Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

KANT: First Principles of Morals (Good Reason)



The first part of Kant’s principles of morals was hard reading.  Unfortunately that was just a warm up session.  That reading covered “transition from the common rational knowledge of morality to the philosophical.”  In other words we covered the easy (common) stuff first.  Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and really get down to business.  We move on “from popular moral philosophy to the metaphysic of morals.” 

Maybe the best approach is to take Kant’s own words (in translation).  He says “we can never, even by the strictest examination, get completely behind the secret springs of action; since, when the question is of moral worth, it is not with the actions which we see that we are concerned, but with those inward principles of them which we do not see.”  Kant’s not so much interested in what people are actually doing; he also wants to know why; what’s the motivation behind what they’re doing?  If someone’s doing a good work isn’t that enough?  Do we really need to know why they’re doing it?  Kant would answer no and yes.  No, it’s not enough that someone is doing a good deed.  For a “metaphysic of morals” we also have to establish the reason they’re doing it.  We need to know why.  Kant wants to locate the bedrock foundation of moral behavior.  How do we do that? 

Kant believes we have to use Reason because “reason of itself, independent of all experience, ordains what ought to take place.”  Real life gets messy.  The best way to determine the right thing to do is to step back, take a deep breath and try to think clearly.  Even that method will probably fail.  Despite our best intentions human nature has a way of leading us down the wrong path.  What we all have a tendency to do is decide what we want first and then reason our way backwards to justify getting what we want.  Because we’re fallible, even in our reasoning, we have to set aside everything else and only look at moral behavior in its purest conception, stripped of all human motivations.  Kant admits this isn’t easy.  He says “we must not make its (Reason’s) principles dependent on the particular nature of human reason… since moral laws ought to hold good for every rational creature, we must derive them from the general concept of a rational being.”

What Kant seems to be saying is this; we have to become a character like Spock in Star Trek.  We have to set aside our own wants and wishes and think like a purely “rational being” would think.  What would Spock do?  Kant would go along with that.  But why is this point so important?  It sounds like Kant wants us to turn into mechanical thinking machines.  How would that make us any different from a computer running on a pre-set program?  Kant would answer, because we have free will.  We must think like a machine but act like a human being.  How do we do that?  Kant says, “Everything in nature works according to laws. Rational beings alone have the faculty of acting according to the conception of laws, that is according to principles, i.e., have a will… the will is a faculty to choose that only which reason independent of inclination recognises as practically necessary, i.e., as good.”  The key phrase here is “rational beings alone.”  Only rational beings can understand what Law is.  They may not like it.  They may not want to do it.  But they understand that it’s “necessary” to do it anyway because it’s “good.”  How do they know it’s good?  Reason tells them so.  All rational beings would agree on this.  It’s up to us to join the ranks of rational beings and act according to rational principles of morality.  It’s not much fun but for Kant it’s the right thing to do.  Spock would agree.     

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Kant's Idea of Duty

In his essay, First Principles of Morals, Immanuel Kant has set for himself a difficult philosophical task: to find and establish a rational foundation for morality. Now the first question we might ask ourselves is whether such a foundation is even possible. To be sure, every religion has some code of ethics by which people are judged. If the code is violated, people are punished; when the code is upheld, people are praised. This is all well and good. But, even though the foundations for such moral codes have certain features in common (thou shall not steal; thou shall not murder; thou shall not lie with your brother's wife), these various codes or systems of morality do not always agree.  When one civilization clashes with another, the morality of the victor is generally adopted as the moral law which governs all.

Several thousand years ago, the Jewish people, for reasons which remain obscure,  began to catalog their sins and their virtues into a systematic code of moral principles which have been passed down to us as the Law of Moses. But, as widespread as these principles have become, they are not endorsed by everyone. Kant wants to establish a principle of morality that will have universal appeal because it is based upon reason, not culture.

Let's start with a simple idea: what is the Good? What does it mean when we say one thing is good and something else is evil? As definitions, these terms are relative concepts. Can anything ever be described as being "good" in itself without reference to something else? No. All language flows from experience. Human beings create words (or metaphors) to describe things they like or dislike. Kant assumes that we are all rational spectators. But is there ever such a thing as an impartial spectator? Of course not. We experience the world through the lens of our own bias. This is why Kant says that virtue without a good will is meaningless. One follows the other. It is our intentions that define us. Good deeds performed without a good will are mere accidents of nature. They have no moral value. Over time, our behavior becomes translated into categories of right and wrong. So how is it possible for our personal view of the world can ever become valid for everyone?

The short answer is that it cannot. One person's virtue is another person's sin. We see through a glass darkly. So we require something beyond our personal experience to correct the lens of our own bias. Kant believes that the ordinary categories of experience are flawed because we share the same human capacity for self deception (the sin of pride).  A good society requires a standard of conduct which is unwavering. Thus, Kant believes that virtue without a good will is meaningless. It is our motivations that inspire us and provide the moral foundation from which we act. Thus, a good will is necessary and prior to any good deed.

"A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition-- that is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by it in favor of any inclination, nay, even of the sum-total of all inclinations."

Kant's "will" is a kind of striving for or movement toward something. He believes the moral quality of our action is determined solely by what we intend to happen, not by what actually occurs-- "not, to be sure, a mere wish, but the summoning of all means in our power."

Thus, for Kant, good deeds performed without a good will (i.e., accidentally) have no moral value. What about guilt? If a good action is performed to avoid shame, does that qualify as being good? Kant says that nature assigns reason to be the governor of our will. He believes that if happiness were the design of nature, then instinct alone would be a more appropriate means by which to sustain life, for reason is an inferior tool for the acquisition of happiness (see Genesis, the tree of knowledge of good and evil).  Instead, our existence has a different and far nobler end for which reason is properly intended. Reason recognizes the establishment of a good will as its highest practical destination. To have any moral value, Kant believes an action must always be done from a sense of duty. For anyone wondering how to behave, the key is not personal happiness or even personal survival, but to ask "what is my duty?"

Thus, our intention has the purity of an idea unblemished by the realities and circumstance of the world. It sounds Platonic, but when Kant says "the summoning of all means in our power," he is transporting the concept of the will from an abstract hypothetical to the actual world of experience. This is the language of aspiration.  Kant believes we are measured (in moral terms) by what we aspire to, not simply by what we achieve.

This sounds odd. Americans are a results-oriented, practical people. We measure our success in what we actually achieve ("show me the money"). We count, like Silas Marner, the coins of our labor. In the free market economy, success is measured in tangible benefits. But for Kant, we are measured by what we aspire to, not simply by what we achieve.

"...like a jewel, it would still shine by its own light, as a thing which has its whole value in itself. Its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither add to nor take away anything from this value."
Kant suggests there must be another purpose for man to be the way he is other than happiness. This is why he ranks in order of importance these aims of human society:
  1. the formation of a good will
  2. happiness ("always conditional")
  3. all other considerations

"Here, now, it is the simple conformity to law in general, without assuming any particular law applicable to certain actions, that serves the will as its principle, and must so serve it if duty is not to be a vain delusion and a chimerical notion."
Duty proceeds from a sense of moral obligation. If you believe, as some do today, that nature is about the struggle for existence (survival of the fittest), then Kant's argument will not be persuasive. But Kant properly states that morality has nothing to do with survival. Morality is about the values which people hold dear. We recall that in the classical age, both Greeks and Romans preserved a high standard of virtue which had nothing to do with personal survival.  For them, the survival of the city (the homeland) was more important than the survival of any individual. Today, the classical virtues of duty and honor are now mostly visible only in the slogans and traditions of the armed forces.

Sometimes, something more than prudence or logic is required of us. Sometimes courage and compassion are better guides than an inflexible rule. Which is the better guide? The principle of duty or the principle of love thy neighbor? Or are they, in the final analysis, one and the same principle?

Friday, December 12, 2014

KANT: First Principles of Morals (Good Will)



The ancient philosophers divided knowledge into three categories: Physics, Ethics and Logic.  Physics is concerned with the laws of the natural world.  Physical substances are compelled to act in certain ways.  They have no choice.  Two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen becomes water.  It always turns out the same way.  Ethics is concerned with the laws of human values.  Human beings can freely choose between alternative actions.  We can make a contract with Mephistopheles or we can avoid him like the devil.  Logic is the law of formal thought within the mind; established rules for making sound decisions.

Reading Kant is a good follow-up to reading Faust.  Faust (the play) raises many questions.  How do we distinguish between what is right and what is wrong?  Can we best learn ethics from personal experience or through the power of reason?  If I meet someone like Mephistopheles how do I know if he’s giving me good advice or leading me astray?  Is watching a play the best way for me to come to understand morality?  Kant takes positions on these questions.  He’s a philosopher so he thinks like a philosopher.  For Kant watching a play like Faust is entertaining but it’s not the best way to approach morality.  He believes emotions are too erratic to build a system of ethics on.  Emotional decision-making led to tragedy for Faust and Gretchen.  Kant wants a better way.

What Kant proposes is building a system of ethical behavior based on a firm foundation of logical conclusions.  And a “good will” is the bedrock of his ethical system.  Why good will?  Kant says “nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a good will.”  Anything else we can think of falls short of being good all the time every time.  Even love has to be qualified in some way in order for it to be called good.  No doubt Faust and Gretchen were “in love” but it still led to bad results.  They might argue (especially Faust) that human beings can’t “reason” our way into or out of love.  But Kant would respond that “we may have misunderstood the purpose of nature in assigning reason as the governor of our will.”  What Kant is looking for is a moral law that will apply at all times in all places to all creatures.  This is a very tall order.     

But Kant gives us a good example of what he’s talking about.  He says “in Scripture we are commanded to love our neighbor, even our enemy.”  How can we be commanded to love even our enemies?  Kant says it’s possible but it has to be “practical love, and not pathological; a love which is seated in the will, and not in the emotions.”  This is a different kind of love than the one Faust and Gretchen were feeling.  This kind of love is “seated in the will” and now we see why it’s so vital for Kant to establish the importance of having a “good will” in the first place.  He wanted to define moral laws that would not only apply to Man on earth but to any rational creature living anywhere in the universe.  Any rational creature would be able to understand these universal moral laws.  The hard part would be putting them into practice with a good will.  The heart of Kant’s moral philosophy can be summed up in this one maxim: “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law… should I be content that my maxim should hold good as a universal law, for myself as well as others?”  What if everybody did what I’m doing (or thinking about doing)?  What if we all cut a deal with Mephistopheles like Faust did?  What would the world be like then? 

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Quality of Mercy is not Strained...

Justice and fairness are not always the same thing, but unless our idea of justice is informed by an intuition of what is right and good and noble, then it becomes nothing more than an empty creed. This is what inspired Luther to nail his 95 theses to the door of his church. The execution of Gretchen may be a manifestation of human justice, but it has nothing to do with God's justice. Let's not confuse the idea of order with the idea of sanctity. We have an intuition about what is good for society but that intuition is not universal. It varies from one society to the next. Part of the confusion derives from our attempt to impose theology on jurisprudence. We need to keep the realms of divine justice and civil justice separate in our minds, because we do not live in a theocracy; we are citizens of a democratic republic. In this country, we have no state sponsored religion, so we need not concern ourselves with applying the Vatican's idea of justice to the fate of Gretchen and Faust.

The idea of a "fair" trial is also beside the point.  Where the law is concerned, justice is not fairness. Institutional justice is about enforcing the laws of the land. But there are such things as extenuating circumstances and courts of equity. Even in criminal law, if you act under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you are not considered to be acting in your normal state of mind. Likewise, we do not apply the same standards of culpability to the mentally ill as we do with ordinary people who are presumably acting in their "right mind." Trial courts are about establishing the facts. Did the defendant act on his own or was he encouraged (or tricked) into doing something he (or she) would not ordinarily do.  This is why entrapment is considered grounds for dismissal under most criminal codes.  Let's consider whether Gretchen acted under her own "free will."

There is a lot of mischief in this story, much of it the result of Mephistopheles distorting reality and using magical powers to manipulate Faust, Gretchen and others into doing things against their will (or their better judgment). None of us know for certain what God's idea of justice is. We inherited the law of Moses from the Jews, and adopted many of their traditions. But we are not a religious state. We have a constitution and the laws we live under must conform to that document. What are the exact circumstances of the crimes that Gretchen committed? We don't know. Were there any eye witnesses? All we have is a scene in which Faust tries to persuade Gretchen to escape from her jail and avoid her sentence of death. But Gretchen is convinced that she must atone for her crimes. But is she in her right mind? In our society today, Gretchen would be in a hospital under the care of a psychiatrist.

So who is the guilty party here? Mephistopheles is the obvious choice. But Faust, also, must be held accountable. He seduced Gretchen and then abandoned her. In moral terms, who has committed the greater offense? Mephistopheles or Faust? I would say that Faust is the most despicable of the two. After all, Mephistopheles has acted exactly as one might expect, with no regard for human suffering. Faust, on the other hand, ought to know better. He has not only ruined himself, but he has destroyed an innocent person. That is something that Socrates cannot be accused of doing, even though some people  blamed Socrates for Alcibiades betrayal of Athens in the Peloponnesian war.


Ultimately, each one of us has to answer for our own crimes. We cannot shift the blame for our mistakes to our parents or our government. The moral life consists in a recognition that fate or invisible gods are not the cause of our unhappiness. What is it that makes life worth living... pleasure? Fame? Wealth? Honor?  Truth? This is something that Faust could not answer. Discontent drove Faust into the arms of Mephistopheles, which turned out to be nothing less than a betrayal of humanity and a rejection of life. As far as the Faustian search for universal knowledge goes, some doors are better left closed.

Monday, December 08, 2014

GOETHE: Faust (Scene 25: Justice)



Justice is one of the primary themes in many selections from the Great Books Series.  Faust makes an excellent case study to see how well we can answer the question what is justice?  That’s the same question Socrates asks at the beginning of The Republic.  And for him this wasn’t just some theoretical academic subject.  In The Apology we see him at a real-life trial where he’s convicted and eventually executed.  Almost every single reader of The Apology believes an injustice occurred.  Why?  If readers believe that an injustice has taken place then they’d better have a good grasp of what justice is in the first place.  Faust provides a good framework for examining what justice can and cannot do.

The facts are these.  Gretchen is in prison and she’s about to be executed.  Her crime?  Murder.  Who did she murder?  Her mother and her baby.  Pop quiz: what would be justice in this case?  What should the punishment be for someone who kills not only a parent but also their own child?  Most readers probably believe there are extenuating circumstances in this particular case.  We know the background.  Faust should carry most of the blame.  And behind Faust is Mephistopheles, the root cause of all the problems.  If that’s the case then Gretchen’s basic legal argument is this: the devil made me do it.  If that’s Gretchen’s argument then the State can respond: and it’s the same devil that’s making us punish you for doing it.  The idea that justice is fairness won’t work.  What’s fair and what’s just may be two different things.  So we’ll need to look elsewhere.

Maybe we should try this approach.  Maybe justice really has two different levels: human justice and divine justice.  While Gretchen is sitting in a cathedral an Evil Spirit whispers to her: “Gretchen!  Have you gone mad?  What crime is in your heart?”  No civil justice system can detect crimes in the heart; no system of divine justice can dismiss them.  Gretchen isn’t in prison for what she was thinking in her heart.  She’s there for what she has done.  It might not seem fair and Faust himself says “her crime was only a fond illusion.”  That may be.  But the deaths of two people are not an illusion.  Gretchen herself has admitted “I’ve killed my mother.  I’ve drowned my baby.”  Those are the kinds of issues human criminal justice has to deal with every day.  The job of human justice is to make sure everyone gets their day in court.  In human justice “fairness” consists of making sure all the proper procedures are followed.  If the ruling goes against you then so be it.  You had a fair trial and that’s the best the State can offer in this imperfect world.  That was the case in Socrates’ trial in The Apology, for example.

Divine justice is another matter.  In a few weeks we’ll be reading Inferno from Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Inferno can be a real eye-opener.  Many people have ended up in hell for doing much, much less than murdering mothers and killing babies.  Stealing and cheating, for example.  And yet in this play Gretchen “Is saved!”  How can that be?  If we’re unqualified to understand human justice then how can we possibly understand divine justice?  Short answer, we can’t.  But we can catch a glimmer of it in this scene.  Gretchen knows she’s guilty.  In her heart she has already convicted herself.  She has no defense so where does she go for help?  She says, “I give myself up to the judgment of God!  I am thine Father!  Save me!  You angels!  You heavenly hosts!  Stand close to me, protect me!”  Throwing herself on the mercy of God is a desperate measure but she’s a desperate woman; and it works.  A Voice (from above) says, “Is saved!”  Is this justice? 

GOETHE: Faust (Scene 16: Faust the Theologian)

Not long after Gretchen meets Faust she asks him a simple question.  “Tell me how you feel about religion.”  Like many modern people Faust basically says: I’m not a religious person but I’m a spiritual person.  Gretchen isn’t satisfied with that answer.  “That isn’t right, one must believe!”  So like many intellectuals Faust tries to patiently explain the profound truths of spirituality to a simple believer in “religion.”  Spirituality embraces a notion of God as “the All-Embracing, the All-Sustaining… call it what you will.  Call it Love!  Happiness!  Soul!  God!  I (Faust) have no name for it.  Feeling is everything.”

Well.  Gretchen isn’t a scholar like Faust.  But she’s not stupid either.  Her response to Faust’s theology of spirituality is much more direct than his roundabout approach to God: “It sounds all right when you say it that way, but just the same there’s something wrong with it.”  And what’s wrong with Faust being a “spiritual” person instead of a “religious” person?  “Because you’re not a Christian,” says Gretchen.  In Gretchen’s world “feeling” isn’t everything.  It’s not even the most important thing.  For Gretchen the most important thing is to believe the right things in the right way.  What Faust is proposing is a god without a name.  Gretchen wants something more solid.  If Faust wants to impress Gretchen here’s what she wants to hear from him.  “I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”  If he really wants to impress her he would add “…and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.”  This is the Apostle’s Creed, Gretchen’s theology.

What’s the difference between Faust’s spirituality and Gretchen’s religion?  Faust is looking for an experience; Gretchen is looking for a relationship.  Faust’s spirituality is so flexible he can’t commit himself to even set down a name for god; for Gretchen God is so personal she can call him Father.  Does it really matter which view we hold or which path we take?  Consider the context of the play and we can see if it matters.  When Faust is cutting a deal with Mephistopheles they discuss what will happen “over there” in the afterlife once Faust dies.  Faust says, “What do I care about your “over there”?   Faust has a flexible spirituality.  For Faust God is “Love!  Happiness!  Soul!”  So he’s not too much concerned with the details of the contract Mephistopheles is proposing.  How does Gretchen’s religion respond to a creature like Mephistopheles?  She tells Faust, “I detest him from the bottom of my heart.  Nothing in all my life has sickened me so much as that man’s loathsome face… I have a secret horror of that man… there isn’t anything alive that he can love… when he comes it shuts up my very soul.”  This sets up a stark contrast between distinct theologies.  Faust’s spirituality is intellectual; Gretchen’s religion is instinctual.  Faust wants to know God with his mind; Gretchen wants to know God with her whole being.  For Faust God is complex; for Gretchen God is simple.


Mephistopheles overhears the whole exchange.  When Gretchen is gone he taunts Faust.  “Ah, Doctor, you have just been catechized… These girls take a very lively interest in learning whether someone’s simple and pious in the good old-fashioned way.”  And it’s true that Gretchen is simple and pious.  But Mephistopheles adds a cynical twist.  “If he minds there, they think, he’ll mind us too.”  In other words, if a man is obedient to God he’ll also be obedient to his wife.  This is why Gretchen loathes Mephistopheles and it’s why Mephistopheles loathes Gretchen’s religion.  Faust’s home-grown theology can be easily twisted into evil.  Gretchen’s religion is her fortress against it.       


Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Faust and Human Frailty

Here's a philosophical question to ponder: Is the origin of the universe a transformitive process of bringing order out of disorder, or is it a divine act of creation "ab nihilo" (bringing something from nothing)?

One of the basic concerns for Faust is to investigate what makes life worth living. Why should there be something rather than nothing? Faust, alone, despite his great intellectual gifts is unable to solve this riddle. He wants answers but reason alone is unable to provide those answers. Faust, who is a kind of scholarly genius, is forced to admit that human reason alone is unable to provide an explanation for itself. So, if reason (or nature) is unable to provide an adequate explanation for existence, then perhaps magic can. Magic transcends reason in the same way that faith does; it works by means of  the supernatural. This idea, that the realm of the supernatural is greater than nature, takes hold of Faust. And this is the opening for which Mephistopheles has waited. He enters the story and offers Faust access to things (namely, power and pleasure) that were formerly unavailable.

Now, the belief in a "fallen world" is a doctrine based on a tautology: everything that exists comes from God the creator. Thus, all matter (everything that exists) is good because the Creator is good, and nothing evil can be derived from something good. But this doctrine has a fatal flaw. How do you explain evil if everything in creation is good? Well, the Manicheans had an answer: everything in creation is not good. In fact, creation itself is only an aggregate of two separate but equal forces, one of which is good and the other evil. Faust is struggling to hold on to what he believes is the good, which for him means a rational explanation of a world created by God. In this rational world, there are rules (the Decalogue) and there is divine punishment for breaking those rules (human suffering and death).

But where does pleasure come in? The orthodox Christian view is that pleasure is a temptation of the flesh which leads to sin and damnation. Therefore, one should resist all temptations which lead one away from the path of righteousness and into the arms of Satan. But the problem with this view is that it ignores everything it cannot explain. The whole problem of evil is explained by a fable concerning the pride of Lucifer who decides to oppose God and put himself on the throne.

At its heart, Faust is a story which attempts to address the struggle between good and evil. Faust, the man, is unhappy with his life. He believes that something essential is missing. What? He doesn't know. But reason alone can't provide the answer. So he enlists the aid of Mephistopheles to show him something that is worth living for. Pleasure alone turns out not to be very satisfying. But what about love? When Faust finally lays eyes on Gretchen, he sees something that might just be the answer to his prayer. Is it lust or love? Maybe it is some combination of the two, for no man can truly know
where one leaves off and the other begins.

But what is love? In many stories, we read that infatuation is a kind of madness where a man (or a woman) takes leave of one's senses and ends up behaving like a fool. Is that the big truth which Faust has been seeking? Moral virtue is grounded in the belief that one's own pleasure ought not to rule one's life, that there are higher principles (such as courage and honor) which ought to guide one in life. So, when Faust falls for Gretchen, has he become "love sick" and lost his bearings? If so, doesn't that make him a kind of comic figure like Sancho Panza? If he is unable to rise above his own desires, isn't he doomed to insignificance? What separates Don Quixote from Sancho Panza is that his own eyes are focused above the horizon of ordinary men. He believes in courage, beauty and romance. What does Faust believe in?