Saturday, January 30, 2010

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

By Observation Deck * Other Observation Desk Posts

As unbelievable as it sounds, I have survived my first semester of 1L year of law school – although barely. Even more unbelievably, I have returned to complete my tri-partide epic about Kant.

As promised, this part is supposed to be about applying Kant’s categorical imperative – but this may be a harder task even than understanding its philosophical underpinnings.

Let’s start with one hypothetical and go from there. I was riding home from work on the subway (some of you may know it as the “metro,” the “tube,” or even the “iron-bellied subterranean beast”) when some old lady gave me a really hard time about not giving up my seat to her. I have nothing against old ladies and the truth was that I didn’t see her. This got me thinking about whether Kant’s categorical imperative required me to give up my seat to this old lady. What immediately occurred to me was how complex an application of the categorical imperative would be in something as simple and mundane as this.

Let’s just start with the first formulation – that we should act “only according to that maxim whereby we can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Seems straightforward, doesn’t it? Not so fast. It seems that we may get conflicting answers depending on how we defined this “maxim.” For example, if I defined the maxim as “we should always yield our seat to someone older than us,” this would seem to require that I give up my seat to the old lady. But could I “universalize” this maxim? What if I were handicapped and there was a fully healthy, non-elderly person who just so happens to be older than me? Would I be required by my maxim to yield my seat to him? Doesn’t this seem a little intuitively strange – to require a handicapped person to yield his seat to a healthy person who happens to be older?

What about if I changed the maxim a little, say something like this – “we should always yield our seat to someone who is weaker than us.” This seems to work – I would be required to yield my seat to the old lady but not if I were handicapped or otherwise weaker than her. But there is still a problem -- what if we tried universalizing this maxim as Kant asks us to do? Wouldn’t everyone on the train be required to give their seat to someone who is weaker than them? So let’s say, I followed the maxim and gave the seat to the old lady, wouldn’t she also have the duty to look for someone else who may be even weaker than she were. If she found such a person and gave him/her her (I would use "that seat" to avoid the her her repetition) seat, wouldn’t that third person be required to look for a person even weaker than him/her? Wouldn’t this sort of degenerate into absurdity if everyone were required to look for a person weaker than them to give their seat to every time they wanted to sit down on the subway? It appears that universalizing this maxim leads to absurd results, something that would, under Kant, make the maxim void as a “universal law” for us to follow.

What about the second formulation – the requirement for us to only act in such a way that we “treat humanity, whether in our 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? Let’s use the same seat-yielding example as above. At first, there doesn’t seem to be any problems. In yielding the seat, I am clearly acting in such as way that treats the old lady as an end in herself and not as a means to an end. Or am I?

Whenever we act, there may be a whole host of reasons, many of which we may not even recognize as reasons, that motivates us. In the example above, I might have acted to yield my seat because I felt guilty when she started asking for the seat. I might have acted because I didn’t want to get disproving stares from other passengers. I might have acted because I wanted to impress the cute girl sitting next to me. Or there may even be some motivation for yielding my seat that I myself am not aware of. If any of these ulterior reasons motivated me to yield my seat, wouldn’t I be using the old lady as a means to an end – to assuage my own guilt, avoid disapproval from other passengers, impress the cute girl, or some other end I desire that has nothing to do with the old lady or the yielding of the seat in themselves. This example isn’t specific to this situation either – nearly every decision I make can be motivated by any number of reasons. Therefore, applying Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative seems to ask us to consider our own thoughts and conform our decisions about when and how to act according to essentially subjective judgments. Yet this goes against the foundational principle of Kant’s categorical imperative – that morality – whether a particular action is justified – is inherently objective and not subjective. Hmmmmm…

That only leaves us with the third formulation. The problem is, I don’t think anyone understands what Kant means when he says that we should “act as if we were through our maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.” I think what Kant is trying to say is that we should try to universalize the action in question and see if this would lead to irrational, impossible, or self-contradicting results. Going once again back to our seating-yielding, I’ve already mentioned above one possible reason why universalizing the maxim may lead to absurd results. Looking at this problem, one might conclude that universalizing the maxim may be impossible and therefore that the maxim is therefore void under the third formulation.

Alternatively, however, one might also conclude that the practical concerns are not actually fatal – for example, we could still imagine a hypothetical system through which it would be very easy to figure out exactly who is weaker than whom and who should yield their seat to whom. Under such a hypothetical system, universalizing the maxim would not lead to impossible results and the maxim would thereby serve as a fine moral law for people to follow. This reveals another difficulty with applying Kant’s categorical imperative to real world decisions – people often differ on what they consider to be “impossible,” “irrational,” “self-contradicting,” or even what are “means” and what are “ends.” Kant’s moral philosophy fundamentally presupposes some singular objective benchmark at which all human beings can arrive through rational thought. The flaw with this assumption is that objective rational thought is often still dependent on subjective concepts or definitions – sure we may all rationally agree that the earth is “round,” but we may differ on what the definition of “round” is.

At the end of the day, I don’t really know how I feel about Kant’s categorical imperative. Part of me has been and will probably always be fascinated by its clarity, its simplicity, and its search for a unifying theory. But part of me also questions its inflexible obsession with absoluteness -- isn’t moral flexibility sometimes useful when circumstances change or arise to which we need to recalibrate our moral beliefs? I guess that’s the hallmark of a good philosophical theory – the fact that it never ceases to provoke more questions, push more boundaries, and demand more of the people that study it.

Oh, and I did not give up my seat to the old lady in the end, because I wanted to universalize this lesson – though duty may be sublime, a sense of entitlement is most definitely not.

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