I Like Money, Wanna Hang Out? Kantian Ethics: Acting From Reason vs For Reasons

Preamble I loves me my preambles…
     First a few autobiographical notes: today I wrote my first midterm in 11 years.  I don’t recall being so stressed about exams in undergrad but for some reason I was really worried about this one; maybe it’s just a novelty effect and after a few more exams my reaction will settle down–I hope it will anyway.  I think part of my nervousness came from the fact that the way the exam was set up was a little unfair–that’s my opinion anyway.
     Friday afternoon we were given the ELEVEN possible essay questions of which we were told the professor would pick 3.  It was explicit that it wasn’t going to be a situation where he give 6 options and you chose 3 from the six–nope–there would just be three on the exam and those are the ones you are expected to answer.  I know undergrad was over a decade ago for me but I don’t remember any professor doing anything like that especially with just the weekend to study. 
     Basically we had 3 days to learn enough content to write 11 essays from memory.  I think that’s a bit excessive.  Anyhow, I stayed up Monday studying until 4:30am, took a nap ’til 8 am, got up, drank lots o’ coffee and returned to studying.  When I got to class at 11:30am everyone looked like they were prisoners on the way to their execution.  A couple of people were saying that they expected to fail and would probably end up dropping the course. 
    The professor walks in and says, “I’ve decided to make things a little easier for you”.  I’ve given you all eleven questions and I want you to pick either 2 about Descartes and 1 about Spinoza or vice versa”.  Huge collective sigh of relief.  Anyhow, after my heart stopped pounding so hard from all the caffeine and adrenaline I took a few deep breaths and threw up Descartes and Spinoza all over the page.  In the end I did alright (I think).  Despite all the panic some good has come out of this…if anyone ever asks me about Scholastic, Cartesian or Spinozian metaphysics they’ll get more information than they could ever want (and probably more than they did want).

Why Do We Study Kant?
      Ok, enough with the jibber-jabber lets ask an important question: Why bother studying Kant? Or any moral and ethical philosophy for that matter?  Doesn’t it seem a little strange that people would commit so much time to studying something when all the true answers are right there in the bible?  The obvious question is, if philosophers are so curious about what is right and wrong and how to act, why they don’t they just consult the bible where God has spelled everything out in black and white for everyone to read?  
     The answer is simple.  We do it just for fun.  We like to look at what some of the of the greatest human minds have dedicated their lifetimes to thinking about and point out the ways in which it does not measure up to the clear, unambiguous, logically consistent, intuitively correct divine teachings of sweet sweet baby Jesus and his fah-jah.  So, without further ado, lets entertain ourselves with Kants wacky ideas of morality arising out of our capacity to reason and freewill….

Still Trying to Figure out What We Can Know About Morality From the Concept of Freedom
     We left off with Kant’s hilarious notion that morality is somehow connected to our ability to chose our own course of action (rather than following the perfect 600 or so rules in the bible).  Remember that Kant wants to show that it is a priori true that morality arises out of the concept of a good will; that is to say, that the one concept is contained in the other just as the concept of “unmarried man” is contained in the concept of “bachelor”.   In his last attempt he had to go outside of the concept of the will and appeal to the additional concept of positive freedom in order to derive the concept of morality; but Kant doesn’t want to have to appeal to anything beyond the conceptual boundaries of the will for his proof.  As a further note, recall that for Kant morality is the (hilarious) idea that the motive upon which you act can be willed as a universal law.

Freedom Must Be Presupposed as a Property of the Will of All Rational Beings
      In the previous entry I made we learned that in order to get the concept of morality out of the concept of a good will we need to presuppose the concept of freedom.  We know that if we have freedom, then we can say we have morality; so in order to make the step from a good will to morality we will need to show that the concept of a good will entails the concept of freedom, which in turn entails morality.  In technical terms it looks like Kant is trying to construct what is called a hypothetical syllogism–i.e.,  if A then B, if B then C, so if A then C. 
     The other silly idea that Kant has is that morality is universal.  Why is morality universal?  First, it’s because of Kant’s assumption that the faculty of reason works the same universally (dubious…).  Second is that because morality only applies to beings that are rational–it wouldn’t make much sense to apply morality to irrational beings like spiders and mice–and since morality is derived from freedom, we need to prove that freedom is a property of rational beings.  Also if morality isn’t universal it is less meaningful.  
     In terms of proving that morality is universal we cannot prove it is such by appealing to particular examples; for example I can’t prove the universality of morality by saying, “I’m a rational being, I know I have freewill, so morality applies to me, therefore morality applies to all rational beings”.  In a particular instance, the fact that you are rational might be a wacky quality particular to you.  You can’t prove a general law deductively (a priori) by generalizing from empirical facts; doing so would be inductive reasoning and its conclusions don’t have the same logical force as do deductive arguments.  So again, to show that moral law is universal we need to show that freewill is a necessary  property of being a rational being.
     The first step in Kant’s proof that rational creatures have the property of freedom starts with a naked assertion that so long a rational creature has the idea that he is free in his actions then (somehow) this means that he is actually free.  Lets take a step outside of philosophy for a second and go back to the real world.  For the average Joe, even the above average Joe, the fact that Kant should even have to prove that humans have freewill is just kind of loco; of course we’re free! look I’m going to decide to type an ‘8’…and now a ‘+’….look at me exercising my freewill!  Woohoo!  I don’t feel like there’s anyone in a control tower making me type ‘8’ and ‘+’…but there are many philosopher (and indeed some modern neuroscience) that argue our freedom is an illusion; we think we are free but actually there is measurable neurological activity in the body for a movement before we have “consciously” decided to make the movement.  All that aside, my point is that in the normal world, what Kant is asserting isn’t very loco, but in the philosophy world it’s odd that he just asserts it without backing it up with an argument.
     The next step is to say that every rational being (who by definition also has a will) can only act according to the idea that he can choose his course of action (amongst alternatives).  Again, this doesn’t sound too loco but it is important.  What Kant is getting at is that when we (as rational agents) choose a course of action from amongst alternatives, the selection of the course of action comes from within us, not from some external cause.  If our action is directed by some external cause then our decision to act one way rather than another cannot be attributed to reason.  Ahh!  This is a critical move, because Kant wants to make two crucial distinctions here: action from reason (as a faculty) and action for reasons–i.e., actions from inclination–where inclination is not free action but action from reason is.
     When you act because of inclination–for instance, an action out of instinct, character predisposition, etc..–then you are no longer acting as a free agent.  Your actions arise out of something other than your will (which arises out of reason); that is, they aren’t rational.  You are being caused to act by factors outside of your reason when you act out of fear, or anger, or addiction, or even selfish desires.  As a rational being in order to be free we have to act out of our own (rational) principles, and since all external reasons for action (i.e., I want ice cream, so I go get the ice cream) are, well…external to us, if we act on them we are not acting from reason rather for reasons.
    To summarize this idea, if I am to consider myself as having freedom when I act, the principles according to which I act must come from within me, that is from my will.  If I act on external reason or act out of inclination, that is, I direct my action toward some external goal, then the cause of my action does not come from within, i.e., from the will, so I am not in these cases acting freely.
     This distinction is a little bit tough to grasp so lets look at some examples.  But before I give my examples I’ll just explain how I think about the distinction.  In the case of acting from external causes (for reasons) in these types of actions if you asked yourself “why did you do that?” the answer would be “I did x because I wanted x or wanted to achieve x”.  In actions that arise from reason, if you ask yourself “why did you do that?” the answer would be something like “I did x because that’s what one ought to do”. 
      Simple examples: Case 1.  You see a 100.00 on the ground and no one around so you pick it up.  This was not a free action because if you ask “why did you pick it up?” the answer will be something like, “I picked up the money because I like money…wanna hang out?” So you acted because of something external to you.
     Simple Case 2: You see someone drop 100.00 on the ground and you pick it up and give it to them.  This was a free action (*as I will present it) because if you ask “why did you return the 100.00?” the answer will be “I returned the 100.00 because that’s what one ought to do”.  Notice there is no external end to which your action is directed; it is a restatement of a principle of action.
    Edit:  Ok, after sleeping on it I want to revise my first example.  I don’t think Kant would think you are aren’t free in that case because it’s not a situation to which we apply moral principles.  I think the following set of examples better illustrate what Kant’s trying to say (what I think he means, anyway)
     Case 3: You’re in a hurry to get to work and see an old lady that’s struggling to cross the street.  She reminds you of your own wonderful grandmother; because of this you feel both compassion and nostalgia.  You stop and help her cross the street.  If you ask yourself why you helped her, your answer is, “because she reminded me of my grandmother and I felt compassion for her”.  Basically you acted out of a feeling of compassion.  For Kant this is an external reason so you are not acting from your (internal) will, and this not acting in a moral way; you are acting for a reason (because you feel compassion, have memories of your grandmother), not from reason.  To further illustrate why this is, lets look at case 4.
    Case 4:  Same situation…old lady….reminds you of your grandmother…late for work…etc…This time when you ask yourself why you helped her across the street the answer is “because you ought to assist the elderly”.  In this case your action arose out of a principle that is in no way related to how you feel about the situation.  Here you acted from your internal will because you acted on a rational principle (which are internally generated), that is, you acted from reason, not for a reason.
     So it seems that Kant is saying that since humans are not purely rational (we also have emotional inclinations and irrational preferences) we can sometimes act from our will (internal) and sometime act for external reasons (both external to our to our rational will and external goals).  When we act from the will we are acting from reason, so we are acting as free agents;  when we act for reasons we are not acting as rational agents so we are not free agents.  For now, to conclude lets just say that Kant has shown that so long as we are acting from reason we can say we are free.  I’m not sure I agree with his conclusion but I’ll get into that later.

I’ll proof read this later my eyes are closing and my mind is pulp…


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