Saturday, July 1, 2017

On Kant and Woody Allen

In James Lawler’s Does Morality Have to be Blind?  He gives a Kantian analysis of one of Woody Allen’s most noteworthy films, Crimes and Misdemeanors.  He contrasts, as Kant does, between the causal world of descriptive claims with the “moral world” of normativity which Kant makes incorrect assumptions of what follows if ethics to exist. 
Though Allen’s film is brilliant, it in a sense is superficial.  It explores whether or not the world is just, not whether justice “exists” or can be known.  I put exists in quotations to emphasize the distinction between whether the world conforms (or can conform) with what is right and “what is right?” independent of whether it is achievable which is purely descriptive.  The film presumes murder is wrong, the question is whether this “justice” will be achieved through having the righteous be rewarded and wicked and egotistical suffer in one form or another.  It is not a film which truly examines the question of ought but an insightful character study that shows how humans with differing qualities respond in comparable or desperate situations. 
This is ultimately what art is intended for, descriptive accounts, and because Allen achieves this while failing to give an ethical argument is why he is rightfully regarded as a great artist.  One could argue there is a contradiction in my reasoning that I claim that art ought to be purely descriptive and Allen succeeds in creating quality art in this regard.  But this is not my argument.  I do not argue what art should be, only what art is.  Artists have attempted to create ethical arguments in their work but it is either secondary to the depiction of characters or it becomes the main aspect of the work, is looked at as moral proselytizing, and therefore fails to be “good art.”  I do not make the argument that people should make good art; I only make a purely descriptive account of what good art is removing all normativity from the word “good.”
Returning to a Kantian analysis of Allen’s film, both the film and the philosopher make premises of morality which are not grounded.  Throughout the majority of Allen’s more cerebral movies there is the implicit or explicit premise that without God life is without foundation.  This is something that most ethicists would disagree with but Kant would be sympathetic to it.  Though a “God-free” version of Kantian Ethics is indeed possible in his Critique of Practical Reason Kant certainly gives both arguments for why ethics require premises that are sympathetic to Christianity and that one can make an ethical argument for God (for belief in God, rather than knowledge of His existence) when all other arguments in the past made by Descartes, Leibnitz and the rest fail.
Lawler describes three premises that Kant makes for the “possibility of ethics” straightforwardly (Woody Allen and Philosophy p. 45-46)[1].  All of them fail to be necessary requirements for normativity or ought-ness to be valid regardless of whether said reasoning is true, that is to say, such is actually the case.  It is true that humans have ethical intuitions of what is ethical and not, or rather what is required for something to be consistent with their intuitions or not, but this have nothing to do with the logic of determining normativity.  Though it very well could be the case that one must be free in the Libertarian or Non-determinist sense, we do not have this knowledge.  That is, there is nothing we know of that makes it necessary for the Non-determinist interpretation of free will and ethics to be the only valid one.  If, for example, Utilitarianism of any variety is the case, then the freedom of the agent is insignificant and a causal, unthinking machine building a utopia based on programming is just as ethical as a Man who does so with compassion for all mankind beating in his breast (though both are equally ethical under this interpretation, only the latter is moral or has moral intentions – as I’ve described in my essay Morality and Ethics).
The second postulate I was surprised Kant argued for, or argued for in the way Lawler argues.  Lawler argues that Kant states one must have faith that if one does the “right thing” even if it seems impossible that it will succeed God will intervene and aid the just by having his aims reach their desired and ethical conclusion.  But this is clearly not the case.  For not only does injustice exist, but more importantly to the argument just actions are thwarted or do not bear their intended fruit.  It follows from this that either an omnipotent God is not working at all times to make these men and women successful, He is working at all times but is not omnipotent, or the version of justice that God operates under is so inconsistent it is arbitrary and based on His whims. 
If one would argue that all good men and women are rewarded in the Kingdom of God despite their efforts not bearing fruit on Earth both in terms of reaping desired results and in creating happiness for them this would be the more reasonable answer which I recall Kant also claims.  It is not only more reasonable because it is not contradicted by the cases of goodness thwarted on Earth, but it reflects the notion that what is right has nothing to do with whether said attempts to attain this “rightness” are successful or not. 
The error here lies in Kant’s assumption that for something to be ethical it must be possible.  That is one reason why he thinks he should assume we have Libertarian free will.  He believes we require it for ethical judgments and due to his metaphysical skepticism he believes it is possible.  But what if the first was true but not the second?  What if he was corrected that Libertarian free will was necessary but somehow Man’s causal nature in not only the phenomenal realm of appearances but in the “thing-in-itself” could somehow be demonstrated?  If ethics must be possible, or realizable, to exist then the entire project of normativity would be dead.  But it could very well be the case that one can demonstrate that one can know that an action is right or wrong and yet the realization of the conditions of said action is impossible.
The third postulate Lawler does not argue for or cite with clarity Kant’s position behind.  He mentions that the person is more than, “just a thing,” but this in no way necessitates a belief in the immortal soul.  One can hold the view that the human person is nothing more than chemicals existing in a temporary state of cellular reproduction and still believe that that life has dignity and should be treated as an end-in-itself.  All three main branches of ethics do not require a belief in an immaterial soul.  It is obvious to most now that there is nothing about “atheistic materialism” that necessitates Nihilism nor nothing about the idea of the immortal soul that necessitates respecting every individual life.  For one can have the views of the immortal soul existing for the sake of the Devil, so one should torture or do whatever one can both in this life and the next to please Him.  Though one can argue this is a wicked view, there is nothing contradictory or logically inconsistent in it.
The second and third postulate are fundamentally theological and have nothing to do with normative claims.  The first commits a more understandable error of believing that an agent must be free to do something or to refrain from action to be judged and punished or reward for his deed.  Believing that ought-ness needs to be grounded in possibility of realization but as I’ve previously argued this isn’t necessarily the case.  The Greeks were not interested much in this question and on the whole spoke of the sentiment that virtue is praiseworthy and vice contemptable regardless of whether or not one was “free” to be sick or well.  One does not act, free or otherwise, to be beautiful and yet the Greeks praised beauty as a virtue along with other wisdom, temperance, courage and the rest. 
Compatibilism to my knowledge has yet to be thoroughly refuted (though as a skeptic I neither assent nor dissent to its existence) and there are branches of ethics that are valid, regardless of whether their premises are true, without reference to the freedom and concern for others autonomy that Kant emphasizes and believes is crucial.

[1] One is that, contrary to the deterministic assumptions of science, human beings are fundamentally free… the second postulate is the postulate of God.  “By moral faith,” Kant writes, “I mean the unconditioned trust in divine aid, in achieving all the good that, even with our most sincere efforts, lies beyond our power”… The third postulate of morality is the postulate of immortality.

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