Monday, 3 September 2018

Kant and Altruism: The Man and the Myth

By Roger E. Bissell

Leonard Peikoff has long propagated the myth that Kant is an altruist who advocates that one do one’s duty and sacrifice one’s values because they are one’s values, of “sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice, as an end in itself” (1982, 82). This is a serious distortion of Kant’s views. Doing one’s duty, for Kant, does not require setting aside one’s values, but merely one’s personal inclinations and desires, and then acting according to moral principle. One of his chief illustrations of this point is quite revealing, particularly in comparison to Rand’s “ethics of emergencies” (and please bear in mind, this is Kant writing in 1785 in Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. His later, more evolved thinking on this is even more revealing, as I’ll show shortly):
To be beneficent when we can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth, but is on a level with other inclinations, e.g. the inclination to honor, which, if happily directed to which is in fact of public utility and accordant with duty and consequently honorable, deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem. For the maxim lacks the moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination. Put the case that the mind of that philanthropist were clouded by sorrow of his own, extinguishing all sympathy with the lot of others, and that, while he still has the power to benefit others in distress, he is not touched by their trouble because he is absorbed with his own; and now suppose that he tears himself out of this dead insensibility and performs the action without any inclination to it, but simply from duty, then first has his action its genuine moral worth. (Kant [1785] 1952, 258; emphasis in original)
Note carefully here that Kant is not saying that acting benevolently when one is so inclined is per se without moral worth, but only when one so acts out of that inclination, rather than setting it aside and acting instead from duty, that is, from one’s awareness and acceptance that this is the morally right thing to do, that one should “be kind where one can,” regardless of the personal feelings of honor, inner satisfaction, and so on that one may also experience as a result.

Now, it is true that Rand does not advocate being kind to others as a moral duty. The term “duty” is, in fact, anathema to her, for it signifies an obligation that is necessarily divorced from one’s values. But as we’ve seen, Kant does not regard moral obligation in this way either, and to claim that this is what he means by “duty” is a gross misrepresentation of his views. Instead, as already noted, “duty” for Kant means acting according to moral principle, regardless of your feelings and personal inclinations—of “doing the right thing,” even if you don’t feel like it. How different is this from what Rand advocates in the Objectivist ethics?

Moreover, Rand does embrace the concept of an “obligation” to help others, which though not altruistic is very real and rationally justifiable. In fact, though nothing like an altruistic duty, Rand’s humanitarian “obligation” to help others is very much like Kant’s non-altruistic “duty” to help others. Helping others, for Rand, is a highly conditional, contextual matter, tied firmly to one’s self-interest, values, and happiness, and she discusses it at length, expressing principles such as the following: “If one’s friend is in trouble, one should act to help him by whatever non-sacrificial means are appropriate” (Rand 1963, 53; emphasis in original). “It is only in emergency situations that one should volunteer to help strangers, if it is in one’s power. For instance, a man who values human life and is caught in a shipwreck, should help to save his fellow passengers (though not at the expense of his own life)” (55; emphasis in original).

But observe that though these are conditional imperatives, they are imperatives, that is, moral principles. The “should’s” she uses multiple times in this essay are not a cynical ploy in order to deflect criticism that Objectivism is morally egocentric or sociopathic. When Rand says you should help others, she is making an emphatic statement of what as what she regards as morally right for you to do for others, given certain conditions. Not morally permissible, but morally required, obligatory. And these acts of helping others are not the right thing to do because one will get a heroic or warm-and-fuzzy feeling out of doing them—though one indeed may get such a feeling or other—but because they are virtuous acts, moral actions. Specifically, Rand says, they are acts of integrity, which she defines as “loyalty to one’s convictions and values…the policy of acting in accordance with one’s values, of expressing, upholding and translating them into practical reality” (52–53).

Also, Rand insists, there are limits on such moral obligations. As she colorfully illustrates this point: “…a man who values human life and is caught in a shipwreck, should [there’s that word again] help to save his fellow passengers (though not at the expense of his own life). But this does not mean…that he should spend his life sailing the seven seas in search of shipwreck victims to save” (55).

Now, considering what a vicious, sacrificial, duty-driven altruist that Rand and Peikoff paint Kant as being, you’d think Kant would have had nothing to do with such rational limits on the obligation to help others in need. Just give and give and give—and don’t ask if you can stop. Well, if your reading of Kant’s ethical writings never progressed beyond 1785, you might be excused for thinking this (though even then, only by overlooking the egregious misrepresentation of what Kant means by “duty” and “sacrifice”). However, consider this from Kant’s Introduction to the Metaphysical Elements of Ethics (1797):
If happiness, then, is in question, which it is to be my duty to promote as my end, it must be the happiness of other men whose (permitted) end I hereby make also mine. It still remains left to themselves to decide what they shall reckon as belong to their happiness; only that it is in my power to decline many things which they so reckon, but which I do not so regard, supposing that they have no right to demand it from me as their own (370, emphasis added).
And just to make absolutely clear that “permitted” end does not involve a blank check (compare to Rand’s rejection of the obligation to sail the seven seas!), Kant adds: “…no one has the right to demand from me the sacrifice of my not immoral ends” (370, emphasis added). Instead, deciding when and how much one is to “sacrifice” (give up) on behalf of another is a highly individual, open-ended matter, to be decided by the giver, not the receiver, of assistance.

As Kant says: “I am only bound then to sacrifice to others a part [note: not all or without limits] of my welfare without hope of recompense; because it is my duty [translate: my moral obligation], and it is impossible to assign definite limits how far that may go. Much depends on what would be the true want of each according to his own feelings, and it must be left to each to determine this for himself” (372, emphasis added). In other words, each person must be free to deter mine for himself when giving to others does or does not require “sacrifice of [his] not immoral ends,” and to be free to not go beyond the limits of non-sacrificial action.

True altruism, according to Kant, is simply not viable as a moral principle: “For that one should sacrifice his own happiness, his true wants, in order to promote that of others, would be a self-contradictory maxim if made a universal law” (373, emphasis added). This ought to be conclusive proof to Objectivists that Kant has been very unjustly portrayed as a moral monster by Rand and her followers. But of course, it won’t be, because Kant is such a convenient person to demonize and hold up as the root cause of all of our social problems, and recycling the distortions and context-dropping of Rand et al is so much easier than doing the heavy lifting of reading and truly trying to understand what Kant had to say.

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