The Moral Dimensions of Kant’s Anthropology
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Although Kant famously calls his anthropology “pragmatic,” one ongoing debate is whether or not there also exists a distinctively moral anthropology within his pragmatic anthropology. In my contribution, I will begin by surveying the evidence and arguments on both sides of this important controversy before turning to a defense of my own position: If we are careful readers, we will find the rudiments of a moral anthropology within Kant’s lectures on anthropology, albeit one that is not fully articulated or developed. But it is important, indeed, necessary, to take note of these incompletely developed hints of moral anthropology in order both to make sense out of Kant’s practical philosophy as a whole as well as to defend his ethics against a long line of Hegel-inspired criticisms that accuse it of empty formalism.
Anthropology was a very young and energetic discipline in Enlightenment Europe when Kant first turned his attention toward it—albeit perhaps not an entirely new field of research. In a much broader sense, we can track anthropological reflection in the West at least as far back as Socrates’ questions concerning human nature in Plato’s early dialogues (for discussion, see Louden forthcoming-b). And during the Renaissance, medical works were published which specifically used the term “anthropology” in their titles—for instance, Magnus Hundt’s Anthropologium, de hominis dignitate, natura et proprietatibus (Leipzig, 1501) and Otto Casmann’s Psychologia anthropologia, sive animae humanae doctrina (Hannover, 1594—for discussion, see Buchenau 2017). But during the Enlightenment anthropology began to be recognized as a distinct academic discipline within universities. Many Enlightenment authors contributed to the development and growth of this discipline, competing against one another in an attempt to shape the field of study in accordance with their own personal visions and concerns.
This winter I am giving, for the second time, a lecture course on Anthropologie, a subject that I now intend to make into a proper academic discipline. But my plan is quite different [ganz anders]. I intend to use it to disclose the sources of all the sciences [die Quellen aller Wissenschaften], of morality [der Sitten], of skill, of human intercourse, of the way to educate and govern human beings, and thus of everything that pertains to the practical [alles Praktischen]. (Br 10: 145)
In 1773, Kant had not yet settled on the adjective “pragmatic” as a marker for his distinctive approach to anthropology, but it is already latent in the claim that his anthropology deals with “everything that pertains to the practical.” For at bottom Kantian pragmatic anthropology, as Patrick Frierson notes in a recent essay, “is designed to provide empirical knowledge about human beings that can be put to use” (Frierson 2017: 663).
Empirical principles are not fit to be the foundation of moral laws at all. For the universality with which they are to hold for rational beings regardless of differences [ohne Unterschied]—the unconditional practical necessity that is thereby imposed on them—vanishes if their ground is taken from the particular arrangement of human nature, or the contingent circumstances in which it is placed. (GMS 4: 442)
The field of philosophy in the cosmopolitan sense can be brought down to the following questions:
What can I know?
What ought I to do?
What may I hope?
What is the human being? [Was ist der Mensch?]
Metaphysics answers the first question, morals the second, religion to the third, and anthropology the fourth. Fundamentally, however, one could reckon all of this [alles dieses] as anthropology, because the first three questions relate to the last one. (Log 9: 25; cf. Kant’s letter to Stäudlin of May 4, 1793, Br 11: 429, V-Met-L1/Pölitz 28: 533–534)
’Tis evident, that all of the sciences have a relation, greater or less, to human nature, and that however wide any of them seem to run from it, they still return back by one passage or another. Even Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Natural Religion, are in some manner dependent on the science of MAN; since they lie under the cognizance of men, and are judged of by their powers and faculties. (Hume 1978: xv; for related discussion, see Louden 2017a, 2018)
But my main point at present is simply that we already find a clear reference to an explicitly moral anthropology in one of the Kant’s earliest descriptions of his anthropology course. Although the specific claim he makes about moral anthropology in his 1773 letter to Herz stands in tension with assertions made later in the Grundlegung concerning the nature of morality, this latter point cannot erase the significance of the earlier reference to moral anthropology.
Doubts About Moral Anthropology
I think it is a mistake to place so much weight on the issue of whether certain words do or do not appear in a text. A given topic can be addressed by using many different words, and it would be unwise to conclude, for example, that an English author has nothing to say about the idea of God just because the word ‘God’ doesn’t appear in his texts. (Louden 2011: 179 n.4)
Clearly, there are ways of talking about the moral dimensions of anthropology without invoking the Kantian trinity of “categorical,” “imperative,” and “autonomy.”
However, a second obstacle2—which I regard as much more difficult to surmount than the first one—is that the mature Kant regards genuine moral norms as pure or a priori, that is, entirely nonempirical. “Morality cannot be constructed out of empirical principles, for this yields, not absolute, but only conditional necessity [nichts absolute sondern bloß bedingte Nothwendigkeit]. Morality says, however, that you must do it, without any condition or exception” (V-Mo/Mron II 29: 599). Kantian anthropology, on the other hand, is a (mostly) empirical venture. (I will return to the “mostly” later.) Kant routinely describes his anthropology as a “Beobachtungslehre” or observation-based doctrine (Br 10: 146), a “science” in which “the grounds of knowledge are taken from observation and experience” (V-Anth/Collins 25: 7), and a discipline that “does not at all belong to metaphysics” (V-Anth/Parow 25: 244). How can two such entirely different enterprises interact with each other? This seems to be a clear case of “never the twain shall meet”—a much clearer case than the East and West of Kipling’s famous 1892 ballad, from which this line is taken.3
This second obstacle to moral anthropology can be met, I believe, by recognizing that Kant—particularly in his later critical works—frequently makes use of a type of norm which I call “humans-only.” Humans-only norms, unlike official Kantian moral norms, are impure, a posteriori, and empirical—they are based on general facts about human nature and the world in which they live. Humans-only norms lack the “strict universality” (KrV B 4) that Kant associates with a priori cognitions. They do not apply to all rational beings, but only to some—viz., humans. Humans-only norms thus have only a species-wide universality, in so far as they are meant to hold for all normal members of the species Homo sapiens.4
Some examples of humans-only norms (or what Kant would call “Menschenpflichten”—see KpV 5: 8) from his own texts include the following:
Politeness. Humans need to practice politeness because politeness (at least when practiced by humans—nonhumans are another story) promotes moral virtue. For politeness enables us “to deceive the deceiver in ourselves, the inclinations” (Anth 7: 151). If we are able to act politely, we may be able to trick our inclinations into following practical reason’s demands. As he states in the Anthropology: “In order to save virtue, or at least lead the human being to it, nature has wisely implanted in him the tendency to allow himself willingly to be deceived” (Anth 7: 152; cf, MS 6: 473–474—for further discussion, see Louden forthcoming-a and Frierson 2005).
Education. In the opening sentence of his Lectures on Pedagogy, Kant declares: “the human being is the only creature that must be educated [das einzige Geschöpf, das erzogen werden muβ]” (Päd 9: 441). Granted, the claim may be false (perhaps other creatures, terrestrial or otherwise, also need to be educated), but that is another story. My main aim at present is simply to draw attention to the fact that Kant believes that this norm applies specifically and solely to human beings (for further discussion, see Louden 2017b).
Aesthetics. In his third Critique as well as elsewhere, Kant proclaims that beauty—the central concept of aesthetics—“is valid only for human beings [nur für Menschen], i.e., animal but also rational beings” (KU 5: 210; cf. V-Anth/Collins 25: 175, V-Anth/Mensch 25: 1108, V-Anth/Busolt 25: 1513). And he also argues that aesthetic experience helps humans to develop their capacity for moral judgment. “The culture of taste is a preparatory exercise [Vorübung] for morality” (Refl 993, 15: 438). Beauty is—for humans—a symbol of morality, for the experience of “the beautiful prepares us to love something, even nature, without interest” (KU 5: 267; see also MS 6: 443). “Without interest”—that is, for its own sake, rather than as a means to something else. Aesthetic experience teaches us how to freely love something for its own sake, and this is a crucial aspect of moral judgments. Art (at least for humans) is thus a means to morality (for related discussion, see Louden 2000: 109–118).
Granted, not all norms are moral norms (there are norms in virtually every sphere of life: law, etiquette, music, sports, language, etc.). And for this reason alone, not all of Kant’s humans-only norms are moral norms. But some of Kant’s humans-only norms, including each of the three examples discussed above, do count as moral norms—and this is true despite the fact that they are impure rather than pure, empirical rather than a priori. Those humans-only norms that are also necessary means to moral ends are also moral norms, because (as Kant writes in the Groundwork) “whoever wills the end also wills (insofar as reason has decisive influence on his actions) the indispensably necessary means to it that are in his control” (GMS 4: 417). And as we saw earlier, politeness (for humans) is a means to virtue, and aesthetic experience (for humans) is a means toward moral judgment. Similarly, the humans-only norm of education (“The human being is the only creature that must be educated”) is, or at least implies, a moral norm because human beings must also be educated into morality. “We are not born as autonomous moral agents; rather, we develop our moral reasoning capacities slowly over a number of years. Young children do not yet possess the ability to reason autonomously about moral matters” (Louden 2011: 94). Indeed, for Kant, the most important part of education is moral education.
So with each of these three examples, we are dealing with a norm that tells people what they must do in order to promote a moral end. Because these norms point out necessary means toward a moral end—“an end that is also a duty” (see MS 6: 382–388)—humans are also obligated to pursue the necessary means toward the end—it is irrational not to do so (see GMS 4: 417). Granted, the obligations in question are not quite categorical, for they only apply to humans rather than to all rational beings, and for Kant “all … genuine moral laws [alle … eigentliche Sittengesetze]” (GMS 4: 389) apply to rational beings throughout the universe. But they are also not quite hypothetical. Hypothetical imperatives are desire-based commands (“if you want X, then you must do Y”). But in the present case, we’re dealing with an imperative that has the following structure: “If you’re a human being, then you must do Y.” The antecedent does not describe a subjective desire, so one can’t evade the consequent simply by changing one’s desires (“I no longer desire X. Therefore, I’m not obligated to do Y”). Humans-only norms, or, rather, those humans-only norms that are also necessary means to moral ends, are—for humans, but not for other types of rational agents—inescapable duties. And this is true despite the fact that they don’t quite fit Kant’s model of a genuine categorical imperative. (They lack the “strict universality” of his transhuman moral norms.)
It is a duty [Pflicht] to oneself as well as to others not to isolate oneself (separatistam agere) but to use one’s moral perfection in social intercourse …—not exactly in order to promote as the end what is best for the world but only to cultivate what leads directly to this end … and so to associate the graces with virtue. To bring this about is a duty of virtue [Tugendpflicht]. (MS 6: 473)
So, although Kant (particularly in the Groundwork) often describes moral norms as being completely a priori and possessing transhuman “strict universality,” he also recognizes a more humble, second type of moral norm that is impure rather than pure. Even though this second type of norm is impure, it can legitimately be called a moral duty because it describes a necessary means toward a moral end. The second obstacle to moral anthropology can thus be surmounted, for Kant recognizes that some moral norms are empirical and apply only to humans. One of Kantian anthropology’s central tasks is to use its empirical knowledge of human nature to formulate species-specific norms. And in cases where these humans-only norms are necessary means toward moral ends, they will also be moral norms.
Hindrances and Helps5
The counterpart of a metaphysics of morals, the other member of the division of practical philosophy as a whole, would be moral anthropology [moralische Anthropologie], which, however, would deal only with the subjective conditions in human nature that hinder people or help them in carrying out [hindernde sowohl als begünstigende Bedingungen der Ausführung] the laws of a metaphysics of morals. (MS 6: 217)
The main idea here is that part of anthropology’s task, as Kant conceives it, is to study human nature with an eye toward ethics. What is it about this particular species of rational agent that makes it difficult for its members to act on moral principle (= “hindrances”)? As Kant remarks in one of his ethics lectures, “one must see what sorts of hindrances to virtue are to be found in the human being” (V-PP/Powalski 27: 97). Also, given what anthropology has learned about human nature, what sorts of specific aids to acting morally exist for this particular species (= “helps”)?
As one might expect, the main hindrance that humans encounter in acting morally to which Kant draws attention concerns our affects and passions. As he remarks in the Anthropology, “both affect and passion shut out the sovereignty of reason” (Anth 7: 251). Although he is much more skeptical concerning the passions than the affects—“passion is an illness that abhors all medicine,” for someone in the grip of passion “does not want to be cured” (Anth 6: 266)—he does offer advice regarding both phenomena. In the case of the passions, it is best for humans to avoid them completely, if possible, whereas with affects less drastic measures can be taken. But here too, as Benjamin Franklin remarked, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” (Franklin 2018). Thus, one should refrain from “novels, sentimental plays, shallow moral precepts, which make play with (falsely) so-called noble dispositions,” as well as religious sermons that preach “a groveling, base currying of favor and self-ingratiation” (KU 5: 273).
My earlier brief discussions of politeness and aesthetics can also serve now as examples of what Kant means by “helps” or aids to morality. In both cases, the key anthropological claim is that humans (but not necessarily other rational creatures) are built in such a way that certain specific practices will aid them in their moral development—practices which, when undertaken by non-human rational agents, might have a very different effect. In the case of politeness, as we saw, practicing politeness enables us “to deceive the deceiver in ourselves, the inclinations” (Anth 7: 151). For humans, the presence of the inclinations is a hindrance to morality, because they are frequently in conflict with the commands of practical reason. But by practicing politeness, we are able to trick our inclinations into following practical reason’s demands.
And once this trick is performed successfully, we are on the road to virtue. Similarly, in the case of aesthetic experience, human beings’ middle position between animals who feel pleasure and pain but lack rationality and purely rational beings who are not susceptible to pleasure and pain enables them to benefit from aesthetic experiences in ways that are not available to other creatures. On the one hand, genuine aesthetic experiences prepare us for the autonomy and freedom of the moral realm by revealing to us our capacity “to love something … even apart from any intention to use it” (MS 6: 443)—viz., to love something for its own sake. Additionally, our image-dependent nature means that for us “the invisible needs to be represented through something visible” (RGV 6: 192)—something tangible that our senses can grasp. For us (but not necessarily for other creatures), the aesthetic experience of beauty also functions as a symbol of morality (see KU 5: 351–354).
An additional aid to morality discussed elsewhere by Kant is the civilizing impact of republican regimes on human behavior. Republican forms of government, by encouraging nonviolent behavior patterns in citizens, disciplining their emotions, and making them less partial toward their own interests, help to establish a “moral veneer” over human society, a veneer that constitutes “a great step toward morality” even though it is “not yet a moral step” (ZeF 8: 375–376 n.).
Additional Moral Dimensions
But the moral dimensions of Kantian anthropology are by no means exhausted by inventorying the special hindrances and aids to morality that humans face. Some additional moral dimensions include the following:
Moral Weltkenntnis. Part of the goal of Kantian anthropology is to impart a “knowledge of the human being as a citizen of the world” (Anth 7: 120; see also V-Anth/Pillau 25: 734, PG 9: 157, VvRM 2: 443). Here as well, this knowledge can be put to both moral and nonmoral uses. But in the case of morality, humans will need to grasp relevant empirical frameworks when applying a priori moral principles. Most informed moral judgments presuppose relevant empirical data, and anthropology—in providing readers with moral Weltkenntnis—fulfills this necessary and important task. Indeed, in his lectures, Kant often draws attention to the failure of moral philosophy to provide such knowledge: It is due to “the lack of Weltkenntnis that so many practical sciences, for example moral philosophy, have remained unfruitful…. Most moral philosophers and clergymen lack this knowledge of human nature” (V-Anth/Collins 25: 9; see also V-Mo/Collins 27: 244). This need for moral Weltkenntnis is one of the primary reasons why pure moral philosophy “needs anthropology for its application [Anwendung] to human beings” (GMS 4: 412).
Moral Education and Character Development: We saw earlier both that Kant views education as a humans-only norm and that this norm—even though it clearly is not “completely cleansed of everything” that belongs to anthropology (GMS 4: 389)—also qualifies as a moral norm, insofar as it is a necessary means to a moral end. Additionally, there are several distinct ways in which anthropology contributes to moral education and character development that deserve mention:
Developing humans’ capacity for moral judgment. Accurate anthropological knowledge is needed in order “to provide the laws of pure practical reason with entrance [Eingang] into the human mind, [and] influence [Einfluβ] on its maxims” (KpV 5: 151). Until such entrance and influence are secured, moral theory remains inert and inefficacious.
Transforming educational institutions. Kant, like Johann Bernhard Basedow (1724–1790)—“the real leader and pioneer” (Reble 1965: 252) of German Enlightenment pedagogical theory—believed that the educational institutions of his day “must be transformed if something good is to come out of them, because they are defective in their original organization” (AP 2: 449; for related discussion, see Louden 2016). As Basedow remarks in his Vorstellung an Menschenfreunde, “the total transformation of schools” is necessary because “wounds which have a bottomless depth due to burning pus will not be healed through ointments and adhesive tape” (Basedow 1768; in Reble 1965: 28, 12). Accurate knowledge of human nature is needed in order to transform schools correctly, and one of the anthropology’s jobs is to provide this knowledge. The Friedländer anthropology lectures of 1775–1776 conclude with a six-page section entitled “On Education” which reflects Kant’s intense admiration for Basedow’s experimental school, the Philanthropin, founded in Dessau in 1774. The Philanthropin, which Kant praises elsewhere for being the first educational institution designed in accordance with “nature itself and not slavishly copies from old habit” (AP 2: 449), is singled out in Friedländer as “the greatest phenomenon which has appeared in this century for the improvement of the perfection of humanity” (V-Anth/Fried 25: 722; see also V-Mo/Collins 27: 471; Päd 9: 451).
Character development. The central task of Kantian moral education is character development, and the anthropology writings contain extensive discussion of this topic. Moral character is “the distinguishing mark of the human being as a rational being endowed with freedom” (Anth 7: 285; see also V-Anth/Fried 25: 630), and therefore, the grounding of character must be “the first effort of moral education” (Päd 9: 481). Frierson’s recent examination of the importance of Denkungsart or way of thinking in Kant’s anthropology (as he is careful to point, the kind of Denkungsart discussed in the anthropological works is empirical rather than Denkungsart—see Frierson [2017: 660–661]) offers a more detailed analysis of this important moral dimension of Kantian anthropology.
The Vocation of the Human Species. The question of humanity’s destiny or vocation—die Bestimmung des Menschen—is a major motif in German Enlightenment writing. As Norbert Hinske rightly remarks, “there is hardly any author of the German Late Enlightenment who does not call up this key concept in one form or another” (Hinske 1990: 435). Kant, in his anthropology lectures as well as in his philosophy of history essays, calls it up by attempting to provide readers with a moral map6 of our future—a conceptual orientation and delineation of where we ought to go, along with programmatic hints about what we need to do in order to reach our goal. (Unlike other animals, the human Bestimmung is not fixed or predetermined, for we are free creatures who must decide whether and how to pursue our vocation—see SF 7: 83.)
No one has yet written a world history, which was at the same time a history of humanity, but only of the state of affairs and the change in kingdoms, which as a part is indeed major, but considered in the whole, is a trifle. All histories of wars amount to the same thing, in that they contain nothing more than descriptions of battles. But whether a battle has been more or less won makes no difference in the whole. Henceforth more attention should be paid to humanity. (V-Anth/Fried 25: 472; see also IaG 8: 29—for further discussion, see Louden 2012)
Part of anthropology’s task, as Kant conceives it, is thus to contribute to a world history of humanity by articulating our steps “from crudity [Rohigkeit] toward culture” (IaG 8: 21). As is well known, there are strong cosmopolitan and pacific elements in his vision of world history. The final goal is a worldwide moral community that encompasses “the entire human race in its scope” (RGV 6: 94), to be reached only after human beings have left the “lawless condition of savages” and entered into “a federation of nations [Völkerbund], where every state, even the smallest, could expect its security and rights” (IaG 8: 24) and where “perpetual peace” has finally been achieved (see ZeF 8: 341–386; and, for further discussion, Louden 2014). Given the present state of world affairs, no one should hold his breath at the prospects of realizing this vision any time soon. But my main point at present is simply to underscore the obvious moral dimension of this aspect of Kantian anthropology—and to note that this strong teleological undercurrent in Kant’s anthropology also belies the claim that his anthropology is a mere Beobachtungslehre (Br 10: 146). Kantian anthropology is mostly but not entirely empirical, for the concept of purposiveness is “a special a priori concept that has its origin solely in the reflecting power of judgment” (KU 5: 181).
The above list of some of the different moral dimensions of Kant’s anthropology, though by no means exhaustive, should be more than sufficient to dispel the persistent rumor that he has no moral anthropology. Moral anthropology is an important and necessary subfield within pragmatic anthropology. It is one of the key ways in which we can put our empirical knowledge of human nature to use, and we ignore it at our peril.
Note: The English translations of Kant’s writings are mine.
For discussion of some additional obstacles to finding “the second part” of morals, “philosophia moralis applicata, to which the empirical principles belong” (V-Mo/Mron II 29: 599), see Louden (2011: 50–54).
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment seat;
But there is Neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!
(Rudyard Kipling, “The Ballad of East and West,” 1892—see Kipling ).
I discuss this topic in more detail in “Humans-Only Norms: An Unexpected Kantian Story” (paper presented at the conference on “Dimensions of Normativity: Kant on Morality, Legality, and Humanity,” Purdue University, USA, February 2018).
In this section as well as the next I borrow a few points from Louden (2011: 70–77).
I first developed this idea of a moral map after reading Kaulbach (1975).
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