Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Guilt: Facing the Problem of Ethical Solipsism

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Guilt: Facing the Problem of Ethical Solipsism

Article excerpt


Immanuel Kant remarks, in a famous footnote to the First Critique, that

   [t]he real morality of actions (their merit and guilt), even that
   of our own conduct [...] remains entirely hidden from us. Our
   imputations can be referred only to the empirical character. How
   much of it is to be ascribed to mere nature [...] no one can
   discover, and hence no one can judge it with complete justice. (1)

Although commentators have drawn attention to this important passage, (2) its full significance still deserves substantial consideration. So does the significance of another famous Kantian remark, according to which, for each one of us, "the depths of his own heart (the subjective first grounds of his maxims) are to him inscrutable". (3)

In this article, I will suggest that these remarks by Kant should lead us to take seriously the problem of ethical solipsism in relation to the morally central concept of guilt. Through a discussion drawing from Kant among others, I want to raise a systematic issue regarding the attributability--and the apparently resulting inscrutability--of moral guilt: is only my own guilt ultimately truly morally relevant, even though guilt would seem to be a social ethical notion (and/or emotion) par excellence? By examining this question in the context of the problem of solipsism, I will try to enhance our understanding of the role played by guilt as a concept and human emotional capacity constitutive of what we may call the moral point of view, and thereby constitutive of our being human beings. My approach is distinguished from mainstream moral psychological theories of guilt (4) by being more metaphysically oriented; however, this undertaking could also be described as belonging to "philosophical anthropology", insofar as it reflects on some of the basic features characterizing our morally oriented form(s) of life, that is, human life as we know it. Indeed, some of the literature I will cite, including Emmanuel Levinas's, Raimond Gaita's, and Tzvetan Todorov's ethical reflections, might quite appropriately be categorized as philosophical anthropology in this sense.

As every first year student of philosophy learns, one of the main points of Kantian moral philosophy is that morality belongs to the realm of pure practical reason. There is, thus, a sense in which it is something that takes place solely "within" the moral agent. The external circumstances or the actual results or outcomes of our actions are morally irrelevant. The only morally relevant issue is whether or not an action is motivated by the agent's pure respect for the moral law (the categorical imperative). We may see Kant's deontological ethics as the culmination of a long development that started out in antiquity, the process of moving the moral value of our actions from external matters to internal ones. Our moral self is something deeply, absolutely, "internal" to us. It is, eventually, for Kant the person conceived as a legislating citizen of the Kingdom of Ends, understood as a noumenal self rather than an empirical, psychological, flesh-and-blood person in nature. The same holds for moral guilt. We are guilty not simply--or perhaps, in a philosophically important sense, not at all--because of having performed (or having failed to perform) some particular actions. Rather, guilt is something that concerns the inner state of one's soul (lacking any better term), which may be manifested, instead of specific actions or omissions, in the character of one's life in general. Moreover, according to Kant, we "radically" have a propensity for evil--and are thus potentially guilty. (5)

Insofar as we can know nothing about noumena, as Kant maintains, it seems that we can know nothing about our own moral selves and our true moral guilt--or about anyone else's. As moral agents, we are things in themselves, not appearances; famously, we can only act "under the idea of freedom", and no natural entities tied to the deterministic causal laws governing the empirical world can be free in that sense. …

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