2 Apr 2008

Kantian Ethics as an 'Evental Site'

As Kojin Karatani rightfully stresses, the time has come for a rediscovery of both subjectivity and rationalism against the prevalent forms of empiricism. Similar to authors as Michel Henry, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek, Karatani urges us to finally question the contemporary dogma of hermeneutic particularism in favour of a philosophy no longer condemned to an acceptance of the status quo. Especially the parallels with Alain Badiou’s project are striking, but while Karatani labels his project as explicitly transcendental (in a Kantian sense), Badiou turns Kant into one of his main enemies. This paper is the result of a certain wonder about this opposition. Why does Badiou oppose Kantianism so strongly?; is his philosophy not rather a new incentive to rethink the Kantian project and would a more positive relation towards Kant’s idea of transcendental subjectivity not serve well also Badiou’s own project of the rediscovery of universalism? I will not answer these questions head-on, but will focus on two possible types of Kantianism. While Badiou mainly refers to a specific sort of neo-Kantianism fashionable in France, Karatani considers Kant as prefiguring his own brand of postmarxist radicalism. Tracing these directions back to Kant’s own writings, I hope to shed some light on the possibility of overcoming the opposition, together with a better insight into the possible critical power of Kantianism today.

I. Kant versus Badiou

Before we move on to Kant himself, let me first say a few words about Badiou’s relation to Kant. Badiou recognises the importance of the Critic of Pure Reason for banishing the transcendent One from his ontology and so for the laicisation of the idea of infinity. But what Kant banishes from his ontology, he would resurrect in his ethics, succumbing to a strict register of objectified normality. Despite the apparent similarities of their project - both take their point of departure in a radically non-substantialist and supra-sensible idea of subjectivity - Kantian ethics comes to symbolize all what he detests in philosophy today. More specifically, Badiou reproaches Kant ideological conservatism: his ethics of duty and legality would lead to a philosophy of conformity; his nearly exclusive focus on the purity of motives would make any genuine political action beyond the acceptance of the given situation impossible. The main reason for Kant’s conformism is that he would lack an account of the ethical imperative as exceptional: Kant valorises human nature in general, implying a trust in the possibility of resurrecting a once and for all valid system of protecting the general human nature in terms of human rights.[2] The effect is double: first, he solidifies a given order (in terms of legality) as the home of the righteous attitude an thus objectifies right conduct. Second, he also objectifies evil, as that which threatens the stability of the given order. He would even go as far as turning this relation upside down: the a-priori identification of evil becomes the actual touchstone for the solidification of the legal system.[3] In other words, Badiou turns Kant into a very specific enemy: a right-wing conservative. In what follows, I will take a look at Kant’s ethics with these specific accusations in mind: to what extent do Kant’s own texts provoke the accusations and how much room would they still leave us for a different interpretation?

II. A Right to Revolution? (the Legal Picture)

Most accounts of Kant’s ethics almost exclusively focus on the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785). This is not without reason, for it contains some of Kant’s most profound ethical ideas and intuitions. Nevertheless, this is only half of the story. Twelve years later, Kant published his Metaphysics of Morals (1979), as an attempt to complete the project of the Groundwork. This part is meant as a short systematic interpretation of the transition and of the ethical position of his later work by way of one specific question: is there a right to revolution? I will call the position discussed here the ‘legal picture’ of Kantian ethics. The ‘legal picture’ is thus not a specific side of Kant’s ethics, which would complement the insights of the Groundwork, but an overall interpretation of his ethical position. In the next part, I will contrast this picture with the ‘moral picture’ of his ethics, although it is noteworthy that the ‘legal picture’ is the one most directly supported by Kant’s texts.

So let’s start with our question: ‘is there a right to revolt, to disobey the orders of a tyrannically government?’ For a positive answer we could take our cues from Kant’s stress on freedom and personal responsibility. This is at least the road Hannah Arendt takes. In her reaction to Eichmann’s claim that he always had considered himself as a Kantian, Arendt points out that the categorical imperative doesn’t allow for a political interpretation. The lawgiver of the categorical imperative is the human subject as an individual: we owe obedience to the moral law that we give ourselves, not to the Führer. Eichmann’s Kantianism was nothing but an extremely cut down version of Kantianism, i.e. reduced to the formula: obey the law. Surprisingly however, Arendt’s own reply is based on a highly simplified version of Kant’s ethics, completely disregarding Kant’s own assertions on the topic of revolution and the disobedience to the lawgiver.

Kant was indeed known for his high appraisal of the French Revolution (he even got the nickname ‘the old Jacobin’), but we should not forget that his own philosophy categorically forbids something as a revolution. As he states himself in 1793, two years before the publication of the Metaphysics of Morals:

“All resistance against the supreme legislative power, all incitement of the subjects to violent expressions of discontent, all defiance which breaks out into rebellion, is the greatest and most punishable crime in a commonwealth, for it destroys its very foundation. This prohibition is absolute. And even if the power of the state or its agent, the head of the state, has violated the original contract by authorizing the government to act tyrannically, and has thereby, in the eyes of the subject, forfeited the right to legislate, the subject is still not entitled to offer counterresistance.”[4]

Arendt’s reply refers to a certain logic at work in the Groundwork: the universality-test is performed by the individual subject and there are no intermediary stages between application of the moral law and the subject. But this is certainly not the position of the later Kant. In the Metaphysics of Morals the direct authority of the categorical imperative is substituted for a specific taxonomy of duties. In order to know what we ought to do, we do no longer rely directly on a abstract application of the moral law, but we find ourselves in the midst of a whole network of interrelated duties. As we will see, this also explains Kant’s explicit condemnation of the right to revolt.

The most basic division Kant makes is between duties of justice and duties of virtue. The first are the kind of duties connected to juridical laws. These aim at protecting the external freedom of the citizen and only require that we obey them externally; here, we only have to act according to duty and not necessarily out of duty. Duties of virtue are those in which case the lawgiving not only makes an action a duty, but where the duty is at the same time the incentive to obey the law. In contrast with the first, they concern the inner freedom and cannot be coerced. They aim at morality, not at legality. As such, both domains have their own separate system of ‘legislation’: an external system of lawgiving aiming at external lawfulness versus an internal system aiming at action out of duty itself. However, the difference in lawgiving does not mean that both spheres are completely separated. Ultimately, both legislations are founded upon the formal and material dimension of the categorical imperative. Formally, this leads in the sphere of legality to what Kant calls the transcendental formula of right: “Any action is right if it can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law, or if on its maxim the freedom of each can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law.”[5] At the same time, the material dimension comes into play, and thus what is generally called the humanity-formula of the categorical imperative: the protection of the external freedom is founded upon the idea that humanity itself should be treated as an end. Kant thus suggests that the protection of the external freedom is a condition for the flourishing of moral life. Precisely at this point we witness how both spheres become connected: Kant stresses (in Religion within the Boundaries of mere Reason) that we have an ethical duty to overcome the ethical state of nature in order to become a member of an ethical community.[6] In the Metaphysics of Morals this implies an ethical duty to live within a state. This explains why even positive laws are discussed within the context of ethics: although the source of lawgiving remains different from ethics in the strict sense, every juridical duty is also an indirect ethical duty[7], because the worth of humanity itself requires us to respect these laws. In the direct sense, violating a positive law is a crime; indirectly, the violation is also an offence to humanity itself.

Till so far the general distinction. Concerning the possibility of a conflict of duties: Kant thoroughly denies the possibility [for all duties are founded upon reason and there can be no conflict within reason itself. He only admits the possibility of two conflicting grounds of obligation. It remains a little obscure what is meant by the idea of a ground of obligation, but the most sound interpretation seems to be the combination of facts with an action (material circumstances) and relevant duty.[8]] of a conflict a priori, though must admit that conflicts may arise at the level of actual application. Kant hardly discusses any of these kind of conflicts explicitly. Luckily, his theory is robust enough to provide us the criteria to judge those conflicts. The general principle is that a formal principle has precedence over a material principle.[9] The formal principles consist of a principle consistency and universality. The material one refers again to the formula of humanity, as a principle to promote the flourishing of reason and humanity as an end in itself.

Let us go back then to the case of revolution. First, can it be legally justifiable? Kant refuses the Hobbesian idea that it is conceptually impossible for a lawgiver, the sovereign to do injustice. The sovereign is also bound to the demands of natural reason, to the standards of justice founded upon the categorical imperative. This does however not mean that it can be just for us to disobey an unjust law. Once a political regime is installed, the highest authority belongs to the lawgiver, the sovereign and to include a permission to ignore or oppose the given laws would be contradictory. Logically, there can be no legal authority to oppose the highest legal authority. The opposition would have to be based on a higher legal authority and as a result it would deny the fact that in a juridical state the sovereign represents the general will of the people; it would deny the idea of legality altogether. As Kant argues: “For a people to be authorized to resist, there would be a public law permitting it to resist, that is the highest legislation would have to contain a provision that it is not the highest and that makes the people, as subject, by one and the same judgment sovereign over him to whom it is subject. This is self-contradictory.”[10]

If revolution cannot be justified on legal grounds, what about a possible moral justification? Kant’s answer is again negative. As we have seen, duties of justice are indirect also duties of virtue, in the sense that our respect for legality as legality is in itself an ethical duty; and because a revolution would not only undermine the actual system of legislation, but the whole idea of legality, it is also our moral duty to preserve the legal conditions of justice. Even the direct application of the categorical imperative would not legitimate a revolution, for universalising the maxim of the revolutionary shows it as self-contradictory. The argument is similar as above: at the same time it is willed that there is justice and that there be no justice (by denying the highest authority of the lawgiver).[11] The crucial Kantian premise is again that justice demands a highest legal authority, and that from the moment on a sovereign comes to represent the general will of the people, the will of the people is only legally knowable by way of what the sovereign commands. Of course, Kant does not deny that the successful outcome of a revolution might be morally desirable; but Kant is not a consequentialist; moral desirability may never be confused with moral legitimacy. At the same time, Kant’s non-consequentialism does not imply that moral ends do not matter in moral reasoning. To the contrary, the formula of humanity (of the CI) allows us to take ends explicitly into account. It is even part of our ethical duty to work towards a just society in which the freedom of all people is maximised. The idea of a revolution could therefore be supported by the humanity-formula, were it not that formal criteria have always precedence over material.

At a few occasions, Kant however makes room for a kind of disobedience, more specifically when we are commanded to do things that are evil in itself and thus directly opposed to the ethical law.[12] But we should note that this is only a passive disobedience subjected to some specific criteria. First, it only concerns acts which are deemed immoral. Second, the act of disobedience should not undermine the authority of the sovereign, for in that case the passive disobedience would become an active one, undermining the idea of legality. As a result, it remains highly questionable if Eichmann would have been able to disobey the commands of the lawgiver on Kantian grounds: the test of the legitimacy of disobedience fails to meet both criteria. Eichmann was probably more Kantian than he could have ever imagined, at least according to the legal picture.

III. The Singular Imperative (the Moral Picture)

Coming back to Badiou finally: that he opposes Kantianism as a philosophy of duty comes as no surprise. Not completely unlike in some Islamic theologies, Kant’s stress on the radically noumenal and thus transcendent nature of the moral law has an awkward effect: it tends to revert into a quasi making absolute of the given, positive order of law, into an ideologically conservative valorisation of what we can call in Lacanian terms the ‘symbolic order’.

Nevertheless, we are still confronted with a certain paradox: how is it possible that Kant was that enthusiast about the French Revolution, while theoretically condemning all possible sorts of revolution? To one report even “he said that all the horrors in France were unimportant compared with the chronic evil of despotism from which France had suffered, and the Jacobins were probably right in all they were doing”[13] and in The Contest of Faculties Kant himself refers to the enthusiasm for French Revolution as an example of an event that demonstrates the possibility of moral progress. So, at least we still need an understanding of the operations of the categorical imperative which allows us to align Kant’s theoretical innovations with the expressions of his personal belief.

Christine Korsgaard for example, a Kant-scholar and pupil of Rawls, is willing to accept the case of the virtuous revolutionary. She describes this situation as the opening up of a gap in the moral world.[14] As a good, virtuous person caring for wellbeing of the people, the revolutionary takes the law into his own hands. He therefore places himself in a position he detests the most: acting independent of the established procedures of consulting the general will of the people, his stance towards society is one of paternalism and thus despotism. In order to save the procedures of justice, the revolutionary violates his respect for these procedures. The gap itself results from the fact that it remains undecidable from the stance of morality to know when things have gone too far. In Korsgaard’s words: “Morality cannot tell you when to leave the moral law behind, in order to make sure that the world remains a place where morality can flourish. In making this kind of decision, you are entirely on your own.”[15]

But does this really help us out, evoking a kind of Kierkegaardian exceptionality, beyond the ethical? As such, morality remains confined within the logic of legal conformity, destined to function as a complete decision mechanism. Moreover, there is very few evidence in Kant’s own writings for the acceptance of a existential sphere beyond morality. For the time left, I would like to consider the possibility of finding a solution starting from Kant’s own ethical principles. Could there be any legitimation of revolution on Kantian grounds, and what would be the outlook of such a Kantianism? My intuition at least, is that there could be serious evidence for pro-revolution stance, though only at a high cost: condemning the Metaphysics of Morals as unKantian – Kant failed theoretically to apply his own transcendental principles – or reading it as a political work of absolute faithfulness to the event of the French Revolution: the prohibition of revolution concerns possible counterrevolutions[16] and should not be read as a general philosophical theory (it’s the work of a situationist). Anyway, in both cases we have to explain why the Metaphysics of Morals should not be read as a sound Kantian philosophical theory.

The closest we came to a possible legitimation of revolution on Kantian grounds was by reconnecting it directly to the categorical imperative, and more precisely to the formula of humanity: a revolution could be seen as necessary in the light of our duty to promote the flourishing of humanity as an end in itself. Nevertheless, formal criteria overrule material criteria, and our case failed to pass the formal test of the categorical imperative: the maxim of revolt resists universalisation. But does it really? The crucial question is still how maxims are to be articulated in the application of the categorical imperative.[17] Let us take a more simple example, discussed by Kant himself: the possibility of lying. The case goes as follows: someone knocks on your door and asks if your friend, who is hiding in our house, is inside the house; you know he is a murderer and that he is there to kill your friend. Do you have the right to lie? Kant’s answer is categorically ‘No’, for the maxim of lying does not pass the universality-test.[18] But for what reason does Kant only consider the most simple and unqualified version of the maxim? A more finely-differentiated maxim would yield different results: for example, is it possible to will as a general law, lying to a murderer who shows up to kill an innocent person? In the application of the categorical imperative, Kant indeed dismisses the role of the situation in the process of application; a dismissal which might be questionable even on Kantian grounds. First, it seems morally arbitrary to reduce the maxim to its most unqualified version. Kant is very well aware of the need of judgement in moral reasoning. Moreover, as he explicitly confirms in the Critique of Practical Reason, moral life does not take place within a vacuous sphere of pure noumenality. This would turn us into automatons, gesticulating everything well, but acting as puppets without life in the figures.[19] Moral life implies moral struggle, suggesting at least that there can’t be any principle prohibition of taking the situation into account. Second, the option for the most simple version of a maxim tends to slide again into heteronomy. Kant disregards the situation because he is looking for a moral law which is truly universal, valid for all and for all times. Taking material conditions into account, would only imply a possible threat to the sought-after universality, he believes. But does it really? As we have learned from Badiou (and to a certain extent also from Kierkegaard), ‘situationism’[20] and universalism do not have to exclude each other. Of course, it is not Kant’s conclusion, but it should have been, inherent as it already is in his anti-substantialist idea of subjectivity, and necessitated from the perspective of avoiding heteronomy. Kant insists on the demand that the moral law is given by the subject itself and thus on the impossibility of turning the law into something externally given. I have to give myself the law; as a giving it is a singular happening. Nevertheless, by disregarding all possible material conditions of the giving, he disrobes the act of all singularity, pretending the act is performable within an ideal, abstract space, allowing us to translate the categorical imperative into a set of objective rules as ‘never lie’, ‘never revolt’… as if we could generate a list of duties existing somewhere ‘outside’. In other words: if we fail to singularise the imperative, we risk undoing Kant’s main ethical intuition.

This is however not the same as materialising the categorical imperative[21]. Singularising the imperative does not preclude the distinction between the formal and material dimension; they don’t collapse into one formula. Neither does it devaluate the required universality of the maxim. The application of the first formula remains a strictly formal operation, independent of the particular language-game of the context. As we have seen (according to the legal picture), the prohibition of revolution results from a shift of the direct authority of the imperative to an intermediary logic (the network of duties), towards a stress on our being embedded within a community. The problematic character of the legal picture is itself the result of contextualizing the imperative. Singularisation is nothing less but an opposite movement: taking the situation into account should prevent us from sliding back into the heteronomy of a positive legal system; it subtracts the validity of the imperative of what is considered as valid within the ‘symbolic order’. In other words: every ethical act as ethical remains exceptional, for as an ‘evental’ happening the act is undecidable in terms of the ‘symbolic order’. Would the moral law ever gain an objective status, as being “there” before we act, it would destroy our autonomy.[22] Kant himself realised this, stressing the subjective and unconditioned nature of the ethical act; only as a result of his abstract, non-situational approach of the imperative, he tends to bypass his own insight. But isn’t that why precisely Badiou is so important for Kantianism today: instead of being an incentive for a dismissal, it is Badiou who offers us the opportunity to deepen Kant’s own quintessential insight, reconnecting again the universal with the singular. Might not the time have come for a new alliance?

[1] Dialectic of the Enlightenment, p. 83
[2] Cf. especially Badiou, Ethics
[3] Cf. Badiou, Ethics (ned. 29).
[4] Cf. I. Kant, On the Common Saying: That may be correct in Theory, but it is of no use in practice, in I. Kant (ed.), Practical Philosophy, Cambridge Cambridge University Press, 1996 (1793), 273-309.
[5] I. Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, in I. Kant (ed.), Practical Philosophy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996 (1797), 353-603, p. 387.
[6] Cf. I. Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998 p. 108.
[7] Cf. Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, in, p. 384. : “Ethical lawgiving cannot be external, although it does take up duties which rest on another, namely an external, lawgiving by making them, as duties, incentives in its lawgiving.”
[8] For this interpretation, cf. especially R. McCarthy, Moral Conflicts in Kantian Ethics, in History of Philosophy Quarterly 8 (1991) 65-79.
[9] Cf. I. Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace, in I. Kant (ed.), Practical Philosophy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996 (1795), 317-351, p. 344.: “In order to make practical philosophy consistent with itself, it is necessary first to decide the question, whether in problems of practical reason one must begin from its material principle, the end (as object of choice), or from its formal principle (resting only on freedom in external relations) in accordance with which it is said: So act that your maxim should become a universal law (whatever the end may be). The latter principle must undoubtedly take precedence; for, as a principle of right, it has unconditional necessity, whereas the former necessitates only if the empirical conditions of the proposed end, namely of its being realized, are presupposed.”
[10] Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, in, p. 463.
[11] Cf. also P. Nicholson, Kant on the Duty Never to Resist the Sovereign, in Ethics 86 (1976) nr. 3, 214-230, p. 222.
[12] Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, p. 110.: “As soon as something is recognized as a duty, even if it should be a duty imposed through the purely arbitrary will of a human lawgiver, obeying it is equally a divine command. […] the proposition ‘we ought to obey God rather than men’ means only that when humans beings command something that is evil in itself (directly opposed to the ethical law), we may not, and ought not, obey them.”
[13] G. P. Gooch, Germany and the French Revolution, New York, Russell & Russell, 1966, p. 269.
[14] C. M. Korsgaard, Kant on the Right of Revolution, in A. Reath, B. Herman & C. M. Korsgaard (ed.), Reclaiming the History of Ethics. Essays for John Rawls, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 297-328, p. 319.
[15] Ibid., in, p. 321.
[16] Historically, this seems indeed to be the case. Cf. for example in Zum Ewigen Frieden (AK VIII 346), where he explicitly denies other sovereigns to intervene in French affairs. Cf. also L. W. Beck, Kant and the Right of Revolution, in Journal of the History of Ideas 32 (1971) nr. 3, 411-422, p. 417.
[17] Cf. also T. E. Hill, Questions about Kant's Oppositio to Revolution, in Journal of Value Inquiry 36 (2002) 283-298, p. 295.
[18] Cf. I. Kant, On a Supposed Right to lie from Philantrophy, in I. Kant (ed.), Practical Philosophy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996 (1797), 611-615.
[19] Cf. I Kant, CpR, p. 258.
[20] I use this term to refer to the idea that every truth is the truth of a situation.
[21] Some tend to conflate both, cf. for example R. W. Davis, Is Revolution Morally Revolting?, in The Journal of Value Inquiry 38 (2004) 561-568.
[22] Cf. ook C. Lotz, The Events of Morality and Forgiveness: From Kant to Derrida, in Research in Phenomenology 36 (2006) 255-273, p. 259.; A. Zupančič, Ethics of the Real. Kant, Lacan, London/New York, Verso, 2000, p. 60.