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  1. Culture
25 February 2008

Morality is a human affair

Philosophy teacher Dan Harkin explains how he came to appreciate the value of Kant

By Dan Harkin

So – a bunch of rabbis are nattering and debating about whether a particular type of oven can transmit impurity. All of the rabbis bar one argue that the type of oven in question can’t possible be pure. However, this one rabbi – that one that disagrees – tries to demonstrate that he was right. First off, he says that if he is right than a carob tree will uproot and shoot off. And it does. The others are unconvinced however. “The law is not a carob tree,” they say. So, the rabbi says that if he is right the river will run backwards. Which it does. “Rivers aren’t arguments,” the rabbis reply. Finally, exasperated, the rabbi calls upon God Himself to back him up. Which indeed He does. And the rabbis reply, “It isn’t in heaven.”

Like any lapsed Catholic I’ve struggled since giving up on God. Inevitably, I turned to Marxism first and this provided me not only with a new Kingdom of God and some new utopian shore to swim for, but it gave me an equally dense and meaningful set of rituals. And it gave me an answer for everything, which was exceptionally important for a sixteen year old boy particularly one who liked to argue (no doubt a major reason why certain people still never question their faith).

If you accept that all society, art and literature is structured by economics relations then it isn’t too much of a step to thing that all reality is somehow similarly structured. Pursuing an arts degree reinforced this perception and I succumbed to a form of postmodernism.

In his short, autobiographical essay, Trotsky and the Wild Orchids, the late Richard Rorty explained his initial urge to pursue philosophy as being a way to unite his interest in social justice with his more esoteric pursuit of North American wild orchids. It was, best summed up in Yeats’ phrase, an urge to “hold reality and justice in a single vision.” A clear view stretching from the hard, metaphysical shoulders down to the ethical tributaries that run between them. It is one that a religion so generously provides. It was an ambition that, perhaps only Plato or Kant had got anywhere near achieving. It was an ambition Rorty would not only give up but also renounce as impossible.

Rorty was a pragmatist not a postmodernist , he was less about the denial of Truth and more about its impossibility. But it is, perhaps, ironic that Rorty was the one who led me back to more familiar terrain. He brought me to philosophy. Philosophy taught me that some –ism that gives you an answer to everything is for that reason exceptionally dubious. Philosophy taught me that consistency and caution were important. But because of this when it comes to the big questions, philosophy doesn’t help so much. That’s probably why I’ve been an on/off Quaker since I lost my Marxist faith.

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However, it did remind me of one thing: that I’ve always felt that morality wasn’t a God-only matter, it isn’t in heaven. And Kant felt the same: morality was a human affair, regardless of one’s belief in God, because morality was about practical reason and God was in a realm that reason couldn’t really touch. It took me a long while to appreciate Kant, and I ended up being converted in a roundabout sort of way. John Rawls’ Theory of Justice was utterly compelling and helped me properly appreciate what was so important about that sublime principle that we should treat others never merely as a means.

So, it was a private journey that brought me back to Kant, nothing flash and nothing exciting. It was also frustrating in many ways: a powerful idea of social justice was derivable but not a huge amount from my old Marxist sympathies. It also doesn’t provide me with many easy answers (even that seemingly paragon Kantian maxim against lying turns out to be complicated). But that’s how it should be. We should be weary of the firebrands who don’t take their time over the views, who just copy and paste in the relevant facts but already had a pre-prepared answer. And that’s what is preferable about Kantian ethics, it is hard work as ethics should be. Because it isn’t in heaven.

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