Kant Answers: Basic arguments

This page refers to the basic arguments exercise on Kant.

1. Kant gives two reasons. In paragraph one, he says that reason’s insight into what will make us happy is rather weak. In paragraph two, he says that
the use of reason often leads us to greater unhappiness.

2. It is probably a bad argument in that Kant fails to really convince us of either of these points. The idea that instinct will lead us more surely to satisfaction seems rather crass, and can only be supported, if at all, if one thinks that satisfaction is nothing more than bodily wants of physical nourishment. But even on that score, the development of agriculture, construction and even civic law – all of which require the use of reason – do much to secure our physical needs.

The second point is asserted in an almost anecdotal manner and contains little substance. Perhaps Kant has in mind the idea that the more conscious we are of our condition, the more frustrated it leaves us. But there are many who would affirm just the opposite, and the point would seem to rest more on whether one has an optimistic or pessimistic outlook on life rather than on any substantive philosophical point.

3. The premises are (in any order)

i. nature has equipped man with reason for some purpose
ii. (and ) reason is a practical faculty that influences the will
iii. (but )reason is not suited to determining the right course of action regards happiness

Therefore, according to Kant, the only remaining possibility is that nature’s purpose for equipping man with a faculty that can influence the will is to produce a good will.

4. Any answer to this question needs to consider both Kant’s claim that “it’s true destination must be to produce a will, not merely good as a means to something else, but good in itself, for which reason was absolutely necessary” in paragraph 3; and his claim in paragraph 13 that “I
am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim
should become a universal law.” How exactly are these two claims related?

One could argue, in answer to the question, that our supreme duty is to act in a rationally coherent way since, as rational creatures, we must suppose reason to be good in itself. The thinking here might follow a thought found in Aristotle, which supposes that just as we might say, for example, that for a knife to be good it must be sharp, so being sharp is what makes a knife good at being a knife; similarly, by analogy, being rationally coherent is what makes a rational creature good at being rational.

Objectors will protest, however, that this line of reasoning confuses ‘being good at being an X’ with ‘being good’, period. However, the complexities involved in cashing out this debate for either side go beyond our present concerns, and we will merely note here that both the argument and its objections need further elaboration to be upheld.

On the other hand, one might argue that our supreme duty is not to act in a rationally coherent way since we have many faculties other than reason, and there are no obvious grounds for supposing that being rationally coherent should take precedence over our other human capacities. This line of thought reflects a modern perspective and understanding on the concept of what it is to be a human being that would not have been common in Kant’s time. Kant, we should remember, was writing in the time of the European enlightenment, when it was a generally held belief that reason was man’s distinctive characteristic and supreme gift that set him apart from the rest of the natural world.

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