Bad Children of Kant

Damon Linker has just come out with another installation in his mysterious interstitial self-positioning in the national conversation: is he a Platonist who doesn’t believe his own noble lie but wants to, and also can’t really keep his mouth shut about the fact that he doesn’t believe it, which makes it a really ineffective noble lie?  Is he a basic Isaiah Berlin liberal? A Straussian quadruple agent?  A Jesuit?  WHAT?

Key quote (or at least my favorite):

What talk of selfishness and self-absorption really points to is the poverty of our moral concepts. As good children of Immanuel Kant, we find it difficult to think about morality and ethics in broader terms than a binary contrast between the selfless devotion to universal principle (good) and the selfish satisfaction of subjective desires (bad). No wonder that many of the people who think of themselves as selflessly devoting their lives to raising children look out at a sea of childless couples and singles in contemporary America and conclude that they’re paragons of selfishness.

Ethical reasoning in the ancient world (at least among philosophers) was much richer. Aristotle encapsulated the classical view in the famous opening line of the Nicomachean Ethics, which boldly asserted that every art, inquiry, action, and pursuit “aims at some good.” The implication is quite stunning to a mind reared on Kantian categories, maintaining that a person who engages in great acts of evil, no less than someone who does great moral deeds, is pursuing some notion of the good. (It also implies, pace Kant, that the “selfish” concern with one’s own good is inexorably wrapped up with everything human beings do.)

This is exactly right: Christianity has no problem saying that Christ went to the Cross “for the sake of the joy set before him,” but Kant would consider the promise of that Joy (i.e. being united with us) as cheating.

I managed to not be the girl who bombed a facebook comments thread with a C.S. Lewis quote but this is my blog so now I get to indulge:

If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness.  But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love.  You see what has happened?  A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance.  The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.  I do not thik this is the Christian virtue of Love.  The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.  We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.  If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.  Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.

Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory

One theme in the comment thread was people saying that having kids is/is not actually more pleasurable/hedonistic in various more or less complicated ways than not having kids but having a lot of brunch instead.  And there was a guy called Will Wilkinson who talked about the non-obvious kind of pleasure that comes from caring for kids:

My experience as a very new parent is that now I act far more often by fairly pure other-regarding motivation. A lot of what I do for my son I don’t exactly *want* to do, but I do it anyway, and not grudgingly or unhappily, but often without pleasure. I feed him, change his diaper, etc. because he’s mine, and so my responsibility, and *he* needs it. It’s duty.

But he’s not talking Kantian duty, where the more you don’t enjoy it the better you are.  He talks about

my sense that raising a decent human being is intrinsically valuable, and that it will be satisfying in a not obviously hedonic way to be proud of having done so.

I’ve been squabbling with a bunch of Desirists lately– these are utilitarians who think that they’ve solved the is-ought thing although they haven’t– and Will’s comment gets right to what’s wrong with attempts to account for how we actually experience the good which discount the possibility of a real human teleology, a real objective good.

Will’s pleasure in caring for his kid isn’t a pleasure in unselfishness qua unselfishness (which in Kantian terms wouldn’t make any sense,) and it’s not even an anticipation of being proud of having raised a good person, although that’s as far as he seems comfortable taking his own observations.

Rather, it’s a pleasure in love: he’s taking the complicated kind of pleasure we’re supposed to take in loving and caring for the people we’re supposed to love. It’s complicated because it doesn’t always feel like pleasure: it can be boring and annoying and sometimes gross, and it doesn’t just cater to your existing self but shapes you into a new self. So maybe we should just call it joy. Like pleasure, but it can kick your ass.

I get to call the following fact providence, rather than coincidence: my little cousin Alexander, last night, found himself a loose copy of The Weight of Glory that was hanging around the living room.  He’s a kid who likes “reading,” although he’s still working on spoken language– he’s actually trilingual, speaking Russian, English, and Alex, which is a language that sounds like it has indo-European roots but I can’t say much more about it.  Anyway, he found the book, which is a second spare copy for the household, and parked himself on the sofa to read.  Then he decided that he’d rather be on the camel saddle that my mom’s parents brought back from when they lived in India, so he read there for a while.

And then he decided that mom– my mom, not his– should read it aloud to him, actually, so he came over to where we were eating dal and rice and climbed up on her lap and indicated his instructions.  She read the table of contents to him, as he pointed: “The Weight of Glory,” she said.  “Transposition…Membership.”  “Membership,” repeated Alex after her, thoughtfully.

That book is going home with him today, after he and his older brother and his parents visit the High Line and Eataly.

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2 responses to “Bad Children of Kant

  1. “Bad Children of Kant” is my punk rock band name.

  2. I’ve read that philosopher and I Kant understand a thing he says.

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