Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Langton on von Herbert's Challenge to Kant (II)

Continuing from the previous post, I want to address three broad points on which I think Langton is at least partially misguided, or at least the situation is not as clear-cut as she makes it out to be. First, should we really think that Herbert’s letters represent a moral saint’s criticism of Kantian moral philosophy? Second, is there a feminist objection to that moral philosophy contained here, or only a criticism of the sexist prejudices of Kant’s time? Third, did Herbert really raise purely philosophical issues that Kant failed to address, or was she also raising psychological issues that Kant could not be expected, and was in no position to address?

I. Langton is wrong, I think, in taking Herbert’s claim to being a moral saint at face value. What Herbert describes is an apathy to worldly pleasures; having no desires, she finds the moral law too easy to follow, and she complains that in the absence of struggle, morality loses its worth. This is an important point. But one might wonder whether there is not a difference between the value of a virtuous disposition reached through struggle, and one reached through heartbreak. Langton describes Herbert as doing her duty from the motive of duty; but it is not clear that this is the case. Herbert does her duty because she has no temptations to avoid it. But does this show—should we take it to show—that Herbert really has no non-moral motives and so must be acting from the motive of respect for the moral law? Langton interprets respect as having the purely negative function of silencing non-moral motives; and she insists that respect is neither itself a motive for moral action, nor a feeling. While the second of these claims is slightly debatable, it is almost certainly wrong (see Andrews Reath and Daniel Guevara on this point). The first claim is simply false—respect has a positive aspect, namely self-esteem. That Herbert does not feel self-esteem, in turn, might cast some doubt on her moral sainthood. For one thing: apathy of this sort might well itself be a passion, a passion that blinds one to its true nature.

Langton is also wrong, I think, to interpret apathy (at least as Herbert describes it) and nihilism as either products or correlates of the virtuous disposition. I see no reason to think that Herbert’s letter indicates a freedom from pathological impulses. And in this connection, it is not entirely clear that Kant was wrong to accept his friend’s diagnosis of Herbert as having suffered a romantic shipwreck. Let me suggest a possible diagnosis, based on the evidence, though without claiming that it is accurate. Imagine that you have been raised to fulfill moral norms. You have read a great deal of Kant, and this has reinforced your sense that it is important to follow those moral norms. But something goes wrong in your life: your great love goes sour. (It is true that there are all sorts of other issues, issues of gender inequality and the de-personification of women, that are involved in Herbert’s love loss. That does not, however, change the psychological effect of it as a heartbreak.) And so you lose interest in life. The things that once you enjoyed, you no longer enjoy. Nothing holds any interest for you. By the time the possibility of love is rekindled, you no longer care—you have become dead to it. But you still go on living and moving in the world, and so you live and move based on those rules, those moral norms you have always followed. Now that you want nothing that tempts you away from them, they are easy to follow; but you follow them simply as learned responses, acting on auto-pilot. If this is a feasible picture—and I submit that it is more feasible than the idea that Herbert was a moral saint, as such are rare, if even existent—then the state she describes is pathological, it is feeling laden, and it is a derangement (though not in the patronizing sense Kant seemed to have in mind). This apathy is not the strength not to be tempted by one’s sensible inclinations that Kant describes; it is, rather, a complete surrender to them.

II. I suspect that Langton unhelpfully conflates two issues. First, Kant’s commitment to treating persons as ends in themselves. Second, Kant’s views of women. There is no doubt that Kant thought women were inferior, that patriarchy was the proper form of society, and that relations between the sexes are not pure relations between persons. It is true that these views likely influenced Kant’s behavior in this situation. (It goes without saying that Kant was not exactly unusual in this regard, which is obviously no excuse, but also not a condemnation of his philosophy.) It is true that, had Kant been committed to treating all persons, regardless of gender, as ends in themselves, he would have acted differently. But this means it is also true that, had Kant fully worked out the implications of his moral philosophy in opposition to his social prejudices, he would have been a better man. If anything, though, this is a point in favor of his moral philosophy, if a large point against his anthropology. (But admittedly, this seems tied to a deeper feminist criticism of Kantian-style ethics, which I never fully understood.)

Langton argues, in a deeply evocative manner, that Herbert was struggling with a society in which, as a woman, she faced the constant threat of losing her status as person in the eyes of others. I fully agree that this kind of society is not a good society; that all human beings deserve the chance to be judged on their acts regardless of gender. And so there is much to consider in Langton’s further argument: if Herbert had to lie in order to go on being treated as a person, then her lie may be justifiable. Perhaps this is so—I do not think Kant’s prohibition against lying should be taken as universal, and were he better attuned to the gender politics of the time, and their wrongness, he may have recognized this as a problem case. But this is also not so clear cut. The lying in question is lying about a former relationship to a person with whom Herbert has developed a deep mutual trust. Herbert is right to fear that telling the truth would undermine her status as person in the eyes of the other. But we might note also that she tells the truth, and does so because she cannot bear withholding it and violating the trust. And this is precisely as Kant says it should be: to withhold the truth would corrupt her soul. Her situation may be a lose-lose one, and one that is perhaps not best framed in terms of the negative consequences of the truth (loss of personhood before the other) versus the negative consequences of the lie (corruption of the soul). But for Herbert, certainly, the situation is already in those terms. And Kant is not entirely wrong to point out that, if her love does not finally come to respect her, then perhaps he never really loved her, or at least not enough.

III. Langton is wrong, I think, in the criticism that Kant’s failure to offer a compelling reason to live—Kant’s failure, in other words, to reply to Herbert’s initial question—is a failure of his philosophy. Herbert writes to Kant—a man whom she asks whether he never thought it “to be worth the bother to marry, or to give your whole heart to anyone, or to reproduce your likeness”—with a mix of request of moral guidance and relationship advice. That Kant had no idea how to deal with the latter—or how to deal with the former as applied to the latter—was to be expected.

I am aware of many students—perhaps some readers of this are or were such students—who, when encountering a particularly impressive professor, start to think of that professor as having the answers to all of life’s questions, as a person that they can come to with all their problems. In the student’s mind, the brilliant professor becomes sage, psychologist, counselor, friend, parental figure, etc., all rolled into one. Such a feeling appears in the background of Herbert’s letters. Kant failed to live up to this standard; most of us do. Perhaps it is not wrong to expect philosophers to have better thoughts about “the meaning of life” than others; but few really do, and it is certainly wrong to expect philosophers to be able to give answers with the proper degree of sensitivity and psychological insight. It is fairly apparent—especially from her second letter—that Herbert is hoping to learn something specific from Kant: how his philosophy, particularly his moral philosophy, can act as substitute for love and marriage. But certainly Kant never offered it as such a substitute. It is reasonable to assume that if Kant remained a loveless bachelor, this was not as a result of his moral views, nor was it seriously aided by them. What Herbert wants from Kant, Kant the man cannot give, and Kant the philosopher has no grounds for giving.

Let me note a brief analogy: Langton might reply that I, like Kant, am simply trivializing Herbert’s serious philosophical objection to his moral philosophy through a patronizing dismissal of her letters on psychological grounds. I hope that I am not doing that. But I am recognizing something fairly obvious—that there is a psychological level to Herbert’s letters that Langton simply leaves out. Keep in mind that today, philosophy professors are given clear instructions: if a student comes to you with suicidal tendencies, you should refer them to the Mental Health office; the people there are trained professionals (yeah, ok, universities also have legal concerns). I suspect that, had he had such an option, Kant would have taken it. But he did not have this option, and he failed to deal with the situation appropriately.

But it is also true that Kant did not offer psychoanalytic tools. And the moral law is not a complete prescription for living a full life. That it fails in this regard is hardly a good criticism; morality places limits on the interests we ought to pursue, and it imposes some positive duties on us, but it does nothing else. It does not tell us how to spend a Saturday afternoon any more than it tells us how we are to find pleasure in life, or a positive reason to go on living, after having lost it. Why should we expect this of Kant? If anything of this is to be found in his moral philosophy, it is only in the sense that morality offers self-esteem as its own reward. Herbert felt none of this. Should we conclude that Herbert’s apathy was pathological, and so blinded her to the proper feeling for the moral law? Or should we rather conclude that Kant was wrong in thinking that virtue does reward us? I leave the question open, but I do not find evidence in Herbert’s letters to support the latter interpretation.


  1. Could a plausible criticism be made that something about Herbert's Kantian self-image was an aggravating factor in her plight? Or is there something about the structure of Kantian self-awareness that might have lent itself to pathological appropriation? If, so -- a huge if, I presume -- would this constitute a defect in Kant's moral philosophy?

    I wonder: if Herbert had regarded herself with a certain levity -- not to be confused with diminished lucidity -- perhaps she might not have yielded to divulging the fact of her previous relationship, and might even have had a clearer appreciation of why, in consideration of her milieu, it wouldn't be such a bad thing to have kept this bit of her past to herself.

    Another way of putting it might be: was the cost of Herbert's sensitivity to her Kantian moral circumstances a loss in sensitivity to her social and cultural circumstances?

  2. Hi Rob,
    If I'm reading you right, you seem to be asking whether Herbert's Kantianism might not itself have been responsible to her conscientious decision to confess her previous relationship. And if so, then it is her Kantianism (particularly the belief in the wrongness of lying), and not pure respect for the moral law, that led to her problems. And if being a Kantian has adverse effects, is this itself a critique of Kantianism? I think there is something to be said for that. At least, one should not be a legalistic Kantian, i.e., following the letter rather than the spirit, of Kant's moral philosophy. (Since Kant advocates capital punishment and opposes pre-marital sex, I take it that his conclusions on particular moral cases are highly questionable.) In fact, one shouldn't follow Kant's judgment at all on moral matters, except insofar as it is a judgment one can reach oneself through the use of one's own reason! That, certainly, is something Kant would advocate.

    In any case: without a sensitivity to the actual circumstances in which we find ourselves, we cannot apply the categorical imperative at all, because actions are particulars, while the moral law is universal. Taking Kant too literally, and focusing too much on the formal demands of morality and not on the local circumstances in which one must fulfill (or not) those demands, is a bad idea. If this is Kant's fault, though, I would think it is not because of a problem with his moral philosophy itself, but because he spends too little time giving rules for concrete, particular moral judgment. There are, however, no such rules. The failing on Kant's part, then, is a failing to emphasize the existence of that gap between the formal law and the concrete actions. (He does work this out in the Metaphysics of Morals, though, but it was written years after his exchange with Herbert.)

  3. Yes, I'm wondering if there was something distinctly Kantian in the way in which Herbert processed her circumstances such that what accordingly appeared ethically salient to her either increased the likelihood of succumbing to despair or somehow vitiated her ability to contend with it (by, perhaps, discouraging her from an adequate appreciation of the full range of restorative resources available to her).

    If any substance could be fleshed out of such an admittedly wispy conjecture, I think it would be a distinctly Nietzschean critique.

  4. I'm just not sure that there is really a critique of Kant in what you're saying, at least not without adding a premise:

    MH: Morality must serve the interest of human sensibility.

    Of course Aristotle, Hume, and Mill are largely united in accepting this thesis, however different their approaches. They all agree that morality is intimately connected to human flourishing, or well-being, or happiness. And Nietzsche, of course, criticizes Kant precisely for separating morality from usefulness for such purposes of happiness.

    So, two points:
    1. For Kant, morality is just not meant as a guide to happiness. For that, we have prudence. Figuring out how to become happy falls to one's prudence, and Kant has very little to say on this issue. But since this is not what he is trying to do with his moral theory, it follows that someone who tries to become happy by being moral is doing something nonsensical, like trying to close Velcro shoes with laces.
    2. I also think Kant is right to reject MH. The whole point of moral obligation is that it must be capable of overriding any desire we happen to have. And it can only do that if it has a principle that is different in kind from the principle of happiness, toward which all our desires are directed.

  5. Yes, if Nietzsche's critique can't, at bottom, be distinguished from Hume, Mill and even Aristotle, then the considerations you raise seem decisive. If Nietzsche's contribution is to have any serious interest to these issues, it's going to have to lie in how his commitment not to "happiness" but to human excellence is construed, such that it isn't reducible to some variation on eudaemonism. Bernard Williams did a good deal, I think, to adumbrate what such a critique consists of, but it's a project that remains to be more fully developed, and in light of the growing number of analytic-oriented philosophers now applying themselves to Nietzsche, I'm optimistic about its prospects.