What Would Kant Do?

Sunday, April 21, 2024
First Aired: 
Sunday, April 17, 2022

What Is It

German idealist and moral philosopher Immanuel Kant is probably best known for his "Categorical Imperative," which says that you should act following moral rules you could rationally support as universal law. In other words, do only what you would have everyone else do. But are Kant's rules really a good guide to action? Does he have anything to say about things people confront in everyday life, like friendship, manners, or gossip? Is Kant overly optimistic about our capacity to use reason and choose freely? Or was he right that rationality is the key to moral progress? Josh and Ray do right by Karen Stohr from Georgetown University, author of Choosing Freedom: A Kantian Guide to Life.

Listening Notes

Can you reason your way into being a good person? Should morality be the same for everybody? Josh begins by wondering about the place of empathy in Kant's emphasis on reason, and Ray explains that emotions can often lead us astray. Josh pushes back by questioning the accuracy of reason, as well as Kant's categorical imperative of never using people as a means to an end. Ray considers individual versus universal ethical values, and they propose that freedom can come from moral rules. 

The philosophers are joined by Karen Stohr, Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, who appreciates Kant because of his commitment to believing that humans have the potential to improve despite being ethical messes. Ray asks why Kant is so intent on the power of reason, prompting Karen to explain how it was characteristic of Enlightenment scholars to place a tremendous amount of faith in reason. Josh considers specific formulations of the Categorical Imperative, like what Kant means when he says that we should act as if we live in a kingdom of ends. Ray is skeptical about Kant’s ability to accommodate the non-ideal reality of human beings, but Karen is optimistic that his theories have room for imperfection. 

In the last segment of the show, Josh, Ray, and Karen discuss the place of compassion in Kant’s ethics, the moral importance of dinner parties, and the application of Kant to today’s society. Karen thinks that Kant would be troubled by social media and the contempt that people have for one another. Ray raises the question of how to treat someone who has just done a bad thing, and Karen suggests that it is compatible to hold people accountable for their actions while treating them respectfully. Josh wonders about the importance of community in becoming a better person, and Karen advises listeners to find and join the helpers of the world. 

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:33) → Sarah Lai Stirland speaks to a group of Kant scholars about their response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:31) → Ian Shoales considers if Kant knew he was part of the Enlightenment while it was happening.

Transcript

Transcript

Josh Landy
It's Philosophy Talk.

Irrational Man
So... Kant would argue that in a truly moral world, there's absolutely no room for lying.

Ray Briggs
Is Immanuel Kant still a useful guide for how to act in everyday life?

Comments (27)


Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, February 17, 2022 -- 10:38 PM

Compassion and pragmatism

Compassion and pragmatism make a cleaner path in life than the categorical imperative. Much of the validity of Kant plays out his faulty premises. Who in their right mind would tell a mother on her death bed that their child was in harm's way. I look forward to hearing this out. Kant seems to be the latest fad. I don't think he is helpful in the vast majority of life's decisions.

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Harold G. Neuman

Friday, February 25, 2022 -- 8:04 AM

I think Smith is correct. I

I think Smith is correct. I never could wrap my mind around Mr. Kant's philosophy., categorical imperative, notwithstanding. A cautionary note: when someone categorically denies something, look for the lie. If he or she says something is categorically false, THAT may be true, but look for the lie anyway. Being a moral philosopher is risky, at the best of times and under the best circumstances.
If it were possible to speak seriously of morality, there would be things that ought to hold, under the worst of circumstances. But, many times, they don't. And this is why it is not possible. Further, affiant sayeth not.

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tartarthistle's picture

tartarthistle

Saturday, March 26, 2022 -- 9:34 PM

"Further, affiant sayeth not.

"Further, affiant sayeth not." What mean this strange language. Odd wordage.

When someone categorically denies something, it means confusion reigns. It means they are good at cards, and like to live alone and take walks. But Kant was right about never treating someone as means merely. All we do these days is treat one another as means, as things to make us feel good, deliver us food, and drive us around.

Never treat someone as means merely, but always as an end, said Kant. He may have been a bit neurotic, but he was right on that...

Plus he was good at cards...

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, March 27, 2022 -- 6:38 PM

Never treat someone as a

Never treat someone as a means unless that means was childbirth. Kant was complicated, and he was dead wrong on essential matters that shouldn't have eluded his thought. Why this is so, I would wait for Karen Stohr to check-in, but rationality is not the basis of moral progress.

Further affiant sayeth not... as they say. ;-)

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Thursday, March 31, 2022 -- 5:09 AM

Summary judgement, being an

Summary judgement, being an indication of decided opinion, is also indicative of clear reasons for such decisiveness. On these "essential matters" that the philosopher was "dead wrong" about, what's yours? Might you be referring to the Critique of Practical Reason at A291, where some suggestion is made of an expectation that, through the use of his method, there might some day be a Newton of moral science? And what could the meaning of your last sentence above possibly be? Are you saying that only irrational people can be moral, and that therefore you can count yourself to be among them?

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, April 1, 2022 -- 2:27 AM

There is no science to

There is no science to morality. All people are irrational sometimes. Immorality is anothers morality. There is no rational take that rises above the specifics of a moral quandry. Detail and identity determine most moral positions.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Friday, April 1, 2022 -- 1:58 PM

Without having to determine

Without having to determine why that's the case, it's nevertheless clear that the answer to my second question is issued by a resolute affirmation. Including yourself in both the group of the occasionally irrational and that of the exclusively self-determinedly-moral, you escape the accusation of immorality characteristically deployed against the moral relativist; --the defense being that any externally imposed moral standard on another is itself a contradiction of what counts as moral in the first place. In relation to Kant there's two things to my mind to say about this. The first is that empirically there's always some standard imposed on the individual by the group which she/he belongs to. If four sailors, for example, each with equivalent dietary requirements, are adrift in a lifeboat and have six Slim Jim's between them, it would be immoral for one to demand the two extra Slim Jim's so that she/he eats three while the others eat only one. If one sailor actually needed the extra two to survive however, and the others needed just one, concession to this demand would be understood as moral by the whole crew. Kant needs a way to talk about morality as independent from empirical considerations precisely for the reasons you bring up: If none can be found, then moral standards are little more than matters of taste and expediency wrapped in the language of universals. In addition he needs to preserve the important intuition which your response suggests that no one can tell you what morality has to be. He has to preserve the radical individuality of judgement-independence in any elaboration universal agency-grounds. This I think he does by the notion of Duty as something good in itself, independent of anything which might result from its performance. And of course the Categorical Imperative, for which Kant provides four or five roughly compatible formulations, furnishes the standard which determines its concept.

Although it's always a pleasure to inquire into the distinction between varieties of empirical moralities, (e.g. consequentialism, utilitarianism, hedonism, solipsism, et al.), and Kant's supposed "deontology", I was more interested in what an answer to my first question might be. Your phrases "essential matters" and "dead wrong" immediately brought to mind a rather astounding statement written in the Critique of Practical Reason at A291 with regards to the systematic performance of duty for duty's sake. After waxing enthusiastic about the progress in the physics of his day, he writes that on the strength of that example there obtains "hope for a similarly good result" (Hoffnung zu aehnlichem guten Erfolg), in the study, to wit the "science", of morals. If "dead wrong" applies to anything in Kant, this suggestion arguably qualifies. So could this be your reference for such a decisive condemnation? If not, then is disclosure of its reference to much for a colleague to ask? To keep your readers in suspense any longer could tempt transgression of the scholar's imprimatur, lessening what's becoming of an untamed and insightful talent. What are these "essential matters"?

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, April 1, 2022 -- 7:42 PM

Let me wait for Karen Stohr

Let me wait for Karen Stohr to check this. I hope some of this makes the show.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, April 14, 2022 -- 9:41 AM

The show was well executed

The show was well executed and helpful as well as addressing your points and questions above, don't you think? Kant could have saved us a few hundred years had he applied his model to his own thought and time.

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tartarthistle's picture

tartarthistle

Thursday, April 7, 2022 -- 11:06 AM

Oh, those moral positions..

Oh, those moral positions...sigh...

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tartarthistle's picture

tartarthistle

Monday, March 28, 2022 -- 9:07 PM

Further affiant as they not

Further affiant as they not say ! Further not say! Say, affiant, what thee meaneth by they strangeth words?

Kant was odd. Math and too much thinking--when not balanced by children, family members, neighbors, and coworkers--leads to 700 pages of pure reason. Tolstoy was much better. He jazzed his reason up with some racy tidbits, science, plus a little Freemasonry for added mystery. I like that. Tolstoy had style. Talk about walking away from things...Just getting on a train and leaving...Poof, down...

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Thursday, March 31, 2022 -- 5:26 AM

O.K., so Kant was an uptight

O.K., so Kant was an uptight constitutional monarchist and Tolstoy a century later was a free-love anarchist. Is this the basis of the comparison? Are there discernible philosophical points on which they might be compared as well?

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tartarthistle's picture

tartarthistle

Friday, April 1, 2022 -- 11:39 AM

Well, probably not. Tolstoy

Well, probably not. Tolstoy liked to, hmm, shall we say, procreate at the level of children. And Kant enjoyed procreating at level of, shall we say, "Further affiant sayeth not," plus 1030 pages of reason (including end-matter). I really find Kant's distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments helpful. And quite frankly (although I anticipate a grunchy response), I think this distinction corresponds to one made by Tolstoy at the end of War and Peace, where he points out, with respect to power, how people always "arrive at such relations among themselves that the largest number of people take the largest direct part and the smallest number of people the smallest direct part in the joint action for which they have come together." (p. 1196, Richard Pevear trans.) The smallest number corresponds to society's elite analytic class (granddads and grandmums), and the largest part to society's workers (all the little kiddies). It also has a mathematical aspect with respect to time (elders, elites, small part-mind, and youth, non-elite many, larger part-body). Analytic truths (the elders who guide things) and synthetic truths (the youngsters who do the things). Between the one and the other is the trouble-maker class, the raucous satyr chorus and their their sweet-singing mermaid friends. The satyrs and the mermaids are so much fun when they get together. Weeee!

I'll bet Kant and Tolstoy would have very little to say to one another...That would be a very silent table...All beards and egos...

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Friday, April 1, 2022 -- 2:53 PM

Is that because Kant's

Is that because Kant's approach is analytic, not going beyond what reason can provide without reference to particular experience, and Tolstoy's is synthetic, allowing particular historical experience to fill the lacuna between rational grounds of behavior and unintended consequences of deliberate action?

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tartarthistle's picture

tartarthistle

Saturday, April 2, 2022 -- 7:33 PM

It's because Kant is Kant,

It's because Kant is Kant, Tolstoy is Tolstoy, and silly is silly...

And I'm not a robot...

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, April 3, 2022 -- 5:26 AM

At least you know what you

At least you know what you are not.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Sunday, April 3, 2022 -- 10:33 AM

--On the common definition of

--On the common definition of "robot", I suppose that's a safe assumption, although there's really no way to prove it. Presumably one could be pre-determined or "programmed" for childish vulgarity as well as for things like playing chess. But independent from claims of non-robotic self-identity my interest in your remarks concerns Kant's renown analytic/synthetic distinction, which is in fact three distinctions: analytic and synthetic judgments (e.g. all bodies are extended and all bodies are heavy), analytic and synthetic concepts (e.g. bodies in space and heavy bodies) and analytic and synthetic methods (e.g. logic and mathematics). You've offered three arguments above, the first two of which are analytically true by a relation of quantitative identity, but, as concerning complex persons, are not tautological. What I mean is that the claim that "Socrates is Socrates" is similar in form to the statement that "boys will be boys". The second term picks out certain properties tacitly contained in the first, emphasizing them as especially significant. The statement remains analytic without being uninformative. Take Gertrude Stein's famous statement that "a rose is a rose is a rose". The third clause is clearly a phenomenology of the second drawn out from the first, but is not synthetic.

Your third argument however is to my mind where the action is. Here we're dealing with the identity of a predicate-universal with itself, which is hermeneutically disjunctive: Either "silliness = silliness", which is unproblematic, or "it's silly to be silly" which is a self-abnegation of the predicate by the identity relation precisely to indicate its opposite. How such a statement can be semiologically intelligible and nevertheless appear to violate the law of contradiction appears to this day to elude logical analysis.. In spite of its terse brevity, then, your third analytic argument above may portend a revolution in the laws of logic.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Monday, April 4, 2022 -- 8:43 AM

No thanks. You mention

No thanks. You mention however in the third sentence above the phenomenon of a lie being told to one's self. How does that work? Kant in the Foundations puts a lot of emphasis on the example of not lying as instantiating the Categorical Imperative in a way which serves to illustrate its universalizing function. Do you think it works just as well when the lie is told to one's self?

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tartarthistle's picture

tartarthistle

Tuesday, April 5, 2022 -- 9:18 PM

I am super surprised the

I am super surprised the other words haven't vanished into thin air. Poof, gone!

I lie to myself all the time. Doesn't everyone? What do you call language usage?

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Wednesday, April 6, 2022 -- 8:26 AM

The use of language is called

The use of language is called what it's called by the use of language, and thus contains a problem of self-reference similar to the use of pictures for the purpose of describing a visible object which exists. You haven't answered my question, though. With regards to a lie which one tells one's self, I didn't ask you whether or not you do it, I asked how it's done. Presumably, when you lie to yourself, you know you're lying. The lie proceeds without ever becoming established as successful. The question for Kant is of course contained in your second sentence from the end above: Could anyone consistently will self-lying to be a universal law in any given case of its performance? That seems to me highly untenable, as "telling the truth" to one's self seems a fundamental tenet with regards to the use of the categorical imperative as a law which the understanding of one's own freedom is supposed to give to itself. Your theory that the use of language equates to self-lying is therefore highly spurious if with it you're trying to critically approach Kant's ethical position. Such a recommendation is subject to the same objection as lying to another, or "successful lying": The institution of trust and promising would be undermined, to the point where human existence would become unsustainable. In the self-lying variant which you suggest, the ability to trust one's self would be similarly eroded, to the point where one could no longer conceive of any long term plans. It's the ability to make a promise to one's self which your suggestion would undermine, and could conceivably be an explanatory factor in some of the undesirable situations previously expressed by the self-liar in this case, which might otherwise have been avoidable.

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tartarthistle's picture

tartarthistle

Thursday, April 7, 2022 -- 6:47 AM

How do I lie to myself? Hmm..

How do I lie to myself? Hmm... I close my eyes and imagine things that may or may not exist. I see things in my mind's eye. I have a vibrant and detailed imagination. (I light incense, take a sip, play music.) I can create all sorts of things in this space. I can get carried away in imagery. I can imagine all sorts of possibilities. Beautiful things, people, situations--they turn me on. I get excited...
Need I go on?

Is this not what you meant?

I can work myself up, I can work myself down.

I enjoy lying to myself. It's actually rather pleasant. It takes the edge off.

But strangely, I don't lie to others wittingly. It doesn't turn me on. I confess right away. I hate falseness. I'm compelled to tell the the truth to others.

But I love lying to myself....I love lying with myself. I do it all the time. It's fun. Try it. It takes the edge off. Poof, gone!

P.S. My physical senses also lie to me, so I suppose in that sense I lie to myself constantly. I'm lying to myself right now. Ah!

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Friday, April 8, 2022 -- 12:53 PM

The typical definition of a

The typical definition of a lie is deliberate semiological transmission of a false correspondence, which you take note of in the third line from the end.
While it's clear that many attempt such a transmission from themselves to themselves, my question was based on the observation that such an attempt must always fail to some degree, since the liar knows she/he's lying. What you've suggested here in response involves the claim that lying to one's self consists in special attention being paid to products of the imagination, with emphasis on each kind: the productive imagination, dealt with in the first paragraph above, and the reproductive, described in the post-script (cf. Critique of Pure Reason, A120). It's unclear however how that equates to deliberate falsehood. Like a magician who performs a trick for her/himself, she/he may be pleased with the result, but isn't lying, because she/he knows how it was done. But the question here with regards to Kant's ethical theory could be conceived to be whether or not the action you're describing is motivated by Duty without reference to its consequences. Although it looks like the answer to this would be in the negative, Kant nevertheless writes in the Foundations (BA 12) that there obtains an "indirect duty" to enjoy one's self, as furnishing better conditions for guarding against the temptation to transgress what Duty demands. The notion however that deliberate use of the faculty of imagination, in the enjoyment of its products, equates to an act of lying to one's self which escapes Kant's energetic prohibition of such motive grounds from possible duties, appears to me to be soundly rejected.

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tartarthistle's picture

tartarthistle

Friday, April 8, 2022 -- 9:53 PM

Who was Dostoyevsky's Grand

Who was Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor lying to? Himself, Christ, or the people? The Christ figure just smiles, kisses him, and leaves.

Who was telling the truth and who was lying?

The meaning is very unclear...life is very unclear...I'm kind of fine with that...I'm just flying at the intersection of Page and Octavia, "Spare some change. Just trying to get by."

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, April 9, 2022 -- 7:43 AM

Kant was not only trying to

Kant was not only trying to get by; instead, he was trying to build a system of morality and ethics. Peace be with you, Tartarthistle, but here we talk about Kant. I would compare Kant's system of ethics to that portrayed in Russian literature, and I'm not sure how closely that would get to Kant's ideas.

I did read Karen's book, however, and it is an excellent summary of Kant, and even some of the issues Daniel and you are touching upon here. I will encourage you to read it if you haven't. The show will be enlightening and maybe fun even, as I have already mollified my take on Kant in light of this learning.

Still, I would wait to hear from Stohr before saying much more.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Tuesday, April 12, 2022 -- 3:34 PM

Although Kant talks about

Although Kant talks about taking pleasure in moral action as permissible after the fact, provided it doesn't constitute an action's original motive grounds, there can nevertheless be a general interest in the creation of conditions for the occurrence of such feelings, as these increase the likelihood of duty's performance. Interest in the pleasures of conformity to duty therefore comes to be itself a kind of duty. But if the interest in the pleasure that comes from "having done the right thing" is a kind of duty also, there must be a concomitant duty to reject in some form what impedes its satisfaction. My question, then, is this: Is there by Kant's argument a duty of disgust;
not disgust in the observation another's immoral action, which is unproblematic, but disgust in what impedes satisfaction of the general interest of furnishing conditions for post-hoc duty-conformity pleasure? If so, a pleasure in disgust must be admitted as implied by moral feeling; and therefore a practical Kantian aesthetics of the disgusting arguably precedes his later aesthetic theory of subjective universality of non-conceptual cognitive form.

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Tim Smith

Wednesday, April 13, 2022 -- 8:15 AM

Kant is not well thought out

Kant is not well thought out on this. Pleasure vs. virtue in ethics is a mid 19th century event. Epicurean ideas and Kant don't mix in my understanding. Did you read 'Choosing Freedom'?, I found it helpful as most of my reading of Kant was decades old. I got a bit off track then with terms. This, your idea here, is too late for the show to respond but I think we should respect Kant's place in history even as we disrespect his lack of woke. Pleasure is not his schtick.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Wednesday, April 13, 2022 -- 2:50 PM

Firm agreement here it's not

Firm agreement here it's not his schtick. Pleasure for Kant is not a way to market his philosophy, but a salient and abiding interest of his vocational work. Take where the Antinomy of Practical Reason is introduced in the second Critique (A204/205). Having identified the rational basis of common-sense morals in the first part of the book, Kant claims to have demonstrated that, as virtue can't be identical with happiness, (and therefore neither can duty with pleasure), it must be correctly described as worthiness to be happy, (and therefore also deserving of pleasure). The "highest good" for an individual, states Kant, is to find them both together, thereby determining a concept consisting of two parts: one based on duty as an action's worth (virtue), and another which refers to pleasure or a special kind of pleasure as it's ideal result or concrete association (happiness).

Clearly, then, the topic of pleasure is central in Kant's non-peripheral discussion here. But the next step in his argument is notable, and directly relates to your second sentence above: How are these two parts of the concept related? In the ancient world the Epicurean view, according to Kant, was to identify virtue as whatever leads to happiness, and duty therefore as whatever leads to pleasure, (at least the kind of pleasure which is generated by doing one's duty). The Stoics on the other hand saw virtue as happiness itself. Duty as its own reward doesn't need any further pleasure which completes it beyond its own performance. Without going into the details of the Antinomy itself (which has the Stoics coming out on top with the reservation that their position is only true on condition that the pleasure of duty isn't part of the motive for doing it, but at most an accidental result-- A206/207), I think it's clear how fundamental pleasure is, described as an essential component of the highest good for an individual, in Kant's moral theory. My question for the proponent of this theory, however, is: How are the motive grounds of duty independent from the anticipated subjective effect of doing it? Here I would agree with your first sentence above: His detectable answer to that question remains singularly unconvincing.

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