosophy does not—contra Nietzsche—create automatons but rather formalizes and centralizes the insistence that all of us bow to no ruler but our own reason.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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