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Sunday, 14 March 2010

‘Kant’s moral argument cannot be defended.’ Discuss.

The claim that Kant’s moral argument cannot be defended is questionable. Freud is someone who would agree with this claim. For Freud our moral awareness comes through a clash between our subconscious desires, instincts or wants (known as the id) and societal and cultural pressures on the conscious mind (or ego). If this were demonstrated to be the case then Kant’s claim of an objective moral law within every human being would be incorrect. Without this objective moral law then Kant would not require God to ensure fairness in the universe. Freud claims that our guilty conscience is formed from the pressure of societal expectation on the mind but he makes these claims based on a very narrow evidence base. It would seem hasty to accept Freud’s claims that morality comes from a psychological phenomena if he has only used five case studies to reach his conclusion. Also Freud has been challenged by others in his field who claim that his methods were unscientific. It would be difficult to hold that Freud was correct in his claims about morality if this is the case and by implication this would mean that this attack would not be strong enough to establish another source of moral understanding. However, Richard Dawkins might also attack Kant’s argument along a similar theme, namely that morality comes from a source other than God. Like Freud, if Dawkins could prove that morality comes from a source other than God then Kant’s moral argument would potentially be indefensible. Dawkins would argue that morality has not come from God but has developed as a part of evolution. Morality for Dawkins fulfils certain functions within society. It keeps human society stable which is beneficial for all human beings. Dawkins has argued that if we existed in a society without morals that this would not be of any use for our species; if we lived in a society where murder was the norm of behaviour we would have quickly died out as a species. However, this notion could be challenged on the grounds that Dawkins makes the assertion that this morality comes from human beings alone. Is it not possible that there has been a divine hand at work which has implanted moral behaviour within human beings? If this were the case then Dawkins’ claim that morality comes from a source other than God could not be defended and the criticism would cease to be effective against the moral argument.

Perhaps the argument itself could be attacked more directly. David Hume would have challenged the notion that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ by stating that we cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. This is known as the ‘is’-‘ought’ fallacy. He claimed that we cannot move from a descriptive statement about the universe, such as ‘there is a bookcase in my living room’, to a prescriptive or normative claim, that said bookcase has any moral status. Hume would therefore challenge the notion of ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ that is integral to Kant’s moral argument by stating that it is a leap of logic to move from a descriptive statement to a moral statement. Hume believed that morality was nothing more than an emotional response from the individual observing the world around them. If this were the case then Kant’s argument would fail in two ways: firstly the logic of the argument would break down, so much so that we would no longer have an obligation to achieve the Summum Bonum as ‘ought’ does not imply ‘can’; secondly the source of human morality would be derived from emotional responses to environmental stimuli. In essence for humans there is no universal objective moral law within us. The second claim could be dealt with in much the same way as the Dawkins claim was dismissed. Emotivism assumes a non-cognitivist approach to morality (meaning that moral claims are not statements of facts about the universe). It would be difficult to uphold the claim that Hume makes about moral statements being nothing more than personal expressions of like or dislike against Kant’s view that we can make factual statements about morality in the universe, as neither one can be proved conclusively. However the first claim that we cannot move logically from the observation of the physical world around us to a moral claim (found in the ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ part of the Kant’s argument) seems to be logically sound. Moreover, Kant assumes that the universe is fair in his logical process. This claim could also be challenged as it does not necessarily follow that this is the case because I claim it to be so. Evidence seems to suggest that the universe is not fair. Rich, powerful and selfish people appear to prosper at the expense of the poor and helpless in our society. These deep seated social injustices continue with monetary gains appearing to be the main motive and not moral obligations to the weak and needy. It seems credible that Kant’s enlightenment view of the universe caused him to believe that the universe was fundamentally knowable through human reason thereby causing him to hold the unfounded belief that the universe was fair. This claim seems weak in the face of evidence or reason and so it would seem that this part of the argument must also be questioned.

In conclusion the claim that morality could come from a source other than God is inconclusive as other evidence could be drawn to support this notion (the appearance of objective morals across cultures for example), but that part of the reasoning processes within the argument could be challenged by David Hume (is-ought fallacy) and the assumption that the universe is fair without any evidence to back this claim up. Although the latter point here could be more challengeable because Kant would argue that it is precisely because of this reason that we must postulate the existence of the afterlife and God. However, it does appear as though the Kant’s moral argument cannot be defended because the logical steps of the argument can be effectively challenged by David Hume’s ‘is’-‘ought’ problem.

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