I have always had a broad interest in philosophy, and ethics especially, but it was my research mentor’s, Dr. Pendlebury’s, class on Kant that encouraged me to approach ethics from a Kantian perspective. If you knew the history of my intellectual relationship with Kant, this change in focus may appear strange, especially considering that, for my last fellowship with the honors college, I only researched Aristotelian virtue ethics. When I was first exposed to Kant in high school, my philosophy teacher did not paint Kant’s philosophy in the most flattering light to say the least; in particular, my teacher’s characterization of Kant’s ethics left me felling much to be desired. Now that I have been exposed to a more thorough examination of Kant’s ethics, I have come to a deeper appreciation of its value. However, it was not Dr. Pendlebury’s class which made me start to take Kant more seriously. It was the fact that some of Kant’s own philosophical concepts helped to inform my reading of Aristotle.
To better understand the aim of my Brackenridge research, it is important to first understand my research on Aristotle. For my last fellowship, I tried to give a cosmopolitan reading of Aristotelian virtue ethics. Here, I mean cosmopolitanism in the ethical sense – establishing equal ethical concern that reaches out from those closest to us (family, friends, fellow citizens, etc.) to those farthest away from us. Most would agree that we all, in the words of an anonymous commentator on the Stoics, owe something to the proverbial furthest Mysian, but a question remains of whether an impartial account of ethics can justify an equal valuation of all humanity that also permits us paying special attention to the interests of those closest to us, for most would also agree that we owe something more to our special relations than to strangers. This attempt to reconcile these two competing sources of ethical obligations is called moderate cosmopolitanism, as opposed to radical cosmopolitanism, which claims that we must act equally to all humanity in addition to valuing all humanity equally.
While my attempt to provide a moderate reading of Aristotle necessitated an analysis of many aspects of his virtue ethics, one of the more notable problems in that analysis was defining what it means to do something for the sake of another. Initially, I believed that to act for the sake of others only meant that you sought to benefit them in some way, even at the expense of yourself. However, this understanding of acting for the sake of another fails to appreciate that when we do act for the sake of someone that we set them as an end themselves. And yet, people are not possibilities to be brought about, so there must be some conceptual distinction between acting for the sake of others and producing benefits. Aristotle does not provide much useful language to parse out this distinction, but Kant does in his concept of self-existent ends. A self-existent end is an end whose value is unconditional, which is to say that its value does not depend on some further effect; the value of a self-existent end is intrinsic, so any attempt to enhance its value through some benefit fails to appreciate just what kind of value it embodies. Consequently, when you say you do something for the sake of another, your relation to them is primarily defined by maintaining a certain attitude towards (an appreciation of) their value, whereas any benefit you bestow upon them is a secondary concern.
This piece of terminological nuance may appear somewhat mundane at first glance, but it reveals an important similarity in which Aristotle and Kant establish an impartial concern for all humanity. Aristotle claims that eudaimonia (which is often translated as happiness) is the only thing good in itself and that eudaimonia is essentially defined by possessing virtue. He further claims that character (whether virtuous or vicious) is what people essentially are. When these premises are combined in addition with a notion of self-existent ends, then it becomes possible to value people, all people, for their own sake. In a close mirroring of Aristotle, Kant defines rational nature as the only thing good in itself and that the essence of a person is defined by their rational nature. In other words, both Aristotle and Kant posit that we can extend our ethical concern out to all humanity by identifying something good in itself present in others. This method of expanding concern can be called identification: I see something instantiated within myself that gives me value and I see that very same thing instantiated in others.
While both Aristotle and Kant establish an impartial ethics through identification, their remains a question of whether they both agree on the scope of cosmopolitanism. For Aristotle, virtue is not a capacity, but rather something that must be actualized. In other words, we are not all born virtuous, and so we can only value others insofar as we can be confident that they are, in fact, virtuous. We are simply in a better epistemic position to know the character of our special relations than strangers, so we will tend to benefit the former more so than the latter. In contrast, Kant claims we value rational nature as a capacity, not as an actualized activity. Everyone possesses rational nature as a base capacity, so there is no similar epistemic issue as in the Aristotelian case. It thus appears that Aristotle favors a moderate cosmopolitanism and Kant a radical one.
I, however, think that we should not be too hasty to dismiss the possibility of agreement between Aristotle and Kant. I believe that if we come to a closer understanding of self-existent ends under the Kantian framework, then it could be possible to make Kant agree with a moderate cosmopolitanism. No matter how this might be done, it will hinge upon how we value others as self-existent ends in relation to one another. A notion of self-existent ends already creates a base level of agreement between Kant and Aristotle, so it presents a promising avenue of analysis. This desire to recontextualize the philosophical relation between these two philosophers is primarily why I wanted to participate in the Brackenridge fellowship.
My career goal is to enter academia in a teaching capacity and formulate an ethics that fits into our globalized and often disconnected world. We are continually put into more contexts where the interests of our special relations and those of others seem to conflict with one another. I think most would agree that the interests of both should be taken seriously and that the interests of the latter should not completely outweigh those the former and vice versa. While Aristotle and Kant are not completely reconcilable, if both can agree on the justification for a moderate cosmopolitanism, then we will possess a greater breadth of arguments to support it. We may quibble over whether eudaimonia or rational nature is good in itself, but we may be able to agree on how we should ultimately navigate and balance our relationships with others.
I, to my chagrin, find myself mostly tied up in the theoretical side of philosophy, rarely the practical. The Brackenridge fellowship is founded upon the idea of interdisciplinary research; under the fellowship, I can encounter other people who recognize the problem of balancing our ethical obligations and its potential solution and have the practical know-how to implement a modern conception of ethics. We do not need to abandon all hope of reconciling our duties to all humanity and those we love most – let us endeavor to establish a middle ground.