Rand on Kant (and positivists)

This is a commentary on a blog entry that claims Ayn Rand was wrong about Kant.

The blog author reproduces the following quote from “Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World” Chapter 7 of “Philosophy: Who Needs It”, with labels for Rand’s statements inserted for clarity (around location 1307 in the Kindle version):

He [Kant] did not deny the validity of reason – he merely claimed [1] that reason is “limited,” [2] that it leads us to impossible contradictions, [3] that everything we perceive is an illusion and [4] 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.

From the blog entry:

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.

I will work from the positions to attributed to Kant by the author of the blog post. These positions, he claims, are not accurately described by Rand’s statements about them [1]-[4], but he is wrong.

Let’s start with K1. According to this statement there is a whole load of stuff in reality that we cannot perceive the way it really is [4]. Also, the author concedes that reason is limited, as Rand claimed in [1].

What about K2? We can’t perceive metaphysical objects, and without those perceptions we are led into contradictions by reason when we attempt to understand those objects, so reason leads to contradictions [2].

And now K3. It reads a lot like [3] but since the words are used in a way that is a bit different from normal there’s a criticism of saying it is the same as [3] on its own. But together with K2 it implies that everything we perceive is a very small part of a much larger reality that we can’t understand. So everything we think we know about the stuff we see is wrong because those objects have metaphysical aspects we can’t understand [3].

So it looks like Rand was correct about this particular issue.

Rand again, from the same essay (around location 1325):

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.

From the blog:

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.

So the author’s defence of Kant is that whether you benefit from an action is irrelevant to whether it is right or wrong.If this was accurate, then Rand would have made a mistake.

But before I continue I want to address a mistake in the blogger’s description of Rand’s position:

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.

Rand’s position is that Kant said an action is moral if you do it from duty and get no benefit. She does not say that an action that doesn’t benefit you is equivalent to a duty. There could be things you could do that would be self-destructive that wouldn’t be a duty, but anything that is duty would be self-destructive.

Let’s look at some actual quotes from Kant.

According to Kant, staying alive is only morally praiseworthy if you want to die, otherwise it is just something people do and is not particularly good or bad:

Again, to preserve one’s life is a duty; and independently of this, every man is, by the constitution of his system, strongly inclined to do so; and upon this very account, that anxious care shown by most men for their own safety is void of any internal worth; and the maxim from which such care arises is destitute of any moral import (i.e., has no ethic content). Men in so far preserve their lives conformably to what is duty, but they do it not because it is so; whereas, when distress and secret sorrow deprive a man of all relish for life, and the sufferer, strong in soul, and rather indignant at his destiny than dejected or timorous, would fain seek death, and yet eschews it, neither biassed by inclination nor by fear, but swayed by duty only, then his maxim of conduct possesses genuine ethic content.

If you actually want to help somebody, doing it is morally worthless. If you don’t want to help him, that is morally good:

To be beneficent when in one’s power is a duty; and besides this, some few are so sympathetically constituted, that they, apart from any motives of vanity or self-interest, take a serene pleasure in spreading joy around them, and find a reflex delight in that satisfaction which they observe to spring from their kindness. I maintain, however, that in such a case the action, how lovely soever, and outwardly coincident with the call of duty, is entirely devoid of true moral worth, and rises no higher than actions founded on other affections, e.g., a thirst for glory, which, happening to concur with public advantage and a man’s own duty, entitles certainly to praise and high encouragement, but not to ethic admiration. For the inward maxims of the man are void of ethical content, viz., the inward cast and bent of the volition to act and to perform these, not from inclination, but from duty only. Again, to take a further case, let us suppose the mind of some one clouded by sorrow, so as to extinguish sympathy,—and that though it still remained in his power to assist others, yet that he were not moved by the consideration of foreign distress, his mind being wholly occupied by his own,—and that in this condition he, with no appetite as an incentive, should rouse himself from this insensibility, and act beneficently purely out of duty,—then would such action have real moral worth; and yet, further, had nature given this or that man little of sympathy in his temperament, leaving him callous to the miseries of others, but instead endowed him with force of mind to support his own sorrows, and so induced him to consider himself entitled to presuppose the same qualities in others, would it not be possible for such a man to give himself a far higher worth than that of mere good nature? Certainly it would; for just at this point all worth of character begins which is moral and the highest, viz., to act beneficently, irrespective of inclination, because it is a duty.

If you want to help somebody and do so, that’s morally neutral. If you don’t want to help him but do it anyway, that’s morally good:

It is thus, without all question, that we are to understand those passages of Scripture where it is ordained that we love our neighbour, even our enemy; for, as an affection, love cannot be commanded or enforced, but to act kindly from a principle of duty can, not only where there is no natural desire, but also where aversion irresistibly thrusts itself upon the mind; and this would be a practical love, not a pathological liking, and would consist in the original volition, and [11] not in any sensation or emotion of the sensory;—a practical love, resulting from maxims of practical conduct, and not from ebullitions and overflowings of the heart.

Anything you do because you want to do it is morally worthless, regardless of whether it happens to match what you would do as a result of duty. The blog author says this is consistent with benefiting from duty, but this would imply you can benefit from something you don’t want, which is false. If you get somebody to do something you allege will benefit that person, but which the person doesn’t want to do, all you’ve done is made somebody do something of which he has a criticism. You don’t have an answer to the criticism so you don’t know whether it benefits the supposed beneficiary.

A few additional notes

The blogger writes:

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.

Rand never understood the problem of induction well enough to solve it. (Karl Popper solved the problem of induction, see “Realism and the Aim of Science”, Chapter I, and “Objective Knowledge” chapter 1.) But she understood it well enough to see that Kant’s “solution” was no good. Rand also didn’t pretend that she had solved the problem of induction, unlike many other philosophers. And she solved many other problems. The blogger continues:

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.”

Rand defines mysticism

Mysticism is the acceptance of allegations without evidence or proof, either apart from or against the evidence of one’s senses or one’s reason.

The logical positivists claimed that science was just about describing sense data in order to exclude “metaphysics”: anything other than sense data. They accepted the idea that you could understand perceptions, but not anything else. But this idea implicitly takes for granted that it is impossible for you to understand reality using reason. So the logical positivists rejected reason, their claims to the contrary notwithstanding. So the logical positivists adopted their ideas against reason: they were mystics. This is not pitiful, it is an accurate criticism of a destructive, anti-rational philosophy.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

One Response to Rand on Kant (and positivists)

  1. > > This is an accurate summary of central Kantian theses. (Trust me, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Kant.)

    Oh God, I remember reading that line in that blog posts. What an irrational appeal to authority! Then I checked up on some of his ideas about Kant, using primary sources, and found they were false. (I forget offhand what he got wrong about Kant but I’d say don’t trust ANY of his summary of Kant.)

    I don’t think writing that up in detail, or what Alan has done here, will change the world or convince many people. There’s some underlying problem where these bad arguments exist because people don’t care about the truth of this matter in the first place. So pointing out their ideas are false doesn’t address the real issue. They believe this stuff for some other reasons, like psychological reasons or static memes, and it addresses some sort of problem(s) of those types for people. It’s hard to offer them better solutions because they hide what their problem(s) are and how their solutions work.

    > Rand never understood the problem of induction well enough to solve it.

    yes and unlike many people, she knew and acknowledged that. she chose to focus on some other issues where she made a ton of progress. she didn’t fail here.

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