Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, February 22, 2016

KANT: On Conscience (Mill and Burke)

John Stuart Mill made an eloquent defense of civil (or social) liberty when he wrote, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (Mill, On Liberty, IGB 3-5) Except for safety issues everyone should basically be left alone to pursue their own private interests.  And only the individual citizen has the right to determine what those interests are.  But, we may ask, what if that “private interest” includes some kind of unhealthy addiction?  It doesn’t matter, Mill would answer, “his own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant” to interfere in his private life.  Each man must define what “the good life” means for him.  That sounds reasonable.  Who could be against that theory of liberty?  Edmund Burke, for one.  He believes “the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights… Men have no right to what is not reasonable and to what is not for their benefit.” (Edmund Burke, Reflections, GB 5-11) Restraint on private behavior is exactly what Mill is fighting against.  How can Burke come to the opposite conclusion?  Because Burke believes liberty is “an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity.”  We don’t live in isolation from one another and our lives don’t belong to us alone.  No man is an island.  We’re like a chain linking the past to the future.  Society not only has the right, it has the duty, to preserve the customs and traditions which have been given to us in trust.  We then hand them on to the next generation.  This is the only way to maintain (in Mill’s words) a “civilized community.”    

What are we to make of such a dispute?  Both theories sound good.  As one character says in Shakespeare’s King John “I was never so bethump'd with words.”  But when all is said and done, what should I do?  Should I rely on my own personal judgment?  Mill says “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”  That sounds good.  Or should I ignore personal biases and rely instead on the customs and traditions of my cultural heritage?  Burke says by “respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves.”  That sounds good too.  We have a choice between two options.  What should we do?  This is where Kant may help.  In this essay Kant takes on the issue of deciding between possible alternatives.  He uses positive law and natural law as guidelines.  Positive law is recognized by government and its citizens as the law of the land, whether we agree with it or not.  Natural law is recognized as the universal standard for determining right and wrong.  We may not know or understand every “positive” law but Kant believes we all know and we all understand “natural” law.  He says “natural moral laws must be known to all; they are contained in our reason.”  So Kant poses the question “what is a man to do when a positive and a natural law conflict?” 

Kant’s advice is to rely on our conscience.  He says “Conscience is an instinct to pass judgment upon ourselves in accordance with moral laws.”  Conscience may satisfy both Mill and Burke.  Mill thinks we alone can legitimately “pass judgment upon ourselves.”  Unless we’re actively harming others society has no right to judge our private actions.  Mill writes that “in that part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute.”  But Kant’s phrase “in accordance with moral laws” would appeal to Burke too.  Burke says “All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust, and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great Master, Author, and Founder of society.”  So whether we agree with Mill’s view, or lean toward Burke’s view, the key element is to act according to the dictates of conscience.  But, Kant warns, remember that “vices bring their own punishments.”  Mill and Burke would both agree on that.


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