Thursday, February 08, 2007

Rough Ends

Rough Hewn Ends; Kant's Third Thesis, Conclusion

By John Taylor; 2007 Feb 08

The planet earth is involved in a great life project. The mineral, plant and animal kingdoms all progress together, according to evolutionary principles. The question is, where do humans fit in? In 350 BCE Aristotle answered this question when began his Metaphysics with the proposition that, "All men by nature desire to know." We can be sure that this is so, he says, because of the great pleasure we derive from our senses. Our part in the scheme of things is to know.

Sensation is a joy unto itself, but greater pleasure comes of making sensory data into knowledge, and ultimately knowledge into wisdom. Unfortunately for us mere mortals, there is little time to indulge our pleasure. We have only a brief moment in this life, and the longer we live the worse our senses degrade. This injustice is built into temporal reality. In the concluding part of the Third Thesis, Immanuel Kant deals with this fundamental unfairness in the nature of things.

"It remains strange that the earlier generations appear to carry through their toilsome labor only for the sake of the later, to prepare for them a foundation on which the later generations could erect the higher edifice which was Nature's goal, and yet that only the latest of the generations should have the good fortune to inhabit the building on which a long line of their ancestors had (unintentionally) labored without being permitted to partake of the fortune they had prepared." (Cosmopolitan History, p. 252)

In human affairs the sequence of time favors latecomers over early birds. Mother gives it up for daughter, father for son, elder generations for younger ones. Latter generations enjoy the fruits of science and technology that cost the working lives of their ancestors over many millennia. With computers we feel this even more acutely; a computer bought last year will not be as powerful this year's model. That cannot be right. Kant continues,

"However puzzling this may be, it is necessary if one assumes that a species of animals should have reason, and, as a class of rational beings each of whom dies while the species is immortal, should develop their capacities to perfection." (Id.)

If this puzzles the greatest modern philosopher, we can be sure it is a real stumper. Perhaps temporal injustice is part of what the Master called the "mystery of sacrifice." Just as an acorn must give up its form of a nut in order to become a mighty oak. The acorn was born of the bounty of the tree that sired it, but it must change its form utterly to grow into another tree. The present exploits the bounties of the past and repays the favor by sacrificing for the future.

So it is fair and right that we mortals endowed with reason should reach for immorality by taking the best of what minimal knowledge we have time to accumulate and passing its essence on to the next generation. This skews the value of knowledge towards wisdom and away from sensory data, for the knowledge that grows and propagates best we call "wisdom." Thus Shakespeare said, "The fool thinks he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool." The greatest advances in knowledge come of those who know their own folly, those who see the limits to knowledge and ask how to go beyond.

Education, passing things on, is both physical and mental. First there must be physical education and its fruit, a new generation to pass knowledge on to. That is, of course, sex and babies, physical reproduction. The transmission of knowledge about this is central to education. But even more important is the mental, the challenge to raise children into questioning, productive adults. This is an arduous undertaking requiring full commitment of both individuals and the community.

This is why it is moral for those who otherwise stand for free choice to deprecate suicide, euthanasia, abortion and homosexuality. Each in its way exercises free will, but it interferes with a culture of welcoming and perpetuating new life. Such abominations to the "life project" cannot long be tolerated. And again, least acceptable of all to the lover of freedom are mental blocks to the transmission of knowledge, whatever interferes with the path of experience from one generation to the next. The reason is clear: education is our only hope in the long run for having any choices at all.

If history teaches anything it is that progress is not a bounty, free, easy and inevitable. It cannot be taken for granted; it is the fruit of sacrifice, of arduous work, of widespread literacy and the use of any number of learning tools for passing culture on to posterity. Having these well in hand enables labor gradually to improve from one generation to the next. Progress can break down quickly into a negative feedback loop where repression and reaction overwhelm the good. As Jane Jacobs points out, the end result is a dark age. In her last book she warns that we are teetering on the brink of a time when the discoveries of the past are not so much rebelled against or rejected as forgotten. Ignorance preponderates and the brute struggle for day-to-day existence excludes education.

The first signs of a dark age can be seen in the decline and atrophy of the learned professions. When their hard earned wisdom is ignored, when the public thing does not consult with them and apply their advice, they inevitably forget what they are about. Readers of this list are familiar with the symptoms: an economy run by amateurs who ignore professional economists, the result being environmental disaster. An average diet is concocted by Adolph Nobody while professional nutritionists and dietitians are sidelined and even the curricula of most medical schools ignore diet. Worst of all is our mental diet. The information media today feed not only our minds but also our desires and passions. As it is they are adulterated by advertising, and moral philosophers have no say in public fora.

Am I saying that moral philosophers should vet all advertisements, video games and entertainment? Yes, I think they should, just as I think that economists should be empowered to tax polluters, as Krugman timidly suggested in the essay I shared the other day. Nobody dares seriously consider such slaps to the face of capitalists, other than marginalized voices like mine. But still, in a crisis who knows what craziness might be considered?

In any case, neither I nor Kant are suggesting that free markets be curtailed, only domesticated. In his Fourth Thesis, which we will discuss next, Kant discusses how free markets work according to the "invisible hand" described by Adam Smith, an unplanned providence that turns competition among rival workers and companies into an impulse for the greater good. Here is a teaser, from the Fourth Thesis:

"The means employed by Nature to bring about the development of all the capacities of men is their antagonism in society, so far as this is, in the end, the cause of a lawful order among men."

As often happens, the economist and philosopher were anticipated by the Bard, who had Hamlet say,

"Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well, when our deep plots do pall: and that should teach us there's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will."

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