Monday, March 2, 2009

You Kant Do That on a Blog, Part I of III

By Observation Deck * Other Observation Desk Posts

Caveat emptor: the topic for the post below takes a while to flush out; so accordingly, this post will be the first of a series. If you are not interested in philosophy, feel free to read the other good commentators on this blog.


Josh Lyman: That’s Immanuel Kant. Every year a million freshman philosophy students read that sentence…
Donna Moss: And change their major?
- “Red Mass,” The West Wing

Of all the philosophers I read in college, I think the most enigmatic and the most rewarding would probably have to be Immanuel Kant. I found his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals to be particularly interesting and got almost immediately hooked on his ideas about morality being a categorical imperative. (To read more detail about the Categorical Imperative try here and here.)

If you don’t feel like reading either of these treatises, I don’t blame you. So at the risk of sounding like Teddy Tomba, I’ll very quickly summarize the salient details:

Kant’s moral philosophy is based on the belief that morality is completely detached from beliefs, facts, environments, causes, cost-benefit analyses, utility, and any other inherently conditional or subjective factors. For Kant, true moral action is entirely independent of consequences – the action is moral not because it is the means to a good end, it is good because it IS the end. Morality is that which is required by a free will – a will that is truly free from all external considerations and chooses of its own accord. Therefore, moral action is what the free will demands – it is a duty, an obligation, a commandment – that which Kant called the categorical imperative.

Are you ready to change your major yet? No?

So what is a categorical imperative? Kant is glad you asked.

He defines the categorical imperative as a series of three maxims (all of them are just different ways of saying the same thing):

Maxim 1: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
Translation: Moral actions must be applicable universally for all person in all situations without leading to internal contradictions or rational inconsistencies.

Maxim 2: Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.
Translation: Moral actions must always treat other human beings as ends in themselves and never as a means to an end.

Maxim 3: Act as if you were always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.
Translation: Although seemingly obtuse, I think this is also the most interesting of the three maxims. I believe what Kant is doing with this third maxim is actually closing a potential loophole – what if two people can rationally disagree on whether a particular course of action is moral or not? This would clearly create a huge problem for Kant because it would turn morality into something subjective, something dependent on something else – namely the intuitive belief system of an individual. Since Kant’s whole point is that morality is objective and independent of anything else, this is a major loophole he needs to plug. He does so (and beautifully, in my opinion) by formulating the third maxim to define moral actions as only those that people cannot truly rationally disagree on.

Are you still with me? Are you drooling on the keyboard because you’ve fallen asleep from boredom?

Still here eh? Perhaps whatever you are procrastinating doing is even more horrific than Kant (something pretty Kafka-esque I bet).

Alright, how about some examples? Kant gives a few in Groundwork, including the following two: lying and murder.

Using Kant’s logic, both of these would be immoral. Both cannot be rationally universalized.

If everybody lied, no one would believe anyone else. Would any person ever rational will such an outcome? Clearly not. Lying, therefore, violates the first maxim and is immoral.

Now, let’s look at murder. If everyone murdered, then everyone would kill everyone else. Once again, would any person ever rational will such an outcome? Clearly not. Murder, therefore, violates the first maxim and is immoral.

So far so good. Kant 1, Haters 0.

But not so fast; the haters are not done. What if, they ask, a murderer asks you for the whereabouts for his/her next victim? Is it morally justified to lie to him/her to save the victim (knowing that if you told the murderer, the victim would undoubtedly be dead)?

A real dilemma and one that I’ll tackle in the next episode…You Kant Do That on a Blog, Part II.

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