What is the Human Being? (Kants Questions)

Kant’s Philosophy and Actual Problems in Contemporary Science and Politics (2018)
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go here We are driven by our end-setting nature to make sense of the world both in relation to ourselves and as a whole. Kant sometimes calls this our capacity for a priori principles of judgment. But all the stories that we tell are riven by partial failure, beginning with the infant who angrily discovers that his claim to freedom is not externally supported.

Our very efforts to make sense of the natural world, in their initial failure, orient us toward the demands of moral transcendence. Whatever "embodied rationality" might mean for other beings elsewhere in the universe and Kant kept up a lively openness to the possibility of life on other planets , it is inscribed, for us, within an experiential framework that is dialectical in character.

The freedom that enables us to reason leads us to make demands upon the world that ultimately devolve upon ourselves if "only we are rationally consistent. The objective value that we claim is one that we ourselves cannot take to be rational, and hence cannot take seriously, unless we grant it to others who are similarly organized. As this brief and inadequate sketch suggests, Kant's moral anthropology, broadly construed, is well positioned to support a regime of individual rights, or of "equal recognition," as Hegel will later call it. And this, indeed, is the use to which Kant is most often put, as we have seen, in today's bioethical debates.

But "humanity," I am claiming, means more for Kant than the reciprocal freedom of consenting adults or those who might become or might once have been so ; it also imposes limits on the uses to which one may put one's own capacities.

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What, then, are those limits? Here the story grows more complicated, as Kant himself admits. Still, certain fundamental principles are clear enough. In regarding ourselves as practical worldly agents-in "looking out" upon the world from a pragmatic standpoint-we cannot help thinking teleologically about our own capacities. Contrary to some contemporary accounts of liberal "self-ownership," our bodies are not things we own, items that are indistinguishable, in principle, from other sorts of alienable property. As the site of our own worldly agency, our bodies are at once more emphatically and irreducibly our own than any merely worldly "thing" and less available to manipulation by our arbitrary will.

Certain organic necessities cannot be overcome, nor could we wish to do so without seeking to undermine basic feelings like the difference between left and right, or between pain and pleasure by which we orient ourselves. Such indispensable feelings, one could say, are the necessary polestars of living beings like ourselves who are also self-aware. The pleasant will always affect us differently than the painful, our left foot cannot become our right one.

Of course, one can strive to render oneself relatively indifferent to both pain and pleasure; or to compensate, by strengthening one foot, for weakness in the other. But such orienting feelings remain, at least so long as we are in that rough state of organic functionality and wellness that we associate with human sanity.

Attention to our necessary ways of orienting ourselves in the world can help us to avoid certain absurdities to which certain "liberal" models of the self are otherwise all too prone. In the first case, one may be driven to regard such arrangements as the sale of body parts or maternal surrogacy as no more problematic than any other exchange of goods or services.

Kant & The Human Subject

But even the fiercest champions of untrammeled market freedom in such areas are sometimes brought up short by due recognition of the human consequences-consequences that would ultimately make markets as such impossible. Eighteenth-century physiognomists may have exaggerated the extent to which our inner character can be read in our faces; but that there is some reciprocal relation and effect seems undeniable. The face is a mask that both reveals us and permits us to hide, just as actors' masks allow them to assume, in highly stylized ways, identities other than their own.

Still, a world in which faces, and the peculiar expressions that accompany them, were as exchangeable as hats does not seem to be one in which human life as we know it could easily exist. In the second, admittedly rarer case, the body and the self become confused in such a way as equally to challenge the possibility of human life.

In Dworkin's words:. There is a never real privacy of the body that can co-exist with intercourse: with being entered.. The thrusting is persis tent invasion. She is opened up, split down the center. She is occupied-physically, internally, in her privacy. For Dworkin, for whom all intercourse is rape, the skin, as Jean Grimshaw notes, "is the boundary of the self. The body, so construed, is a pure idea, without engagement with the world-life, as it were, without metabolism.

Whatever personal pathology Dworkin's argument may or may not reflect, its conceptual coherence remains, given the impoverished set of categories with which Dworkin, like many of her libertarian counterparts, sets out. Thus there is a singular advantage, if we are to arrive at a satisfactory and comprehensive liberal understanding of the world, in starting like Kant , not with the abstract distinction between things and persons-a distinction in which human bodies as such disappear-but from our experience as embodied rational beings who make claims on one another and hence also on ourselves.

It is that "pragmatic" starting point as in the infant's own tearful cry-its initial act of worldly self-assertion that in Kant's view gives rise, when we try to think it through consistently, to the conceptual distinction between things, persons, and a certain thing-like use of persons that falls somehow in between. Kant's pragmatic starting point, which begins with man and his deeds, bears the following fruit. Human consciousness is punctuated from the start by freedom and a related sense of justice and injustice, right and wrong. Our valuations are not only homogeneous but also hierarchical.

Pleasure and esteem are related e. That observation permits us to make a three-fold distinction among human aptitudes: animal, rational in an instrumental or calculative sense and moral. The usefulness for present purposes of this rank-ordering lies in its relative formality. On the basis of rather minimal assumptions about the character of human life-assumptions roughly congruent with the premises of liberalism itself-one can draw, as I will argue, some significant bioethical conclusions.

That one can do so without appealing to the dogmatic claims of a specific religious tradition- claims that cannot fail to be politically problematic in a liberal society like ours-makes Kant's framework all the more promising. His explicitly "pragmatic" starting point draws on our ordinary notions about health and sickness that are inseparably bound up with our most basic dealings in the world.

2. Kant’s Relationship to Hume and British Moral Philosophy

The free play of the faculties involved in appreciation of the beautiful reminds one of the freedom necessary for and presupposed by morality. Got it? Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews. Moreover, in a collective relational context; namely, to know what ought to be done : if the will is free, if there is a God, and if there is a future world. But it does permit a helpful "bracketing" of the issue of embryonic stem cell research as such.

That such notions have proved relatively immune to the ideological onslaughts of "value relativism" is not accidental. We may be willing to sacrifice our health for what we regard as a greater good; but we cannot regard it with indifference or as wholly arbitrary in its meaning. Kant analogically extends the sort of reasoning we do with regard to health and sickness upward.

A Triadic Ontology

Pleasure and pain serve as rough yet indispensable guides to health and illness. Pain and pleasure regulate the lives of animals instinctively.

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Human beings, in our capacity as calculative reasoners, can override the immediate demands of pain and pleasure with a view to maximizing our physical well-being deliberatively. By analogy, human beings can and should orient themselves with a view to moral health, or the subordination of physical well-being to a higher rational purpose. But it is not an arbitrary ideal nor one, in Kant's view, toward which we can remain indifferent. And it is an ideal whose formality can encompass, though not from their own point of view replace, moral and religious aspirations of a more traditional sort.

How might such pragmatically informed reflections bear on contemporary questions of bioethics?

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Without entering fully into the many complexities involved, a few guiding principles can be educed. First, there is a certain teleological structure to human life that is anchored, at the lower end, by our primary experience of ourselves as worldly agents. By virtue of that experience, we are directed, first, toward physical well-being and, second, by demands upon others and ourselves that can be regulatively understood as the appearance in the world of a higher principle of life. Duties toward oneself seek a combination of physical and moral self-preservation that permits this higher principle to "take root.

Second, organized beings, though susceptible to scientific study, cannot in principle be fully comprehended. No Newton, as Kant famously put it, will ever arise who can explain a blade of grass. A physician or researcher informed by Kantian principles will thus retain a sense of the ultimate mysteriousness of life-not on dogmatically religious grounds but as an extension of the speculative modesty that flows from a critical awareness of the necessary structure and limits of human cognition. We cannot help but understand our own organs and aptitudes as naturally purposive in a way we are not free to disregard.

To be sure, such understanding does not meet the demands of objective scientific knowledge. That the eye is "for seeing" cannot be established on the basis of a mechanical science or its contemporary equivalent. And yet this assumption is, in Kant's view, the indispensable subjective foundation of any objective scientific inquiry into the processes of vision.

Man is not a brain in a vat; but he is also not a disembodied spirit free to use the matter in which it happens to be housed any way it chooses. Kant interprets this to mean that one must respect oneself "as an animal being," e.

Robert B. Louden

It also means that one ought not employ one's body in ways that strike us as counter-purposive: e. Some of Kant's arguments in this regard are no doubt idiosyncratic, especially where sexual matters are concerned. Still, the general point seems both valid and of potential bioethical significance. Recognition of the impossibility, in principle, of reducing life to a mere mechanism argues for humility when confronted with new opportunities for genetic or other radical "enhancements" of the human organism.

Wherever we strive to exceed the standard set by normal life functions a standard roughly equivalent to "health" , we risk grave harms that we cannot in principle foresee. A pragmatic orientation in Kant's sense no doubt suggests other ethical limits on uses of one's body-proscribing, for example, sale of organs or of services that drastically impinge on basic bodily processes. There is a further way in which Kant's framework can be brought to bear on bioethical issues. From a strictly Kantian perspective, only duties of right are legally enforceable.

Breaches of right as distinguished from ethics either violate the rights of other human beings or violate positive laws that are duly enacted to protect them. The state may certainly discourage unethical activities-e. Current federal policy of withholding funding for certain medical procedures and kinds of scientific research that are nonetheless legal calls to mind this Kantian distinction between law and ethics.

Present federal policy is designed to discourage an activity that many regard as ethically wrong but that the state cannot lawfully prevent, at least given the current political consensus. According to the weight of that consensus, destruction of an embryo for the sake of in vitro fertilization, or to conduct scientific inquiry into medical potential of stem cells, is not murder, nor should it otherwise constitute a legal crime.

Still, in the view of many it is at least morally problematic and in the view of some ought in fact to be illegal. In the remainder of this paper I should like briefly to consider how Kant's concept of human dignity might shed light on embryonic stem cell research and the political and moral controversy surrounding it.


Here two issues come immediately to the fore: the ethical permissibility of allowing one's genetic material to be so used; and the legal or ethical permissibility of damaging or destroying the embryo for purposes of biological medical research. On the first point and without considering the moral status of the embryo as such : use of one's faculties should not flagrantly contradict its natural organic function, except in cases where a higher purpose such as a desire to help others is involved. This supports our ordinary moral intuition that donation of an organ may be permissible where its sale is not.

To be sure, faculties related to generation have a peculiar ethical complexity, given the special moral and legal relations to which they may, and normally do, give rise. Extraction of genetic material-for purposes of enhancing one's own fertility or of advancing medical research-would seem to pass Kantian muster. Sale rather than donation of one's eggs appears more doubtful. On the second and potentially more difficult question of the moral standing of the embryo: Kant's pragmatically informed moral teleology suggests a punctuated account of human development that avoids the extremes of granting the embryo full human status on the one hand, and no moral status whatsoever on the other.

To be sure, the reflections that follow are highly speculative. Kant never commented directly on the moral status of the fetus or unborn child, though some of his remarks suggest that even newborns in his view may have lacked full moral standing. The traditional "natural law" position afforded complete human status to the fetus only with "quickening," taken for a sign of self-motion and hence "ensoulment. Hence, the fetus must have either full human status from the moment of conception or none at all.

But modern science also shows that the embryo in its earliest stages retains a certain plasticity of form. For the first ten days or so after conception the blastocyst may divide, becoming twins. Such a process is unusual but not abnormal in the sense of indicating the presence of some pathological factor or other defect. The embryo, at this early stage, is not yet a fully individuated human being. It does not yet have a unifying principle of development, a distinct soul to speak in traditional terms that is wholly its own. Pragmatically speaking, the moment at which such division is no longer possible thus represents the beginning of a new and qualitatively different stage in human development.

The punctuated character of early fetal development opens a window for potential uses of the fetus that might be juridically or ethically precluded at later stages. Embryonic stem cell research would seem to be one obvious candidate. One might still, for religious reasons, regard the blastocyst as fully human. But it becomes harder to make the case either on strictly philosophic grounds or on grounds of ordinary common sense. What, then, of the limits that might apply to such uses? Like his mentor, Auguste Comte, Durkheim allowed little scope for a science of psychology, let alone any existentialist thought.

For humans as organisms are an intrinsic part of nature, while at the same time, through our conscious experience, symbolic life, and above all, our culture, we are also in a sense separate from nature. This duality or dialectic is well expressed in the famous painting in the Vatican by Raphael, The School of Athens , which depicts Plato pointing up to the heavens while Aristotle points down to the earth.

Human duality is also reflected in the fact that the human brain is composed of two distinct hemispheres, with distinct functions, and two very different ways of being in the world. The left hemisphere is associated with language, symbolic thought, analysis, facts or things in isolation, focussed attention, and the non-living aspects of the world; while the right hemisphere is associated with visual imagery, pre-linguistic thought, synthesis, patterns and relations, things in context, and organic life.

Reason, science, creativity and selfhood all involve both sides of the brain, and there is no simple relationship between the hemispherical differences and ethnic, class or gender affiliations. It is significant however that if the right side of the brain is severely damaged, the left side becomes overactive, and an ultra-rationalist sensibility may develop.

This sensibility is manifested in a predilection for abstraction and geometric patterns, a flight from the body, a feeling of fragmentation, a lack of empathy for others egoism , and alienation from the natural world — the postmodern condition, or the schizophrenic personality lauded by Gilles Deleuze? What tends to be downplayed or even ignored in dualistic conceptions of the human subject is human uniqueness and agency. It might therefore be helpful to return to Kant and his more complex triadic conception of the human subject.

Through his philosophical writings and with regard to his profound influence on subsequent scholarship, Immanuel Kant has rightly been acclaimed as one of the key figures in the history of Western thought. He had a deep interest in the natural sciences, particularly physical geography, but what is less well known is that he also gave lectures in anthropology for more than twenty years.

We are told by his student Johann Herder that the lectures were in the nature of hugely entertaining talks. Notwithstanding the last element, Herder always insisted that Kant, with his emphasis on universal human faculties such as imagination, perception, memory, feelings, desires and understanding, tended to downplay the importance of language, poetry and cultural diversity in understanding human life.

But as a pioneer anthropologist, Herder also emphasized that anthropology, not speculative metaphysics or logic, was the key to understanding humans and their life-world, that is, their culture. Long ago the anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn, following Kant, made a statement that is in some ways rather banal but which has always seemed to me to encompass an important truth. Critical of dualistic nature-culture conceptions of the human subject, Kluckhohn, along with the pioneer psychologist Henry Murray, suggested that every person is, as a species-being a human in some respects like every other person; but they are also all like no other human being in having a unique personality or self ; and, finally, that they have affinities with some other humans in being a social and cultural being or person.

These three categories relate to three levels or processes in which all humans are embedded; namely, the phylogenetic , pertaining to the evolution of humans as a species-being; the ontogenetic , which relates to the life history of the person within a specific familial and biological setting; and, finally, the socio-historical , which situates the person in a specific social-cultural context.

So Kluckholm, not unlike Kant, thought human beings need to be conceptualized in terms of three interconnected aspects: as a species-being characterized by biopsychological dispositions and complex sociality; as a unique individual self ; and finally, as a social being or person , enacting social identities or subjectivities — which in all human societies are multiple, shifting and relational. For an anthropologist like Kluckhohn the distinction between being a human individual and being a person was important, for many tribal people recognize non-human persons, while under chattel slavery, the law treated human slaves not as persons, but rather as things or commodities.

Anthropologists within different cultural configurations tend to highlight one of three aspects of human subjectivity. Neo-Darwinian scholars, for example — particularly evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists — invariably focus on the human subject as a species-being. Emphasizing genetic or biological factors, they tend to downplay or ignore existential and social factors in understanding the human subject. Finally there is a group of scholars who emphasize to an extreme that the human person is fundamentally a socio-cultural being. This kind of approach is exemplified by Durkheimian sociology, American cultural anthropology — well reflected in the writings of Leslie White, who famously suggested that we should study culture as if human beings did not exist — as well as the structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss and Louis Althusser.

It thus downplays the relevance of biological and ecological factors in human life, with some scholars virtually denying human agency. What is needed is an approach that integrates all three perspectives, since a host of causal mechanisms and generative processes — biological, ecological, psychological, social and cultural — go into making up a human being. Throughout the twentieth century, many scholars, within diverse intellectual traditions, did develop a more integrated approach to the understanding of the human subject, recognizing, like Kant, the need to develop a more complex model of the subject.

Likewise, within the pragmatist tradition, George Herbert Mead and C. Wright Mills emphasized that the human being was simultaneously a biological organism, a self with a fundamentally social psychic structure, and a person embedded within a specific historical context.