[lit-ideas] Re: Can we do what we ought to do?

  • From: "Phil Enns" <phil.enns@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sun, 20 Aug 2006 01:07:15 -0400

Walter Okshevsky wrote:

"I'm desperately trying to keep the discussion secular and humanist, as
K. himself did."

The conversation began with the question of why people think Kant had a
problem with consequences.  I suggested that Kant felt it was a big
enough problem that he had to involve God to fix it.  It is the problem
that I am interested in here, not God.

Kant makes clear that pure and practical reason belong to separate
realms where the first is defined by necessity and the second by
freedom.  The basic problem with 'If we ought to do it, we can do it' is
that it presumes a relationship between the two realms without
explaining it.  Neither pure nor practical reason can describe how the
two relate.  Nor is this empty speculation.  People don't do what they
ought to do and so it can't be taken as obvious that a necessary
relationship between the moral universe and nature exists.

An obligation may place an agent under a necessity, but it remains a
moral necessity not one belonging to nature.  If it also belonged to
nature, people would necessarily do what they ought to do.  Instead
people do not do what they ought to do.  Therefore the necessity of the
moral universe applies to the human being as a moral agent, not a
natural being.  We cannot draw from this necessity any conclusions
regarding the natural world without committing a category mistake,
confusing the moral universe with the natural world.  That the moral law
commands entails, in and of itself, nothing regarding what is possible
in the world.  Again, the moral law may demand obedience, but people may
or may not obey.  This dichotomy drives Kant to all sorts of nonsense in
_Religion Within the Limits_ as he tries to explain why people don't
obey.  Furthermore, there are all sorts of problems in the claim that
the necessity of the moral universe has any causal influence on the
necessity of nature.  How is the moral universe a cause in the natural
world?  It isn't that the obligation is impossible but rather that it is
empty, lacking any causal power in the world.  A man who believes he is
Napoleon leading his army into battle may command all he likes but the
fact that he commands doesn't mean there is necessarily an army that

But it is even more complicated.  What makes a series of experiences a
moral event?  Experience follows the necessity of nature.  It could be
that any moral quality belonging to experience is epiphenomenal, added
by practical reason but not belonging to the experience proper.  After
all, Kant refuses to leave matters of the law to individual discernment.
If this is the case, then virtually any experience could, on some
interpretation, represent obedience to the moral law.  Is it possible
for there to be reasonable disagreement regarding how one obeys the
moral law?  Yes, one shouldn't make lying-promises to promote
self-interest, but can there be disagreement on whether a specific
instance does or does not promote self-interest?  Imagine someone tells
a lie but believes it does not promote self-interest.  Someone else
disagrees and suggests how the lie, in some way, gave some advantage.
How is the moral status of the event determined?  Is it up to the
individual?  A neutral observer?  The person to whom the lie was told?
Or perhaps it doesn't matter at all since the consequences that followed
from telling the lie are independent of the question whether the
individual acted from the moral law.  If that is the case, though, then
one must give up the claim that there is a connection between the
necessity of the moral law and what is possible in the world.

As I suggested earlier, I believe that Kant recognized this problem and
gave at least two different responses.  The first was to deny any
significance to consequences.  This, however, had the effect of creating
an unbridgeable chasm between pure and practical reason, between the
natural world and the moral universe.  The second was to postulate a
Supreme Cause that ensured everything fit together.  This, however, was
also unacceptable to Kant, if for no other reason then he despised

The problem is fundamental and can be put as simply as, Why should we be
moral?  Kant contributed a great deal to moral thought, but he could
not, to his satisfaction, answer this question.


Phil Enns
Toronto, ON

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