Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Rand's Misunderstanding of Kant

Ayn Rand has some interesting things to say about the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in her essay, “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World” (1960) in Philosophy: Who Needs It (Signet, 1982, ed. Peikoff, pp. 58-76). Here is one example:

He [Kant] did not deny the validity of reason – he merely claimed that reason is “limited,” that it leads us to impossible contradictions [as opposed to possible contradictions?], that everything we perceive is an illusion and that we can never perceive reality or “things as they are.” He claimed,in effect, that the things we perceive are not real because we perceive them. (p. 64, italics in original)

Anyone who knows anything about Kant knows that this is a travesty of Kant’s actual views. It is either a willful distortion, or a distortion based on ignorance of Kant’s texts. First of all, notice how Rand runs together three separate ideas in one and the same sentence, the first sentence quoted. This is a sure sign of a sloppy thinker. Suppose we distinguish the following Kantian claims.

K1: Reason is limited in its cognitive employment to the sense world: there is no knowledge by reason alone of meta-physical objects, objects lying beyond the bounds of sense, such as God and the soul.

K2: When reason is employed without sensory guidance or sensory input in an attempt to know meta-physical objects, reason entangles itself in contradictions.

K3: For knowledge, two things are required: sensory input and conceptual interpretation. Since the interpretation is made in accordance with categories grounded in our understanding, the object of knowledge is a phenomenon rather than a noumenon (thing-in-itself). Since phenomena are objects of objectively valid cognition, a phenomenon (Erscheinung) is distinct from an illusion (Schein). (Cf. Critique of Pure Reason B69-70 et passim)

This is an accurate summary of central Kantian theses. (Trust me, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Kant.) Comparing this summary with what Rand says, one can see how she distorts Kant’s views. Not only does Rand misrepresent K1, K2, and K3, she conflates them in her run-on sentence although they are obviously distinct. Particularly outrageous is Rand’s claim that for Kant, objects of perception are illusory, given Kant’s quite explicit explanations (in several places) of the distinction between appearance and illusion.

What’s more, Rand gives no evidence of understanding the problem with which Kant is grappling, namely, that of securing objective knowledge of nature in the teeth of Humean scepticism. One cannot evaluate a philosopher’s theses except against the backdrop of the problems those theses are supposed to solve.

To give you some idea of the pitiful level Rand operates from, consider her suggestion near the bottom of the same page that logical positivists are “neo-mystics.” Old Carnap must be turning over in his grave.

On p. 65, we find another slam at Kant, this time against his ethics:

What Kant propounded was full, total, abject selflessness: he held that an action is moral only if you perform it out of a sense of duty and derive no benefit from it of any kind, neither material nor spiritual; if you derive any benefit, your action is not moral any longer. (Italics in original.)

This too is a travesty of Kant’s actual position. Kant distinguishes duty and inclination. (Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, Akademie-Ausgabe 397 ff.) This distinction must be made since there are acts one is inclined to perform that may or may not be in accordance with duty. An inclination to behave rudely contravenes one’s duty, while an inclination to behave in a kind manner is in accordance with it. Kant also distinguishes between acting from duty and acting in accordance with duty. One acts from duty if one’s act is motivated by one’s concern to do one’s duty. Clearly, if one acts from duty, then one acts in accordance with duty. But the converse does not hold: one can act in accordance with duty without acting from duty. Suppose Ron is naturally inclined to be kind to everyone he meets. On a given occasion, his kind treatment of a person is motivated not by duty but by inclination. In this case, Ron acts in accordance with duty but not from duty.

Kant held that an act has moral worth only if it is done from duty. Contra Rand, however, this is obviously consistent with deriving benefit from the act. Suppose -- to adapt one of Kant’s examples -- I am a merchant who is in a position to cheat a customer (a child, say). Acting from duty, I treat the customer fairly. My act has moral worth even though I derive benefits from acting fairly and being perceived as acting fairly: cheating customers is not good for business in the long run.

One can see from this how confused Rand is. She thinks that an act performed from duty is equivalent to one that runs counter to inclination, or counter to one’s own benefit. But nowhere does Kant say this, and nothing he does say implies it. An act done from duty may or may not run counter to inclination. Either way, the act has moral worth. If Jack and Jill are married (to each other!) and Jill asks Jack for sex, then Jack has a duty to engage in the act with Jill. Presumably, Jack will be strongly inclined by his animal nature to engage in the act. But if he acts from duty, then the act has moral worth despite the natural inclination. The difficulty of
determining whether or not Jack acts from duty or from inclination is not to the point.

So I persist in my view that Rand is a hack, and that this is part of the explanation of why many professional philosophers accord her little respect.