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In response to my discussion a while ago of the problems between Buddhism and qualitative individualism, Patrick O’Donnell suggested that J. David Velleman’s Self to Self offered a possibility of bridging the gap between the two. My reaction was skeptical, since Velleman explicitly situates himself as a Kantian, and I have taken Kant as exactly the opposite kind of individualist, a quantitative individualist. I said as much in response, claiming that for Kant “ethically most significant about human beings are those characteristics we all share, not our differences – the right way for one person to act in a given context is broadly the right way for any other person to act in the same context.”

Patrick’s response was where the discussion got really interesting. For this is the first time I’ve seen someone question the very distinction between qualitative and quantitative individualism. In his words: “I’m not at all drawn to the putative merits of this distinction between ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ individualism if only because I don’t understand Kantian autonomy, human dignity, and practical rationality associated with the individual person in the manner you have sketched it.” Since my current thought relies pretty heavily on this distinction (a relatively obscure distinction from the works of Georg Simmel), I think it’s on me to say more.

I do think it’s essential to distinguish qualitative from quantitative individualism. If anything, one of my problems with Simmel’s way of putting the distinction might be that it makes the two ideologies sound too much alike, by treating the two of them as species of a singular genus called individualism. Other terms used to name qualitative individualism – “Romanticism”, “expressivism”, “the ethics of authenticity” – do not share this feature, and they might make it a bit clearer how little qualitative individualism has in common with Kant.

Regarding Kant, my own understanding of Kant’s ethics – derived primarily from reading and teaching the Grounding many times – ties closely to his own first formulation of the categorical imperative: “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” We should only act in ways that can be universalized. And this is so because universality is characteristic of reason – and it is reason that makes us truly autonomous. Kant says:

What else, then, can freedom of the will be but autonomy, i.e., the property that the will has of being a law to itself? The proposition that the will is in every action a law to itself expresses, however, nothing but the principle of acting according to no other maxim than that which can at the same time have itself as a universal law for its object. (Grounding 447, Ellington translation)

The opposite of this autonomy is “the heteronomy of nature”, which Kant identifies with “the natural law of desires and inclinations” (453). Our desires and inclinations of course vary from individual to individual; universal law, qua universal law, does not. It is not that we must always act against our particular inclinations, but rather that they are unimportant in determining autonomous right action; that action conforms to a universal moral law.

All of this, I think, stands in sharp contrast to the views of the qualitative individualists. The qualitative individualist treats “be yourself” as an ideal, the actualization of one’s difference and specificity as distinct from others: in Nietzsche’s phrasing, one becomes what one is. Where Nietzsche or Emerson say to be more individual, Kant tells us to be more universal – to act according to the same moral law that everyone else should act under.

Patrick’s response quotes heavily from the work of Onora O’Neill, but I don’t think O’Neill’s work falsifies any of this. I think this passage from Patrick’s response is instructive:

O’Neill clarifies how Kantian ethics is “far from being empty or formalistic,” nor does it lead to “rigidly insensitive rules.” Rather, it is able to “take account of differences between cases.” How so? “ … [U]niversal principles need not mandate uniform treatment; indeed, they may mandate differentiated treatment. Principles such as ‘taxation should be proportionate to ability to pay’ or ‘the punishment must fit the crime’ are universal in scope but demand differentiated treatment. Even principles that do not specifically mandate differentiated treatment will be indeterminate, so leave room for differentiated application.”

I agree with all of this. Kantian quantitative individualism is quite able to handle differentiated treatment. But Kant’s differentiated treatment – as it is described in O’Neill’s examples – has entirely to do with different cases or situations, and not with different people and their different natures, their personalities or cares or desires or inclinations. So I stand by my original claim that for Kant “the right way for one person to act in a given context is broadly the right way for any other person to act in the same context.” Different contexts and situations demand different actions; of course Kant understands that. But does he think different people should act differently, based on their different natures as different people, when placed in the same situation? Not as far as I can tell.

To return to the Buddhist context of the original post, I think a Kantian understanding of the self is in important ways less compatible with a Buddhist understanding than is a qualitative individualist one of the sort I have been articulating elsewhere. (My putting my claim in this way is probably tantamount to daring Justin Whitaker to jump in with objections, and I look forward to these.) Specifically, I claimed that the qualitative individualist self is divisible, mutable and not autonomous, all of which bring it closer to Buddhist views of the self. And I don’t think the Kantian self is any of these. In my understanding of it, it is identified with a will constituted by a single capacity for rational decision-making, which needs to be understood as indivisible and immutable. I suppose that’s somewhat arguable, but the last one hardly seems so: if a good Kantian self is anything, it’s autonomous. So, as far as trying to bridge between Buddhism and qualitative individualism goes, I see no reason to pursue Velleman’s work – because as far as I can tell it is neither of the two.

Cross-posted on the Indian Philosophy Blog.

EDIT, 17 Apr 2023: The passage on the Kantian self previously said: “In my understanding of it, it is identified with a will constituted by a single capacity for rational decision-making, which needs to be understood as divisible and mutable.” In the last clause I meant the opposite: indivisible and immutable.