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, May 26, 2010

By Nature Equal: How Are Men Created Equal? Kant Can't But Cant About Natural Law

KANT IS QUITE AN IMPOSING FELLOW, and he has had remarkable influence in the annals of the Academe around the globe, though he virtually never left his beloved Königsberg. How such a parochial little man, a bachelor with impeccable chronological habits (people set their watches by his daily afternoon walks, so regular was he), became such a universal thinker and ushered in a revolution in thought is a remarkable thing. (We have treated some elements of Kantian thought in prior posts. See Ecstasis and Telos: Immanuel Kant and Selflaw and Golden Rule in Immanuel Kant: The Golden Rule But a Trivial Footnote.) Kant's contribution to the modern notions of equality are significant. As Coons and Brennan summarize it: "The modern literature on human equality--such as it is--is saturated with Kantian concepts." (p. 116) Indeed, one comes to the conclusion after reviewing this part of their work that Coons and Brennan are more Kantian than they are advocates of a traditional natural law.

Kant lived in a time when man was viewed as a machine in a mechanistic universe, a sort of tin man in a tin house with a tin heart. That should have bothered anyone with a heart of flesh, or even anyone with a mind. It's hard to tell whether this mechanistic philosophy bothered Kant's heart, but it certainly troubled this man's impressive mind. A mechanistic cog in a mechanistic cosmos means no morality, as it means everything is determined. A human with a Hobbesian "spring" or coil for a heart is more a robot that a man. This was something that did not settle well with Kant. And he put his mind to do something about it.

Easter Island Moai

Rather than seeing that man's heart was flesh and blood, with pinch of spiritual soul (a theology of the body!), Kant conceded to his contemporaries the mechanistic view of man, but he limited the mechanistic paradigm to the material, the phenomenal world. Then he posited a wholly ideal world, a world insulated from the empiricism of science, a noumenal world. Man was sort of like an Eastern Island statute, a moai, with his body hidden in the phenomenal world, but his mind in the world of the noumena. Man was both determined and free, determined in the phenomenal world, but free in the noumenal world. Man knew one world, the noumenal, but not the other, the phenomenal, since one could never know any thing as it really was (the ding an sich was unknowable), one only knew what one thought the thing really was. Kant therefore advanced a notion that there were, in the phrase of Professor Roger J. Sullivan, "two viewpoints," a material and an ideal, and never would the twain meet. Indeed, we did not really know reality, either moral or speculative, but we should act as if (als ob) we did.
Kant uses these same two viewpoints in his moral writings. On the one hand, he regards the natural world as amoral and any effort to base morality on empirical, contingent grounds as futile. Nature is just what free moral agents must transcend. Yet, on the other hand, he uses what he calls the principle of "physicoteleology" to interpret nature as purposive, with an essential role in helping us make moral judgments about human behavior. "In distributing her aptitudes, Nature has everywhere one to work in a purposive manner." "By a natural purpose [Naturzweck]," Kant explains, "I mean such a connection of the cause with an effect that, without attributing intelligence to the cause, we must yet conceive it by analogy with an intelligent cause and so as if it produced the effect purposefully."
Roger J. Sullivan, Immanuel Kant's Moral Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 182. "Making sense of Kant's moral metaphysics, then, requires keeping clear this strange idea that man must regard himself as a pure other-worldly intelligence and, exactly thus, capable of autonomy." (p. 117). Though there is no proof of it in the world about him, he can find the basis for morality in the mind that is within him, which is what gives him his autonomy.

Marble Bust of an Aging Immanuel Kant

To his credit, Kant did not view this autonomy as completely lawless. For Kant, there was a law, but it was law as the mind understood it, not law per se. And Kant's law was no longer natural, because it made no reference to man's hylomorphic or dual nature. (Indeed, it did not give reference even to God.) Kant wholly ignored the material in man's nature (there was no end, no purpose; the Humean dogma under which he slumbered told him there was no "ought" to be found in an "is"), and based his law entirely on pure reason alone. Kant's law was noumenal, not phenomenal.
Man is capable of morality exactly because his "true self" is not only free but also under a law. That law is pure reason--reason functioning on its own terms, without the influences of man's phenomenal side.
(p. 117) In a way, this all is a bit deceptive, because Kant did not advocate that we were under a law, but that we were under an idea of law. This is because ultimately, in Kant's view, this law is not the law itself, as man cannot know the law as it is. This is only law as man understands that law to be. As Kant wrote in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals:
A law has to carry with it absolute necessity if it is to be valid morally--valid, that is, as a ground of obligation .. . . the ground of obligation must be looked for, not in the nature of man nor in the circumstances of the world in which he is placed, but solely a prior in the concept of pure reason.
. . . .
Everything in nature works in accordance with laws. Only a rational being has the power to act in accordance with his ideas of laws--that is, in accordance with principles--and only so has he a will . . . the will is noting but practical reason.
(quoted in Coons and Brannon, 290 nn. 31, 32) So whatever this law is, it is not natural, and it is not law; it is our idea of the law. In other words, we are following a figmentive law, based upon reason alone, and we ought to act as if it exists, though we have no proof for it. The law that this reason imposes upon us, and under whose discipline we must live to live moral lives, is the categorical imperative.

Coons and Brennan construe Kant's philosophy as a philosophy that meets with the criteria they have established as necessary for building their notion of human equality (indeed they seem to admit later that the convention of human equality they tout stems from Kant). Kant believes that rational human beings have the capacity to choose freely to pursue or reject the details of correct behavior, that there exists a preinstitutional order of morality, that moral self-perfection is obtained through the diligent pursuit of seeking it, and that rational persons possess that capacity to make that effort, and possess that capacity uniformly. Though Kant's emphasis on reason in the moral life of man suggests a lack of uniformity in degree, Coons and Brennan believe that "at curtain time Kant seems to settle on conditions of morality that make virtue possible for every rational person." (p. 118)

Coons and Brennan therefore believe that Kant is preeminently a moral philosopher that advances a morality of good intentions that has a good fit with their notion of human equality. They quote Kant's comment in his Metaphysics of Morals in this regard:
It is a human being's duty to strive for [moral] perfection, but not to reach it (in this life), and his compliance with this duty can, accordingly, consist only in continual progress.
(p. 119) For Coons and Brennan, then, Kant is sufficiently emphatic on the centrality of intention, yet sufficiently attentive to a notion of pre-institutional morality [the categorical imperative] so as to fit with their analysis of what is required by the convention of human equality. Their ultimate conclusion is that Kant meets the criteria for identifying the host property of human equality, importance, goodness, laterality, singularity, and uniformity.

They admit that the only reason there is a fit between Kant and their notion of the convention of human equality is that "Kant broke decidedly with the tradition." (p. 119) It was Kant's emphasis on good will, and good will alone, that constitute this break. They quote extensively from Kant's Groundwork of Morals:
The good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes or because of its adequacy to achieve some proposed end; it is good only because of its willing, i.e., it is good of itself. . . . Even if it should happen that, by a particularly unfortunate fate or by the niggardly provision of a stepmotherly nature, this will should be wholly lacking in power to accomplish its purpose, and if even the greatest effort should not avail it to achieve anything of its end, and if there remained only the good will . . . , it would sparkle like a jewel in its own right, as something that had its full worth in itself.
(p. 119) And now begin the Kantian encomia and the colors of Coons and Brennan are revealed. Thus Coons and Brennan conclude: "Kant satisfies the criterion of uniformity by making morality pivot on an act of which everyone is equally capable: committing to duty and then pursuing its terms as best as one can." (p. 119) "Kant's ethics is a thoroughgoing morality of equals, supported by a tailor-made metaphysics." (p. 120) "The Kantian capacity for a 'good will' is believable as a host property for a relation of equality . . . ." (p. 120) "Kant does what no earlier philosopher had managed: he separates the highest form of human achievement, moral goodness or the 'good will,' from every other form of human good. That separation is absolutely critical to human equality. . . . The belief in factual human equality requires a belief in some nonempirical human capacity for a nonempirical form of human goodness. . . This belief is not at all exotic; indeed, this is the element of Kantianism that, we think, has passed into the common mind (or vice versa)." (p. 121) (emphasis added)

This disappoints. One is left with the sinking feeling that Coons and Brennan are more Kantian than traditionalist, and this will become even more apparent when they themselves compare the convention of human equality they have touted with the traditional notions of the natural law. We will explore these in our next few blog postings.


  1. I think I have hit on the problem of Coons and Brennan. They are Americans; thorough Americans and steeped in America and its culture. They do not have a Old World viewpoint which I think it is necessary for any good orthodox Catholic to have.

    They are Americans. They have drunk from the Well of Americanism. They are imbued with Americanism and so their thesis of their book is based on Americanism.

    Even though I was born and raised in America, After the Marine Corps, I lived by myself for three and half years in Europe, not in the tourist sections but in the black labor market, working on farms, in the countryside. This changed my outlook. What nailed it further and gave me an intellectual base was reading Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn's book Liberty or Equality and that topped off my living experience by giving me an "European feel". I am very much now an Old Order.

    The problem with Catholics in America is that now they are divorced from the Old World and have adopted hook, line and sinker, the New World Order.

    If the Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith, Catholicism can NOT be separated from Europe, its culture, traditions, history or climate. Catholicism can not exist outside European climate. Catholicism is tied to the Old World, to the Old Order.

    These two profs and their thinking are affected by American culture which is Masonic which is a parallel to Marxism. All Catholics must have training in the Old World and a love and a loyalty and a connection to the Old World, to Old Fashioned Europe. This is their mistake, they have not been inculturated into the Old Order. And they need to be.

  2. I think there is more than a bit of Americanism in Coons and Brennan. But I think they are also infected by the epistemological turn of Descartes and the intellectal Copernican revolution initiated by of Kant. They also seem particularly resentful towards traditional Thomistic teaching.

    On Americanism, see Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, by Pope Leo XIII.