Grounding for the metaphysics of politics and morals

Written in summer 2020.

In 1785, Immanuel Kant wrote a treatise entitled Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, wherein Kant made the case for an ethic of “autonomy”, or the individual’s responsibility for their own actions as the ultimate moral good. Kant didn’t think the physical separation between individuals in the world of experiences, or “the phenomenal realm”, was enough to justify autonomy. So, Kant postulated a metaphysical separation between individuals and their environment. We cannot know we are free in the phenomenal realm—indeed, we can be pretty sure we are not free, thanks to the laws of physics—but we can “postulate” we are free in another realm: “the noumenal realm”. In that world, things are not as they appear but as they are: they are “things in themselves”, as Kant put it. Humans can be free in the noumenal realm in a way they cannot be in the phenomenal realm. Kant ascribed the property of autonomy to our noumenal selves. This is Kant grounding for his metaphysics of morals.

Cover for the first edition of Kant’s Groundwork, in German.

The trouble is: it doesn’t quite work out. To be responsible for our own actions, we must cause these actions. To be responsible for what we do, then, our “free” noumenal selves must have some causal effect on our slavish phenomenal selves. But Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason explicitly says that causality is a “category of pure understanding”, which applies to our phenomenal experiences, not to our noumenal selves. Thus, to ascribe causal power to our noumenal selves is to speak a nonsense, a contradiction in terms, as causality only applies to our phenomenal selves.

Kant, furthermore, says in his first Critique that we cannot say anything about the noumenal realm other than things are as they really are (“in themselves”) there. How could we have any knowledge about that realm? We can’t. We can only “postulate” what exists there. But to make such a postulation, we need some priori justification. Kant’s justification is as follows: we cannot act morally if we are not free. We must be responsible for our own actions for morality to matter, for Kant. Kant infers that we are, in fact, free, and that we can postulate that we are free noumenally, if not phenomenally. So Kant isn’t strictly contradicting himself when he says we can’t know what the noumenal realm is like: he’s just “postulating” what it is like based on certain moral priors.

But these moral priors are not givens: what if morality does not require individual responsibility but, rather, collective responsibility? What if the unity of the particular individual is not the foundation of morality, but the unity, rather, of the whole of reality? This deeper level of unity is not something Kant is willing to commit himself to. His metaphysics are tied to a kind of individualism that worships autonomy over unity. It’s a shallow metaphysics, not a deep metaphysics. Kant’s metaphysics can only apply to “morals”—not to what ancient thinkers took to be a crucial precondition for the good life: politics.

So: what would a deeper metaphysics look like—one that understands politics and morals alike, as parts of a broader unity? It would have to go beyond Kant in an important way. It would have to go beyond idealism.

Idealism is the notion that ideas, our thoughts, are what really matter in the world. Physical stuff, or “matter”, doesn’t matter so much, according to idealists, since physical matter is “external” to our senses, while thoughts are “internal”, and thus private. Idealism, in this way, rests on a certain kind of individualism, which takes privacy to trump publicity. Idealism therefore comes out of the modern worship of the individual. It should therefore be no surprise that Kant is both an individualist and an idealist—these are, in some senses, names for the same thing.

There is an alternative: materialism. Materialism is the notion that physical matter, external to our private thoughts, really matters. While idealists say that thought causes matter more than the other way around, materialists emphasise the causal power of matter over our thoughts. If we think of the world as a set of causal interactions among material and ideational entities, it’s not too hard to see who wins this great theoretical battle. Plainly, the greatest causal power can be attributed to the external world, since there is so much more that exists outside of us than exists within us. Kant himself once said:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason

Evidently, the starry heavens are evidently vaster than the moral law within each of our souls. There are far more causal interactions among material bodies than among thoughts in our heads. The sum total of causal interactions among entities sharing the property of matter is far greater than the sum total of causal interactions among entities sharing the property of thought. Public matter has so much more causal power than private thought. If anything’s autonomous here, it’s not thought.

That being said, thoughts can build on each other in a “reflexive” way. We can reflect on our actions in a way that, say, a rock cannot. The rock cannot decide to fall a different way than gravity makes it. A human can decide whether to use their muscles to push or pull the rock. The rock has no free will. Right?

The problem is, even the choice humans make is determined by prior actions. Matter and thought may be different properties. But they are shared by the same substance. Matter and thought, for early-modern philosopher Baruch Spinoza, are “modes of Nature”—they are properties of the underlying substance of the universe, called (in Spinoza’s Ethics) “Deus, sive Natura“—God, or Nature. Though they are different properties, causality applies homogeneously to all natural substance, for Spinoza. In this way, Spinoza maintains that neither humans nor non-humans are genuinely free or autonomous in a deep, metaphysical sense: all there is is Nature, and all Nature is is matter and thought, to which causality applies homogeneously.

Kant, by contrast, embraces what philosophers call “substance dualism”. Kant distinguishes the noumenal realm from the phenomenal realm—the world as it appears to be and the world as it really is, respectively. This distinction is akin to Plato’s distinction between Nature (to use Spinoza’s term) and Form (to use Plato’s). Nature is the name for the realm of appearances, as opposed to the realm of the Forms, or things as they really are (noumenally, as Kant might say). These are very different kinds of substance dualism, however. Plato does not attribute a metaphysical autonomy to particular Forms. Forms, by contrast, form a unity, as they all partake in the Form of the Good—the Form of all Forms. Plato makes Form all about morality, or how things ought to be, while Nature is just about how things are. Nature is all “is”; Form, all “ought”. In the Republic, Plato explicitly says:

[T]he good [= the Form of the Good] is not being, but something far surpassing being […].

Socrates, Plato’s Republic

Kant’s noumenal conception of Form is far more tinged by phenomenal Nature than Plato’s conception is. Kantian Form is made in the image of Nature: causal power is attributed to it in a very particular, naturalistic way. Platonic Form is attributed no such lawlike causality. Platonic Form is also not particular to individuals. Kantian Form is particular to individuals, who exist in the noumenal realm, and freely so. We do not exist as Form, for Plato. We are not Form, none of us. That is why we are flawed. Nature makes us so.

Spinoza is not a substance dualist. Following Thomas Hobbes’s naturalist attack on all metaphysics, Spinoza claims one and only one substance exists: Nature. Spinoza is, nonetheless, a “property dualist”. He thinks there are two properties or “modes” of Nature: matter, and thought. Causality applies to both, but matter has plainly more causal power in the aggregate than thought does. Thomas Hobbes went further than Spinoza in attacking metaphysics, claiming no distinction between matter and thought, even in terms of property. More recently, Daniel Dennett has drawn an implication of this Hobbesian way of thinking—that we don’t really have experiences or thoughts about the world beyond the material mechanisms of our brains. We don’t really “see” the green-ness of the tree, or experience the feeling of love. These are just names for mathematical/geometrical workings of an uncaring universe. “Consciousness” as we know it is just an illusion.

This, in my judgment, is going too far. Matter might have more causal power than thought, but to claim that thought does not exist is verging on absurdity. Of course we experience the world in a conscious way. Otherwise, the tree would not look green—it would look like a set of mathematical equations. But the fact remains that humans do not perceive mathematics in the world. We have to infer this stuff from our experiences. As David Hume (who followed Hobbes in many respects) so forcefully put it: before we can have reason, we must have experience. And even reason requires consciousness: to “see” that 1+1=2 is to have an understanding of these terms that no computer (presumably) currently has. It is to have a kind of conscious engagement with the world that is not reducible to mathematics. Our very understanding of mathematics, in other words, is not mathematical. We are not just robots. We are something more. That something more is thought—consciousness, for want of a better world.

Other people try to get rid of matter. Panpsychism, as recently articulated by Galen Strawson and Philip Goff, denies any real distinction between thought and matter as substances. This is something I’d agree with. So would Spinoza. But the fact remains that some things are plainly more conscious than others. To say that an atom is conscious is not the same thing as saying that a human being is conscious. A human being has more thought than is present in an atom, or in a tree. The kind of consciousness non-animals can have must, insofar as it exists, be very, very restricted. There may be one substance of Nature. But this substance can have different properties—of which the two most important are matter and thought, lying (it must be said) on a continuum, from “more conscious” thought to “less conscious” matter. Since neither has autonomy, as both are bound by the laws of Nature, private thought cannot be said to have more causal power than public matter. Indeed, since there is more of the latter than there is of the former, the latter can be said to have more causal power in the aggregate than the former does.

Kant’s substance dualism is somewhat flawed, then, by his sidelining of property dualism. By saying all the phenomenal realm is composed of thought, Kant follows idealist George Berkeley in taking the world as it appears to us to be composed of thought, not matter. To assume everything in Nature (if not in Kant’s noumenal conception of Form) is ideational is just as absurd, I would suggest, as assuming it’s all material. Everything is plainly natural—it all springs from the same substance of Nature. But the same substance can take on different properties, or modes, two of which are matter and thought. Berkeleian idealism and Hobbesian materialism are equally flawed, as both miss the duality in Nature’s properties. In sidelining property dualism in Kant’s “transcendental” or “sceptical” idealism, as he put it, Kant also seems to miss the mark in his metaphysics of Nature.

To remedy Spinoza’s property dualism, I propose a Platonic substance dualism between Nature and Form. To remedy Kant’s version of Plato’s dualism, I propose Spinoza’s property dualism. Substance dualism and property dualism are often framed as opposed to one another. But they might be better said to be compatible with one another. This yields the following metaphysics:

  1. Plato’s substance dualism
    1. Form
    2. Nature
  2. Spinoza’s property dualism
    1. Matter
    2. Thought

These two divisions (between Form and Nature as substances, and between matter and thought as properties) underpin all other divisions. It is thanks to these divisions that there are materialists and idealists, Naturalists and Platonists (lovers of Form) in the first place. But these divisions can also be used to overcome division. How?

Each division has one side tending towards unity, and another tending towards more division. With substance, Form is more unified than Nature is—since Nature is divided by properties, while Form is unified by the Good. With properties, matter is more public than thought. A priority for thought therefore tends towards division, while a priority for matter tends towards integration. What might such integration involve? Well, it might involve overcoming the very objective division between matter and thought, someday. In the meantime, however, a balance must be struck. This balance must be weighted, however, lest we fail to make political decisions between materialist and idealist politics when the time comes to make such decisions. But why must such decisions be made? Let me give an example, which might go some way as to showing why a Hobbesian priority for matter over thought trumps a Kantian priority for thought over matter, since Hobbesian materialism is more compatible with true moderation (a balance between thought and matter, weighted towards the latter).

Some people claim that politics is about ideas in people’s heads. These people are idealists, who want to change the world by changing people’s minds. All sorts of rhetorical trickery are involved in this kind of politics. Since all politics involves power, or causal interactions with a degree of built-in inequality, the form of power idealists rely on most is manipulation of other people’s preferences. Manipulation denies its own status as a form of power. It must do, in order to be effective manipulation. But manipulation is therefore dishonest. It is the weapon of politicians who are most like “foxes”, or deceivers—the kind of politician modern thinkers like Machiavelli admire so much, but which ancient thinkers like Cicero despise.

Other people claim that politics is about the management of material stuff. These people think that politics is about using material stuff to achieve certain aims, which are often themselves material in character. These people are materialists, who rely on coercion primarily. Coercion involves the use of material “carrots” and “sticks” to induce people to behave in certain ways. Coercion is plain and obvious. It is works by “external”, public, means rather by manipulative psychic trickery. Coercion is honest. It is the weapon of politicians who are most like “lions”—the kind of politician ancient thinkers much prefer to those sly “foxes” who try to cheat to win.

This distinction applies neatly to the coronavirus pandemic. Some people think we should manipulate people into wearing masks by telling non-mask-wearers that they are bad people and need to morally improve themselves by wearing masks. In this way, idealism is tied to Kantian individualism, which blames individuals for behaviours they inevitably perform by virtue (or, I should say, vice) of their social structures. Materialism, however, is tied to a kind of collectivism which focuses on structural remedies to structural problems. Materialists say that, if we do want people to wear masks, we should have a system of punishments and rewards for mask-wearing. We can use the carrots and sticks of coercion, rather than the rhetorical trickery of manipulation, in order to achieve political aims. Materialism, in this way, doesn’t distinguish between politics and morality. The metaphysics of morals are the same as the metaphysics of politics, as both prioritise the material public realm. Idealism distinguishes between private ideal morals and public material politics (as with Kant’s moderate idealism), or else collapses the latter into the former, fashioning the public realm in the image of a private utopian morality (as with the extreme idealism of Fichte and Hegel). Materialism, in this way, is preferable to idealism, as materialism seeks to bind what idealism seeks to tear asunder. Idealism is, in this way, a philosophy of perpetual war; materialism, of striving for eventual peace.

But not all forms of materialism are equal in persuasiveness. Hobbes’s materialism denies the reality of thought to an extent that idealists would regard, and do regard, as grotesque. Hobbes reduces desire to “motions”, obscuring the qualitative character of experience by reducing it to quantitative physical/material chains of cause and effect. Materialism needs to be balanced. While prioritising matter over mind, we should retain an acknowledgment of the importance of both. How?

Substance dualism can come in handy, here. By distinguishing between Nature and Form, we can acknowledge that we cannot have Utopia on Earth. We cannot perfect Nature, because Nature is inferior to Form in deep moral ways. Nature is more divided than Form is. Nature is less about “ought”, and more about “is”; Form is all “ought”, which is preferable to “is”. The concept of the Good is so much nobler than our other concepts, as Iris Murdoch argued in The Sovereignty of the Good; and as Derek Parfit showed in volumes two and three of On What Matters, morality is primarily about “normative” truths about how things ought to be, not descriptive truths about the status quo of Nature. Hobbes, in denying the reality of anything external to Nature (including Form), pretends we can have moral perfection on Earth, in the “reall Unitie” of the coercive sovereign state, or Leviathan. This is not realistic. Unity is clearly preferable to disunity; therefore, materialist politics trump idealist politics. But balance is also preferable to imbalance, since we cannot have complete unity in Nature, and must therefore reconcile ourselves with an imperfect unity that springs from a balance between thought and matter, with a moderate priority for the latter over the former as the public sphere within which we can build collective politics.

So, there are four possible metaphysical positions, which I give in order of their relative coherence:

  1. Balanced unity, deep collectivism, or moderate materialism (Plato, Aristotle) [property dualism and substance dualism];
  2. Unbalanced unity, shallow collectivism, or extreme materialism (Hobbes, Marx) [property dualism alone];
  3. Balanced disunity, shallow individualism, or moderate idealism (Kant) [substance dualism alone]; and
  4. Unbalanced disunity, deep individualism, or extreme idealism (Fichte, Hegel) [no basic substance or property dualism; many other, multiplying dualisms].

Kant thinks we can have balance without unity—moderation without collectivist materialism. But this forgets how modern positions of individualism and idealism are prone to imbalance more than ancient collectivism is. Indeed, true collectivism necessitates a balance, since we recognise that true unity is not possible in Nature, and we can only approximate the true unity of Form. Kant is practically alone in the school of balanced individualism, or “sceptical Idealism”, as Kant put it. There are far more “dogmatic Idealists” and “dogmatic Materialists” in Kant’s framing than there are true Kantians. Most followers of Kant (like Fichte, Herder, and Hegel) fell into the dogmatic traps against which Kant warned in the Critique of Pure Reason. Indeed, Kant’s own position, as we have found, is conceptually unstable. It therefore is prone to rapid conceptual decay into unbalanced individualism or (perhaps) unbalanced collectivism—which attempts to imitate the ancients by prioritising unity, but without balancing unity (as the ancients did) with disunity.

In this way, positions (2), (3), and (4) are generally taken by thinkers since the fall of the Roman Empire. Ancient Greco-Roman thinkers tended to gravitate to something approximating the refined moderate materialism of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Aristotle, it must be noted, denied the externality of Form, and insisted that Form is internal to Nature. But if Aristotle was serious about this, he would have done what Hobbes did, and would have pursued a utopianism which pursued unity in Nature, without balancing unity with disunity. The fact Aristotle formulated the doctrine of the mean, which was all about finding a balance (or “golden mean”) between extremes, suggests that Aristotle was writing in the shadow of the substance dualism of Plato. Aristotle’s division between form (small “f”) and matter as properties of Nature is akin to Spinoza’s distinction between thought and matter, suggesting that Aristotle was still operating in the Platonic context where moderation had to be achieved in order to approximate the unity of Form.

Plato, it must be noted, did not develop all the implications of his theory. So concerned was Plato about contemplating Form by distinguishing Form from Nature that Plato paid less attention to the particularities of Nature than Aristotle did. Spinoza’s property dualism is a helpful accompaniment to Plato’s substance dualism. Indeed, Spinoza’s property dualism, I would suggest, follows from Plato’s substance dualism. Spinoza did not develop all the implications of his theory, either. But unlike Plato, where the implications of Platonism reinforce its fundamental tenets, certain implications of Spinoza’s thought may undermine Spinoza’s own property dualism. If there is no Form, as Hobbes and Spinoza maintain, then Nature cannot be seen as divided into powerful public matter and weak private thought. Indeed, matter and thought are to be divided as substances, or else not distinguished at all, on this reckoning.

This is the road towards intellectual anarchy, a condition of war of every idea, against every idea (to coin a phrase from Hobbes’s Leviathan, wherein Hobbes described an anarchic condition of mere nature—a war of “every man, against every man”). Without Form, or noumena, or God, we cannot have real politics or genuine morals. It’s a road towards no balance at all, and no priority for unity. This is a condition into which post-Kantian philosophers Fichte, Herder, and Hegel arguably fell. Although Hegel aspired to the magnificent unity of the “Absolute Spirit”, his philosophy of history shows where this spirit is headed: toward the division wrought by modern concepts of radical freedom, cultivated by fractious, warring nation-states. There are two conditions for avoiding such contradictions:

  1. A priority for unity (Form and matter); and
  2. A balance (of Form with Nature, and of matter with thought).

To have balance and a priority for unity, then, we need to make two basic divisions, in order to avoid multiplying the basic divisions further, and in order to understand why other non-basic divisions exist at all. These two divisions are that between Form and Nature and that between matter and thought as properties of Nature. By prioritising Form over Nature and matter over thought within Nature, we can formulate a metaphysics not just of theoretical but also of practical utility for political morality. In this way, I hope we can

convert this Truth of Speculation, into the Utility of Practice.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

As we noted above: collectivism tends to gravitate towards balance, since only balanced unity constitutes “deep collectivism”, where contradictions are overcome or (at least) moderated. Individualism, by contrast, tends to gravitate towards imbalance, since Kant’s balanced individualism is “shallow”, failing to apply itself to all spheres of life. Kant’s Groundwork does not apply as much to politics as it does to morals. The political principles formulated in the Metaphysics of Morals (1797) seem to contradict the moral principles of the Groundwork (1785) for said Metaphysics. For instance, Kant politically denies subjects the legal right to revolt, while in his moral theory Kant prizes individual autonomy above all else. Kant’s politics are Hobbesian, while his morals are, well, Kantian. Kant therefore balances shallow collectivism in public politics with shallow individualism in private morality.

Fichte denies this distinction, rightly calling it out as incoherent. Fichte, however, does not move back to an ancient perspective, but instead deepens the condition of modernity—even careening somewhat into postmodernity as he collapses the distinction between public politics and private morality, applying Kant’s private morality of autonomy to the state. Fichte comes to a nationalist view that the individual “self” is only a self insofar as it develops an “opposition” to the “not-self”. In this way, Fichte radicalises Kant’s individualism, and politicises it. Fichte develops an extreme individualism that marries private with public autonomy, framing every nation (like every Kantian individual) as opposed to each other in a Hobbesian struggle of all against all. Fichte’s view of self/other contradiction darkly foreshadows Schmitt’s view that politics is about drawing friend/enemy distinctions. This kind of view accompanied (but did not, according to any materialist theory of history, cause) humanity’s tragic slide towards the abyss in the twentieth century.

Modern, shallow Kantian individualism, or balanced disunity, collapses into deep individualism, or unbalanced disunity. This may swing us back to the early-modern position of unbalanced unity, or shallow collectivism, if the pendulum swings far enough. But even that position, as articulated by Hobbes and Spinoza in their rather materialist politics, falls short of the ancient ideal of balanced unity, or deep collectivism. Nonetheless, the fact that individualism is only “deep”, or as free as it can be from internal contradictions, when it is unbalanced contrasts with the fact that collectivism is deep precisely when it is balanced with individuality. To have balance, we are best sticking with the ancient-minded materialists over modern-minded idealists. Shame there aren’t many, if any, of the former left…

Too often, attempts at imitating unity stop at Hobbes. Marx is an example of this kind of “shallow collectivism”, or “extreme materialism”—or, as Marx called it, “historical materialism”. Historical materialism argues for the absolute priority of material over ideational conditions. A more moderate priority would acknowledge the mediating role of social conditions. Rather than seeing the economy and ideology as the two basic mechanics of history, corresponding to matter and thought respectively, we can see polity as a mediating rule for synthesising causal powers. Political power is like a “meta-power” which arranges and distributes the other forms of power (military, economic, and ideological—in Michael Mann’s four-fold view of power). Marx’s extreme materialism (focus on economics) clearly beats Hegel’s extreme idealism (focus on culture). But the mediating role of politics is forgotten when economics and morals are framed as opposing extreme with no chance of reconciliation. The state, I would suggest, is the power that binds—the great unifier, albeit an imperfect one. Politics can help bring matter and thought together. By satisfying the body, politics—true politics—can open up space for the soul. I call this revised view “realistic historical materialism”.

Sometimes, in some respects, this balance is not quite possible. On these occasions, a decision must be made—between matter and thought. Marx and Hobbes can come in handy very much on these occasions. But more generally, when we can, we must seek to balance matter and thought, while acknowledging the need to decide between them when there is no other way. We should combine materialist decision with ancient moderation. Marx strove towards such moderation without quite reaching it. Indeed, arguably he ended up with something completely the opposite.

Plato and Aristotle might not have had the technological development necessary to see how such a project might be accomplished. But they had the nous to see the principles by which it must be run:

  1. The principle of unity; and
  2. The principle of balance.

That is to say: a priority for unity, combined with the golden mean of moderation. Collectivity, balanced with individuality. Authority, with liberty. And togetherness, with the distinctiveness necessary to reproduce this togetherness. Politics, with philosophy. If we can use the technology yielded by the extremities of capitalism to such a noble end—transforming our increasingly extreme, fractious state into a state of balanced unity—we may see our model of theoretical metaphysics reflected in the mirror of practical justice.

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