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Kant Without Sade

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 21, Number 1, April 1997
pp. 151-154 | 10.1353/phl.1997.0012

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Philosophy and Literature 21.1 (1997) 151-154

Notes and Fragments

Ermanno Bencivenga's discussion of "Kant's Sadism" rests on a misrepresentation of Kant's enterprise. It presents Kantian morality as a matter of motivation, so that reason has to be pitted against desire. But Kant's whole point is that, because the psychological causes of one's actions can never be ascertained, they are irrelevant to morality. Morality is entirely a matter of the reasons for one's actions, no matter what one's feelings. It is true that moral questions arise, morality exists, only for finite rational beings, who have inclinations that are relatively independent of the dictates of reason. But that independence does not mean that one should always act against one's inclinations.

The morality of an action depends on the agent's "maxim"--the subjective practical principle on which one acts, the reasons one has and can give for thinking that what one is doing is right. Kant's whole discussion is in terms of maxims. The word does occur twice in Bencivenga's paper, but his account makes no use of it. When he says that "It is the motives of the action, the motives the person actually has -- never mind what evidence we have for them -- that confer moral content on the action" (p. 41), he does so in flat contradiction of Kant.

The confusion underlying Bencivenga's misunderstanding is most familiar to English-language Kantians from Schiller's joke: "Gladly I serve my friends, but alas I do it with pleasure. / Hence I am plagued with doubt that I am not a virtuous person. // --Surely, your only resource is to try to despise them entirely, / and then with aversion do what your duty enjoins you." Both participants in the exchange think the morality of an action depends on its psychological causes, not on the reasons the agent has for thinking the action right and doing it. Both are wrong.

What is revolutionary in Kant's position is his contention that all a maxim requires to be moral is that agents should really make it their principle at the time of action -- that the agent should really stand by it. That means, obviously, that at that moment the agent should be able consistently to will that everyone should act on it. Kant argues that it also means, less obviously, that doing the right thing should be one's paramount principle, which involves treating humanity and human freedom as an end in itself -- ultimately, treating oneself and others as "law-making members of a kingdom of ends." Thus, for Kant, morality is entirely a matter of rational consistency.

Since rational consistency is all that morality requires, morality lays down no plan of action, but presupposes the familiar world in which people already have plans and purposes. What one wills is always some particular thing. Morality has to do with the principles to be followed in pursuing these objectives. Bencivenga's contention that "making the well-being of some other human, or of one's own community, or of humankind the goal of one's action would be relegating rationality to (at best) an instrumental role, and thus denying any ethical value to that action" is wrong. Kant insists that finite rational beings inevitably pursue happiness, and it is their duty to do so for others and (in a sense) for themselves. A leading contention of the Critique is that happiness, like duty, is a component of the summum bonum. Making a principle of maximizing happiness does not destroy the autonomy of the will; the principle is a principle and subject to the critique of consistency, like other principles. Kant explicitly denies what Bencivenga asserts, that it is merely an empirical matter that humans are desirous as well as rational. On the contrary, it belongs to their essence. What is empirical, as Kant explains at some length, is the specific content of a person's desires.

Neither of Bencivenga's examples tends to show that morality is opposed to inclination. It is true that if the reason moral agents treat people well is really only that, on each occasion, this is what they feel...


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