Is Kant a naturalist or a non-naturalist?

Lizzy asked:

Was Kant a naturalist or a non-naturalist? What is the best way of explaining Kant in relation to meta-ethics?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

In ‘The Philosophical Basis of Intuitionist Logic’ (1973) Michael Dummett quotes the mathematician George Kreisel:

“As Kreisel remarked in a review of Wittgenstein, ‘the problem is not the existence of mathematical objects but the objectivity of mathematical statements’.”

One can speculate about what exactly Kreisel meant, but I see this as an important insight that goes beyond the philosophy of mathematics.

Kant’s meta-ethics is objectivist as opposed to subjectivist. He believes that moral statements are not merely expressions of feeling, or true by virtue of the way ‘we’ feel, or the conventions that we have agreed to adopt. They are true in a substantial sense. There is no room for choice about whether or not to act according to the Categorical Imperative, no dependency on our way of seeing or feeling. You either act from an ethical motive, with the aim of conforming one’s action to the Categorical Imperative, or not.

According to the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.”

In the Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten Kant makes far-reaching metaphysical claims, which could be interpreted as being ‘about objects’. Kant insists on the necessity of the dualism of phenomenal and noumenal worlds in order to provide the proper grounding for the Categorical Imperative. However, as commentators have noted, the section on free will and the noumenal world is desperately obscure.

I would like to consider the possibility that Kant went further than he needed to. In order to provide an adequate meta-ethical basis for an objective view of ethics, the Categorical Imperative suffices. Let’s assume this.

In Kreisel’s terms, both the naturalist and the non-naturalist seek a grounding for ethics in terms of ‘the existence of objects’. According to the naturalist, these objects are such things as human nature, or biology, or, possibly, the virtues as conceived in virtue ethics. According to the non-naturalist, these objects might be Platonic Forms, or the Will of God.

Kant sees, or thinks he sees, a third possibility. As the formulation of the Categorical Imperative quoted above (from the James W. Ellington translation, Hackett 3rd edn.) implies, Kant sees ethics in terms of moral rationality versus irrationality. The laws of ethics are like the laws of logic. No-one would look for ‘objects’ with which to ground the laws of logic. If you examine the ‘maxim’ of someone who intends to do an action that conflicts with the Categorical Imperative, you will find a ‘contradiction’. Just as you would find in someone who, literally, wanted to ‘have their cake and eat it’. The proposed action doesn’t ‘add up’. It’s irrational.

It could be said as a criticism of Kant that he is too sanguine about the possibility of always finding a ‘contradiction’ in actions that people do every day (for example, telling ‘white lies’). But I think it is still a view to be reckoned with. We should always be suspicious of dilemmas in philosophy, and the alternative: naturalism versus non-naturalism is one that raises my suspicions.


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