The Moral Law, God, and Helping Little Old Ladies Across the Street

     “I don’t do that because I have morals“.  Whenever I hear that I want to reply, “Yeah? So do I; and my morality tells me that it is good to strangle people who say stupid things”.  My evidence is purely anecdotal but it seems every time I here this it’s from a theist.  
     Speaking of theists and morality, Kant was a theist and he had a lot (of important things) to say about morality.  So much so that his moral ideas are considered to be if not the most important ever, or at least the most important since Aristotle…depending on who you ask.  Of the things Kant thought about morality, he made it explicit that acting morally is independent of there being a supreme being and/or external god-given law.  Lets take a look see at his argument:
Morality Precludes God: A Kantian Perspective
   Suppose for a moment that the one true god (Zoroaster, of course) actually exists.  To ensure that the sea monkeys that he made (us) act the way he wants us to he writes a law book that is surprisingly clear and concise, and without contradictions.  Because Zoroaster is sooooo perfect, powerful, and wise he writes the book so that no interpretation is required; it is as plain as day what the laws are.  The question we ask now is, if we followed this book perfectly would we be behaving morally?
     For Kant we would not.  Our actions would be in harmony with what is moral, but that is not what makes an action moral or what makes a person a moral agent.  For Kant “morality lies in the relation of actions to the autonomy of the will–that is to a possible making of universal law by means of its maxims”.  Lets unpack that.
     A big part of Kant’s moral philosophy comes from what he calls “the principle of autonomy”.  The basic idea is (1) morality only applies to rational agents; for example, animals don’t participate in morality (with the possible exception of some primates); (2) morality requires not only being a subject of the law but also a creator of the law.  The first premise is pretty self explanatory so lets move to the second.  
     Recall Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative, “act only on that maxim which can at the same time be willed as a universal law”; basically he means if you don’t think that the principle that you’re basing your action on can be made permissible for everyone, then you shouldn’t do it.  What’s important to extract from this principle is that as a moral agent you are not simply following moral laws, but every time you act (in a moral context) you are making laws.  This means that every time you encounter a situation with moral implications you have to determine your course of action as if whatever you do becomes a moral law for everyone.
     The other half of the principle of autonomy is that you are also subject to the law, but you are subject to the law that you created.  Because we play this dual role of creator and subject of the law we maintain dignity and will have reverence for the law. 
     Conversely, if law is derived from without, we are mere subjects; we can only follow the law out of obligation; there is no dignity it following laws imposed from without.  This not to say that sometimes externally imposed laws and internal laws don’t overlap.  Suppose I read in Zoroaster’s (holy) book that I should always help little old ladies across the street.  I see a little old lady and because I am a good Zoroastrian I help her across the street.  Now it just so happens that if I had exercised my autonomy and reflected on what would be a good universal law in regards to little old ladies at crosswalks, I would have acted in exactly the same way.   
     Here we have a situation where I act because of an external law but by coincidence this action is exactly the same as what I would have done if I had applied the Universalization Principle.  For Kant actions derived through external laws are morally permissible (if they just happen to line up with what the universalization principle would have dictated) but don’t have any moral content.  They have no moral content because they were done out of obligation; we can’t call the action “good” in any moral sense.  Kant reserves moral approbation for actions that came about autonomously because in these cases the agent is not just acting on laws but also making the laws that they act on; they are engaging their faculty or reason.
    Lets relate everything back to the original topic of why Kant says that morality cannot come from a god or any external laws.  The first obvious reason is that if it comes from without, then we are not acting from the correct motives; we are acting out of obligation or fear of sanction, not out of a desire to do the right thing.  Think of it this way: it’s the difference between doing something because you are supposed to do it and doing it because it is the right thing.  The difference is subtle but important.  To see why check out Plato’s Euthyphro argument.  
     The second reason for which moral actions can’t come from referring to a god or a book is that in these cases we are merely subjects of the law.  Moral action requires autonomy; morality is just deciding whether to follow some arbitrary law; and that requires we be both creator and subjects of our own laws (if we are to have any dignity as rational creatures).
     I find this whole principle of autonomy very appealing–in theory.  It has a lot of good things going for it but those same things, given different assumptions about humanity, can also work against it.  I like the idea that when considering action, morality involves both rational refection on what is universalizable and our subjecting ourselves to that law.  It’s very democratic, which is a strength but also a weakness.  
     As an Enlightenment writer Kant believed that all humans are all equal in our capacity to reason; not only that but if we apply our faculty of reason we will all come up with the same answers!  He had quite an optimistic view of his fellow human and, though no fault of his own, a poor understanding of the weakness of human psychology (i.e., motivated reasoning, etc..) or at least our (in)ability to overcome it.  
     That Kant was overly optimistic of humanity is one reading but I think another way to read him is as though he is conducting a huge thought experiment.  In several passages he makes it quite apparent that he is well aware of difficulties present in disinterested reasoning.  In fact, in some passages he says that, because it is difficult to ever know whether we have truly reasoned in a disinterested way–let alone the interests involved in another’s reasonings–it is possible that there has never been even a single true moral act.  Be that as it may, Kant is not interested in what people actually do; he is concerned with contemplating how things ought to be; how we should aspire to make moral decisions.
     Democratic ideas are always appealing; especially in areas where everyone thinks their ideas are just as good as anyone else’s.  But I’m not convinced that everyone has the same capacity to reason generally, and specifically not in the moral realm.  For the sake of argument lets grant that everyone has an equal capacity for moral reasoning; it doesn’t follow that we’ll all derive the same conclusions and/or that people are even capable reasoning in a disinterested way.  Also, what about people who spend their life times studying morality?  I.e., the professors in the top schools, the people with the Ph.Ds.  Why should the opinion of Joe Shmo–who hasn’t even read a single article on morality and let alone explain one of the 3 main approaches to ethics–be given equal weight as Peter Singer’s, an ethicist who has dedicated his life to the study of morality?  For Kant the answer is that they’ll both come up with the same answer.  I think even the greatest defender of the Enlightenment would be skeptical of this claim (actually they wouldn’t because that’s one of its founding principles, but just sayin’…).

    At the end of the day we’re sort of forced to chose between two imperfect positions (actually more, but I consider two so I can wrap this up…).  We can give up our autonomy and hope that there’s someone really smart that worked things out for us and codified it into rules we can easily understand and follow; or we can hope that our fellow citizens take moral matters seriously enough to give them the disinterested consideration they require…and come up with maxims similar to our own.  I think people should consult philosophers….

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