On the Origin of Ethics

Facebook note from September 2010.

What is the central concept of ethics? There are two answers to this question: Immanuel Kant makes “duty” the central concept; Ayn Rand makes “value” the central concept. This, in a nutshell, explains why Objectivists cannot stand Kant; it also explains why so many people cannot stand Ayn Rand; they are simply too steeped in a deontological view of ethics (and Kant was not the only deontologist in the history of philosophy).

How do Rand and Kant arrive at those widely diverging fundamental concepts? I do not know about Kant – he seems to have simply taken it for granted – but Ayn Rand tells us. I won’t repeat her derivation of “value” from “life”, because you are already familiar with it. But she also has something to say about the formation of the concept “value” in a child:

Now, in what manner does a human being discover the concept of “value”? By what means does he first become aware of the issue of “good or evil” in its simplest form? By means of the physical sensations of pleasure or pain. Just as sensations are the first step of the development of a human consciousness in the realm of cognition, so they are the first step in the realm of evaluation. (From “The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness.)

Does this sound like hedonism? Well, we know Ayn Rand was “profoundly opposed to the philosophy of hedonism”. And we know why: pleasure could not possibly be a standard of value. Neither could happiness: one’s own happiness is the proper goal of morality, but it is not the standard.

But “life as the standard” is too abstract for a small child to grasp. For one thing, the child does not yet know about death, and so cannot grasp the fundamental alternative of “life or death”. It only knows “pleasure or pain” and can then proceed to the slightly more abstract “happiness or suffering”.

An implication of this is that a child starts out as a hedonist: “pleasure” is the implicit standard. As his knowledge grows, he becomes an eudaemonist: “happiness” becomes the implicit standard. And finally, when he grasps that it all has its roots in the alternative of “life or death”, he becomes an Objectivist. (But he probably would have to read Ayn Rand to arrive at this stage.) And from this it would also seem that hedonism is closer to the truth than a deontological ethics.

How would a child form a deontological or “duty-centered” ethics?

What is “duty”? Essentially it is obedience to some authority. For a small child, the authority would be his parents, so it is his duty to obey them. Later come the duty to one’s country, or to God, or whatever. (Immanuel Kant would object to this and say it is a matter of obeying one’s own conscience – but to untangle this, I would have to write an essay on Kant’s distinction between the “noumenal” and the “phenomenal” self.)

Now, children do obey their parents (and later their school teachers) to a large extent. And so long as parents and teachers are rational, I see no harm in this. To use a phrase from Cesar Millan (“the dog whisperer”), children, as well as dogs, need “rules, boundaries and limitations”. The child will discover on his own the reasons for those rules, boundaries and limitations; and he will object to them only if and when he finds something wrong with them. (Of course, this last point is not applicable to dogs.) (And it goes without saying that the matter is very different, if or when parents and teachers are irrational.)

The reason I started thinking about this is that somebody recommended that I read Jean Piaget. I have read one of his essays, though unfortunately in a Swedish translation, so I cannot give any quotes. But the point is that Piaget writes that “pleasures” and “duties” sometimes conflict; and if I understand him correctly, he thinks that “duty” takes precedence over “pleasure”; it is a sign of maturity in a child when he subordinates a temporary pleasure to some duty. This is hardly the Objectivist view…

Piaget spent most of his life studying the cognitive development of children and adolescents and developed an extensive and rather complex theory about it. It was based, as all good theories should, on observation. This “pleasure/duty” clash is one such observation. But it is hard to reconcile with Ayn Rand’s view. But she might answer that it is actually a clash between “short-term pleasure” and “long-term happiness”. An example of this is that it may be painful to go to the dentist; but we do it anyway, since not doing it will impede our future happiness.

Some further observations

(Added 2016.)

In the period preceding Kant, it was customary among rights philosophers to distinguish between three kinds of duties: duties to God, to society (or one’s fellow human beings) and to oneself.[1] Immanuel Kant, to the best of my knowledge, makes no such distinction.

Kant famously argued that man has a duty to preserve his life, even (and especially) when life has become so painful as to be unbearable. Is this a duty to God? Why should God even care, unless he were a sadist? Is it a duty to one’s fellow men? But why would they want you to suffer? Is it a duty to oneself? Hardly. No, it is just duty for the sake of duty, with no visible beneficiary.

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A famous Objectivist once said in a courtroom speech:

Man’s first duty is to himself.

He obviously had not read Ayn Rand’s essay “Causality versus Duty”, where she dismisses the very concept of duty.[2]

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Aristotle’s ethics if of course value-centered, in that it has a specific aim: the achievement of ευδαιμονια, i.e. happiness or flourishing. There is no talk in Aristotle about obedience to some authority, whether outer or inner. The same of course is true about any form of eudaemonism or hedonism.

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Once a long time ago I saw the objection to Objectivism, from an academic philosopher, that there is no duty to act egoistically, just as there is no duty to act altruistically. Abysmal ignorance about Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

Or are we to assume that there is a duty to pursue values? That we should pursue them because some outer or inner authority has commanded us to pursue them?


[1] See for example Samuel Pufendorf, De officio hominis et civis juxta legem naturalem (or On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law  in English), published in 1673.

[2] I am referring of course to Howard Roark. Don’t take the words “famous Objectivist” too seriously!

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Immanuel Kant on this, that and the other thing …

… as they are in themselves and as they appear to us.

Leonard Peikoff once asked Ayn Rand why she was so vehement in denouncing Immanuel Kant’s theories, and she answered (according to Peikoff) in essence:

When someone says that reality is unreal or that reason is subjective, he is, admittedly or not, attacking every conviction and value I hold. Everything I love in life – my work, my husband, my kind of music, my freedom, the creativity of man’s life – all of it rests on my perception of reality; all of it becomes a delusion and an impossibility if reason is impotent.

And Peikoff adds:

If you went up to an ordinary individual, itemized every object and person he cared for, then said to him seriously: “I intend to smash them all and leave you groveling in the muck”, he would become indignant, even outraged. What set Ayn Rand apart from mankind is the fact that she heard the whole itemization and the intention to smash everything in the simple statement that “reality is unreal”. (“My Thirty Years With Ayn Rand”, The Voice of Reason, p. 337.)

And where, in the collected works of Immanuel Kant, does one find the statement that “reality is unreal”?

Or is it the case that, although he did not say or write this, he actually meant this? Is this something we can read between the lines in Kant’s works?

The basis for believing so is, of course, Kant’s distinction between “things in themselves” (or “noumena”) and “things as they appear to us” (or “phenomena”). Only those “things in themselves” represent “true reality”; but it is impossible for us to gain true knowledge of them; they are forever hidden to us.

But did Kant ever say that those “appearances” that surround us all the time are unreal? Not to my knowledge. All he said is that they are not the whole truth about reality – and that this “whole truth” is inaccessible to us.[1]

But all Kant can validly claim is that the “appearances” – the material provided us by the evidence of our senses – do not represent omniscience; and that, no matter how much more we learn, we will never reach omniscience.

An example of this is when we observe a tree. We only observe the outside of the tree – that is how it appears to us. When we saw through the tree, we also see the inside of it, and we notice the rings. As our knowledge grows, we learn that those rings tell us the age of the tree; thus we call them “year rings” or “annual rings”. Then we learn that the tree is built up by molecules, and those in turn by atoms, and the atoms by elementary particles.

Or take a house: we first observe it as it appears from the outside; we then walk into the house and visit the apartments; we then also know the house as it appears from the inside. And we look into every nook and cranny, but no matter how hard we look, we never become omniscient about this house, much less then about every house in the world.

Or take an animal or human body: we do not see how it appears from the inside until we perform a dissection; and even then, there is much more to be learned.

No matter what, there is always more we can learn about the tree, the house and the body. And this is true about everything we observe: we only observe what we observe; but there is always more to observe.

But this does not justify Kant’s conclusion that there is some kind of gulf between what we experience through our senses and what the things are “in themselves”. Everything about a thing is an aspect of the thing, or an attribute or a property of it. The fact that we do not know all those aspects or attributes, and may never come to know them all, does not mean that we do not know what we actually know.

Kant also claims that – although the “things in themselves” are unknowable – we can at least know that they exist. His argument for this is that there could not be appearances without the things that appear.

I believe, however, that there are internal inconsistencies in Kant’s view. He claims that we only perceive reality as “filtered” through the categories. Those categories only apply to the “appearances”, not to the “things in themselves”. But one of those categories is “reality” (which he contrasts to “negation” and “limitation”). So how can he claim anything about the reality of the things in themselves? And another category is “existence” (contrasted to “possibility” and “necessity”). How then can he claim that those things in themselves actually exist? And, if causality does not apply to the “noumenal” realm of “things in themselves”, how is it possible for those things in themselves to give rise to appearances?

Kant on space and time

Apart from the categories, our experience (according to Kant) is also filtered through space and time. He calls them “forms of appearance” or “Anschaungsformen” in German. They are provided, not by external reality or by our senses, but by our own minds. They are not experience, but “a priory” conditions for having experience at all.

This is really odd. Take the statement: “Immanuel Kant lived in Königsberg in the 18th and early 19th centuries; while I live in Sweden in the 20th and early 21th centuries.” Is this a statement about how it really is – about Kant in himself and me in myself? Or is it only a matter of how my mind brings order in the relationship between me and Immanuel Kant? And how would this account for the fact that I was born 218 years later than he? If time were merely a “form of appearance”, this would be a piece of cake: Kant would simply pick me (or what I have written about him) from the manifold of appearances and place me at this point in the future. If time is an aspect of the real world, this would be … well, not quite that easy.

Kant actually claims that the senses are valid (although they only give us knowledge of appearances, not about things as they really are). But space and time, he claims, are not provided by our senses.

But – just like all our abstractions – our concepts of “space” and “time” derive ultimately from sensory experience. For example, I observe that the computer is on the table, that there is a door to the left of me and a window to the right of me, that there are a couple of pictures on the wall in front of me, and (if I turn around) that there are book shelves behind me. I observe that the distance to the door is shorter that the distance to the window. Outside of the window there is another house; somewhere inside my apartment my lady-friend is watching the television; etc., etc. Likewise with time: the sentences I write come before and after one another; dawn comes after night time and dusk before night time; seasons come and go in a regular succession; and Usain Bolt traverses short distances in a shorter time period than anyone else has done before and that only he, himself, has done afterwards. – “Space” and “time” refer to the sum of all those relationships.

The “a priori” and the “a posteriori”

Kant claims that there are three kinds of statements:

  1. Analytical statements a priori – i.e. statements that are true “by definition”. For example the statement that baldheaded men (or women) lack hair. We do not have to conduct an investigation – go out and check every baldheaded person to see if he has hair or not.
  2. Synthetic statements a posteriori – i.e. statements that do require such an investigation. For example the statement that Usain Bolt holds the world records for 100 and 200 meters. It is not part of the definition of “Usain Bolt” that he holds those records; we have to actually see it (or at least read about it in the papers.). They are “synthetic” because they combine (“synthesize”) two or more facts (such as the facts that Usain Bolt exists and that he runs short distances faster than everybody else).
  3. Synthetic statements a priori. Those are statements that are not true by definition; but neither are they true by experience (by actually conducting an investigation), but true nevertheless.

Kant has some rather odd examples. For example, he claims that there is nothing about the concepts of “5” and “7” that necessitates the concept “12” when they are combined by using the concept “+”. Nevertheless, it is true the “5+7=12”. He also claims that, although it is true by definition that objects have extension, it is not true by definition that they have weight; yet it seems preposterous to conduct an investigation and weigh all objects to ascertain that there are no weightless objects. It is part of the definition of “object”, he says, that they have at least some extension; but it is not part of the definition that they can be light or heavy.

Do you notice what is missing here? There is no mention of statements that are analytical a posteriori. And I would claim that most true statements are just that: analytical a posteriori.

Take Kant’s own example. How so we know that objects have extension? By observing objects! And how do we know they have weight, that they are more or less heavy? Again, by observing them. The only difference here is that we observe extension by sight, but we observe weight by trying to lift the objects. Kant’s distinction is arbitrary: he might as well define “object” as having weight, and then claim that their having extension is a “synthetic a priori”.

More generally: What are we actually doing with the things we observe? We form concepts; we combine our concepts into sentences; we build theories (or make hypotheses); we make up whole systems of philosophy or science. Some of this is synthesis, but a lot of it is analysis of our observations. And the observations always come first: they are what is properly speaking ”a priori”.

Take such a simple statement as “this food tastes good”. It is synthetic in that it combines the food with the taste (and adds the value judgment “good”); but it is also an analysis of the meal one is eating!

Did Kant deny knowledge?

The line from Kant that is most often quoted by Objectivists is this one (from the preface to the 2nd edition of Critique of Pure Reason):

I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.

Seems clear enough. But in the original German, Kant does not use the German word for “deny” (“verneinen” or “verleugnen”); he says “das Wissen aufzuheben”. And the closest English equivalent to this expression is “to suspend knowledge”.[2]

You may say that suspending knowledge is not much better than denying knowledge; but there is a difference. Suspending may be temporary. “Suspending knowledge” does not necessarily mean closing the door on knowledge forever, which “denying knowledge” would mean.

Also, there is a double meaning to the German “aufheben” (as also to the Swedish counterpart “upphäva”): apart from “suspend” it can also mean “lift up” or “raise to a higher level”.

And you should actually know this. Leonard Peikoff has lectured on Hegel’s philosophy, and this double meaning of the word “aufheben” is a corner stone of Hegel: when a thesis turns into its antithesis, both the thesis and the antithesis are “aufgehoben”, i.e. both “suspended” and “lifted up” or “raised up” into the synthesis.

Kant, of course, wasn’t Hegel, so I do not know whether he, too, was playing on this double meaning. But it is a possibility.

Be that as it may; but we must also ask what knowledge Kant wants to suspend. Is it the knowledge that grass is green, or that the earth revolves around the sun, or that the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides? No, it’s not. If you just read the preceding sentences, you will find that it is knowledge of God, freedom of the will and immortality. Those are the things Kant claims we have no certain knowledge of and have to suspend this knowledge in favor of faith. (Earlier philosophers, such as Leibniz, had claimed that those things could be proven; and this is what Kant turned against. And before Kant woke up from what he called his “dogmatic slumber”, he was an adherent of Christian Wolff, who in turn was an adherent of Leibniz.)

Update March 31: Here is the whole paragraph from the preface to the 2nd edition:

The positive value of the critical principles of pure reason in relation to the conception of God and of the simple nature of the soul, admits of a similar exemplification; but on this point I shall not dwell. I cannot even make the assumption—as the practical interests of morality require—of God, freedom, and immortality, if I do not deprive speculative reason of its pretensions to transcendent insight. For to arrive at these, it must make use of principles which, in fact, extend only to the objects of possible experience, and which cannot be applied to objects beyond this sphere without converting them into phenomena, and thus rendering the practical extension of pure reason impossible. I must, therefore, abolish knowledge, to make room for belief. The dogmatism of metaphysics, that is, the presumption that it is possible to advance in metaphysics without previous criticism, is the true source of the unbelief (always dogmatic) which militates against morality.

Here ”aufheben” is translated as “abolish”, but I still think “suspend” is more accurate. But it shows what kind of (alleged) knowledge Kant wanted to do away with.

The translation is published by Project Gutenberg.

This leads us to:

Kant on free will

I won’t bother with Kant’s views on God and immortality, since I believe in neither, anyway. But I sometimes hear that Objectivists should not be too harsh on Kant, since he shares with us the conviction that man has free will.

Now, the alleged “problem” with free will is that it is seen as an exception to the law of causality. But (qua Objectivists) we know that this is not the case at all. It is not an exception, but a special kind of causation. Nathaniel Branden (who at that time was speaking for Ayn Rand) explains it very well:

{The] freedom of choice is not a negation of causality, but a category of it, a category that pertains to man. A process of thought is not causeless, it is caused by man. The actions possible to an entity are determined by the entity that acts – and the nature of man (and of man’s mind) is such that it necessitates the choice between focusing and non-focusing, between thinking and non-thinking. Man’s nature does not allow him to escape this choice, it is his alone to make: it is not made for him by the gods, the stars, the chemistry of his body, the structure of his “family constellation” or the economic organization of his society.

If one is to be bound by a genuine “empiricism” – meaning: a respect for observable facts, without arbitrary a priori commitments to which reality must be “adjusted” – one cannot ignore this distinctive attribute of man’s nature. And if one understands the law of causality as a relationship between entities and their actions, then the problem of “reconciling” volition and causality is seen to be illusory. (“Volition and the Law of Causality”, The Objectivist, March 1966.)

Kant, on the other hand, does see our free will as an exception to causality, and his attempt at “reconciling” this illusory dilemma is as follows:

Causality is a category that only applies to the world of appearances or phenomena in which we live; it does not apply to the “noumenal” world of “things in themselves”. But man has a twofold nature: he is part of the world of phenomena but also part of the world of noumena. Conclusion: As a “phenomenon” or “appearance” man is totally determined – he can only act as mechanical causes force him to act – but as a “noumenon”, as he is in himself, he is totally free. Not much of an explanation, unless one accepts Kant’s premises. Leonard Peikoff has this to say:

The classic expression of this [the mystical] viewpoint is the disastrous Kantian slogan: “God, freedom, and immortality”, which has had the effect of making “freedom” laughable by equating it with two bromides of supernaturalism. What reputable thinker cares to uphold volition if it is offered under the banner, “ghosts, choice, and the Pearly Gates”? (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 72.)

Kant understood that without free will, ethics would be meaningless, which leads us to:

Kant’s ethics

What is the central concept in ethics? According to Objectivism, it is “value”, and a value is that which furthers our life and well-being. This is also implicit in Aristotle’s ethics: the term “εὐδαιμονία”, commonly translated as ”happiness”, covers such things as health and success in life.

According to Kant, it is “duty”. Duty is a matter of unquestioning obedience to some authority (be it one’s parents, one’s teachers, one’s superiors, the law and the lawmakers, bishops and popes, or God). In Kant’s case, it is obedience to an inner authority, one’s conscience.

Kant contrasts “duty” with “inclinations”, i.e., our own wants and desires. Insofar as we pursue our own values, this is outside the province of ethics; whenever there is a conflict or clash between our pursuit of values and our duties, and we nevertheless choose to pursue those values, we are immoral. Putting the pursuit of values above duty is what Kant calls the “radical evil” of man.

It is quite obvious that Kant’s ethics is sadistic. Take the often quoted example of a man, whose life has become unbearable and abstains from suicide out of duty alone. (Kant himself says that this man has been overcome with sorrow, but it is equally applicable to someone who has a painful and incurable disease.) Leonard Peikoff was right in dubbing it “the ethics of evil” (in The Ominous Parallels).

It might seem that Kant shares Ayn Rand’s view that man is an end in itself, since one of his formulations of the “categorical imperative” is:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

But in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals this is immediately followed by the example of a man contemplating suicide. If he takes his own life because of unbearable pain, then he uses his own person, not as an end in itself, but as a means to the end of escaping pain!

Also, Kant actually did not regard the individual man as an end in himself, only the humanity that this individual represent. In a short piece titled Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View, he argues that the ultimate end is the perfection of society, to which end, of course, every individual must contribute. And he argues that, since it is impossible for an individual to achieve perfection in his own short life span, the ultimate end must lie somewhere in the distant future.

Kant’s “Copernican Revolution”

According to the correspondence theory of truth – and according to plain common sense – our cognition should conform to the objects of cognition. Kant is supposed to have performed a “Copernican revolution” by claiming the opposite: that the objects should conform to our cognition. Here are his own words:

It appears to me that the examples of mathematics and natural philosophy, which, as we have seen, were brought into their present condition by a sudden revolution, are sufficiently remarkable to fix our attention on the essential circumstances of the change which has proved so advantageous to them, and to induce us to make the experiment of imitating them, so far as the analogy which, as rational sciences, they bear to metaphysics may permit. It has hitherto been assumed that our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to ascertain anything about these objects a priori, by means of conceptions, and thus to extend the range of our knowledge, have been rendered abortive by this assumption. Let us then make the experiment whether we may not be more successful in metaphysics, if we assume that the objects must conform to our cognition. This appears, at all events, to accord better with the possibility of our gaining the end we have in view, that is to say, of arriving at the cognition of objects a priori, of determining something with respect to these objects, before they are given to us. We here propose to do just what Copernicus did in attempting to explain the celestial movements. When he found that he could make no progress by assuming that all the heavenly bodies revolved round the spectator, he reversed the process, and tried the experiment of assuming that the spectator revolved, while the stars remained at rest. We may make the same experiment with regard to the intuition of objects. If the intuition must conform to the nature of the objects, I do not see how we can know anything of them a priori. If, on the other hand, the object conforms to the nature of our faculty of intuition, I can then easily conceive the possibility of such an a priori knowledge. Now as I cannot rest in the mere intuitions, but—if they are to become cognitions—must refer them, as representations, to something, as object, and must determine the latter by means of the former, here again there are two courses open to me. Either, first, I may assume that the conceptions, by which I effect this determination, conform to the object—and in this case I am reduced to the same perplexity as before; or secondly, I may assume that the objects, or, which is the same thing, that experience, in which alone as given objects they are cognized, conform to my conceptions—and then I am at no loss how to proceed. For experience itself is a mode of cognition which requires understanding. Before objects, are given to me, that is, a priori, I must presuppose in myself laws of the understanding which are expressed in conceptions a priori. To these conceptions, then, all the objects of experience must necessarily conform. Now there are objects which reason thinks, and that necessarily, but which cannot be given in experience, or, at least, cannot be given so as reason thinks them. The attempt to think these objects will hereafter furnish an excellent test of the new method of thought which we have adopted, and which is based on the principle that we only cognize in things a priori that which we ourselves place in them. (The Critique of Pure Reason, preface to the 2nd edition, 1787.)

Clear enough – except that it is impossible to make heads or tails of this paragraph.

It must be passages like this that made Ayn Rand write:

The entire apparatus of Kant’s system, like a hippopotamus engaged in belly-dancing, goes through its gyrations while resting on a single point: that man’s knowledge is not valid because his consciousness possesses identity. (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 80 in the expanded 2nd edition.)

Was Kant an emotionalist?

Ayn Rand thought so. In the title essay of Philosophy: Who Needs It, she writes:

Have you ever thought or said the following? […] “I can’t prove it, but I feel that it’s true.” You got it from Kant. (P. 5,)

In fact, Kant said the exact opposite. In his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft), one finds the short and simple sentence

Emotions are not knowledge.

And one thing Kant was very much opposed to was “Schwärmerei”, a word that has no exact counterpart in English, but may be translated as “excessive emotion” or “mad enthusiasm”.

So much for Kant’s alleged emotionalism. Whatever else is wrong with his philosophy, he was not wrong on this.

Kant’s influence

Should everything bad that happens in the world be blamed on Immanuel Kant? Leonard Peikoff certainly thinks so:

[Ayn Rand] held that Kant was morally much worse than any killer, including Lenin and Stalin […], because it was Kant who unleashed not only Lenin and Stalin, but also Hitler and Mao and all the other disasters of our disastrous age. Without the philosophical climate Kant and his intellectual followers created, none of these disasters could have occurred; given that climate, none could have been averted. (“Fact and Value”, The Intellectual Activist, May 1989.)

This is only partially true. The greatest threat to our civilization today is Islam; and I don’t think Kant has had even the slightest influence in the Muslim world.[3] On the other hand, the West’s weak response to this threat can be blamed on Kant (although by a rather circuitous route).

Or take the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994 – or the fact that many children in Africa are forced to become child soldiers. How is this to be blamed on Immanuel Kant? Kant influence in Africa has to be negligible.

Also, many bad things (such as the Thirty Years’ War and … well, the examples are too numerous to itemize) happened before Kant was even born. Should we blame them on other philosopher, like Plato and Augustine? But bad things also happened before the time of Plato.

The main theme of The Ominous Parallels is that the philosophers (mainly Kant and Hegel, and before them Plato) are responsible for the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Does this mean that Immanuel Kant, if he were to be magically brought back to life in the early 1940’s to see what was going on at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Soribór, would have said: “Finally the world has come to understand my ideas!”? I think not.

There are other areas where one can find the bad influence of Kant. David Harriman, in his lecture series “The Philosophic Corruption of Physics” argues that physics nowadays is not looking for actual physical causes and settle for mere mathematical descriptions of the appearances, which of course stems from their acceptance of Kant’s idea that causality does not apply to “things in themselves” – so why bother to look for actual, physical causes?

Kant on the swathing of infants

You probably did not know this, but Kant was opposed to the custom of swathing infants:

It is simply for the sake of our own convenience that we swathe our children like mummies, so that we may not have the trouble of watching them in order to prevent their limbs from getting broken or bent. And yet it often happens that they do get bent, just by swathing them. Also it makes the children themselves uneasy, and they are almost driven to despair on account of their never being able to use their limbs. (Kant on Education, published in 1803.)

A complete moral monster would not have written this. Which leads us to the question:

Was Kant really “the most evil man in mankind’s history”?

I think this is an exaggeration – I think the Prophet (damned be his name!) was even more evil – but I will not spend time and effort investigating every evil person in the history of mankind. Instead, let me ask what Kant would have thought of Ayn Rand.

Self-love, according to Kant – especially putting self-love above duty – is the “radical evil” of man. Men should fulfill their duties, not pursue their happiness. Ayn Rand formulated an ethics of selfishness, of selfishly pursuing one’s values and one’s happiness. She said that

… the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose. (“The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness; emphasis in the original.)

The conclusion is inevitable: Kant would have regarded Ayn Rand as “the most evil person (man or woman) in the history of mankind”.


[1] The German word for ”appearance” is “Erscheinung”. This is akin to “Schein”, which means “illusion”. In his Prolegomena Kant goes to some length explaining that he does not mean “Schein” when he writes “Erscheinung”.

[2] The German language has the habit of sticking the infinitive mark “zu” into the middle of compound words like “aufheben”; thus “aufzuheben”, not “zu aufheben”.

[3] Apart from the Prophet himself (damned be his name!), the main bad philosophical influence is al-Ghazali (ca 1058–1111). See on this my blog post Islam versus Reason and Logic.

Ayn Rand’s Philosophical Achievement

Recently, Anoop Verma wrote a blog post, Ayn Rand’s Copernican Revolution in Philosophy, and then privately asked for my feedback. I have very little to criticize in his post; but it gives me an opportunity to present my own view.

In my view, the most fundamental thing about Ayn Rand’s philosophy is the insight that all knowledge is the result of the interaction between existence and consciousness, between the external world and our minds.

Sensation and perception are the result of the interaction between the external world and our senses. Concept formation are the result of our identification of the facts of reality. And values are a matter of relating what we value (or disvalue) to our life and well-being. (Politics is about applying ethics to our social life.)

This is even true about esthetics; her definition of art is

a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgements. (“Art and Cognition” in The Romantic Manifesto.)

A re-creation of reality, not of something outside of reality.

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive presentation of her philosophy, but it is something that has always struck me. With the partial exception of Aristotle (and his followers), I don’t think other philosophers have even come close to this insight. Platonism, for example, is clearly about our “interaction” with a mystical realm; and Kant’s philosophy is a variation on this theme.

In ethics, there are basically two views:

  1. That ethics is a matter of obeying divine commandments, or duties, as they are often called.

  2. That they are a matter of what we feel is right or wrong, and that those feelings are not connected to reality – that there is an unbridgeable gulf between “is” and “ought” and all that kind of jazz.[1]

And in politics the idea that we have to choose between tyranny (totalitarianism) and anarchy.

Immanuel Kant’s Philosophical Non-Achievements

The philosophy of Ayn Rand is commonly contrasted with that of Immanuel Kant; Ayn Rand herself did:

On every fundamental issue, Kant’s philosophy is the exact opposite of Objectivism. (“Brief Summary”, The Objectivist, September 1971.)

She also wrote:

[Kant’s] argument, in essence, ran as follows: […] man is blind, because he has eyes – deaf, because he has ears – deluded, because he has a mind – and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them. (The title essay in For the New Intellectual.)

It is often forgotten (or so it seems to me) that those are not Immanuel Kant’s own words; they are Ayn Rand’s summary of his epistemology. Objectivists take this description ad notam; they do not bother to read Kant and verify it.[2]

It is a common misunderstanding that Kant denied the evidence of the senses; in fact, he defended the senses, and he even gave proper arguments.[3]

Kant makes three points about the senses:

  1. The senses do not confuse us. If we are confused, it is our understanding of what the senses provide us with that is confused.
  2. The senses do not rule over the understanding; they are rather the servants of the understanding.
  3. The senses do not deceive or betray us. Again, it is only our understanding that may be mistaken.

He does however say that what the senses provide us with is “appearances”, not true (“noumenal”) reality.

Also, Kant did believe in the existence of an external world, although he claimed that it is inaccessible to us. His argument ran as follows: We live in a world of appearances; but there cannot be appearances without things that appear; thus those things must exist somewhere and somehow; but we can never know where or how.

But Kant would not be Kant, if he thought this was all there is to it. Although the senses give us valid information, he thought that space and time do not come to us through the senses; they are, as he called them, “form of appearance” (“Anschauungsformen” in German), through which the sense data are “filtered”. Rather than being part of our experience of the world, space and time are supplied by our own mind and are necessary “a priori” conditions for having experience at all.

I regard this view as ridiculous. We form the concepts “space” and “time” by observing a variety of special and temporal relationships (“the book is on the table”, “it happened yesterday”, etc. etc.) “Space” and “time” refer to the sum of those relationships.[4]

This should be enough for now (an “ought” and a temporal specification).

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(See also Rand Debating Kant and Evil Thoughts?. – Unfortunately (for most of you), almost everything I have written about Kant is in Swedish.)

Update March 29: I have now written a fairly extensive English blog post about Kant.


[1] Scandinavian speaking readers may read my recent blog posts about Axel Hägerström. Or Gastronomi och moral.

[2] There may be exceptions; if you are such an exception, I apologize.

[3] I found this out by perusing (I worked in a library of old books) Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht (Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View). Unfortunately, I cannot find an English translation of this passage in the book.

[4] Neither, by the way, did Kant ever say things like ”it is true, because I feel it’s true” – quite the contrary! In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, he goes to some length explaining that the categorical imperative is not a matter of emotion but of reasoning. And in Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, one will find – buried among all the talk of selfishness or self-love being the “radical evil” of human nature – the short and simple sentence: “Emotions are not knowledge”.

Evil Thoughts?

In Atlas Shrugged Francisco d’Anconia says to Hank Rearden:

There are no evil thoughts, except one: the refusal to think.

Nit-pickers may object to this that the refusal to think is not a thought, but the absence of thought. But that is nit-picking. It is quite common that people refuse to consider some issue that they should consider. I do not think it is even possible for someone to refuse to think altogether; but it is certainly possible – and happens quite frequently – that someone refuses to think about this, that or the other issue. Sometimes, it is even justified – if the issue is too unimportant to think about – but mostly it is impermissible. If an issue is important and you refuse to think about it, it will land you in trouble (do I need to elaborate on this?). – And refusing to think is of course the same as “evasion” or “blank-out”, which Ayn Rand identifies as the basic sin or vice, lying at the bottom of all other sins or vices.

But I have to ask myself how this statement is to be reconciled with the statement that Immanuel Kant was

the most evil man in mankind’s history. (“Brief summary” in the last issue of The Objectivist.)

Does this mean that Immanuel Kant consistently refused to think? If so, how did he manage to write his books (or hold his lectures at the University of Königsberg, for that matter)? I, myself, cannot write a single sentence without thinking, let alone this blog post and let alone a whole book or a whole philosophical corpus. So how did Immanuel Kant perform this feat, if he consistently refused to think?

I was impertinent enough to ask this question in a thread on Facebook, and the answer I got was that what Kant was engaged in was not thinking at all, but something entirely different. Let me quote:

Some people have asked me how I can take the position that irrationality in one’s own mind is immoral when Miss Rand said that there was only one primary vice and that was not to think. But there is no contradiction here at all. Running obtuse verbiage through your mind is not thinking. In order to be thinking you have to go by the evidence in a non-contradictory manner, even if you are the only one aware of what is going through your mind. Put another way, thinking is a very specific process, it is not any ole thing that passes through your mind. And because of this, one has to consider Kant to be evil because Kant was not engaged in a thinking process. So, what was he doing, say, when he wrote Prolegomena to Any future Metaphysics?

The short answer is that Kant was not thinking — he was not being rational. He deliberately wrote long tracks of obfuscatory verbiage in an effort to undercut your mind’s connection to existence, but he was not thinking. Thinking would have required him to point to evidence that what we observe is not real, and he didn’t do that. He wrote and wrote many passages that cannot be grasped by a rational mind just to confuse you into thinking that you have no access to existence either with the senses or via a process of reason. He was not thinking, he was irrational, and even if he had only written that down for his own amusement and never showed it to anyone, he would have been thoroughly irrational and therefore evil.

But this explanation, I have to say, is “obfuscatory”. The guy who wrote this is running obtuse verbiage through his mind.

(Those sarcasms will not be posted on Facebook. I have no desire to start a “flame war” on Immanuel Kant.)

Sarcasm aside, I have actually read Prolegomena (in a Swedish translation), and I am perfectly capable of refuting it myself without much help from others. Yes, it does require an effort to grasp what Kant is saying, and it does require a further effort to see what is wrong with it. But it is impermissible to dismiss it merely on the grounds that he is obtuse.

What is the alternative to thinking before one formulates one’s thoughts (be they clear or obscure)? The only alternative I can think of is speaking in tongues – in which case one’s thoughts are dictated, either by God or by some demon. Was Kant speaking in tongues when he wrote his books and delivered his lectures?

And it is not possible even to write obtusely without thinking. Even obtuse writing requires the use of words – and how does one grasp the meaning of words, except by a process of thinking?

And it is not possible to abandon the use of reason entirely. Even the philosopher who attacks (or undermines) reason has to use reason to formulate his attack. – A case in point is Martin Luther, who called reason “the devil’s highest whore” (”Des Teufels höchste Hure”) . The same Martin Luther performed the incredible feat of translating the whole Bible into German. How did he do this without consulting this whore?

And on a non-philosophical level, even a bank robber has to use reason to plan and execute his robbery. His aim (to get rich by robbery rather that by productive work) is certainly irrational. But his means does require some amount of rationality, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to rob the bank. (And you can probably make up your own examples.)

So what is my point in writing this? Certainly not to defend Immanuel Kant – who might very well be the worst philosopher in the history of philosophy (with the reservation that there are many philosophers that I haven’t even read). But it is true about every philosopher that if one wants to refute him (or her, as the case may be), one first has to thoroughly understand what the philosopher is trying to say. Merely pointing to his (or her) obtuse language will not do the trick.

If Kant’s philosophy is unimportant, then one may safely refuse to think about it. But if it is so important that one has to declare him, not just the worst philosopher in the history of philosophy, but even the most evil man in mankind’s history – then one has to think really hard about all of the main points in his philosophy. And, first of all, one has to read him.


1) There are at least two factual errors in the quote that I have to point out:

First of all, Kant did not say that what we observe is not real. This is a misunderstanding that he clears up in Prolegomena.

And secondly, he did not doubt the evidence of our senses. On the contrary, he defended the senses. This is taken up in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View.

2) For Scandinavian speaking readers, I have written a Prolegomenon to Kant’s Prolegomena in Swedish – plus a whole slew of other blog posts on Kant. For non-Scandinavians, I mention Prolegomena in my blog post Rand Debating Kant.

I should also mention that Wikipedia has a good summary of Kant’s Prolegomena. (It will confirm that Kant’s reasoning is obtuse.)

PS. I just discovered that the full text of Prolegomena is available in an English translation.

Is the Universe Eternal?

I am currently reading an essay on Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, to which I may return later. (It is a critique of Ayn Rand’s criticisms of Kant.) For now, just a short comment.

I assume you are familiar with Kant’s distinction between statements that are “analytical a priori” and “synthetic a priori”. To take a standard example, the statement “all bachelors are unmarried” is analytical a priori, simply because “bachelor” means “unmarried male”; while a statement like “all bachelors are lonely” is not analytical; it has to be verified empirically by investigating at least a few bachelors (and finding out that they are not all lonely, since some of them go out for a beer or something together with other bachelors). As Kant would put it, the predicate (“unmarried”) is already included in the subject (“bachelor”), whereas a predicate like “lonely” is not included in the subject.

A “synthetic a priori”, by contrast, is a statement where a predicate is not included in the subject, but is nevertheless true a priori; it needs no empirical verification (or falsification). Kant has several examples of this, one of which is the statement that “the universe is eternal”. I quote from the essay:

Or consider again the judgment: “The universe is eternal.” Neither here is the predicate contained in the subject. So the typical judgments of metaphysics […] are synthetic and a priori. Although necessary and universal, their predicates are not linked to their subjects either by empirical observation [nobody is in a position to observe the universe as a whole] or by logical inclusion.

But what is actually meant by saying that “the universe is eternal”? It means that the universe has no beginning in time and no end in time. But then, what is meant by “universe”? It means “the sum of all that exists”. And then, to say that it has a beginning in time, it would mean that before the universe began, something other than the universe existed; and after the universe ends, something other than the universe will exist. And that is clearly contradictory. (If some hairsplitter objects that before the universe, there was nothing, and that after the universe, there will be nothing, that would merely be a case of “reifying the zero” and making “nothing” into a kind of thing.)

My conclusion is that the judgment “the universe is eternal” is just as analytical as “all bachelors are unmarried”. To talk about a “non-eternal universe” is just as self-contradictory as talking about “married bachelors”.

Rand Debating Kant

James Stevens Valliant (the author of The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics) recently published an article on Capitalism Magazine, Ayn Rand’s Critics. It is about the sad (and at this point in history, rather boring) fact that those who criticize Ayn Rand do not even bother to try to understand her ideas. Right at the beginning, he writes:

Can anyone doubt the truth of writer David Mamet’s recent comments about arguing politics?  Defining what he meant by “Brain Dead Liberalism,” he suggested that unless you can state your opponent’s position with such accuracy that he or she would agree, “Yes, that’s what I think,” no meaningful debate is even possible.

I read somewhere long ago that the medieval scholastics had a debating rule much like the Mamet test. Before you argue against your opponent, you were required to present a summary of his views, and he would tell you whether this summary was adequate or not. This might be laborious, but it would certainly serve to prevent straw man arguments. (I don’t remember where I read it, and it might not even be true. But it struck me as a very reasonable thing to do.)

Now, let me engage in a flight of fancy. Imagine a debate under this rule taking place between Ayn Rand and Immanuel Kant. Ayn Rand would start out as follows:

Man is blind, because he has eyes – deaf, because he has ears – deluded, because he has a mind – and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them. Is this a fair summary of your philosophy, professor Kant?

What would professor Kant answer?

Oh, yes, that is indeed the essence of my philosophy. Thank you, Miss Rand, for summarizing it so succinctly.

Or would he answer:

Oh, no, that is a total distortion of my philosophy. Before you come here to debate me, you should read my Critique of Pure Reason carefully. Or if this book is too heavy, you should at least read my Prolegomena. I know it is a common misconception that I should have claimed that the world of phenomena is a mere delusion; but this is precisely the misconception I answer in Prolegomena. As for the argument that I should deny the evidence of our senses, I refer you to my book Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View: in this book I maintain explicitly that our senses neither betray us nor confuse us. Of course, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the English translations. But I have heard that you can read German, so you may consult the originals.

Maybe I should turn the table and let Kant summarize Ayn Rand’s philosophy – but I haven’t figured this out. All I can say off-hand is that he would probably brand her as “the most evil woman in womankind’s history” – because she elevates to a virtue what Kant regarded as the “radical evil” in man: egoism or self-love as the base of ethics.

(As my Scandinavian readers may know, I have written quite extensively on Immanuel Kant in Swedish. I cannot do this in English, because I have to give illustrative quotes to prove my points, and I only read him in Swedish translations; occasionally, I check against the German original.)

Is Action an A Priori Category?

And was Mises a Kantian?

Sometime in the remote future – maybe 10 or 20 years from now, or even 50, if I live that long – I intend to publish an essay or treatise called Praxeology refuted. (If I cannot refute it, the title will be Praxeology validated.) Here is a head start.

The father of praxeology, the science of human action, Ludwig von Mises, did call action an “a priori category”. And he takes this terminology from the father of the a priori, Immanuel Kant. So let me begin with what Kant meant by this term.

“A priori” means “before experience” or “independent of experience”. Kant attempted to prove that such a priori knowledge lies at the base of all our knowledge. The senses provide us with the raw material of knowledge, but this raw material has to be ordered or structured by  a set of categories, which are known to us independent of all experience and, in fact, are required to even make experience possible. Those categories are twelve in number, no more and no less, and they all have to do with the logic of our thinking. “Action” is not one of those categories, so it should be noted that Mises already deviates from Kant by adding “action” to the categories.

Nevertheless, there is much in Mises’ writings on praxeology that reveals a heavy Kantian influence. For one thing, he maintains that truth and falsehood are a matter, not of reality outside of us, but of the logical structure of the human mind. (I will devote a chapter in my upcoming treatise to this.)

But let me turn to this “category of action”. What is meant by it? The simplest formulation I can come up with is that man acts purposively and relates means to ends. When man acts, he does so with a purpose in mind. The purpose may be long-range (such as pursuing a certain career – or writing a treatise on praxeology), or it may short range (such as going down to the grocery to buy some food – or completing this blog post). But there is no such thing as purposeless action: even if a man just takes a stroll, there is the purpose of relaxation.

It might be objected that some actions (such as sneezing, or removing one’s hand from a hot plate) are involuntary. Mises’ answer to such objections is that those are not actions, but reactions. And human action also has to be distinguished from animal behavior: animals act in ways that promote their survival – lions hunt for food, and the zebras and antelopes run away from the lion to find a safer place to graze. But animals do not consciously set themselves goals and purposes; this is the distinctive mark of man.

So far, so good – there is certainly nothing here that an Objectivist should object to (or any thinking person, for that matter). But is it a priori? Is it independent of experience?

The point that man acts purposively may seem so self-evident and so all-encompassing that it eludes analysis. But I would say that we first know it by introspection: every one of us knows introspectively that we act with a purpose in mind and that we relate means to ends in order to achieve this purpose. That other men do the same is evident from their behavior; the assumption that other men act totally mechanically is too preposterous to seriously consider.

But – Immanuel Kant to the contrary notwithstanding – introspection is no more a priori than is extrospection.

Is Mises, then, a Kantian? Let me quote one of the foremost experts on Mises. Jörg Guido Hülsmann (from his Introduction to the third edition of Epistemological Problems of Economics):

The least one can say is that Mises’ theoretical analyses do not fit very well the caricature of the “Kantian” approach – studying the workings of the human mind, and nothing but this, in order to derive a priori insights about the rest of the world. If we want to do justice to what Mises actually said and did, rather than to squeeze his views into some preconceived epistemological scheme, then it seems we cannot avoid the conclusion that the affinities of Mises’s ideas with Kant’s philosophy are mainly rhetorical affinities. Mises is not closer to Kant than he is to any other rationalist philosopher.

Mises always stressed that the propositions of praxeology and economics were not derived from metaphysical (in the pejorative sense of “groundless”) speculation, but from facts of experience – though not experience of the kind that comes from the human senses. (P. liii.)

Well, fine – I like this. (I would like it even more, if it were true.)

It is true that introspective experience does not come through the senses – at least not the kind of introspective experience I wrote about earlier. But it is still experience – not an “a priori” that precedes experience and makes experience possible, the way Kant’s categories are supposed to do.

Let me follow Hülsmann’s advice and see what Mises himself actually said, to find out whether his affinities with Kant are “mainly rhetorical” or not. First from Human Action:

There is no means to establish an a posteriori theory of human conduct and social events. (P. 31.)

And so, such a theory has to be a priori.

In the field of human history a limitation similar to that which the experimentally tested theories enjoin upon the attempts to interpret and elucidate individual physical, chemical, and physiological events is provided by praxeology. Praxeology is a theoretical and systematic, not a historical, subject. Its scope is human action as such, irrespective of all environmental, accidental, and individual circumstances of the concrete acts. Its cognition is purely formal and general without reference to the material content and the particular features of the actual case. It aims at knowledge valid for all instances in which the conditions exactly correspond to those implied in its assumptions and inferences. Its statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of experience and facts. They are both logically and temporally antecedent to any comprehension of historical facts. They are a necessary requirement of any intellectual grasp of historic events. Without them we should not be able to see in the course of events anything else than kaleidoscopic change and chaotic muddle. (P. 52; italics mine.)

I would also like to quote from Epistemological Problems of Economics (translated from the German original by no less a person than George Reisman):

The science of human action that strives for universally valid knowledge is the theoretical system whose hitherto best elaborated branch is economics. In all of its branches this science is a priori, not empirical. Like logic and mathematics, it is not derived from experience; it is prior to experience. It is, as it were, the logic of action and deed. (P 13; italics mine.)

However, what we know about our action under given conditions is derived not from experience, but from reason. What we know about the fundamental categories of action – action, economizing, preferring, the relationship of means and ends, and everything else that, together with these, constitute the system of human action – is not derived from experience. We conceive all this from within, just as we conceive logical and mathematical truths, a priori, without reference to any experience. Nor would experience ever lead anyone to the knowledge of these things if he did not comprehend them from within himself. (P. 14.)

Those quotes show more than a “rhetorical affinity” between Mises and Kant. Mises’ epistemological framework is clearly Kantian. And saying this is not to “squeeze his views into some preconceived epistemological scheme”; he squeezes himself into that scheme.

Now, the question in my mind is: Is this Kantian framework really necessary to validate all of Mises’ numerous insights. I think not. But this is a large subject, so I will return to it later. Maybe soon, maybe in some remote future.