The Starry Sky Above Me: Living Non-Ideally By My Ideals

This colloquium was given by Karen Stohr (Georgetown University) at the University of Maryland (SKN 1115) on February 17, 2016 from 3:30PM to 5:30PM.


Her presentation and the subject of her future book Mind the Gap discuss moral failing and how there is a difference between our ideals and our implementation of them in the world. She examines the different types of moral failings and how we should think about them.


Often when one thinks of Kantian ethics it seems very idealistic and sometimes impractical venture. However, one can talk about Kant in more than just the idealistic level. In real life there is an interplay between the ideal (morals) and non-ideal (world).

Stohr gives a personal example of her vegetarianism and how life and practical matters got between her and the conviction that eating animals is wrong.

Ideals have an aspirational quality to them, they are something to aim towards, but not always implemented exactly in our lives.


There are distinctions to be made between different ideals.

There is a difference between moral and non-moral ideals. It is a fuzzy distinction because our non-moral can imply moral requirements. Stohr gives the example that if she wished to win a prize at a local county fair (non-moral), it may necessitate a moral obligation on others in her family to support her in this endeavour.

Social ideals are shared, while personal ideals are yours (but not necessarily only yours).

Achieving Ideals

In Doctrine of Virtue, Kant describes two ends that are also duties: one’s own perfection and the happiness of others. There are many ways to fulfill this duty—no specific way is prescribed. The duties are constraints on our ideals, but they do not specify particular ones.

Therefore many different personal ideals may by appropriate so long as they satisfy the constraints. It has normative forces, but remains capable of being individual.

Types of Failure

Stohr gives a kind of taxonomy of failure. The two central distinctions are unrecognized failure and recognized failure. The latter has two subgroups: values we cease to believe in and those we continue to hold.

Unrecognized failure are Dunning-Kruger style issues. Incompetence tends to blind the incompetent. Aristotle and Kant disagree about whether unrecognized failure can occur. Aristotle claims that the vicious person is ignorant and lacks knowledge. Kant suggests that through rationality anyone can arrive and recognize their failure, so it is completely encumbent upon them to do so.

Recognized failure that we continue to believe in can be thought of in a number of ways. They can be failings of weakness, failings because we don’t control our circumstances (e.g. health problems). Failures can be justified by other considerations.

Our reaction to these failures depends on the circumstances. It may be blame or regret.


Korsgaard has written on the “right to lie” in which she posits a kind of two-level Kantian ethics between the formula of humanity and universal law.

Stohr proposes what she calls “one and a half” level ethics whereby ideals serve to form and shape our lives by directing us to look at our failures. We cannot completely satisfy our ideals all the time, but they still serve to influence our choices.

They pull and challenge us to do better.