Saturday, January 31, 2009

Kantian duty

I'm teaching a course on Kant this semester, so I have been thinking about him more than I usually do. Kant never spoke to me. In college, my brilliant friend Anne Richardson wrote a seminar paper on Kant, embodying in it all of the grace and elegance of her own intellect. But I didn't get it. I'm too romantic. Also not Christian enough. Plus, no doubt, too immature, too impatient. Still, my own significant shortcomings not withstanding, I think there is something that even a better version of me could reject, in Kant. There's beauty there, at least, which there really isn't with the utilitarians. In Mill, the son I mean, there is kindness, I think, and a certain sort of forbearance that I associate with wisdom. But not beauty, not really. So Kant gets points for that. And it's not that I mind that the beauty is austere -- it is a little with Plato, too, and I like Plato a lot. But even so it rubs me the wrong way. I think I dislike the whole idea of duty. I don't mind the idea of an experienced moral compulsion. But the Kantian stance seems to just be about enforced control, all the way down. Plato's all about moderation, to be sure, but moderation isn't about following rules. Let alone following rules as a way of escaping the many and well-known limitations of ego. Moderation is about actually *being* well-ordered. I admit that I'm not. But still, Plato's image of it appeals. Kant's just seems like undertaking, as an adult, to have been raised by repressed Protestants. No offense. I think that what I dislike most about duty as an organizing principle is that, for me, it makes the actions one takes in its name seem false. I don't like it when people act out of duty toward me. It makes me think that they don't mean it. I don't know why it feels different than someone acting just ... as the Good requires -- why that doesn't feel so fake. Anyway I am trying to put my finger on it, why Kant doesn't appeal.

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