Do You Trust People Who Watch Jersey Shore? Kant and the Principle of Autonomy

The Principle of Autonomy

     One of my favorite aspects of Kant’s moral philosophy is the principle of autonomy; however, as with any prima facia appealing idea there are usually problems lurking below the shiny surface.  I think I wrote about the principle of autonomy (PA) in an earlier post but for my own good I’m going to do a quick overview before I look at what I think might be problems.


     The principle of autonomy is the idea we are both the subject and legislator of the moral law.  To hold this lofty position anytime we act in a moral context, to determine how we should act we must do two things: (1) ax ourselves, “would I want the principle upon which I am acting to be a universal law of action?”, that is to say, would it be a good thing if er’body did what I am about to do; and (2) we must treat er’body as an autonomous entity with its own ends (goals) which have equal value to our own.  Of course there are some constraints on what ends people can pursue (they are controlled by (1)) but the point is I can’t treat people as means to my own ends, unless I give them full information about my ends and they consent to the terms and conditions of helping me achieve my end.
     So what does this all have to do with autonomy?  Well, according to Kant if people consider their actions in accordance with (1) and (2) they will be acting out of reason and it is only when you act out of reason that you are free.  A major assumption that Kant makes is that if we all ax ourselves (1) and (2) before we act er’body will always get the same answer.  Because we all get the same answer it means that we have discovered a moral maxim to which er’body will agree to submit and so you too must submit to it.  We are all both legislators and subjects of the laws that arise out of the application of reason to (1) and (2). 
     Example:  Suppose I want to borrow money but I know I won’t be able to pay it back.  To determine if I should do this I first apply (1).  Hmm…would it be a happy world if er’body did what I was going to do?  Well, no.  First of all the guy you borrowed the $ from won’t be jiggy with it and will prolly not lend any cheese to the next guy.  After enough people stop paying back loans, people will stop lending $…sound familiar?  So, (1) tells us we shouldn’t do it because the financial system will collapse if do and nobody elx will be able to borrow money after us…including us.  So, not that it’s really necessary at this point, but we also run our action though (2).  This time we discover that we can’t do it because we are treating the lender as a means to an end that he doesn’t share if he had full information.  I am tricking him into achieving my ends by lying about my intent to repay and I am frustrating his own ends of trying to make a living by lending $.  So, running our action through both (1) and (2) give us the same answer but for different reasons.  
     So what about the part where we are both subject and legislator?  Well, I’m the legislator in that I wrote the law that I ought not to trick the lender into lending me $.  It came from me! me! me! and I’m the subject because I have to follow whatever verdict gets spit out of the (1) and (2) formulations. 

Concerns with The PA
     Ironically, my main concern with the PA is the same thing that I like about it; that morality is something that can be grasped through internal rational reflection rather than something that is imposed on us as a set of alien rules.  So, what’s not to like about empowering every person to reflect on their moral decisions?
     There are several huge assumptions that Kant is making in his system: (A) that everybody has an equal capacity to reason; (B) that reason is universal–that is, it functions the same in everyone’s pointy head; (C) that (1) and (2) are the correct principles upon which to apply our reason and by extension found morality; (D) that (1) and (2) will never lead to mutually exclusive results; (E) that (1) and (2) can always give us a clear answer.  There are probably more problems, but I’ll stop there and, because I’m feeling so gracious (and I don’t feel like writing a 20 page entry) I’m going to grant Kant (C), (D), and (E).
     Let’s get out our lasers, let set our tasers and point them at Kant’s idea that the faculty of reason is universal.  You know what, I’m feeling even more generous than I thought.  I’m even going to grant him that er’body has the potential to reason equally and that it functions the same for er’body.  I think there still is a problem.  
     Even if I grant Kant all these assumptions, I’m still not convinced we’ll all derive the same moral maxims because the ability to reason requires development.  As it is with any other capacity, even as basic as walking and drinking out of a cup,–or perhaps a better analogy–language, just because we have a capacity for something does not mean that er’body develops it or that they develop it equally or at equal rates.  I see no reason why this shouldn’t also apply to the capacity to reason: anybody who has taught math or logic can attest to this.

    Here’s the prolum: call me an elitist, but I just don’t trust a lot of people’s reason to be up to the task of determining right and wrong for themselves, much less as the “head of the Kingdom of Ends”.  Now of course I could do it; but the Jersey Shore-watching masses…heck no! (I kid! I kid!…mmm….maybe not…)  And this illuminates another related problem; er’body thinks they’re an expert on moral matters.       

     Think about it.  How often do you meet someone who says, “Oh! I have no idea what’s wrong or right, I just ask my friends who study philosophy what to do because they know way more about this sort of stuff than I do”.  No.  You never hear that.  Er’body thinks they’re a world expert and contrary to what Kant would expect, there are differences of opinions, and most people are more than happy to let you know what those opinions are (ahem, I’m allowed to do it but they aren’t).  Kant could reply, well they’re getting different answers because they aren’t applying (1) and (2), and I suppose he’d be right.  But I’m still not convinced that er’body would come up with the same answers if they did apply (1) and (2) because just as people learn and exercise reason at different rates and abilities in learning maph, I suspect the same is true in learning moral reasoning.

     I guess Kant could also give a complex reply that (1) and (2) commit us to a society in which people are provided with the means to develop their moral reasoning.  In a way he actually does…it can be interpreted as built into (1).  How does that work?  Well, (1) commits us to actions that we want to universalize and it seems rational that we would want to universalize the principle that “people should be provided with the means to develop their rational capacities” (i.e., free/subsidized public education). 

     I guess the moral of the story is garbage in garbage out.  If you start out with a group of people with under-developed reasoning abilities you get crappy legislation but if you start out with philosophers you get nothin’ but gold!
     Anyhow, that’s enough writing for one night.  I actually did this ‘cuz I’m trying to develop a term paper topic and wanted to see if this would be fruitful.  I’m not sure it was sufficiently so.  I have a few more ideas which I’ll try tomorrow.

G’nite y’all!

4 thoughts on “Do You Trust People Who Watch Jersey Shore? Kant and the Principle of Autonomy

  1. Even if everyone had reason to the same degree, although we all may have an internal \”moral law\”, there are many variables that affect our behavior– that will have us do the exact thing that is against our own idealistic morals. You can take any reasonable, moral person and put them in the right environment, and you might be surprised what they turn out to doing. This goes for e'rbody.


  2. @Nima. Your concerns are exactly what Kant's moral philosophy attempts to address through (1) and (2). The reason why Kant thinks we should apply (1) and (2) is precisely because it removes our moral decision from the perspective of personal preference and egocentric goals to that of universality and respect for all of humanity and ends in themselves. Of course there are alternative moral systems/principles besides (1) and (2) to which we could apply reason and come up with different courses of action but Kant's argument is that (1) and (2) are the correct principles to which we should apply our reason and if er'body applied reasoned through these 2 principles they'd come up with the same answer. Think of a moral system as a computer program: the software is a bunch of algorithms (moral principles # 1 and #2). You plug in the the inputs, i.e., should I do action 'x', and the program will always spit out the same outputs regardless of what computer you are running the program on. My criticism of Kant is that I'm not convinced that all \”computers\” (i.e. humans) function equally well or the same. I think they will get different answers, not because the program is inconsistent or problematic (that's a separate issue) but that human hardware isn't standardized/we run different operating systems…or some sort of analogy like that. I should have made this more explicit in my original post. I hope I've correctly understood what you meant.


  3. More more thing I should add is that, obviously there are situations where our personal interests conflict with what (1) and (2) tell us to do; this is precisely the difference between acting according to moral duty and personal interest. You might argue that Kant's system is all fine and dandy for telling us what the morally correct thing to do is but it does little to inform us/compel us why someone would/should do the right thing rather than act in their personal interest. The Kant's basic answer to this challenge (simple version) is that if you act contrary to a decision that was arrived at through reason you are by definition acting irrationally; and by acting irrationally you are acting as an unfree agent…and that would suck.


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