the wild sea of my conscience

Today in my afternoon class, we grappled with the various formulations of Kant’s categorical imperative in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals—how our a priori reason demands that we act in accordance with universal laws of morality. These laws, Kant argues, are often (always?) at odds with our private, subjective inclinations. Just as we wrestled with Kant’s framework, the junior Senator from Utah announced his arduous decision, one grounded in his “own reasoned judgment,” to vote “Guilty” in our nation’s third presidential impeachment trial. This decision, he recognized, guarantees that he will endure political damage for casting a historic vote against the head of his own party:

Does anyone seriously believe I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?

I write here not so much to laud Mitt Romney’s political choice but to explore the degree to which this afternoon was a Kantian coincidence: a classroom consideration of the categorical imperative just as it appeared in the wild on the Senate floor.

As we see above, Romney’s “conviction” springs from Utah-inflected Mormon faith rather than K√∂nigsberg-inflected Enlightenment reason. Right off the bat, it seems like his motivations are far from those recommended in the Groundwork. Something like the Kantian notion of “duty,” moreover, doesn’t appear in Romney’s speech. Instead, he calls his motivating principle some vague notion of “conscience”:

We have come to different conclusions, fellow Senators, but I trust we have all followed the dictates of our conscience.

Romney assures us that his fellow rational Senators all have access to “conscience”-based moral reasoning, although the “different conclusions” he references here don’t line up with Kant’s expectation of synthesizing universal moral rules. “Conscience” is a slippery term, too, one whose meaning and function has perplexed everyone from Shakespeare to Hannah Arendt and everyone between. Indeed, its lexicographical history predates both the specific religious oaths to which Romney appeals as well as Kant’s Enlightenment notion of a priori moral duty. It would be difficult, I think, to identify his “conscience” conclusively with either of these later concepts. (Even in ancient Latin texts, conscience or conscientia shows its protean character—it can denote the “common knowledge of many people” [TLL vol. IV 364.22] and some inner compulsion [TLL vol. IV 366.3]. Perhaps Romney himself isn’t entirely certain of what this “conscience” entails.) There is, I have to imagine, some misalignment between Romney’s juristic rationale and Kant’s system of universal moral reasoning.

This little evening consideration of senatorial motives, too, brought my mind back to Kant’s own admission of the difficulty in figuring out when people are acting out of duty rather than out of some kind of personal or subjective incentive. Considering a shopkeeper who “does not overcharge but keeps a fixed general price for everyone,” Kant tells us that the shopkeeper’s upright business practices are “not nearly enough for us to believe that the merchant acted in this way from duty and basic principles of honesty” (4:397). Sometimes outward actions don’t tell us much of anything about a person’s aims and motives.

As a matter of character evaluation, Kant hints at the barrier of inscrutability surrounding everyone’s psychology—we might never clearly perceive another’s motivations. This persistent psychological sphinx might invite a kind of cynicism, one that assumes the worst of politicians. After all, such a cynicism asks, does a senator ever really vote out of pained, conscientious deliberation, or should we always suspect some Machiavellian political calculus under every veneer of conviction and principle? It’s a corrosive outlook. As an alternative, in the face of mere psychological probability, in the face of a “conscience” and a “conviction” that we might not share as a fellow rational agent, we could entertain the possibility that someone did, in fact, act out of “basic principles” rather than against them, no?