PHIL 515: Kant/Hegel seminar

This post is primarily for the students of Professor Prabhu’s Kant/Hegel seminar (Winter 2012), but anyone is free to join the discussion.

To keep things organized,
1) if you want to introduce a new topic of discussion, please introduce it as a direct comment to this post.
2) if you want to carry on a discussion already in progress, please reply to the comment you’re addressing. (This blog uses a threaded comments system.)


15 thoughts on “PHIL 515: Kant/Hegel seminar

  1. I am curious about the role of exceptions to Kant’s universalization of moral laws. To establish a duty, it must be universalizable, i.e., it must not produce any contradiction to assert that everyone should abide by a certain maxim. Kant recognizes the deception of inclination and wants to construct a formal system to avoid corrupting the moral law with selfish motives. Certainly, sometimes individuals violate the commands of duty through personal excuses or justifications i.e.,

    “only we assume the liberty of making an exception in our own favor or (just for one time only) in favor of our inclination. Consequently, if we considered all cases from one and the same point of view, namely, that a certain principle should be objectively necessary as a universal law, and yet subjectively should not be universal, but admit of exceptions. As however we at one moment regard our action from the point of view of a will wholly conformed to reason, and then again look at the same action from the point of view of a will affected by inclination to the precept of reason, whereby the universality of the principle is changed into mere generality, so that the practical principle of reason shall meet the maxim half way. Now, although this cannot be justified in our own impartial judgment, yet it proves that we really do recognize the validity of the categorical imperative and (with all respect for it) only allow ourselves a few exceptions, which we think unimportant and forced from us” (4:424).

    In this passage, Kant points out the tendency of individuals to justify with exceptions breaking the moral law. However, there seem to be certain types of exceptions that Kant permits. For instance, cases that involve telling a lie to a murderer in order to save a life are permissible because 1) not telling the truth in this case is universalizable without contradiction, and 2) the act of lying in this particular scenario does not involve selfish interest, but rather, reveals an impelling pull or moral force to not tell the truth to murderer. According to Symbolic Representation in Kant’s Practical Philosophy by, Heiner Bielefeldt, instances that satisfy universalizability and does not involve selfish interest or inclination clashes with moral maxim and reveals the need for modification. This seems to open a process of learning and malleability to Kant’s conception of moral normativity under a formal system (categorical imperative) (73). In cases that allow for lying, the action is universalizable and thus, becomes an exemplar for all individuals who are or may in the future find themselves in the same scenario.

    The notion of creating a moral precedent remains key to affording exceptions to the moral law. Instances that draw out new moral precedents, such as exceptions of lying to murderers in order to save a life, establish normative force and retains some level of human subjectivity in the universalization process. This process of creating or recognizing moral force, relates to a question posed on the first day of class. In general, as empirical/sensual agents, is it ever possible to transcend inclination and the senses in which we establish universal moral law (assuming objective moral principles can exist)? More specifically, if we allow for exceptions to the moral law that involve impelling moral force or creates a moral precedence that satisfies universalization requirements, does the phenomena of creating a moral precedence not in fact mix with, if not derive from, sentiment/emotion/inclination? Other than mathematical perception, is perception of moral situations ever completely free from inclination/sentiment? Either way, as discussed towards the end of class, how can agents both produce and subjugate themselves to an objective moral law that is in some sense not in the world, yet we create it?

    I would appreciate your thoughts!

    1. “…there seem to be certain types of exceptions that Kant permits.” You should be careful with your wording here. For one who wasn’t in class (viz., me;) this sounds like you’re saying that Kant himself permits such exceptions, when, of course, he doesn’t. Others have shown how he might.

      As for these exceptions you’re interested in – that is, (if I understand you correctly) those that are themselves universalizable – allow me to suggest that universalization implies an universe – that is, a given domain in which said principle or maxim may be deployed. Might I further suggest (as I don my Humean hat) that the limits of this domain are rooted in sentiment. An agent’s reason squeezes particularity from sentiment and leaves us with a “pure” domain – but a domain rooted in sentiment none the less. “Transcending” sentiment amounts to taking it all at once. Kant’s hard-lined view of no exceptions considers the largest domain, if you will, and these exceptions that others would like to make universalizable on Kant’s model, I suggest, may be acceptable only as this domain is carved up into smaller domains. Kant’s trouble with this is, “when do we stop carving?” We could carve ad infinitum and reduce the domain of sentiment once again to its original particularity.

      …So one man’s agent in another man’s patient. And maybe letting Kant’s maxim “breathe” like this is a healthy thing. As you suggest, “this seems to open a process of learning and malleability to Kant’s conception of moral normativity under a formal system.”

      1. I share your Humean leaning that sentiment is always involved and that pure reason probably does not exist. However, there are two senses of exceptions that Kant addresses. The one that you refer to is the kind that allows self-interest and inclination to creep in and “justify” a new law. This, of course, is what Kant tries so hard to prevent. The other sense of exception, which may be acceptable, exists as long as conditions 1 and 2 (mentioned in the original post) are satisfied. Given Kant’s comment that in recognition of the tendency to justify actions based on selfish interest or inclination “proves that we really do recognize the validity of the categorical imperative and (with all respect for it) only allow ourselves a few exceptions, which we think unimportant and forced from us” (4:424). While there may be other passages that bring out acceptable exceptions better, perhaps one could make a case that certain instances of lying are “forced from us” without selfish motive or inclination and thus, forms a moral maxim that justifies suicide. For example, cases of passive euthanasia or “do not resuscitate” situations may provide an example as a universalizable moral law that is “forced upon us.” Of course, for sake of argument, I am assuming that it is possible to transcend sentiment. So, if this is true, it it interesting to derive situations that do not involve sentiment or inclination, but rather, point to exceptions that create moral precedents, which are “forced upon us” as a universalizable moral law.

        1. You raise a couple of issues worthy of debate and discussion, but if I understand your reading of Kant correctly, I disagree with it in a number of ways at a very fundamental level, such that, to the extent that you want to discuss Kant (and not some later Kantian’s ideas), I see the discussion you propose gaining no foothold.

          You wrote, “…there are two senses of exceptions that Kant addresses.”
          I don’t think Kant addresses the two senses of exceptions that you mention. The two types of exceptions I see him addressing are 1) those to an universal moral law and 2) those to a general moral law. Some of our subjective motivations – i.e. maxims – are universalizable; some are only generalizable. Exceptions to universalizable maxims – i.e., maxims motivating us out of duty and by reason – are contradictions. Exceptions to generalizable maxims – motivating us out of some partial inclination (selfish OR unselfish) – are not contradictions. Again, according to Kant, universalizable maxims are absolute, allowing for no exceptions of any kind.

          Now, if you think Kant allows for lying under any circumstances, you’re simply wrong. Those who have taken Mohammed’s PHIL 304 will have read Kant’s “On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives,” wherein he argues against allowing lying, specifically with respect to the exact scenario and two conditions you specify. You may read this short piece here:

          Kant allows no exceptions in this case. When the murderer knocks on your door with an ax in his hand ready to slaughter the man hiding in your closet and asks, “where is he?” Kant says you have to tell the murderer, “he’s in my closet.” If injury or death befalls a man for your having told the truth, that’s better than if you had lied, says Kant, as then you would haved wronged all of mankind. This is a problem for Kant and any who want to call themselves Kantians. Kant thinks any exception to a principle destroys its universality. So post-Kant Kantians have tried to come up with ways that let’s them salvage Kant (in intuitively absurd cases like telling a murderer where his victim hides) by arguing that exceptions (in the relevant sense) needn’t destroy a principle’s universality. They might offer your two conditions, in fact, arguing that a moral law is universalizable (w/o contradiction) given those two conditions. That’s a debate we could have. But I think Kant’s position is clear. And I just wanted to clear that up.

          With regard to your “forced upon us” thought, it may be worthy of consideration, but you seem to present it as based on a conflation of the universal/general distinction I outlined above. You’d at least have to insert some key premises to connect the text with what you suggest. Again, I think you’re raising some critical issues with Kant, but it seems you’re also trying to base their discussion on a misreading.

          1. Yes, in undergraduate courses dealing with Kantian thought, it is taught that there are no exceptions to the universal law, e.g., when the murderer knocks on your door looking for your friend who is hiding in your closet, you must confess that you are housing them. To do otherwise forces a contradiction in the universal moral law. I think you are right that the passage I mention won’t help because it’s merely distinguishing between these two types of moral laws. However, as mentioned in my first post, the passage has sparked a curiosity into analyzing the process of universalizing a moral law that could, in fact, create situation in which lying is morally permissible as a universal moral law. In particular, the line that I find most interesting is at the very end, “Now, this can’t be justified in our own impartial judgment, yet it proves that we really do recognize the validity of the categorical imperative and (with respect for it) only allow ourselves a few exceptions, which we think unimportant and forced from us.” In my original post, I didn’t intend to offer an argument for exceptions, but merely mentioned a curiosity about them. While I have stuck to the standard interpretation of Kant from undergraduate courses, I am open to alternative arguments that challenge this standard view using textual evidence (Korsgaard, 1986).

            Here’s an interesting passage from Kant’s Lecture’s on Ethics:
            “If we were at all times to be punctiliously truthful we might often become victims of the wickedness of others who were ready to abuse our truthfulness. If all men were well-intentioned it would not only be a duty not to lie, but no one would do so because there would be no point in it. But as men are malicious, it cannot be denied that to be punctiliously truthful is often dangerous….if I cannot save myself by maintaining silence, then my lie is a weapon of defense” (LE, 228).

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