Rational Cognition and Motivation in the Greeks, Kant, and Rand

Roderick Long praises Kant and some of the Greeks (viz. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics) for having a conception of morality that, unlike consequentialism, is “a priori,” “conceptual,” “fancy,” and “highly constrained.” He thinks the Greeks are superior to Kant because they marry this conception of morality to a similarly “a priori,” “conceptual,” and “fancy” conception of happiness. It is Kant’s “un-fancy” conception of happiness that led him to believe that it often comes into conflict with morality and to devalue it. Long thinks that Rand was right to prefer Aristotle to Kant and to criticize the latter for devaluing happiness, but he thinks her own view on the relationship between morality and happiness is little better, because it is beset by confusions that prevented her from adopting the Greek approach. I disagree with much about how Long conceptualizes and evaluates the relevant positions, but I think that there is an important element of truth in what Long says.

What separates the views Long calls “fancy” and “un-fancy” are the sorts of cognition and motivation that each view holds human beings are capable of. The un-fancy positions are essentially empiricist. Empiricism (in the sense I’m using the term here) holds that human cognition is sensory in character: we have sensory experiences, we remember experienced phenomena, we form associations among them, and we predict future phenomena on the basis of past experience. The corresponding view of human motivation holds that it too is sensory: we are moved only by desires for pleasure or other directly experienceable things. And we figure out how to satisfy these desires by taking actions that we remember having led to their satisfaction in the past. Some empiricists use the word “reason” to describe all or part of this manner of functioning, but Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics all reserved that term for another sort of cognition that they thought human beings alone were capable of. Reason, as these philosophers understood it, enables us to understand the world in terms of universal concepts that enable us to know the natures of objects and to understand why they necessarily have certain attributes and act in certain ways. It also enables a rational or conceptual form of motivation.

Consequentialists usually have an empiricist view of happiness and of morality. They equate happiness with some sensory or quasi-sensory state such as pleasure or desire satisfaction, and they think that whether an action is moral or not is simply a matter of whether (and in whom) it tends to cause this state. The Greeks, by contrast, thought that happiness is something that can only be grasped and valued conceptually and that is (wholly or partially) constituted by having or acting on certain conceptual motives. Kant agreed that some such form of motivation was possible, and he thought that it was the essence of morality, but he did not think of it as a means to or component of happiness, because he understood happiness as desire-satisfaction—a state that he thought could (in principle at least) be achieved without reason.

Thus far I’ve said nothing about how reason works and how it relates to the sensory forms of knowledge and motivation. Different answers to this question yield fundamentally different philosophies. One answer is that the objects of reason are wholly different from those of sensory perception and that reason has access to them independent of the senses. This is the view that Plato takes in the Phaedo and other related dialogues. His descriptions of rational cognition are vague, as he himself acknowledges, but the one point on which he leaves no doubt is that rational cognition is radically opposed to and apart from the senses. The same goes for the Phaedo’s view of rational motivation. The only content that Plato gives there to virtue is that it involves a distain for sensory pleasure and a sort of purging of all things sensory. Plato’s valorizing of reason in this work amounts to little more than damning the senses and pleasure.[1]

Similarly, Kant’s valorization of duty amounts to little more than deriding inclination (i.e. the sensory-based desires the satisfaction of which he equates with happiness). It is true that Kant thinks that good people deserve happiness and that it is sometimes permissible to pursue one’s own happiness. But the central role happiness plays in his moral philosophy is that of a “a powerful counterweight to all the commands of duty which reason presents to him as so deserving of the highest respect.” Indeed, Kant thinks that the whole function of moral philosophy is to combat the influence of this counterweight which leads us to “rationalize against those strict laws of duty and to cast doubt on their validity, or at least upon their purity and strictness, and, where possible, to make them better suited to our wishes and inclinations, that is, to corrupt them at their basis and to destroy all their dignity” (Ak. 4: 406).[2] Moreover, as I indicated in my first post, Kant attempts to derive the content of duty wholly from its lack of any motivational basis in inclination.[3]

Plato and Kant may be right that morality involves motivation by reason rather than animalistic urges, but there is so little positive content to their understanding of rational motivation that I think it is more accurate to describe them as opponents of pleasure and sensory-based goals than as champions of conceptual motivation. (Similar points can be made about the Stoics, though the case is a bit more complicated, so I won’t take the time to develop this point here.)

Aristotle represents an alternative both to the Platonic view of cognition and to empiricism, for he holds that we develop rational cognition on the basis of sensory perception.[4] He says less than one might hope about the process by which it develops and about how we can ensure that we are performing the process correctly (so that the result will be knowledge rather than error), but his corpus contains numerous leads.

With regard to ethics, Aristotle held that moral motivation involves pleasure (including the sensuous pleasures that Plato damned in the Phaedo) and that it is largely based on lived experience. His view of and the other constituents of happiness is more contentful than Plato’s or Kant’s, and he says enough to give one a sense of how these constituents are meant to cohere into the distinctively human way of life that Aristotle thinks is the ultimate good.

But though I find much wisdom in Aristotle’s ethics and politics, I also find many positions that (I’m sure we’ll all agree) are deeply wrong: he advocated slavery and a politically subordinate role for women and people in certain professions; he recognized no virtue in productive work; he opposed money lending; and he was an opponent of Athens’ emerging middle class. No doubt many of these positions stem from prejudices of Aristotle’s time, and perhaps he cannot have been expected to have been able to see his way through them. But I don’t think it’s accurate to say (as Long does about Kant) that these flaws are mere misapplications on Aristotle’s part of his own methods or theses, for it’s not obvious to me that Aristotle had a method or thesis that would or could have prevented these flaws if it were more expertly applied. The problem with Aristotelian ethics, as I see it, is that it contains no means by which one can reliably distinguish things that are required by human nature for the human good from Aristotle’s (or some Aristotelian’s) personal preferences and prejudices. Or, to put the same point another way: the way the theory is not objective (though I think it does represent a stride towards objectivity).

The lack of objectivity is a concern with conceptual cognition generally. There is no shortage of sophisticated schemes for conceptualizing various domains, and from each there are profound conclusions that might be thought to follow necessarily. But the schemes and conclusions are not all compatible with one another, and it’s not obvious how to tell which, if any, is true. This muddle is what lends plausibility to empiricism: the idea that all such sophisticated schemes are hot air, and that knowledge cannot extend beyond a superficial acquaintance with phenomena and the patterns among them. I don’t think this empiricist position is tenable, but I don’t think many non-empiricist epistemologists have said much of value about how we can tell whether any given concept (or battery of concepts) will either enable genuine insights or mire us in error and confusion. There are attempts (such as Kant’s) to show that some small set of extremely abstract concepts is presupposed by all thought or experience; but, even if successful, these attempts would offer very limited guidance in reasoning. Consequently, when philosophers engage in “a priori” or “conceptual” reasoning, they are too often elaborating on or distilling their own prejudices and assumptions.

This elaborating and distilling of prejudices and assumptions is common in ethics. Kant’s “pure,” “a priori” moral philosophy is just certain elements of Christian (or more generally divine command) ethics purified of any element of personal value. In like manner I think the distinction between constitutive and instrumental values that Long admires is—in the form in which it appears in Aristotle, at least—a distillation of the prejudices of certain aristocrats who had contempt for work and were impressed with certain new forms of knowledge for which they could see no practical value.

The distinction we find repeatedly in Aristotle’s ethical and political treatises is between items that are valuable because they are useful in producing some further value, and useless items that are valuable intrinsically. Insofar as an item is in the first category, it is not valuable in itself, but only for its consequences, and these consequences are necessarily better than it in the sense that they must more valuable than it is and they must have this value independently of it. An item in the second category (insofar as it is in this second category) cannot be valued for the sake of any valuable consequences, but there is still a sense in which Aristotle thinks it can be valued for the sake of a further value. The item can be part of constellation of intrinsically valuable items which is more valuable than any of the members. If so, the item will be valuable both for its intrinsic value and for the contribution this intrinsic value makes to the larger whole of which the intrinsically valuable item is a part. Aristotle (in some moods, at least) seems to see happiness as such a constellation, made primarily of such intrinsically valuable activities as contemplating truths and taking virtuous actions. These activities are (what some later scholars have called) the constitutive means to happiness, and the items and activities by which we produce the values and conditions needed to remain alive and to engage in these activities are the instrumental means to happiness.[5] But it is unclear that Aristotle has any grounds for identifying all and only the activities he does as intrinsically valuable. Moreover, the idea that the value of productive activity is extrinsic to it figures in the justification of all the Aristotelian ethical theses that I described earlier as “deeply wrong.”

Let me close by indicating how Rand fits into the picture. Long sees her as someone who recognized that Kant was wrong to degrade happiness, but who was “notoriously unclear as to whether the relationship between self-interest and morality is instrumental or constitutive, causal or conceptual.” She is notorious for this only among readers who insist that the relation between a means and an end must be either instrumental and causal or else constitutive and conceptual. But this is a false dichotomy that Rand can show us the way out of. Here’s how I summarized her position in Ch. 6 of A Companion to Ayn Rand:

Atlas Shrugged and Rand’s subsequent essays present virtue neither as intrinsically good nor as an instrument by which one maximizes some such good as pleasure, desire-satisfaction, or longevity. Rand recognized a third alternative: the moral values and virtues are essential constituents of the ultimate end that is a person’s life, and they owe their status as constituents to the causal contribution they make to the sustenance of this life. On her view, there are no values apart from an individual’s ultimate value of his own life, and a person’s life is made up of the values and activities by which he sustains himself.[6]

Unlike the Greek views, Rand’s position makes clear what you would need to know to establish objectively that something is a moral value or virtue, rather than a subjective preference. Whether and how one can attain such principled causal knowledge brings us back to the questions I raised earlier about the nature and standards of conceptual cognition. But these questions (and Rand’s views on them) are a topic for another occasion.[7]


[1] I focus here on the Phaedo because Plato’s position and arguments are not constant across the dialogues and the problems I note are most pronounced in the Phaedo’s case. However the criticisms apply also to the Symposium and Republic.

[2] Quotations are from Gregor’s translation of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals in the Practical Philosophy volume of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant.

[3] See, especially Ak. 6:405–407 and 5:73.

[4] For more on this distinction between three approaches to epistemology, see my discussions in Chapter 12 of A Companion to Ayn Rand (Gotthelf and Salmieri [eds.] 2016) pp. 274– 79 and in “Aristotelian Epistēmē and the Relation between Knowledge and Understanding,” (Metascience 23:1, 2014)

[5] Long’s presentation of the distinction between instrumental and constitutive means in his piece doesn’t stress the intrinsic value of the constitutive means, and may suggest against it. His example of a constituent means is playing one of the notes that makes up the Moonlight Sonata. For this example to fit the scheme I laid our above,  playing this note would have to be valuable in its own right, apart from its being part of the Sonata, and it would have to be because of this intrinsic value that the note is able to add value to the Sonata. If, by contrast, we think that the note has no value except insofar as it is used in this (or some other) composition, then this suggests a view on which constitutive means (no less than instrumental means) derive their value from the value of their end. I think this is a superior view, but I don’t find evidence of it in Plato or Aristotle.

[6] “Egoism and Altruism” in A Companion to Ayn Rand, p 135. In the surrounding pages I discuss Rand’s relation to the Greek ethicists in greater detail, and more on this issue by other authors can be found in the same volume, by consulting the passaged listed in the index under the heading “eudaimonism.” The index heading “Long, R.” will point you to discussions of some of the other issues and literature Long raises in his n. 14. This including a series of footnotes in which I argue against Long’s view that Rand’s philosophical framework leaves room for a priori conceptual truths.

[7] Those interested in my take on these issues can find them in Ch. 12 of A Companion to Ayn Rand, and Ch. 2 of Concepts and Their Role in Knowledge (Gotthelf and Lennox [eds.] 2013).

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Mark D. White praises Immanuel Kant’s political philosophy and recommends it to modern classical liberals. Kant’s ethics has often been caricatured as one of rigid, unthinking duty, and also of absolute altruism; White rebuts both of these claims and insists that Kantian ethics gives individuals the space to exercise mature, thoughtful, contextually appropriate judgments. Kant’s politics held that they should have the liberty to act on the products of their deliberation; political liberty, then, is a natural outgrowth of individual autonomy, or the capacity for reasoned self-rule.

Response Essays

  • Gregory Salmieri argues that Kant’s duty-based ethics leaves no room for the pursuit of happiness considered as a good - and thus it leaves no room for individual rights. Moreover, an ethics of duty can coexist quite happily with an authoritarian regime, in that individual duties may still be observed even under authoritarianism. Salmieri also questions the cohesion of the classical liberal tradition overall, for while that includes many people with common interests and influences, their diverse philosophical foundations should not be forgotten, and it may prove that many of us are more adversaries of one another than we realize. Salmieri holds that while liberalism after Kant has accomplished a good deal, its work has been on flawed foundations.

  • Stephen R. C. Hicks argues that if our case for liberty comes from a mysterious other realm, then perhaps we have no case at all. He describes how this was true of Kant’s idea of freedom, which proceeded from the noumenal realm — a realm whose very existence Hicks, like most others, denies. It should be little surprise, then, that Kant himself was a racist, a sexist, a foe of the “commercial spirit,” an enemy of smallpox vaccines, and in many other key respects a proponent of human bondage. Kant’s idea of freedom was otherworldly, and as a result, he held that freedom in this world can be restricted without doing any injury to the “true” freedom of the individuals in question. Beginning from this foundation and proceeding to classical liberalism is arbitrary and unwarranted.

  • Roderick Long offers a complex view of Immanuel Kant, who emerges as more often liberal in principle than in practice. Kant approved of taxation, a welfare state, and even forced conscription; he opposed the right of revolution, opposed women’s civic equality, and warmly supported capital punishment. One might always say that a person with Kant’s fundamental principles should not have approved of these things, but the fact remains that Kant did. In Long’s typology, liberalism can be imminent, in which it is concerned with the freedom of action in everyday life; or it can be vicarious, in which it is concerned with abstract social theory. He argues that Kant shows the influence of both Rousseau and Hobbes in tending toward vicarious liberalism, which makes him insensitive to the realities of state action and other forms of coercion.