I’m not a great fan of posts of the type “I read X in [insert name of prestigious or simply cool newspaper or magazine] and I think Y of it” (normally Y being a moderately unimaginative rehash of what it says…) however, I myself am sometimes awestruck by the brilliance, wittiness or relevance for some of my own interests and lines of thought of something somebody else has published, and feel the urge to share it with my readership. That’s just what has happened with this subtle piece of analysis by the always interesting Matthew B. Crawford in “The New Atlantis”: Virtual Reality as a Moral Ideal.
Cutting to the chase, what Matt is saying is that there is an aspect of Kant’s thought that is directly responsible for an undesirable feature of our dominant reason: the fact that for choice to be truly free (in Kant’s metaphysic, a necessary condition of it being an autonomous agent, and thus of being morally responsible) it had to be universal, disembodied and independent of the physical features of the chooser. You may think “so far so good”, and it is difficult to argue that such a characterization of the preconditions of freedom are indeed deeply embedded in the Kantian system. Now what Crawford derives from such a characterization is far more troubling: such “pliable chooser” (his words) is liable to forget the importance of developing skills (physical skills to deal with an unyielding, uncooperative external world, skills which will then in turn affect how he perceives that same world, influencing what possibilities he has of affecting it –turning each element of perception into a potential “affordance”, for what it affords us to do with it and which before the acquisition of the skill could not even be considered as a possibility), and lacking those skills in the first place he can not but become a passive spectator, the only freedom he is able to effectively exercise being the freedom of acquiring one or other set of gizmos that do not demand any previous effort on his part (the ideal consumer shaped by television then, to which an endless array of effortless pleasures can be sold).
It is indeed a feature of the dominant reason that it facilitates the confusion between “consuming” and “acting” (in the old scholastic differentiated sense of agree as distinct of facere), and tries to present us with choices between different brands as the ultimate moral actions (buying then would be endorsing whatever fiction of a moral stance the providing corporations have succeeded in imbuing their products with), and that goes a long way to explain the attractiveness for such corporations of presenting the digital world (a frictionless world, a world where physical objects do not present us with any challenges, which we can manipulate effortlessly at will) as the “really important one” (hence the motto of a fabled consulting company I used to work for, “every business is a digital business”). As Tom Friedman reminded us only Yesterday in the NYT, the economy seems to be going fully digital at increasing speed (from Only the interface matters in techcrunch):
Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.
In a certain sense, it is the logical culmination of our flight from nature: during the last two hundred years we have become increasingly successful in replicating the most pleasurable parts of it (from tamed botanical gardens to ever more immersive modes of narration that create a synthetic environment that looks more and more like the real thing –and the launch of Oculus Rift and the future VR gadgets at an affordable price will make that transition proceed even faster) getting rid in the process of everything that made it interesting (the need for struggle, although it could be argued that such need only made it interesting for those strong enough to succeed in that struggle, and thus benefit from overcoming it). When in a much commented section in The Examined Life Robert Nozick posited the possibility of an “experience machine” to discredit certain consequentialist philosophies (basically hedonistic utilitarianism and their associated philosophies of mind) technology was so far from making that possibility real that he still could fantasize that nobody would choose to live that way (to become what later would be termed a “brain in a vat”) even if they would be fed the most pleasurable experiences imaginable (his argument was that people crave meaning and whatnot, but tell that to a dude whose best existential prospect is holding two or three Mac Jobs just to make ends meet so doesn’t have much time left for meaningful interaction with other fully real human beings in a fully real unwelcoming world). Well, technology is getting to the point of making experience machines/ brains in a vat possible so we are pretty close already to having an empirical validation of Nozick’s contention, and my impression is that it has been already mostly refuted, as more and more people choose freely to spend more and more time in their entirely unreal and artificial paradises (they are known as gamers, and as VR becomes more mainstream and jobs become scarcer I forecast we will see their numbers swell).
We can then legitimately ask ourselves to what extent is Kant guilty of that strain in our current rationality, or put it another way, to what extent we owe to him that suspicion of the physical world that has yanked us from its perils and rewards and pushed us toward the siren songs of the unreal, disembodied, virtual reality. It is a deadly serious question for me because I consider myself as close to a card-carrying Kantian as there can be (if carrying any kind of card that denoted belonging to a wider human group didn’t clash with my also deeply held misanthropy and antipathy towards organized belief systems), I despise that “flight from the physical” that I recognize as part and parcel of that “desiderative reason” (currently dominant mode of rationality that I’ve devoted 422 pages and counting to unmask, analyze, explain and undermine all in one) that tries to substitute buying ready made pleasurable experiences for actually determining what a life worth living consists in (which usually would involve a healthy dose of struggle and confrontation with an at best indifferent and at worst positively frustrating nature). And if Matt Crawford sees a connection I can not help but paying attention, as my admiration of him runs very high (A guy who likes philosophy and rebuilding custom bikes was apt to have me enthralled from page one of Shop Class as SoulCraft).
However, after some pondering I have some significant differences in how I understand where Kant was coming from when he postulated the need of a totally free will (unbounded by material determinism) to set the foundations of his ethics. According to Crawford, it was a defense from the discoveries of Newton, that showed the natural world was like a well designed watch, bound to evolve according to very precise and simple laws. But such vision is not original of Newton’s systems. The Greeks (and not just any recent ones, the Eleatics and Pre-Socratics were already at it) already believed in the inescapable chain of ananké (necessity), by which even the immortal Gods were bounded. They already developed a conception of freedom (lack of direct external compulsion –compulsion, indeed, that had to be imposed by another will) that could be compatible with the agents actions being entirely predictable and preordained (see Oedipus example: he freely kills his father, and he freely sleeps with his mother, although it was said in an omen he would do so, and although he did not know of any of those deeds –so in a modern sense it could be argued that he was not “guilty” of them- the public believed that he deserved his final punishment all the same –it has to be noted the punishment is mostly meted out by himself, not to leave any doubts about its justice). So I will argue that is not to protect the individual will from the mechanistic understanding of the world that was coalescing that Kant arrived at his Metaphysics of Morals, but to solve a totally different problem.
What troubled Kant was not (or not mainly) the problem imposed by the growing determinism, but the much more ancient problem caused by the unruliness of the passions (in Aristotelian terms, not by ananké but by akrasia). He identified as the main risk for his concept of a moral agent able to apprehend universal moral truths (truths, it has to be noted, that objectively existed, so our cognition of them was the cognition of something real, and not of some construct we ourselves had concocted –that is what Habermas saw when he famously quipped that all and every cognitivist ethics in the end is reducible to the categorical imperative) not the compatibility with a deterministic natural external world, but the bias and distortions caused by our own (internal) desires. His quarrel was not with Newton, whom he admired and whose disciple he considered himself to be, but with Hume (aha!). He knew how our own desires befuddle us, cloud our judgment and make it more difficult to arrive at “ethical” decisions (here understood as impartial decisions, decisions which are not hopelessly biased in our favor and thus defensible before no one but our selfish selves). It is true he was not an especially muscular or handy guy, so he was unlikely to appreciate the activities that Crawford reminds us are so central to a meaningful life (like diagnosing if a bike that fails to start owes it to the coil, the spark plugs or the carburetor, such wonderful metaphor for the whole functioning of our thinking selves!), but I think if we accuse him of diminishing the importance of that kind of physical activities we are badly missing the mark. I do not see him so much diminishing them as being unconcerned with them. And I think that lack of concern is itself defensible and compatible with a fully grounded human life. I enjoy tinkering with my old bike as much as the next guy, but I could live without it (I concede it would be a slightly diminished life, btw), so I do not think not giving that involvement with the limitations and joys of the (deterministic) physical world a central preeminence in one’s recommendations on how to live can be construed as an invitation to flee from the world and recoil from engagement with it, thus somehow justifying the acquisitiveness of our current system and the reduction of we moral agents to little more than choosy consumers (or, as Crawford puts it, “pliable choosers”).
I would argue, furthermore, than Kant’s positing of a universal reason, entirely shielded from the highly contingent desires of each individual, is the best defense against that acquisitiveness, as it is by the promises it makes (that advertising professionals know so well how to exploit) that it enslaves us and makes us work towards goals that have little to do with “our own perfection and other people happiness”, steering us rather to the opposite (our own imagined but never fully realized happiness while we hold everybody else to much higher moral standard than ourselves, assuming it is them who should strive to be perfect so it is easier for us the be happy). Not that it matters that much, as I have argued elsewhere the influence of Kant in modern culture is almost negligible, as right after him came like a blight the notorious Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (Hegel, that is) and essentially buried all of his ideas and soiled so much his legacy there is very little of it we can still find outside of the occasional academic monograph (university professors do indeed love Kant very much, one of the handful of things we should be grateful towards them for) and the books of Christine Korsgaard and the like.
So I think we can all agree that Kant is blameless regarding the commercial, desire-fueling orientation of today’s culture. What about the original contention that he is partly responsible for the “virtualization” of morality, the impulse to substitute a fake, pliable, easy to effortlessly consume artificial reality for the true, stubborn, resistant one that thwarts our best efforts and refuses obstinately to yield to our command (unless we devote a significant effort to master some skill that allow us to overcome its resistance)? I reckon Crawford’s position has more merit here. I do not see Kant wielding a physical tool to repair even the simplest wheelbarrow, inquisitively identifying his activity as an expression of human genius (I can rather more easily imagine him discharging such a nuisance on his famed valet Lampe), but I can not see him extolling either the virtues of an unearned bliss or propounding the mass migration of consciousness to some artificial, tamed environment where our pursuit of perfection would be much hindered by the easy availability of distracting pleasures. However, I can not recommend my readers highly enough to consult in full Crawford’s text, and hope it will be as fruitful for them as it has been for me.