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Musing about Kant (2)

26 May, 11 | by Iain Brassington

It’s very easy, having encountered Kant for the first time, to think that his account of morality is much too cold and impersonal to be plausible – the sort of thing you might expect from a computer rather than a human.  And though this criticism is rather simplistic – I think that Kant does have a deep humanity to him: it’s just that he doesn’t think that that should inform morality – I wonder whether there’s something to it after all.  I wonder whether there’s a reading of Kant that could only make sense to intelligent computers, and – more importantly – computers in a network; and whether such an account of morality would come naturally to them.

The starting point for this little essai (and I make no claims that the thoughts expressed here are particularly well-developed: all I’m doing is taking the opportunity afforded by the blog to publicise some stuff that’s been knocking around my brain for a while) is fairly straightforward: Kant’s separation of the sensible and intelligible parts of human life.  As far as he’s concerned, morality has to do with the latter rather than the former (because sensibility implies determinism; morality implies freedom; freedom implies autonomy; autonomy implies the will; and the will is practical reason); he claims that

a rational being must regard himself qua intelligence as belonging not to the world of sense but to the world of understanding.  Therefore he has two standpoints from which he can regard himself and know laws of the use of his powers and hence of all his actions: first, insofar as he belongs to the world of sense subject to laws of nature (heteronomy); secondly, insofar as he belongs to the intelligible world subject to laws which, independent of nature, are not empirical but founded on reason.

As a rational being and hence belonging to the intelligible world, can man never think of the causality of his own will except under the idea of freedom.  […]  Now the idea of freedom is inseparably connected with the idea concept of autonomy, and this in turn with the universal principle of morality, which ideally is the ground of all actions of rational beings, just as natural law is the ground of all appearances. (4:452-3; emphasis mine)

and makes similar claims elsewhere.

Right: so the moral law is ideal rather than real; but, more importantly, Kant contrasts the “universal principle of morality” with the natural law that is the ground of all appearances – and so, implicitly, the universal principle of morality is to be distinguished from appearances.  I don’t think that any of this is particularly radical.  By which I mean, of course, that it is radical – but it’s standard undergrad philosophy stuff.

However, things get a bit weirder once you begin to prise that apart.The thing is, if thinking of ourselves as agents requires thinking of ourselves as belonging to the intelligible rather than the sensible world – the world of reason rather than the world of sense – how we think about ourselves at all suddenly becomes a bit mysterious.  After all, when I use the personal pronoun, I am referring to myself qua object of my own experience.  More generally, the “I/ thou” distinction seems to belong to sensibility; there’s no obvious reason to think that it obtains in the intelligible world.  (There’s a hint of this somewhere in the first Critique, but I don’t have it to hand.)  If morality belongs to the intelligible, super-sensible side of our being, personal pronouns seem to lose their currency.

This is an idea that owes a lot to a couple of conversations I’ve had over the past few years with Joss Walker, and I’m really looking forward to his book on Kant when it comes out: though I suspect that his stuff is rather better than mine.  Walker ventures the theory that, while agents may be distinct as human beings, they are not distinct – or may not be – as persons.  To paraphrase that other great German philosopher Blixa Bargeld, youme is meyou.  (Yes, that link is gratuitous.)

So far so good.  The striking thing about this picture, though, is that it’s just so weird.  And it’s not even obvious to me that it’s possible to conceptualise: truly to understand ourselves as moral beings would require that we be willing to think of ourselves without any of our experienced characteristics – age, sex, ethicity, yadda yadda… but also duration through time, and location and extension in space.  In fact, we’d have to think of ourselves without any self at all, since that belongs to sensibility.  (If those things are parts of experience, they should be ditched for the sake of morality; if they’re the principles that organise experience, there’s no obvious need to invoke them in respect of an aspect of ourselves that is ex hypothesi non-experiential.)* If we can make sense of this, then it’d explain universalisation perfectly – but I don’t think we can.  It’s just too big a leap.  (Fortunately for Kantians, I also don’t think that you need to accept this metaphysic to make sense of universalisation; you can get to that by other means.)

But because we can’t make the leap, it doesn’t follow that other entities with a quite different form of life (or what’ll pass for life) mightn’t be able to.  Entities like intelligent computers attached by a network, for example.

The idea here is that artificially intelligent machines, working together via a network so that calculations and memory were not confined to one CPU – and so not to a single processor (for which read “brain”) – would  be more like Kant’s transpersonal agents than entities such as we.  Perhaps the investigation of a truly Kantian moral philosophy will have to wait until we’ve made the right advances in computer science.  And, working the other way, we might wonder what’d happen if we instructed these networked machines to come up with a moral theory from first principles: would it look anything like Kant’s?

*As you can probably tell, I’m struggling a bit with this – and it might be where the idea breaks down.  Any thoughts?

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