March 3, 2009

Dude, Where's My Teleology?

In introducing duties to the self considered as an animal being in the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes:

There are impulses of nature having to do with man's animality. Through them, nature aims at (a) his self-preservation, (b) the preservation of the species, and (c) the preservation of his capacity to enjoy life, though still at the animal level only. - The vices that are here opposed to his duty to himself are murdering himself, the unnatural use of his sexual inclination, and such excessive consumption of food and drink as weakens his capacity for making purposive use of his powers. (6:420, tr. Mary Gregor)

This passage at first suggested to me the following reading: we are to respect the humanity in our own person because it has intrinsic moral worth. Our 'humanity' includes not only our rationality, but also our animality, so we must respect our animality. (Cf. 6:419: "though we may, in a theoretical respect, distinguish soul and body from each other, as natural characteristics of a human being, we may not think of them as different substances" - but note that 'animality' and 'body' don't seem to be quite the same thing for Kant.) Respecting another person involves respecting that person's chosen ends, so respecting the body must mean respecting its ends, which would mean that we have imperfect duties to promote these three ends, and perfect duties not to undermine them.

While teleology may, in fact, play a larger role in Kant's ethics than is often recognized, the above reading must be incorrect (note that in the quote above Kant says "vices ... opposed to his duty", not "vices opposed to these ends"). The reason is that, in the sections exploring these three vices, Kant at no point draws on teleological considerations to support the alleged duties. The only explicit mentions of teleology are in the section 'On Defiling Oneself By Lust':

Just as love of life is destined by nature to preserve the person, so sexual love is destined by it to preserve the species; in other words, each of these is a natural end, by which is understood that connection of a cause with an effect in which, although no understanding is ascribed to the cause, it is still thought by analogy with an intelligent cause, and so as if it produced human beings on purpose. What is now in question is whether a person's use of his sexual capacity is subject to a limiting law of duty with regard to the person himself or whether he is authorized to direct the use of his sexual attributes to mere animal pleasure without having in view the preservation of the species, and would not thereby be acting contrary to a duty to himself. (6:424)

This passage states that the preservation of the species is nature's end in implanting sexual desire in us, and then asks whether we must adopt nature's end as our end. Hence Kant does not think that this follows trivially. Later on, he admits that "it is not easy to produce a rational proof that unnatural, and even merely unpurposive, use of one's sexual attribute is inadmissible" (6:425), but if we were obliged to respect the natural ends of our humanity, then this wouldn't be difficult to prove at all: we can't use the humanity in other persons as mere means without considering them also as ends, and considering them as ends means respecting the ends that they choose for themselves. If we had to respect the humanity (including animality) in our own person in this way, then unpurposive sexual conduct would be prohibited because it uses the 'sexual attribute' for pleasure without consideration of the end to which it is directed.

The teleology doesn't play any significant role in the derivation of the duties to the self considered as an animal being. Why, then, does Kant mention it at all? The best I can think is that in these three cases nature has implanted these natural inclinations in us to lead us to act in conformity with duty (compare the treatment of "compassionate natural (aesthetic) feelings" at 6:457; compassion is there also called an 'impulse of nature'). However, this is still confusing, because the relationship of the 'impulses of nature' to the vices is not consistent: in case (a), the impulse directly opposes the vice, but in cases (b) and (c) the vice follows from improper attempts to satisfy the impulse. It does seem that Kant sometimes just presents his ideas poorly or unclearly, so perhaps this is such a case. Then again, perhaps there is some way of fitting these teleological considerations into a coherent overall picture of Kant's theory of duties to the self.

Posted by Kenny at March 3, 2009 7:47 PM
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