Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 10

Philosophy as derivation 1: Kant’s Ethics. In my last “Objectivism and Politics” post, I introduced Pareto’s theory of residues and derivations as an explanation for non-empirical theories. When an individual, either out of ignorance or arrogance, refuses to keep in touch with reality, his thoughts have no other guide than his own emotions, sentiments, inclinations, etc. Since the emotional element is the prime determinant in all non-empirical thinking, Pareto called this element the residues. The less important element, the resulting theory, Pareto called derivations.

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: 

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


Xtra Laj said...

Might have to go to a library and photocopy this book.

Red Grant said...

Come on, Laj, you are a middle level corporate mandarin, you should make enough money to spend $100 for the book.

It's one of the few books that could teach one how to think for oneself.

Xtra Laj said...

Red, I can't find a good copy of it - I would spend $100 for a reliable copy, so if you know a link to where I can get one, let me know.

Red Grant said...

Sorry, Laj. I realized all the copies available for sale have been snapped up within the last year.

Borders used to have multiple copies for about $100.

About Greg's review on Amazon, I am inclined to agree that might be a secret conspiracy among "intellectuals" to keep this book out.

Anyone who really read the book and understand more than half of the book would be intellectually vaccinated from the disease of psuedo-intellectualism rampant nowdays.

However, I'm inclinded to include so-called "Conservatives" among those who would not be happy with Pareto.

I, myself, have had some nasty things said about me from some of the ditto heads besides left-wing "intellectuals", when I applied Pareto's analysis.

JayCross said...

I'm going to track down a copy somehow. The semester just ended and this seems like the perfect summer reading project.

Daniel Barnes said...

If only Rand and Peikoff et al were able to summon up a criticism of Kant of this quality!

Cavewight said...

"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..."

Pareto is yet another philosopher who knows nothing about Kantian ethics, and who cannot even distinguish the metaphysical from the ethical.

If the CI were metaphysical, that is, if it were a thing-in-itself, then it would force itself upon us as a law of nature. Ethics would be reduced to physical cause and effect, and there would be no place in Kant's ethics for a free-will, much less a good will.

I don't know why Pareto is picking on Kant, but he should first find out just what it is he's talking about before he destroys his own credibility by stating that the CI is a [chortle] "metaphysical entity." I wouldn't pay $1.00 for his book unless I wanted a good laugh.

gregnyquist said...

Cavewight: "If the CI were metaphysical, that is, if it were a thing-in-itself, then it would force itself upon us as a law of nature."

I'm sorry, but you're completely missing Pareto's point. By "metaphysical entity," Pareto merely means that Kant's principle is non-experimental (that is, unscientific) and that it plays the same role in the moral and political rationalizations of educated people that personfied divinities play in the rationalizations of non-educated people. Pareto is, in other words, simply using Kant's CI as an example of the pathology of human rationalization. He is not "picking on Kant," as you suggest. He is simply seeking for patterns and uniformities in human theorizing. Pareto makes it quite clear that, when he declares a doctrine (such as Kant's wonderful CI) absurd, he in no way means to imply that it must be detrimental to society. The Mind and Society is not a work of advocacy or edification: it is a scientific work that merely attempts to study the relation between human conduct and the states of mind that influence or cause that conduct.

Xtra Laj said...

Just got my 4 volumes in the mail. Will be a great June!

And if Pareto disappoints, I'll send half the bill to Greg, half the bill to Jay, and twice the bill to Red Grant.

Red Grant said...

Laj,cavewight is just jealous.

Unlike most "philosophers", Pareto treats readers as adults.

He doesn't merely spoon-feed "eternal, universal truth".

How much did you have to pay for it?

Xtra Laj said...


I think it was about $80.

Where have you been, man? I've been trying to annoy Cavewight in your absence but I'm sure you'll do a much better job of it than I can so I'll leave the floor for you.

Red Grant said...


I think it was about $80. - Laj

Then you've got a better deal than I did.


Where have you been, man? I've been trying to annoy Cavewight in your absence but I'm sure you'll do a much better job of it than I can so I'll leave the floor for you. - Laj

I don't really try to annoy people, unless I can learn nothing from them.

Actually, I already have a "map" of how to argue with cavewight, using his own statements.

Problem is whether cavewight will simply ignore my questions.

Xtra Laj said...

He will answer as long as it allows him to teach us the wisdom of Kant's ways.

Red Grant said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Red Grant said...

Laj, I think I just found a hole in cavewight's arguements in the other thread.

Now, whether it will remain just a small hole, "mere slip of tongue", or grow into a "Swiss chees" depends on how cavewight answers my question.

Xtra Laj said...


He seems to be ignoring it. Unfortunately, Michael came back and attacked one of my statements (yes, I know it's controversial), and it's giving Cavewight some life support to flank me.

Maybe you should repeat your question and see what Cavewight does.

Cavewight said...

Laj wrote:
He seems to be ignoring it.

"He" seems to have been at work and so "he" hasn't had a chance to ignore it!

I'm always willing to find holes in my arguments if someone wants to point them out. But only then can I hem and haw over them pretending they don't exist because of the non-empirical basis for all my derivative ideas.

Xtra Laj said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Xtra Laj said...

Cavewight, Red's question was posed on thread that you have responded to me on after he posed his question.

Cavewight said...

Greg wrote:
I'm sorry, but you're completely missing Pareto's point. By "metaphysical entity," Pareto merely means that Kant's principle is non-experimental (that is, unscientific) and that it plays the same role in the moral and political rationalizations of educated people that personfied divinities play in the rationalizations of non-educated people.

CPR (b22-23): "How is metaphysics, as science, possible? Thus the critique of reason, in the end, necessarily leads to scientific knowledge; while its dogmatic employment, on the other hand, lands us in dogmatic assertions to which other assertions, equally specious, can always be opposed -- that is, in scepticism.

"This science cannot be of any very formidable prolixity, since it has to deal not with the objects of reason, the variety
of which is inexhaustible, but only with itself and the problems which arise entirely from within itself, and which are imposed upon it by its own nature, not by the nature of things which are distinct from it."

Once Kant has changed the terms of what a metaphysics consists of, then it becomes a science in its own right. The old speculative metaphysics was indeed unscientific and was better termed a religion. The new metaphysics of Kant, the metaphysics of Critique, is scientific. He does not however define science in terms of empirical experimentation as you do, but only in terms of systematicity governed by
a priori principles. This is why geometry and mathematics in general are considered sciences without the need for empirical experimentation.

It is common for people to confuse "science" with "scientific method," which is only the method of empirical science. It is not the method of transcendental science, but that does not automatically eliminate Critique as science. All sciences, whether empirical or transcendental, are governed by a priori principles.

And so, according to the above, there are three main branches of science (before Kant there were only two): Empirical science, mathematics, and now, Critique. The first is concerned with hypotheses and experimentation. The second and third are not, yet they are still sciences in their own right because they are systematic and governed by a priori principles of reason.

Cavewight said...

Red Grant wrote:

Unlike most "philosophers", Pareto treats readers as adults.

And yet it was Kant who wrote an essay called "What is Enlightenment?" in which he starts out by saying:

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity
is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own