Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Cardinal Mercier and the Natural Law, Part 11: Excursus on Kantian Duty

IN A PRIOR POSTING, WE OBSERVED that moral duty was universal, absolute, and necessary, and Mercier's theory of natural law abides by these. Kant accepted the challenge that moral duty had to be universal, absolute, and necessary. However, Kant did not believe that anything universal, absolute, and necessary could be derived from experience, from phenomena. In his view, moral obligation had to have its source from some principle that preceded, that did not rely upon, any contingent experience. In sum, it had to be something a priori in form. Something totally independent from our senses, from our experiences, even from our loves. It hovered about us sort of like the sun without our first seeing its light, feeling its warmth, or experiencing the orange wash of its rising halloo, the burnishing rays of its daily reign, and the roseate rays of its evening aquittance.

Brain in a Jar: Symbol of Kant's Categorical Imperative

This cool, inorganic principle of logic, better fitted for machines than for men, and so which is not to be found in flesh, but only in naked mind, a mind as it were pulled out from the skull of man in placed, like Broca's brain, in a jar of formalin at the Musée de l'Homme, is the categorical imperative:
What is this pure form which has no empirical connexions and in consequence is along [according to Kant] of being universal and necessary? It is the principle: 'Act as if the maxim from which you act were to become through your will a universal law of nature', or 'Act in accordance with a maxim which can serve as universal law'.
[247-48(55)] In Kant's moral theory, the will must not allow itself to be swayed, wooed, informed by anything other than this categorical imperative. The will must be independent of any desire, motive, but the naked categorical imperative. Only thus, shed of any desire of flesh and friendship, any matronly solicitude, any paternal love, can the will be said to be truly autonomous, self-determining, free and thereby virtuous. Sound inclinations--which play such an important role in the theories of natural law--are to be banished from Kantian ethics.

Similarly to be banished from Kantian ethics is any notion of incentive and reward, or hope of it of punishment or even fear of punishment. These extrinsic motivators sully the pure categorical imperative which alone must be our guide.

But Mercier rejects the Kantian system. "The categorical imperative," he insists, "is no moral standard by which good and evil may be distinguished, nor is it a true moral law." "Moreover," Mercier continues, "the principles on which Kant bases his argument are false." [249(56)]. Why so?

Mercier's argument against the categorical imperative is based upon the definition of "moral rule." "By its definition," Mercier begins, "a moral rule is a practical judgment, and therefore a judgment concerning the relation of an act with its end." [249(56)] The Kantian theory of a moral act, however, disposes of ends. "Consequently," the Kantian theory of morality "makes any relation of an act to an end impossible and therefore rules out any true norm of morality." We are left, hobbling, without a bourne, a crippled pilgrim, without scrip or staff, and, worse, without place of pilgrimage. So, this much vaunted Kantian autonomy is the same as assaulting a pilgrim and leaving him dazed, senseless, and lost, and then calling him free. From natural law pilgrim to Kantian beggar. That's Kantian autonomy.

It is really inconceivable that a moral law should be built upon the lack of any legitimate end, without a final cause.
Obligation which is the essential note of a law, is a certain necessity, put upon the will, of freely acting in a determined way. But it is inconceivable that the will should be drawn to act except by a final cause, that is, by the representation of a good to be willed. Hence the categorical imperative which claims to exclude all real final causes from the sphere of the moral will cannot produce any real obligation and consequently is not a law in the proper sense.
[249(56)] Mercier further rejects the notion that universality and necessity, both of which are characteristics of moral obligation, cannot be derived from experience, "when these are put to the service of the spiritual faculties of man's soul." In other words, experience alone may not be sufficient, but will and reason may be able to distill from experience such principles of universality and necessity.

Another flaw that Mercier sees in Kantian ethics is that it sees human nature to be its own end, and that therefore complete autonomy can be predicated upon such human nature. However, human nature must have an end outside of itself, namely God. And the moment that man's end is not man himself, but God, the notion of a complete autonomy of human nature collapses.

Finally, Mercier rejects the notion that reason demands that we not pay heed or even follow the "natural inclination we experience towards the enjoyment of our happiness." While true that this desire should be "rightly directed," that the inclination must be sound, for it to be "compatible with the highest standard of morality of which human nature is capable," that requirement of right direction or soundness does not allow us to reject any desire or any inclination whatsoever. In other words, the desires or inclinations, while not absolute, are subordinately good. So long as they are subordinate or ordered to our summum bonum or finis ultimus they can be secondary, but no less real, motives. "Our love," Mercier concludes, "when perfectly ordered seeks God, our objective end, primarily and above all things, and secondarily that subjective happiness which results from the possession of God." [249(56)] We will find our own good in God, our own happiness in God. It would seem philosophically unhinged, schizophrenic even, to suggest that we must reject our own happiness in pursuing God, when God is nothing but our assured happiness.

The categorical imperative is, perhaps, the last thought of a dying brain as it is placed in a jar of formalin to be gawked at by Museum guests, an opportunity purchased with the sum of some Euros. It wonders how, robbed of body and spirit and condemned to a jar of formalin, it will henceforward be good. How can it answer that question when it is not even really human? Do we really want to be taught morality from a brain in a jar which can never leave the room?

Wouldn't we rather learn it from a wizened guide, who knows the way to where we are going, even if he does have to lean on a stick? Some things, St. Augustine tells us, and I suppose Kant (who virtually never left his town of Königsberg) forgot, are learned by walking. Solvitur ambulando. We have to both walk, and know where to go. That's the real categorical imperative.

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