Thesis 7: Critical Idealism acknowledges only two “domains1” of experience in which there is clarity and distinctness of perception AND lawfulness because only these two are causal systems capable of “explaining” experience: these two domains are nature and (autonomous) freedom. Nature is capable of being perceived with clarity and distinction, and it conforms to a causal system of “law-”fulness. However, unlike the “blind” lawfulness of nature, humanity (and any other “rational” being) exercises a second causal system – to be sure, not independent from but also not reducible to nature’s causal system. This autonomous freedom is what makes it possible for us to assume responsibility for our decisions and agency although we can choose to ignore that responsibility whereas we cannot ignore nature’s “law-”fulness. This causal system consists in what Critical Idealism calls autonomous freedom: the ability consciously and intentionally to initiate sequences of events that are never separate from but, also, not reducible to merely physical causality.2 In short, humanity experiences itself as capable of doing things that nature on its own cannot. Artificial Intelligence itself is an example, as are space probes as well as insights into microbiology and subatomic particles.
It is precisely because of autonomous freedom that we are capable of holding ourselves responsible for our understanding, decisions, and actions to the extent that they ARE NOT determined by physical causality. Given that autonomous freedom is a causal system, it is lawfull. However, in this case the “law” is not the physical law, which would be blindly determining of human creativity, but the moral law. As with all causal explanations, we cannot prove that there are universal, moral laws applicable to all times and all places, but, as with our conviction with respect to privileging lawful explanations to natural phenomena rather than to fold our hands and say, “life is just a dream!,” we are better off as individuals and a species when we do assume lawful responsibility for our understanding, decisions, and actions.
Thesis 8: Critical Idealism suggests that it is important to distinguish between rules that “ought” to govern human behavior that are “particular” and rules that “ought” to govern human behavior that are “universal” rules.3 The former govern what is called “consequentialism” or Unitarian ethics, which is an approach to ethical norms as socially constructed either in terms of social laws/rules/conventions taken to be required to successfully negotiate a social world4 or as the consequence of seeking a self-appropriate “mean” between excess and deficiency with respect to those things in life of which one can have “more and less” (e.g., food, material possessions, sex, etc.). Such particular rules are evaluated either in terms of “outcomes assessment” with respect to the successful (or unsuccessful) negotiation of a social world or with respect to one’s personal understanding of “excellence.5 ” However, even John Stuart Mills’ Utilitarianism, which appeals to past experience to discern ethical norms for the present,6 fails to be adequate not only because it ignores the novelty in life circumstances but also because it can lead to the violation of
- See “On the Domain of Philosophy in General” in the “Introduction” of the Critique of Judgment AA V: 174 f.
- See the Critique of Pure Reason B 473 f.
- See “VII [Internal] Ethical Duties are of Wide Obligation, Whereas [External] Duties of Right are of Narrow Obligation” in ibid., AA VI, 390-391. Kant distinguished between “narrower” (unrelenting, unnachlaßlichen) and “wider” (meritorious, verdienstlichen) duty already in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals IV, 424.
- See Patricia Churchland’s definition of ethics in the “Introduction” to Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
- The ethical “doctrine of the mean” is what Aristotle calls “moral virtues” in contrast to “intellectual virtue” in the Nicomachean Ethics. See Books II and X.
- See John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2001): 23-24.