The role of compassion in moral philosophy : Arthur Schopenhauer contra Immanuel Kant

Newman, S. (2019) The role of compassion in moral philosophy : Arthur Schopenhauer contra Immanuel Kant. Undergraduate theses, University of Chichester.

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Immanuel Kant proposed a deontological, universalist theory of morality: The Categorical Imperative (CI). For Kant, the CI or moral law, is understood to be the ground of right action. It has several formulations each of which are provided in Kant’s seminal work, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Its basic formulation is simple: ‘Always act in such a way that you can will that the maxim behind your action can be willed as a universal law’. However, the significance of Kantian moral philosophy for the sake of this thesis, lies in the vehement rejection of the necessity of compassion. So, unlike for example Christian morality and its emphasis on love and compassion in the face of the ‘other’, Kant posits instead an abstract morality that is purely a priori, dependant only on reason and acted upon from a metaphysical appeal to duty. Compassion is, according to Kant, ‘mere inclination’ and therefore not only morally inferior to actions motivated by duty, but moreover can negatively interfere with rational acts of reason. In Section I of the Groundwork Kant writes: ‘action first has its genuine moral worth’ only when it is done ‘without any inclination, simply from duty’, also that ‘an action from duty is to put aside entirely the influence of inclination.’
The purpose of this thesis is therefore to question the validity of a moral philosophy that rejects the value of compassion. Arthur Schopenhauer addresses this question in the essay that sets out using the example of the Holocaust. It is my own view, concurrent with what Schopenhauer himself had feared, that basing morality on abstract and noumenal appeals to duty, fails in complex phenomenological human scenarios. Whilst Schopenhauer himself couldn’t have known the human atrocities that would darken the 20th century, his foresight regarding the failure of basing morality in the noumenal was realised. This is because, and I will expand upon in chapter one, the truth that Kantian moral theory was used as a tool of justification by the Nazis in their persecution of Jews during the Second World War.

Therefore, my thesis will take the following form: In the first chapter, I will outline Kant’s CI, its foundation in reason and duty, and its rejection of compassion as ‘mere inclination’. In order to recognise what most consider the successful universality of Kant’s moral philosophy, I will use the example given by Lawrence M. Hinman on cheating as an extension of Kant’s CI never to lie. However to highlight the flaws as I see them in Kant’s noumenal approach to moral philosophy, I will draw on the example of Hannah Arendt and her discussion of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. This will serve to elucidate upon and substantiate the point made by Schopenhauer, that Kant’s philosophy, in appealing to the noumenal, provides no moral foundation for phenomenal and empirical experience. In chapter two, I will provide Schopenhauer’s counter argument, his own moral philosophy in which compassion forms the very basis. In stark contrast to Kant, Schopenhauer is an observer of ethics, remarking on what some argue is psychological behaviour and others phenomenological experience. Regardless of this distinction, what become clear is that Schopenhauer's moral philosophy is both empirical and a posteriori. Schopenhauer argues that to understand what constitutes morality one must observe human behaviour and ask what motivates us to do good. This, simply put, is compassion. That said, there are issues with Schopenhauer's reasoning that some regard fundamental, these relate to his positioning of compassion in metaphysics. However, in chapter three I will seek to address those criticisms and in returning to the Holocaust to evidence this defence, argue that the case of Le Chambon, infamous for their rescue of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, appealed to a metaphysical, Schopenhauerian morality of compassion in their endeavour. Not only will this chapter seek to champion Schopenhauerian compassion, but it will also refute Kant’s CI never to lie. The Holocaust example will ultimately serve to highlight the importance of moral integration, that is, appeals to both reason and compassion in ethical dilemmas. This will be both the most theoretical and least academically supported area of my thesis, however I aim to demonstrate that it serves as resolution to the criticisms levied at Schopenhauer's metaphysics, and as such demands an appreciation of his moral philosophy that I believe is lacking.

Publication Type: Theses (Undergraduate)
Additional Information: BA (Hons) Philosophy and Ethics
Uncontrolled Keywords: Morality, Duty, Ethics
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > B Philosophy (General)
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BD Speculative Philosophy
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BJ Ethics
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BV Practical Theology
Divisions: Academic Areas > Institute of Arts and Humanities > Theology, Philosophy and Religion
Student Research > Undergraduate
Depositing User: Janet Carter
Date Deposited: 30 Mar 2021 15:20
Last Modified: 31 Mar 2021 00:10

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