Allen Wood on dealing with Kant’s racism

I’ve been thinking, more or less loosely, about various issues to do with the appropriate ways to engage with, or treat, past philosophers. Some of these issues concern the ways in which the work of particular philosophers is highlighted as of especial importance and—what I think is a more or less independent issue—the ways in which the work of other philosophers is largely ignored. (I think that the issues are more or less independent since I think that it’s consistent to think that someone has done especially brilliant work without holding that other work is of lesser, or no, importance.) Connectedly, and of wider significance, are more systematic biases in our patterns of engagement with the past: a general failure to engage with the work of people who are not white, or male, or European. These are all things that I need to think more about, and read more about.

One more specific issue in this broad area, and the topic of this post, concerns how to deal with the fact that many past philosophers gave expression to views that are morally repugnant—for example, views that are racist or sexist. I think it pretty clear that one important part of dealing with that fact is to acknowledge it, and to recognize—and moreover to emphasize—that such views are morally repugnant. But questions remain about how to deal with the work of people who hold such views, especially given that engaging with someone’s work is, in part, a way of engaging with that person. Should one view their work as a whole as tainted? Does it depend upon the extent to which their work is in fact infected by their racism or sexism? Should one perhaps disengage, in the way that one might, in some circumstances, feel the need to disengage from a contemporary who gave expression to such views? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I don’t even have firm views about them. However, I wanted to post one such view, with which I have some sympathy. The following passage, by Allen Wood—a white, male philosopher—concerns Kant, who at least sometimes expressed views that are racist:

“It is a sometimes uncomfortable fact that the philosophers of the past whose thoughts we study with most profit were not especially fine human beings. The only way to deal with this fact is to face up squarely to the cognitive dissonance it occasions and then to resolve to set it aside as irrelevant to anything that could be of legitimate interest in deciding which philosophers to study. It displays a deplorable misunderstanding of what philosophy is – and what may be gained by studying it – to treat past philosophers as gurus at whose feet we are to sit in order to absorb their wisdom, or alternatively, to find in their unattractive personal traits and characteristics an excuse for not studying them at all. If a past philosopher, Kant for instance, was an admirable person, that still gives us no reason to study his philosophical thoughts if they were unoriginal or mediocre and do not repay our careful investigation and critical reflection. If the philosopher was a thoroughly unattractive character, or even if some of his opinions on morality or politics offend enlightened people today, it may still be true that his contributions to philosophy are indispensable to our understanding of philosophical problems and of the history of people’s reflections on them. If we study the writings of the admirable philosopher in order to honor his virtuous character, then we are merely wasting time and effort that could have been better employed. By the same token, if we refuse to study the writings of the personally repulsive philosopher either because we think our neglect justly punishes him for his misdeeds or his evil opinions, or because we want to avoid being influenced by such a pernicious character, then all we accomplish by this foolish exercise in self-righteousness and closedmindedness is to deprive ourselves of what we might have learned both from attaining to his insights and from exposing his errors. It is always sad to see philosophy students, and sometimes even professional philosophers, missing out on many things they might have learned on account of their moral or political approval or disapproval of the personality or opinions of some long-dead philosopher, who is far beyond their poor power to reward or punish. The only people we punish in this way are ourselves, and also those around us, or in the future, whom we might have influenced for the better if we had educated ourselves more wisely.” (Wood 2006: 20)

As I said, I have a certain amount of sympathy with this line about the very specific question: should one engage with philosophers some of whose views are morally repugnant? However, before attaining any sort of settled opinion, I’d need to read, and engage with, a far wider range of discussions, on a far wider range of issues in this area, including especially work by the marginalized targets of such views.

References

Allen Wood (2006) “Kant’s Life and Works.” In Graham Bird ed. A Companion to Kant.

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27 comments
  1. GFA said:

    I really struggle with this too, especially in teaching — and I also am not an expert, and don’t have firm convictions yet. But I feel myself becoming increasingly concerned about teaching such texts. There are several reasons for concern. One obvious one: if there are very few people from history lifted up as philosophical heroes (because of time constraints of the academic year), what message does it send about today’s philosophical community that we choose to lift up racists and sexists? (Contrast reading Kant in an “Intro to Ethics” class vs. in “The History of Philosophical Racism.”)

    I’m becoming especially concerned about teaching such texts in ethics (broadly construed). Here’s why: just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, I think the proof of an abstract moral principle is in its application. If that’s true, and Kant (e.g.) understood his principles and how to apply them, then when he says specific, concrete ethically repugnant things, that seems like evidence against his principles — or even (to speak in a hand-wavy way) that his whole way of approaching the subject is suspect.

    Of course, there are replies to this second line of worry, the two most obvious being:
    (1) Kant did not make any specifically moral mistakes; rather, he had some false descriptive/ empirical beliefs (about the cognitive capacities of women or people of color).
    (2) Kant’s behaviors violate his own ethical principles; the fact that he failed to live up to his principles is not evidence that his principles are incorrect.
    Maybe (1) or (2) will ultimately work… but I have difficulty shaking the idea that, if we want to find and study the best ethical theories, we should spend our very limited time on those theories whose advocates and (attempted) practitioners lived lives that seem to us ethically praiseworthy, since such lives are a sort of indirect evidence that the theory has something valuable in it (assuming the person is not constantly violating their own principles).

    • Thanks. I’m fairly strongly inclined towards (1) and (2) in the case of Kant, though I’m thinking specifically of his moral philosophy rather than e.g. his political philosophy. More generally people make all sorts of mistakes in their theorising and also in their lives more generally. More generally still, I think the aim to learn only from the saintly is utopian. Kant’s moral theory–rightly I think–sets very high standards for full morality. My guess is that no one has, and no one does, fully meet those standards. So, one needs, I think, to be somewhat circumspect in assessing people in light of transgressions of full morality. All that said, I’m inclined to treat the issue on a case by case basis.

      • GFA said:

        Thanks! I completely agree that “the aim to learn only from the saintly is utopian” and that “one needs, I think, to be somewhat circumspect in assessing people in light of transgressions of full morality,” when ‘full morality’ is extremely demanding (e.g. Kantianism). (I hope I didn’t say anything in the previous comment that contradicts that.)

        Maybe this is a better way of putting what’s driving my second concern. Imagine two competing moral theories, each of which has extremely (impossibly?) high standards for full morality. (If the Doris/Harman situationist critique of virtue ethics is right, then we could take one theory to be Kantian and the other to be Aristotelian.) Now imagine one person tries, as best they can, to live their life by the first theory, and another person tries to live their life by the second theory. (Or we could make it two groups of people.) If we look at the two people’s lives, and judge (pre-theoretically) that the first is better than the second, then that is one small piece of defeasible evidence in favor of the first theory over the second (ceteris paribus).

        Rae Langton’s “Maria von Herbert’s Challenge to Kant” provides a concrete example of the sort of thing I have in mind. Maria von Herbert claimed to attain what Kant considered perfect moral status, Kantian “bliss” — nothing motivated her except the categorical imperative — but the result was that she was incredibly depressed and suicidal, because she felt the world was meaningless.

      • Thanks. No, I don’t think anything in your earlier comment contradicted what you say here. I haven’t read the Langton, so can’t comment in detail, but the sketch makes her point sound a little dependent, first, on a specific reading of Kant (with which I’m inclined to disagree) and, second, on the specific psychology of one individual. More generally, I’m inclined to separate two projects, whilst viewing them as of course interdependent: first, the project of trying to discern the requirements of morality; second, the project of figuring out how to get oneself and others in the best possible position to meet those demands. I wouldn’t automatically assume that it’s at all easy, or even in practice feasible, for us to meet the moral demands. And I wouldn’t treat the fact that trying to meet certain demands ended up making people morally worse as automatically a problem with how the first project has been pursued; it might well be more plausible to blame the way the second project has been pursued.

    • Izzy said:

      I think Allen Wood is mostly correct, but I would add some caveats. It’s important to parse out what our goals are in teaching philosophy, particularly history of philosophy. If our goal is strictly exegetical, or interpretive and/or analytical, then I think we should probably altogether set aside any tendency to pass moral judgments on the character of the work and the author. This may involve engaging in certain forms of moral reasoning insofar as we are philosophically engaged with the text and attempting to, for instance, test Kant’s moral theory against his own examples, intuitions, and observations (in which case, it’s quite obvious he failed on a number of scores).

      But as far as I can tell, this form of criticism merely looks at the logical strength and consistency of his arguments. It also assumes that instances of the author’s dubious moral observations are philosophically pertinent (as can be plausibly argued in the case of Heidegger, and at least in some cases in Kant, particularly with regard to his remarks about our moral duties to animals). I think in some instances (as in say a graduate level seminar on Kant’s second Critique) this is an appropriate way of going about business, since understanding precisely what Kant had to say and the extent to which his arguments work has virtue on its own, even if for nothing else than for gaining preparation for further ethical reflection and appraisal.

      On the other hand, if our goal is at least in part to enlighten toward the end of not only textual elucidation, but practical moral wisdom (as in a normative ethics course, for instance), then it may be worthwhile to assess the moral worth of Kant’s work, and perhaps even Kant the man. I caution against the latter because I don’t think we’re necessarily in a position to pass character judgments on a centuries old deceased man on the basis of his writings alone. Although perhaps a broader contextual study into his life would warrant some judgments, I wonder how useful such determinations would be. I am more interested in knowing how to act and how not to act than being Kant’s moral judge from the vantage point of modern history. There are far worse offenders worthy of our indignation, in any case.

      A more vexing matter, however, is the issue of championing the work of someone who is morally repugnant and thus (potentially) unworthy of such a memory. This may be especially problematic for philosophers who even had ambitions of fame and longevity. This problem is at least mitigated in my view by merely acknowledging the proper moral strengths and pitfalls of the work in question. If we properly acknowledge the racist or sexist elements of a philosopher’s work, for example, while also respecting the work’s wisdom and insight, then I don’t think we’d be guilty of anything more than an honest appraisal of a philosopher’s work. Our moral attitude toward any given text, subject, or person need not be one of admiration for us to morally benefit from studying it. We can gain wisdom from studying even the foulest of individuals (of whom I am hardly inclined to include Kant). In this respect, I am very much in agreement with Wood.

      • Thanks. I think I broadly agree with all of that. One potential point of disagreement concerns the worth of passing moral judgements in various contexts. In interpretative and/or analytical work, and in graduate and undergraduate teaching, I think there’s often value in engaging with questions about whether a view is true or false. Sometimes there can even be value in defending claims to the effect that a view is, say, false. I guess I’m inclined to think that the same is true with respect to questions about moral goodness or rightness, &c. Another factor in my thinking about the pedagogical role is related, I think, to your thought about undergraduate ethics teaching. I think there’s value in openly proclaiming that certain views are wrong, unacceptable, &c. It might e.g. induce someone to be less secure in those views, or to rethink; and it might prevent the expression of such views by e.g. Kant from giving those views a patina of respectability. I guess it’s a partly empirical question whether I’m right about the need for that, and about its efficacy. But the idea that it might be worthwhile figured in my thinking here.

      • Izzy said:

        (Sorry for the double post, moderator can delete the one below!)

        I don’t see any real disagreement here. If it wasn’t clear in my last post, what I was cautioning against was character judgments of Kant rather than judgments of his work. We can, and should, obviously repudiate (or at the very least call attention to) dubious moral claims should we come across them in probably just about any course one might pursue on Kant’s moral philosophy. I think this is part of the process of engaging philosophically with the text. It doesn’t diminish the value of the text, either. To the contrary, it may very well increase the value of the text.

        I think this practice may not be quite as essential in an upper division seminar focused primarily on interpretation, but even then, I think it’s worthwhile to make these judgments because they might reveal shortcomings in Kant’s theoretical goals (such as providing a satisfactory moral theory for instance).

        Conversely, I don’t see much in the way of moral benefit from casting moral judgments on Kant’s historical character. I just don’t think it is incumbent on us to be Kant’s moral judge. This is because I’m doubtful we are in a good position to occupy such a role, and because I don’t think we gain anything of real value from it (generally speaking).

  2. Anon said:

    This is an important question, one well worth thinking about. However, I have both moral and philosophical worries about the particular way in which the question is often raised and discussed.

    First, let me say how I deal with such cases. I point out to my students that these are examples of brilliant, intelligent, well intentioned, thoughtful people getting it royally wrong, reflecting the prejudices of their day even while believing they’re simply drawing rational conclusions. And I then point out that this should make us wary of our confidence in our own rationality and rightness. Rather than using the example as an opportunity to focus on our moral superiority to moral philosophers in the past, I point out that they probably had the exact same sense of shocked moral superiority to their past, and that the real onus is on *us* to be more humble and self-critical, rather than to applaud ourselves for seeing their need to have been more humble and less critical.

    And so this is my moral worry about the way the question is raised: it is often raised in a morally condescending way as if from the standpoint of obvious general moral superiority, as if by those who 1) have settled the philosophical questions of ethics and know what’s right and 2) have successfully and consistently lived up to that knowledge.

    And of course, on specific points, that’s true. The moral repugnance of racism, for example, is rightly seen as a settled matter, and we are in practice superior (if far, far, far from perfect) in this respect. But in this respect. And the question is often posed not as a particular point of superiority but categorical. For example: “should one engage with” the person, suggests that person is reducible to this one moral failing and I, as the one free to engage or not, am reducible to my moral successes.

    To my mind, there’s a danger not just of a mistake here, but of a serious moral failing: a dehumanizing treatment of someone (as unworthy of any concern, hearing, discussion or attention) in general for a specific moral failing. That danger is avoided if we limit the case. I call this the Thanksgiving Dinner rule: don’t engage racist uncle Bob in a debate about his racist views, because he’s too egregiously misguided for it to be fruitful and it gives him an opportunity to promote those horrendous views. But if this becomes: shun and refuse to talk to or show basic human concern for uncle Bob, it’s morally wrong. I’d apply this to famous dead racist philosophers, too. To treat Kant as having no human value, which treating his entire philosophy’s value as reducible to its errors would imply, would be not simply a mistake, but a moral wrong.

    And I think it’s a further moral wrong to promote an attitude of human-disengagement-justifying overall-moral superiority attitude in students, who need more than anything to become more morally charitable and engaged, not more smug and dismissive.

    Now, the philosophical worry. By emphasizing the moral flaws in philosophers over their merits and treating them as a reason for disagreement, we are endorsing an anti-philosophical attitude of question begging.

    For example, “we should spend our very limited time on those theories whose advocates and (attempted) practitioners lived lives that seem to us ethically praiseworthy” is good advice only if we already know with certainty what is ethically praiseworthy. Otherwise, it might be disastrous. Indeed, would we want, for example, Kant to have followed that view? Or Plato?

    Indeed, isn’t the problem precisely that they *did* so?

    • GFA said:

      I’m agree with most of what you say here, in particular (i) the ethical ‘pessimistic induction’, and (ii) that we should do everything within our power to prevent our students from becoming “more smug and dismissive.” But I did want to make a couple comments.

      1. I don’t think it’s dehumanizing to omit a philosopher from a syllabus. We have to leave out the vast majority of philosophers who are worth reading. I agree with your Thanksgiving Dinner rule, but I think it may not be analogous to the case of Kant et al. Think about the following cases: if you had one meal left on the planet before you died, or if you were introducing your new significant other to meet your family for the first time, would you be acting unethically by not inviting Bob?
      (Also, I don’t know that anyone genuinely recommends “treating [Kant’s] entire philosophy’s value as reducible to its errors”; that view seems a little strong to me.)

      2. I don’t think I can get on board with this conditional:
      “For example, “we should spend our very limited time on those theories whose advocates and (attempted) practitioners lived lives that seem to us ethically praiseworthy” is good advice only if we already *know with certainty* what is ethically praiseworthy.”
      I certainly do not know with certainty what is ethically praiseworthy. But we have to start somewhere; I guess I think something in the vicinity of reflective equilibrium is the way to go, so we start with some specific cases of things (actions, people, etc.) that we feel pretty confident are ethically praiseworthy, but we are willing to revise those judgments in the course of critical reflection. I think I have in mind something like what you said about “The moral repugnance of racism”: it “is rightly seen as a settled matter.”

  3. anon junior said:

    I basically agree with Wood. But two qualifications may be worth considering.

    (1) When we are studying historical philosophers, it can be all too easy to go to the other extreme and approach their views in abstraction from their actual personalities and circumstances. This seems to me to be a heuristic mistake; Kant offers a nice example. By keeping in mind that the driving concerns of his ethics–about freedom, respect, and intersubjective justification–were, after all, the concerns of someone living in a very different (though not entirely alien) culture from ours, it can be easier us to attend to respects in which our own concerns might fundamentally differ.

    (2) On the other hand, when we are studying contemporary philosophers, intellectual engagement has pragmatic implications that do not pertain to the historical case, and to which moral and political considerations might be relevant. These are familiar from nonacademic political debates: once a convention of intellectual engaging, say, Tea Party conservatives is in place, they thereby acquire a degree of intellectual respectability: the de facto bounds of reasonable disagreement has expanded, and the center has shifted. I worry that much the same might be happening with libertarians and classical liberals in analytic philosophy.

    • Thanks. I’m sympathetic with both points. I agree that we should be sensitive to ways in which historical figures may have concerns that differ from our own, and that this may be the case with Kant. I guess I think that’s more plausible with respect to some of his more political work than his core moral theory, but the question isn’t straightforward to answer. I also largely agree with your second point, though I waver about engagement. I tend, for example, not to discuss UKIP (a little like tea party in some respects, but I think perhaps a less potent political force, though with some impact, e.g. on thinking about immigration). But pulling in the other direction, I think it can be very important to clearly state: this is unacceptable. Largely, though, I think I agree.

  4. billwringe said:

    One thing that strikes me about Wood’s comments is the implicit claim to generality in them. He’s obviously got Kant in mind here; and I’m inclined to sympathize. But I think that there’s a range of different attitudes that it makes sense to take to different philosophers with problematic views: what it makes sense to say about Aristotle on natural slavery is very different from what it makes sense to say about Kant, or about Heidegger, or Frege (to take 4 radically different cases)

    • Thanks. Yes, I think it’s right that we might want to say different things about different people. It might be, however, that Wood’s general claim holds in full generality, even if we also want to say very different things at a more fine-grained level.

  5. Anon said:

    GFA, this strikes me as rather controversial:

    “I think the proof of an abstract moral principle is in its application. If that’s true, and Kant (e.g.) understood his principles and how to apply them, then when he says specific, concrete ethically repugnant things, that seems like evidence against his principles — or even (to speak in a hand-wavy way) that his whole way of approaching the subject is suspect.”

    First, how can the proof of an abstract principle be in the application? I need correct beliefs about which things, in practice, are morally repugnant to evaluate the application. If I believe my practical beliefs are correct, I either do so for no reason, in which case I’m not rationally evaluating the appliciation, or they depend on reasons that ultimately depend on abstract principles I believe I have rational reasons to hold. So how can I prove by practice without begging the question?

    In Kant’s case, I think his moral failings not only don’t count against his principles, they may even count in their favor, since his own principle (specifically, rational creatures as ends in themselves) give us reasons for condemning his practice–arguably stronger reasons for doing so than competing ethical theories do.

    I say this, for the record, even though I fundamentally disagree with his principles (I don’t believe any agents are rational ends in themselves, nor do I think moral status depends on it.)

    • GFA said:

      Hi, thanks! I agree that it is controversial, and as a result I’m not at all certain it’s correct. It’s definitely a rough idea at best.

      I think where I might part ways with your view is here:
      “If I believe my practical beliefs are correct, I either do so for no reason, in which case I’m not rationally evaluating the appliciation, or they depend on reasons that ultimately depend on abstract principles I believe I have rational reasons to hold.”

      I wonder whether this is really an exhaustive dichotomy (no reason vs. reason ultimately depending on abstract principles I believe I have rational reasons to hold). The claim that every reason I could have for action ‘ultimately depends on abstract principles I believe I have rational reasons to hold’ sounds too strong to me — something only us philosophers would be tempted to say. Kids do things because their parents or teachers tell them to. Or because ‘It’s the right thing to do,’ without any further rationalization of why it’s right, or because ‘Pat is sad when I take his toys,’ without being able to articulate some more fundamental abstract principle etc. These sorts of things still strike me as reasons, but perhaps I could be talked out of that.

      I can’t tell if the following is another way of putting the same point, or not; but here goes anyway. You say “So how can I prove by practice without begging the question?” I guess I was thinking this is just an instance of reflective equilibrium, or at least something closely related to it (a sort of more empirical, less hypothetical version). We have to start from somewhere, and those starting points are about fairly concrete cases, and perhaps some rather specific principles or rules of thumb.

      • anon said:

        Thanks GFA, I think agree with much of this. “Reflective equilibrium” seems like the right idea, but I have in mind an equilibrium between theory and practice, in which we have to move critically back and forth between the two, using practical intuitions to question principles, but also using principles to test for prejudice or arbitrariness in our practical intuitions. Indeed, as you say in practice we learn morality through forms of implicit reasoning that don’t fit the dichotomy of abstract reasons and no reasons.

        But because these reasons are largely accidental (I happen to have a certain enviornment) and unconscious (I’m unaware that I’m adopting or choosing anything, and unaware that I’m gaining reasons and implied principles through this practice) it remains in general way non-rational or not fully reasoned, so still in need of critical comparison to conscious principles to be reliable.

        So to give priority to proof by practice, rather than playing principle and practice off of each other, may be insufficient for overcoming these less than fully reasoned origins of our practical intuitions.

  6. Avi said:

    With respect to Kant specifically, see Pauline Kleingeld’s article, “Kant’s Second Thoughts on Race.” If she is right, his thought on race “evolved.”

    • Thanks. Yes, Wood discusses the issue just before the quotation in the post. I can’t remember whether he cited Kleingeld, but it’s certainly something I should read.

  7. Interesting comments. I broadly agree with anon, except that she/he seems to regard Kant’s racism as akin to getting his moral sums wrong. That is, Kant’s moral philosophy provides excellent rules for moral conduct, but he’s then tempted by prejudice into misapplying his own rules. That way of putting it seems to rest upon a form of moral realism that I find suspect.

    The head-scratching thing about a case like Kant’s is not so much that he misapplied his own rule, but that he evidently saw what we consider obvious racism as being perfectly in line with it. This, however, is merely an extreme example of what most moral debates are actually about. That is, they’re not usually about which rules we should apply, but what counts as following those rules. So: I think Jones acted selfishly, but you don’t. We argue about it, produce example and counter-example, fact and counter-fact, and so on. Neither of us doubts that selfishness is wrong (indeed, “selfishness is wrong” is tautologous). The question is: was Jones’s act an example of selfishness? And the meta-question is: can it be proved one way or another (is it a matter of ratiocination)? Or does the argument at some stage move on to persuasion? (The difference here is between changing what one can see and changing the way one sees things.)

    And I think the case of Kant is about a way of seeing rather than moral sums. We want to grab him by the shoulders and say “can’t you SEE how your racist views contravene your own categorical imperative?” But “can’t you see?” is not an argument.

    • anon said:

      “The head-scratching thing about a case like Kant’s is not so much that he misapplied his own rule, but that he evidently saw what we consider obvious racism as being perfectly in line with it.”

      Philip, I suppose so, but then the question is why did he see differently on this point–is it because his moral rule is flawed in a way that allows for that difference, or must he ignore or artificially stretch his rule to see it that way?

      My own suspicion is that, rather than being tempted by prejudice into misapplying his own rules, he does so from, at bottom, ignorance. His racism was only obvious to him because he had (and, presumably, failed to seek out) no experience or information that refuted it. It’s easy to wallow in prejudice when you never leave Konigsberg and all the literature on the world outside is equally provincial.

      This is, after all, how a large percentage of white America continues to preserve its racial prejudices: by living in a cultural bubble and getting all their information about minorities from deeply flawed sources. (In some ways, given the enabling factor of social media’s bubble-effect and the economic segregation of American cities, we’re probably more Konigsbergian than Kant was.)

      • Regarding Kant’s rule, I’d say neither. A rule doesn’t describe reality. It cannot be inaccurate or stretched in the sense of “not corresponding to the facts”. Again, that’s moral realism. And there’s no such thing as a moral rule that’s so “accurate” it leaves no scope for disagreement over its application. And that’s because rules are neither accurate nor inaccurate.

        That’s not to say, of course, that Kant might not have changed his outlook if he’d been less provincial. And that is, in a sense, becoming less ignorant. But Kant’s gain would’ve been less about facts than experience. Or, rather, it would’ve depended on the significance he saw in the new facts. After all, there’s no guarantee that getting out of Prussia would’ve changed his mind. He might’ve been disgusted at what he saw and found his attitudes reinforced.

        A case like Kant’s is interesting because in some ways his age was not so very different from our own – 18th C Konigsberg was not like ancient Sumeria. But in other ways things have changed a lot in terms of culture and the basic presumptions that go with it. So we’re not entirely sure whether to throw up our hands and say “things were different back then” or say that Kant should’ve known better. Either way, however, it’s not about ignorance in the same sense that Kant was ignorant about the physical structure of the sun.

      • anon said:

        I don’t know that it’s a matter of moral realism. If we take Kant’s general rule to be: never treat a rational creature as reducible to a non-rational creature, claiming that some creatures are rational does not commit me to moral realism. And that’s, I take it, Kant’s problem: that he refuses to see all human beings as truly or fully rational.

        Moral realism would concern the normative claim that there are ways I ought to treat rational creatures, not the descriptive claim that there are such things, and who that includes.

        Of course, Kant’s problem is deeper, since he has a ridiculous conception of rationality that no creature can meet: capable of determining one’s will by reason independently of inclination. His error, then, was to believe anyone met his criterion of moral worth, not to exclude some.

        But that excessively high standard of rationality might not, after all, be unrelated to his racism: it’s easy to believe illusions about the rationality of those like us and dear to us, while it’s easier to see these to be illusions in those unlike me about whom I don’t care.

  8. philori said:

    How can you accuse someone that he neither was an expert nor did he think out of the box in every respect? Kant was a very lucid spirit and, from what we know, open-minded concerning nations he thought near to him. He admired Lituanians, he thought his family was of Scottish origin etc. Now, in his Anthropology one can find more or less racist remarks on Modern Greeks. At least, one can interpret them so. In the 1990s, Reinhard Brand, now an emeritus and back then in Marburg, found out that Kant’s sources for these views were Griffith Hughes’s Natural History of Barbados and Jakob Friedrich von Bielefeld’s Erste Grundlinien der allgemeinen Gelehrsamkeit. As I said, the question is how we can accuse someone that he didn’t think out of the box in every respect – let alone someone who did think out of the box in so many ways and predominantly in matters in which he does not express the result of his own investigations? Consequently, as a Greek I’m not offended when I read Kant’s Anthropology. Likewise, I find Frege’s antisemitism not a serious issue because it’s not a philosophical issue. Heidegger’s antisemitism, however, is interwoven with his philosophical views and I think that this should be taken into account by Heideggerians, phenomenologists etc.

    • Thanks. I agree about the basic evidence, and have some sympathy with the reaction. The issues here are delicate and controversial: some readers seem to find more generally problematic themes in Kant’s work, and also that Kant’s occasional expressions of views about groups of people and theses framed in terms of ‘race’ are especially problematic in light of their impact on later thinking. My own reading of Kant differs from theirs, but I think the issues here, especially about the wider influence of racist themes in Kant, are difficult and worth thinking through carefully. I’m also inclined to agree about Frege, although even this is somewhat controversial. However, I agree that in trying to understand past thinkers, including their moral standing, one needs to take account of the circumstances in which they write, and the extent to which they could reasonably have been expected to depart from the views that surrounded them. But that won’t in general excuse morally problematic views, I think, although it may help modulate the way one takes then to impact on assessments of moral character; rather, it’s a way of coming to understand how they came to be held. Anyway, I think the issues here are not straightforward, though I have some sympathy with your take on them.

  9. Izzy said:

    I think Allen Wood is mostly correct, but I would add some caveats. It’s important to parse out what our goals are in teaching philosophy, particularly history of philosophy. If our goal is strictly exegetical, or interpretive and/or analytical, then I think we should probably altogether set aside any tendency to pass moral judgments on the character of the work and the author. This may involve engaging in certain forms of moral reasoning insofar as we are philosophically engaged with the text and attempting to, for instance, test Kant’s moral theory against his own examples, intuitions, and observations (in which case, it’s quite obvious he failed on a number of scores).

    But as far as I can tell, this form of criticism merely looks at the logical strength and consistency of his arguments. It also assumes that instances of the author’s dubious moral observations are philosophically pertinent (as can be plausibly argued in the case of Heidegger, and at least in some cases in Kant, particularly with regard to his remarks about our moral duties to animals). I think in some instances (as in say a graduate level seminar on Kant’s second Critique) this is an appropriate way of going about business, since understanding precisely what Kant had to say and the extent to which his arguments work has virtue on its own, even if for nothing else than for gaining preparation for further ethical reflection and appraisal.

    On the other hand, if our goal is at least in part to enlighten toward the end of not only textual elucidation, but practical moral wisdom (as in a normative ethics course, for instance), then it may be worthwhile to assess the moral worth of Kant’s work, and perhaps even Kant the man. I caution against the latter because I don’t think we’re necessarily in a position to pass character judgments on a centuries old deceased man on the basis of his writings alone. Although perhaps a broader contextual study into his life would warrant some judgments, I wonder how useful such determinations would be. I am more interested in knowing how to act and how not to act than being Kant’s moral judge from the vantage point of modern history. There are far worse offenders worthy of our indignation, in any case.

    A more vexing matter, however, is the issue of championing the work of someone who is morally repugnant and thus (potentially) unworthy of such a memory. This may be especially problematic for philosophers who even had ambitions of fame and longevity. This problem is at least mitigated in my view by merely acknowledging the proper moral strengths and pitfalls of the work in question. If we properly acknowledge the racist or sexist elements of a philosopher’s work, for example, while also respecting the work’s wisdom and insight, then I don’t think we’d be guilty of anything more than an honest appraisal of a philosopher’s work. Our moral attitude toward any given text, subject, or person need not be one of admiration for us to morally benefit from studying it. We can gain wisdom from studying even the foulest of individuals (of whom I am hardly inclined to include Kant). In this respect, I am very much in agreement with Wood.

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