Kant, the Enlightenment, and the Post-War Dilemma of Difference

I have long puzzled over why arguments against race realism and racial hereditarianism are so often little more than strongly worded injunctions against daring to ask such questions. “Why is this a verboten topic?” I have always wondered. The obvious answer is that it is a reaction against the horrors of WWII. As somebody who recognizes all too clearly the paramount importance of peace and cooperation between human groups, while also seeing serious flaws in the argumentative bulwark arrayed against race realism – against the idea that meaningful, heritable variation might exist across the contours of our species – I find myself nevertheless questioning whether 19th century race science really was the primary motivator of Nazi genocide in WWII, or whether it was merely a post-hoc justification for their brutal program of ethnic cleansing.

To be sure, the 19th century polygenesis theories of the origins of human races, and the resultant obsessions with ‘racial hierarchy’ and ‘racial purity’, only bear on the contemporary questions of human difference in effigy form. The argumentative bulwark arrayed against contemporary race realism speaks only to the past, as though those arguing for race realism today were mere 19th century racial supremacists in disguise. It would seem that for critics of race realism, human difference necessarily implies difference in moral worth and value as human beings. For such critics, anybody who would dare consider the possibility of racial difference – particularly insofar as moral cognition is concerned – are presumed to be inherently motivated by an ulterior racial egoism and hatred of the other.

That said, I really do wonder if the acknowledgment of purported racial difference would trigger the breakdown of peace and cooperation between racial groups. Even if the acknowledgment of racial difference need not imply subjugation, it certainly seems to have a hand in causing people to equate perceptions of difference, and an eagerness to explore differences, with genocidal bloodlust. I wonder if such a notion is caused by, or merely justified by Kant’s account of reason and rationality that lies at the heart of Enlightenment thought. After all, a great deal of Kant’s ideas in Perpetual Peace seem to have presaged the 20th century movement toward world peace, a universal civic society and moral universalism. Could there perhaps be a connection?

At the same time, cutting in the opposite direction, Kant’s categorical imperative has been implicated with the Nazis’ purported crimes against humanity. For example, Adolf Eichmann is said by Hannah Arendt to have declared “with great emphasis that he had lived his whole life […] according to the Kantian definition of duty”.1 I can readily see how the Kantian sense of duty might induce people en masse to dutifully abide by the Nazis’ directives. After all, what greater a categorical imperative than to agree with those in one’s immediate community, and to abide by orders handed down by those appointed to look after the community’s interests. This was perhaps especially true in the pre-global era, where linguistic, cultural, and religious barriers prevented one from perceiving foreigners as having equal humanity. It could be argued that familiarity is a psychological limitation on the purview of one’s moral community, regardless of whether one arrives, as Kant did, at his universal moral principle by way of pure reason.

In spite of this manner by which Kantian ethics can lead to anti-humanist moral paradoxes of the kind epitomized by Nazism, there is perhaps even more room for seeing Kantian ethics as being antithetical to Nazism. After all, the Nazis surely did not treat a great many ethnic non-Germans as “legislating members in the universal kingdom of ends.”2

Steven Pinker is famous for decrying the potentially dangerous futility of clinging at all costs to the default hypothesis that peoples are more or less interchangeable blank slates, that all inequality in outcome between groups is caused by systemic white racism and/or legacies of white racism. I recall him tweeting last year that “To oppose racism, you don’t have to say ‘races don’t exist’ – Bad idea to depend on this dubious empirical claim.” Although Kant by no means conceived of human reason – Vernunft, auf Deutsch – as being merely a tabula rasa, he nevertheless seems to have thought of it as mostly stable – as if it’s something that a being either has or does not have. Human variation was not a major part of the discussion, despite him claiming in “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View” that “reason itself does not work instinctively, but requires trial, practice, and instruction in order gradually progress from one level of insight to another.”3

At the very least, the third formulation of the categorical imperative, that “every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends”,4 seems to imply that a certain consequentialism is at work, to the extent that an agent can hope to effect moral learning and shape moral habits in others in his or her moral community. In a very real sense, however, this requires that all agents be on a par as far as their capacity for Vernunft is concerned. If some agents are better moral learners than others, or if moral prerogative is instinctual, then the entire categorical imperative breaks down. This consequentialist streak is what separates the third formulation of the categorical imperative from the first formulation, which merely requires that an agent “act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”.5 If all of human moral interaction were to be thought of as the Prisoner’s Dilemma writ large, then this maxim would demand of agents that they always cooperate. If all agents in a moral community were to recognize the primacy of cooperation, then a high-trust moral community would be possible. However, if there were moral slow-learners or psychopaths in their midst, cooperation might break down. Thus, Kant is thinking of human nature as being of cookie-cutter uniformity even if the faculty – Vermögen – of Vernunft defies its status as a mere tabula rasa. Kant’s view, then, is almost like a modern day anarchist’s idealistic assertion that goodwill is contagious and that greed is the product of societal corruption.

Is the modern denial of race solely a reaction against Nazism and WWII, or is it in part colored by the Enlightenment notion of Vernunft? More, does Kant’s categorical imperative break down in the event the human capacity for Vernunft – that which makes possible free will and moral agency according to Kant – can vary between people and peoples? What does Kant think about the moral worth of persons, and how does ‘rationality’ bear on that worth?

More, could the idea of ‘rationality’ as a defining feature of our species be a pretext for justifying the holding of individuals as arbitrarily accountable and punishable? To say that all persons are rational agents, thereby possessing free will, is to declare them liable to being punished if they transgress. “For as morality serves as a law for us only because we are rational beings, it must also hold for all rational beings”.6 “I ought” is properly an “I would”, valid for every rational being.7 Thus, it seems, to ascribe reason and rationality to humans is not merely an invitation into the duties and rights that come with membership in the moral community – the kingdom of ends – but also a means of justifying culpability and censure and, if so required, incapacitation.

In general, the notion of Vernunft in Kant, as perhaps in Spinoza and other Enlightenment discourse, is an abstract ideal to which all mankind, through its verbal wranglings, is at least capable of aspiring. This seems to pertain especially to political dialectic and with regards to the ability of humans to find concord between otherwise conflicting beliefs and desires. In this sense, I almost wonder if the concept of Vernunft as used by Kant is a cousin of our modern usage of ‘reasonable’ as being open to suggestion, such as being corrigible and reconcilable to the interests of others; that to be reasonable is to be agreeable, and ‘reason’ is the ability to commit to cooperation even at great personal cost rather than become embroiled in a zero-sum mindset for which the logical conclusion is nothing short of the extermination of the other. Interestingly, this also harks to the Enlightenment’s dirty secret – that ‘objective truth’ is painted over what is ultimately little more than popular consensus. Could the notion that ‘all races are the same – end of story’ just be an historical terminus such that groups lay down their swords and cooperate? If this is the case, then ‘reason’ as it is being used by Kant in his practical philosophy is almost, for humans, like a construct that exits solely for the sake of insuring peace; even though it is born into his discussion of pure reason as an a priori cognitive faculty, and it is this cognitive faculty that arrives at the categorical imperative, the execution of the categorical imperative does not require much in the way of cognition other than mere agreeableness. As Kant writes in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, “the conception of an objective principle, in so far as it is obligatory for a will, is called a command (of reason), and the formula of the command is called an Imperative.”8 If this is the case, then Kant’s usage of Vernunft takes on two separate but genealogical related meanings; in the popular, modern lexicon we conflate these two meanings to the extent that peaceful human cooperation is thought to require equivalent capacities for cognition between individuals and groups.

There is evidence that Kant cares not about “intelligence, wit, judgment […] or courage, resolution, perseverance, as qualities of temperament,”9 but only the will of an agent as that which matters as far a one’s deontological moral ability is concerned. However, what strikes me odd here is that surely these characteristics are going to be related to an agent’s literal willingness to comply with the categorical imperative. It sounds as though Kant judges a will as good “not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition, that is, it is good in itself.”10 Even if the motive for abiding by the maxims of the categorical imperative is just for the sake of blind duty, the “principle of volition”, Kant would still deem it morally praiseworthy. Two paragraphs later in the Groundwork, Kant remarks that “Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control and calm deliberation are not only good in many respects, but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic worth of the person” even though “they are far from deserving to be called good without qualification.”11 This seems somewhat contradictory, as though he is allowing individuals’ “worth” to be judged as somehow separate from their status as moral agents.

In his “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View”, Kant expresses his great conviction that humanity is moving irrevocably toward some evolutionary horizon of limitless cooperation. Despite being a pre-Darwinian thinker, it stands to reason that Kant’s way of looking at human civilizational progress is not incompatible with genetic selection, only he sees it as unfolding along strictly memetic lines by way of the gradual popularization of socially adaptive moral belief, such as the popular embrace of his categorical imperative. This evolution is something that he sees as being observable. “If we attend to the pay of freedom of the human will at large,” he writes, “we may be able to discern a regular movement in it, and that what seems complex a chaotic in the single individual may be seen from the standpoint of the human race as a whole to be a steady and progressive though slow evolution of its original endowment.”12 Kant here is expressing his conviction that, through the travails of human history, there is some logically-implied final stasis. In the Darwinian sense, this is clearly evident – if the human species were genetically or memetically stable, there would by no means be such inequality in prosperity and moral iniquity across our species. Thus, Kant is supposing that all this chaos will lead us somewhere, and settle at one point. His metaphor of trees in a forest as “each need[ing] each other, since each in seeking to take the air and sunlight from others must strive upward.”13 In my mind, back to the discussion of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, I can’t help but believe that even if there are psychopaths who exploit others who abide by the categorical imperative, in deep time Kantians who always cooperate – who always abide by the categorical imperative – will trump cheating psychopaths. This is obviously true in Kant’s perspective wherein all agents have more or less the same capacity for Vernunft, but it’s also true in the world as we understand it today, complete with all its game-theoretic cheaters, extortionists, and psychopaths. The reason for this is that when agents in the real world cooperate in a contingent manner – being sure not to cooperate with those whom they identify as non-cooperators – always have an evolutionary advantage over such amoral egoists. After all, a group of alloyed wills will always triumph over solitary egoists. There is thus a sort of eschatological bent to Kant’s morality – even if some poor suckers die off because they followed the categorical imperative in a den of wolves, he believes that the idea itself will win out in the long run and converge at some evolutionary horizon of mankind.

In his second thesis in Idea for a Universal History, he articulates the notion that despite man being “the only rational creature on earth”, his faculty of reason manifests itself fully “only in the race, not in the individual”.14 This echoes former Michael Jackson publicist and intellectually voracious Brooklynite Howard Bloom’s conception of the “Global Brain” – non-conformists, and the intellectual diversity they generate, are an indispensable component in the distributed computing system that is Kant’s race of mankind.15 In this sense, Kant is expressly disavowing any expectation that an individual might lay claim to the whole truth, or to the sort of perfect reason that might beget it. One’s role in the generation of novel hypotheses, and viewpoint diversity, is par for the course of human progress.

By and large, my exploration of the popular belief that the moral worth of people and peoples is joined at the hip with the falsity of hereditarian argument for racial difference seems to suggest that Kant’s moral philosophy is only tangentially relevant. While he does not seem to address the possibility that human cognition varies greatly between individuals or groups, he nevertheless sees that the faculty’s final conclusion – the categorical imperative – as being actionable independent of the faculty of reason itself for so long as agents possess a certain baseline of rationality. Nowhere can a greater rejection of the de-humanization of moral agents be found than in Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative, which contends that humans must always be treated as ends rather than means.16 He writes that “it is not enough that the action does not violate humanity in our own person as an end in itself, it must also harmonize with it.”17 The kingdom of ends as almost like the coalescing of American consumerism, liberal humanism and the post-war human rights discourse. What is interesting to observe here is that it induces the hegemonic ruling class to see everybody only by their common human denominator, as interchangeable point-particles with equal worth. Perhaps this explains why the cultural elite balk at any notion of human difference – they are so far away from the masses that they simply can’t fathom over human difference.

In a separate but related vein to questions of Kant’s idea of the faculty of reason bears on moral worth, I can’t help but be struck by how Steven Pinker has become such a champion of the Enlightenment in his past two books, chiefly his recent Enlightenment Now! How does this relate to his longstanding yet quiet acknowledgment of human difference, including group difference? Is he trying to do the necessary prepwork for its gradual acceptance by the academic community? Although he is very measured in his public self-representation, he frequently goes to bat for the so-called alt-right, and aligns himself with the modern academic free speech movement, which has become something of a proxy for assertions of human difference.

Enlightenment Now! reads as a sort of re-statement of Kant’s basic arguments in “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” – that human social and material progress, especially on the behalf of others, is the only way for humans to achieve happiness, and that this progress can only come by the dispassionate, courageous pursuit of objective knowledge about the world; that reason requires of man that he reject delusions such as faith, dogma and authority, as well as all epistemic religiosity. Indeed, just as Kant himself prescribed that each generation would require for itself fresh re-statements of timeless Enlightenment ideals because “new prejudices will serve just as well as old ones to harness the great unthinking masses,”18 Pinker has taken this task up for himself, asserting that man must choose his own “emergence from his self-incurred immaturity”.19 In this way, Enlightenment Now! is intended as a reminder to the current generation of the importance of tolerating heterodoxy and viewpoint diversity, and the importance of confronting and embracing truths we consider inconvenient or even reprehensibly disjunctive in light of our prevailing consequentialist worldviews. This also gels with the Kantian prohibition of lying – even when those lies are thought to be noble fictions. If there are meaningful heritable differences across the contours of race, this implies, then they should be addressed with sobriety; they should be addressed not in spite of Enlightenment humanism, but by dint of it. To suppress inquiry into racial difference by virtue of ‘slippery slope to Auschwitz’ arguments, it should seem, is antithetical to both Kant’s and Pinker’s commitment to the instrumental importance of truth as the actuator of paradise on earth for all mankind. After all, both Kant and Pinker seem to see human difference as utterly irrelevant to questions of moral worth. Kant saw service to one’s fellow man as the surest way to feel truly worthy of one’s happiness. If there are meaningful racial differences, then to explore their fine structure is not only compatible with moral universalism and liberal humanism – the notion that individuals, and not groups, are the sentient beings whose ends ought be furthered – but vital steps to take in the expansion of human welfare. This implies that to brush under the rug the potential for difference is a false safeguard against genocide. If anything, it actively prevents solutions from being pursued, for example by way of nascent gene-editing technologies.

As Pinker observes, “progress cannot always be monotonic because solutions to problems create new problems.” The 20th century movement of seeing the cup as half full with regards to questions of difference between human individuals and groups was doubtless an extraordinary human achievement and fruit of the Enlightenment. However, it in turn is beginning to chafe against the increasingly undeniable reality of group differences, and there is an increasingly vocal backlash against the dogmatism it nurtures in the public forum. Although discussion of human difference ought indeed be approached with great care and trepidation, it seems to me that human reason – Vernunft – is up for the task.

1 Arendt, Hannah (September 22, 2006) [First published 1963]. “Chapter VIII: Duties of a Law-Abiding Citizen”. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. London: Penguin Classics. pp. 135–136.

2Kant. Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Moral. Trans. Mary Gregor, 1996. p. 12

3Kant. “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View.” Trans. Lewis White Beck, 1963. p. 3.

4Kant. Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Moral. Trans. Mary Gregor, 1996. p. 17

5Ibid, p. 14.

6Ibid., p. 25.

7Ibid., p. 24.

8Ibid., p. 11.

9Ibid., p. 4.



12Kant. “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View.” Trans. Lewis White Beck, 1963. p. 1.

13Ibid., p. 6.

14Ibid., p. 3.


16Kant. Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Moral. Trans. Mary Gregor, 1996. p. 17

17Ibid., p. 18.

18Kant. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” Trans. Mary Gregor, 1996. p. 1.

19Ibid., p. 1.

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