Thursday, 23 August 2012

Elinor and the Kantian subject: collecting evidence against virtue ethics

Today has been a day of epiphany and breakthrough! You will have to forgive my hyperbolic style, but it has truly been that exciting; I could actually feel my adrenaline rising in unison with the firing of neurons connecting the pathways as I finally broke down the door of the citadel of those who insist on taking Aristotelian approaches in analysing morality in Jane Austen.

A big call yes, but one which I can defend. The thrust of argument came to me through G.F. Munzel's Kant's Conception of Moral Character: The "Critical" link of Morality, Anthropology, and Reflective Judgement (1999). I've only read the introduction but already I'm armed to the gunwales and now have the link that I intuitively knew was there, but had to turn to deep research to uncover. That is, the link between aesthetics and duty, and feeling and pleasure, in Kant's Critique of Judgment, and how I can apply this to a Kantian analysis of Elinor in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.

In my last post I said that I believed that I had found an entry into a Kantian analysis of duty, as opposed to virtue in Austen's novel. Having said that, I don't think there is a need to be so dismissive of virtue, but rather to link it up to duty and its concomitant respect for the moral law. To achieve this, what I need to do is critique the Aristotelian concept of virtue and reinstate virtue within Kant and his conception of moral character. In this regard, character can be seen to be 'a matter of resolute and steadfastly held principles, of an unwavering commitment to virtue. It entails self-control as an essential attribute of conduct of thought, not control of the inclinations as in an Aristotelian account. It requires spiritedness, again not derived from the inclinations, but as achieved through the aesthetic capacity for taking pleasure in purposive form' (9). It is this notion of self-control which will allow me to closely read Elinor's character in relation to moral action, and hence, to duty.

According to Munzel, character can be 'seen as the systematic link between the moral, aesthetic, and anthropological elements of Kant's works (4). It is also through character that I can interrogate the reason vs sensibility debate that is staged in the title: Sense and Sensibility. Taking cues from Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Munzel notes that the 'notion of character [can be] divided into intelligible (conduct of thought) and empirical (conduct of sensibility) character (8). In the second critique, in Critique of Practical Reason, Kant defines character as 'a consistent practical cast of mind in accordance with unchangeable maxims’ and the primary issue for the establishment and exercise of moral character is 'the way in which one can make objectively practical reason subjectively practical' (KpV 5:151). In other words, moral character taken as the organising principle from which a causal determination of moral action through respect to the moral law can be deduced (this still requires some work).

In linking up the terms of reference noted above it will be necessary to analyse the role of reflective judgement and its relationship to aesthetic feeling as a determining ground for moral action in the Critique of Judgement. In the third critique, Kant notes that 'nature must consequently be also capable of being regarded in such a way that in the conformity to law of its form it at least harmonises with the possibility of the ends to be effectuated in it according to the laws of freedom' (KU 5:176). In this regard, character is 'an activity that concretely actualises moral law in the world, imparting its form to sensibility and effecting literally a counterimage of the objective law under the conditions of the latter' (9).

According to Munzel, the 'aesthetic capacities of feeling are seen literally as a partner in reason’s efforts to bring about the requisite enlargement of sensibility for the sake of producing within it the counterimage of the moral law' (13). Sensibility, in other words, is enlarged through the feeling of pleasure (ie. aesthetic feeling) to bring about volition to act in accordance with the moral law. This 'relational unity achieved through reflective principles for guiding thought or judgement, and hence life, fulfils Kant’s general definition of the work of art; that is, this unity may be understood to fulfil human vocation or final purpose precisely by being the work of art, the work of beauty, specific to humanity’ (16). In this way, cultivating character can be seen as equivalent in making one's life a work of art.

To be continued...

- still to provide textual evidence from S&S that supports above claims.
- narrative consciousness; link to Elinor's moral reflection; form
- Elinor's self-control
- ethical vocabulary

Monday, 6 August 2012

Austen and Kant ... Can I?

The following is an extract of an email I sent my lecturer regarding formulating a question for my 5000 word essay for my English honours unit, "Literary Pleasure".

Last year I had the great fortune of taking an elective closely reading Kant's 2nd critique, and wrote my final paper on "Freedom as the condition of the moral law in the Critique of Practical Reason". It's on the back of this work, that I approach Austen.

In surveying the available scholarship on Austen, there is a dearth of criticism deploying Kant. I found this quite remarkable and was almost put off thinking that there was something incongruous, misdirected, of perhaps precocious, but I believe I may have found an entry into a Kantian analysis of duty, as opposed to virtue, in the novel. In Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues, Emsley dismisses Kantian deontological ethics in favour of the fairly literary standard Aristotelian virtue ethics position. She chooses the latter over the former, "as Austen's fiction stresses the moral education of character as preparation for ethical action" (4). This argument, Emsley says, is made on the basis that "Jane Austen writes from a firm foundation of Christian faith - thus for her virtuous characters there is a point to moral education".

In further defence of her approach, Emsley argues that "Austen's characters, however, experience morality as a positive, if difficult, choice, not as a sacrifice, for when even when they do choose to defer or renounce gratification…it is in the service of a greater good, a Christian good that sustains them, rather than in the service of irrevocable secular loss" (21). In the "Critique of Practical Reason", Kant notes that "[a]ctions…that are done with great sacrifice and for the sake of duty alone may indeed be praised by calling them noble and sublime deeds, but only insofar as there are traces suggesting they were done wholly from respect for duty and not from ebullitions of feeling" (5:85).

He also says that in appraising actions as to their morality you have to "attend with the utmost exactness to the subjective principle of all maxims, so that all morality of actions is placed in their necessity from duty and from respect for the [moral] law, not from love and liking for what the actions are to produce (5:81). In other words, as rational and moral beings, humans have an obligation to duty and adherence to the moral law, and this obligation is from duty alone and not love or other pathologically affected conditions.

So, does Elinor act out of love (virtue) or duty? It is quite obvious that she suffers, and I would argue against Emsley, that she suffers in the service of duty. For example, in regard to the secret between Elinor and Lucy, she suffers immensely in upholding her duty to keep the secret. Such silence ‘militates against her own happiness’, which forces her continually to bring to bear upon her unhappiness "the self command she had practised since her first knowledge of Edward's engagement" (160, 196). When she finally gets to share this knowledge with Marianne, who exclaims "Four months!…how have you been supported?", Elinor replies, "By feeling that I was doing my duty - My promise to Lucy, obliged me to be secret" (197).

In upholding the secret, Elinor is acting according to the moral law, such that her maxim for keeping the secret, could be willed so that it be applied universally to all rational beings. In other words, it fits Kant's categorical imperative, 'so act that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle in a giving of universal law" (5:30). The secret is the moral law; if Elinor were to break the secret, she would be breaking the law. And if secrets can be broken, then what is the point of obligation to duty?

The question to ask is what is it that causes Elinor to act according to duty. The answer comes from Elinor herself, and Marianne also alludes to it, which is feeling, or in Kantian terms, "moral feeling". According to Kant, 'what is essential to any moral worth of action is that the moral law determine the will immediately’ (5:71). In this regard, there is a specifically 'moral feeling', which is the invariable incentive for dutiful action. This moral feeling 'arises as the result of pure practical reason overcoming, or at least opposing, our sensuous feelings and desires (Ward, 157). In other words, it is a 'feeling of constraint, in that it thwarts, wholly or partially, our self-love" (Ward, 158).

Marianne is cognisant of such a feeling when she says, "if there had been any impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such conviction I could have had no pleasure" (52). The irony, however, is that whilst Marianne is aware of some sort of moral feeling, she is blind to it. Kant would also say that compliance with the moral law brings about a 'satisfaction in consciousness of one's conformity with it and bitter remorse if one can reproach oneself with having transgressed it. Thus one cannot feel such satisfaction or mental unease prior to cognition of obligation and cannot make it the basis of the latter' (5:38).

So then, how to turn the above into a 5000 word essay which takes in two texts and the critical content of the course. The point of entry may be through Kant's 3rd critique. In the introduction by Walker, he outlines Kant's three faculties of the mind: the faculty of cognition in general, the faculty of feeling (of pleasure or its opposite), and the faculty of desire (or will). He says that in the 3rd critique, Kant 'wonders, as he had not in the first critique, whether this intermediate faculty of 'feeling' might not perform some kind of mediating role between the other two faculties and now asks whether there might not be a special a priori principle that governs this faculty in its own right and is common to all human beings as creatures that are rational and sensitive in character". It is this last point "as creatures that are rational and sensitive in character" which aligns with Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Interestingly, it is feeling, or ‘moral feeling’, in the 2nd critique, which mediate betweens the sensible and supersensible. I’ve only read “Analytic of the Beautiful”, so not sure how to turn the 3rd critique to our purpose here.

I also have a reply to Emsley’s point about “moral education of character as preparation for ethical action”, but will leave it for now, as I think I have made my point, and this explication has turned into an essay of its own accord.

Whilst I may appear to have a handle on Kant, my mind still spins when I read him and still consider myself a long way off from any rigorous understanding. It is said that reading Hegel is the intellectual equivalent of chewing gravel; I would have to say that reading Kant is the equivalent to staring into the abyss. The sublime IS reading Kant. He is awesome and terrible, but well worth the battle.