Friday, August 8, 2008

Pure Metaponderance: A Public Invitation to Justine, Carl, and Marcus

"The ordinary man needs philosophy because the claims of pleasure tempt him to become a self-deceiver and to argue sophistically against what appear to be the harsh demands of morality." The writer is H. J. Paton, and he is engaged in an analysis of Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, which serves as an introduction to his translation of the work. (p. 23) Kant's basic point, in Paton's estimation, is that we "ordinary" humans tend to be uncritical of our self-serving motivations. And if we generalize Kant's perspective--that people tend to "argue...against the harsh demands of morality"--we should not be surprised to discover that a person's motivations are "impure."

[Note: All readers are welcome, but the post title explicitly invites Justine, Carl, and Marcus to this blog. So here I will try to tailor my words to them as young people with little background in philosophy. Accordingly, I here avoid Kantian subtleties and focus on their practical importance. But I will return to the Groundwork in later posts to cover some of its subtle but crucial points, since the Groundwork is a key historical text for understanding the point of view that I hope to represent in this blog.]

In a moral context "impure" usually has a sexual meaning, and if not that, it refers to vested interests playing a role in what what should be "purely" moral considerations. It is the second focus on keeping moral considerations free of external motives that Kant has in mind. But he gave it a particularly strong emphasis. For Kant there is only one "pure" motive in morality and ethics: It is to "Act only on that maxim...which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." (p. 88--Emphasis is Kant's.) That "maxim," strenuously applied, removes all particular points of view in favor of a single, universally valid, moral framework. It is the one motivation that assures the person engaged in moral calculation that her point of view is not biased in favor of those motivations that cater to her self-interest. And it is precisely the need to avoid the self-deception brought in by points of view that are not purely moral that Kant thought made a philosophical critique of moral perspectives necessary: We need to guard our intellectual purity in order to protect our moral purity.

I intend to challenge that point in the future, but for now we can use it to ask an important question. Can a person who has not "purified" her point of view, as described, be viewed as trustworthy, even to herself or himself? I would go further isn't Kant's point crucial for anyone who wants to avoid the moral self-deception that can infect our moral perspectives? Clearly that is a possibility that needs to be taken seriously.

Yesterday as I thought about inviting Justine, Marcus, and Carl to read my blog, I listened to a National Public Radio story about a camp for young free thinkers called Camp Inquiry. I was amazed to here the usual stereotypes pedaled about traditional religious believers being uncritical in their beliefs and critical thinkers being opposed to "uncritical" religious beliefs. In light of the present thoughts, that is particularly unsettling. For if Kant was right about intellectual purity being the basis for moral purity, and if religious faith is pitted against critical thinking, then faith is not only a mistake from the standpoint of intellectual honesty, but it is inherently dangerous as a road block to the critical thinking that underlies moral purity! Wow! That's a huge accusation.

Yet Kant concludes the Groundwork with, "...while we do not comprehend the...necessity of the moral imperitive, we do comprehend its incomprehensibility." (p. 131, emphasis is Kant's) Now I said that i would not get into the subtleties of Kant's view. So just consider this: Ironically, in Kant's mind, the quote just cited that makes faith the basis of morals. And it turns the accusation just given on its head: Critical inquiry--in at least one area, and arguably the most important--explains the need for faith, rather than undermines it.

As young people who take your faith seriously, I think that it is critical to know that it should be seen as the culmination of critical inquiry, rather than a road block to it--as the stereotype so often leads one to believe. And if you have not taken your faith seriously enough to understand that, do you expect those you talk to about your faith to take you seriously? Especially when you will be reinforcing the stereotype, rather than challenging it?

Nearly thirty years ago I decided not to go to seminary, because I did not have answers to important questions that I needed to confront, just to be intellectually honest. Heading down the path of inquiry has been an adventure for me. I invite you to partake in that adventure by reading the posts comprising Into the World, which will follow at a rate of one per week over the next four months.

I do not claim to have all the answers, but I do claim to have some really good questions that put faith in a pretty good light. And all three of you are bright enough to take these first steps that I can guide you through and go well beyond them, if that ever becomes your goal.

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