Approaching Kant.

I can’t remember if I mentioned on here that I finally began reading On What Matters, but I’ve certainly tweeted about it a fair bit. Either way, I don’t want to comment on it too much. It will be worth formulating some thoughts about it through this blog at some point (indeed, I plan on using it primarily for such purposes once I return to university). But in the meantime, during my first note-free reading of it, I just wanted to say one thing about Parfit’s approach to Kant.

It’s not like anything I’ve seen before. His reverence for the man is, evidently, as high as Rawls’ and Korsgaard’s, but unlike them he does not strive to the same extent to make Kant’s claims and formulas fit together. He does not assume Kant’s positions can be made consistent. He still labels him the greatest moral philosopher since the Greeks, and insists the Groundwork contains more explosive and fruitful ideas in forty pages than the entire thousand years of thinking that proceeded it. And yet Parfit simultaneously holds that a key reason why Kant is so great is that he flatly contradicts himself, and without doing so he could never have had so many great ideas.

He assesses the merits of the Formula of Universal Law and the Formula of Humanity on their own terms, and takes time to consider Kant’s conceptions of dignity and the summum bonum too. If an interpretation of what it means to respect persons implies that organising a surprise party is a great evil, he swiftly and happily discards it, tweaking Kant’s principle in a way that may depart from the text but which renders it more plausible.

It’s a hugely refreshing approach. And, it seems to me, it’s a wise one. I started off wanting to assume Kant was flawless. His status and reputation didn’t help me to brush off that illusion, nor did Rawls’ writing that he also assumed if Kant appeared to make a mistake, we had probably gone wrong. But Parfit follows Sidgwick in noting how obviously sentimental and fragile Kant could be, despite his rationalist pretensions to the contrary. What other kind of person could so profoundly claim that he sought and discovered the supreme principle of all morality? How, exactly, can we ever reconcile the Formula of Universal Law with Kant’s insistence that masturbation is a great evil robbing yourself of all worth? And what about Kant’s notorious invocation of consequentialist reasoning in his article about lying to murderers – an argument evidently forbidden by certain passages of the Groundwork.

Parfit is teaching me that the principle of charity, whilst often wise, can sometimes be stretched too far.


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