Kant on Morality

[Another incomplete draft, published at end of year. I didn't finish this, and it isn't as polished as I'd hope, but may be interesting anyway.]

Kant, eh? Famously deep and impenetrable. I am of course reading him in translation. He's not big on defining his terms and I therefore frequently have to guess what he means in important matters. This is annoying; bring back Popper, all is forgiven.

Kant feels the need to put morality on a sound theoretical footing. In this he is like many others going back to the antient Greeks. He fails, in my opinion; and in this he is also like the others. Is the task even of any value? As he himself notes:

There is no one, not even the most hardened scoundrel-provided only he is accustomed to use reason in other ways-who, when presented with examples of honesty in purpose, of faithfulness to good maxims, of sympathy, and of kindness towards all (even when these are bound up with great sacrifices of advantage and comfort), does not wish that he too might be a man of like spirit. He is unable to realise such an aim in his own person-though only on account of his desires and impulses; but yet at the same time he wishes to be free from these inclinations, which are a burden to himself. By such a wish he shows that having a will free from sensuous impulses he transfers himself in thought into an order of things quite different from that of his desires in the field of sensibility: for from the fulfilment of this wish he can expect no gratification of his sensuous desires and consequently no state which would satisfy any of his actual or even conceivable inclinations (since by such an expectation the very Idea which elicited the wish would be deprived of its superiority): all he can expect is a greater inner worth of his own person.

I include that partly maliciously so you can get a sense of his language. So for me the task is less to produce a theoretical understanding of morals, than a practical understanding1: how is it that even "scoundrels" have a good moral sense? To this end, Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments is more to the point.

Is there anything of practical value in the work? Yes, three things.

1. The Categorial Imperative (CI): Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. Or some variation thereof.

2. Treating people as ends in themselves, rather than means to your end.

3. The idea that acting morally correctly from a sense of duty and / or respect for the law, is more worthwhile in some sense than exactly the same actions, performed because you wanted to anyway.

But just like Descartes, this is a thin core wrapped around by a mighty barricade of long words. Point 2 is nice, and not the sort of thing that the Plato of the Republic can say, but does not I think count as Deep. Furthermore it is problematic. If everyone is an end, how do you resolve conflicts? Are you ever allowed to kill people? Kant forbids suicide, so killing someone else would appear problematic, that would make war impossible, which you might agree with; but I don't think he did. But we resolve these problems in a practical way: the rule is not absolute, derived from axioms like geometry and eternally true: it is merely a rule of thumb, a guideline to thinking about how you might act. Although it doesn't really work in everyday life: if you go to the shops, you will probably treat the shelf-fillers and the checkout people as simple means-to-your-end; treating them as ends in themselves is almost meaningless. You will recognise that they have their own ends, if you stop to think about them at all, but that's different.

Point 3, similarly, can be pushed too far and Kant proceeds to do exactly that, asserting that moral worth comes only from acting in accord with duty, untainted by your own inclinations. Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments gets closer to the right answer, when he says that a benefactor would think himself poorly rewarded if the benefactee acted coldly from only a strict sense of duty.

Point 1 whilst an interesting thing to think about and argue about is not that different from the Golden Rule of immemorial antiquity: treat others as you would be treated. Indeed, arguably that is a better formulation not subject to the many objections to Kant's version. Inevitably, the Kant fanbois aren't happy with this, but that's the problem with reading commentary on philosophy: so much is written by fanbois.

Kant's is an axiom schema not an axiom or maxim; I think there's some confused language around that, but as it wasn't terribly interesting I didn't trouble with the details. The first obvious problem is with "act only": does this mean that all of my acts, down to the most trivial, should be so constrained? This seems implausible, but I don't see anything clarifying it. The answer I think is that Kant is so focussed on moral problems that he has forgotten everyday life. So I think he means it to apply to moral problems. But that doesn't dispose of the problems, because for example "improving oneself" is a moral duty and while the general concept can be generally willed, we can't all write blogposts about Kant; so again we have to allow some latitude for his imprecision.

At which point, we begin the fun game of "can we think of things that can be generally willed but which K wouldn't like?". One, which to give him credit he tries to deal with, is suicide. He forbids it. Why? The true answer is probably that it was part of his religious upbringing; but it is also a rather inconvenient generally-willable thing. K's arguments against are not plausible, so you'll have to read them yourself. His next example, deception, fares better. The third, "failing to cultivate one's talents", is as unconvincing as the first; and the fourth, charity, fares no better.

However, K gives only these negative examples. He provides no positive examples - at least, not in this work. So we're left with the possibility that no maxims satisfy the CI, which would be regrettable, from a pure-philosophy viewpoint. We could imagine that the negatives of his examples - don't kill yourself, tell the truth, be charitable, develope your talents - would suit. The first, alas, is somewhat questionable, and not really very useful anyway. The others verge on the bleedin' obvious, so also don't get you very far.


[I have a section heading on God here, so I clearly intended to write something, but have forgotten what.]

Free Will

Kant ties himself in knots over Free Will. His problem is that morality implies choice and there is no choice without free will. For me on Free Will, see this from 2018 ("Update" section); or this from 2006. So the correct solution, for Kant's purposes, is to simply assert as an axiom the existence of Free Will. But, no, that's too simple for him, so he blathers on pointlessly page after page.


* Kant's Cats.

Book Review: The Righteous Mind.

Moral Knowledge: A Question of Timing - Bryan Caplan and Ayn Rand.


1. I wonder why I thought that? Now (2021/07) it doesn't seem true.


Russell on Rouseau and the Romantics

119194030_1580768688786112_4489331878176668598_o The chapter on Rousseau begins with the witty Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), though a philosophe in the eighteenth-century French sense, was not what would now be called a 'philosopher'. Nevertheless he had a powerful influence on philosophy, as on literature and taste and manners and politics. Whatever may be our opinion of his merits as a thinker, we must recognize his immense importance as a social force. This importance came mainly from his appeal to the heart, and to what, in his day, was called 'sensibility'. He is the father of the romantic movement, the initiator of systems of thought which infer non-human facts from human emotions, and the inventor of the political philosophy of pseudo-democratic dictatorships as opposed to traditional absolute monarchies. Ever since his time, those who considered themselves reformers have been divided into two groups, those who followed him and those who followed Locke. Sometimes they co-operated, and many individuals saw no incompatibility. But gradually the incompatibility has become increasingly evident. At the present time, Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau; Roosevelt and Churchill, of Locke. I skip over the matter of his personal morals.

Closer to my particular point is the chapter preceding, on the Romantic movement:

It is not the psychology of the romantics that is at fault: it is their standard of values. They admire strong passions, of no matter what kind, and whatever may be their social consequences. Romantic love, especially when unfortunate, is strong enough to win their approval, but most of the strongest passions are destructive—hate and resentment and jealousy, remorse and despair, outraged pride and the fury of the unjustly oppressed, martial ardour and contempt for slaves and cowards. Hence the type of man encouraged by romanticism, especially of the Byronic variety, is violent and anti-social, an anarchic rebel or a conquering tyrant.

This outlook makes an appeal for which the reasons lie very deep in human nature and human circumstances. By self-interest Man has become gregarious, but in instinct he has remained to a great extent solitary; hence the need of religion and morality to reinforce self-interest. But the habit of forgoing present satisfactions for the sake of future advantages is irksome, and when passions are roused the prudent restraints of social behaviour become difficult to endure. Those who, at such times, throw them off, acquire a new energy and sense of power from the cessation of inner conflict, and, though they may come to disaster in the end, enjoy meanwhile a sense of godlike exaltation which, though known to the great mystics, can never be experienced by a merely pedestrian virtue. The solitary part of their nature reasserts itself, but if the intellect survives the reassertion must clothe itself in myth. The mystic becomes one with God, and in the contemplation of the Infinite feels himself absolved from duty to his neighbour. The anarchic rebel does even better: he feels himself not one with God, but God. Truth and duty, which represent our subjection to matter and to our neighbours, exist no longer for the man who has become God; for others, truth is what he posits, duty what he commands. If we could all live solitary and without labour, we could all enjoy this ecstasy of independence; since we cannot, its delights are only available to madmen and dictators...

The romantic movement, in its essence, aimed at liberating human personality from the fetters of social convention and social morality. In part, these fetters were a mere useless hindrance to desirable forms of activity, for every ancient community has developed rules of behaviour for which there is nothing to be said except that they are traditional. But egoistic passions, when once let loose, are not easily brought again into subjection to the needs of society. Christianity has succeeded, to some extent, in taming the Ego, but economic, political, and intellectual causes stimulated revolt against the Churches, and the romantic movement brought the revolt into the sphere of morals. By encouraging a new lawless Ego it made social co-operation impossible, and left its disciples faced with the alternative of anarchy or despotism. Egoism, at first, made men expect from others a parental tenderness; but when they discovered, with indignation, that others had their own Ego, the disappointed desire for tenderness turned to hatred and violence. Man is not a solitary animal, and so long as social life survives, self-realization cannot be the supreme principle of ethics.

It looks like he agrees with Popper - or perhaps vice versa  - over Hegel (both Fichte and Hegel were philosophic mouthpieces of Prussia). All this may become clearer when I write my long-delayed review of TOSAIE. But I stopped too soon; back directly to Rousseau:

In theology he made an innovation which has now been accepted by the great majority of Protestant theologians. Before him, every philosopher from Plato onwards, if he believed in God, offered intellectual arguments in favour of his belief. The arguments may not, to us, seem very convincing, and we may feel that they would not have seemed cogent to anyone who did not already feel sure of the truth of the conclusion. But the philosopher who advanced the arguments certainly believed them to be logically valid, and such as should cause certainty of God's existence in any unprejudiced person of sufficient philosophical capacity. Modern Protestants who urge us to believe in God, for the most part, despise the old 'proofs', and base their faith upon some aspect of human nature—emotions of awe or mystery, the sense of right and wrong, the feeling of aspiration, and so on. This way of defending religious belief was invented by Rousseau. It has become so familiar that his originality may easily not be appreciated by a modern reader, unless he will take the trouble to compare Rousseau with (say) Descartes or Leibniz... 

The rejection of reason in favour of the heart was not, to my mind, an advance. In fact, no one thought of this device so long as reason appeared to be on the side of religious belief. In Rousseau's environment, reason, as represented by Voltaire, was opposed to religion, therefore away with reason! Moreover reason was abstruse and difficult; the savage, even when he has dined, cannot understand the ontological argument, and yet the savage is the repository of all necessary wisdom. Rousseau's savage—who was not the savage known to anthropologists—was a good husband and a kind father; he was destitute of greed, and had a religion of natural kindliness. He was a convenient person, but if he could follow the good Vicar's reasons for believing in God he must have had more philosophy than his innocent naïveté would lead one to expect.

Apart from the fictitious character of Rousseau's 'natural man', there are two objections to the practice of basing beliefs as to objective fact upon the emotions of the heart. One is that there is no reason whatever to suppose that such beliefs will be true; the other is, that the resulting beliefs will be private, since the heart says different things to different people.


There's a bit more worth adding, for my future reference if nothing else. The end of the chapter: The Social Contract became the Bible of most of the leaders in the French Revolution, but no doubt, as is the fate of Bibles, it was not carefully read and was still less understood by many of its disciples. It reintroduced the habit of metaphysical abstractions among the theorists of democracy, and by its doctrine of the general will it made possible the mystic identification of a leader with his people, which has no need of confirmation by so mundane an apparatus as the ballot-box. Much of its philosophy could be appropriated by Hegel in his defence of the Prussian autocracy. Its first-fruits in practice were the reign of Robespierre; the dictatorships of Russia and Germany (especially the latter) are in part an outcome of Rousseau's teaching. What further triumphs the future has to offer to his ghost I do not venture to predict.

And then there's Kant, who doesn't really belong here, but at the moment I don't want to give him a page to himself, and Russell has him in the "Romantic" tradition. See-also Kant's Cats where Popper tries to make sense of him. Kant is held to be "difficult" and obscure, and I've not read him; and of course I'd be reading a translation, which will inevitably filter in the translators ideas, because Kant is so obscure as to be hard to translate, unlike Popper. Anyway.

One of Kant's proofs of the existence of God is given as The argument is that the moral law demands justice, i.e. happiness proportional to virtue. Only Providence can insure this, and has evidently not insured it in this life. Therefore there is a God and a future life; and there must be freedom, since otherwise there would be no such thing as virtue. This is an interesting thought, but obviously also bollox.

There's also Kant's apparent belief in what I think are called synthetic a priori, which is things not of pure logic that can be deduced outside of actual experience. Of which - I think; but it is obscure, and his defenders obscure it more - the Euclidean nature of Space is one. As Russell puts it: The transcendental (or epistemological) argument, which is best stated in the Prolegomena, is more definite than the metaphysical arguments, and is also more definitely refutable. 'Geometry', as we now know, is a name covering two different studies. On the one hand, there is pure geometry, which deduces consequences from axioms, without inquiring whether the axioms are 'true'; this contains nothing that does not follow from logic, and is not 'synthetic', and has no need of figures such as are used in geometrical textbooks. On the other hand, there is geometry as a branch of physics, as it appears, for example, in the general theory of relativity; this is an empirical science, in which the axioms are inferred from measurements, and are found to differ from Euclid's. Thus of the two kinds of geometry one is a priori but not synthetic, while the other is synthetic but not a priori. This disposes of the transcendental argument. Or in other words, Science 1, Philosphy 0. Again.


SAGE versus reality - James; not forgetting the Weekly RRRRRRReport.
* It's Complicated: Grasping the Syllogism by Bryan Caplan: interesting, but not one of his best.
* An Unpersuasive Book with Some Encouraging Insights - Henderson on Raghuram Rajan's "the Third Pillar".


The Theory of Moral Sentiments

[Note: published at end-of-year during review. This is only a fragment, and I really meant to write more, but then again I really meant to finish it too...]

Adam Smith of course. Initial source of the "invisible hand" phrase. And an excellent book, well worth reading. The thoughts in it are general, though if you are woke you will have to struggle past passages such as When a person comes into his chamber and finds the chairs all standing in the middle of the room, he is angry with his servant, and rather than see them continue in that disorder, perhaps takes the trouble himself to set them all in their places with their backs to the wall indicative of the kind of person he was, and the people he was writing for; though as I say, it is general. Smith's analysis is quite different to Hobbes, or to Popper: rather than axoimatic, it is written as what one may observe by looking about, and thinking deeply.


Bad beekeeping autumnm 2020

After Bad beekeeping 2020 we come to the autumn edition. Here's the "before" picture, though I admit that, almost unbelievably, this is after some tidy up. The huge green leaves to the left are a horse raddish, or so I was assured. I've not tried to dig up the roots.


A bit more hackery got me access to both, and now it's time to open up. Notice the smoker is more gaffer tape than anything else.


"Old Faithful" on the left. I only opened up the top super, which is mostly full. On the right, a filled frame from the middle; on the left, a largely empty frame from the edge. Needs emptying really to give them some space come springtime. Note hive tool: also excellent for weeding between paving slabs.


On the right, "Coppertop" with three supers. The top one is somewhat less full than OF...


...and the middle super was completely empty, the bees having ignored it in preference to the heights. Well, they're like that sometimes.


So I've ordered some Apistan to treat them, and when that turns up will set to and take off some of their excess before winter sets in.


A few days later - the 12th - was a sunny Saturday with little wind, perfect for taking off some honey, and putting in my Apistan. The pix below are largely for my mythical records. Let's start with OF; here we are at the brrod box, with the comb looking mighty dark, time for some refresh come spring I think.


I took out five frames - here they are - from the top. I can't recall looking at the lower super much; but from the recalling lift, it was maybe half or two thirds full.


Oh yes I recall now: fairly busy, but mostly uncapped; here's an example. So I left it.


Here's CopperTop's brood box, with the tabs of the Apistan showing where I've inserted them. I'm a bit late doing this, so finding time to take them out will be tricky. The new queen excluder here has too much space underneath hence the blobs of comb / honey; and also the mesh is falling away from the frame, must find some time to repair that.


And here's CT just before reassembly, with OF in the background.


I took four frames out of CT, for nine in all, span them that afternoon, getting about 16 lbs, which is decent for ~one super, effectively. Tracking mark: WMC-2020-A(utumn); and -W(arm) for that which I heated.

Update: 2020 / 11 / 08: I took the Apistan out today. It is very late in the year, but it was a warm still and faintly sunny day. Olde Faithfulle took it well; Coppertop was distinctly annoyed. Note for future: put them in over the queen excluder, it is one less thing to remove when taking them out.


* Two Cheers for Small Business by Alberto Mingardi
* Misinformation and foreign policy by Scott Sumner


Russell on Aristotle's Politics

IMG_20200825_143407_207 I'm (re)reading, for various purposes, Russell's A History of Western Philosophy. As with so many things outside my field, the problem is to find reliable opinions. I like Russell's text. Unlike many books discussing other philosophers, Russell is not afraid to speak his mind and has meaningful opinions1. Far too many others are so in awe of their subjects that they say nothing useful about them. Looking at the wiki article I can see he has wound up the usual suspects, which is a good sign. Who can forget the immortal The critic George Steiner, writing in Heidegger, described A History of Western Philosophy as "vulgar", noting that Russell omits any mention of Martin Heidegger.

However, I think he gets Aristotle's Politics wrong. Firstly he misses its practical nature, in comparison the the idealism of Plato. There is far more discussion of what actually happened; and different constitutions. And secondly, he misses - I think due to his egalitarianism, or equalitarianism - what I was pushing before: that simple majoritarianism isn't a good idea.


* The text is available here.

* What Is Populism? The People V. the People by Pierre Lemieux


1. Example: I conclude that the Aristotelian doctrines with which we have been concerned in this chapter are wholly false, with the exception of the formal theory of the syllogism, which is unimportant. Any person in the present day who wishes to learn logic will be wasting his time if he reads Aristotle or any of his disciples. None the less, Aristotle's logical writings show great ability, and would have been useful to mankind if they had appeared at a time when intellectual originality was still active. Unfortunately, they appeared at the very end of the creative period of Greek thought, and therefore came to be accepted as authoritative. By the time that logical originality revived, a reign of two thousand years had made Aristotle very difficult to dethrone. Throughout modern times, practically every advance in science, in logic, or in philosophy has had to be made in the teeth of opposition from Aristotle's disciples. Compare The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or Wiki.