Eichmann the Kantian?

I'm no expert on Immanuel Kant, but I have enormous respect for his work; I typically bristle when some theologians or ethicists run him down -- often placing the great 18th century German philosopher in a special slot within a litany of (putative) modernist declension in Christian thought. The moral chaos of our world drives me to seek some sort of categorical foundation for affirming goodness, a basis for justice that transcends the brutal rapacity of human history and the blind self-interest that typically distorts even our best efforts to make moral judgments.

Kant, as I understand him, is sensitive to these issues. It's not so much that I'm wedded to his particular formulation of the categorical imperative (for an overview, read this). Nor do I wish to get embroiled in debates about the autonomous modern subject; any appropriation of Kant today, certainly, would require a bit of critical revision. My concern, simply put, is to find some basis for affirming a universal ground of the good as the condition for the possibility of all contingent -- and thereby partial and imperfect -- moral judgments, and Kant provides one way of doing this without committing me, say, to some sort of natural law theory or virtue ethics. To refresh the reader's memory, a classic statement of the categorical imperative, as articulated in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, goes thusly: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law."

But I see that that desire has its dangers too. "Foundationalism!" cries the postmodernist. "Cultural imperialism!" objects the multicultural theorist. I'm not insensitive to such criticisms. A little closer to my own areas of study, moreover, weighty theological objections to such a project emerge: A key risk would be that I, mere mortal as I am and a misearble sinner to boot, would grasp onto some vision of the good or some ethical ideal and reify it. A biblico-theological term for this move would be idolatry.

I recently ran across this striking quote in Pannenberg, and it stopped me cold:

Adolf Eichmann insisted at his trial that he had always acted according to Kant's imperative. He clearly envisioned the extermination of the Jewish people as a universal law to be universally followed. Fanatics of other strains can likewise wrap themselves in Kant's formal imperative. Kant's formal ethics does not in fact provide certain guidance toward the humanistic ideal he espoused. (Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God, ed. Richard John Neuhaus, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975, p. 104.)

Eichmann was a Nazi administrative official responsible for deporting some 1.5 million Jews to extermination camps in Eastern Europe. (You can read more about him here.) He was captured in Argentina, tried in Jerusalem and hanged in 1962 for crimes against the Jewish people. His basic defense during the trial was that he was, essentially, doing his duty by following orders. What could Pannenberg's claim mean here? I've begun poring through our copy of Hannah Arendt's classic, Eichmann in Jerusalem, to see if I can find anything more about this. (By the way, I highly recommend the film, starring Margarethe von Trotta, about Arendt's coverage of this trial.)

Pannenberg's objection to the Kantian categorical imperative, clearly, is its abstract formality. (There are other considerations, of a more metaphysical nature, that have some bearing upon this critique, but I'm not going to get into that here.) He is drawing a contrast between an abstract rule of duty versus the dynamics of lived experience in history. This does not mean, if I'm reading him correctly, that Pannenberg is embracing a consequentialist ethics per se, though I discern some signals that he is, over all, more sympathetic to more empirically grounded accounts of moral decision making.

This worry about abstraction, which (he implies) entails some sort of dichotomy between an abstract rule and its concrete instantiation, is reinforced in a follow-up point, which gets at the tension between concrete individuality and any kind of universalistic claim whatsoever. Hence:

An additional problem with the rule that one's own actions should be suitable as a principle of general legislation is that it tends to deny individuality. The individual in his particularity and in his own distinctive moment can, at least at times, behave in a way that defies formulation as a principle suited to universal application (ibid.).

Backing up one page helps elucidate this, which occurs in a very concise summary of modern challenges in ethics -- a discussion which leads into Pannenberg's own constructive position framed by his distinctive eschatology. He recounts the effects of Nietzschean relativism: All values are the result of the will to power and the irony is that the gap created by this ethical rootlessness is filled by arbitrary rules. "It may seem strange that the relativizing of ethical standards should result in conformity" -- that is to say, "superficial adherence to conventions" without any corresponding existential conviction (p. 103). That's an interesting argument; I'll have to ruminate on it some more.

Appeal to divine commands, Pannenberg argues further, has become increasingly implausible in a "rationally organized world", in which people respond to rational principles (p. 104). I have some critical reservations about this assertion: Just how "rational" are we, and how averse to divine commands? If some quasi-divine figure such as David Koresh or some official in the Church of Scientology says "jump", some portion of the population seems more than willing to answer "how far?". Yet, more to the point of Pannenberg's own discussion, I find this claim about modern rationalism, on the face of it, to be in some tension with the notion that people allow themselves to be ruled by arbitrary conventions, but perhaps that's just another aspect of the paradoxical situation of modern societies. Moreover -- and this gets more directly at my main concern -- conscience fails to provide an adequate ground for moral behavior, since it clearly is mutable and subject to manipulation by self interest, rational or otherwise. Some of the worst atrocities, he points out, have been committed in the name of conscience. Thus, as Eichmann testified at trial, his conscience was clear: His, remember, is a duty ethic. He did his job; he followed orders -- deontology taken to absurd lengths.

What interests me is this: What I find most appealing about the notion of a categorical, universal, even transcendental ground for goodness is precisely the hope that it stands above arbitrary appeals to idolatrous claims, contingencies and the manipulative power of self interest. Pannenberg certainly is going to want to provide his own foundation for ethics that is both ethical and rational, and in the text I'm reading, he goes on to sketch an agapic ethic grounded in his notion of the Kingdom of God, the center and goal of Jesus' preaching and ministry. But is this kind of biblical and theological basis for ethics necessarily incompatible with a categorical ethical schema along the lines that Kant commends? Say we were to play the Nazi trump card against any notion of a transcendental categorical imperative and were, instead, to plunge into the murky depths of Christian origins and the brutally compromised history of the church as an alternative basis, will we have any greater defense against our incessant tendency to label evil as good?

==============================

Comments

Matthew Frost said…
The categorical imperative is like catholicity. The universal scope of a maxim is not itself proof of its orthodoxy. It is, at best, a safeguard applied after the fact to a body of understood correctness. On this point, Pannenberg is correct, and I would even push further: formal ethics cannot produce valid material ethics. But, of course, Kant did not merely espouse a formal ethos. If he believed that there was a universal moral law and that it was positive and humanistic in nature, we must remember that this stood prior to his development of formal systems, and not posterior to it.

The CI works properly when it is understood as a means of preventing individuals from excepting themselves from this moral law through the creation of idiosyncratic special duties. (In its own way, this reproduces some of the features of Thomistic natural law theory.) The CI grounds moral metaphysics precisely as a means of keeping special and general duties bound together, denying that there are any sui generis moral acts. Whatever the material that constitutes an ethos, it is only rational if it conforms to this standard by negating moral exceptionalism.

Of course, we must also realize that Kant's system relies on a universe composed of autonomous (if also not perfectly rational) individuals. Kant does not develop moral metaphysics in ways that validate the classification of groups between "human" and "individual." This is Eichmann's failure, if indeed he was thinking in even vaguely Kantian terms: he can will it to be a universal maxim that "we" should kill "them," always and everywhere. Everyone should kill "them." But for a true Kantian, this can only mean that we should will that every individual kill any and every other individual. There are no classes of humans which may be exempted from moral concern, and this is the great advantage to Kant's metaphysics. Such a rule as Eichmann believed himself to be implementing rationally implies that Eichmann believed that every other individual had the right and duty to kill him and all those of his own kind.
Matthew Frost said…
The thing about the CI is that it is not foundationalist or culturally imperialist. You can't actually sustain either of those claims, and also Pannenberg's claim that as an abstract formal system it does not promote any given material ethos. The CI is in fact radically relativist!

Even without the CI, or any plausibly preferable formal system by which we might (in)validate moral propositions, nothing prevents your reification of moral concepts—whether good or evil. Idolatry has never waited upon the right philosophical framework; it has always justified itself using whatever was to hand. Furthermore, bad students of philosophy do not invalidate good philosophical tools! This applies as much to the misuse of Kant as it does to the misuse of Nietzsche, and I am not convinced Pannenberg has adequately grasped either in their own terms, distinct from the abuses of National Socialism.

However, Pannenberg does get another thing (only) half right: Kant's moral metaphysics is designed to radically subordinate the individual—into the class of all individuals! Kant submerges my personal and often selfish (or at least pragmatic) considerations of what I might prefer into the colder waters of the good of the individuals around me everywhere at every moment. There is never a shortage of individuals "in [their] particularity and in [their] own distinctive moment[s]." The question is, in a universe of such autonomous and usually self-seeking individuals, each with their own slice of what Barth will call "freedom in limitation," what will we call moral?

The question is not what will we legislate. Nietzsche is correct when he notes that each society everywhere throughout history has erected its own table of rules, and that they are universally expressions of someone's will to power. Nietzschean relativism does its job admirably well, because it reveals this "ethical rootlessness" of humanity and the arbitrary nature of its rules. Don't shoot the messenger for informing you that we have manufactured oughts all by ourselves in a universe of mere is. That is the universe in which Kant pursues the question of what may truly be called moral. If your actions cannot be recognized as moral, chances are good that they are not. If you seek to manufacture rules to embrace your actions, chances are good that Nietzsche is still right, and Kant is unhappy with you.

Where the CI works best, it works as a reduction to absurdity of poorly-grounded moral propositions. In its radical other-orientation, it is as absolutely anti-Hume as Kant could get. It does not justify moral propositions, nor is it intended to make such justification easy for anyone. It forces them to conform to a larger standard of social validation. It is, in terms of persuasive rhetoric, an appeal to the audience using the logically maximal form of the opponent's claim. Of course, as Holocaust studies show, audiences can be swayed to act as though the generally immoral were specially moral for them. But you can't blame Kant for human irrationality.
Thanks for the engagement, Matt. I'll attempt to respond later, when I can steal away a little free time.
Your comments are helpful. The takeaway for me is that the categorical imperative might be a useful if limited tool in ethics, yet it is too narrow, abstract and formal to be the basis of a well-rounded material ethics. If the CI embraces a certain sort of relativism, while delimiting it, it may prove to be useful.

The CI certainly would not, in and of itself, be an adequate basis for an ethics rooted in and shaped by distinctive theological commitments. I would obviously have to demur from Kantian anthropology and its notions of autonomy for a variety of reasons. Perhaps what I'm looking for in Kant is really a back door into reading that Danish guy again -- without trying to sound as pious as he is. And maybe he in turn is a back door into Luther.
Matthew Frost said…
You're still looking at it wrong. Nobody should ever be asking whether the categorical imperative is or is not a valid basis, because it was never proposed as such. You're putting the cart before the horse and blaming it for being a bad horse-replacement!

It is a criterion for judging all manner of ethics grounded in distinctive theological commitments. It is something to be applied to moral claims in order to judge how valid they may be, how far they could be encouraged, and where they will break down. The CI presumes that you have before you already some set of claims to evaluate. Not even that you have a moral basis or are looking for one, but that you are adjudicating the fitness of certain claims (even if they are your own).

As such it is quite broadly and generally useful: as a critical tool. "Too narrow, abstract, and formal" tells me that you are trying to use a perfectly good cutting tool as some kind of platform, and I have to wonder, why?
Matthew Frost said…
Put differently: Kant is breaking down ethics to the point where anyone can do it. You don't need an ethos. You don't need a theory, a moral basis, anything at all besides doing something. But when you do something, you're making a claim. You're claiming that action as good and right. If not, you've already granted the point by acknowledging that it was wrong. But however you conceive of what you did as right and good, you must imply than anyone else could do it and have it be good and right. (Lather, rinse, repeat until you have either understood how your action could be justified, or that it cannot be.) The categorical imperative forces you to do ethics from scratch, without developing a theory first. It forces you to do theory from real actions, again and again, always asking whether and how what you did was worth doing. It uses reciprocity as the Procrustean frame.
Matthew Frost said…
Question: what do you find wrong with Kant's anthropology, as you understand it? He seems quite pessimistic to me, for which reason he has such high standards of what should count as moral action.
My evocation of "anthropology" was too imprecise and over-broad and (obviously) misleading. The pessimism -- or as some might have it, realism -- that you indicate is actually an attractive feature of Kant to me: In the real world, the ethical ideal will never be perfectly instantiated. Also, his treatment of radical evil in Religion with the Limits of Reason gets high marks from me to.

No, I was more getting at the issue of autonomous subjects, a conception that would have to be, at least, qualified.

As for my comments about the CI, what I was trying to do was not to disdain it but, as I thought I was making clear but obviously didn't, to concede to you the argument. I don't think I was trying to build an entire material ethics upon the CI but if it seemed I was, in my groping way, then I was repenting of that. I haven't heard anyone discuss these issues in quite the way you do, but I'll keep council until better informed.

Popular Posts

Abortion, Authoritarian Self-Deception, Evangelicals, and Trump: a collected Twitter essay from Christopher Stroop

Marilynne Robinson on Theology

Reversing Theology—A Personal Reply to Torres and Roberts, by David Congdon

Ents, Hobbits, and Salvation in the Shadow of Charlottesville: David Roberts on "The God Who Saves"

How to Understand Schleiermacher's Theology—A guest post by Daniel Pedersen