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February 2012 Policy Study, Number 12-3


The Idea of "the West" and the Revolt Against It

by Donald Paul Byron Racheter



Morality and the Categorical



Pangle says that when this dialogue is reenacted, the problematic nature of fashionable attempts to supplant early-modern republicanism with recourse to German idealism become apparent. Pangle says in the midst of the postmodernist onslaught, Kant’s moral and political philosophy becomes very attractive. In comparison with what is perceived to be the weak foundations of liberal democratic political theory, temptation to summon the richness and analytical rigor of Kant’s philosophy is understandable.


Pangle says what is not understandable is how little these transfusions resemble the morally severe, metaphysically grounded, and authentic thought of Kant. According to Kant, examination of human experience reveals the categorical imperative: a single eternal universal principle of morality. “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become universal law.”[36] Pangle says in Kant the categorical imperative is the one and only bedrock for any conception of human rights that expresses human dignity as opposed to collective Hobbesian shrewdness. In order to vindicate this single fundamental law, a thorough critique of pure reason showing the radical limitations of all scientific and metaphysical thinking is required. Pangle says once vindicated and analyzed, this categorical imperative emerges as much more than a regulative principle into which anyone can fit whatever seems morally “uplifting,” “sweet,” or “appealing.”[37] When properly conceived in terms of the will or freedom seen as end it itself, the categorical imperative demands a precise set of immutably true moral virtues and a system of immutably true principles of constitutionalism. Postmodernists who appeal to “Kant” choose to ignore this precise set of immutable moral virtues and true principles of constitutionalism in favor of the postmodernists’ emotions or desires; that is, postmodernists disregard what Kant considers as imperative. We next explore what Pangle means by this.


Pangle says Kant elaborates the moral virtues in Kant’s Metaphysical Principles of the Doctrine of Virtue, part two of Kant’s Metaphysics and Morals. Kant elaborates the constitutional principles in the first part of the same work: The Metaphysical Principles of the Doctrine of Right. Pangle goes on:


One sometimes gets the impression that contemporary borrowers from Kant have not heard of this treatise, in which Kant presents the substantial heart of his moral, legal, and political philosophy. Yet one cannot altogether blame our contemporary “Kantians” for trying to creep silently by this core of authentic Kantianism. The Metaphysics of Morals is not a treatise calculated to win Kant popularity contests, since it is here that he makes clearest his view of the extraordinary demands of a conception of human dignity and human rights that cannot possibly be reduced to the utilitarian quest for physical safety, material comfort, and the vanity of “universal recognition.”[38]


Pangle says the Kantian conception of justice is grounded in the state of nature and includes the principles of natural rights, especially property rights, natural laws, the social contract, and a strict doctrine of sovereignty. Pangle notes three distinctive features of the legal philosophy Kant builds on these foundations. The first is a penal system that demonstrates punishment can only be just if it is retributive, which includes a ringing endorsement of retributive capital punishment. The second is a denial of the right of revolution and a denial of the moral legitimacy of civil disobedience. The third is a moral critique of what would today be called the welfare state.


Pangle says Kant begins his doctrine of virtues with proper moral stature towards oneself and therefore towards one’s preservation and sexuality. The first two virtues are the absolute avoidance of suicide and the absolute avoidance of purely sexual gratification, which Kant calls “wanton self-desecration.”[39] Pangle says the argument is a straightforward deduction from the categorical imperative which dictates that rational humanity must always be treated not merely as a means but as an end in itself. Pangle quotes Kant, “The ground of proof of the moral evil lies obviously in the fact that one gives up one’s very personality (casts it aside) when one uses oneself merely as the means for the gratification of an animal drive.”[40] Pangle makes obvious the difference in Kant and the postmodern version of Kant:


Kant adds that on the basis of the categorical imperative, this sexual vice must be judged worse than suicide, for “the obstinate throwing away of one’s life as a burden is at least not a weak surrender to animal pleasure, but demands courage, in which there is always found respect for the humanity in one’s own person” (The Metaphysics of Morals, pt. 1, sec. 7). Kant begins his teaching on the moral virtues in this stunning fashion because he wishes to announce from the outset the intimately demanding character of the entailments of human rights. He wishes to make unmistakably clear how far anything properly derivable from authentic human

rights stands from self-indulgence, or from what we today call “sexual liberation.”[41]


Pangle says when one turns from the texts of Kant to the use made of Kant in contemporary discussions, one cannot but gape in amazement at the disparity in tone, substance, morals, and politics. Pangle says it is not Kant to which appeal is made, but simply the august name and authority of a past great reasoner and moralist. This version of Kant is then used to defend principles and policies whose laxity would set Kant’s hairs on end. If the postmodern appeal to Kant can be said to be authentic, it is not clear how.




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