Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The First Rule of Kant Scholarship

"The first rule of Kant scholarship," I told my Ethics class as they were leaving tonight, "is 'Don't panic.'" Every single term I teach Ethics I struggle when we get to Kantianism, that worst of all possible things to teach: you know, the topic you can't not teach but which your students just aren't equipped to handle. I have tried all sorts of things, and it just becomes harder and harder to avoid the conclusion that Kantian ethics is a millstone around an instructor's neck.

Part of the problem is that Kant needs to be simplified to be conveyed to undergraduates; but every single simplification I have come across is a distorting simplification, and involves attributing to Kant something that he doesn't actually hold. It does make one appreciate how closely knit Kant's thought was, but doesn't help the pedagogical situation. Part of the problem is that the core Kantian doctrine, the categorical imperative, is an extraordinarily abstract doctrine about the rational will willing the unconditional possibility of the rational will. Kant himself recognizes it, which is why we get the three formulations of the categorical imperative, each one using a different metaphor to try to convey the same point -- but the analogies are themselves still very abstract. Part of the problem is that morality is a vast field, and Kant knows it, and therefore, while the categorical imperative applies to every moral choice, it does not apply to every moral choice in the same way, which is why we get perfect duties to ourselves, perfect duties to others, imperfect duties to ourselves, and imperfect duties to others. This is exactly what one needs in a general moral principle, but for the beginner it just puts an added stumblingblock to understanding what is going on. Part of the problem is that students just aren't given a deontological upbringing anymore. As one of my students said tonight, "I just can't figure out how he thinks. Everytime I think I've figured it out and I try to explain it, I end up putting it in terms of consequences, and I can't do that with Kant."

One inevitably has to settle for very loose approximations. I can live with that. But even getting to the point of genuine-but-loose approximation is something even bright students find discouraging. Most actual teaching plans for Kant that have any success in avoiding the discouraged-student problems end up not even trying to get this far -- what students actually learn are some vocabulary words (what does 'a priori' mean? what's the distinction between a categorical and a hypothetical imperative?) with little practical significance for them and a few practical rules of thumb given a broadly Kant-like phrasing but also used in ways that are also only broadly Kant-like. But then you haven't really taught Kantian ethics; just a crude system loosely inspired by Kant. The horns of the bull seem too tight to allow you to jump between them: either you teach Kant and the students don't learn it or the students learn it and it's not really Kant.

But, of course, it's not just students. An intelligent student can always ask questions that I can't answer without going back to the full text of Kant and working through the problem step by step. And it takes only a survey of lectures notes on the web to realize that on even an elementary pedagogical issue like how the categorical imperative relates to the Golden Rule (which everyone already recognizes), students are repeatedly told incorrect things. Occasionally, they are told that the categorical imperative essentially is the Golden Rule. That's wrong. Sometimes they are told that Kant criticizes the Golden Rule, and rejects it entirely as an ethical principle. That's even more wrong. (What he actually does is look very briefly at a principle proposed by Thomasius as covering the duties of justice, which looks very like a Silver Rule formulation, and simply says that it can't be a categorical imperative in Kant's sense, which ends up being a pretty obvious point given that, as Kant notes, there are duties to which it doesn't apply.) What makes it even more wrong is that it shows a complete failure to understand Kant's mind to think that he would ever contradict Jesus so baldly. Kant, the ultimate mix of Enlightenment and Lutheran pietism, is a very pro-Jesus philosopher; he just thinks that Jesus should be interpreted in such a way as to be a Kantian. Reading him as explicitly contradicting Jesus -- and there are plenty that do -- is not just wrong, it is incompetent. But, again, it's not as if Kant makes himself easy to teach. The real issue is not that there's so much misinformation, because that's hardly avoidable with Kant at the introductory level; the surprise is when anyone manages to convey anything at all.

But perhaps I should take my own advice here. The first rule in dealing with Kant is: Don't panic. The students won't learn Kantian ethics, but it won't be the end of the world; they'll know it's there, and it might start them thinking. And beyond that, what other success is there in teaching? Success that's genuinely in the power of the teacher, that is.


  1. Geremia11:58 PM

    From The New Yorker article on Derek Parfit (September 5th, 2011, issue):

    "He felt that the crucial Kantian idea of autonomy, for instance, was just a blatant cheat: Kant wanted there to be a universally valid moral law, and wanted every person to have the moral autonomy to determine the law for himself, and he just couldn't accept that you couldn't have both those things at once:
    I asked a Kantian, 'Does this mean that, if I don't give myself Kant's Imperative as a law, I am not subject to it?' 'No,' I was told, 'you have to give yourself a law, and there's only one law.' This reply was maddening, like the propaganda of the so-called People's Democracies of the old Soviet bloc, in which voting was compulsory and there was only one candidate. And when I said, 'But I haven't given myself Kant's Imperative as a law,' I was told, 'Yes you have.'"

  2. branemrys2:06 PM

    I saw that. Not at all fair to Kant -- I doubt Parfit would bat an eye at the analogous sort of automatic autonomy involved in good rules of reasoning -- but Kant really does set himself up for it.


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