You don’t need Kant

Re­lated to: Com­ments on De­grees of Rad­i­cal Hon­esty, OB: Belief in Belief, Cached Thoughts.

“Noth­ing worse could hap­pen to these labours than that any­one should make the un­ex­pected dis­cov­ery that there nei­ther is, nor can be, any a pri­ori knowl­edge at all.… This would be the same thing as if one sought to prove by rea­son that there is no rea­son” (Cri­tique of Prac­ti­cal Rea­son, In­tro­duc­tion).

You don’t need Kant to demon­strate the value of hon­esty. In fact, sum­mon­ing his revenant can be a dan­ger­ous thing to do. You end up in the some­what un­de­sir­able situ­a­tion of hav­ing al­most the right con­clu­sion, but hav­ing it for the wrong rea­sons. Rea­sons you weren’t even aware of, be­cause they were all col­lapsed into the be­lief, “I be­lieve in per­son X”.

One of the an­noy­ing things about philos­o­phy is that the dead sim­ply don’t die. Once a philoso­pher or philo­soph­i­cal doc­trine gains some celebrity in the com­mu­nity, it’s very difficult to con­vince any­one af­ter­ward that said philoso­pher or doc­trine was flawed. In other words, the philo­soph­i­cal com­mu­nity tends to have prob­lems with re­lin­quish­ment. There­fore, there are still many philoso­phers that spend their ca­reers study­ing, for ex­am­ple, Plato, ap­par­ently not with the in­tent to de­ter­mine what parts of what Plato wrote are cor­rect or still ap­pli­ca­ble, but rather with the in­tent to defend Plato from crit­i­cism. To prove Plato was right.

Since the com­mu­nity doesn’t value re­lin­quish­ment, the cost of writ­ing a flawed crit­i­cism is very low. There­fore, jour­nals are glut­ted with so-called “nega­tive re­sults”: “Kant was wrong”, “Hegel was wrong”, etc. No one se­ri­ously be­lieves oth­er­wise, but writ­ing pos­i­tive philo­soph­i­cal re­sults is hard, and not writ­ing at all isn’t a vi­able ca­reer op­tion for a pro­fes­sional philoso­pher.

To its credit, MBlume re­frains from bring­ing up Kant in his ar­ti­cle on rad­i­cal hon­esty, where he cites other, more fea­si­ble var­i­ants of rad­i­cal hon­esty. How­ever, in the com­ments, Kant rears his ugly head.

De­mos­thenes writes:

“Kant dis­agrees and seems to warn that the prin­ci­ple of truth tel­ling is uni­ver­sal; you can’t go around de­cid­ing who has a right to truth and who does not. Fur­ther­more, he sug­gests that your lie could have ter­rible un­fore­seen con­se­quences.


I am more util­i­tar­ian than Kant, but it is not hard to ig­nore “prox­im­ity” and come up with a cost/​benefit calcu­la­tion that agrees with him.”

md­ca­ton writes:

“Is this ques­tion re­ally so hard? Re­mind me never to hide from Nazis at your house!

First off, Kant’s philos­o­phy was crit­i­cized on ex­actly these grounds, i.e. that by his sys­tem, when the au­thor­i­ties come to your door to look for a friend you’re har­bor­ing, you should turn him in. I briefly scanned for clever Kant refer­ences (e.g. “in­tro­duce the brown­shirts to your strangely-named cat, Ego­rial Im­per­a­tive”) but found none. Kant clar­ified that he did not think it im­moral to lie to au­thor­i­ties look­ing to ex­e­cute your friend.”

The prob­lem with bring­ing up Kant here is that he sim­ply doesn’t be­long. “Don’t [lie] to any­one un­less you’d also slash their tires, be­cause they’re Nazis or what­ever,” is very differ­ent from Kant say­ing (para­phras­ing), “Never lie, ever, or else you’re a bad per­son.” An ar­gu­ment against the former by con­flat­ing it with the lat­ter doesn’t ac­com­plish any­thing. Fur­ther, there’s no men­tion of all the stuff Kant has to as­sume in or­der to ar­gue for the Cat­e­gor­i­cal Im­per­a­tive and, fi­nally, the value of rad­i­cal hon­esty.

Luck­ily, we only need the first cou­ple pages of the Cri­tique of Prac­ti­cal Rea­son to get to the Cat­e­gor­i­cal Im­per­a­tive. I want to flag down three very large as­sump­tions that Kant needs, which I be­lieve few ra­tio­nal­ists would want to es­pouse. First, let me fill in the lat­ter part of the in­fer­en­tial chain: given the ex­is­tence of free­dom, God, the im­mor­tal­ity of the soul, and a su­per­nat­u­ral con­scious­ness, Kant will ar­gue that any mind with a “morally de­ter­mined willpower” will con­clude that it should act in ac­cor­dance with sub­jec­tive prin­ci­ples that in prin­ci­ple could be uni­ver­sally ap­pli­ca­ble (i.e., the Cat­e­gor­i­cal Im­per­a­tive). I don’t want to get in to what that ac­tu­ally means for Kant, as it’s not re­ally rele­vant, but suffice it to say that the Cat­e­gor­i­cal Im­per­a­tive im­plies that ly­ing is always, any­where, and for any­one eth­i­cally wrong.

Free­dom, God, and the Im­mor­tal­ity of the Soul

Skip this sec­tion if you don’t care about Kant.

Free­dom here means com­pletely acausal, meta­phys­i­cal free­dom from a Mind Pro­jec­tion Fal­lacy that treats our mind as some­how differ­ent from the body. Kant uses the con­cept of meta­phys­i­cal free­dom (and not, for ex­am­ple, merely our ev­ery­day ex­pe­rience of de­ter­min­ing our course of ac­tion) to ar­gue that there are such things as moral laws.

“Inas­much as the re­al­ity of the con­cept of free­dom is proved by an apode­ic­tic law of prac­ti­cal rea­son, it is the key­stone of the whole sys­tem of pure rea­son, even the spec­u­la­tive, and all other con­cepts (those of God and im­mor­tal­ity) which, as be­ing mere ideas, re­main in it un­sup­ported, now at­tach them­selves to this con­cept, and by it ob­tain con­sis­tence and ob­jec­tive re­al­ity; that is to say, their pos­si­bil­ity is proved by the fact that­
free­dom ac­tu­ally ex­ists, for this idea is re­vealed by the moral law.” (CoPrR, In­tro­duc­tion)

I think in a per­verse way Kant knew he was be­com­ing Escher-headed by be­liev­ing in meta­phys­i­cal free­dom.

“Lest any one should imag­ine that he finds an in­con­sis­tency here when I call free­dom the con­di­tion of the moral law, and here­after main­tain in the trea­tise it­self that the moral law is the con­di­tion un­der which we can first be­come con­scious of free­dom, I will merely re­mark that free­dom is the ra­tio es­sendi of the moral law, while the moral law is the ra­tio cognoscendi of free­dom.” (CoPrR, In­tro­duc­tion)

If one doesn’t as­sume com­pletely acausal, meta­phys­i­cal free­dom and tries to fol­low Kant’s ar­gu­ment, the whole thing falls apart. There’s no longer (for Kant) any rea­son to be­lieve in moral laws, and there­fore in the Cat­e­gor­i­cal Im­per­a­tive, and there­fore in rad­i­cal hon­esty.

God here is, strangely enough, not nec­es­sar­ily the Chris­tian God, though pre­sum­ably Kant meant as such. Both it and an eter­nal soul are nec­es­sary to re­al­ize the good­ness of the Cat­e­gor­i­cal Im­per­a­tive de­scribed above. Without ei­ther of these, there’s no rea­son to obey the Cat­e­gor­i­cal Im­per­a­tive, as be­ing “Good” would then sim­ply be im­pos­si­ble.

“The re­al­iza­tion of the sum­mum bonum [the Great­est Good] in the world is the nec­es­sary ob­ject of a will de­ter­minable by the moral law. But in this will the perfect ac­cor­dance of the mind with the moral law is the supreme con­di­tion of the sum­mum bonum. This then must be pos­si­ble, as well as its ob­ject, since it is con­tained in the com­mand to pro­mote the lat­ter. Now, the perfect ac­cor­dance of the will with the moral law is holi­ness, a perfec­tion of which no ra­tio­nal be­ing of the sen­si­ble world is ca­pa­ble at any mo­ment of his ex­is­tence. Since, nev­er­the­less, it is re­quired as prac­ti­cally nec­es­sary, it can only be found in a progress in in­fini­tum to­wards that perfect ac­cor­dance, and on the prin­ci­ples of pure prac­ti­cal rea­son it is nec­es­sary to as­sume such a prac­ti­cal progress as the real ob­ject of our will.” (CoPrR, Chap­ter Two, Part IV)

Mo­ral of the Story

What we have then is a very pow­er­ful theme that has wo­ven its way into our list of cached thoughts. When­ever some­one men­tions the value of be­ing hon­est, some pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion is primed to think of Kant and his var­i­ant of rad­i­cal hon­esty to the ex­clu­sion of other var­i­ants. Some pro­por­tion of that pro­por­tion is then primed with var­i­ous anti-philos­o­phy memes which im­me­di­ately at­tack Kan­tian rad­i­cal hon­esty to the con­fla­tion of it with other things. What is lost is the re­al­iza­tion that Kan­tian rad­i­cal hon­esty is in this era a straw man; ev­ery­one already knows it (and at­tempts to fix it while still be­ing au­then­tic to Kant, i.e., Kan­tian Stud­ies) is in­her­ently flawed, be­cause it is based on a set of ir­ra­tional as­sump­tions.

My sug­gested strat­egy to avoid this in the fu­ture is this: when­ever you find your­self cit­ing the be­liefs of an­other per­son, try to avoid refer­ring to them as “the be­liefs of X” un­less you are ac­tu­ally talk­ing about their be­liefs (or the be­liefs recorded in their writ­ings, etc.). Be aware of cre­at­ing straw men by com­par­ing your in­ter­locu­tor’s be­liefs with the be­liefs of a fa­mous philoso­pher, and cer­tainly don’t knock your straw man down by cit­ing the be­liefs of one of that philoso­pher’s crit­ics.

EDIT: Made it more ob­vi­ous that MBlume pro­posed more than one var­i­ant of rad­i­cal hon­esty.