“Finally, the third demand to be made on the reader might be taken for granted, for it is none other than an acquaintance with the most important phenomenon which has appeared in philosophy for two thousand years, and which lies so close to us, I mean the principal works of [Immanuel] Kant” (Schopenhauer XV). Schopenhauer’s praise of the “great Kant” does not end in the preface to his work, rather it is integral throughout. In Schopenhauer’s mind, Kant’s greatest achievement is the Critique of Pure Reason, in which “we have learnt from the great Kant that time, space, and causality are present in our consciousness according to their whole conformity to rule and the possibility of all their forms, quite independently of the objects that appear in them and form their content; or, in other words, they can be found just as well when we start from the subject as when we start from the object (Schopenhauer 118). It is in the Critique of Pure Reason that Kant formulates the thing-in-itself, which “is the central concept in the philosophical systems of Kant and Schopenhauer and it is this concept that has pushed these systems into directly opposite directions” (Mudragei 65). The eventual divergence of Schopenhauer away from his philosophical daemon is most marked in the ethical sphere. Specifically, Schopenhauer takes aim at Kant’s Categorical Imperative, and attempts to fashion what he considers to be a better ethical system based on compassion which also finds its root in transcendental idealism. Schopenhauer successfully criticizes the Categorical Imperative for not being pure as Kant claims it is, doing a poor job of motivating actual human behavior, and for being fundamentally egoistic.
Kant argues that a perfectly good will requires no guide for ethical behavior (Kant 66). This is not because the perfectly good will is free to commit sins, but because it is inherently unable to do anything but what is good (Kant 66). So moral philosophy is required for rational beings who are imperfect, such as ourselves. Focusing on human beings, he says that we can act based on one of two sorts of imperatives, either hypothetical or categorical (Kant 66). Hypothetical imperatives are perfectly permissible for Kant — so long as they do not go against a Categorical Imperative — but are not morally substantive. Instead hypothetical imperatives are employed to achieve particular ends (Kant 66). As an example, if I want to travel to Italy, I might formulate the hypothetical imperative that I will save money. This is perfectly rational, but as it is the means to a subjective end — wanting to travel to Italy — it is morally neutral. The Categorical Imperative is different because “it is objectively necessary of itself, without reference to another end” (Kant 67).
The Categorical Imperative is morally substantive because it prescribes duty to us (“Possibility of CI” 357). A hypothetical imperative can never prescribe a moral duty to us since its ends are always subjective. Yet, Kant does not claim to have proven the existence of morality which undergirds the notion of the Categorical Imperative (“Possibility of CI” 362).
Kant states at least three formulations of his Categorical Imperative — some scholars argue that there are more — the Principle of Universal Law (PUL), Principle of Humanity as an End in itself (PHE) and the Principle of Autonomy (PA) (“Possibility of CI” 354, 355). PUL states that we should only be motivated to act on maxims which we could will as universal law in our capacity as rational beings (“Possibility of CI” 354). PHE requires that we look at all human beings — or rational beings — as ends in themselves, not simply as means (“Possibility of CI” 354). PA views all rational beings as having a “universally legislating will” which leads to what he calls the kingdom of ends (“Possibility of CI” 354).
Kant initially implies that the different formulations of the Categorical Imperative are just alternative phrasings of the same law (“Possibility of CI” 355). Yet, Paul Guyer convincingly argues that “while PL alone may suffice to define the form of CI, only PUL, PHE, PA, and PKE [Principle of the Kingdom of Ends] taken together suffice to conceive of the possibility of a realm of rational agents acting in compliance with CI, or to conceive of a possible object for the concept of CI” (“Possibility of CI” 364).
In doing justice to Kant’s moral system then, we must be mindful of all of the aspects of the Categorical Imperative, especially PA. Whereas PUL might give us the basic outline of the Categorical Imperative, Kant does not expect it to yield meaningful moral legislation without the other aspects of the Categorical Imperative in mind. PA is necessary for the system because it “introduces a self-conception that is a condition of the possibility of being motivated to act on a categorical rather than merely hypothetical imperative” (“Possibility of CI” 382). This is Kant acknowledging that without freedom we cannot have moral accountability, or obey Categorical Imperatives. The first aspect of this position is simple enough, if we do not have freedom, we cannot have duties to act in any manner otherwise than we indeed act (Welsen 770). In Henry Allison’s interpretation of Kant which focuses on “the claim that morality and freedom are reciprocal concepts, henceforth termed the ‘Reciprocity Thesis.’ Its significance stems from the fact that it entails that freedom of the will (transcendental freedom) is not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition of the moral law” (Allison 201). This is not just because with freedom of the will we can choose what to do or not do. Another important aspect for freedom is understood when we keep in mind that for Kant, free will does not mean a lawless will (Allison 202). A free will is free because it is able to legislate for itself internally, which is just another way of saying, a free will is able to obey the PUL.
With this backdrop, we may now transition to Arthur Schopenhauer’s criticism of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. It is first important to acknowledge that Schopenhauer borrows much from Kant, and is always conscious of his debt to him. Above all else, Schopenhauer is grateful that Kant took ethics outside the empirical realm, and particularly that he shut out eudaemonism and “quite properly [showed] that the kingdom of virtue is not of this world (Schopenhauer 523-524). In Schopenhauer’s view, all other philosophers aside from Plato and Kant have been guilty of trying to locate the source of moral virtue within this world, and identify morality with that which brings happiness (Schopenhauer 524).
However, in order for Kant’s Categorical Imperative to be removed from empirical contamination altogether, it must be shown that the Categorical Imperative and Practical Reason are entirely pure. This is a standard that Kant ends up failing in Schopenhauer’s view (“Schopenhauer, Kant” 406). This is in large part because Schopenhauer identifies the PUL with something very close to the golden rule (Welsen 765). This is because in both the PUL and the golden rule, the agent behaves with certain standards towards others because they are convinced it is in their own interest to do so, and thus “the corresponding maxims are reasonable on the condition that the agent wants to avoid negative consequences, the categorical imperative turns out to be hypothetical” (Welsen 765). Kant would respond that his ethics are indeed pure, because though the agent must be incentivized under the PUL just as they are under the golden rule, the incentives under PUL are not empirical (Welsen 768). This incentive is the moral feeling. Kant would posit that it originates in the noumenal realm, but Schopenhauer is clear that it is empirical. Kant believes we have a priori knowledge of the moral feeling, and this is used against Kant to prove it must be empirical (Welsen 768). Whatever we may have empirical knowledge of, cannot be noumenal. Just like the forms of our intuition, time and space are not noumenal. Another example might be mathematics. Our knowledge of mathematics is a priori, but we have knowledge of it specifically because mathematics rests in the empirical world, and the seat of our understanding.
Ultimately, because in Schopenhauer’s view the Categorical Imperative is not pure, it can only be explained as something which relies on empirical ends. If this is the case, then Kant’s project has failed. Another important aspect of this is that Schopenhauer believes these empirical ends reduces the Categorical Imperative to a species of egoism. Peter Welsen states it nicely:
…a maxim is morally good on the condition that it is possible to transform it into a general law. In Schopenhauer’s view, this formulation is too vague. As a matter of fact, it is possible to want almost anything, and it is also possible to want almost anything to be commanded by a general law. Thus, the categorical imperative turns out to be a criterion that, for its part, requires an additional criterion and, according to Schopenhauer, the latter is no longer formal, but material: “Who then is the man to realize the draft? The plain truth is that he is a paymaster who is here quite unexpected, being none other than egoism.” (Welsen 764-765)
While Schopenhauer’s charge strikes me as essentially correct, Kant could easily lodge a counter argument. This is that Schopenhauer is wrongfully only focusing on PUL at the neglect of the other aspects of the Categorical Imperative: PHE and PA. If we see ourselves as autonomous, self-legislating beings who are commanded to respect other rational beings as ends in themselves, we have placed significant constraints on ourselves when formulating laws according to PUL. It might be possible to want anything as an universal law, but whatever we want cannot be at the price of treating rational beings as mere means. Yet, PHE and PA, along with respect for moral feeling do not save Kant from the charge of empirical ethics.
While proving Kant’s ethics are empirical is damaging enough, Schopenhauer can also question the egoistic nature of PHE and PA. Kant says, “For a will which resolved this would conflict with itself, since instances can often arise in which he would need the love and sympathy of others, and in which he would have robbed himself, by such a law of nature springing from his own will, of all hope of the aid he desires” (Kant qtd. in Welsen 766). Hence it seems that one is not necessarily being egoistic if one uses the PUL at the expense of PHE, but that PHE can have egoistic motivations as well, and a fortiori empirical motivations. Schopenhauer continues this line of attack against Kant, using Kant’s injunction against lying as a purported example of the Categorical Imperative giving us moral guidance absent any empirical concomitance:
“Moral laws, apart from human institution, state ordinance, or religious doctrine, cannot rightly be assumed as existing without proof.” ‘Thou shalt not lie’ is no a priori moral law, operating over and above experience; whatever its philosophical justification may be, its authority it derives from long centuries of actual human experience. And, as a matter of fact, a principle of law, of obligation, a ‘thou shalt,’ owes all its meaning and force to threatened punishment or promised reward. A ‘thou shalt,’ severed from its concomitant ‘lest’ or ‘in order that.’ is devoid of all significance. To Schopenhauer himself the inference is quite plain: “What ought to be done is therefore necessarily conditioned by punishment or reward; consequently, to use Kant’s language, it is essentially and inevitably hypothetical, and never, as he maintains, categorical. (Tsanoff 515)
Guyer attempts to defend Kant against the Schopenhauerian onslaught. Guyer points out that Kant’s moral philosophy never denies that our moral action is directed towards ends (“Possibility of CI” 368). As Guyer says in a footnote “…the argument for PUL is an attack upon empiricism in practical philosophy, parallel to Kant’s attack on empiricism in theoretical philosophy, not an argument for the rationality of action without any end” (“Possibility of CI” 368). Kant is quoted by Guyer as saying “‘whatsoever is an act of freedom on the part of the acting subject, not an effect of nature,’ requires that the agent himself make ‘the object of his choice into an end’” (“Possibility of CI” 375-376).
I do not find Guyer convincing in his defense of Kant, because he never explains why we should assume that these ends are not empirical. Kant admits that we cannot prove that one is ever actually motivated by the Categorical Imperative, but for it to have viability as a live moral theory, I would expect it to at least be able to point to examples where recourse to a noumenal basis is not made redundant by a more plausible empirical explanation. Even if someone is consciously acting in accord with the Categorical Imperatives that they are formulating, they will, it seems, inevitably smuggle egoist assumptions. For instance, Kant says “Act only in accordance with that precept which you can also wish should be a general law for all rational beings” (Kant qtd. in Tsanoff 517). According to Schopenhauer this relies on egoism, because the force responsible for deciding what you can will as a law for all rational beings is your own situatedness in the world (Tsanoff 517). Going beyond specific examples, Schopenhauer sums up his general point eloquently by saying “Egoism, which is the nearest, ever ready, original, and living standard of all volition and which has at any rate the jus primi occupantis before every moral principle” is the only real motivating factor in human behavior (Schopenhauer qtd. in Tsanoff 517).
This involves Kant in a vicious circle. The motivations which actually impel human behavior will always have a root in empirical egoism, otherwise Kant’s system cannot actually be anything more than abstract theory (Tsanoff 524). Yet, any connection with “human consciousness” that is, our subjective needs and interests “[contradicts] Kant’s own standpoint and method” (Tsanoff 524).
In place of this vicious circle that Kant has involved himself in, Schopenhauer premises his own moral system on the notion of compassion (“Schopenhauer, Kant” 403). In response to the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Schopenhauer says “An action … has genuine moral worth only when it happens exclusively from duty [according to Kant] and merely for the sake of duty, without any inclination toward it” (Schopenhauer qtd. in “Schopenhauer, Kant” 403). Schopenhauer refers to this as a “slave-morality” (Schopenhauer qtd. in “Schopenhauer, Kant” 404). This slave morality of Kant’s is a chimera, because in reality, there is no practical reason which can command in the form of the Categorical Imperative. In reality there is only prudential reason (“Schopenhauer, Kant” 406).
Schopenhauer defines reason as:
…the faculty of forming and using concepts, which are the basis of abstract knowledge, and it enables us to detach from the present and to turn to both the past and to the future. This means that, due to reason, the scope of human orientation reaches far beyond the limits of a given situation. (Welsen 759)
So whereas reason is incredibly important, Schopenhauer is adamant that it can never actually impel us to change our moral character. Reason may change our behavior insofar as we learn more effective methods of achieving our ends, but it is not going to change our ends themselves. This makes reliance on reason in the guise of the Categorical Imperative ineffective. Guyer strikes back against Schopenhauer for these claims:
In the most general terms, Kant’s conception of rational being as an end in itself requires that we preserve rational being (whether ourselves or others) and by preserving the possibility of the exercise of rational agency in the form of consent to our actions (Groundwork, 429-30), but also that we go beyond these essentially negative duties by promoting the development of rational nature in rational beings, that is, doing what we can to advance the development of both our own and others’ capacity to act rationally (see Metaphysics of Morals 6:427)–in our own case, for example, by developing talents that will allow us to satisfy rationality’s demand that we develop the means that will allow us to attain our morally permissible ends, whatever they may turn out to be. (“Possibility of CI” 372)
Guyer’s defense is powerful, but it does not ultimately succeed. Our purported respect for rational beings under PHE is problematic as discussed above. It is no less empirical in nature than the golden rule. Guyer attempts to strengthen the case by pointing out that Kant’s system works with human nature, versus seeking to motivate human beings to act independently of our own interests. This is why Guyer says that as rational beings we not only want to allow other rational beings, as ends-in-themselves to fully develop their capacities, but we want to do the same for ourselves, so long as those ends do not violate any moral obligations. Yet, with or without Kant’s system, we are going to pursue our own ends, and Guyer is not able to explain why we need recourse to the noumenal realm to explain why we are willing to subscribe to a version of enlightened self-interest by respecting the rights of others. Trying to ground morality in abstract principles is like claiming “only that work of art [is] beautiful which had been turned out in accordance with the abstract principles and rules of a system of aesthetics” (Welsen 760-761).
A great example of the trouble we may be led into when such abstract principles are thought to form moral content, or at least a substantive motive for moral conduct is the notion that we as rational agents choose to have a “good or evil disposition” (“Possibility of CI” 376). It is one thing for Kant to claim that in any given situation we are aware of right and wrong, but quite another to assert we choose to be evil. What rational agent would choose to be evil? Either someone who is to use Schopenhauer’s terminology, driven by malice, and hence entirely untouched by any “moral feeling” or someone who is not indeed in control of their faculties, because most people at the very least, want to see themselves as good. If the “evil person” chooses to be such according to Kant because they are entirely unmotivated by the moral law, then how can they be held accountable for this? It would seem to be a defect in which they have no control over. If the latter is the issue, then how can they be held accountable for not being able to be otherwise than evil, which would be the case if it was a result of their not being in their right senses? Kant’s system would have more plausibility in my mind — though it would still be quite tenuous — if he insisted we are all inherently will to be good as rational beings, but sometimes fall short of following the moral law because we fail to educate ourselves in what the Categorical Imperative commands, or because we let subjective interests temporarily override our obedience to the moral law. Given that Kant does not think any of us obey the Categorical Imperative all the time, and in fact admits there is no conclusive proof than anyone has ever actually followed the Categorical Imperative — because in any actual situation, there is always the possibility that the agent is motivated by other factors in part or whole — this would seem to be a more prudent position.
Guyer next turns to PA as a means of defending the “content” of Kant’s ethical system. He states that “rational nature can be seen as end in itself when it is interpreted as not merely subjection to but the willing of universal law because it can be seen as the means by which agents capable of being rational free themselves from natural law and attain the dignity of self-mastery” (“Possibility of CI” 382). Another way of summing this up is that we may only achieve autonomy if we adopt the Categorical Imperative (“Possibility of CI” 382). This is an important defense if we follow the reasoning that “the thought that there is an incomparable value or dignity in self-mastery over nature, which can be attained only through the willing of universal law, is what is ultimately necessary in order to explain why rational being is an end both in one’s own person and in that of everyone else (“Possibility of CI” 382). Yet, this strikes me a Christian-inspired renunciation of nature, or this world on the part of Kant. It is not clear to me that there is any inherent desire for mastery for nature, certainly not on the noumenal level. Of course with the use of technology human beings — and presumably other rational beings if they exist — do indeed try to gain mastery over nature, but this is towards the aim of subjective ends. For instance, we might want to discover new medicines to cure diseases, or better learn to harness energy to bring heat to those who live in the extreme cold, and perhaps improve the environment by phasing out fossil fuels. At the same time, humans often romanticize the notion of a “return to nature”. This is why the British so idealized the notion of the English countryside, and why today many people talk about the supposed promise of organic foods, and the value in living a lifestyle in sync with nature. So while I do agree that we seek mastery over nature, I think it is wrongheaded to imply such mastery is an end in and of itself. In any case, when we do seek mastery over nature, it is not explained why this should include our working cooperatively with other rational beings to help them attain their own mastery over nature. Of course helping others master nature might be to our own advantage because we will be more successful as a team versus individuals. This would be using others as means, not honoring them as ends though.
I agree strongly with Schopenhauer that the Categorical Imperative is “devoid of any content so that it is incapable of prescribing concrete actions” (Welsen 764). “Morality is concerned with the actual conduct of man and not with the a priori building of houses of cards to whose results no man would turn in the storm and stress of life. In face of the violence and fury of passions, such results would be as effective as a syringe in a great fire” (Schopenhauer qtd. in Welsen 767).
It seems to me that Schopenhauer’s ethical alternative is stronger than Kant’s. It does not talk about moral duties, but is instead a “voluntaristic metaphysics” (Tsanoff 513). The goal of Schopenhauer’s is much more descriptive, seeking to explain what we mean by moral conduct, versus trying to create laws that might somehow compel us to be moral. This does not mean Schopenhauer’s own ethics is beyond reproach. Guyer points out that Kant’s philosophy is full of warnings against those who act solely from inclination and not duty. A paraphrase of his example is that we imagine someone who is naturally inclined towards benevolence. This person commits acts of loving kindness out of the generosity of his heart. He never stops to think if he has a duty to treat others so well, instead, it is a simple outpouring of his nature or state (“Schopenhauer, Kant” 419). This person is not immoral, because he is not violating any duties, but he is not truly moral either, because he is not acting with regard for his moral duties (“Schopenhauer, Kant” 419). Schopenhauer attacks this because he takes Kant to be saying that truly moral activity only begins once compassion and a deep-seated love for others is abandoned (“Schopenhauer, Kant” 419). Guyer thinks that Schopenhauer is missing a crucial point here. Kant is speaking in hypotheticals, he is isolating in his examples behavior motivated simply by loving kindness, and behavior motivated wholly by duty for the sake of philosophical clarity (“Schopenhauer, Kant” 419). Kant is not claiming that you can find examples in real life of people who are consistently kind out of loving kindness, with no regard for duty on the one hand, or people entirely unconcerned personally with the welfare of others, who meet all of their obligations to others regardless because of their respect for their moral duty (“Schopenhauer, Kant” 419). Kant’s moral hero who acts out of duty in real life is not necessarily devoid of compassion as Schopenhauer seems to assume. In fact, according to Guyer, the person who consistently acts out of regard for the Categorical Imperative “might have, or have cultivated, sympathy because of his conception of duty or his moral principle, let alone denying the possibility or its desirability as a complete model of human virtue” (“Schopenhauer, Kant” 419).
I believe that in the abstract Guyer is making a very good point. This logically could be the case. Psychologically, it does not seem convincing to me at all though. Guyer seems to be employing the logic of “fake it ‘till you make it,” but I am not sure this has any currency in terms of moral motivation. If someone behaved morally towards others consistently because of their respect for the moral law, then it might make sense that they may learn to feel compassion and love towards those they have been acting so morally towards. Yet, without compassion or concern for others to begin with, what would have motivated respect for the moral law? Of course, I anticipate that Kant or Guyer could point out that this just might be an example of someone not being motivated by empirical or psychological ends, but rather being directly motivated on the noumenal level by their intelligible character. Yet, I do not think either would be able to actually produce an example of someone who was entirely disinterested in the welfare of others on a personal level, who later developed compassion towards others after having spontaneously — spontaneously in a relative sense: I mean to say that since it would be caused by their intelligible character, they would not be aware of exactly how it came about as creatures only directly aware of their empirical character — developed a regard for the Categorical Imperative. In the absence of such real examples. I am not sure why it would make sense for anyone to assume that this system helps to explain the behavior of real human beings, versus Kant’s abstract conceptions of rational beings and their behavior. Tsanoff makes largely the same point quite beautifully, “the moral theorist must first become intimate with what man is, before presuming to intimate what man ought to be. The hierarchy of ethical values can rise above the brute in man and reach the plane of the divine only by resting upon the solid rock of actual human nature” (525).
Between Kant and Schopenhauer, we are left to decide the relative merits of an ethics of reason, or an ethics of compassion (Welsen 758). While Kant does a great job of creating a complex system with a lot of internal consistency, so long as you accept his assumptions, he never provides compelling reasoning to accept those assumptions. There is an admirable logic to the form of PUL, yet having proclaimed something which is internally valid does not automatically translate into that proclamation having any sort of necessity (Welsen 763). Hence, the Categorical Imperative, to the extent that it can be universalized as something valid, does not for that reason have real influence over the behavior and proclivities as rational beings, in the way that the laws of physics has direct influence over bodies in space.
Guyer is not content to simply attempt a defense of Kant against Schopenhauer’s criticisms. Guyer also attempts to refashion some of Schopenhauer’s lines of attack and use them against Schopenhauer himself. While Schopenhauer attacks Kant for having a system which places reason in charge of determining our moral conduct Guyer says:
However, while this might suggest that Kant’s ethics is to some considerable extent rationalistic, and Schopenhauer’s ethics could not possibly be so, matters are not as simple as this: in fact, Schopenhauer offers a singularly cognitivist account of the aetiology of compassion that sees it as flowing automatically from a metaphysical insight into the superficiality of the numerical distance between persons that simply abolishes any emotional preference for oneself over others, while Kant regards sympathetic feelings for others as an independent yet natural endowment of human beings that needs to be cultivated and conditioned or constrained under the guidance of reason, but that does not simply flow from reason. (“Schopenhauer, Kant” 405).
Guyer points out what I believe ends up being a weakness of Schopenhauer’s ethical philosophy, which is that he believes our intelligible character and an inner-awareness is somehow responsible for our feelings of compassion, versus giving a psychological explanation which I feel would be much more appropriate. Doing so would make Schopenhauer’s approach to ethics much more similar to that of David Hume, and in my view, that would be an improvement (“Schopenhauer, Kant” 406). Yet, I believe that Guyer is betraying a superficial understanding of Schopenhauer with the specific charge he makes.
To better assess Guyer’s criticism, we must clarify what reason and understanding are for Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer says:
The main difference among all our representations is that between the intuitive and the abstract. The latter constitutes only one class of representations, namely concepts; and on earth these are the property of man alone. The capacity for these which distinguishes him from all animals has at all times been called reason (Vernunft). We shall consider further these abstract representations by themselves, but first of all we shall speak exclusively of the intuitive representation [understanding]. This embraces the entire world, or the whole of experience, together with the conditions of its possibility. (Schopenhauer 5)
As Schopenhauer is quoted saying, he believes only human beings have the capacity for reason. However, he believes that intuitive understanding is shared by humans with all other animals. Intuitive understanding is actually what is primarily responsible for our experience of the world, as he says, “…the understanding unites space and time in the representation of matter, that is to say, of effectiveness. This world as representation exists only through the understanding, and also only for the understanding” (Schopenhauer 11). Reason which is unique to humans is simply a tool, albeit an incredibly powerful and useful tool. Schopenhauer’s criticism against Kant is that his ethical theory is situated in abstract reason, which as a tool useful in helping us to achieve our ends, cannot actually inform our ends or values. Insofar as value creation is concerned, it is powerless. Compassion for Schopenhauer is something situated in our understanding, not our reason. If this were not the case, it would be impossible for Schopenhauer to talk about the emotional richness of many non-human animals. A dog defending its human or pup, is acting out of the very same metaphysically determined compassion as a human being is when she seeks to stop the suffering of a stranger. Yet, it would be absurd to charge Schopenhauer with thinking that the dog has some sort of intellectual or abstract concept of what compassion’s metaphysical root is. Given Schopenhauer’s very explicit statements on this matter, it is just as absurd to imply that Schopenhauer believes we feel compassion for others because we are aware of the metaphysical unity of all beings on a conceptual level. If this was the case, I grant that compassion as a concept would be just as unable to motivate action as the Categorical Imperative. In fact, for this very reason, Schopenhauer is explicit in stating that you cannot teach a person to be moral. You can of course educate them on moral rules so that they understand the concepts, but they are not as a result going to become moral. It would be similar to explaining to a person how birds fly with their forelimbs, and then expecting that that person, now thoroughly educated in avian flight, will be able to jump out the window and engage in sustained flight. If you do not have the wings and such of a bird, you will not be able to fly like a bird, even if you conceptually understand what they are doing. Likewise, if you are not moved by compassion, but instead by egoism or malice, you can quite readily learn about compassion and what Schopenhauer believes to be the metaphysical foundation underwriting it, but it is not going to make you a more compassionate person. The only time moral instruction can help is when a person has a fundamentally compassionate worldview, but needs the help of reason and concepts to direct their actions towards the most effective means of achieving their compassionate ends.
For instance, Schopenhauer believed strongly in compassion for animals. Yet, he also reluctantly asserted that it is okay to eat animals. His reasoning is that especially in some very cold climates, a vegetarian diet would be impossible for people to live on, and though the animals suffer in being slaughtered, they ultimately suffer less than human beings would if they willfully starved to death. I am not in a good position to know if or if not this was true for people in certain climates during Schopenhauer’s lifetime. In any case, assuming Schopenhauer were alive now, I could teach him that given contemporary technology and nutritional understanding, it is possible for people to live on a vegan diet. I believe this would motivate him to then advocate just such a diet. This is not an example of me influencing his fundamental values, but of showing him a way to more coherently live out the values he already has. As Welsen puts it “[Schopenhauer] thinks that a morally good action does not originate from an abstract knowledge but rather an intuitive one” (760).
In conclusion, Schopenhauer offers a better ethical alternative than Kant does with his Categorical Imperative. While Kant’s system is thorough and impressive, it is ultimately disconnected with the reality of our experiences. The Kantian abstract rational being does not cohere with real human beings. Schopenhauer’s ethical philosophy, which is also rooted in transcendental idealism provides a more plausible foundation for moral action and beliefs, which is compassion. Compassion is superior because it is much easier to explain how compassion towards others — including non-human animals — can motivate moral behavior, and how it can serve as the source for our moral appraisement of others. Kant is right to caution us that compassionate behavior not guided by reason may itself become problematic. This is where there is a place for reason. However, reason should act as a guide for our moral inclinations, not as the source or seat of our moral behavior. For instance, if I have a family member who is addicted cocaine, I may be tempted to continue to give her money when she shows up at my house crying. In time, I will probably realize that this is only enabling her behavior, and the more effective method of showing her compassion is to resist enabling her. I may then attempt to comfort her, and explain my willingness to be there for her and to help her with money if she checks herself into a rehabilitation center. Without reason, I would be in the same situation as a non-human animal, and only able to consider the present moment, which would mean, I would be overcome with compassion each time my cousin showed up, and I would hence respond the same way each time, by giving her money, and inadvertently would be supporting her drug habit which is destroying her life.
Yet Schopenhauer’s ethical philosophy has its own weakness. Namely that Schopenhauer insists there is a metaphysical root to compassion. I am convinced by his argument that we are all one on a metaphysical level, yet the validity of this claim, does not in my mind compel us on an empirical level to feel compassion for others. Also, since compassion need not be limited to rational beings such as ourselves, and is found in dolphins, dogs, and many other species of animals, I believe Schopenhauer would be hard pressed to explain the lack of compassion in solitary animals, such as the black widow who eats her mate and her young, many snakes which are solitary, species of amphibians which cannibalize each other, et cetera. These animals are just as metaphysically united with the rest of existence as we are, and they possess an understanding just as we do. Schopenhauer’s philosophy fails to account for this.
In this sense, I certainly agree with Tsanoff, that both Kant and Schopenhauer’s philosophy suffers from confusion associated with their view of the interaction between our metaphysical and phenomenal selves, the anecdote being a philosophy more deeply rooted in “concrete human experience” (514).
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