Sunday, September 09, 2012

On Kant's Moral Argument

A redated post.

Kant doesn't say that in order to be moral, you have to be religious. He is someone who thinks that other sorts of rational arguments about God don't decide the question either way (first cause arguments, arguments from evil, etc.) So, on his view, we are left with a choice of believing the world to contain a God, of believing in free will or not , and in believing that humans survive death.
On earth as we know it, virtue and happiness are not proportional. Virtuous people are sometimes miserable, nasty people are sometimes happy. (Think of all the murder cases which are never solved.)
Religious world-views presume the existence of a universe in which there is a future life in which happiness is apportioned according to virtue. Whether it is through a last judgment, or through a law of karma that puts you back on this earth either in good shape or in bad shape depending on your deeds, good prevails and evil fails, eventually.
Or you can accept a naturalistic world-view in which there is no mechanism for balancing the cosmic scales of justice. If wrong triumphs in the course of a lifetime, which is certainly seems to, then the story ends, people die, and feed the worms with no recompense for injustice. Hitler and Mother Teresa are in the same condition. They are dead.
The Kantian argument here strikes me as a distant cousin to Pascal's Wager. In Pascal's wager, you are looking at your own prospects, and "betting" on the world-view that pays off better. (Pascal, like Kant, was addressing the undecided. If your belief system is like that of Richard Dawkins, making yourself believe for either Pascalian or Kantian reasons is not an issue). The difference between the Kantian wager and the Pascalian is that you are "betting" on the world-view that will give you the most moral encouragement. You are not just betting on your own self-interest,, as you are in Pascal's Wager. Kant doesn't assume that you can't be moral without God. Pure practical reason tells you what is right and wrong, according to Kant. However, Kant maintains that you since can't settle the question of God any other way, you ought to choose based on the moral encouragement provided by each world-view.

Sometimes being moral is hard. In fact, all actions with moral worth are, according to Kant, done from duty as opposed to being done in accordance with duty, which means that when you do those actions, your inclinations or emotions are pulling you the other way. In other words, perfoming actions of moral worth, like breaking up, is hard to do. Is it more conducive to making the hard moral decisions we have to make to believe that there is no cosmic justice, or to believe that there is cosmic justice. Kant thinks the choice is a no-brainer, practical reason enjoins us to view the world as cosmically just, and therefore to accept the doctrines of God, freedom, and immortality.

25 comments:

Bilbo said...

Ashamed to say I haven't read much of Kant (just the Prolegomena). Thanks for the summary. It reminds me a little of Mavrodes' paper on the queerness of morality.

im-skeptical said...

Kant is saying that the threat of divine justice (torture in hell) is what makes moral behavior rational. What about a desire to live in harmony with others? Or the pleasure you can derive from bringing happiness to others?

ozero91 said...

Justice includes reward, not just punishment. On naturalism, death is the ultimate escape from moral responsibility. im-skeptical, in order to live in harmony with others, and in order to bring happiness others, isnt sacrifice and compromise sometimes required? You may argue that it is worth it. But is it really?

And I would be careful with the idea of pleasure, pleasure is subjective.

im-skeptical said...

Of course, reward in addition to punishment. And yes, people do sacrifice for others. Animals do as well. You've heard of a dog who would fight to save his owner. This is natural behavior.

im-skeptical said...

ozero91,

Another comment regarding the subjectivity of pleasure. I don't think that is any reason to refute the value of seeking happiness. After all, I think happiness is subjective in nature.

ozero91 said...

Ah, of course the behavior is natural. But to make the jump from "it's natural" to "it's justified" commits the genetic fallacy. The physical origin of the concept, in this case biological evolution, cannot be the sole determinent of whether sacrificial/moral behavior is rational.

im-skeptical said...

ozero91,

Agreed. Not all behavior is rational, including perhaps, moral (or immoral) behavior. However, I still think that as a rule, the desire to live according to the golden rule is perfectly rational, even in the absence of divine justice. It may not matter any longer once we're dead and forgotten, but that doesn't imply that our lives are meaningless.

Syllabus said...

"It may not matter any longer once we're dead and forgotten, but that doesn't imply that our lives are meaningless."

Here's an interesting question (and I'm not trying to trip anyone up; it's an honest query): can meaning exist independently of some being(s) capable of recognizing that meaning?

im-skeptical said...

Syllabus,

I don't think it can. When I say our lives have meaning, I mean that they have meaning to ourselves, and to the people that we affect in some way during our lifetime, and to people who live after we are gone that may be affected by what we have done.

Syllabus said...

"When I say our lives have meaning, I mean that they have meaning to ourselves, and to the people that we affect in some way during our lifetime, and to people who live after we are gone that may be affected by what we have done."

I suppose my follow-up to that would be to ask whether (assuming a materialist framework) meaning will exist when the human race finally either bombs itself to oblivion, or the sun blows up several billion years from now, or - in the best case scenario - when the heat death of the universe rolls around. Or, rather, whether meaning is important when it is not ultimate. Again, not a trick question. Just trying to understand your thought processes better.

im-skeptical said...

Syllabus,

I suppose that "ultimately", all meaning is lost. What is the meaning of one's life if he ends up in the eternal torture chamber? For that matter, what is the meaning of one's life on earth if he ends up in eternal paradise? Given that paradise is eternal, and everybody who makes it there has passed through some gate and left behind their earthly existence, what does it really matter what they have done during their brief moment in this world?

Matt DeStefano said...

Syllabus,

Those are good questions, but I think the perspective that meaning must hinge on something permanent (which is why worries about the death of the universe/humanity seem troubling for meaning) is mistaken.

A good paper on this very topic was written by Thomas Nagel: http://www.pitt.edu/~kis23/ABSURD.pdf

I want to come back and talk about Kant, too, but settling in a new city and graduate school are taking up all of my valuable blogging time!

Dan Gillson said...

1. If we follow Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics, then virtue and happiness are proportional in such a way as to be applicable to human experience. Here I find John McDowell's take on Aristotle's moral philosophy to be convincing: insofar as virtue is our natural work, our happiness is, in some way, in accordance with how excellently we perform that work. In such a scheme, virtuous people may some of life's satisfactions, but that doesn't exclude them from happiness. Likewise, nasty people may have an abundance of life's pleasures, but they are excluded from a happy life. (Just to be clear, Aristotle is fully aware of how the creature comfort's of life positively effect one's psychological state.)

2. It may not be a pretty picture, but the full force of naturalistic view of universe at least saddles moral agents with the urgency to act rightly. If it is God's or the universe's responsibility to right our wrongs, what benefit is it to do the hard work that morality requires? We can be freeloaders now and let everything sort itself out later.

Crude said...

Dan,

It may not be a pretty picture, but the full force of naturalistic view of universe at least saddles moral agents with the urgency to act rightly.

I think you're going to have to do some serious work to argue that an Aristotilean picture of the universe, even one that's avoiding talk of God, is 'naturalistic'. I know we went back and forth on this in another thread, but I think if formal and final causes in nature can be called naturalistic, we may as well say God is natural too.

If it is God's or the universe's responsibility to right our wrongs, what benefit is it to do the hard work that morality requires? We can be freeloaders now and let everything sort itself out later.

I don't think a system that excludes God gets one off the freeloading charge: if you can't rely on a miracle to pick up the trash on the sidewalk, you can rely on some schmuck.

Not to mention, under the Aristotilean view, the benefit of doing the right thing is a self-benefit. Virtue is its own reward, to put it real loosely here, and understanding that this is best read in an Aristotilean light.

Syllabus said...

"I suppose that "ultimately", all meaning is lost."

Thanks for your frankness. I appreciate your straightforward answer.

"What is the meaning of one's life if he ends up in the eternal torture chamber?"

I would first challenge your representation of hell - which is what I would assume you're referring to - as an "eternal torture chamber". That has more to do with Dante than with traditional Judaism or Christianity.

As to the sentiment behind the question, I would answer thusly: if someone were to end up in hell, then I would say that they had chosen one thing that they thought would give their life meaning over another thing that had the potential to do so, and thus were experiencing the consequences of their actions. In other words, they chose a lesser meaning over the greater one. Anything that follows that is the consequence of that decision.

"For that matter, what is the meaning of one's life on earth if he ends up in eternal paradise? Given that paradise is eternal, and everybody who makes it there has passed through some gate and left behind their earthly existence, what does it really matter what they have done during their brief moment in this world?"

That may be an excellent critique of Platonist conceptions of the afterlife, but I don't buy into that perspective. Judeo-Christian eschatology is about renewal and restoration, not escape.

By the logic given in your example, I could just as well say, "What does it matter what happens in the short 9 months a fetus is in the womb, if it's just going to leave all that behind?" I don't think growth or progress or change stops the second you die, because I don't think that's the last hurrah of our physical existence.

"...but I think the perspective that meaning must hinge on something permanent (which is why worries about the death of the universe/humanity seem troubling for meaning) is mistaken."

I didn't say that it was correct, or that it was my viewpoint - at least not at this juncture. I'm advancing questions to try and figure out where someone stands on the matter.

But then, even if I had, an answer as to why I was incorrect would, I think, still be necessary.

im-skeptical said...

Syllabus,

I think Thomas Nagel's paper addresses the question I was trying to get at, but I need to take more time to fully digest it. Thanks, Matt. The real question in my mind was: if there is some kind of eternal existence, whether in heaven or hell, how could there be any permanent meaning in the fleeting life that we have long-since left behind? Take any individual act that you may have done in your life on earth. Millions of years from now, when you are happily residing in heaven, what difference does it make whether you did that thing or not? About the only thing that could matter is whether you made it into heaven or you didn't. All the rest fades into insignificance.

Syllabus said...

There's a lot in your comment, so I'll break it down again.

"The real question in my mind was: if there is some kind of eternal existence, whether in heaven or hell, how could there be any permanent meaning in the fleeting life that we have long-since left behind?"

You seem to be assuming that we will be living a type of life that is different on extremely fundamental levels, even alien, to the type of life that we are living now. That's not my belief.

"Take any individual act that you may have done in your life on earth. Millions of years from now, when you are happily residing in heaven, what difference does it make whether you did that thing or not?"

Potentially? All the difference in the universe. I'm going to paraphrase Lewis on this one: every day, we make thousands of decisions, each of which are pointing us - at least, such is my belief and hope - in one of two directions. Each little decision takes further down a path that can make out of a saint or a devil. Hell is the result of a certain chain of actions that one takes and the mindset with which one takes them; heaven - or surrender to God, if you want to put it that way - is the same, but in the opposite direction, so to speak.

Each decision forms our character in minuscule, unnoticeable ways. However, if we make a tiny decision down one path, then it becomes easier to make another tiny decision down the same path, and so on ad infinitum.

And, again, I don't think progress or regress comes to a full halt after death - heck, maybe even after resurrection.

"About the only thing that could matter is whether you made it into heaven or you didn't. All the rest fades into insignificance."

I think that those things may have some bearing upon whether you do "make it into Heaven", as you put it (though I think that terminology is problematic).

@Matt:

I just now read the essay. I consistently like what I read of Nagel's.

He does, in this essay, end up conceding that our lives are absurd, so far as I can see. Though he does pose some interesting points about whether each thing in our lives is rendered absurd because of the absurdity of the entire life.

Papalinton said...

"It may not be a pretty picture, but the full force of naturalistic view of universe at least saddles moral agents with the urgency to act rightly. If it is God's or the universe's responsibility to right our wrongs, what benefit is it to do the hard work that morality requires? We can be freeloaders now and let everything sort itself out later."

Dan, this an excellent question and point. What is perceived as moral in one community or culture and be diametric in perception and intent in another community or culture simply underscores the diversity of what is considered moral. Making sense of and accepting what is moral or otherwise is a lot of really hard work just as you say, and hardly something that can be outsourced to a third agent.

im-skeptical said...

Syllabus,

"And, again, I don't think progress or regress comes to a full halt after death - heck, maybe even after resurrection"

That's something I must disagree with. Heaven is eternal. If you manage to get there, what more is there to strive for? You might say that you continue to become more perfect, but if that's true, you would eventually become God. I don't think that's possible. It's a little easier to see when you don't end up in heaven. If you are spending eternity in hell, are you progressing in any way? Are you changing in any way? I can't see that there is any final outcome other than what you have already achieved.

I'm not sure if I have managed to adequately express what I'm thinking of, but I can't come up with a better way to put it at the moment.

Syllabus said...

"Heaven is eternal."

Again, you're assuming this sort of bifurcated reality that will continue on forever. Let me make this clear - I don't believe in a "heaven" separated from the Earth that will go on for all eternity in some spiritual state.

And I think you may be equivocating on the word "eternal". What do you mean? Timelessness? Infinite duration? Please, elucidate what you mean.

"If you manage to get there, what more is there to strive for?"

Again, this "get there" language. I don't believe we "go to heaven" - I believe that "heaven" comes to us. There will be a totally renewed physical creation. What that will mean exactly I can't say, but it won't be the rejection of all physical things - space, time, matter, etc. - in favour of something else. I can't overstress the importance of this.

As to what there is to strive for: music? Art? Poetry? Comedy? Fiction? Philosophy? Architecture? God made us in His image - at least, I believe that He did - and part of that includes the capacity for and desire to create. I don't think that will be extinguished after the renewal of all things. But, that said, that's all conjecture. I have only a very small amount of data to work on.

"You might say that you continue to become more perfect, but if that's true, you would eventually become God.I don't think that's possible."

I agree - becoming God is not possible. I don't think we become God, I think we participate in God. Totally different concept.

I think, again, you're equivocating, this time on the word "perfect". What do you mean? Moral perfection? Epistemological perfection? Ontological perfection? Until I know precisely what you mean, I can't properly answer you.


"It's a little easier to see when you don't end up in heaven. If you are spending eternity in hell, are you progressing in any way?"

You mean, are you progressing downwards into other more hellish forms of behaviour? Potentially.

I still think, though, that you're working under a split model of reality, where there's this place called "heaven" and this place called "hell" and both are completely separate and everyone ends up in one of both places. In reality, I think it's a good deal more complex than that.

"Are you changing in any way? I can't see that there is any final outcome other than what you have already achieved."

You may be. I think it's at least possible. Why do you think it's not?

"I'm not sure if I have managed to adequately express what I'm thinking of, but I can't come up with a better way to put it at the moment."

It's fine. That's what these discussions are for: sharpening our definitions and world views.

Syllabus said...

Also, on becoming God by becoming more perfect, I'd say that's actually logically impossible. You can't reach infinity by consecutive addition of finite amounts. Besides, I think "infinite perfection" may just be redundant, but I haven't parsed that out to its completion.

im-skeptical said...

Syllabus,

I guess I don't understand heaven and hell in the same way you do. Can you provide more information (or point to it) for my benefit?

Syllabus said...

"I guess I don't understand heaven and hell in the same way you do. Can you provide more information (or point to it) for my benefit?"

Yes.

I tried writing out what I believe about these things, but it turned out to be a couple of thousand words long. So, I'll just cover some brief points and recommend some further reading.

First, there's a dual dimensionality to both heaven and hell. First, there's the place/experience we - broadly speaking, humans - go to/have when we die. Whatever this state is - soul sleep, paradise, limbo, conscious, non-conscious; I don't really come down hard on one of these, though I incline towards it being a conscious experience - it's only the interim thing.

The second part is the resurrection, which is exactly what it sounds like: the re-constitution of our psychosomatic unities by God. At that time, God will deal with people according to their choices and actions - whether they surrendered, implicitly or explicitly, to God and Christ or whether they chose self-veneration, what their deeds on Earth were, how they lived, etc.

At this point, the second dimension to heaven and hell come into play. Those who have chosen to orient their lives around God and Christ - again, implicitly or explicitly - will experience something that we might call "heaven". That is, they will experience God's love directly as people willing to receive it. The people who have chosen to orient their lives around themselves and their own desires - again... well, you get the idea - will experience something that we can call "hell". The various images in the text used of this state - fire, darkness, gnashing of teeth, etc. - are poetic descriptions of this state.

Oh, right - these things will all be experienced/come to pass in a renewed universe, one which God suffuses in a way quite different from the one at the present. The whole business of the Rapture has nothing to do with traditional Christian eschatology - it was invented in the early 19th century.

So, in very broad and very brief terms, that's what I mean when I say heaven and hell. For further reading, I recommend books by N. T. Wright like Surprised by Hope and some of his other stuff (though I disagree with him on some points, we agree on the broad strokes). Sir John Polkinghorne's book The God of Hope and the End of the World, especially the last third or so, is also useful in this regard. Disagreement on some of the details, again, but agreement on the main thrust of the whole "new creation" bit.

For an illustration of what I mean by "progress" in Heaven, read The Great Divorce. It's highly allegorical, but still instructive.

Again, this is a huge topic, so I had to distil a lot of different things down to the most relevant points. And also, though there are some bits of this view that are distinctive to my particular parsing of it, the broad concept of the renewal of heavens and earth is something that has been present ever since the First Century.

im-skeptical said...

Syllabus,

Thanks. I'll do some reading on this. But just to clarify, in the renewed universe, do people (or their spiritual beings) exist permanently? Does it all come to an end at some point?

Syllabus said...

" But just to clarify, in the renewed universe, do people (or their spiritual beings) exist permanently? Does it all come to an end at some point?"

My opinion? A qualified yes to the first, a no to the second.