Immanuel Kant's 1793 essay "Theory and Practice" is his attempt to defend his own moral and political theory against the charge that it is simply an idle academic exercise that cannot be brought to bear upon the real world in any useful way.
He is concerned, in particular, to answer two charges -- the charges that his theory is (1) motivationally unrealistic, involving an account of moral motivation that is at odds both with scientific psychology and with all plausible philosophical accounts of rational deliberation and (2) not usable in either the design or critique of actual social institutions. First, it might be instructive to find out what the greatest philosophical mind of the eighteenth century had to say about the topic of the present volume. There are few things more trendy these days than Kant-bashing, for he is often regarded as the patron saint of individualistic liberalism, Enlightenment rationalism, the idea of the "unsituated self" and a variety of other heresies that communitarians, virtue theorists, and feminists among others enjoy condemning.
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As Dieter Henrich puts the point, "[Kant] speaks of the theory as being inherent in moral consciousness and action itself.
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As such it Thus a bad theory, to use Rawlsian language for the method that Kant is here adopting, is a theory that fails to put us in reflective equilibrium with respect to our pre-theoretical moral convictions.Although it makes (in a reasonably clear way) some important distinctions, it also contains much that is obscure and, as an introduction to what is actually to follow, somewhat misleading.One thing is reasonably clear: Kant is at some level worried about the moral philistine -- the businessman, the politician, the military officer who prides himself on his role as a hard-headed, no-nonsense, realistic and who, in pursuing his objective of greed or power or victory, either ridicules morality and moral theory as irrelevant to his practice or who conveniently adopts an account of morality exactly tailored to allow him to do whatever he pleases.Kant clearly saw this in 1793 because the insight plays a profound role in his On one interpretation, Kant is clearly correct in what he says here.If I am really morally required to do X, then the fact that it would now be very difficult for me to do X or the fact that things happened to come out well in the past when I did not do X is irrelevant in determining my duty.Such a person may even come to a distorted view of the world by seeing the world only through the spectacles of his theory -- thinking his theory is consistent with the facts because he does not realize that he is unable to accept as a fact anything that is inconsistent with his theory.(Paranoids, seeing all helpful gestures as threats, are masters of this; but the tendency is also present in those who are mentally normal.Think of those who see all welfare recipients as chiselers, all poor people as lazy, all criminals as free and responsible, and -- to shift ideologies -- all women as really desiring the independent and autonomous status that (supposedly) comes from having a career.Kant is not indifferent to such problems in "Theory and Practice" and suggests that the existence of such people shows, not a weakness in theory, but a weakness in human nature -- the problem that some people simply lack the "natural gift" of For to the concept of the understanding that contains the rule must be added an act of judgment by means of which the practitioner decides whether or not something is an instance of the rule.A second sense of the charge, however, involves a possible gap between our moral consciousness itself and the real world -- the world of empirical reality.Consider, as an illustration, the retributive theory of punishment.