Tijdschrift voor Filosofie vol:71 issue:2 pages:271-303
As some have recently argued (e.g. John Milbank), Kantian ethics has to be read as a totalitarian form of sacrificial ethics, unable to mediate the quest for a just society. The reason for this is to be found within Kant’s dualism, for — not unlike in some Islamic theologies — Kant’s stress on the radically noumenal and thus transcendent nature of the moral law has an awkward effect: it reverts into a quasi making absolute of the given, positive order of law, into an ideologically conservative valorisation of what we might call in Lacanian terms the 'symbolic order.'
This paper is meant as an attempt to provide an alternative reading and defence of Kantian ethics through the exploration of an ambiguity that characterizes the Kantian conception of the law. More specifically, we investigate how — similar as in the writings of Kafka — the law oscillates between a transcendent and an immanent mode and how this ambiguity gets concealed. The first part contains a short exploration of the main themes of the second critique and thus of the moral law in its transcendent mode. This should enable us to enfold a critique of a certain kind of Kantianism on Kantian grounds. In the second part, we focus on the different modes of immanentization and how some of Kant’s texts give rise to the above critique. In a third and last part, we try to come up with a different reading, based on the following diagnosis: the above interpretation (of Kantian ethics as ideologically conservative) indeed finds support in Kant’s own ethical writings (especially in the Metaphysik der Sitten) and results from an abstract, situation-independent application of the categorical imperative. However, on Kantian grounds there are no good reasons for not taking the situation fully into account. Moreover, by turning the law into a set of absolute and general rules (formulated independent of the situation), and thus violating the law in its transcendent mode, ethics falls back into heteronomy.
As such, we hope to lay bare the tension which must be preserved (together with the Kantian principles to ensure this), in order to avoid that ethics becomes absorbed within immanence (legalism) or abandons universality by focusing solely on the transcendent mode of the law (terror).