Autonomy and daily life - Spinoza and Kant's imperative: "Treat others and yourself as ends, not as means" - humanaesfera

A short text about the basics of materialist ethics, our power to change the circumstances of everyday life and creating and developing our abilities and needs.

Submitted by Joaos on December 13, 2017

[This text was translated into English by humanaesfera from the original version in portuguese (Autonomia e cotidiano - Espinosa e o imperativo de Kant: "Tratar os outros e a si mesmo como fins, jamais como meios")]

According Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) 1 ethics should emanate, in order to each individual to be autonomous, from an unconditional, absolute, ideal sphere which is independent and superior to the relative and changing world that is that of daily, social and historical existence of each. He called this absolute ideal sphere "legislative reason." "legislative" because it dictates "categorical imperatives," which are unconditional ends and duties. The set of imperatives forms what he calls the "kingdom of ends," a sort of ideal supramundane empire within the head of each and everyone. Freedom, for him, is only the submission and execution of the dictates emanating from this suprasensible absolute sphere which is the only bastion that is free of passions.

But how could Kantian freedom not contradict the most impressive of its categorical imperatives which says "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end"? One can argue that "humanity" seems to suggest a abstract entity separate from yourself and others, resulting in no autonomy; however this discussion is not what we propose. We can interpret the phrase more fruitfully simply as "treat others and yourself as ends and never as means." On the other hand, questionable is the very presupposition that underlies Kantian ethics, because if legislative reason is unconditional, absolute, imperative, then each and every one of us is nothing but relative, means, instruments, objects, servants of that absolute sphere which is the supramundane kingdom of ends in itself.

Furthermore, in the complexity of everyday practical, social, and historical existence, Kantian freedom, with its imperatives, has little to offer but moral, formal and nagging admonitions. This is at best, because at worst, since practically no one takes reprimands seriously, there is a temptation to put these "laws of reason" into practice not by the laws of reason itself (which proves impotent), but by a power which, outside of law and reason, is supposed to be the only one capable of applying them effectively - the police.

Is there any way to save the principle of "treat others and yourself as ends and never as means" without resorting to the contradiction of making it an "imperative," which, as an imperative, by definition treats others and who assumes it as means to apply it? We think yes, and that the proposal about freedom of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) 2 can allows us to overcome these difficulties by illuminating richer and more fruitful perspectives of the problems of practical existence.

Espinosa already criticized in Descartes precisely the idea of a transcendent reason (or freedom) which is supposed to be made of a substance (in)different and superior to the substance of all of us and of our existence. But in criticizing Descartes, Espinosa did not abandon universal reason or freedom. On the contrary, he radicalized them. Let us begin by explaining that for him, freedom (or reason) is not and can not be a decree.

According to him, each individual (human or not) arises and develops through a random confluence of infinite simultaneous determinations that act at all time and which he calls "affections". And while this confluence of affections sustains his existence, the individual continues to exist. This is the passive (of the Latin, "passio", passion) dimension of existence. However, when it comes to being, each individual is a new determination (conatus), a specific capacity, a desire, an active potency that creates new confluences, other relationships, and other capacities and desires that, of course, did not exist before.

But even when it comes into existence, every human individual continues to be "affected" continually by new "affections" and experiences them as what Spinoza calls "affects." Affects that increase their capacities are called "joy." Affects that reduce them are called "sadness." But what does this have to do with freedom?

The active aspect of the "affect of sadness" is "hatred," the desire for the destruction of what the individual imagines to be reducing their capacities (reduction of their existence), whether he imagine this cause by mistake or not. Thus sadness merely leads to reaction against what we imagine to cause it. Despite what it may seem, reaction is a bondage to what we react against, and so it is not a free action, it is not self-determined. Hatred usually manifests itself as an equal or greater aggression to the imagined original violence, and when an individual imagines another human individual as a cause and reacts, this usually makes them slaves of a vicious circle of reciprocal and increasing reprisals, a spiral of chain reactions occupying an ever-increasing portion of their lamentable existences. In fact, nothing more appropriate than the word "reactionary" to designate these unfortunates.

On the contrary, the "affect of joy" has as its active aspect "love," the desire to increase the capacity of what (or who) the individual imagines to increase his own capacities, his own existence. But when his imagination deceives him and assigns as the cause of their joy something that is not, love is still reaction, passion, puppet of circumstances, since it will turn into sadness, hence into hatred, as a necessary result of deception. Only when he assigns with adequate knowledge, love ceases to be passion to become action, reason, conscious transformation of the world and his relations with others. Love, the desire born of joy, then manifests itself as free, self-determined action, because the individual acts by increasing his own freedom, and this only occurs effectively increasing the freedom of the other and the world in which he lives. Love, by definition, is to treat oneself and the other as ends in themselves, as free beings, not as means, objects, things, instruments.

However, in the complexity of everyday practical existence, in which random and blind affections (passions) predominate, the affects of sadness and joy, and the corresponding desires of hatred and love, mingle and combine, giving rise to an infinity of intermediate affects and desires (Spinoza analyzes in detail a vast collection of them: hope, fear, contentment, glory, derision, envy, consideration, remorse, compassion, pride, gratitude, cruelty, flattery, contempt, audacity, despite, modesty, shame, generosity …) by which human individuals, except a few lucky ones, engage in a tangle of chain reactions that only further reduces their own capabilities and increases their bondage. 3

Whether we like it or not, it is in this entanglement that our everyday, social and historical existence takes place, in which we exist more as objects, which react as predictably to affections as robots, than as autonomous beings that transform their existence. Admonitions, reprimands, raves, guilts, litanies are not only hypocritical (because no one is out of this mess), but they add even more fuel in the fire, since they only ask for and support even greater bondage (for example, dreaming of a grotesque invincible and uncontrollable violence that will end violence itself: a foreman, a director, a king, an inquisitor, a superhero, a god, karma, hell, the end of the world, an alien invasion ...).

Where is freedom and reason in this rough tangle? Of course: freedom is to act, to be protagonist, to become subject and not object. And to be free, we need to understand the specific causes of the affects and desires we have, to know the affections (the circumstances) that affect us, because only by knowing them we can transform them effectively, by increasing the capacities of ourselves, of others and of the environment in which we live. But freedom is not a decree. It comes with experiences, a specific confluence of affections which makes us experience a certain joy that increases our ability to think and act to the point of allowing us, in turn, to act on our own affections by consciously transforming them, that is, changing the circumstances.

The procedure of reactionaries, which consists of pointing out "guilty", scapegoats, "people of ill will", besides useless, causes even more hatred and reaction. The error of another individual, or even his violence, can not be fought by decree, for it does nothing but transfer the violence to a still more violent and uncontrolled sphere, such as the power and hierarchy (today anointed with the unfortunate superstition of meritocracy, the "invisible hand" of the war of all against all called the market, and the idolatry called the State). What is effective in combating error, and especially violence, is to point out to this individual experiences that allow him to understand that if he reduces other individuals to objects, means, it is because he behaves ridiculously like a robot, because his acts, which he thought to be free, are merely foreseeable reactions to the affections that occur to him, which automatically make hatred (and the servitude that flows from it, reaction) to occupy most of his existence. In short, contributing to make him understand the affections that affect him is the only way to help him to stop being an object, to change them and to actively transform his life, the only condition for him to treat himself and others as ends in themselves and not as means.

And the reason? If reason is understood as a decree (as in Kant), it is limited to an utterance of imperatives, reprimands, which, although many (or even all) of us can categorically agree, practically no one can or wants to follow in fact in everyday life. This is because every decree stupidly seeks to pass over the concrete confusion that is our everyday, social and historical practical existence, and in fact it contributes as one more element, even a multiplier, in the tangle of reactions, of bondages.

The only universal reason that can be effectively assumed and put into practice, then, can only be a kind of joy, a kind of love that is more enthralling than reactions. A love for autonomy, for freedom, for knowledge, that is, for virtue as something desired by itself, universal, freely accessible to all for generalized enjoyment and joy. It follows from reason, consequently, the project of changing daily, social and historical life in the universal sense that everybody may freely develop their capacities as autonomous beings, or, in other words, the purpose of suppressing all conditions that lead individuals to accept being treated as an object, as an instrument, as means to an end for others.

To conclude: what is at stake is our ability, in this world that is a servile tangle of blind reactions, to be effectively capable of creating and propagating reason and freedom. For this, we have seen that an imperative or decree only brings more bondage, whereas we prove that we can only propagate reason, virtue and freedom if, in daily life, we prove that they are valid by themselves, that is, as love, joy.

humanaesfera, October 2015

See also: A dissection of the metaphysics of scarcity

  • 1 In the book Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.
  • 2Here we specifically address the proposal about freedom in what Espinosa calls the "second genre of knowledge" explained in book Ethics, Demonstrated in Geometrical Order, parts III, IV, V e VI.
  • 3This confusing mixture, for example, explains addiction: an individual imagines as a cause of the increase of his capacities [ie, of joy and therefore love] something that actually increases a limited and temporary part of them [eg, the capacity to become over-active or over-relaxed , such as the effects of certain drugs] but that reduces their capabilities as a whole, and in the long run causes sadness and therefore hatred and consequently makes him a slave.