There are several philosophers that are notoriously difficult to interpret–one of the guys that falls squarely in that category is Immauel Kant. His name strikes fear into philosophy students around the woooooorld. Being the glutton for punishment that I am I decided to take the Kant seminar that is being offered at U of H. Truth be told, I don’t think anyone can call themselves a philosopher without having engaged in a few wrestling matches with Kant…so lets make wrestle!
Kant is best known for his ground breaking work in ethics and epistemology. Within the realm of epistemology his “Critique of Pure Reason” attempted to reconcile rationalism with empiricism. In “The Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals” he most famously revealed the “categorical imperative” (more on that later). Anyhow, the seminar I’m taking is focused on Kantian ethics and so I’m going to try to break it down to y’all in an attempt to understand it myself…
Overview of Ethics
Ethics is essentially the study of the rules or principles (or both) by which we should govern our actions. We can roughly divide these rules or principles into those concerning actions that only affect myself and actions that will affect others. Another way to state it would be to ask, what are my responsibilities/duties to myself? and (as a member of a group/community/city/country) what are my responsibilities/duties to others? Of course if you are a Libertarian the answer to the second question is simple–“none”.
Continuing with our categorization we generally contrast Kant’s ethics with what is called consequentialist ethics. Not surprisingly, consequentialist ethics is the position that the moral goodness of an action is determined by its…consequences. The most famous brand of consequentialist ethics is Utililitarianism, which is the idea that given a choice between different courses of action we should choose the one that leads to the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people. Sounds reasonable enough, right? Kant disagrees. He argues that the moral good of an action is not measured by its consequences but by the intention of the actor.
Lets pause for a second and look at some examples to see these principles at work. It’s pretty simple to construct examples that support both cases so lets consider some examples where the answer is not so clear. Here’s an example that questions utilitarianism: suppose you’re really angry at your friend and while he’s sleeping you fill a pillowcase full of bars of soap then beat the crap out of him (bad intention). At the hospital he meets the love of his life with whom he collaborates in a research project and cures cancer. If you hadn’t beat the crap out of your friend none of these good things would have ever happened. Can we still say that just because the consequences of your action your action was morally good? Most people would have a problem agreeing with this position; most would say that the ill intent is a relevant factor in evaluating the morality of the action.
Lets look at a counter example of Kant’s ethics: Suppose you, by pure luck, happen to be part of the one. true. religion (add reverb). In order to save the rest of the world from eternal damnation you travel to the far corners of the earth (the earth is a 6000-year-old square). Unbeknownst to you, you carry an airborn infectious disease to which these other people have no immunity…and they all die horrible, painful deaths (they die the death). Sadly, they died the death before you could learn their language well enough to teach them the one true religion (you only managed to learn their word for rabbit: gavagai and you’re not even sure if that’s what it means). Can we say your action was good even though you just wiped out entire peoples? Should we not factor in the consequences of your actions? To your credit your good intentions did help pave a certain road…(Full disclosure: I stole that line from Mark Crislip).
I know that there are probably better examples out there to illustrate the point, but hopefully I’ve made it apparent that if you dogmatically cling to one position or the other you will quickly find yourself in a difficult position.
So…What did Kant Say and Why? And What this Categorical Imperative All About?
The Groundwork of a Metaphysic of Morals Ch. 1
Arg. 1: Argument for the Unconditionality of a Good Will.
Kant begins with the reasonable assertion that the only thing that is unconditionally good is a good intention. (Can you have a bad good intention? Me thinks not). There can be other goods like some consequences but consequences are conditional, that is to say depending upon circumstances, the same consequence can be good or bad. A good intention can never be bad even if something goes awry. Even if, despite someone’s good intentions, we all go to hell in a handbasket, we can still refer back to the intention and say, “but he meant well!” The essential point is that the goodness of an intention is preserved regardless of how things play out.
Arg. 2: The Function of Reason in Action
1a. Every organ has a function. 1b. Every organ is well suited to its function 2. The function of the mind (Reason) is to govern action. 3. A well adapted mind (Reason) functions to create a will that is good in itself.
Assessment: An obvious objection to this is that we could argue the mind is best adapted for survival not for moral good. Kant might reply that this is the role of instinct. What separates us from animals in the faculty of Reason (he capitalizes it) and it should be employed to elevate our behaviour over that base animals otherwise, what’s the point of possessing it?
Arg 3: A Morally Praiseworthy Act is on Done out of Duty
Basically we can act out of 3 basic impulses, self interest, inclination, and duty. An act out of self interest isn’t morally praiseworthy…well, this one’s obvious–again, unless you’re a Libertarian. Acts that fall under this category include “doing the right thing” because of threat of punishment, it will advance your interest in some way, or because it’ll make you look good. The second category is “inclination”. Acts that fall under this category include acts out of sympathy or generosity. You are acting because you have an emotional inclination toward an action. It requires little effort and to act in such a way is part of your character. This does not imply your action is not praiseworthy, it simply isn’t morallymorally praiseworthy because it is above self interest and inclination. It is done simply because it is the morally correct thing to do–regardless of consequences to you or how you feel about it. To rephrase the issue, we should not act in order to achieve some consequence but we should act because it is simply the right thing to do. praiseworthy. Finally, an act out of duty is considered
It think there’s something to what Kant is saying here, especially if we assume that the measure of morality is contained in the intention of an act. Of course if we consider consequences it gets more complicated as my earlier examples suggested. There is also the matter of agreeing on what one’s duties are. Consider fundamentalist Christians. They think it’s their duty to “save” homosexicles. Kant could argue that some do it to derive a result, thus it is not duty. But I think a case could be make that at least some just think it’s the right thing to do, that is to say, their duty.
Kant’s also going to have some problems if we don’t agree on how we weigh obligations to ourselves versus obligations to others (not to mention competing mutually exclusive obligations to others). If “duty” compels me to act in a way that will ruin my life the hypothetical action my not be advisable. What if a duty is to “always save a drowning child”. As luck would have it I see a child drowning in the river. I realize that I can save the child but I will be washed over a waterfall and dashed upon the laser-firing rocks below. I also know I’ll survive but will be a paraplegic after the fall. Does my duty to myself outweigh the duty to the drowning child? How about if I knew that I’d only be paralyzed from the waist down? And is it even moral to knowingly mess up our own lives even if it’s in an attempt to act out of duty? Kant doesn’t say that we should never consider our own happiness, only that our obligation to duty should take precedence. In fact, he says, we have an indirect moral duty to seek our own happiness.
In defense of Kant, his project in “Groundwork” isn’t to provide a comprehensive guide to applied ethics, rather to provide a…groundwork to how we should judge/measure the morality of an act.
Arg. 3: The Categorical Imperative, and Why Kant is Jesus
The Categorical Imperative is the first formulation of the ethical law for which Kant is famous. This is basically the negative formulation of “the golden rule”. Here it is. Brace yourself. “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law”. The basic idea is that whenever you are faced with an ethical dilemma you should ask yourself the following, “would I want it to be a universal rule that everyone who encounters my similar circumstances should act the same?”
Here’s an example: Suppose you’re late for an appointment and if you don’t call with some excuse you’ll have to wait another week to reschedule…so you make up a little white lie and you get slotted in when you arrive. Here’s the problem, you wrote on facebook that whatever you do should be a universal maxim. Word gets out that you have decreed this behaviour ok, and you get over 10 000 “likes” and many encouraging comments. But now every customer of yours (who are on your facebook page) is coming late to appointments and telling white lies to not get rescheduled. And your brother’s customers are doing it to him. Apoo’s co-worker at Qwiki mart is doing the same. Now that everyone knows it’s ok to tell a white lie if you’re late, everyone’s doing it and it’s reeking havoc on everyone’s schedule.
Anyway, I kind of like the categorical imperative at a guiding principle. There can be some problems with it if the rule gets too specific, for example, “Nobody should rob banks unless they were born in Scotland, raised in Vancouver, live in Houston, and study philosophy.”
A Couple of Interesting Facts About the Golden Rule.
Ok, lets just get this part out of the way first: JESUS DID NOT INVENT IT!!! Ok, moving on. It is hypothesized that the first person to call it “The Golden Rule” (positive formulation) was Confucius who also wrote what he called “The Silver Rule”(negative formulation). In the Judeo-Christian tradition, before SBJ said it, it was in the Torah in Leviticus 19:18 “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” (That God! He can’t just leave it at “Love your neighbour….” you gotta throw in the “I am your LORD”…Is someone feeling neglected?)
So obviously, the Golden Rule originated in the Hebrew bible because nobody else in that area came up with that idea…oh wait…in Egypt, in the story of “The Eloquent Peasant” from 2040 BCE-1650 BCE there’s this, “”Now this is the command: Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you.” But the Jews were never in Egypt…oh..wait. Ok, but not back then….oh…wait…From a papyrus found in Egypt dated 664 BCE- 323 BCE, “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.” Ancient Greece anyone? “Do not to your neighbor what you would take ill from him.” Pittacus 640 BCE- 568 BCE. As for Buddhism, the list is too long.
Anyway, seems like I’m straying off topic. Oh my lord! It’s 4 in the AM! No wonder my mind is wandering…good night!