Zero Sum or Principles? (11 Pages) 13 November 2016 – Updated July 2019


In the opening paragraphs of the second section devoted to the “Conflict with the Law Faculty” of his Conflict of the Faculties, Immanuel Kant sketches out the usual prognostication alternatives for the future as 1) “moral terrorism” (constant decline), 2) “eudaimonism” (steady progress); and 3) “stagnation” (Abderitismus). This latter, Abderitismus, is what we today mean by zero sum, which is a closed system in which nothing new can be added – for every gain there is a compensating loss.  Kant’s answer already in 1798 is that the three models of prognostication restrict themselves to empirical observation, which means that all three are unsatisfactory for prognostication because empirical data alone is insufficient for determining which among the options is right.  Rather, one must turn to what makes it possible but is not given in the empirical data for humanity to experience, understand, and act in the world in the ways that we do.  A crucial imperceptible, supersensible (not supernatural) capacity is that we possess a kind of intentional, creative causality that, in degree (!), is found nowhere else in life on this planet but in humanity.  Although inseparable from and embedded in the physical world and system of life, this capacity suggests that the human is the one place  in the natural order that is not “closed” but “open” — contrary to Aberitismus/zero sum thinking.  As a form of efficient causality complementary to physical causality, this intentional, creative capacity cannot be proved or disproved because it can’t itself appear in the senses for verification/falsification.  Yet, in his Critique of Practical Reason Kant calls it the “one fact of [supersensible, not instrumental] reason” because it appears through its effects to be so irrefutable and ubiquitous that its denial would mean a denial of our very humanity.

A central question raised by the last presidential election cycle, Trump’s victory, and all of the injustice reflected in “Black Lives Matter” and immigration hysteria asks whether or not the system is a closed, zero sum game, or, if open, in what respect is it open?  Stated otherwise, why do the unjust few thrive whereas the many suffer?  Is there any hope whatsoever for genuine progress, or is all of this a consequence of a world that is in steady decline or, alternatively, a zero sum game where all that matters is winners and losers?  Put succinctly, why should we pursue justice when we will only be victims of the unjust? Are the virtuous ones losers?


Representative of a dominant answer to this set of questions found in the Judeo-Christian tradition is the story of Job,  a massively materially successful man who was punctilious in his adhering to Torah (revealed, religious law, not a humanly legislated law).  The Evil One challenges the Master of the Universe’s pride over Job by pointing out that Job fulfilled the law only because he was prosperous.  The Master of the Universe accepts the Evil One’s challenge, and so Job’s family dies and he loses his possessions.  To be sure, Job’s confidence in Torah is deeply shaken, but he is persistent and is able to re-acquire a new family and his possessions.  The moral as told in the story is that humanity’s “reason” is too limited to grasp the intent of the Master of the Universe so that it is not our place to question what the Master of the Universe does or doesn’t allow.  We should silently and patiently pursue the ethical demands of the Master of the Universe found in Torah regardless of our life-circumstance.

This is a powerful story that calls humanity to humility until we consider: 1) that the Master of the Universe has conspired with the Evil One to prove a point, a nefarious way to demonstrate omniscience and omnipotence; 2) that the wager between the Evil One and the Master of the Universe accepts the loss of life by Job’s first family, not to speak of the disruption in the lives of Job’s employees/serfs and those economically connected to Job’s success; 3) that the story emphasizes humanity’s rational limits when it comes to discerning the intention of the Master of the Universe, but it leaves unquestioned the status of Torah that is taken to be an absolute system of law but one can view as a very human, heteronomous set of socially relative ethical laws able to be written on “tablets” that, in turn, are assumed to be a system of absolute moral principles — revealed law appears to be the consequence of elevating humanity to the status of God in order to proclaim “God’s” law; 4) that here the system of life is a closed system with the exception of an anthropomorphized God who can intervene “at will” in the system in violation of physical and moral laws to achieve His ends; and 5) that the lesson – to silence questioning reflection – cuts the tap root of human creativity as the origin of a creative intentionality that, for its part, is the one place in nature that introduces (finite, to be sure) newness into an otherwise closed system, which requires looking beyond the obvious appearances to discern the physical and whatever moral laws there might or might not be that make us human and responsible beings, in the first place.


Plato offers a different assessment of the human condition in the Republic.  He reminds his young readers in Book I that as they grow older all of those hormones are going to decline and advises that one should not do anything that would lead one to deep and lasting regrets that will haunt one as one ages.  In Book II he addresses the issue of the virtuous losing out to the unjust, and he introduces the social nature of the individual that drives the remainder of the dialog.

The unjust person is at war with her-/himself whereas the just person experiences internal tranquility because of the power of personal insight to rule over the three internal elements that seek to control the self: 1) our animality that demands food, clothing, shelter, and reproduction; 2) our rage (θύμος, thymos, sometimes translated as “passion”) that can/does blind us; and 3) our rational insight.  Importantly, Plato embraces all three elements in the self.  He does not say that reason should reject animality or rage/passion!, but he calls for the supervision of animality and rage by rational insight.  The remainder of the dialog is an attempt to employ a model for grasping an understanding of the struggle among social classes for dominance over humanity’s affairs as an analogy for grasping the internal, “social” struggle of the individual to achieve a balance among her/his internal elements.  Particularly, in Book IX, Plato describes the tyrant as the individual who has totally lost rational insight and is driven exclusively by animality and rage to her/his own self-destruction – no matter how “successful” socially.  S/he may appear to be successful, but her/his life is a catastrophic mess.

This is a powerful story that calls humanity to cultivate its rational insight until we consider: 1) that instrumental reason as the ability to calculate, predict, manipulate, and control provides us with no dependable criteria for insight because instrumental reason is limited to appearances without access to the way things “really are;” 2) that although the demiurge that created this world (as Plato describes in the Timeaus) creates on the basis of an analogy to human creativity (i.e., starting with a clear idea that is then externalized), the finite, human creativity itself is not explicitly addressed as the basis in experience that calls from within the individual for moral effort; 3) that we can only imagine that the tyrant’s internal life is a mess whereas we experience concretely that her/his actions lead to obvious suffering on the part of others; 3) that if one gets one’s “internal house” in order it will somehow, Plato assumes, magically bring about “social justice” in the world; and 4) that if moral principles are a social product, then our efforts to guide our actions by them can result in extremely destructive behavior under the illusion that we are exercising (moral) laws of “reason.”  Here we have a closed system in which the demiurge initially generated something “new,” but the system is closed for humanity, which can get its internal house in order but only blindly hope (not consciously assume responsibility) that the consequences will be beneficial to society.

Critical Idealism

Critical Idealism proposes a fourth option for addressing the question whether or not the human condition is deteriorating (“moral terrorism”), progressing (“eudaimonism”) or stagnant (“a zero sum game”).  It is impossible to judge which of those three options in themselves adequately describes the human condition, but humanity’s ability to initiate intentionally sequences of events that nature cannot accomplish on its own suggests that it is possible for the human condition to be a project grounded in principles.  However, Critical Idealism begins with a different assessment of “reason.”

Reason is not merely “instrumental,” a tool for calculating, predicting, manipulating, and controlling things and others in life.  Far more, reason is the label for all that is supersensible (not available in the senses but also not [!] supernatural) that is necessary for us to experience a physical world in which we can either play the zero sum game or seek to act on principles in the first place.  An indication of the kinds of necessary, supersensible elements upon which our experience and (more importantly) our understanding of a world of appearances depends are: 1) physical laws and their predictable concepts to understand the world (i.e., theoretical reason) as well as 2) our creative capacity to be able intentionally to do things that physical laws and predictable concepts cannot achieve on their own (i.e., practical reason).  Given that, as far as we have ever experienced, we can do or think nothing without a physical body in the physical world, and given that the physical world in our experience conforms to laws and predictable concepts (even if we can’t prove or disprove that to be the case at all times and in all places), we as a species have discovered that our understanding of events is enhanced if we employ our grasp of physical laws and predictable concepts to make sense of experience and to act in conformity with nature’s order.  Here Critical Idealism employs its own analogy not to make a claim about the ultimate creator, whom we cannot know and when we claim to know elevates us dangerously and frequently destructively onto the seat of the divine throne, to claim that, just as it is necessary for us to engage physical phenomena on the basis of physical laws and predictable concepts, it is also necessary for us to supervise our creative capacity by means of universal moral principles rather than to act merely out of self-interest.  The claim of Critical Idealism is that our understanding of the world and ourselves is profoundly enhanced if we embrace in a wager that they are mutually legitimate both physical and moral laws as governing our lives.

This is a powerful approach to life that calls humanity to cultivate its supersensible, rational, and moral insight without discouraging the questioning of its own empirical conclusions and it does not employ imperceptible elements as a slight of hand that can lead to those who play the zero sum game to laugh at the virtuous losers.  However, frequently Critical Idealism loses its appeal when we realize that it requires individuals to commit to imperceptible, moral principles.  This seems to be a threshold that introduces something like a heteronomous, divine code that condemns us for not living up to it and leaves us, like Job, having to silence reflective reason before an omniscient and omnipotent Master of the Universe.  It is precisely here, though, that acknowledgment of at least a small window of creative novelty shatters the consequences of any and all closed systems while making it possible for humanity to assume responsibility (even if not to achieve perfection) for its efforts.

As was said, Critical Idealism reminds us that the moral law is analogous to the physical law.  Neither law is (or can be) “written on tablets” or found in the physical appearances to which they are applied.  How do we know that we have the “right” physical or moral law? A physical law is “right” not because we can prove it to be right but because it fits into an ever-expanding, coherent system of laws that enhance our ability to understand and act on the basis of those physical laws.  A moral law is “right” not because we can prove it to be right but because it is not driven exclusively by particular self-interest alone (whether personal, familial, communal, tribal, national, or whatever particular interest) and seeks to rein in destructive behavior by asking in advance of its application: Can I want (not prove!) this moral principle not only to be universal (i.e., beyond particular interest, not a heteronomous, authoritarian universal), but also, does this moral principle allow me to grasp and assess the perspective of the other (physical objects and persons) as well as treat the other as an “end” in her-himself and not as a “mere means” to my personal agenda?

Both the physical law and moral principles require a wager – to be sure, a wager of faith that they are valid –  but this is a wager that the individual (as well as the society) committed to the imperceptible reality of those physical and moral laws embraces as necessary to understand and to act responsibly in the world.[3] This wager requires effort on the part of everyone to understand and to act on the basis of those laws for her-/himself – not because one will be rewarded materially for one’s efforts but because understanding and justice are possible only if we, the human species, make that effort.  The claim of Critical Idealism is that theoretical and practical reason are both necessary for understanding and acting in the world, and this is so not because an anthropomorphic deity demands that we adhere to them but because we are capable of adhering to them.  We are a moral species not because we always act “good” or because we “must be moral” in order to be rewarded by an anthropomorphic deity.  Rather, we are a moral species because we are capable of assuming responsibility for our own understanding and actions – to a degree like no other species.   To be accountable for the highest of which we are capable is our challenge.

As in the case of Job, a taproot is cut here, but it is the taproot of materialism and of defining success merely in terms of material things, not the taproot cut by Job — intentional creativity that makes possible the one “openness” in the natural system of which we can be aware as being necessary.  Critical Idealism’s far broader understanding of reason enables us to be hopeful in the midst of the greatest disappointments, exploitation, oppression, and persecution.  This is no pie-in-the-sky optimism that says that its efforts are going to bring about, one day, material success for ourselves and/or for all.  It is the optimism that votes for humanity’s universal (present in every one of us without exception), inalienable, and indelible capacities to change the world on the basis of insight into “things unseen.” It is an optimism based upon human dignity and empowering faith!

Doug McGaughey
Tübingen, 19 November 2016


[1] The author is a Fellow in the Leading Causes of Life Initiative that is under the dynamic leadership of Gary Gunderson, Terese Cutts, and James R. Cochrane and located at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, NC.  This expanded text seeks to engage in conversation a statement posted on-line two days after my original post.  The Enhancement of Life Project funded by the Templeton Foundation under the directorship of William Schweiker of The Divinity School of the University of Chicago and Günter Thomas of the Protestant Faculty of the Ruhr-University in Bochum, Germany posted a statement on 15 November on their website:

[2] The Enhancement of Life Project offers this description of a „zero sum game“:  “There is no progress, because every enhancement is creating new endangerments.  There is only a zero-sum game to be played.  Any enhancement, be it a new educational program, an innovative patient care model, or a new peace treaty will turn out to have a dark flip side of the coin depending on the observer or the point of time looked at.”  In short, there is neither progress because there is only a “closed” system in which for every “winner” there must be “loser.”  Nothing “new” can be introduced into the system.

[3] The wager of faith spoken of here is compatible with the Enhancing Life Project’s commitment to the assumption that “… within the notion of enhancing life lives a basic assumption that we would like to call a deep grammar or deep breath of hope.  This deep grammar of hope seems to be an underlying operative assumption in the many individual projects of the 35 scholars in The Enhancing Life Project.  This deep grammar of hope can be encoded in and symbolized in many ways and many different forms but prominently in religious and artistic counter-worlds.”  Critical Idealism, of course, concurs but stresses that the assumption is not merely a “blind” commitment to a “deep grammar of hope” but, rather, is in fact necessary (!) in order for humanity to exercise its supersensible capacities responsibly to intentionally transform (and, where necessary, to conserve) its world.   These capacities are present in humanity to the degree that they are present nowhere else in nature.   It is precisely because humanity possesses these supersensible capacities that it can employ symbol systems and generate religious and artistic “counter-worlds.”  However, not all “counter-worlds” are equally legitimate.  Hope is misplaced when it insists on the reality of any generated “counter-world” in particular.  Legitimate hope rests in humanity’s universal (not merely particular) capacity (!) to generate in the imagination and to assume responsibility for its “counter-worlds” in the first place.  We cannot prove/disprove the reality of or imagined/created “counter-worlds,” but hope of all kind hinges entirely on the degree to which humanity realizes its potential as a moral species – not because it can be perfect, not because some anthropomorphic deity will judge us in the future, but because we can.