NJ Talk Philosophy: An Introduction to GWF Hegel

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At last week's meeting we discussed Kant's unique perspective on morality.

Kant begins with the premise that humans can be held morally responsible only if we have free will. If not, our actions are not actually our choice; they are entirely determined by preceding biological and environmental factors. In this context, it is nonsensical to praise or blame what we do, as what we do is outside of our control.

How do we establish that free will exists, especially considering the fact that nature is causally determined?

Kant makes an attempt using his two-world hypothesis: while the world of appearances conforms to the principle of determinism (every effect has a cause that was itself determined by a previous cause), the world in-itself need not. Free will may exist in this noumenal world, and it is feasibly from here that we derive it.

Kant also draws on humans' lived moral experience to justify belief in free will. For instance, if I see a $20 bill drop from a woman's pocketbook, I am aware I *ought to* return it to her. If I do not, and instead pocket it, I feel guilty for having chosen the wrong action. Kant cleverly notes that it is absurd to imagine we possess a sense of moral duty that we are simultaneously incapable of fulfilling. Why would we feel obligated to do x, and contrite about not doing x, if we had no choice but to do x?

This segues into Kant's ethical framework: deontology. The term comes from the Greek "deon" or duty, and suggests that humans, as rational free agents, are duty-bound to act in certain ways, irrespective of the personal benefits/harms these actions may confer. For instance, it is my duty not to steal, even if I am hungry.

Deontology is contrasted with consequentialism, which evaluates the morality of an action based on the outcomes it produces. Consider the example of theft in a time of hunger: although a thief may deprive a farmer of a small portion of his crop, she is now able to to feed her starving family, producing an overall benefit.

Kant believes consequentialism is a flimsy foundation on which to base morality. In this system, one will behave morally only so long as it is useful to them—and once it isn't, they won't. For instance, I donate to charity because I enjoy the tax write-off. But if it goes away, I lose my incentive to give to others.

Kant sought out a moral principle immune to such capriciousness. What he devised was the Categorical Imperative. To Kant, the CI is a requirement of reason that holds for everyone in all circumstances. Its first and most famous "Universalizability" formulation is as follows:

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

Kant uses the example of stealing to illustrate this principle. Theft requires the existence of private property. But if everybody stole, private property couldn't exist. Thus, stealing would be rendered impossible. This logical contradiction imposes a "perfect" duty on all rational moral agents not to steal. (Note: there are also "imperfect" duties that allow more leeway in when and how they may be carried out, e.g. helping others.)

Kant promotes two additional formulations of the CI: "Humanity" and "Autonomy."

The former demands that we respect all humans' subjectivity, treating them, "never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end."

The closely related latter emphasizes our role as rational, autonomous law-givers who self-impose universal rules that preserve freedom and prevent coercion, exploitation, and other violations of it.

The CI is meant to encourage, "the moral strength of human beings' will in fulfilling their duty," and make it so happiness is no longer pursued undeservedly, at the expense of others, but rather in lockstep with virtue. For Kant, there is nothing more important, as, "virtue and happiness together constitute the position of the highest good in a person."

Hegel next meeting! Readings in comments.