Unfinished Business (Sounds like a bad 80s action movie…)
Before I continue with Kant I realised I forgot to make an important point in the previous post. It has to do with Kant’s formulation of the “golden rule” (the categorical imperative–in philoso-speak) versus other past formulations, such as “do unto others as you’d have done unto you”. The obvious question that arises is, why is Kant so great if he’s just repeating what has been around for thousands of years?
There are two main reasons: First, Kant doesn’t just put the idea forward as a naked assertion, he spends a whole book demonstrating, rationally, how he gets to this conclusion. In philosophy, an argument doesn’t stand just because it sounds like a good idea, thereby causing us to stoke our beards in agreement. The truth of any assertion must be demonstrated through arguments–preferably rational and logical. The second reason for which the Kantian formulation is an improvement is that is solves the problems inherent in the more common formulations.
Lets take a look at the typical formulation to uncover the problem. “Do unto others as you would have done unto you”. The problem is there is an implicit assumption that we all want to be treated the same way. For example, suppose I like to be flocked by scantily clad women (just a hypothetical example) so in the spirit of the golden rule I send over a group of scantily clad women to my happily married friend’s house during a family dinner. Chances are he isn’t going to be too pleased with me. Lets try another example, this one real. When I was a competitive wrestler I liked my coach to be really hard on me and demand excellence. Later when I coached wrestling I found not everyone liked being treated that way. When I ran my practice the way I liked to be coached some kids left my class crying and didn’t come back (crybabys!–jk!…lol!). So we can see that the problems with the common formulation of the golden rule are that it implies that everyone likes to be treated the same as us and we should formulate our rules based on what we want.
Now lets look at Kant’s formulation and see how it deals with this problem. “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law”. What Kant’s formulation does is remove the emphasis on what the agent would want in a single act to what would be a good universal law for all. This change forces the agent to think about if his specific action (or principle by which he acts) would be a good universal law for everyone to follow.
Lets look at the wrestling example to see Kant in action. Under the old formulation when I was deliberating on how I wanted to run my class my line of reasoning went something like this, “I like it when my coach is hard on me, so I’m going to apply that method to everyone else”. Conversely, when I apply the Kantian model to the same situation my reasoning goes like this, “What would be a good universal rule governing how I coach, applicable to everyone, knowing that not everyone is the same as me”. I might not be able to come up with something as specific as in the first case but I would probably come up with something like, “the way I coach will be governed by the principle that I will find and use the approach that best produces excellence from each student”. So maybe I don’t end up with a simple obvious rule but who says it should be? The important thing is now whenever I have a coaching methodology decision to make, for guidance I can refer back to my universalized maxim.
So, going back to why Kant is considered so important in the history of ethics we can see that one of the reasons is that he came up with a founding moral principle, or maxim which we can refer back to in all ethical quandaries. Related to this we see that from his formulation we shift the frame of reference from individual desires to universal good; and we can derive other moral principles to govern more specific situations (eg. how to coach a kids’ wrestling class). Finally, he doesn’t just pull this over arching principle from his ass, he spends a book providing arguments for it…which I will address in later posts (when I read them!).