Personal Human Care Relations
As mentioned earlier, I believe it is mistaken to attribute to Kant the view that human beings are or should strive to be merely rational beings. Although this is how our philosophical practice often has presented Kant’s philosophy, it is not the account we find when we start looking more closely not only at his writings on freedom but at human nature generally. In fact, the overall picture we find in Kant’s philosophical writings is one that views a central challenge for us, that of developing an ability to care well for ourselves and for each other, in ways that are deeply appreciative of the astonishing fact that we can set ends of own responsibly, the incredibleness of our embodied sociality, and our very unruly and vulnerable human natures. And central to exploring these features of Kant’s practical philosophy is his aforementioned accounts of the predisposition to good and the propensity to evil in human nature, which we, somewhat surprisingly, find in the Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (Kant 1996b).
In these sections of the Religion Kant proposes that our human nature should, in part, be understood in terms of a threefold “original predisposition to good” (1996b, R 6: 26).9 The first constituent part - the predisposition to “animality” - is taken to capture our natural, conscious drive to self-preservation, to have sex and care for our offspring, and to seek affectionate community with others. This animalistic predisposition is marked by being importantly unreflective in nature, which is why it is operative long before we can think about things and reason. Consequently, we see these conscious drives revealed even in newborn babies - in how they seek to survive (self-preservation), how they respond to touch (sex drive), and how they are calmed by affective comfort from loved ones (community). The second predisposition - to “humanity” - involves both susceptibility to set ends of our own rationally (acting on univer- salizable maxims) and a social sense of self enabled by comparative uses of reason (1996b, R 6: 27). Hence, this predisposition enables both the setting of our own ends (rational end-setting) and a type of self-love that is accompanied by the inclination “to gain worth in the opinion of others, originally, of course, merely equal worth” (1996b, R 6: 27) and an incentive to culture (1996b, R 6: 27). Although fully developing this ability involves reason (though not an ability to act as motivated by practical reason), we can see this longing to act freely, Kant correspondingly argues in the Anthropology, in the fact that human babies are the only ones that scream when they are born, since in screaming, the babies reveal that they can represent in a way that non-human animals cannot, namely as being frustrated by our inability to act (set ends) (2007, A 7: 268). Moreover, we can see this social sense of self at play already very early in human lives too: it only takes a few months, for example, before a baby starts to interact with the caregivers through smiling and laughter, an activity that reveals that the baby is aware of and takes pleasure being seen by and in seeing the caregiver. If we realize these two natural predispositions - animality and humanity - together and in good ways, Kant argues, we will both be able to develop societies where healthy competition drives culture and progress and find ourselves in a condition where reciprocal love among emotionally healthy, grounded people is realizable (2007, A 7: 306). There is therefore nothing inherently wrong with being in the world with these dispositions; they are importantly unreflective and operate significantly on the affectionate, playful, and/or nonmoralizable emotional level. Indeed, upon reflection, there is a moral push to remain confident in these unreflective ways of being as long as they operate well; after all, they ground us and are central to giving our personal lives meaning. They are not, however, sufficient to account for human beings’ ability to be morally responsible for setting ends of their own; to explain this philosophically, Kant argues, the predisposition to “personality” must be added.
The predisposition to personality concerns our susceptibility to morality’s commands (to be morally responsible for our actions), or what Kant calls “moral feeling.” Moral feeling is a susceptibility to act as motivated by thinking about whether or not what I am doing is right or wrong; that is, it enables the ability to do what is right (to follow the moral law, to obey my practical reason) just because doing so is the right thing to do (act from duty) (1996b, R 6: 27). Consequently, this third predisposition (personality) enables us to act upon or in response to the behavior related to the first two (animality and humanity). For example, when something I am doing feels morally troubling, I can consider it from a reflective point of view, meaning that I can stop and try to figure out what I am doing as well as whether what I am doing is respectful to and appreciative of myself and others, and I can act as motivated by this reflection
(I can incorporate this motivation into the maxim and do something rather than something else just because doing so is the right thing to do). Being susceptive to moral feeling reveals that we are at least starting to be able to be responsible for our moral actions - and, so, viewing practical reasoning as giving one reasons to do or not to do something - which is also why there is no evidence of it in babies (as they cannot do this yet). Correspondingly, Kant emphasizes in the Critique of Practical Reason that the kinds of self-love enabled by the first two predispositions are “natural and active in us even prior to the moral law,” whereas the third predisposition (to personality) enables us to “restrict” or “infringe upon" them when doing so is morally necessary, that is, when the moral law (our practical reason) demands it (1996a, CPrR 5: 73). Again, when this happens - when we restrict our inclinations in these ways, when we do something just because it is the right thing to do, when we act out of duty - then we act out of rational self-love (rather than simply in conformity with rational self-love) (1996a, CPrR 5: 73). Kant also argues that the third predisposition, which enables rational self-love, can never be used badly, since it provides an incentive to act simply as practical reason commands (1996b, R 6: 28). The other two, however, can be used and habituated in bad ways, although their orientation toward what is good cannot be eradicated.
Trailing our predisposition to good is the propensity to evil, which comes in three degrees. At each level, there is a particular way in which it is tempting for us to do bad things and to develop inclinations that make it subjectively increasingly difficult for us to live lives that are truly good and morally justifiable. First, frailty is the temptation not to do what we know we ought to do (weakness of will); impurity is the temptation to act on bad motivations such that we have patterns of associations or ways of feeling that make it hard or are out of line with what is truly good for us; and depravity is the temptation to reverse the order of motivations so that rather than seeking to act in ways that are morally justifiable upon reflection, we use our reasoning abilities self-deceptively so as to seek to justify doing morally terrible things (do bad under the guise of the good) (1996b, R 6: 29-32). Switching now from the perspective of wrongdoers to the perspective of being wronged, when we are wronged our trust in others is challenged in three degrees: by someone committing a wrong against us (frailty); by someone being more generally unreliable or untrustworthy in that she is not able to act consistently from the right kinds of motivations in various situations (impurity); and, finally, by someone striving to do morally horrible things to us in the name of the good and generally feeling justified and content in doing them (depravity). That there are three degrees therefore reflects how seriously we can lose our way in life (as we move from frailty to impurity to depravity) and the increasing difficulty involved in working our way back to emotional and moral health.
Notice that because we have a predisposition to good that is threefold, evil can be aimed and experienced at all levels. As Susan Brison tells us in Aftermath (2011), the violent sexual assault she was subjected to affected her at all levels: at the level of animality, the aftermath included struggles to regain her ability to want to preserve herself and feel safe in the world, to enjoy sexual intimacy again, and to become able to want to have a child again; at the level of humanity, the aftermath included struggles to recover the ability to set ends of her own as others’ equal and to overcome disempowering feelings of guilt and shame; and at the level of personality, the aftermath included the struggle to regain her subjective sense of having dignity. Correspondingly, in doing violent wrongs, perpetrators can experience themselves at all three levels. They can feel animalistic pleasures from their evil actions or feel socially empowered by subjecting others to their force. They may also be so utterly lost in their own life projects that they create a self-deceived reality in which others, as persons, no longer can demand their respect because, ultimately, the wrongdoer’s life is much more important for some alleged moral reason and disrespecting their victims is part of some self-deceived, moralized story of their hitherto unrecognized greatness and/or of the others deserving awful treatment.10 In sum, despite the fact that various Kantians will disagree with aspects of the earlier mentioned Kant interpretation,11 it should be obvious by now that he has anything but a simple “rational self” conception of the human agent; this interpretation - regardless of interpretive disagreements on details - gives us a much more complex structure of our human phenomenology.12 Kant’s accounts of the predisposition to good and of the propensity to evil aim to get into view both how what we take pleasure in, value, and find meaningful (what makes us happy as the particular people we are) is subjective in that it is different from person to person and how this subjectivity appears to be constituted by shared structures and patterns.
It is also important to appreciate that this account of human nature is complemented by Kant’s account of perfect and imperfect duties. Because this part of Kant’s practical philosophy probably is the most well known, let me be very brief here. According to Kant, setting ends of our own rationally involves acting on maxims (subjective rules of action): when I learn to set an end for myself in morally responsible ways, I master the self-reflective ability to think about what I am doing (including by mastering abstract concepts that enable me to be aware of what I am trying to do or which end I am pursuing), that I am the one doing it (self-conscious), and to make sure that the ends I pursue are at least consistent with respect for rational being (perfect duties) and insofar as possible furthering of a flourishing rational world (imperfect duties). Hence, establishing whether or not an action is morally good or at least morally permissible, we do not look to the content of our maxims (our particular ends) but to the form of the maxim: could we “think” or “will” the maxim as a law for rational beings (1996a, GW 4: 424). If we cannot even think the maxim as a law without contradiction, then we have a perfect moral duty not to do it, whereas if we can think it but not will it as a universal law, then we have an imperfect duty not to do it.13 Additionally, because we have moral feeling (personality), we can act as motivated by this reflection: as also explained earlier, we can do something just because it is the right thing to do or we can choose not to do something just because doing it is wrong. Finally, because we can choose and because we are embodied, social - human - beings (the predispositions to animality and humanity), the moral law is experienced by us as a categorical imperative, as something we must or ought to do - “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (1996, GW 4: 429) - and not as something we will necessarily do. Notice too that this entails neither that we ought to try to act on universalizable maxims from duty at all times nor that the emotionally mature, morally good human point of view is the same as that of the independent, rational beings. Rather than identifying the highest good for human beings as always acting on universalizable maxims from the motivation of duty (virtue), Kant’s proposal is that we must seek to bring non-moralizable and moralized forms of self-love - happiness and morality - into “close union . . . under the limiting conditions of practical reason” (1996a, MM 6: 426). Ultimately, insofar as it is within our powers of choice, what we choose to do must be something we can morally own - practical reason must set the framework within which our non-moralizable aspects function - but the aim is to realize them both in a harmonious union. This is why Kant proposes that human beings’ highest good must be understood as a “union and harmony” between “human morality” and “human happiness” (1996a, TP 8: 279, cf. CPrR 5: 11 Of.). Our highest aim as human beings is to use our faculty of desire to develop, transform, and integrate all the good aspects of our being - those that make us emotionally healthy embodied, social, morally responsible particular beings. In addition, of course, we need to strive to heal and manage those bits that function poorly, those that hold back both our happiness and our ability to act morally responsibly.14
Notice too that the earlier discussion helps us critique the fact that it seems impossible to grow up in any Western country today without having inherited some racist, sexist, and heterosexist pathologies. For the most part, these pathologies are at the impure level, meaning that they are patterns of associations and emotional reactions we have in relation to ourselves and to others that are based on racialization, gender, or sexual identity or orientation. Insofar as we live in such a family or society, we will inherit either oppressed or oppressive identities. If we inherit oppressed identities - non-white, non-Christian (in the United States and in most of Europe), woman, polyamorous, member of the LGBTQIA community, and so on - we will have (at least remnants of) oppressed pathologies (irrational sadness, lack of self-esteem, strong anger at particular instances of wrong, etc.) that subjectively hold us back in important ways. In contrast, insofar as we inherit oppressing identities (white, Christian, man, cis, monogamous, straight, etc.), we will have oppressive pathologies (numbness to effects of bad behavior, overinflated self-esteem in virtue of our identity, so-called “snowflake” anger at related criticism, etc.). Insofar as we inherit more than one of these identities (oppressed and/or oppressive), we experience how they interact with one another within ourselves - what is often, thanks to Kimberle Crenshaw’s pioneering work (1989), referred to as “intersectionality.” Of course, some try to repress these bad emotional patterns by transforming them into depravity, namely by telling themselves deeply self-deceived stories about the alleged correctness of their damaging or destructive behavior. Thus, they do aggressive things to themselves or others in the name of the good. People who uphold, for example, white supremacist stories tell deeply self-deceived stories about racialization, whereas hetero-sexist people often speak in the name of God to allegedly justify their violent behavior toward women (who don’t recognize their “proper,” subordinate place) or toward members of the LGBTQIA-community (who don’t recognize their “perverted” nature). These stories, on this Kant-based approach, reveal a “depraved heart.”15 Moreover, those who do take on the challenge of ridding themselves of the inherited, impure pathologies experience the deep challenges involved in so doing - exactly because it involves emotional and associational responses that are not simply within their reflective control - and they can feel the temptation to yield to frailty (to sell out themselves or others) in moments when this is advantageous or when standing up for what is right has a real cost. Regardless, living with oppressed identities at all times involves having to deal with learning which fights to take on and which to let pass; otherwise, one’s entire life easily becomes absorbed in dealing with other people’s wrongdoing rather than also living a life of one’s own. Neither path is easy or morally unproblematic since every time you let a wrong pass, one lets somebody else wrong you without consequence - somebody wrongs you both materially and formally - whereas every time you take on the fight, you let somebody else’s bad ways be determining for the ends you set. Moreover, each time taking on the fight involves destructive violence against another, you do not wrong anyone materially (as they are trying to wrong you), but you do use force in a way that you are not morally authorized to do: you do formal but not material wrong.16 Managing inherited oppressed identities well is only possible, however, if we learn which fights to take on and which to let pass, since only by becoming emotionally and morally wise in these ways do we care for ourselves well, hold on to our dignity, and avoid living merely reactive and utterly exhausted lives.
In addition to such societal pathologies, we inherit pathologies from and/or develop pathological responses to things that happen to us in our families, including the patterned pathological behaviors of our parents and other significant caregivers. These domestically rooted pathologies involve the same nexus of patterns regarding temptations to wrongly lower (demean or disrespect) oneself or others in hurtful and morally unjustifiable or irrational ways. In addition, bad things happen in life: people do bad things to us or bad things happen to them that affect us (people wrong and hurt us; they die, get sick, or lose their way and consequently cannot care for us any longer), and we mess up things too (sometimes seriously) - and all of this happens both as we grow up (when we are incapable of moral responsibility for our actions) and as adults. Again, we are pretty messy, fragile, and vulnerable beings whose projects of caring for ourselves and for others are difficult, ongoing, and complex.
Indeed, the complexity of our projects of self- and other care makes it even clearer why a precondition of getting any of this right involves learning to master truthfulness - something Kant considers a “sacred command of reason” (1996a, SRL 8: 427) - as a way of life and to do so as we learn to deal with our own and others’ propensity to evil. First and foremost, of course, we need to learn to be truthful with ourselves: we need to learn to attend to how we feel, what we want, what is good for us, what gets us into trouble, what is tempting but leads us astray, and so on - or what Kant sometimes calls to “know your heart” (1996a, MM 6: 441). If possible, doing some of this together with other trustworthy persons is better than doing so completely alone. Indeed, Kant’s ideal of moral friendship allows us to understand why one of the best things in life is finding someone with whom we connect and whom we can trust as we seek to live in increasingly good and wise ways. True moral friendships, Kant suggests, occur when we can and do trust one another completely as we share our thoughts, fears, hopes, regrets, confusions, considerations, and so on, and we can do this because we are right in believing that we are both being truthful and helping each other have a good sense of reality. We are not judgmental, we have each other’s back, and we are not drawn to betray each other’s trust by sharing the content of our conversations with third parties in unauthorized ways (1996a, MM 6: 472). Within the context of such moral friendships, we can grow and flourish - we can heal, improve, and develop new sides of ourselves in integrated, stabilizing ways. And as we do, our aim is not to rid ourselves of our embodied, social selves, or of our own unique conceptions of happiness; nor is it to want for our friend anything but their flourishing as who they are and are striving to become. Rather, our aim is to heal, develop, transform, and integrate the various parts of ourselves into good wholes, and to assist our friend to do the same, something that for human beings involves the use of abstract concepts, associative thinking, and playful imagination. Moreover, as we engage in this process, we strive to ensure that the actions we take and the particular temperaments we have are developing in as close a union with the demands of morality as possible, namely with our imperfect duties both to develop our talents and capacities and to assist others in their pursuit of happiness as well as with our perfect duties never to act in ways that wrong or damage ourselves or others. In other words, we must genuinely and truthfully seek to enable emotionally healthy and morally good being for each of us individually and for both of us as a “we.”
We have seen some reasons why it is simply a mistake to attribute to Kant a conception of human agency as mere rational agency that has nothing to offer those of us - which should be all of us - who are concerned with human care. We have also seen that consistent with much of the writing in the philosophy of care tradition, Kant too thinks that caring - for oneself and others - is a lifelong project that involves learning to be around our importantly fragile, vulnerable, and rather messy human natures in sustaining, trustworthy - and, so, truthful - ways, ways that ultimately also always involve treating each human being (no matter how young or immature or (temporarily or permanently) incapacitated) as having dignity. Even if one grants all the previous arguments, however, this is insufficient to speak to all the important complexities of care relations, since they involve legal-political issues as well. Let me attend to some important, general features of Kant’s legal-political conception of care relations before showing how the previous ideas concerning human nature complement this account and thereby yield a more complete Kantian approach to rightful, human care relations.