Kant and Nietzsche on Reason Essay

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Kant and Nietzsche: "Categorical" or "Chimerical" Imperatives

Kant's entire philosophical project is grounded in the primary and universal applicability of reason -- practical and "pure" -- and his moral theory is no exception. From the moment he discards the idea of an innate "moral instinct" or conscience as the basis of moral authority (Kant 10), rationality becomes the only possible foundation for practical ethical choices; ultimately, an appeal to pure logic determines his famous "categorical imperative" itself. However, while Kant's arguments were evidently compelling to their creator, Nietzsche and other critics have argued that the "majestic moral edifices" raised through logic are built on treacherous ground.

For Kant, we are truly "moral" actors only in so far as we consciously intend to do good for its own sake, and not for any utilitarian benefit to ourselves or some desired end:

A good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes because of its fitness to attain some proposed end, but only because of its volation; that is, it is good in itself and, regarded for itself, is to be valued incomparably higher than all that could merely be brought about by it (Kant 8).

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This volition is innate -- needing "not so much to be taught as to be clarified" (Kant 10) -- and manifests through our sense of "duty" or obligation to an abstract concept of law. Whenever we act because we feel that we should behave in a certain way, whether it goes against our temperament and perceived interest or not, we are upholding duty. Otherwise, we are simply doing what we would have done anyway, or are at best motivated by an animal desire to avoid punishments or seek rewards.

Essay on Kant and Nietzsche on Reason Assignment

Kant posits that duty lends our moral choices the apparent weight of universal law, and that as such, the only truly "categorical" or universal duty is one that we can treat as being morally necessary in every circumstance. In other words, the morally informed or "good" act has the effective force of cosmic law even if no such mandate exists (Kant 15). Having limited the province of morality to such an abstract sphere divorced from the consequences of our actions, he thus reserves truly "moral" behavior for those who can follow the dictates of reason: "Only a rational being has the capacity to act within the representation of laws […] or has a will" (24). Moreover, because the structures of reason in themselves exist as analytic and a priori truths, the purely good deed originates "from grounds that are evident for every rational being as such" (25).

This is the famous "categorical imperative" stripped of much of its baggage: Abstracted from all contingencies of situation or personal point-of-view, true goodness operates as though it were universal, and thus enjoys the equivalent necessity of an objective principle. To live morally, "act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law" (Kant 31). Truth and goodness thus converge in an "intelligible world" of pure and unchanging reason that is both independent of nature (57) and beyond all the impressions we receive through our senses.

This appeal to a world beyond experience (whether derived from divine writ or the putative structures of reason itself) as the source of authority for any received ethical code eventually provoked the scorn of Nietzsche, who called the entire Kantian project a "chimera" and a "sacrifice before the Moloch of abstraction" (Nietzsche, Antichrist 7). For Nietzsche, any philosophical effort to support a particular ethical principle is always suspect; as he inveighs in Beyond Good and Evil, the supposed pursuit of reason has too often served external moral agendas:

To understand how the abstrusest metaphysical assertions of a philosopher have been arrived at, it is always well (and wise) to first ask oneself: "What morality do they (or does he) aim at?" Accordingly, I do not believe that an "impulse to knowledge" is the father of philosophy; but that another impulse, here as elsewhere, has only made use of knowledge (and mistaken knowledge!) as an instrument (17).

Kant's program is especially pernicious for Nietzsche because it diverts attention from the apprehensible world to an idealized realm beyond both the senses and the individual's subjective reality. For Nietzsche, truth and "trustworthiness" are ultimately grounded in experience (Beyond 134) whereas "faith" necessarily alienates us from that truth. "Under Christianity, neither morality nor religion has any point of contact with actuality" (Antichrist 10), not necessarily because of any truth value inherent (or not) within the Christian system in itself but because for Nietzsche, any belief that exists in opposition to the sensible world is necessarily divorced from reality. In such a framework, a project like Kant's is really just theology wearing a mask of "reason" (much less "scientific flavor") that cannot be demonstrated or even refuted on sensible grounds. "Kant […] deliberately invented a variety of reasons for use on occasions when it was desirable not to trouble with reason -- that is, when morality, the sublime command 'thou shalt' was heard" (Nietzsche, Antichrist 8).

Nietzschean morality is acquired through struggle with our individual circumstances, and not through any impersonal "respect for law" or some other passively received principle. As such, every individual must "find […] his own categorical imperative" or else risk "complete and penetrating disaster" (Nietzsche, Antichrist 7) by subordinating himself or herself to external moral authority. Kant's imperative may only appear to reinstate a form of the "golden rule" by directing us all to act as though our behavior had universal moral force, but instead, Nietzsche argues, this only universalizes the morality that Kant himself finds satisfactory:

Many a moralist would like to exercise power and creative arbitrariness over mankind; many another, perhaps, Kant especially, gives us to understand by his morals that "what is estimable in me is that I know how to obey -- and with you it shall not be otherwise wthan with me!" (Beyond 106).

On a practical basis, it is striking that the categorical imperative converges with the obscure Nietzschean concept of the "eternal return" in certain critical respects. Kant's reasonable moral actor lives as though his or her decisions have the force of universal law, whereas for Nietzsche, the acceptance of one's actions and their consequences as eternally desirable -- and thus, self-bestowed with necessary force -- allows us to generate our own laws (Gay Science 194). If the categorical imperative transcends space, time, and personality to impose the forms of Kant's logic on us all, the eternal return asks each individual to embrace absolute responsibility for his or her own morality. That which we would choose to suffer forever is "virtue," while everything else is not.

If these two impulses resemble each other in theoretical form, they still differ widely in their specifics. The Nietzschean universe often concentrates on the individual to the point of solipsism; moral authority necessarily arises from within the individual and cannot be transmitted or enforced on others without effacing our humanity: "What destroys a man more quickly than to work, think, and feel without inner necessity, without any deep personal desire, without pleasure -- as a mere automaton of duty?" (Antichrist 7). But for Kant, the primary characteristic of "reason" is that it eradicates the differences between individuals while establishing our common nature as human beings; reason -- and the categorical -- is "the special determination of human nature" (Kant 22) but not the province of any human in himself or herself. Individuals, tellingly, are "ends in themselves" for the moral Kant, objects to be pursued if not used and not so much as subjects in their own right.

As the preceding discussion indicates, I find certain aspects of Kant's project compelling, but following Nietzsche, I am reluctant to… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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