Month: March 2018

The Fatal Platonism of the Categorical Imperative

Moral maxims are rules governing actions, or commands to act in certain ways considered morally correct. Some of the most well known maxims are those that come to us by way of religious tradition. “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness” are paradigm examples. Kant insists that his Categorical Imperative is the best means by which to test the maxims, for whether they correctly guide us to right action and away from wrong action. In this essay, I will argue that while the Categorical Imperative might seem plausible as a test of moral maxims because of it’s rigid logical form, it actually fails the plausibility test for one of the same reasons Parmenides rejected Socrates’ conception of the Forms.

In brief, the Categorical Imperative test is a thought experiment in which one attempts to universalize the maxim in question in order to discover a logical impossibility, or at least, an absurdity embedded in the consequences. Here’s how he states it:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

But there is a second, very closely related formulation, that looks like this:

“Act as if the maxims of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.”

The difference between these two might seem insignificant on the surface, but they represent a fundamental Platonic tension in Kant’s metaphysics of morals, which I’ll explain more fully, after outlining the distinction between these two a bit better. In the first conception, Kant is describing a feature of his moral law. In the second, he is making explicit reference to the natural law, in the Newtonian sense. He wants to link them because of their fundamental universality, but this linkage is only an analogy; the two universalities are fundamentally different in kind. In the case of natural law, scientists subsequent to Newton were attempting to infer the presence of a structure of rational intelligibility from the regularities and consistencies they observed, and in some cases could predict, in the behavior of objects in the mechanical universe given to us by Newton.

Kant rightly recognized the lack of ultimate necessity in these laws, and goes on about it at length in the Groundwork. He does this, because he needs his moral law to be something that is ultimately good, and that could not have been otherwise. In order to arrive at this, Kant has to borrow the notion of a telos for man from Aristotle. As with Aristotle, Kant chooses reason as the basis for that telos. But unlike Aristotle, Kant insists that the reason he has in mind is not the reason Aristotle wants us to accept. Aristotle’s reason would have us pursuing material ends that satisfy the conditions of living. For Kant, this is unacceptable. He makes a distinction between the rational mind of contingency, and the faculty of pure reason capable of discerning the absolutes of moral law, in the same way that Socrates would have us contemplating the Forms, in Republic or Phaedrus. The former is the basis for what Kant regards as “hypothetical imperatives”. These sorts of imperatives, he argues, can be of only relative or instrumental value, because they arise out of the contingency of circumstances and the temporal calculations of cost and benefit. For Kant, such imperatives could not constitute moral imperatives because they lack the constancy and objectivity of a mathematical equation or a geometric expression; in other words, the kind of truth that is true everywhere, at all times, and applicable to all rational beings – a_universal_ truth, of the kind envisioned in Plato’s description of the Form of The Good.

Intuitively, the ascendence into Platonic idealism may seem like a good idea. After all, why would we call a rule that only applied circumstantially a “moral rule”? Wouldn’t that simply be a convention, or a preference? Indeed, for Kant, the universal law of the Categorical Imperative is not derived from natural law, in the way that Newton’s laws of thermodynamics, for instance, are derived by inferring them from the behavior of matter. Rather, the Categorical Imperative is derived from the moral law which is accessible only by means of the faculty of “pure reason”, as an entirely contemplative exercise. Kant goes so far with this concept as to suggest that there may be no acceptable method for justifying the Categorical Imperative itself by any exemplary application of the self-same principle:

“…how could laws of the determination of the will be regarded as laws of the determination of the will of rational beings generally… if they were merely empirical and did not take their origin wholly a priori from pure but practical reason? Nor could anything be more fatal to morality than that we should wish to derive it from examples. For every example of it that is set before me must be first itself tested by principles of morality, whether it is worthy to serve as an original example… but by no means can it authoritatively furnish the conception of morality… imitation finds no place at all in morality, and examples serve only for encouragement… they can never authorize us to set aside the true original which lies only in reason…”

Kant is invoking the ghost of Socrates here by complaining that examples are not enough, and that what he seeks is a universal definition for right action that can be contemplated in the realm of the intelligible, like the Form of the Good or the Form of Beauty. But Kant is also invoking the ghost of Parmenides here, by reminding us that the ideal good will, and the actual good will, do not seem to have any relation or connection to each other. As put by G. M. A. Grube:

If the [Forms] are not of our world, they are totally separate and there can be no connexion between the two. The [Forms] cannot then be objects of knowledge… If anyone has knowledge of them, a god has, but this knowledge of the Forms is beyond us human beings. We cannot know the god and the god cannot know us.

Kant even attempts to remedy this in his own metaphysics by positing a nearly identical Nuemenal Realm for his moral law as Socrates posits for Parmenides for his Forms (from Parmenides):

Could not, Parmenides, each of these Forms be a noema which cannot properly exist elsewhere than in souls? For then each of them would be one and what you said just now would not apply to it…

This could be the reason why Kant gives us these two different formulations of the Categorical Imperative — a difference that should appear much more stark now than at the beginning of this essay. Kant is trying to provide towers on either side of the chasm he’s attempting to bridge, with his “good will”. What’s more, Plato’s Forms are attempting to conceptualize an ideal for static objects of subjective experience, such as beauty or justice, or the shape of a triangle. But Kant is demanding the same standard of perfection for human action, as it manifests itself in the material world. There can be no perfect form of right action, because all of human action is bounded by contingency in the facts of reality. The Categorical Imperative is, therefore, a profoundly confused misapplication of Platonic Idealism.

It is telling, then, that Kant struggles so mightily in attempting to demonstrate the utility of the Categorical Imperative in the various examples he offers (and that earlier he complained could provide no true representation of it, much like Socrates would have complained of the Form of man). The case of the false promise, for example, does not expose a logical contradiction any more than Hume’s teapot refusing to boil does. Instead, all Kant is able to show, is how a world of nothing but false promises would seem a whimsically ridiculous place to us. The recognition of the absurdity in consequence is not the same thing as contemplating the injustice of the violation of a universal moral law. Even worse, the recognition of that absurdity exposes the fact that we’re implicitly dealing with a hypothetical imperative here: If you want to be able to rely on promises, then you need to honor them and expect others will do the same. Imagining this as some species of a Categorical Imperative residing in an intelligible realm of moral law renders you no less vulnerable to the unscrupulous man. But, more to the point, it leaves you with no clear reason to condemn him as having acted immorally. At best, you could complain about the inconvenience or the harm, at which point, you’d be applying a consequentialist standard, and our unscrupulous man could simply retort that its up to you to indemnify yourself against such a contingency in the real world.

For anyone who already prizes the beauty or the utility of the universal applicability of mathematics, or who is already wedded to the universal divinity of the human soul, Kant’s Categorical imperative is going to be powerfully seductive, as a moral system. If we all lived in a rational paradise in fact, then maybe we’d all be like that and Kant would just be another in a long pantheon of Philosopher Kings, ruling us rationally from the pulpit of the Form of Right Action, or the Form of The Good. For the rest of us in the real world, however, where life is lived in pursuit of contingent and temporal goals, the Categorical Imperative is at best a useful heuristic, and at worst, an oppressive ideal that renders us all moral failures at the outset.

Book Review: 12 Rules For Life, Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules For Life” is an admixture of continental philosophy, eastern mysticism, Jungian psychology, Christian theology, clinical psychotherapy insights, personal biography, and folk wisdom. At 368 pages, it’s just large enough to keep a thoughtful layman engaged without the more intimidating academic burden of his first book, “Maps of Meaning”. Dr. Peterson is obviously well read and quite thoughtful. In addition to some of his own occasional profundities, the book is absolutely littered with references to Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Dostoevsky, Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, and many others. If you’re a curious reader, following these up will take you weeks.

A Jungian at heart, Peterson loves to cast his arguments into metaphorical and mytho-poetic form, which can be remarkably frustrating for a more hard-nosed analytical thinker like myself (he does this much less so, in Maps of Meaning). But Peterson is still very careful to cite modern sources for most of his empirical assertions throughout the book (with one significant exception, which I’ll get to later).

It took reading nearly the entire book to figure out how each of the 12 rules were related to each other as a whole, and the effort was well worth it. Chapters 6 (“Set your house in perfect order…”), 7 (“Pursue what is meaningful…”), and 8 (“Tell the truth…”), constitute the heart of the book in my view, with chapters 10 (“Be precise in your speech…”), and 11 (“Do not bother skateboarders…”) serving to really drive home the overall message of the book. What is that message? First, that contra Descartes, the fundamental unshakeable truth of human existence is the experience of suffering – a pre-rational essential phenomena that is, as Descartes might have put it, the primary “clear and distinct” knowledge we have of ourselves and of our “Being” (Peterson’s term. It seems to mean something like the state of existing and experiencing existence). Moreover, that suffering is a result of our having awakened to the fact of our own Being, that this was in some sense a choice, and most importantly, that now leaves us facing the perpetual choice of either accepting or rejecting the burden of this knowledge. The implication of all this, for Peterson, is that this is the fundamental moral choice. Our burden of this conscious choice – and the selection itself – is the acting out of our fundamental value. The ultimate consequence is the wholehearted embrace or rejection of the whole of creation. Not simply, as Nietzsche or Camus might say, the choice of suicide, but the choice of becoming judge, jury, and executioner of all Being including your own. The moral man, then, chooses life, and makes that his ultimate value in the process.

These chapters are, by far, the most philosophical of the book. They are essentially Peterson’s response to Nietzsche’s famous critique of value found in Zarathustra and the Genealogy of Morals. His formulation and answer to this problem is clearly influenced by Kirkegaard (whom he quotes twice), but the far stronger influence it seems to me is the Judeo-Christian Bible. Peterson casts the opening books of the bible into Jungian archetypes, and uses them to make his case. The Priestly Genesis is the origin of all Being: The Word is self-conscious Truth spoken as a means of deriving order from the chaos of the deep. Eve chooses to invite chaos into the walled garden of Eden and Adam follows her lead. In their offspring – Cain and Abel – we are confronted with the choice of life stated above, only in archetypal form: Cain condemns the world, its creator, and himself, out of resentment for the suffering he encounters; and not just for the suffering, but for the apparently unequal distribution of that suffering between himself and his brother Abel. Abel, on the other hand, chooses to properly honor himself and his creator with honest sacrifice. Peterson draws upon this metaphor again later, in a masterful parallel between this and the parable of Christ’s temptation in the desert.

So, for those who do their philosophy metaphorically, this book is a feast. It is an homage to hope, and a powerful argument against the nihilistic despair that seems to permeate our present modern culture. Still, I think this book is only likely to find fertile ground with seekers still open to the intuitive and allegorical approach to philosophical investigation. More to the point, those jaundiced by academic cynicism or jaded by ideological or intellectual biases, will generally find nothing more than a twenty-first century Joseph Campbell.

To be sure, there are some problems with the book. Rule 5, for example, lacks much of the intellectual rigor and careful citations of the rest of the book. Peterson makes numerous appeals to the work of B. F. Skinner in this chapter, which is only obliquely relevant anymore, since decades of work has been done on the developmental psychology of children since then (none of which he notes). Worse, he also makes appeal to several trite and easily refutable arguments in support of his position (for example, what I like to call the “hot stove defense”), and fails to acknowledge that much of what he put in this chapter is very often used as post hoc justification by many very poor parents. I think Peterson could have left this chapter out, and it would have been a better book.

Also, it is possible to charitably dispute Peterson’s allegorical approach to the question of meaning. The Joseph Campbell complaint, while somewhat of a straw man, is not entirely without merit. Sam Harris makes an excellent illustration of this, in his book “The End of Faith”, in which he satirically describes the spiritual significance of a Hawaiian snapper recipe. Though it is hyperbole, it does raise the question of how one would anchor the claims drawn from allegory in something more empirical, in order to make them properly defeasible. Peterson has yet to address this objection fully, as far as I know.

Despite these problems, I think the book is still well worth the effort to read, for any lay-philosopher looking for an interesting angle of approach to the problem of value and meaning, and its application in a very real-world way. The parallel psychoanalytic threads running through this book, also make it an excellent tool for meditation and self-reflection. It might be tempting to think that the work is mere “self-help”, because of this and because of the title. Don’t be fooled. Peterson explicitly rejects “giving advice”, in the book. What’s more, he’s secretly not even giving you “rules” to follow. What he’s offering, through the mnemonic device of easy-to-remember “rules”, is a glimpse into a unique psycho-philosophical framework for making sense of our phenomenal experience of the world. Or, to put it as Peterson might, a means of forging some order out of the chaos of your own suffering existence. The principles that make up the framework will sound surprisingly familiar to anyone who’s read any Greek philosophy:

  • It is better to choose life, than death
  • Aim for the ideal of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, but work on earth with what you have
  • The responsibility for these choices is yours, and yours alone.

In a nutshell, he implores us all to be philosophical before (but not to the exclusion of) theological, and he thinks that if we would be, we would make the world better, even if only a little. Who can argue with that?