One of the great joys of doing philosophy is drawing the great minds of the past into contemporary conversations. As we do this we attempt to step outside ourselves, in a sense, to broaden our perspective. As a student of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), I have also been amazed by the ways in which his ideas have been brought into contemporary conversations over the past 200 years.
Scholarship on Kant has taken an exciting turn over the last decade or so, driven in part by the growing number of publications from the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. Many of these are bringing to light works previously seen as unimportant to Kant’s philosophical enterprise, including his writings on Anthropology, History, and Education (first available in 2007). New readings of Kant, alongside and following these, have stressed the rather holistic and humanistic drive behind Kant’s works, even the (often dreaded) Critique of Pure Reason and Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals.
The all-too-simplistic story often passed down, even in undergraduate philosophy courses, is that Kant was a metaphysician in his view of the world and a formalist in his approach to ethics. Neither, of course, could be further from the truth. He took up metaphysics, as one had to in his day, but with the novel goal of showing its limit. And his ethics in the Groundwork begin with careful, formal measurements in just the same way a house begins with a well drafted blueprint. It’s no mistake that he called the book the Groundwork.
Kant on Morality
The Groundwork is important, however, as it clarifies the nature of morality with laser-like precision. It orients us, so to speak, to what is truly worthy of our moral attention. With this understood, we can go on building the moral life we seek to lead. He writes:
There is no possibility of thinking of anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be regarded as good without qualification, except a good will. Intelligence, wit, judgment, and whatever talents of the mind one might want to name are doubtless in many respects good and desirable, as are such qualities of temperament as courage, resolution, perseverance. But they can also become extremely bad and harmful if the will, which is to make use of these gifts of nature and which in its special constitution is called character, is not good. The same holds with gifts of fortune; power, riches, honor, even health, and that complete well-being and contentment with one’s condition which is called happiness make for pride and often hereby even arrogance, unless there is a good will to correct their influence on the mind and herewith also to rectify the whole principle of action and make it universally conformable to its end. The sight of a being who is not graced by any touch of a pure and good will but who yet enjoys an uninterrupted prosperity can never delight a rational and impartial spectator. Thus a good will seems to constitute the indispensable condition of being even worthy of happiness.
Some qualities are even conducive to this good will itself and can facilitate its work. Nevertheless, they have no intrinsic unconditional worth; but they always presuppose, rather, a good will, which restricts the high esteem in which they are otherwise rightly held, and does not permit them to be regarded as absolutely good. Moderation in emotions and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation are not only good in many respects but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic worth of a person. But they are far from being rightly called good without qualification (however unconditionally they were commended by the ancients). For without the principles of a good will, they can become extremely bad; the coolness of a villain makes him not only much more dangerous but also immediately more abominable in our eyes than he would have been regarded by us without it.A good will is good not because of what it effects or accomplishes, nor because of its fitness to attain some proposed end; it is good only through its willing, i.e., it is good in itself. When it is considered in itself, then it is to be esteemed very much higher than anything which it might ever bring about merely in order to favor some inclination, or even the sum total of all inclinations. Even if, by some especially unfortunate fate or by the niggardly provision of stepmotherly nature, this will should be wholly lacking in the power to accomplish its purpose; if with the greatest effort it should yet achieve nothing, and only the good will should remain (not, to be sure, as a mere wish but as the summoning of all the means in our power), yet would it, like a jewel, still shine by its own light as something which has its full value in itself. Its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither augment nor diminish this value. Its usefulness would be, as it were, only the setting to enable us to handle it in ordinary dealings or to attract to it the attention of those who are not yet experts, but not to recommend it to real experts or to determine its value. (G 393-4, p.7-8, emphasis mine)
Kant on Mindfulness
I recently thumbed through some old notes on a talk about meditation I once gave. They began with the question: why do we meditate?
Answer number one was simply awakening. This is the particular orientation the Buddhism brings to meditation, or, in today’s discussion, mindfulness. Awakening is, for Buddhists, the one thing that is a good in itself. Like Kant’s good will, awakening can be a bit abstract and, if we don’t bring it down to earth, it can simply float off into whatever fantasy the mind wishes to create. However, it is an orientation, and one that for Buddhists is essential to a practice such as mindfulness.
Answer number two was a bit more practical, dealing with the calming potential meditation brings, the possibility of greater self awareness and insight, leading to awareness of opportunities for more ethical decisions and awareness finally of such things as selflessness, the pervasiveness of nonsatisfactoriness, and change.
However, some within the ‘mindfulness movement’ today have cut the head from the body, leaving aside the orientation which has preserved the unity of the Buddhist tradition and its varied practices through 2500 years. They list the worldly benefits, such as “Higher productivity, response time and focus” and “Increased efficiency which increases profit” as Company Benefits in a corporate meditation program with no sign of an overarching moral orientation.
Yet, as Kant noted 230 years ago, the virtues acquired with mindfulness like courage, resolution, perseverance, self-control, and calm deliberation can all “become extremely bad; the coolness of a villain makes him not only much more dangerous but also immediately more abominable in our eyes than he would have been regarded by us without it.”
This is not to rehash the old ‘mindful sniper’ debate, but simply to suggest that it is, in a sense, an even older debate than we may think (can we now refer to it as the ‘cool villain’ debate?). And further to note that those worried about the “effects and accomplishments” of mindfulness and the virtues it may cultivate being cut off from a deeper ethical orientation might find a kindred spirit in Immanuel Kant.