If You Were Purely Rational, How Would You Behave?

Chapter 2
How Can We Discover A Moral Law?
     One of the overarching goals of Kant’s Metaphysic of Morals is that there is a moral law that all rational beings ought to follow–even when they are tempted to do otherwise.  The problem is, how do we discover such a law, if one even exists?  One possible way is to observe behaviour: we put on our lab coats, get out our beakers and Bunsen burners and start making observations.  But this method will not get us far because observing what people actually do doesn’t tell us what they ought to do.  As Hume famously wrote (prior to Kant), “you can’t derive an ought from an is“.  
What Makes an Action Moral?
     Even if the subjects in our experiments are acting according to the moral law, there is no way for us to know if it is purely by chance or if their motives are selfish or pure, and thus if their actions are moral.  Let me elaborate.  For Kant an action is only moral if it is done out of duty.  If we act because of self-interest or “inclination” (emotional impulse like sympathy or character) this is not a moral act even if it happens to be in accordance with the moral law.  An act is only moral so long as it is done out of duty.  Also, recall back in Chapter 1 Kant begins by asserting that the only unconditional good is the intention to do good.  I’m not quite sure exactly how this ties into this but it seems related.  
     So back to our moral observations…When observing people in action there is no way for us to know if they are acting out of self-interest or inclination or duty–i.e., their intent.  It just might be that the course of action dictated by the hypothetical moral law is also in the best interest of a subject.  
     For example, I’m driving down the road and I see Warren Buffet pulled over at the side with a flat tire.  I pull over and help him.  Maybe I helped him because I sought a reward, and having recognized Warren for who he is I pulled over to help–anticipating a nice reward.  On the other hand, maybe it’s in my character to feel sympathy for those who appear to be suffering misfortune–perhaps it was this feeling that compelled me to pull over.  On the third hand, maybe I am aware of a moral law that dictates I help those in need.  It is a huge inconvenience for me to pull over but I am compelled out of duty to do so.   For Kant, it is only moral in the third case, when (as a rational agent) I act out of duty.
    How could an observer possibly untangle the many possible of motives?  So it seems that even if an individual is following a moral law we cannot discern from their actions if their actions are in fact moral.
     A further problem for us, as moral empirical scientists, is that it is impossible for us to extrapolate what moral law is being followed.  In the flat tire example, maybe I’m acting out of duty to follow a maxim that is “always help old men with flat tires”.  Or maybe I’m acting on, “Always help old men with flat tires but not young men”.  Or maybe I’m acting on, “Always help heterosexual old men in red cars”.  The problem–amongst those previously mentioned–is we cannot derive a general rule from a particular instance.  So in short, we will never be able to discover any general moral laws based on observing what people do.
     So, if we can’t observe the moral law, perhaps we are on a fools errand.  How do we even know there is one to begin with?  Lets recap what we have so far, including the previous posts (cuz my heads starting to swim):
1.  Nature is purposive.  Applied to us that is to say, all organs and faculties function for a specific purpose. 
2.  Nature has endowed us with the faculty of reason, and by (1.) our reason has a purpose.
3.  The purpose of our reason could not be to seek pleasure/happiness because instinct is much better suited to that purpose.
4.   Thus by (3.) the purpose of our reason must be to pursue to moral good; that is to act morally, by discovering and acting on the moral law (as our duty).
5.  It is possible that a moral law exists because it exists in us as an Idea, i.e. we all have a concept of moral law.
6.  This moral law is not discoverable to us though empirical observation.
7.  Therefore, if it exists, it is a priori (i.e., basically means “hardwired into us”) and we can only discover it through application of reason.

Phew!  So much going on at once!  It’s hard to keep everything straight!
…moving on…
Necessary Conditions For a Moral Law
      Suppose that we know that there is a moral law.  What would it look like?  Kant says that if a purely rational creature followed the moral law, the resulting application of the rule would never lead to a world with contradictions.  Kant uses the example of someone who contemplates lying..and decides to do it.  By applying the categorical imperative we universalize the action into a law.  Remember that we should only act in such a way as though we wished our action should become a universal moral law.  So now we live in a world were everybody ought to lie.  In such a world there is no way to determine truth.  After a while there would be no compelling reason to suspect anyone was telling the truth so if someone was telling the truth you’d assume it was a lie.   If true statements are treated as false statements, there is a contradiction; so, we must reject lying, because universalizing this behaviour as a law with lead to a contradictory state of affairs.
     The standard objection to this is we can narrow the scope of the universal law.  For example I can say “you should never lie unless you are in the situation x”.  Kant might reply that this might still eventually lead to a contradictory state of affairs.  Hmmm, I’ll have to think about it more.

Hypothetical vs Unconditional Imperatives
     Kant distinguishes between 3 types of imperatives: skill/useful, prudent, and unconditional.  The first 2 are hypothetical.  That is to say they take the form “if x then y”.  They are imperatives that are directed at an end.  An example of the first type might be “if I want to have money, I ought to open many philosophy shops”.  The second hypothetical, “prudent”, is a hypothetical that is aimed at what any rational agent would want by his nature, i.e., happiness.  For example, “if I want happiness I ought to get a job teaching philosophy”.  Finally, the third imperative is unconditional.  For example, “don’t kill.”  The imperative directs us toward an action that is good in itself and not conditional upon an outcome.  Kant says only imperatives of the 3rd kind are binding.
Work for Kant
      Central to all of Kant’s philosophy are the notions of analytic and synthetic.  There are several meanings to these words depending on context but for this context Kant tells us that analytic means the predicate is contained in the subject.  In English that means “what we know about the subject is contained the subject”, or “true by definition”.  To use a war worn example, “All bachelors are unmarried man”.  Contained in the subject “bachelors” is the predicate “are unmarried men”.  A synthetic statement is one where the predicate is not contained in the subject, e.g., “all bachelors like ice cream”.  Nowhere in the concept of the subject “bachelors” is the concept of “like ice cream”.  
     So what does all this technical stuff have to do with the categorical imperative and the moral law?  He wants to say of the first 2 types of imperatives (of hypothetical variety) that it is analytic that any rational person who desires an end also desires the means to that end.  Basically, you can’t rationally want something and not want the means to achieving it.   I’m not sure I agree with this.  I want to be King of the Wooooooooooooooooooooooooorld, but I don’t want to kill all the heads of state (i.e. the means) to accomplish it.  Blood make me woozy.  Maybe I’m misunderstanding him here because this seems like an obvious problem.  But, his categorical imperative doesn’t rely on any of this so maybe it doesn’t matter.
     So what does matter?  Well he goes on to say that the 3rd type of imperatives, those of the unconditionally variety are synthetic.  That is to say, it is not by definition that all rational agents would necessarily act in a certain way.  This is an important and interesting concession by Kant.  Obviously, he has plans for later to prove that all perfectly rational agent would in fact act according to the same moral laws but for the moment he admits this will take some work.  
     I think it could be convincingly argued that a perfectly rational being would act in his self-interest.  But Kant’s done something clever to block this line of argument (if we accept all his premises as true).   Remember that he said a perfectly rational being would never act in such a way that if his/her behaviour were universalized that it would lead to a world with contradiction.  That clever bastard!  I think I just figured out why he put that in there!
Problem For Kant?
     I’m not sure but I think there is a weakness with Kant’s notion that we should ground all morals in the framework of the categorical imperative.  It think in some cases it provides a good guide to action but I think it’s scope is more narrow that Kant anticipates.   
     Here’s a counter example I came up with:  Suppose one wants to know how to best raise their children and can’t decide whether spanking should be employed as a means of discipline.   According to Kant all moral maxims won’t lead to contradictory states of affairs.  A parent can choose either position but no logical contradiction will result so, by Kant’s framework he has nothing to say on the matter.  Nevertheless, I think some people might put forward the argument that spanking children is a moral issue.  I suppose Kant can reply that his theory isn’t designed to handle every moral issue.  But it seems that I could come up with more examples of moral issues than not for which Kant cannot provide guidance.  As I think about it, the area that falls outside of the purview of Kant’s theory has to do with moral decisions that involve value judgments.   

Ok, that only took 2 hours longer than I thought…
It’s 5am and I can’t even see straight anymore…I’ll proof read this later…

5 thoughts on “If You Were Purely Rational, How Would You Behave?

  1. From RD: \”1. Nature is purposive. Applied to us that is to say, all organs and faculties function for a specific purpose.\”Not true. In humans, some body parts only serve a temporary purpose, for example, tonsils and adenoids, which are only necess…ary in the first year of life. Other body parts such as male nipples serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever. The same goes for several different muscles in the human body. I could go on and on with this one.


  2. @roy. you are right. we have many vestigial \”components\” that don't serve any obvious purpose. I suppose Kant could (weakly) argue that at one point in our evolutionary history, these parts did serve a purpose. Nevertheless, I'm going to agree with you on this point. However I'm not sure his main argument is wrong, that to act morally is rational. I think this point is even stronger if we grant that not everyone agrees with Kant's conception of morality. If I subscribed to Duquettian morals, then it would be irrational for me not to act in accordance with them. What Kant needs to show, and he admits this will be difficult, is that a purely rational being will act in accordance with his particular moral law. In this section he doesn't yet present the main argument for that conclusion so, if you can stand the suspense, you'll just have to wait until I read about it and post it!


  3. From Travis Timmerman, re: Is it necessarily rational to do the right thing? Yes. It is. Or, at least, if you act immorally, you are acting irrationally from an objective standpoint.


  4. @Travis: what about situations, in the Kantian framework, where duty to do the right thing conflicts with self-preservation (for example)? I think Kant wants to say that the right is always good but the good isn't always right. Maybe later he will say that self preservation is a duty, or maybe not but either way there's going to be a problem. If self preservation is a duty and we are in a situation where we must disregard self preservation to fulfill another duty, how should we act? What would Reason tell us to do? Which course of action with be \”right\”? Suppose Kant says self preservation isn't a duty, how can disregarding self preservation be considered rational? From my limited knowledge on Kant it seems he has a problem. Any ideas?


  5. Kant has a problem and anyone who thinks that we could have conflicting duties, where duties are not ranked, will have a problem. I would just deny that self-preservation is a duty. Also, I accept moral rationalism for a number of reasons (for one, see http://www.public.asu.edu/~dportmor/Consequentialism_and_Moral_Rationalism.pdf). This means that if we are morally obligated to do X, then we are rationally obligated to do X. And if we are morally obligated to do X and MR is true, then that means all things considered, we ought to do X. If we can ever be morally obligated to sacrifice our life, then we could also be rationally obligated to do so. I don't see anything problematic with that. Consider this example. An evil genius says that he is going to either set off a bomb that will kill everyone in the world, except you or he will just kill you. He then lets you choose which you prefer. I would argue that sentient beings are morally considerable and when acting we must weigh the interests of all sentient beings affected by the action. In this example, it seems obvious that the cumulative total of every sentient beings interest in living outweighs a single individual's interest in living. So the moral, and thus rational, thing to do for the individual is to choose to end his life over ending everyone else's lives.


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