Now since most of what passes for philosophy is built largely on non-empirical speculation, this means that most philosophy must be regarded as a mere derivation. If this is true, then the Objectivist contention that “Philosophy shapes a nation’s political system” must be inaccurate. How can philosophy, which, as a mere derivation, is a secondary phenomenon, shape a nation’s political system? Obviously, if Pareto is correct, the role of philosophy in shaping a nation’s politics must take a backseat to other elements, such as the congenital sentiments and interests of human beings.
What reasons do we have for thinking that Pareto is correct and Rand and her disciples wrong on this issue? There are any number of reasons for siding with Pareto on this issue, not the least of which is the empirically irresponsible nature of much that passes for philosophy. Remember, if our thoughts are not guided by facts and experience, then they almost certainly will be guided by our sentiments. And when our sentiments bring forth our thoughts, we are rationalizing.
Pareto, in his massive Mind and Society, analyzed one theory after another, demonstrating how most non-empirical theories can only be accounted for as derivations from sentiment. At one point, he discusses the ethical theories of the philosopher Rand held responsible for the worst evils of the modern age, Immanual Kant. Pareto demonstrates clearly the rationalistic, even childish character of Kant’s principle ethical theory:
Famous is the metaphysical entity imagined by Kant and still admired by many good souls. It is called the categorical imperative, and there are plenty of people who pretend to know what it is, though they can never make it clear to anyone who insists on remaining in touch with reality. Kant’s formula reconciles, as usual, the egoistic with the altruistic principle, which is here represented by “universal law,” a notion pleasantly coddling to sentiments of equality, sociality, and democracy. Many people have accepted Kant’s formula in order to retain their customary morality and yet be free of the necessity of having it dependent upon a personified deity. Of course, morality may be made to depend upon Jupiter, upon the God of the Christians, upon the God of Mohammed, upon the will of that most estimable demoiselle Milady Nature, or upon Seine Hoheit the Categorical Imperative of Kant. Whatever it is, it is all the same thing. Kant gives still another form to his phrase, to wit: “Act as if the maxim of your conduct were to become, by your will, a universal law of nature.” A customary trait in all such formulae is that they are so vague in meaning that one can get out of them anything one chooses. And for that reason it would have been a great saving of breath to say, “Act in a way pleasing to Kant or his disciples,” for “universal law” will in the end be dispensed with anyhow.
The first question that comes into one’s mind as one tries to get some definite meaning into the terms of Kant’s formula is whether (1) the “universal law” is dependent upon some condition; or (2) whether it is unrestricted by any condition of any kind. In other words, can the law be stated in either of the follow ways? 1. Every individual who has the traits M ought to act in a certain manner. 2. Every individual, regardless of his traits, ought to act in a certain matter.
If the first form of the statement be adopted, the law itself means nothing, and the problem then is to determine which traits M it is permissible to consider; for if the choice of traits is left to the person who is to observe the law, he will always find a way to select traits to allow him to do exactly as he chooses without violating the law. If he wants to justify slavery, he will say with Aristotle that some men are born to command (among them, of course, the gentlemen who is interpreting the law) and other men are born to obey. If he wants to steal, he will say that it may very well be a universal law that he who has less should take from him who has more. If he wants to kill an enemy he will say revenge can easily be a universal law; and so on.
To judge by the first application that Kant makes of his principle, he would seem to reject that interpretation. Making no distinctions between individuals, he concludes that suicide could not be a universal law of nature.
So let us look at the second interpretation (where no distinctions or limitations in individuals are recognized). Kant’s reasoning might seem able to stand after a fashion. But there is another trouble with it. Before it could stand, the whole human race would have to constitute one homogeneous mass, without the least differentiation in the functions of individuals. If distinctions are admitted, it is possible for some men to command and others to obey; but not if distinctions are not admitted, for there can be no universal law that all men should command and no one obey. A man wants to spend his life studying mathematics. If distinctions are in order, he may do so without violating the Kantian law, since it may well be a universal law that a person possessing certain traits M should spend his life studying mathematics, and that a person not possessing those traits should till the soil or otherwise employee himself. But if distinctions are not allowed, if, as in the case of the suicide, one refuses to divide individuals into classes, there can be no universal law that all men should spend their lives studying mathematics, if for no other reason, for the very good reason that they would starve… Such implications are not noticed, because people reason on sentiments and not with the facts before their eyes.
As metaphysicists habitually do, after giving what he says is to be a single principle, Kant begins filling out with other principles, which come bobbing up no one knows from where. In a third case that he considers, still another individual “finds himself possessed of certain powers of mind [Those are qualifications, conditions. Why were they not mentioned in the case of the presumptive suicide? Why was it not said in his case, “A person finds himself possessed of a certain nature whereby life for him is a painful burden and not a pleasure”?] which, with some slight culture, might render him a highly useful member of society; but he is in easy circumstances and prefers amusement to the thankless toil of cultivating his understanding and perfecting his nature.” Kant wants to know whether the latter can be a universal law. The answer is in the affirmative: … “It is impossible for any one to will that such should become a universal law of nature, or were by an instinct implanted in his system [The formula does not mention any such “instinct.”]; for he, as [an] Intelligent [being], of necessity wills all his faculties to become developed, such being given him in order that they may subserve his various and manifold ends and purposes.” Here we have a principle altogether new: that certain things are given us (no one knows by whom) for certain ends and purposes.
In order to reason in that fashion one would have to modify the terms in Kant’s formula and say: “Act only on a maxim that it would be your will at the same time to have become a universal law. However, do not let yourself be deceived by the possessive ‘your.’ To say ‘your will’ is just my way of saying. In reality it is something that must necessarily exist in a man, full account being taken of the capacities with which he is endowed, of his designs and purposes, and of many other fine things that will be explained to you at the proper time and place.” That much granted, one might just as well, from the logico-experimental standpoint, do away with “will” altogether, for it is thrown overboard in any event. But not so from the standpoint of sentiment. The appeal to “will” serves the purpose of flattering egoistic sentiments and giving the hearer or reader the satisfaction of having it reconciled with his sentiments of altruism. And other sentiments are also stirred by the maxim of “universal law”: first, a feeling of satisfaction that there should be be an absolute norm which is superior to captious wranglings and petty human altercations—something established by Nature; and then that sum of sentiments whereby we vaguely sense the utility of the principle that the decisions of judges should be made with reference to such rules and not against or in favor of any given individual…
Theologians scan the heavens for the will of God, and Kant for the will of Nature. There is no escaping such speculations, which are as alluring as they are difficult and imaginary. “As regards the natural constitution of an organized being,” says Kant, “a being, that is, that has been constituted with the view to living, it is a fundamental position in all philosophy that no means are employed except those only that are most appropriate and conducive to the end and aim proposed. [A reminiscence of the time-honored theory of final causes.] If then the final aim of nature [What on earth can that be?] in the constitution of man (i.e., a being endowed with intelligence and will) had been merely his general welfare and felicity [These are arbitrary assertions about arbitrary purposes and intentions of an arbitrary entity.], then we must hold her to have taken very bad steps indeed in selecting reason for the conduct of life.”
This whole argument develops by arbitrary assertions relating to altogether fantastic things. The only word to describe it is childish; and yet many people have accepted it and many still do, and it is therefore evident that with them it can only be a matter of sentiments that are agreeably stimulated by that sort of metaphysical poetry. [§1514-1521]
Pareto raises several important points to consider in relation to Objectivism and their view of Kant’s influence:
- How can something so vague and childish lead to the totalitarian mass murder of the 20th century? Since one can read into Kant’s ethical theories anything one wants, how can it lead to anything specific?
- Pareto notes how Kant ethics reconcile altruistic and egoistic sentiments. Kant, therefore, is not exactly the great prophet of altruism and self-sacrifice that Objectivists make him out to be. There is an egoistic side to Kant which Rand and her disciples conveniently ignore.
- The absurdities in Kant's theory are so glaring that it becomes fairly obvious that its appeal must be to sentiments and not to any kind of logic or practical good sense. The acceptance, of it, therefore, assumes a previous sentiment (or collection of sentiments), in the absence of which the theory would never have been accepted. Therefore, the sentiments, the residues, are what causes people to accept Kant, rather than it being the other way around (as implied by Objectivism).
The attempt by Rand to turn Kant into a scapegoat for most of the evil’s of the world becomes increasingly implausible once we understand that much of Kant’s philosophy (particularly his ethics) is a mere derivation which can lead to no specific conduct. Contrary to what Rand and her disciples claim, refuting Kant will not change the political order: it will have no change at all. Kant's ethics have been effectively criticized repeatedly without having the slightest impact on the course of history.