Practical reason and self-interest in morality

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Immanuel Kant: “The achievement of the highest good in the world is the necessary object of a will determinable by the moral law”

By Alexander Razin, Doctor of Philosophy, Professor of Lomonosov Moscow State University

The problem of self-interest in morality is controversial. To some extent, it is even provocative. In ordinary ideas, a selfless act, that is, an act devoid of self-interest, always receives the highest moral value. From here the inevitable conclusion follows that true morality is one in which self-interest is not represented in any form. However, here the question arises: in the name of what does a person perform a moral action, what motivates them?

Trying to explain the specifics of moral choice, many thinkers based morality on senses, assuming that a person has special moral feelings that force them to act in the interests of others (F. Hutcheson, D. Hume), and even believed that such feelings can give a person the highest pleasure (A. A. Shaftesbury).

Morality built on a sensual basis correlates with self-interest. But several objections can be raised regarding this affirmation: firstly, behaviour oriented towards moral duty is not always accompanied by pleasure. For example, it is hardly possible to say that when a person gives their life for homeland or suffers torture, they experience pleasure. Secondly, even if we ignore such an extreme situation, the reduction of the highest human good to moral motives only still leaves many questions. An increase in pleasure from performing moral actions can lead to an endless chain of repetitions, in which people do not commit wrong acts, and they try to raise people even more worthy than themselves, but for what – all this remains completely unclear. It is unclear precisely because good is not determined in some other sense, different from morality itself.

Moral sense theories were opposed by intellectualist concepts presented by R. Price, F. G. Bradley and others. But while moral sense theories explained self-interest in one way or another, intellectualist theories encountered difficulties in explaining it. This was most clearly manifested in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

Kant tries to support his intellectualist position with an indicative, but weak thesis. He asks the question, why a human was given reason. According to Kant, instinct would lead a person to happiness much more reliably. Why, then, was a human given reason? Precisely in order to give rise to moral ability, Kant believes: “For as reason is not competent to guide the will with certainty in regard to its objects and the satisfaction of all our wants (which it to some extent even multiplies), this being an end to which an implanted instinct would have led with much greater certainty; and since, nevertheless, reason is imparted to us as a practical faculty, i.e., as one which is to have influence on the will, therefore… true destination of reason must be to produce a will, not merely good as a means to something else, but good in itself, for which reason was absolutely necessary… There is nothing inconsistent with the wisdom of nature in… cultivation of the reason.”

That is, we are talking about the fact that reason is given to humans precisely so that they develop as moral beings. Of course, this position does not stand up to criticism. Reason expands the possibilities of satisfying human needs through new forms of anticipatory reflection associated with consciousness. And even animals with a psyche are no longer guided only by instinct, but also by ideal images in which the future state of reality is depicted, which expands the possibilities of adaptation and leads to success in achieving goals.

For Kant, reason is the only reliable criterion from which not only the necessity of morality is derived, but also the freedom of moral choice. But in reality, one can freely choose only that which presupposes certain reasons, and such reasons cannot be understood without connection with the personal goals of existence, and, consequently, with self-interest. From the self-interest position, the abilities that each person, according to Kant, must develop inside, must inevitably be analysed.

Kant does not speak directly about the special ontological status of the moral law, as other thinkers such as Richard Price have done. Disclosure of its content, in fact, remains the task of the person. In Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason, Kant asks the question of what kind of world would be created by good will if it were its creator. This is a world, Kant believes, where happiness meets merit. But, if a people can imagine themselves as creators of such a world, they are able to live according to the same laws that they affirm for this intelligible world. Thus, it turns out that the moral will, which is the creator of the moral law, does not need any special metaphysical ideas to express its moral intention.

Analysing Kant’s approach to morality, Vladimir Solovyov, in his work The Justification of the Good, reproaches Kant for the fact that his God deduce from morality for practical reasons. He writes: “…What is necessarily presupposed by moral life – the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, is not a requirement for something else that comes with morality, but is its own internal basis, God and the soul are not postulates of the moral law, but direct constituent forces of moral reality.”

However, the proof of this position, despite Solovyov’s criticism of Kant, also remains quite practical: “The fact that the good does not have a universal and final existence for us, that virtue is not always real and never (in our actual life) is completely real, does not, obviously, abolish another fact that goodness still exists, and that third fact that the measure of goodness in humanity is increasing.”

Further, Solovyov interestingly discusses the position of man in the world: “The only question is: does what I depend on make sense or not? If it does not, then it means that my existence, as dependent on nonsense, is also meaningless, and in this case there is no need to talk about any rational-moral principles and goals, for they can only mean if there is certainty in the sense of my existence, only under the condition of the rationality of the world connection or the predominance of sense over nonsense in the Universe. If there is no expediency in the general course of world phenomena, then that part of this process that consists of human actions determined by moral rules, cannot be expedient; and in this case, these rules cannot stand as leading to nothing, and they cannot be justified by anything.”

From here it is extremely clear that if morality is impossible without the assumption of the idea of expediency (for Solovyov – as brought into the world through the divine will), such expediency should be accepted – and in fact it turns out that for practical reasons. But Kant asserts essentially the same thing. He recognises the expediency of nature and the laws of its development from the point of view that it is such development that creates the conditions for the subsequent solution by humans of their moral problems. But all this pre-established harmony of nature, according to Kant, is provided precisely by God: “…We must recognise the moral cause of the world (the creator of the world) in order to presuppose our final goal in accordance with the moral law; and as much as the latter is necessary, it is equally necessary (i.e., to the same extent and on the same basis) to recognise the first, namely, that God exists.”

In the modern physical world view, this logic of thinking is assessed through the strong and finalist anthropic principles. The first one states that the emergence of life and man is a natural result of the development of the Universe. In the second one, that man represents the goal of the evolution of the Universe.

Portrait of Immanuel Kant by Johannes Heideck. 1791

I will not comment on these arguments from the point of view of the degree of their actual truth, because this is not assumed in metaphysical reasoning. It is important to emphasise something else: for a person in a normal mental state and in their connection with culture, with life of past and future generations, the desire to leave a memory in the minds of descendants (this is also evidenced by the genre of confession widespread in philosophical literature) is undoubted. This most important component of human life is fixed in the value consciousness.

Kant says that in an intelligible world, happiness and merit coincide. Consequently, he assumes that a person can strive for happiness, and even wants the latter to be associated with moral affairs. But he faces a problem on how merit is determined. Kant says that everyone should contribute to the common good (this, in fact, determines merit), but he does not demonstrate what this good consists of (then he would have to include elements of utilitarianism in his theory).

However, despite his negative attitude towards the utilitarian understanding of morality, Kant still cannot help but recognise some kind of human interest in being moral. Considering the movement towards the highest good as a duty for the subject, Kant writes: “The achievement of the highest good in the world is the necessary object of a will determinable by the moral law. And in this will, complete correspondence of mood with the moral law is the supreme condition of the highest good. Therefore, it must be as possible as its object, since it is contained in the same commandment – to promote such good. Complete agreement of the will with the moral law is holiness – a perfection inaccessible to any rational being in the sensory world at any moment of its existence. And since it is nevertheless required as practically necessary, it can only take place in a progress moving indefinitely towards such complete correspondence, and, according to the principles of bare practical reason, it is necessary to recognise such practical forward movement as a real object.

“But this endless progress is possible only if we assume that personality of a rational being exists and continues indefinitely (which is what is called the immortality of the soul).”

Associated with this assumption is the postulate of practical reason about the immortality of the soul, which also presupposes the existence of God. But God does not simply give a reward to man in the form of immortality, as Schopenhauer believed in his critical analysis of Kant’s postulates of practical reason, but God is precisely the condition for the endless continuation of moral affairs. In this regard, it should be noted that the American professor J. Lawler expressed the idea that Kant implied the theory of reincarnation. But maybe things are different. By the time of Kant, the theory of reincarnation in its classical form had already been debunked by Christian philosophy, which showed the inextricable connection between soul and body. Therefore, Kant could not simply, uncritically incorporate the idea of reincarnation into his theory. Lawler, in his reasoning, refers to Kant’s work Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, which ends with the questions: “…Perhaps for this purpose some more bodies of the planetary system will be formed, so that after the expiration of the time prescribed for our stay here, to prepare for us new mansions in other heavens? Who knows if its satellites revolve around Jupiter so that they can someday shine for us?”

But Kant never mentions such possibility in his later works. It is quite possible that he assumes the posthumous existence of a person in an intelligible world, where a special causality operates, such a connection among the consciousnesses of all people, which is also the basis of the moral position of each person and allows individual consciousness to improve continuously, but precisely in human, and not in any other forms.

The reasoning presented by Kant shows that person’s self-interest in morality is indirectly represented too, regardless of the fact that Kant considers only a selfless act as a moral one. It is associated with the emotion of satisfaction from the consciousness of fulfilled duty. Nevertheless, Kant’s solution to the problem turns out to be, firstly, associated with an unprovable metaphysical structure, and secondly, based on emotions that can be called quite weak. It is unlikely that such emotions can give rise to intense social action, since satisfaction in the sense of knowing that you have not violated the requirements of duty can be achieved more reliably by limiting your activity as much as possible and not engaging in risky activities, which is unlikely to be correct in all cases.

In our opinion, both theories of moral feeling and intellectualist theories of morality are characterised by an erroneous desire for extreme generalisation, which leads to the separation of morality from other spheres of human existence, accompanied by its absolutisation, which is ultimately expressed in the assertion that single virtue is enough for happiness. In addition, such logic of thinking creates the image of morality, in which morality is depicted as the basis of all spiritual experience of a person, and the person is considered as a being who may well be moral, remaining completely undeveloped, illiterate, incapable of implementing any types of activities in other areas.

It is impossible to agree with such a position. This point of view, to some extent, can be attributed to the ethics of duty, where we are dealing with fundamental prohibitions. Although here, too, there are well-known moral dilemmas that an illiterate person may not even be able to identify, let alone somehow begin to resolve them. Moreover, this position is not applicable to virtue ethics, where we are talking about the perfection of functions.

Obviously, the error of extreme generalisation is associated with certain methods of scientific research. For German classical philosophy, this is primarily the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete. This method assumes that firstly, some abstract entity is identified from the diverse reality. It is a simplification of reality, but it allows us to understand the system-forming principle. Then a reverse movement is carried out from essence to phenomenon, because of which the simplified definitions of essence are corrected. The essence itself is seen as changing under the influence of diverse phenomena. But this method, which is well applicable to some phenomena of social life, in particular to the economy, as brilliantly demonstrated by K. Marx in Capital, demonstrates its insufficiency when applied to morality.

An attempt to isolate a moral motive in an abstract form (as essence) leads to the conclusion that it must be a motive devoid of self-interest, because a selfless act always receives a higher moral value in ordinary ideas. But it is impossible to ascend from an abstract essence to reality, as long as the lack of self-interest contradicts free choice. Without any interest, we can only choose at random.

For the purpose of correcting the errors of traditional methodology, it is necessary to develop or use new methods that correspond to non-classical science. This is primarily the principle of complementarity. It allows us to show how self-interest can be combined with a moral motive, how a moral motive can enhance the pleasure of satisfying a person’s highest social needs. Thus, one can ignore isolation of the moral motive from self-interest and the inevitable absolutisation of morality, but, on the contrary, show how they can complement each other. They can be united on the basis of self-esteem. It develops on the grounds of awareness of the significance of the activity carried out by a person, and this significance itself follows from moral criteria that allow us to see the uniqueness of the creative tasks a person solves.

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