Thursday, October 30, 2008

Chapter Eleven: A Challenge from Kantian Autonomy

It is another doctrine of secular faith that religion is a fifth wheel when it comes to morality. Various points of view contribute to this doctrine, including the following one championed by Immanual Kant. I can see myself as essentially committed to moral values, this view holds, and so make fidelity to myself the basis of my moral commitments. Commitment to self, thus, replaces commitment to a religious tradition and its moral framework. By thus creating a sense of identity between myself and my moral perspective, the dilemma—between a primary commitment to self-interest on the one hand and a primary commitment to one’s moral obligations, or “conscience,” on the other hand—disappears.

Twentieth Century ethicist, John Rawls, explains his Kantian point of view this way: “Properly understood…the desire to act justly derives in part from the desire to express most fully what we are or can be, namely, free and equal rational beings with a liberty to choose.”1 The philosophical rationale behind Kant’s view is this. We are most free when we are motivated by our moral perspectives in that it is our ability to understand and act on a moral framework that provides a framework that does not constrict our freedom—that is, a framework not embedded in the web of cause and effect that controls nature. Thus, from a Kantian perspective, acting on a desire “to express most fully what we are or can be” means acting in accord with a moral point of view.2 Consequently Rawl’s Kantian view, it seems, eliminates the dilemma behind the supreme question: For a Kantian moralist, a proper view of oneself does not conflict with one’s moral commitments generally.

Reality, however, does not bend to definitions so easily. Consider that Nietzsche had a very different view on how best to express our human nature most freely and fully: “…convictions are prisons…” he said.3 He goes on to note that the crucial difference between a “great spirit” and a person invested in a moral commitment consists in the “great spirit” having the strength to set aside outside standards of conduct. By setting aside any moral framework as binding, Nietzsche held that a great spirit “knows himself sovereign.”4 Thus, Kantian freedom is a Nietzschian prison.

We bring the point to bear on our dilemma by asking whether either the Kantian or the Nietzschian perspective can be seen as more fundamental. (If one is more fundamental than the other, it subsumes the other and the dilemma behind the supreme question with it.) Rawls notes that “…Kant [spoke] of the failure to act on the moral law as giving rise to shame….” and states that “Such actions strike at our self-respect.”5 He thereby stakes the same ground as did Nietzsche. In fact Nietzsche famously defined humanity by this very ground: “To him who has knowledge, man…is the animal with red cheeks. How did this come about? It is because man has had to be ashamed too often.”6 Thus, Kantian and Nietzschian perspectives agree on the fundamental importance of a person’s reaction to the authoritative standing of moral frameworks. Consequently, neither can claim the deeper insight. But they disagree radically on what the response should be. Unless the perspectives are defective, a radical disagreement on a fundamental point expresses an exclusive dilemma.

On inspection, then, we find that the Kantian attempt to identify one’s sense of self with one’s moral perspective does not define the dilemma away. In fact, it reveals the fundamental place the dilemma holds in human life: a clear thinking person will understand the need to choose between believing that we give best and fullest expression to human nature by fidelity to moral frameworks or independence from them. For what it means to be a free human being fully expressing human nature depends on how one chooses to believe. The implication is that the dilemma does lie at the foundation of human nature, and so the meaning of “proper view of self” depends on making the choice that determines which horn of the dilemma defines “propriety” in relation to one’s primary commitments. What we see, then, by examining Kant’s view in light of Nietzsche’s radical challenge to it is that the dilemma behind the supreme question does express a radical choice at the foundation of what it means to be a human being. Not elimination of, but reinforcement of the supreme question comes by way of a close evaluation of the Kantian point of view.

Moreover, it was Nietzsche’s opinion that Kant “was on the same path as the Christian.”7 I agree, because any application of the Kantian perspective will depend on giving a moral authority to conscience that cannot be located in nature generally, and human nature more specifically, and that constitutes a de facto religious faith perspective.

1. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Revised Edition, (The Belknap Press, Cambridge, 1999) p. 225.
2. Ibid, pp. 221-227.
3. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, in The Portable Nietzsche, tr. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (Penguin Books, New York, 1954) p. 638.
4. Ibid.
5. Rawls, p. 225.

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