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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



Human Rights and the Ethical Life



Pangle makes clear what questions must be considered to appeal to Kant. Pangle says Kant’s philosophy is the purest attempt to make human rights and the will as end in itself the foundations of an elevated conception of humanity,


…thus radically subordinating love, the good, and happiness, and virtue or excellence conceived of as ultimately determined by these latter rather than by human rights. Kant holds that to make the good, rather than rights, the supreme principle of humanity is to condemn humanity to a conditioned, or unfree, and even animalistic existence and status. For the good, or happiness, is ultimately indefinable by reason except in negative terms (avoidance of death, etc.); worldly happiness is therefore determined by forces that are historical, economic, psychological, and so forth. To make happiness our standard is therefore to surrender our humanity, our freedom and rationality, to these deterministic and historical or merely subjective forces. Now is this true? That is the most important question for anyone who seriously seeks to return to Kant.[42]

If we seek refuge in Hegel, Pangle says that Hegel’s purported improvements on Kant’s moral and political philosophy do not put to rest, but further obscures this question. Hegel is famous for his criticism of the barren formalism of Kant’s categorical imperative.[43] Hegel claims to have given content to the formalism by showing how the categorical imperative, or the concept of the will as end in itself, is embodied in the institutions of a rational constitutional state administering a modern liberal society. The ethical life then consists of the fulfillment of these institutions’ rational prescriptions. At the same time, citizens would recognize their dutiful and emancipated rational dignity. Pangle says Hegel’s emphasis on the need of institutional recognition of virtue in the modern state reveals Hegel’s neglect to address virtue, or the aspects of human existence which matter so much they cannot be institutionalized, in his ethical and political philosophy. Pangle supports this statement asking for consideration of what Hegel does and does not say in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right about happiness, love, God, sainthood, heroism, philosophy, and friendship, and what Hegel admits is “virtue in the strict sense of the word,” while keeping in mind the status of these subjects in the political works of Plato and Aristotle.[44]


Pangle says the philosophically most profound work in the last century that adequately accounts for the depths of what it would mean to recur to Kant for enrichment of the moral and political principles of modern constitutionalism ends with the following words:


The old foundations of law and of the state are more problematic than they were before….Thus Kant’s problem is absolutely our problem. It is certainly not simply “the same” but it repeats itself…the conditionality of humanity and above all of history, which is the starting point for all transcendence, must be subjected to an interrogation that is philosophic, i.e., unconditioned. But the question will never really be unconditioned except if, in the knowledge applied to historical passion, the question uncovers the question of the good. It is not our task here to examine more closely the answer to this question—and also the Christian answer of Augustine. That the decisive question remains true, even if it does not find an answer, the example of Socrates can teach to whomever asks as he did.[45]


Pangle says any serious recourse to Kant and Hegel requires reconsideration of the Socratic alternative and of the great debates between Socratism and revealed religion.[46] In order to understand modern political rationalism, we need to take seriously the questions of classical political rationalism against which modern rationalism reacted.




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