Kant and Humbug

It is perhaps no surprise that the country which brought us Kant and the categorical imperative has also given rise to the word “Gutmensch” as a term of disparagement for what English speakers tend to refer to as do-gooders, although a more accurate translation of the German would be “good thinkers.”

Kant sought in his philosophy to ground morality in a rational principle of considering those rules which we would seek to have universally applied to all people equally as being the correct basis for the ordering of society. His contemporary David Hume writing on the same subject from within the empiricist tradition on the other side of the channel took a very different view arguing persuasively that the rules of morality are not conclusions of our reason. He also famously stated that one cannot derive an ought from an is, which is precisely what Kant purports to be able to do by means of his categorical imperative. Disciples of Hume would argue against Kant that he has cheated in that by asking what principle you would universally will, you are making a judgement about how you would like the world to be. But in so doing you are invoking your passions and desires, which are personal to you, not a rational principle, which must by its nature stand above the passions. So it would appear the empiricist had the more compelling rational argument. However it was the rationalist who on the empirical evidence of subsequent history prevailed in the battle of ideas.

For, we are all it seems Kantians now. Not that many of us particularly know much about the categorical imperative or its workings. But insofar as we live in a disenchanted postmodern world where the previous foundations of morality in tradition (particularly of the religious variety), have been undermined and the moral authority consequently lost on the grounds of its lacking the requisite universal applicability, we are led to seek in our dealings with one another alternative sources of universal principles which can transcend the differences in perspective resulting from the idiosyncrasies of our nationality, culture and/or religion. And we tend to believe that we have found what we seek in the principle of human rights.

These are self-evident inalienable rights which each human being owns equally. At least that is what the theory says, or said. Because of course as good Kantians we should keep in mind that the validity of human rights is premised on their self-evident universal validity: insofar as there is a social consensus around this, we agree to be bound by the principle and require that those who govern us also be so bound. But a moment’s reflection reminds us that that is not at all how human rights work in this day and age. Less and less do we hear them referred to as being “human” rights. Far more do we hear about minority rights: blacks, gays, Muslims, transsexuals, asexuals, bisexuals, the old, the young, women (not strictly a minority, this last category, but one enjoying honorary status). If course it is probably not lost on you that focus on the rights of minorities and affording them privileges and legal redress not available to other members of society is somewhat incompatible with the Kantian principle of willing a rule to be universally applied to all people equally.

But there is a further problem in that the essence of the justification for Kant’s principle is that there is consensus (at least among fair-minded people) as to what the rules should be. Again we see this is not how things work out in practice as there is clearly widespread public dislike of many of the consequences of some of the more recent legal impositions made in the name of human (or minority) rights. Now it might be argued that those who express such dislike about one aspect or another are simply bigoted and/or misinformed and their opinions can be discounted. Such arguments were widely deployed in the wake of the Brexit vote. But, as has perhaps come to be recognised in the wake of subsequent events, there is a certain bad smell lingers around the undemocratic position which those who adopt such a stance find themselves in: one of the drawbacks of assuming the moral high ground is that one sometimes gets to feeling a bit lonely up there.  The essence of the problem here as I would see it is that there has been a movement away from rights as things which are self-evident to them being the basis for a “progressive” social agenda, in other words getting people to behave and indeed think differently from how they currently do, so that society might be moved on to a more just and equitable state. That may be a laudible end, but a categorical imperative based on universal willing it surely is not.

But there is another problem too. And that is the lack of transparency. A lot of the difficulty people have with rights legislation and “political correctness” more generally is that people overreact: it is not that the head teacher is prevented by rights law from allowing the pupils at her school to play sports, it is that she is afraid the school will be blamed for any accident which may occur and she is covering her back. Similar stories abound about Christmas trees and nativity plays being banned. At this point I can already hear the voice from the back of the room protesting: “You see, it is not the laws or the rights themselves but the misapplication or misunderstanding that is the problem.” But that is entirely my point. If rights and laws are premised on an established social consensus about what is expected or acceptable behaviour, people can trust their own judgement and act in accordance. But if not, we all have to make a calculation about the legal or other consequences of our actions. And it is often not clear where the law stands on issues: if rights cases regularly have to go all the way to a court in Luxembourg and wait for months or even years in a very long queue to be decided by a panel of magi, what chance has Joe Ordinary got of knowing what is required of him? In such circumstances, if we value our jobs and our reputations, we have little choice but to err on the side of caution and grant anyone with a potential claim to some minority status who might allege some offence a wide berth in our dealings with them.

So there you have it: if you are happy to go with the “progressive” consensus and pride yourself that you are on the side of the downtrodden minorities by supposing that matters of right and wrong can and should be decided with a nod to Kant on the basis of neoteric rights-based ideology, and that your detractors can all be dismissed as xenophobes, hypocrites, bigots or misogynists, welcome to the Gutmensch club. But spare a thought for the downtrodden majority somewhere down below you trying to get on with their lives as best they can in their (as yet) unenlightened state.

About the Author

Colin Turfus
Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 12 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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