Immanuel Kant, in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, formulated an ethics of duty in which each person is to do only that which fits the criteria of his “categorical imperative”: “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” According to Kant, this is the means by which a consistent basis for action and thought can be developed. It is also the means by which we can fulfill the imperative to treat each person as an end rather than as a means to some other or higher end.
Perhaps the greatest challenge ever raised to Kant’s philosophy of ethics is the short exchange of letters he had with Maria von Herbert, a devoted follower of his philosophy. Following the Kantian ethic, Herbert had revealed to her lover, a partner with whom she was deeply in love, a truth about a previous act which she had previously hid from him. As a result of this revelation, her lover had left her. Herbert, in despair, then wrote to Kant asking for his advice. His reply is that she has fulfilled her ethical duty and should be satisfied with that even if the outcome was not what she had desired. Herbert wrote back, asking Kant if she could visit him, ostensibly so that she could see what it looked like for him to live out his philosophy and whether it made his life indeed a good one. He did not reply. Later, Herbert committed suicide. As Rae Langton points out in her recounting of these letters and assessment of their meaning, Kant “thinks we should rely on God to make it all right in the end. But God will not make it all right in the end.” In other words, the fundamental flaw in Kant’s philosophy is that, as with any ethic that is entirely rigid and refuses to accommodate itself to individual circumstances and the complexities of real life, it must invent an imaginary means by which everything will work out for the best in the end. The imaginary “invisible hand” invented by Adam Smith, which will ensure, in spite of the obviously troubled mathematics and physics involved, that a capitalist system creates the greatest wealth for the greatest number, is another example of such figments of the imagination and their necessity in rigid ethical systems. Just as Kant used his notion of God making everything right if everyone follows their duty to refuse to help Herbert, so Smith’s “invisible hand” continues to be used to justify refusing to render aid to the poor.
A similar idea is also found in a non-Western context in the Indian spiritual classic the Bhagavad Gita. In that work, Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, explains to Arjuna, a warrior who is wavering in the fulfillment of his duty on the battlefield, that God makes all things right in the end and that each person must fulfill their duty according to their station in life. With this as his argument, Krishna continually exhorts Arjuna to enter into battle and do his duty as a warrior. In fact, this idea of morality as duty is perhaps one of the most widespread and pervasive ethical ideas, present to a greater or lesser degree in nearly all systems of thought in nearly all times and places, and it suffers from the same flaws wherever and in whatever forms it exists.
Nikolai Berdyaev is one of the few modern thinkers who have offered a meaningful critique of this nearly omnipresent system of ethical legalism and proposed a viable alternative in a system that might be termed an ethics of mysticism. Drawing on the New Testament and the ideas of especially the Greek-speaking Church Fathers as well as modern existentialist thought, Berdyaev posited an ethics of creative participation in the divine plan for the cosmos. Rather than merely following a set of commands, according to Berdyaev, man is called upon to exercise his own inherent creativity to cooperate with God in the ongoing process of creation and redemption. Ironically, in positing such a system of ethics, Berdyaev is essentially calling upon all people to develop the “holy will” which Kant says is not bound to obey the law because “ought is here out of place, because the volition is already of itself necessarily in unison with the law.” In a similar vein of thought, Augustine once asserted, “love, then do what you will.” The fault of both Kant and Augustine was that neither explored this theme further but each instead, in opposition to the trajectory of the thought of St. Paul and many of the other great mystics of the Christian tradition (as well as other spiritual traditions), chose to formulate yet another ethical system of law and duty rather than grace and love.
Plato bases his ethical theory on the idea that the microcosm (man) should seek to conform to and imitate the macrocosm (the State and, more generally, the cosmos and the eternal order of things). This is why he uses the State as his primary point of exploration and reference in The Republic. To this end, as he begins his discussion of justice in that work, he proposes “that we enquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them.” From this macrocosmic perspective, he claims, it will be easier to view justice and injustice and to associate these to the lives of individuals. In this way, the macrocosm acts as both an allegory for and a source of morality in Plato’s thought.
A problem arises in Plato’s thought, however, when he subjects the microcosm of man to the macrocosm of the State in a way that determines man’s value based solely on what he can contribute to the State from his position of subservience to the State. Interestingly, the same criticism applies equally to the ethical ideas of Confucius, Plato’s near-contemporary in China, whose ideas similarly subject man to the State. This is the heart of the objection raised by Julia Annas in her feminist critique of Plato; according to Annas and in opposition to other modern thinkers who have seen Plato as a feminist because of his argument that men and women of the guardian class in his Republic should be given equal roles, Plato, in continuity with Greek thought of his time, sees women as inherently inferior to men but desires their equality within a certain class because he sees such equality as a benefit to the State, although even this conclusion is rather self-contradictory and perplexing when Plato’s thought is considered as a whole.
This problem of the subjection of man to State (or even to cosmos) has been discussed in a more general way by other thinkers, such as Bertrand Russell, who have also pointed out how troubling Plato’s position is. Its flaws are particularly evident for people today, who live in the shadow of ideologies such as Nazism and Soviet Communism which subjected man to State and viewed him only in terms of what he could contribute to that collective. To modern eyes, as a result, Plato’s ideas more often appear as an oppressive regime of terror than as a perfect utopian society. As Russell pointed out once, Plato modeled much of his thought on the ideal State on his impressions of the Greek polis Sparta as it existed in his own day and, had Plato’s utopia ever become a reality in Syracuse, where Plato attempted to make it real, or anywhere else, the effect would have been essentially the same as what actually happened in ancient Sparta: a city-state that produced no great philosophy, no great art, no great literature (very much unlike democratic Athens for which Plato held such disdain and which yet made his career possible) and which was perpetually in a state of war both within and without.
Where I believe that Plato was correct is in his belief that the temporal values of man must be based on eternal values in order to have lasting, meaningful values that are context-free. One need only look at nearly any of the great movements for human rights in the history of Western civilization (or the similar movements Western ideas have inspired throughout the non-Western world) to see the effect, and, I would aver, the necessity, of the need for a concept of eternal values. Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is one short work which exhibits this reliance of the movements of human rights on the ideas of eternal, transcendent values and a “natural law” that stands above man’s laws and can be used to measure, and to oppose, the particular values of any particular society or individual. It is this idea which inspired and gave the intellectual basis, as King points out, for the various movements against infanticide, against oppression of women, against economic exploitation, against slavery, against segregation, and in favor of the equality and universal dignity of human life.
Where Plato went terribly wrong was in his forgetting that each individual has value and must, to adopt Kant’s terminology if not his ideology, be seen as an end in himself (or herself) and not as the means to an end. While man must, in a sense, conform to the macrocosm of the cosmos in its eternal values and in natural law, he must never become merely a cog in the machine; rather, each microcosm, in order to be a perfect microcosm, must retain value consonant with the macrocosm as a whole rather than merely a portion of it. In short, while Plato discovered an important source of values, his great mistake was to forget the purpose for which he was searching for this source of values to begin with.