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

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