Kant on reason and happiness

Lately I have been, ever so slowly, churning my way through some of the philosophical classics one tends to have never read if one studies finance and economics in school.  Naturally, I crossed paths with Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. The German philosopher had just begun to dive into the function of human reason in general when his subsequent passage stunned me:

In actual fact too we find that the more a cultivated reason concerns itself with the aim of enjoying life and happiness, the farther does man get away from true contentment.  This is why there arises in many, and that too in those who have made most trial of this use of reason, if they are only candid enough to admit it, a certain degree of misologythat is, a hatred of reason; for when they balance all the advantage they draw, I will not say from thinking out all the arts of ordinary indulgence, but even from science (which in the last resort seems to them to be also an indulgence of the mind), they discover that they have in fact only brought more trouble on their heads than they have gained in the way of happiness.  On this account they come to envy, rather than to despise, the more common run of men, who are closer to the guidance of mere natural instinct, and who do not allow their reason to have much influence on their conduct.  So far we must admit that the judgement of those who seek to moderate – and even to reduce below zero – the conceited glorification of such advantages as reason is supposed to provide in the way of happiness and contentment with life is in no way soured or ungrateful to the goodness which the world is governed.

Kant had captured the spirit of what had nagged me plenty of times over the past handful of years.  Was deeper philosophical and scientific pondering counterproductive to contentment?  Is ignorance, in fact, bliss?

While I very much enjoyed giving critical thought to large, fundamental questions I had only paid mental lip-service to before, the possibility of unsettling conclusions unsettled me.  If my priors on the efficacy of the minimum wage or the desirability of liberal immigration turn out to be dead-wrong, I’ll get over it.  On the other hand, if human consciousness is a mere illusion and the universe evolved along a deterministic, meaningless path, well, that one’s a bit tougher to swallow. Forget the challenge of defending a libertarian political worldview in a world where no one is ever responsible for any action; entertaining the thought that oneself is a robot for the first time isn’t a lot of fun.  Existential crises are accurately named.  Besides, who can blame you for supporting a particular viewpoint anyways, if you don’t actually choose to support it?  And how can any of the criticisms that I levy, in turn, be legitimate if free will is a myth?  And so on, and so forth.

Or perhaps human agency does exist but occupies a much smaller role in explaining action than I initially attributed it.  If intuition fills that newly created void, then the potential implications are troubling.  Intuition may be somewhat malleable to the human will, but nobody gets to pick their genes (at least up until now) and Kant awards you no points for intuition, concluding that an action’s “authentic moral worth” is driven by an inviolable sense of duty and not “inclinations” or utilitarian calculations alone.  Since a lot of beneficial acts, in my opinion, do not stem from a sense of duty, deeply reasoned or otherwise, “good” people suddenly look a lot less good.  But it gets worse.  If conformance to duty is the only source of moral worth than are people who do not act from duty yet are gifted “good” inclinations on precisely the same moral standing as those who got the short end of the stick with “bad” ones?

I went down similar logical rabbit holes elsewhere but never really reached any hard conclusions on most of the “big” questions, just very weakly held beliefs.  To a certain degree, I have come to accept a transition from taking metaphysical and religious priors for granted to answering “I don’t know” and “yeah, maybe” a lot more.  Still, coming out the other side without clear answers didn’t feel much better than some of the anxiety on the way in.

David Bazan has some pithy lyrics that come to mind from an album chronicling his fallout with religion.

digging up the root of my confusion / if no one planted it how does it grow / and why are some hell-bent on there being an answer / while some are quite content to answer I don’t know

I can’t fully arrive at Bazan’s latter group, and that bothers me.  Most of the big questions still bother me.  Employing reason where intuition and untested assumptions once toiled didn’t advance my position on any axis of happiness and incremental peace from such exploration didn’t materialize in the end.  While some emerge from such a journey with greater or equal conviction, blissful ignorance and blind acceptance can seem very peaceful if that conviction fades instead.  This is the nagging thought that gave initial weight to the quoted excerpt above.  I had suppressed it on a few occasions and reluctantly half-recognized its presence on others, yet never fully addressed it until Kant stuck it in my face.  Maybe the answers are unsettling, and reason is the only way to find them, and therefore ignorance is bliss and reason torture.  If you didn’t know a question existed, it’s impossible to let potential answers bother you.  Reason is responsible for discovering not only the answers, but the questions as well.

As for now, I don’t regret thinking some of the bigger issues through as they seem to have left me no worse off.  Reason can still be a very powerful tool for good, even if that doesn’t perfectly translate to happiness and even if liberals overestimate its importance.  I can’t sign on to the “ignorance is bliss” mantra in this context, but the possibility still lurks, re-surfacing every time I catch myself wondering about determinism or spooky physics and getting a bit unnerved.  But perhaps my reading of Kant is much too negative, after all, the gift of reason as a means to developing a good and pure will seems in line with what a divine being might impart to agents also given free will.  Should that be my reading of it?

I don’t know. Add it to the list I suppose.

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