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Theoretical Ethics

Cultural Differentiation and Moral Orientation:
Taking an Interest in History

Sharon Anderson-Gold
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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ABSTRACT: In contrast with his major ethical works, Kant’s writings on history are replete with the theme of the social character of moral development and the interdependence of individual and community. I argue that historical-moral progress is an important part of Kant’s comprehensive ethical theory. However, in order to link the moral goals of humanity with the moral goals of individuals, judgement must have a dimension that can apprehend the purposiveness of those human achievements which are social in their significance and socially transmitted. In other words, such achievements transcend individual intention. The ‘historical signs’ of such moral purposiveness provide moral orientation through the conflicting claims that arise within and between complex and historically evolving human communities. I explore the role of disinterested judgement in providing this orientation and in marking the moral disposition of the species.

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In contrast with his major ethical works, Kant’s writings on history are replete with the theme of the social character of moral development and the interdependence of individual and community. Assuming for the moment that in some fundamental sense, moral decision making is an individual matter, how does the social context of human life affect morality? In particular what is the significance of the fact that our social structures are constituted over time? The thesis of this paper is that Kant's view on the nature of historical-moral progress is an important part of his comprehensive ethical theory. It sets the rational basis for the individual's moral obligation to promote the highest good by providing a moral orientation to guide her through the conflicting claims that arise within and between complex and historically evolving human communities.

"Idea for a Universal History" states the case for the social context of human moral development most boldly. Kant writes in the second thesis that "those natural capacities which are directed to the use of reason" develop fully only in the species, not in the individual. (1) This extended development is nonetheless necessary because the range of purposes upon which reason as the faculty of rules must operate is potentially limitless and an individual Kant tells us would have to live "excessively long in order to learn to make full use of all of his natural capacities". (2)

The remedy for this otherwise debilitating limitation is culture. Culture is the medium through which one generation passes on its collective experience and practice to another generation. Culture then is the key to human moral development. But what exactly is Kant’s theory of culture? In particular, if humanity is destined for a "final end" in the form of a universal ethical community, why do cultures differentiate and engage in deadly conflict?

In "Conjectural Beginnings of Human History" Kant provides an interesting explanation of the development of cultural difference as an extension of the exercise of reason and an expression of human freedom. (3) By instituting a comparison between the normal or instinctive objects of sense, and a novel object, reason (which is after all the faculty of widening rules) extends "knowledge" of potential objects. If the experiment is not contrary to what instinct directs, no harm is done. However, incipient reason has a further peculiarity in that it can engage with the power of imagination and thereby create artificial objects of desire. This ability to extend desire beyond instinct, is the first step in the development of the power of choice which in turn provides the possibility of the deliberate deviation from natural instinct.

By releasing man from instinctual direction, practical reason enlarges the scope of purposive activity, but also carries with it the danger that some of these purposes will conflict. Cultural difference clearly emerges from practical reason’s power of choice and ability to set arbitrary purposes. Kant's account of the origins of cultural history in "Conjectural Beginnings" while on the surface but the retelling of the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, differs from that story in ways that clarify his conception of the social roots of morality, specifically the origins of moral evil. Cultural differentiation soon leads to conflict but Kant, unlike Hobbes, does not portray primitive man as inherently jealous, malicious or murderous. In Kant’s version conflict arises out of the unforeseen and unintended consequences of equally legitimate but different uses of nature, originally communal property (in the sense that the earth originally belongs to all).

Labor intensive agriculture for instance, depends upon secure and permanent possession of land, which for the purposes of herding should remain open to the needs of the herd. Unwittingly, the herdsman’s cattle trammels the farmers crops. The herdsman, Kant notes, being "conscious of no wrong doing" stands his ground while the angry farmer removes himself from this "nuisance" and establishes a separate community. (4)

Cultural differentiation, intrinsic to practical reason’s development, then precedes and conditions ideological conflict. Separate development will in time lead to distinctive views of the nature of property with different conceptions of "rights" and law, different types of social organization, views of the deity, and different "languages". These ideological differences will make the negotiation of conflicting-purposes more difficult for a human reason which is yet immature. (5) Immaturity will give way to moral weakness and from this the mutual disposition to injury, injustice and war, will be born. Nonetheless, Kant maintains here that a peace which ends conflict by simply suppressing cultural differences would not be morally beneficial. "Only in a state of perfect culture would perpetual peace be of benefit to us, and only then would it be possible". (6)

A state of perfect culture implying as it does the complete development of our rational capacities and powers, would presuppose the resolution of their conflicting purposes. However, an imposed peace is not a "resolution" in this sense. Reason, the source of these conflicts, must develop through its own internal capacities the critical and legislative power to integrate ends. The resolution which results from a developed reason is simultaneously the unfolding of genuine or perpetual peace.

Individuals can resolve these problems only in social context . But Kant does not exempt the individual from culpability for the existence of social ills. "Conjectural Beginnings" is presumably about the actions of agents from the distant past yet Kant advises his contemporary reader to regard these acts as his own. "Such an exposition teaches man that, under like circumstances, he would act exactly like his first parents, that is, abuse reason in the very first use of reason." (7)

In a manner foreshadowing Sartre’s conviction of total responsibility for the condition of one’s times, Kant issues a call to take responsibility for one's "troublesome condition". We are asked to recognize that we do not in fact really desire simplicity and that our own choices have implicit within them the seeds of these conflicts. In fact human happiness is not a simple hedonic concept. Many of our desires, originating in imagination, are artificial. They frequently involve a comparison of our condition with that of others, and thereby contain an inherently social and cultural dimension. Kant’s conception of human nature and its historical development through the perfection of culture allows him to presume an interdependence between the individual and the species and thereby a strong connection between a personal and a social good. Kant’s assertion that individuals have a "natural interest" in the development of their species in the form of an interest in their history is then an important adjunct to the character of moral agency. (8)

Given Kant's notion of humanity's moral destiny in "Conjectural Beginnings" it should not be surprising that when he develops his theory of moral evil in the Religion he locates the sources of moral failing within humanity itself i.e. in the propensity to evil innate to the species. The theory of "radical evil", is consonant with his perspective on cultural/historical development. This propensity, arising from a fundamental choice subordinating the moral incentive to the generalized incentive of self-love, corrupts the predisposition to humanity, the ground of all of our social inclinations. For within the predisposition to humanity, Nature apparently has created quite a brew. This predisposition is associated with a general self-love which is motivated by a rational comparison of conditions. The original desires for equality and esteem are natural adjuncts to our moral personality, and the idea of "rivalry" which Kant notes does not exclude mutual love, is a useful "spur to culture". But when these natural desires are disturbed by the apparent attempts of others to gain superiority, vices arise. Kant tells us that the resulting "vices which are grafted upon this inclination might be their termed vices of culture". (9) In this context of social competition, the generalized preference for self-love, appears as a kind of social insurance policy. But, despite the fact that this is, in essence, the "human condition", morality continues to demand that we strive toward the overcoming of this "ethical state of nature".

We are left then with a complex view of human development which places the internal perfection of culture and the adjudication of cultural differences at the center of "moral progress". Ultimately only the development of an international code of justice will enable the species to solve the problem of peace in a manner consistent with the human right to cultural autonomy. International justice is a precondition of the full development of our ethical duties in that these duties, unlike those arising from positive law, theoretically include the whole of mankind. Since no one can fulfill these duties properly until such time as the race has solved the problem of peace in a manner consistent with cultural autonomy, the individual cannot attain a better empirical character than the character of his/her society. My ability to act in a just and/or a benevolent manner will be constrained by the given system of rights. (10) The systems of rights which define a given community of nations in turn are all provisional until a system of international law is recognized as binding. If the conflict of national rights is without remedy, perpetual peace would become an empty ideal. A philosophy of history is needed to provide a moral orientation by means of an ultimate goal directing the individual through the networks of conflicting claims.

The notion of a moral orientation requires that individual historical subjects have an abiding interest in those conditions that promote the realization of this ultimate goal. Can such an interest which is specifically focused on humanity’s moral goals be demonstrated?

Kant maintains that even in the apparently chaotic events of revolution and war, such an interest in the moral ends of humanity is evidence by the "moral enthusiasm" and "disinterested sympathy" that ordinary people display at the sight of struggles to institute republican constitutions. In "An Old Question", Kant claims that these judgments reveal a genuine "moral predisposition" which is sufficient to underwrite a moral progress. This underwriting appears in the claim that the objectives of republicanism and peace are : "too much interwoven with the interest of humanity..not to be recalled on any favorable occassion..For such a phenomenon in human history is not to be forgotten for it has revealed a tendency and faculty in human nature for improvement." (11)

What Kant seems to be saying here is that however imperfectly these objectives are achieved, they are nonetheless spontaneously recognized by even the imperfect moral will as the requirements of justice and therefore as contributions toward humanity’s moral goal. Kant is thus emboldened to call these judgments evidence of a moral cause operating within history yet "undetermined with regard to time". (12) Furthermore, this response is not just a predictor of what can be anticipated for the future, it is also according to Kant a basis for the projection onto the past of the permanent tendency of the human species. The universality of the disinterested judgment marks it as indicative of the character of humanity. Kant’s use of the term "disinterested" to describe this response makes it akin to the aesthetic response to beautiful objects. But the phenomenon in question is not an aesthetic phenomenon. The events responded to are results of human actions, "effects of freedom" with ethical significance. What is judged is not a particular action but a character or quality of a series of actions. Kant refers to this appearance as an "historical sign" noting that the prediction of future efforts is not based on the specific actions of individuals (which would involve an interminable calculation) but rather on the "tendency of the human race viewed in its entirety....as divided into nations and states"." (13) This tendency or character of the whole allows us to see certain phenomena as representations or "signs" of certain goals. (14) These actions "fit" the pattern of the moral goal just as some actions "fit" the pattern of certain maxims and some objects "fit" the form of the beautiful. Kant’s overall reasoning seems to be that agents who make their own history (cultural agents ) and also assert claims of justice (political agents ) are capable of moral development, the form of which is predictable in advance since only a federative union of republics can establish cultural self-determination as a universal human right.

Kant confidently concludes: "The human race has always been in progress...To him who does not consider what happens in some one nation but also has regard to the whole scope of peoples on earth who will gradually come to participate." (15) The thesis expressed here that political evolution can be regarded as a form of moral development is of course quite controversial. Kant himself is not always consistent in his formulations of the significance of political progress and there are many commentators who regard the idea of moral development as inherently contradictory. Although the "morally good disposition" is an intelligible concept that cannot be properly described in temporal terms, it is only by reference to such a disposition that particular acts in time can be said to have a "moral character". Thus, although a moral disposition does not undergo development, a series of actions which are connected in such a way as to promote moral ends can be said without contradiction to represent a "course of moral development".

While this may be allowed on the level of individual development, Paul Stern believes that it is questionable to treat historical events in this manner since the history of the species in not the same kind of unity as the life of a person. (16) While clearly the unity required by the idea of historical moral progress is not the "same kind of unity" as the unity of the person, Stern and others overlook the deep connection between the individual and the species that is provided by Kant’s anthropology, particularly in his concept of the moral predisposition which is present in each human person and provides for the possibility of an enduring moral project. Such an enduring moral project can provide the basis of continuous sympathy and identification with events which express human moral interests across times and cultures. (17) Even Stern modifies his stance on moral progress somewhat in his admission that historical-moral development may be admissible if political progress is viewed as occurring consequent to many "moral revolutions" on the part of individual agents. This is a view also expressed by Harry Van der Linden in his notion of a "feedback cycle" in which political reforms remove obstacles to the moral development of individuals and the moral commitments of these individuals to further political reform guides the process to a new level. (18)

That an overall estimation of moral/historical progress is "possible" does not of course make any particular estimation "plausible". That Kant believed that some evidence could be offered for this somewhat stronger thesis is demonstrated by his assessment of the "enthusiasm" and "moral sympathy" which is aroused in the "disinterested spectator" at the sight of significant political progress. That those who have no immediate stake in the benefits of specific political reforms should nonetheless rejoice in their occurrence suggests to Kant that "a limited but unvarying" good will can be ascribed to human beings. "Limited" because self-interest may continue to dominate the choices of particular agents but "unvarying" because these judgments suggest the existence of genuine moral "aspirations" or a "moral predisposition" which can be counted among the factors which will influence historical development under the appropriate conditions. Van der Linden argues that the main value of the "moral enthusiasm" of these spectators is that it suggests a "moral commitment" (enthusiasm Kant claims moves only towards the "ideal") which can become a motive for action. (19) Atwell notes that it is not the revolutionary actions which constitute the "event" disclosing the "moral predisposition" but rather that it is the publicly declared revolutionary principles. (20) Thus, although revolutionary activity can fail to fulfill its promise, "republican" principles once espoused and responded to (these are the only cases of revolution that Kant directly addresses) reveal a "capacity in mankind to be the cause of its own improvement". (21) Even if the first such revolution were entirely due to the "cunning of nature", it is clear that Kant would not regard subsequent attempts to be merely such. In as much as such principles have been publicly acknowledged to "accord with right" we ought to regard further attempts to institute them as at least partly the product of the moral predisposition. Even if particular agents are not themselves morally good (and we are never in a position to judge this with certainty), the moral predisposition ensures that they are capable of choosing appropriate actions for the right reasons. (22) This is what is essential to our historical judgments because this is what shapes the public consciousness that sustains historical progress. The universality of this "mode of thinking" demonstrates that (like the universality of the disinterested aesthetic judgment) it belongs to humanity as such and therefore in combination with its disinterested moral character, Kant claims that it not only permits hope but "is already itself progress." (23) These publicly espoused disinterested judgments make possible an "enlightened" public (24) whose members freely exchange opinions even across national boundaries. The idea of this enlightened public is critical not only for Kant's political philosophy but also for the very possibility of a philosophy of history. For it is only by means of a continuously existing learned public that history itself can be certified and that the histories of peoples who are outside of the western tradition can by expert translation be brought into contact with it. (25) Kant's hope for a universal or philosophical history does not exclude but rather requires a comprehensive pluralist basis.

When fully analyzed, the philosophy of history and ethics are deeply and systematically interconnected. In the context of this systematic interconnection the claim that mankind has historical "interests" that can be empirically disclosed and publicly discussed has significance for providing individuals with the moral orientation that can support pluralism while avoiding moral relativism.

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(1) Kant, Immanuel, "Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View", translated by Lewis White Beck, in On History, edited by Lewis White Beck (Macmillan Publishing Company, New York: 1963) p. 13 (18).

(2) Ibid, p. 13 (19).

(3) Kant, Immanuel, "Conjectural Beginning of Human History", translated by Emil L. Fackenheim, in On History, op, cit.p. 56.

(4) Ibid, p. 63 (119).

(5) The power of practical reason may be complete from the beginning but the power of speculative reason clearly is not. Immaturity, while a stage in the development of moral evil, is not itself a culpable condition. And the species is of course not a moral agent. Nonetheless, the condition of the species is, I believe, a relevant factor in determining the degree of culpability for individuals.

(6) Kant, Immanuel, "Conjectural Beginnings of Human History", in On History, op cit., p. 67.

(7) Ibid, p. 68 (123).

(8) This concept of a natural interest in one's history reappears in claims concerning the ability of the spectator or observer of events to spontaneously recognize their significance. That certain events can be interpreted as "signs" is possible because they fit into a particular kind of story or history. That progress is a modern and western europenan story does not change the more basic claim that the tendency to take an interest in stories that construct meanings for a group is a universal human trait characteristic of all societies and that stories can be shared and translated across cultures.

(9) Kant, Immanuel, Religion Within The Limits Of Reason Alone, translated by Theodore M. Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson, (Harper & Row, Publishers, New York: 1960) p 22.

(10) In addition to the practical problems involved in trying to render aide to the citizens of nations hostile to our own, the cut between what is required by charity and what is due because of justice depends upon settling conflicting claims not only to territory but I would argue also to resources that have been developed through force or fraud. In "Perpetual Peace" in the section on the Law of World Citizenship, Kant, despite his general approval of commerce, clearly condemns the commercial activities that led to the exploitation of the Sugar Islands and goes so far as to praise the prudence of China and Japan in restricting the economic interactions of their people with the West.

(11) Kant, Immanuel, "An Old Question Raised Again" translated by R. E. Anchor, in On History, op. cit., p. 147 (88)

(12) Ibid, p. 143 (84)

(13) Ibid, p.143(84)

(14) Mackreel, Rudolf, Imagination and Interpretation in Kant: The Hermeneutical Import of the Critique of Judgment, (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1990) Mackreel explains that the use of the French revolution as an historical sign has a double function. It intimates a better future by serving as the imaginative projection of the teleological ideas of the federation and the cosmopolitan society but it also authenticates this interpretation by serving as a confirmation of the moral predisposition which will bring these ideals to reality. p. 151.

(15) Kant, Immanuel,"An Old Question Raised Again", translated by R. E. Anchor , in On History, op. cit.. p. 148, (89).

(16) Stern, Paul , "The Problem of History and Temporality in Kantian Ethics", The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 39, March 1986.

(17) The conception of a continuous humanity is needed to provide the vehicle of identification with an indefinite future. It is here that Kant's notion of religious-ethical community helps to fill in the frame. Unlike specific political and cultural traditions which can develop but must remain particular, the ethical commonwealth, based on our common humanity, is universal. Because Kant's ethical commonwealth is fully universal it can encompass the indefinite future while providing continuity through time with specific historical faiths.

(18) Van der Linden, Harry, Kantian Ethics and Socialism, (Hackett Publishing Co., Indianapolis, IN: 1988) chapt. 5

(19) Van der Linden, Harry, Ibid, it may seem that the kind of moral knowledge that we gain from an analysis of the perspective of the spectator is merely passive knowledge which provides no link to action. Van der Linden's interpretation opens the door to action by linking our understanding of what types of purposes fit a moral world with the concept of a commitment over time to promote these purposes .

(20) Atwell, John, E., Ends and Principles in Kant's Moral Thought (Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 1986)

(21) Kant, Immanuel, "on the Old Question Raised Again", translated by R.E. Anchor, in On History, op. cit.

(22) In fact it would seem to have to work this way. Per hypothesis, we are all morally evil and can only become morally good through a moral revolution. This "revolution" within the disposition cannot itself appear in time. When it occurs it breaks the hold of merely prudential reasoning and allows for the dominance of the moral incentive without necessarily introducing a radical break in the phenomena. The "mode of thought" changes but the empirical character of the agent/actions merely evolves. Real progress in the political realm then is associated with fundamental changes in the way that the public reasons about justice. An interesting corollary of fundamental change is that while we can adjust our judgments concerning the culpability of past agents to their differing conditions, we cannot reverse or relativize our conception of what is right.

(23) Kant, Immanuel, "An Old Question Raised Again", translated by Robert E. Anchor, in On History, op. cit., p. 144 (85).

(24) Kant, Immnauel, "What is Enlightenment", translated by Lewis White Beck, in On History, op. cit., pp.4-5 In discussing the differences between the public and private uses of reason Kant makes reference to the possibility that on some occasions the individual will take the point of view of "a society of world citizens" . Thus, the appropriate public can be extended across national boundaries as well as across time.

(25) Kant, Immnauel, "Idea for a Universal History", translated by Lewis White Beck, in On History, op cit., p. 24 (30), footnote 7.

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