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Saturday, January 21, 2012

KANT: Conscience 2012

Toward the end of Heart of Darkness Marlow overhears Kurtz saying to himself: I am lying here in the dark waiting for death. Then just before Kurtz dies Marlow hears him say the horror! The horror! What’s the meaning of those final words? Joseph Conrad deliberately left the meaning open to different interpretations. Conrad wrote fiction and part of the power of fiction is to leave stories purposefully vague. If we’re looking for beauty then this kind of writing can open the way to deeper levels of meaning. Philosophy is different. If we’re pursuing truth we want precision. A philosopher needs to be precise in showing us the truth he wants to reveal. Kant is a very precise writer. For instance, in this selection Kant defines conscience in very specific terms: Conscience is an instinct to pass judgment upon ourselves in accordance with moral laws. That’s a clear definition but not very helpful in understanding how it works and how we can apply it to our own lives. So he goes on to point out in more detail that conscience is not a mere faculty, but an instinct; and its judgment is not logical but judicial. This is a short sentence but it’s hard to really grasp its meaning. For starters, what is a “faculty” anyway? Webster’s dictionary says in general, the faculties may be called the powers or capacities of the mind… Is Kant saying that our conscience isn’t just something we make up in our heads? Right and wrong isn’t just in our minds. Kant calls our conscience an “instinct” to determine what’s right and what’s wrong. Animals have instincts to help them survive. For example, birds fly south in the winter to get away from the cold. Many animals hibernate during the cold months. They don’t seem to think things through and then suddenly say: “oh it’s time for me to get ready for winter.” No. They just do it by instinct. Kant says our judgment is not logical but judicial. What does that mean? If we were entirely logical creatures we wouldn’t need a conscience. Our logical brains would tell us when something was wrong. It would be kind of like checking our car to see if the oil was low. Is it above this line? Yes, no problem. Not above the line? Then it’s low. When it comes to ethical behavior a logical mind would ask: did you do something wrong? Answer: Yes/Verdict: Guilty. Answer: No/Verdict: Not guilty. That would be the simple logical judgment. But conscience goes farther than that. The logical mind can tell us if we did something wrong but it cannot enforce its decision. Once logic forms a judgment it has completed its work. However, a judicial judgment has the power to determine guilt PLUS the power to enforce the judgment it makes. Kant puts it this way: Thus his judgment has force of law and is a sentence. The judge must either condemn or acquit; not merely form a judgment. This is apparently what happened to Kurtz at the end of his life. Kant believes that we find a judge within us who either condemns or acquits. It is impossible to blind his judgment. Kurtz appeared before the judge of his conscience and it condemned him. Marlow put it like this: (Kurtz) had summed up; he had judged, “The horror!” But in Rothschild’s Fiddle we have a case where Jacob appeared before his conscience and was acquitted: Jacob lay down all day, sick at heart. When the priest heard his confession that evening and asked whether he remembered committing any particular sin he exerted his failing memory and once more recalled Martha’s unhappy face and the desperate yell of the Jew bitten by a dog. “Give my fiddle to Rothschild,” he said… “Very well,” the priest answered. Later on Freud will contradict Kant that we all have a binding moral law of personal conscience. Freud says: “conscience” is ready to put into action against the ego the same harsh aggressiveness that the ego would have liked to satisfy upon other extraneous individuals. Freud thinks conscience comes from social pressure on our egos from the outside. Kant disagrees and says we have an instinct to distinguish right from wrong because it is the moral law, established as the holy and inviolable law of humanity. For Kant this moral law is planted in our hearts and is true for everyone, everywhere, at all times.


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