Immanuel Kant – Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

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Regardless of what you think of Kant’s philosophy, his ideas, how much sense they make and how useful they are – you have to respect him. The man tried to dig ridiculously deep into human thought. His is the drill that pierced philosophy. The difficulty in understanding Kant is not in his writing. The writing is fairly analytic and linear. What’s difficult is the distance Kant takes from human thought.

Human thought is built by layers upon layers. Spread all your ethical laws. Notice how you’ll find a hierachy between them. One law is derived from another. A classic example is that of rape. It’s derived from the law of bodily autonomy, of not forcing people to do things against their will. In turn, this is derived from the law of freedom of action. That one is derived from the law of not causing suffering, since we assume here that violating freedom causes suffering.

Now, this is an off-the-cuff example that doesn’t require deep thinking. It’s popular enough to make my point clear about these layers. Kant isn’t satisfied in stopping where I did. He goes as high as he can, he tries to understand the bare skeleton of what moral thinking is.

Kant goes so high that he doesn’t even talk about humans anymore. He’s obsessed with reason. In his world, only reason and the ways of thought he exists. When he talks about universal ethics, they exist way before Man himself exists. Although he separates the natural world (what we experience) and what is really there (which we can’t access), his dissection of reason is like a mathematicians’ dissection of the rules of nature. He creates a logic that everything is subject to. Only Kant deals with words, with terms that have loaded and not definite meanings. The task is automatically more difficult.

Which is why it’s so impressive. Once you understand how Kant functions, it’s easier to read him. The Categorical Imperative becomes more than mere ‘do what you want others to do’. That rule seems simple and intuitive but Kant removes the subjectivity from it. You can use that rule to justify theft. If you don’t believe in public property, you can expect others to steal and not feel guilty about stealing. What Kant does is ask whether a behavior like this can actually exists. If everyone steals, then we don’t have anything to steal since everything’s stolen. When I respect someone’s property rights and he respects mine, society doesn’t fall apart.

The main issue with Kant’s idea is exactly how detached it is from human experience. In the end, the moral behavior has to come down to the World of Appearances. Once it does, it no longer exists in isolation. There are results. If a moral behavior in an individual instead happens to lead to results which give power to immoral people than how good is it? The problem with pure reason is that it tries to isolate things with its strict laws, but that doesn’t actually happen.

As an attempt to set a groundwork for discussing morality, this part is a bit of a let down. He moves too forward, and although the Categorical Imperative remains in the World of Reason, it naturally leads to the World of Appearances and that’s where we’ll test it.

The better part, however, are when Kant discusses what exactly is moral. The Categorical Imperative becomes convincing once Kant defines what morality actually is compared to other things. His writings about free will feel as though he shuts down the whole discussion by solving the problem. Morality needs freedom. Rationality demands freedom. We cannot prove freedom exists because our notions of ‘proving’ relate mostly to the World of Appearances. However, once we think that freedom doesn’t exist we can no longer think morally or rationally since we give in to natural impulses. Do you do this? Does anyone live only by natural impulses? Even if freedom doesn’t exist, we have to act and think as if we’re free.

His definition of morality as fairly convincing – it is goodness, plain and simple. At first it seems overly simplistic, but it actually makes sense. By ‘goodness’, he means thinking beyond our natural impulses. Here you can see how Kant spent too much time thinking and not enough doing. This idea is understandable, but he has to connect it to the World of Apperances. Intelligence and morality may exist in the World As Itself which is important because it’s the basis for the World of Appearances, but the World of Appearances is what we actually experience. So if I act morally, the results were bad (in various ways), does it matter if I were moral?

The only blind side to Kant’s case is that he never proves that reason is so awesome that it improves reality (or the World of Appearances). All the love he has for reason is convincing that it’s important, but seeing that reason in action would be the final proof. The clearest benefit from Kant’s way of thinking is how critical he is, how willing he is to vivisect ways of thought so it feels more like ‘reason’ and ‘morality’ are beasts he analyzes using microscopes and scalpels.

At worst, the book lives up to its title. Since Kant goes so deep in his definitions and dissection, it does come off like the starting point for moral thinking. He separates morality from other ways of thought. He separates other needs and the free will and the moral action. Only he never puts them back together, but you can start forming your own Theory of Ethics using this. Later, McLuhan would criticize the Typographic Man for their linear, fragmented thinking. Kant is an excellent example of this fault. Everything is split up to tiny little pieces, which is useful to understanding them. If only Kant went the extra mile to connect these piece – he was sure aware that he should, but I guess we needed new technology to help us realize the world is happening all at once.

Keep in mind this review was written by someone who just started his voyage on the seas of Philosophy. At the time of writing this, I haven’t taken any courses and this book was difficult to read, almost incomprehensible at times. The final section especially felt like a great mental exercises going nowhere. Still, as a place to start it’s great. It lays down the most important question and is fairly accessible, despite how huge the ideas are in here.

4 morals out of 5 metaphysics

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Sarah Perry – Every Cradle is a Grave


Two ideas are hard-wired into our minds. We believe life is good and that forcing people into existence is a positive thing not because of rational thinking. Genes make us think this way, because this is how they progress. Without these ideas, an organism kills itself and doesn’t produce offspring. Genes die, and genes’ purpose is to continue.

People always killed themselves. Some cultures even claimed it’s virtuous in certain situations. We’ve made huge ‘progress’ (Or, more correctly, changes) over the years thanks to doubters who kept tearing down ideas and replacing them with new ones. The general ideas about the value of life and birth remained the same, though. One famous philosopher talked about how we shouldn’t have kids, but is there any major literary work that asks this question?

You can’t blame Perry for not digging deep enough. She’s in the toughest stage of philosophy. Ethics and the meaning of life are both hard subjects, and going against your own genes is even harder. Few people made that journey – many who tried just said suicidal people got some chemical imbalance and called it a day. If her exploration is sometimes a little shallow, it’s only because she has few sources to draw from.

Her section about suicide is the most disappointing one. It’s a shame, because it’s also the most important one. Of all the ideas in this book, assisted suicide is the most practical one. The suicide prohibition is harmful and no different than oppression of minorities.

We treat suicidal people like criminals. Voicing misogynistic or racist thoughts is less dangerous than voicing suicidal thoughts. People can be hospitalized against their will for wanting to die. No suicide prevention is willing to actually talk to suicidal people, to deal with the arguments behind why suicide is a valid option. At least when people argue against misogyny, they got science and philosophy behind them. When people talk about suicide, they write people off as ‘irrational’.

There are a lot of ways to look at this tricky subject. Suicide is a private action that causes great distress to the environment. Perry doesn’t delve enough into why suicide should be protected. The main arguments suicide are the value of life and the harm it causes to others. The harm it causes to others is especially important, since ethics often blur when freedom, pleasure and pain mix.

While Perry explains briefly the principle of consent that transform murder into assisted suicide, it’s not enough. Suicide causes extreme pain and we need more allegories, more rephrasing of why it’s okay for a person to kill themselves. There’s a whole chapter about the suicide contagion which feels a little pointless – sure, it’s a thing but not as central to the debate as other things.

The chapter about social pain is fantastic and too short. It’s a new way to approach the problem of suicide and is informative even if you don’t believe in the right to die. The common narrative is that people kill themselves because they’re depressed is common and pretty comfortable. It makes the problem more complex – how do you solve depression? – but it erases responsibility. Perry’s idea that people kill themselves because of failed social belonging demands a revolution in suicide prevention. Suicide prevention should start earlier, and constantly happen. If people kill themselves because they don’t belong, we need to create a more welcoming, a more social society.

This type of idea is easy to explain, since people experience a lot of social pain. Suicide is causing social pain, actually – you reject people, deeming them not worth the time. It’s also the only moral type of suicide – suicide prevention by improving life, rather than stopping the act itself.

Suicide is a difficult subject. There are the practical side of how we make assisted suicide available – who’s fit, who loses the right to die, whether there’s an age of consent. The issue of how people feel after someone dies to suicide cannot be ignored. No matter how integral the right to die is, suicide leaves a huge pain (In fact, it’s considered the worst way to lose someone). Perry doesn’t do enough to explore such an alien idea to many.

Her writings about antinatalism is far better. She does write off the subjective perspective too easily, though. This higlight the core difference between the right to die and antinatalism. Both rely on different versions of morality. The former values freedom and the subjective perception, the other one is about preventing harm.

So even if life is overall bad, the fact people perceive it overall to be worthwhile is important. People who behave in a ‘suicidal’ way, according to her, may just be optismitic enough to believe it’ll be worth it in the end. Maybe they take these huge gambles because they value life so much that even if the gamble fails, life is still worthwhile.

Nevertheless, her anti-life arguments can’t be written off easily. They demand questioning our genes. Picking apart our daily schedules is important even if you believe life is worthwhile. By showing us how much time we waste on doing nothing, how much of our life is actually unpleasant she motivates change. If you truly think life is worthwhile, then you must act in ways that’ll prove it. If social pain encourages suicide, we must build a more friendly, communal society. Our morality relies more about not doing harm than actually doing good. What kind of society is it where we only avoid harm but don’t do good? A good life isn’t defined by lack – happiness due to absence rarely lasts. We’re happy when we have friends, but we’re not happy because we’re not being bullied.

The chapter about the natural world is also essential reading. It’s a radical and rare view of nature – not as a friendly, optimal place but one whose behavior is actually anti-life. So many animals die so young. Yet we don’t interfere when the female mantis eats the male’s head. How do animal rights work in this context? Why is it wrong to kill animals, or to ignore murder but okay to ignore it when it the organism aren’t human beings?

What makes the book so valueable is that even if you don’t agree with Perry’s thesis – many won’t, since they either love life too much or they can’t resist their genes – the ideas here are still useful and thought-provoking. It’s not just about how bad life is, but what to do with it. The last chapter, “Living in the Epilogue” is both horrifying and comforting. If things are really that bad, we can at least speed up life by enjoying it. Also, who has it worse? The person who’s about to die or the person who has 90 unwanted years ahead of them?

It’s an incomplete book, but antinatalism and suicide are difficult subjects. Perry at least confronts them instead of writing them off. Maybe someday in the future – if we have one – this book will become slightly outdated because of some basic sections. For now, this is a book that stares at difficult subjects in the face, provides tough answers and plenty of room for discussions or to move forward. You don’t have to agree with Perry to enjoy this. Many of her ideas can be used to improve society. As she said in the beginning, and something we often forget – we’re all humans, and what drives ethical philosophy is compassion for others.

4.5 cradles out of 5 graves