Nerja Philosophy Group, 20 March 2012

Dead as Königsberg? The politics and ethics of Immanuel Kant

Discussion introduced by James Wimberley

Immanuel Kant, 1724 - 1804


Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, 1795

Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, 1785

I: A long-dead German professor

From The Telegraph, February 21:

The call for the new Dignity Code to prevent abuse [in care homes &c] is made in a letter to The Daily Telegraph signed by the care minister Paul Burstow and his Labour shadow, Liz Kendall, as well as charities, trades unions and academics.

....“For too long, too many of those people have been ignored, denied the basic right to speak for themselves or make up their own mind,” the letter warns. “In this era of human rights, too many older people have seen their basic human dignity undermined in situations where they are treated as objects rather than people.”

It's wrong, they assume as a commonplace, to treat people as objects. Now where does this idea come from?

Marx? There is something of this in Marx' theories of alienation, including the loss under capitalism - actually just industrial production - of the worker's self-expression through his labour. All very indirect. But it's stated without ambiguity by Kant:

"For all rational beings come under the law that each of them must treat itself and all others never merely as means, but in every case at the same time as ends in themselves."

So Kant's ideas are alive if unrecognized in the minds of not particularly reflective politicians who write letters to The Telegraph. My objective in introducing our discussions today is to convince you that some of Kant's thinking is not only relevant to our concerns, quite a bit of it is floating around virally in the common culture.

That's just as well for his immortality. Immanuel Kant's outward life was spectacularly boring, if you'll pardon the expression. He spent his entire life from 1724 to 1804 - from age 31 as a lecturer, and later professor, at the provincial university in Königsberg. This small city in East Prussia was then a mediaeval Hanseatic port that now still suffers the indignity of Stalin's renaming after his toady Kalinin. Königsberg was an remote eastern outpost of high German culture; it was 602 km from the nearest other German-language university in Halle, Saxony. Kant had no reported sex life - you have to think closet gay - and people set their watches by his daily constitutional. About as dull an outward life as you can imagine. This environment explains why he is such a terrible writer. Before him, intellectuals wrote for a salon culture of critical adults, rather like this. Kant was lecturing to inattentive or hero-worshipping Junker boys, with nobody near his own weight to talk to.

Kant was a hard worker tackling very difficult problems and I don't think it would be useful to do a superficial overflight of his whole oeuvre. Instead I'll try to dig a bit deeper into two short books he wrote on politics and ethics: the Perpetual Peace and the Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. We'll break for discussion after the first.

II: Kant's scheme for perpetual peace

Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch1 is a late work from 1795. So it was written after the French Revolution, which Kant had initially welcomed, had plunged Europe into renewed general war. His starting point is the Westphalian state system of armed hostility between sovereign states, which he correctly says is a scheme at best of truce not peace. If we want lasting peace, it has to be established on new principles. Kant proposes a "federation of free states", or "league of nations" - he uses both phrases. The content of their pact is simply non-aggression, the renunciation of war as a method of settling disputes. He envisages it as starting in Europe and spreading in time over the globe.

What the federation is not is a super-state with coercive powers over backsliders, which he thinks unrealistic. Kant admits that there's nothing really to stop his federation from breaking down: "such an alliance is in constant peril of [those hostile passions] breaking loose again." This is exactly what happened to the League of Nations. The United Nations is very imperfect, but it does have 99,000 soldiers under arms today2. Peace enforcement is very discriminatory, but Charles Taylor and Gaddafi got hammered. Thuggery is no longer risk-free for rulers.

The main precondition of the plan is that "The civil constitution of every state should be republican". Kant's "republican" means something like our "democratic": a constitutional and representative political order. He allows constitutional monarchies like his Prussia, a stretch. The idea is that autocracies can't be trusted not to start wars out of vanity or lunacy. Modern political scientists basically agree with him. It's a well-known finding that democracies don't wage war on each other3, at least since 1812. The numbers of wars and their combat casualties have been steadily dropping since 19454, along with the spread of democracy, though it may be TV. The League of Nations failed because it couldn't cope with violent non-democratic states - fascist Italy, militarist Japan, Nazi Germany. Kant's proposition that perpetual peace requires democracy all round looks pretty good.

What's the relationship of individual citizens like us to the federation? Not much. "The law of world citizenship shall be limited to conditions of universal hospitality". Kant raises the very radical idea of world citizenship only to snatch it away it seems by limiting it to a stranger's right not to be massacred. Kant is trying to be very realistic here. He explicitly does not base his perpetual peace on radical virtue but on a typically optmistic 18th-century view of human nature as basically cooperative, as in Adam Smith. His suggestion is that if states become peaceful by agreement, all you need from ordinary citizens is minimum non-aggression. I think he was greatly underestimating the amount of international social capital you need to build for transborder human relations to be pacific and productive, so we get to the global village. In practice international organisations of the Kantian type, starting with the Universal Postal Union in 1874, have proved pretty good at building these termite mounds of treaties and exchanges.

What do we make of this? The proposal is pretty thin, a mere pamphlet. The history here is interesting. Similar proposals had been made before, by the Abbé de Saint-Pierre in 17135. Saint-Pierre was a minor eccentric at the French court who once got a job as secretary to the French delegation negotiating the Treaty of Utrecht. Rousseau picked up his 427-page tome and abridged it in 17566. Both texts are much longer than Kant's and address some of the problems he skates over. Saint-Pierre admits the needs for coercion: his federation has an army and a fund for paying informers about conspiracies, in effect a secret police. He sees that the decision-making mechanism is important: chairmanship, voting. Kant's vagueness is going backwards on these crucial problems.

What I think Kant supplied was respectability. His idea was dusted off during the First World War by a German-reading Princeton professor of constitutional law who happened to be President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. His adviser Walter Lippmann, of German-Jewish origin, was a former student of the Harvard philosopher George Santayana. America's allies didn't think much of the plan but Wilson made it a condition for sending a 1.5 million-strong army to France so they went along. Now where did you get this idea from, Mr. President? The great and unreadable German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Ah, very deep I'm sure. Imagine if he'd replied, a French royalist crank you've never heard of or a Swiss egomaniac famous for radical ideas on free love. So Kant's half-baked idea turned into the League of Nations, which failed but begat the United Nations and the Council of Europe and the European Union, and the WHO and the IMF, etcetera, the institutions which are slowly dragging the world towards, yes, perpetual peace.

Part III - Kant's Ethics

Now for the hard stuff. The Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals7 from 1785 is heavy going but worth it. Though many of Kant's arguments don't I think hold up, there's a very important core of truth.

Let's start with the title. Why the metaphysic of morals? Kant was a system builder; he's always trying to sell you a whole great package, with often very contrived linkages. Now his theory of knowledge - laid out in the forbidding Critique of Pure Reason - is built round his claim that there are synthetic a priori truths. These are propositions about the structure of the world (space, time, self, free will and causality) that must hold before we can reason at all and that can be known by introspection. They are truths behind physics, meta-physics. Kant wants to apply the same scheme to ethics and establish a priori fundamental laws of morality that can likewise be found simply by thinking, so a metaphysics of morals.

Now we don't have to buy this package to agree that it's worth looking for the fundamental principles of morality. I'll argue later that the support package is wrong. But what is Kant's candidate for this fundamental principle, and does he have any arguments for it stronger than a possible "aha!" moment?

In another feat of obfuscation he labelled his principle the categorical imperative. Actually this reflects a pretty useful distinction. When we say that a frying-pan or recipe for paella is good, or that to make an omelette you ought to take three fresh eggs, this goodness or rightness is relative to some end or goal. If you don't want an omelette, you don't have to break the eggs. Kant calls these technical or pragmatic imperatives. Now imagine a goodness or rightness that is not dependent on an end you may choose or not. That, he says, is moral goodness or rightness. If anything is morally good or right, it stands by itself, not as a means to anything else. Hence the fundamental moral imperative has to be categorical, or unconditional. This is good stuff, but so far it's just a formal container.

The content of Kant's categorical imperative is stated thus:

Act only on that maxim which you could at the same time will to become a universal law.

A maxim is simply a rule of conduct. Kant's fundamental principle is simply the ethical test you often hear: "what if everybody did it?" If the answer is "fine", it's morally OK.

A paragraph later he amends this to "a universal law of nature". This is strange. Kant gives enormous weight to human moral autonomy; virtue is freely chosen adherence to the moral law. And here he is proposing a thought experiment in which everybody else in the universe is a clockwork slave of yours. It's a good way of modelling some of the practical effects of any proposed rule of conduct, let's say on the environment, but we also want to consider the impact of out actions on other peoples' minds and choices. I think we should just read this change as a mistake: by universal law, let's stipulate a rule of conduct that we would like everybody else to freely choose.

At this point let's look briefly at Kant's arguments for his rule. We should be sceptical; for the idea of a categorical imperative, not a means to anything else, implies that it's logically free-standing. Add Hume's principle that you cannot deduce an ought from an is8, and any proposed basis for morality will inevitably be a dogmatic assertion, an unprovable postulate. Its only test will be whether its implications fit with our educated moral intuition..

Kant's arguments are unclear but so far as I can make out there are four.

1. The only absolute good is not happiness but the good will. A good will is one that self-legislates its moral code as a categorical, unconditional imperative, placing itself under a universal law as if it were a law of nature.

This does not add up. The premise that the good will is better than happiness looks a local piece of culture, it's the gloomy Protestant ethic after Luther and Calvin blew up the snakes and ladders of Purgatory. The analogy with the laws of nature begs the question. Fail one.

2. The universality of the form of the moral law implies universality of content. We don't need anything more.

For my money, all the bare notion of the categorical imperative gives us is the formal idea of an unconditional rule. We can contemplate this for yonks without making the required jump to a universal rule.

It is correct that the everyday language of morality - ought, right, good - logically implies some kind of general application, unlike the psychological language of choice, intention, desire, and will. But that applies just as much to technical imperatives as categorical ones: I may like omelettes and you not, but the good frying pan and the recipe instructions are sound for your kitchen as well as mine. If there is a categorical imperative, it should have general application. But this test is met by non-Kantian rules like "promote happiness". So fail two.

3. The categorical imperative should apply to all rational beings not just humans, so it must abstract from contingent human characteristics like the search for happiness. It's certainly generous and mind-expanding to include angels and aliens in our thinking. However, how do they get us to universality? Fail three.

4. It's consistent with the common moral understanding of mankind.

Kant downplays this and only quotes the Golden Rule in a footnote, in the form "do as you would be done by", claiming it's a deduction from his rule though incomplete. Actually it's the only good argument. He and his readers were Enlightenment deists who had abandoned the Lutheran Christianity in which they had been brought up, but which remained a key part of their mental world. They were all, like us, familiar with the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan and Jesus' summary of the Law. Like Rabbi Hillel before him, Jesus picked out the verse in Leviticus (19:18) as stating its essence: "love your neighbour as yourself".

I propose we should understand Kant's categorical imperative as an attempt to modernise the Judeo-Christian Golden Rule, state it rigorously, and put it on on an autonomous secular foundation. Incidentally, the Golden Rule was discovered or highlighted independently by Confucius and the Buddha, but in our culture its genealogy goes back to the Jews of the Babylonian Exile.

Let's review Kant's formula in this light.

We've already dropped the "law of nature" part. The next objection is that formally speaking I could write my maxim like this: "Everybody must act so as to satisfy the desires of James Wimberley". This is obvious cheating and we need to tinker with the formula to prevent it. It's not enough to replace names with variables and non-unique predicates, as we can still rig the rule to favour ourselves. It needs some much stronger principle of relativity to remove privileged perspectives and bias. Surprise, surprise, we have to bring back the neighbour's point of view explicitly, with the idea of putting yourself in his or her shoes. Our rules should be fair or unbiased in the sense of John Rawls9 that they could be adopted behind a "veil of ignorance", by agents who do not know in advance which role they would have in their relationships and in society - rich or poor, man or woman, dumb or clever. In the familiar Good Samaritan case, the relevant "other position" is that of the man left for dead in the road: he would want to be rescued by the next passer-by, regardless of religion or ritual impurity. So if we are the passer-by, that's what we should do.

My suggestion for a rewrite would then be something like this:

Freely accept and comply with a set of rules that you desire to be freely accepted and complied with by all other people, and that you would also freely accept in their position.

The set of rules will necessarily be impartial or fair in Rawls' sense. In a form like this, Kant's categorical imperative is I suggest a strong candidate for the fundamental principle of morality.

That leaves us with the question, how much use is a fundamental principle of morality? Kant is recklessly optimistic in his claim that you can immediately deduce absolute prohibitions on lying and breaking promises. Even my retreaded version does not fully answer the lawyer's question that prompted the parable of the Good Samaritan, "who is my neighbour?" Nor does it settle the question about the relative weight in our actions of consequences and utility compared to intentions and promises. Kant's ultra deontological position that only intentions count is unconvincing, indeed absurd. A third unsettled problem is how to take account of the unpleasant fact that there are a few bad guys and dolls, people who don't act towards us according to any moral code, and more generally nice people like us who sometimes behave badly. We can't just assume everybody else will actually follow the principles we imagine them holding under the Golden Rule.

I've already suggested that the test of a general principle has to be conformity with our intuitions in clear-cut cases, like preventing deliberate harm to children. At most general principles can help us in the many doubtful ones, like assisted reproduction and animal welfare. Kant's categorical imperative, like other formulations of the Golden Rule and the principle of utility, can only be signposts in our lifelong moral journey.

I'll finish by returning to the Daily Telegraph and Kant's objection to treating people as means. In fact he claims that his categorical imperative can equivalently be written:

So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end, never only as a means.

He goes on to envision an ideal world in which everyone does act this way with the lovely phrase the kingdom of ends.

I confess I don't know what to make of this. It's very hard to make it operational. Never using other people as means to our own goals makes ordinary social intercourse impossible, let alone sex. Kant needs to smuggle in the weasel word "only", which opens the question how much we may use people. This is a very difficult open problem like"who is my neighbour?"

Another way to look at the "kingdom of ends" is as Kant's splitting the Biblical Golden Rule - "love thy neighbour"- into two. There's an operational part (how we should behave), covered by the first form of the categorical imperative, the universal rule; and a psychological one (what attitudes will allow us to behave this way), expressed by the rule of ends. Kant's kingdom of ends is then homologous to Jesus' kingdom of heaven and St. Paul's paean to love in Corinthians 13. Kant does not answer the question here; but he opens an inviting door.





5Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe,

6A Project for Perpetual Peace, translation,, pp 25ff, continued



9John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1971.