Summary of Kant’s Ethics

Kant’s Deontological Ethics 

(You can find my even briefer summary of Kant’s ethics here. However, what follows is probably the minimum you need to have a basic understanding of Kant’s ethics.)

1. Kant and Hume

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), called by many the greatest of modern philosophers, was the preeminent defender of deontological (duty) ethics. He lived such an austere and regimented life that the people of his town were reported to have set their clocks by the punctuality of his walks. He rose at 4 a.m., studied, taught, read, and wrote the rest of the day. He was an accomplished astronomer, mathematician, metaphysician, one of the most celebrated epistemologists and ethicists of all time. Moreover, many consider him to be the crowning figure of the Enlightenment, which celebrated the idea that human reason was sufficient to understand, interpret, and restructure the world. The motto of this great rationalist was “dare to think.”

To understand Kant, we might briefly consider his immediate predecessor David Hume (1711-1776). Hume had awakened Kant “from his dogmatic slumber,” forcing Kant to reconsider his former beliefs.  Hume’s skepticism had challenged everything for which the Enlightenment stood; he was, perhaps, the most consistent skeptic the Western world had yet produced. He argued that Christianity was nonsense, that science was uncertain, that the source of sense experience was unknown, and that ethics was subjective.

Hume believed that moral judgments express our sentiments or feelings and that morality was based upon an innate sympathy we have for our fellow human beings. If humans possess the proper sentiments, they were moral; if they lack such sympathies, they were immoral. Thus, Hume continued the attack on authority and tradition—an attack characteristic of the Enlightenment—but without the Enlightenment’s faith in reason. In particular, he criticized the view that morality was based on reason which, according to Hume, can tell us about facts, but never tell us about values. In short, reason is practical; it determines the means to some end. But ends come from desires and sentiments, not from reason. Hume made these points in a few famous passages: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions…[Thus]…Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”

Hume’s skepticism stunned Kant. What of the Enlightenment’s faith in reason? If desire preceded reason and desires aren’t rational, then Enlightenment rationalism was dead. How then can we reestablish faith in reason? How can we show that some passions and inclinations are rational? In his monumental work, The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant attempted to elucidate the rational foundations of both the natural and mathematical sciences, defending reason against Hume’s onslaught. He then turned his attention to establishing a foundation for ethics in The Critique of Practical Reason. If morality were subjective, as Hume thought, then the concept of an objective moral law was a myth. In essence, Kant needed to answer Hume’s subjectivism and irrationalism by demonstrating the rational foundations of the moral law.

2. Freedom and Rationality 

Kant’s philosophy is enormously complex and obscure. Yet, Kant’s basic ideas are surprisingly simple. His main presupposition was his belief in human freedom. While the natural world operates according to laws of cause and effect, he argued, the moral world operates according to self-imposed “laws of freedom.” We may reconstruct one of his arguments for freedom as follows:

  1. Without freedom, morality is not possible.
  2. Morality exists, thus
  3. Freedom exists.

The first premise states that determinism undermines morality. The second premise Kant took as self-evident, and the conclusion follows logically from the premises. But where does human freedom come from? Kant believed that freedom comes from rationality, and he advanced roughly the following argument to support this claim:

  1. Without reason, we would be slaves to our passions
  2. If we were slaves to our passions, we would not be free; thus
  3. Without reason, we would not be free.

Together, we now have the basis upon which to cement the connection between reason and morality.

  1. Without reason, there is no freedom
  2. Without freedom, there is no morality, thus
  3. Without reason, there is no morality.

Kant believed moral obligation derived from our free, rational nature. But how should we exercise our freedom? What should we choose to do? 

3. Intention, Duty, and Consequences 

Kant began his most famous work in moral philosophy with these famous lines: “Nothing in the world—indeed nothing even beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will.” For Kant, a good will freely conformed itself and its desires to the moral law. That is its duty! Nevertheless, the moral law does not force itself upon us, we must freely choose to obey it. For Kant, the intention to conform our free will to the moral law, and thereby do our duty, is the essence of morality.

The emphasis on the agent’s intention brings to light another salient issue in Kant’s ethics. So long as the intention of an action is to abide by the moral law, then the consequences are irrelevant. For instance, if you try valiantly to save someone from a burning building but are unsuccessful, no one holds you responsible for your failure. Why? Because your intention was good. The reverse is also true. If I intend to harm you, but inadvertently help you, I am still morally culpable. Kant gave his own example to dramatize the role intention played in morality. Imagine shopkeepers who would cheat their customers given the opportunity, but who do not only because would be bad for business. In other words, the shopkeepers do the right thing only because the consequences of doing so are good. If they could cheat their customers without any repercussions, they would do so. According to Kant, these shopkeepers are not moral. On the other hand, shopkeepers who give the correct change out of a sense of duty are moral.

The emphasis on the agent’s intention captures another important idea in deontology, the emphasis on the right over good. Right actions are done in accordance with duty; they do not promote values like happiness or the common good. Kant makes it clear that dutiful conduct does not necessarily make us happy. In fact, it often makes us unhappy! We should do the right thing because it is our duty, not because it makes us happy. If we want to be happy, he says, we should follow our instincts, since instinct is a better guide to happiness than reason.

But morality cannot rest upon passions. If it did, morality would be both subjective and relative. For ethics to be objective, absolute, and precise—to be like the sciences—it needs to be based upon reason. Only the appeal to the objectivity of reason allows us to escape the subjectivity of the passions. In summary, a good will intends to do its duty and follows the moral law without consideration of the consequences.

4. Hypothetical Imperatives

But what exactly does reason command? We have already seen how reason commands actions given antecedent desires. If we want a new car, then reason tells us the various means to achieve this end. We can save or borrow the money, pray, enter a raffle, call our mother, or steal a car. But whatever we do, reason only tells us how to pursue the end; it does not tell us which ends are worth pursuing. Commands or imperatives of this sort, Kant called hypothetical imperatives, since they depend upon some desires or interests that we happen, hypothetically, to have.

Kant distinguished between two types of hypothetical imperatives. The type we have been discussing so far, what he called “rules of skill,” demand a definite means to a contingent (dependent) end.  There are also what  Kant called “counsels of prudence,” which are contingent means to a definite end. Kant recognized that happiness was a common end or universal goal for all individuals, but that the means to this end was uncertain. For example, we may think that getting a new car or losing weight will make us happy, but when we get the new car or figure we may still be unhappy. Even though the end is definite, the means to the end are not. Thus, there are no universal hypothetical imperatives because either the ends are contingent or the means to the end are uncertain.

5. The Categorical Imperative

Does reason command anything absolutely? In other words, does reason issue any imperatives which do not depend upon contingent ends or un-certain means? Hume had claimed that reason did not command in this way and that any rational commands depend upon our passions. But if absolute commands exist—commands independent of personal taste—then the essence of the moral law is revealed.

If we think about any law—say temporal relativity—we recognize immediately that law is characterized by its universal applicability. So that, if relativity theory is true, then time is relative to motion everywhere through-out the universe. Similarly, the distributive law of mathematics applies no matter what numbers we insert into it or what planet we are on. Mundane physical laws are similar. Suppose we are asked about the post-operative effects of aspirin. We do not know about the anti-clotting effects of aspirin and believe it should be given after operations. In this example, it seems clear that the truth of the matter does not depend upon us; it depends upon laws governing how human bodies respond to aspirin. Kant believed that the moral law was like this. If there really is a reason why killing innocent people is wrong, then the reason applies universally. It doesn’t matter that we want, desire, or like to kill innocent persons; we violate the moral law by doing so.

Of course, we can say that killing innocent people does not violate the moral law just as we can say that time is not relative to motion, that the distributive law works only on Monday, or that aspirin should only be given after operations. But our statements do not affect these laws; rather, the laws determine the truth of our statements. Kant held that a universally applicable moral law governs human behavior and can be discovered by human reason.

Kant had seized upon the idea of universalization as the key to the moral law. He called the first and most famous formulation of the moral law the categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” A maxim is a subjective principle of action which reveals our intention. To universalize a maxim is simply to ask, “what if everybody did this?”  We should act according to a principle which we can universalize with consistency or without inconsistency.  By testing the principle of our actions in this way, we determine if they are moral. If we can universalize our actions without any inconsistency, then they are moral; if we cannot do so, they are immoral.

Kant actually advanced five formulations of the categorical imperative. Another famous formulation was: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never merely as a means.” This formulation introduces us to the idea of respect for persons. Individuals are not a means to an end; we should not use people. Instead, they are ends in themselves with their own goals and purposes. Whether we use ourself or others, we violate the imperative if we treat any human being without dignity and respect. Certainly, it is true that we all use people to an extent. We use physicians, teachers, nurses, and auto mechanics to get what we want. But there is a difference between paying persons for services and using them merely as a means to your end. In the latter case, we disregard their inherent worth.

6. Perfect and Imperfect Duties

The categorical imperative commands actions in two different ways. It specifically forbids or requires certain actions, and it commands that certain general goals be pursued. The former are called perfect duties, the latter imperfect duties. Perfect duties include: do not lie, do not kill innocent persons, and do not use people. We should never perform these actions! Imperfect duties include: helping others, developing our talents, and treating others with respect. These duties are absolute, but the way we satisfy them varies. There is flexibility in how we help others, treat them with respect, or develop our talents. When we universalize a maxim that violates a perfect duty, we will an inconsistent world. When we universalize a maxim that violates an imperfect duty, we will an unpleasant world.

7. Kant’s Examples

Kant provided four examples—making false promises, committing suicide, developing our talents, and helping others—to demonstrate how the categorical imperative governs human conduct. Consider Kant’s first example, making a false promise. Can we consistently will the principle, “whenever in need of money make a false promise to get it?” We cannot, since a world where everyone acts according to this maxim would be inconsistent. This is easy to demonstrate. In such a world: 1) false promises would be useful because there would be persons to believe them; and 2) false promises would not be useful because, in a short time, nobody would believe them. Such a world is not even possible. On the one hand, it would contain the necessary preconditions for false promises to be successful—people to believe our lies—and, on the other hand, the normal and predictable result of universal false promising would be that no lies would be believed. So it is not just that this world is unpleasant; it is logically impossible!

Consider Kant’s second example. Imagine that we are depressed and contemplate suicide. Our principle of action is “whenever we are depressed we will commit suicide.” Now try to universalize a world in which everyone does this. What would it be like? In such a world: 1) people would exist to commit suicide; and 2) people would not exist to commit the suicides they intend. Such a world is not logically possible. On the one hand, it would contain the necessary preconditions of suicide—live people to commit the act—and, on the other hand, the normal and predictable result of universal suicide would be that everyone would be dead. It is easy to think of other examples. Worlds, where everyone were killers or bank robbers, would be logically impossible in the same way. Kant had demonstrated, at least to his own satisfaction, that these actions were both immoral and irrational!

If we consider the same two actions—making false promises and suicide—in terms of the second formulation of the categorical imperative, we discover that they violate it as well. If we make a false promise to someone, then we use that person as a means to our end. Analogously, if we commit suicide, then we use ourself to achieve some end. When universalization of a maxim is inconsistent or when we use ourself or others, we violate perfect duties. Kant believed that telling the truth and not committing suicide exemplify perfect duties. There are no exceptions to them.

Kant believed we have a moral obligation to develop our talents, which was his third example. Suppose we are comfortable and prefer to indulge ourselves rather than develop our talents. We act according to this maxim: “since we are reasonably well-off, we won’t develop our talents.” Upon reflection, we recognize that failure to develop our talents violates a duty and could not be universalized consistently. For if everyone failed to develop their natural talents, they would not fulfill the purpose for which those talents exist.

Furthermore, he might have added, nothing useful would be accomplished in human society without the development of talent. Yet, Kant never claimed such a world was impossible, unimaginable, or logically inconsistent. Rather, rational persons cannot will this maxim to be a universal law without disastrous and unpleasant results.

Similarly, we have a moral obligation to help others, Kant’s fourth example. Suppose we are prosperous and care little for others. We violate a duty by not helping others, and we cannot universalize the maxim. For we may need the benefit of others in the future. Again, Kant did not say this world was impossible, but he did not think any rational person desired such a world.

If we consider the same two actions—developing our talents and helping others—in terms of the second formulation of the categorical imperative, we discover similar difficulties. When universalization of a maxim has disastrous results or when we fail to treat ourselves and others as ends, we violate imperfect duties. Therefore, developing our talents and helping others are imperfect duties. They are absolute duties, but the specific means by which we satisfy these duties are open.

We may say that the categorical imperative is the formal representation of the moral law to the human mind. It commands human conduct independent of context. Compare the categorical imperative, as an abstract formulation of the moral law, to the distributive law in mathematics. This law states: a(b+c) = ab + ac. As stated, the principle is merely formal and without content. We give it content by putting numbers into the equation. The categorical imperative functions similarly in the moral domain. There, we place the maxim that operates in the moral context (situation) into the formulation to determine what to do. When we want to steal a library book or trash the sidewalk we ask, “what if everybody did this?” Recognizing the negative implications of our maxim, we see how it violates the categorical imperative. Theoretically, we may place any principle into the formulation to determine its morality. Those who do not test their maxim in this manner, turn away from the moral law.

8. Contemporary Applications

Let us consider a contemporary application of deontology to medical ethics. The emphasis on truth-telling precludes lying by health-care professionals to their patients or research subjects. Imperfect duties such as beneficence are straightforward, but how we help others is vague. The permissibility of euthanasia is also problematic. On the one hand, we may be able to universalize some forms of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, but, on the other hand, suicide is unequivocally forbidden. Thus, the permissibility of euthanasia depends in large part on how suicide is interpreted. The respect for persons notion is equally vague since it is not clear what it entails. Again, we are prohibited from treating ourselves or others as means, yet we should respect our’s and others’ autonomy.

9. Problems with Universalization

Despite its initial plausibility, universalization is problematic. For one thing, it is easy to universalize immoral maxims. Suppose we act according to the maxim, “Catholics should be exterminated.” There is no problem universalizing this maxim, in fact, we hope it does become universal if we really hate Catholics. The maxim “always kill Catholics,” just like the maxim “never kill Catholics,” can be universalized without contradiction by consistent Catholic-haters. Therefore, the test for universalization cannot discriminate between the two actions. We can also universalize a non-moral action like, “whenever we are alone, we sing.” We may universalize this without contradiction, but that does not mean it is moral.

It is also easy enough to think of non-moral and supposedly moral maxims which cannot
be universalized. We cannot universalize maxims like, “whenever hungry, go to Sue’s diner,” or “whenever we want to go to school, go to our school.” It is not possible for
everyone to go Sue’s diner or our school. More significantly, many moral actions cannot be universalize. We cannot universalize the maxim, “sell all you have and follow the Lord.” If everyone is selling, no one is buying!  We cannot even universalize a simple maxim like, “put other people first,” since everyone cannot be last! (The so-called altruist’s dilemma.)   So the test for universalization does not seem to adequately distinguish moral from immoral actions.

This brings to light a related difficulty. What maxim must we test for universalization? Maxims vary according to their generality or specificity. Kant tested very general maxims for universalization. “We cannot lie to achieve an end.” Suppose we made the maxim more specific. “We cannot lie except to save innocent people from murder.” This maxim is universalizable and spares us from telling the truth to inquiring murderers who ask the whereabouts of their intended victims. We could make the maxim even more specific. “We cannot lie except to save innocent people from murder and to spare people’s feelings.”

The problem is that as maxims become more specific, more questionable maxims become capable of consistent universalization. Eventually, we would be testing very specific maxims. Suppose a bald, bearded, philosopher professor, Horatio Rumpelstiltskin, was about to steal a book from the college library on Thursday at noon. He would discover, upon careful examination, that he could universalize a world where all so named and described individuals stole books at precisely that time. If maxims become too specific, universalization has no meaning. Thus, maxims must have some generality to be properly tested.

Now suppose I test the following maxim. “We cannot lie except to achieve our ends.” This maxim is sufficiently general to be universalized, but not sufficiently specific to rule out immoral actions. And the problem is not ameliorated by turning to the second formulation of the imperative. Does respect for persons tell us anything about whether we should universalize general or specific maxims? Should I always respect persons or always respect them except in certain situations? It appears that universalization is not as simple as it initially appeared.

10. General Difficulties

Kant claimed that duties are absolute. If duties are absolute, then what about conflicts between duties? Kant states that perfect duties supersede imperfect ones, and thus the duty not to lie precedes the duty to help others. If this is so, it follows that we must tell the truth to inquiring murderers. But this presented great difficulties for Kant. Surely duties have exceptions and perfect duties are not sacrosanct. Kant might have avoided this difficulty, as we have seen, by advocating that we universalize maxims with exceptions. A maxim like, “never lie except to inquiring murderers,” is not problematic.

Along these lines, the twentieth-century philosopher W.D. Ross argued that no duties were absolute. Ross, who taught at Oxford for nearly fifty years and was one of the world’s great Aristotelian and Kantian scholars, tried to modify Kant’s theory to account for conflict of duty cases. according to Ross, we have prima facie—at first glance—duties, but they are conditional. Our actual duties—at second glance, you might say—depend upon the situation. In conflict of duty cases, we carefully weigh our duties and then proceed to do the best we can. The problem is whether Ross’ conception of duties is too subjective and situational since individuals decide which duties apply in given situations. The main problem with Ross’ version of deontology is its emphasis on subjects and situations, an emphasis Kant wanted to avoid.

Another problem with Kant’s system is that it is so formal and abstract it hardly motivates us. Even if Kant could prove that ethics were completely rational, wouldn’t this take something away from the importance of moral choice? Isn’t ethics too messy and imprecise for the formality, precision, and logic of Kant’s system? Aristotle said that ethics could never be so precise. Maybe Kant demanded too much precision from his ethics?

Another general difficulty is Kant’s rejection of the importance of consequences. According to Kant, if we do our duty we are absolved of all responsibility for the consequences of our action. He defends this view in part because he believes we can never know the consequences with certainty. This is true to an extent, but this view rests upon very pessimistic assumptions about our knowledge of the consequences of our actions. If for no apparent reason we tell our friend she looks positively awful and disgusting, we can be pretty sure she will feel bad about this. We are hardly absolved by our claim that we were not sure she would feel bad. Sometimes we can be reasonably sure of the consequences, in which case duty may not be important. Much trouble has been caused by people who were simply “doing their duty.”

11. Kant’s Fundamental Idea

Despite the nuances connected with the idea of universalization, there is a core idea at the heart of Kant’s theory which is his lasting legacy. We have all been reprimanded by someone saying “how would you like someone to do that to you?” This is Kant’s fundamental idea. If there is a reason why you don’t want people to do something to you, then that same reason applies to what you want to do to others. It gives you a reason not to treat others in a way that you do not want to be treated. And, if you ignore that reason, you are acting irrationally. This is the kind of rational constraint Kant believed imposed itself upon our conduct. Of course, we have all experienced people who believe that the rules that apply to us do not apply to them, and, if they are bigger or more powerful than we are there is not much we can do. They might say to us, “You help me move on Saturday, but I won’t help you move next week.” We feel that they are doing something unfair and inconsistent, whether or not they recognize it. That is Kant’s fundamental idea. A reason for one is a reason for all.

A purely rational morality is a fascinating idea. Whether moral judgments might be truths of reason depends upon our understanding of concepts like rationality, interests, and individuality. In a strong conception of rationality, others’ interests give us a reason to act. In a weak conception, others’ interests do not give us a reason. If we think other people should respect our interests, so the argument goes, then we should respect theirs. But when we say others should respect our interests does that mean: 1) we want them to respect our interests; or 2) they have a reason to respect our interests. Kant and his contemporary followers argue for “2,” while other philosophers argue for “1.” Clearly, we want others to act in our interest, but it is not clear our interests give others a reason to act.

A conception of individualism is also relevant. If we have a strong conception of individuality—one in which individuals are radically separate—it is hard to see how the other’s desires/interests/wants give us a reason to do anything. On the other hand, if we have a weak conception of individuality —one in which all individuals are intimately connected—it is easy to see how the other’s interests give us reason to act. Maybe the rise of individualism lessens our sense of obligation toward others, or maybe communalism lessens our sense of obligation toward ourselves. Whatever our conclusions, the conceptions of rationality, interests, and individuality play a significant role in determining whether Kant’s primary idea is convincing for us.

Again Kant’s basic idea is reason grounds morality. Essentially, if there really is a reason why we should not commit immoral acts, then that reason applies to all of us. If there really is a reason to treat people with dignity and respect, or not to lie to or cheat them, then this reason applies to all of us whether we want it to or not. To say there are universal moral reasons ultimately confirms our belief in the intelligibility of reality. And, if the moral universe is unintelligible, nothing matters.

12. Conclusion

Despite all the positive contributions of Kant’s moral thought, one final difficulty plagues the theory. Kant argued that the good life is a life of duty and that other lives are not worthwhile. But there have been many decent and happy lives that were not motivated by duty. Consider also persons who live from a sense of duty, but who are miserable and unhappy. They live without love, compassion, pleasure, beauty, or intellectual stimulation. Are such individuals moral exemplars? True, many live decadent lives in exclusive pursuit of pleasure or happiness while dismissing moral virtue. But Kant’s ethics suffer from its emphasis on duty and virtue while neglecting happiness and pleasure. And if a philosophy stresses duty over happiness, then why should we do our duty? Duty may be part of morality, but so is happiness. In response, others would create a moral theory which emphasizes the good over the right, happiness over duty. That theory is utilitarianism.

(You can find an even briefer summary of Kant’s ethics here.)

Review of Aaron James’ “Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump”

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

If you are interested in knowing about assholes, Aaron James is your man. In the rather new and thin study of asshology, James has emerged as the leading voice. His Assholes: A Theory was a New York Times bestseller in 2012Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump is his more recent sequel …

The book does not aim to convince people that Trump is an asshole. James is rightfully confident that we can accept that as a starting point. His goal in this book is merely to describe what kind of an asshole Trump is and to consider whether an asshole like Trump should be disqualified from the office of the presidency. The book does a fair job of fulfilling those two goals. However, the main fault of the book is that it only tacitly — not clearly and consciously—recognizes that asshology alone does not provide adequate tools for analyzing the unfittness of Trump to be the president. More on that later.

In addition, however, even if one just wants to consider how far the tools of asshology can get us in political analysis of Trump or Trumpism, it fails to clearly enough consider a whole host of important questions related to the election and support of such an asshole. For example, what were the cultural and structural conditions that lead not only to Trump emerging as an asshole but also to the citizens of the United States deciding that it was OK to vote this asshole into office? What might we do not only about the asshole President but also about the assholes who support him? In fact, while James mentions that some cultures might be more likely to produce assholes than others, he largely leaves aside the analysis of what in the United States has led to the support for an asshole of major proportions—a kind of Ueber-asshole or super-asshole like Trump.

James begins with a characterization of the asshole: “The asshole is the guy (they are mainly men) who systematically allows himself advantages in social relationships out of an entrenched (and mistaken) sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people” (p. 4). The asshole differs from a jerk because he has a greater sense of entitlement. His rudeness is more deeply entrenched. He is more insidious than an ass-clown, who acts more from a sense of pleasing or gaining the approval of the crowd.

Though assholes can also be ass-clowns, not all ass clowns are assholes. The ass-clown per ass-clown lacks the greater seriousness of the asshole. That is not to say that some ass-clowns cannot also be assholes. Donald Trump is in James’ view, a case in point. His ass clownness allows him to appeal to many, to benefit from the media spectacle. But he is clearly more than an ass-clown, even if his assholeness is combined with ass clownery more than we find with many well-known straightforward assholes like Ted Cruz, Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich, perhaps the father of assholes in contemporary U.S. politics. We, of course, know such assholes when we see them—and miss in them the entertainment quality we find in an asshole like Trump who is also an ass clown. James differentiates such assholes—and ass clowns—from psychopathic autocrats like Stalin or Hitler.

Though James notes Trump is an ass-clown and asshole, he eventually suggests that the problem with Trump is that he is not merely an asshole. The greater concern with him is that he has autocratic tendencies. James is surely right about that. The problem is that he does not acknowledge it squarely enough. His analysis at one point simply moves beyond his said topic. It’s at this point that he should have clearly acknowledged the relative impotency of any analysis of Trump from the perspective of asshology. Trump is an asshole—sure. But to know why he is unsuitable to be president, we have to move on to another kind of analysis.

It is not the fact that Donald Trump is an asshole or even any particular kind of asshole that makes him unsuitable for Presidency. It’s that he is so much more than an asshole, even if he is not (yet) the kind of autocrat of a Stalin or Hitler. In fact, assholes, even people who are assholes in a way somewhat similar to Trump, can be pretty good presidents. Bill Clinton was an asshole, who cheated on his wife regularly, lied to her and the nation on numerous matters, but was a pretty good president. He still had some sense of what the job required, had self-control in important ways, and had a commitment to some ideals beyond himself.

Trump isn’t unsuitable for being the president because he’s an asshole. He’s unsuitable to be the president, as James’ analysis itself goes on to suggest, because he undermines democratic principles and constitutional norms, because he cares too little about the well-being of many Americans and focuses on what is advantageous for a very small number of Americans, because he is neither curious about the world around him, nor informed about it. A study of asshology does not provide the resources for handling any of these issues well enough.

In the book, James argues that Trump is not only a particular kind of asshole but that he is a particular kind of bullshitter. But I believe his analysis of Trump as a bullshitter also misses the mark. Trump is not a liar or a conman, he argues, because a liar and conman knows that he is lying (p. 38). A bullshitter, by contrast, just doesn’t care about the truth (p. 31). Yet, what is missing from this is that a bullshitter also is often just shooting the shit. He isn’t really doing what he’s doing to gain a lot of concrete results in the world or in politics. As Harry Frankfurt says when describing one such bullshitting orator, he “intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself” (qtd. p. 32). It’s not that Trump does not do this, and does not disregard the truth. It’s just that he does so much more. Through what he is doing, he isn’t just shooting the shit and getting people to view him a certain way. He is ultimately aiming at lowering taxes, eliminating environmental policy, appointing certain supreme court justices. Bullshitters are not folks who pick your pocket after gaining your trust. Conmen are. Just as asshology fails to supply the right tools for an analysis of Trump, so does bullshitology. It’s not that Trump isn’t a bullshitter. It’s just that he’s so much more than a bullshitter that labeling him a bullshitter obfuscates more than it clarifies.

James does go on to evaluate Trump’s inadequacy for the presidency by highlighting some of these issues that move beyond asshology or bullshitology. But he does so without a clarity of purpose. He does so without clearly enough noticing that he is doing it.

In those sections of the book, he notes Trump’s authoritarian tendencies (pp. 48 ff.). He notes “Being an asshole, per se, might not even be [Trump’s] worst flaw. Trump’s worst flaw could lie in his sexism, his racism, his naked self–servingness, or his destructive potential” (p. 53).

In fact, an analysis of what makes Trump unsuitable for the presidency — insofar as it focuses on character issues at all — needs to be rooted in psychoanalysis more than the reflections of asshology offer. We do better to turn to studies of Eric Fromm and Theodor Adorno on the authoritarian personality and to reflections by Hannah Arendt on how propaganda works in authoritarian cultures.

More importantly, we need to look too broader social movements. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s Merchants of Doubt about how lies are increasingly consciously manufactured with the funding of big business and distributed in our media ecosystems provides an important starting point. More recent analysis of dark money in politics productively builds on this. Furthermore, recent studies by Timothy Snyder (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Centuryand Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblat (How Democracies Die) that try to draw lessons from the erosion of constitutional norms in various countries of Eastern Europe and South America are very useful.

For all that the theory of assholes cannot do in helping us to analyze Trump, perhaps it does have some little part to play that can be helpful. Besides that, Trump isn’t the only asshole out there. We are surrounded by assholes. James notes strategies for self-preservation in our everyday environments with assholes.

I number here the coping strategies he notes, otherwise using his language verbatim:

  1. avoid the asshole if you can;
  2. accept that he probably won’t listen or change;
  3. affirm your worth by calling a wrong a wrong;
  4. hope for his best;
  5. laugh as much as possible;
  6. go easy on yourself;
  7. cooperate on your own terms;
  8. make small improvements, in order to increase your sense of efficacy;
  9. politely request to be treated as you prefer (because he might do it);
  10. mildly retaliate;
  11. take a public stand to uphold your or other people’s rights (e.g., refuse to shake his hand);
  12. and by all means, be understanding of different coping styles to better cooperate in holding the guy accountable.

Besides that, James notes strategies for decreasing the suitableness of our political and cultural environment for the proliferation of further assholes. For that, he suggests supporting “moral and civic education,” encouraging students to pursue life’s of service rather than just profit maximization, a general countering of the “greed is good,” capitalist system. The final two chapters of the book use general tools of political theory to argue that we need a renewed commitment to social life based on mutual respect—the kind of respect that assholes deny others. He affirms the need for the type of Republicanism for which Philip Pettit argues, one in which the development of a common reason is facilitated and the constitutional and respectful norms of communication and recognition are affirmed.

I wholeheartedly support James’ focus on these issues here. In doing these things, he seems to me, however, to be moving far beyond the analysis of asshology. He thus perhaps here does more than he intends or claims to do.

The analysis of Trump and Trumpisism with the tools of asshology is perhaps cathartic. It sheds some light. But the tools are just not strong enough. Trump is an asshole of course. But he’s so much more than that, that to criticize him from that perspective alone is an insult to assholes everywhere.

What is Fallibilism?


In a previous post, I claimed to be a fallibilist. This technical philosophical term refers (roughly) to “the belief that any idea we have could be wrong.” Or, more precisely,

Fallibilism (from medieval Latin fallibilis, “liable to err”) is the philosophical principle that human beings could be wrong about their beliefs, expectations, or their understanding of the world, and yet still be justified in holding their incorrect beliefs. In the most commonly used sense of the term, this consists in being open to new evidence that would disprove some previously held position or belief, and in the recognition that “any claim justified today may need to be revised or withdrawn in light of new evidence, new arguments, and new experiences.”[1] This position is taken for granted in the natural sciences.[2]


Perhaps the most important issue is to distinguish fallibilism from skepticism—the doctrine that no idea, belief, or claim is ever well justified or is definitely known. Generally, skepticism is thought to be a stronger claim than fallibilism. Skepticism implies that we should assert nothing, suspend all judgment, or doubt the reliability of the senses, whereas fallibilists generally accept the existence of knowledge or justified belief. 

But how can we reconcile these two views? May we say, with consistency, that our ideas might be mistaken, yet we are still justified in believing them? If John claims to know x but admit that x  might nor be true, then how is what he claims to know knowledge? To say you know something, but at the same time admit you might be in error seems mistaken.

[The reader is welcome to consider sophisticated replies to this problem such as David Lewis on “epistemic contextualism” or P. Rysiew on “concessive knowledge attributions“—i.e., sentences of the form ‘S knows that p, but it is possible that q’ (where entails not-p).]


But let’s approach this issue more simply. If you buy a lottery ticket and the odds of winning are 1 in 10 million, do you know you won’t win? No, you don’t know this with 100% certainty but you do know you won’t win with a very high degree of probability. Now if you play the lottery and buy two tickets you have a slightly greater chance of winning, but again you still can be very confident you won’t win. And the same thing if you buy a thousand tickets. Even if you buy a thousand tickets you can justifiably say, “I know I won’t win,” if by know you mean very, very certain.

Now if I say that I know that evolutionary, quantum, atomic, relativity or gravitational theories are true, this is short-hand for “they are true beyond any reasonable doubt; meaning they are true unless gods, intelligent aliens or a computer simulations are deceiving my cognitive and sensory apparatuses, i.e., they are true unless something really weird is going on. Now something weird could be going on and aliens may be having fun at our expense, say by making evolution look true when it isn’t. There may be gods or aliens or computer programs or something else deceiving us. But no one should believe this.

This is the essence of good thinking; proportioning our assent to the evidence. There is overwhelming evidence for the basic ideas of modern science, but no evidence that people who play the lottery generally win. In fact, the evidence shows that almost everyone who plays the lottery loses. A well-developed mind learns to distinguish the almost certainly true from the probably true from the equally likely to be true from the probably not true to the almost certainly false. To better understand, consider some simple examples.


Suppose I say, as one born in the US and a current resident of Seattle WA, one of the following:

1. I have been to Jupiter.
2. I have been to the South Pole.
3. I have been to Russia.
4. I have been to Europe.
5. I have been to Portland.
6. I have been to Seattle.

It is easy to see that as we proceed down the list the probability that I have been to one these places increases. In the beginning, the chance was practically zero—although as a fallibilist you should concede that I may be an alien who has been to Jupiter. At the bottom of the list, the chance is 100% that I’ve been there unless I’m lying to you or am being deceived by gods, aliens, simulations, etc.  as to my whereabouts. If I tell you #1, then you know (beyond a reasonable doubt) that the claim is false. If I tell you #6, while standing next to you at the Space Needle, then you know (beyond a reasonable doubt) that the claim is true. Finally, if I tell you #2 thru #5 then you don’t know and have to examine the evidence to determine the probability my claim is true.

And this is how one can be a fallibilist and claim to know things simultaneously. Any idea I have could be wrong, but I feel amazingly confident that #1 is false and #6 is true in the above examples. If I am justified in being amazingly confident by the evidence, that counts as knowledge.

Here is another example. Suppose I say:

1. If they play a football game, the Seattle Seahawks will beat a Pop Warner team.
2. If they play a football game, the Seattle Seahawks will beat a high school team.
3. If they play a football game, the Seattle Seahawks will beat a college team.
4. If they play a football game, the Seattle Seahawks will beat an NFL team.
5. If they play a football game, the Seattle Seahawks will beat a team of omnipotent, omniscient, football players.

You should say to me, I know #1 is true beyond a reasonable doubt (although the Seahawks could lose on purpose, all simultaneously have heart attacks during the game, or die on the way to the game in an accident and forfeit, etc.) and that #5 is false beyond a reasonable doubt because the Seahawks can’t beat godlike football players.

So I am a fallibilist. Any idea I have could be wrong but some ideas are more likely to be true than others. All one can do, as a rational person, is proportion their assent to the evidence. You might win the lottery, I might have been on Jupiter, and the Pop Warner team might beat the Seahawks … but don’t bet on it.


  1. Nikolas Kompridis, “Two kinds of fallibilism”, Critique and Disclosure (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 180.
  2. Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996

Survival of the Richest

Robots revolt in R.U.R., a 1920 play

Professor and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff recently penned an article that went viral,
“Survival of the Richest.” It outlines how the super wealthy are preparing for doomsday. Here is a recap followed by a brief commentary.

Rushkoff was recently invited to deliver a speech for an unusually large fee, about half his academic salary, on “the future of technology.” He expected a large audience but, upon arrival, he was ushered into a small room with a table surrounded by five wealthy men. But they weren’t interested in the future of technological innovation. Instead, they wanted to know things like where they should move to avoid the coming climate crisis, whether mind uploading will work and, most prominently, how to “maintain authority over [their] security force after the event?”

The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.

This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

That’s when it hit me: At least as far as these gentlemen were concerned, this was a talk about the future of technology. Taking their cue from Elon Musk colonizing Mars, Peter Thiel reversing the aging process, or Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil uploading their minds into supercomputers, they were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is really about just one thing: escape.

Rushkoff continues by expressing his disdain for transhumanism,

The more committed we are to this [transhuman] view of the world, the more we come to see human beings as the problem and technology as the solution. The very essence of what it means to be human is treated less as a feature than bug. No matter their embedded biases, technologies are declared neutral. Any bad behaviors they induce in us are just a reflection of our own corrupted core. It’s as if some innate human savagery is to blame for our troubles.

Ultimately, according to the technosolutionist orthodoxy, the human future climaxes by uploading our consciousness to a computer or, perhaps better, accepting that technology itself is our evolutionary successor. Like members of a gnostic cult, we long to enter the next transcendent phase of our development, shedding our bodies and leaving them behind, along with our sins and troubles.

The mental gymnastics required for such a profound role reversal between humans and machines all depend on the underlying assumption that humans suck. Let’s either change them or get away from them, forever.

It is such thinking that leads the tech billionaires to want to escape to Mars, or at least New Zealand. But “the result will be less a continuation of the human diaspora than a lifeboat for the elite.”

For his part, Rushkoff suggested to his small audience that the best way to survive and flourish after “the event,” would be to treat other people well now. Better act to avoid social instability, environmental collapse and all the rest than to figure out how to deal with them in the future. Their response?

They were amused by my optimism, but they didn’t really buy it. They were not interested in how to avoid a calamity; they’re convinced we are too far gone. For all their wealth and power, they don’t believe they can affect the future. They are simply accepting the darkest of all scenarios and then bringing whatever money and technology they can employ to insulate themselves — especially if they can’t get a seat on the rocket to Mars.

But for Rushkoff:

We don’t have to use technology in such antisocial, atomizing ways. We can become the individual consumers and profiles that our devices and platforms want us to be, or we can remember that the truly evolved human doesn’t go it alone.

Being human is not about individual survival or escape. It’s a team sport. Whatever future humans have, it will be together.

Reflections – I don’t doubt that many wealthy and powerful people would willingly leave the rest of us behind, or enslave or kill us all—a theme endorsed by Ted Kaczynski in The Unabomber Manifesto: Industrial Society and Its Future. But notice that these tendencies toward evil have existed independent of technology or any transhumanist philosophy—history is replete with examples of cruelty and genocide.

So the question is whether we can create a better world without radically transforming human beings. I doubt it. As I’ve said many times our apelike brains—characterized by territoriality, aggression, dominance hierarchies, irrationality, superstition, and cognitive biases—in combination with 21st-century technology is a lethal combination. And that’s why, in order to survive the many existential risks now confronting us and to have descendants who flourish, we should (probably) embrace transhumanism.

So while there are obvious risks associated with the power that science and technology afford, they are our best hope as we approach many of these “events.” So if we don’t want our planet to circle our sun lifeless for the next few billion years, if we believe that conscious life is really worthwhile, then we must work quickly to transform both our moral and intellectual natures. Otherwise at most only a few will survive.

Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with permission.)

For those who hoped that the Catholic church had begun to appropriately handle its systemic sexual abuses from the 1980s and 1990s, the recent Pennsylvania Grand Jury report is deeply disturbing. The report indicates that in the state of Pennsylvania alone, over a period of 70 years, more than 300 priests were accused of the systemic sexual abuse of over 1000 individuals and the systematic cover-up of this abuse. This report comes just weeks after the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Archbishop of Washington, who had been accused of sexual abuse of children and adults over decades, and after recent revelations of systemic clerical sexual abuse in Chile and Australia.

With a focus on the Pennsylvania report the New York Times reports:

“Despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability,” the grand jury wrote. “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.”

Though one might hope for internal church reforms — and perhaps that this will spur a new conversation about the possibility of women and married priests, including openly gay married priests — the report shows that the time has passed for waiting on such internal reforms.  A legal investigation of such systemic abuse, accompanied by other means of law enforcement, is the only likely way to adequately address these abuses. The church-directed efforts have shown too clearly the risk of such studies being overseen by individuals who have conflicting interests in the results.

The background for this tragic state of affairs — regarding why the church has ended up in this situation in the first place — also still needs to be more clearly articulated. The church hierarchy, unfortunately, has been as inept at these reflections as at self-reform. Various factors — both cultural and structural — have created an institution that is dogmatic, authoritarian, sexually repressed, and unable to muster the self-criticism and self-monitoring needed.

Fundamental to the culture is a belief common among Catholics that those with power in the church are those who God has blessed and chosen. There is an assumption that the Holy Spirit guides the church in its decisions on the election of the Pope and the appointment of the hierarchy, and that those in the priesthood have been called. Consequently, not only is it presumed that all of these clerics are due respect and honor, but it is very often assumed that to question them is to question God’s providence. It is really a very strange mental knot to tie. But many have tied it, and those benefitting from it, just pull the knot tighter and tighter.

Add to this the fact that the culture of the priesthood is enormously gay, but of a self-loathing, repressed variety and, as should be clear now, also too often tainted by sexual tastes of a quite sinister variety. As a gay former priest told me years ago: He and his generation of Catholics grew up thinking that you would either get married or become a priest. Many like him, who had sexual orientations outside the norm, thought the priesthood was their calling since marriage clearly wasn’t. Given the prevalence of thinking like this, the fact that the institution of the church has ended up in its mess should hardly be surprising.

It is against this backdrop, of course, that not only the clergy generally, but the hierarchy as well, has been filled with people very uncomfortable with their own sexuality, very often with individuals who feel that their own sexual inclinations are morally wrong. But unfortunately, their own moral sensibilities have not given them the ability to control their sexual drives. Twisting themselves ever more tightly into their own emotional knots generally did not work to make them well and whole. Quite the opposite.

Structurally, it is of course a problem that very often the fates of those in the hierarchy who make the most important decisions on this issue are tied up with those who have been involved in the most heinous of crimes at the local parishes, or have been involved in abuse power relationships at the countries Catholic seminaries, or have been sexually abused at the nation’s minor seminaries, with the 14 to 18 year olds, under the tutelage of their loving mentors. It’s as unsavory as you would think, as we should all be aware now.

All bishops passed through some of these institutions. Some of them passed through all of them. And their decision-making on the sexual abuse cases can hardly be thought to be non-self-interested. In many cases, some of these young men were clearly exploring their own sexuality, sometimes failing in their own eyes to live up to their aspirations. Tied to this is the further structural issue that the promotions within the church come top-down. Those who cooperate with the authorities of the institution are those who move into the hierarchy of the institution.

Unfortunately, dark chapters probably remain to be written about how many in the hierarchy have put in words for their own lovers. But that aside, when it comes to the issue of how to handle sexual abuse issues within the church, those in power have very much rewarded “discretion” — in this case, that means, there has been an interest in covering up enormous injustices because of a fear of how the exposure of those injustices would affect the church, financially and culturally.

Of course, the cover-up always has a background moral justification. The good of the church (keeping up the morale of the majority of congregants and ensuring their continued participation in the church, as well as ensuring the financial viability of the institution) trumps the good of the altar boy molested, or the good of the minor seminarian, often enough viewed as just discovering what he really likes anyway. And add a bit of earlier mentioned theology to that: Remember, God has chosen those in power. To question them is to question God.

The congregants themselves want to trust the authority of those who have spiritually advised them, who have been their confessors and accompanied them on their life journeys in some of the most pivotal moments, from birth and baptism, through growth into adulthood, with confirmation, to marriage and funerals — all moments where the church officials, including many of those guilty of the crimes, have played a key role in helping congregants make sense of questions of meaning, overcome emotional travails, deal with life’s difficulties and celebrate its joys.

The abusers clearly abused this trust, but so did the bishops, even those who were not themselves the abusers, but who were involved in the cover-up. How many of them sent reassuring emails or had reassuring phone calls in which they communicated their remorse at the tragedy of the situation but affirmed the abused and their families that the church was handling this internally, that appropriate steps would be taken, and of course, that those who wrote would be in the prayers of the church?

Part of the problem is that the church has supported authoritarian beliefs, playing on the eagerness of the congregants to accept the decisions of authorities. Part of it has to do with a clerical system that is bound to attract people ill at ease with their own sexuality. Affecting Catholic culture in a deep enough way to address this authoritarianism would be quite a feat. But addressing some structural issues could help. Isn’t it time that the church rethink celibacy? Isn’t it time that it rethink women in the priesthood? Isn’t it time it rethinks its disdain for homosexuality and allows priests who are open about their homosexuality? These moves would mean that many different kinds of individuals would be attracted to the clergy than have been in the past. These would be slow steps that might begin to correct the sexual sickness of the institution. They would also bring the Catholic church into alignment with decisions of other mainline Christian churches.

But the resistance is strong — and it comes in the form of old, and dated, theological arguments, arguments based on authority, but offered with the pretense that they flow from pure reason. Jesus, the more Orthodox theologians will say, did not have female apostles. And so, the church may not have female priests. Rather than analyzing such decisions against the background of the unique culture in the Middle East of the time of Jesus, as the church does on an array of issues (from slavery to views toward hierarchical rule in politics), those making the arguments pretend that static gender roles exude from pure rationality.

Yet, their arguments are willful, not rational. They resonate in our own culture only with a very small minority of basically quite conservative churchmen, largely also politically and personally invested in the false assumptions of the argument. When evaluating whether the argument is really rational, it is informative to consider how many outside of this system actually find the argument compelling. Virtually none of those in non-Catholic Christian denominations do. Only a small percentage of American and European Catholics do. But the church’s Orthodox will argue that the fact that only the few see the reason doesn’t make it less rational. That is true enough in theory. But in the case at hand, it merely unveils a lack of ability for self-questioning and modernization.

Even these changes in the requirements for the priesthood, which would in principle just bring Catholics into sync with mainline Protestant understanding of the role of women and gays in the contemporary world, would go some way in beginning to redress the systemic sexual abuse within the church. In the Pennsylvania case, seven percent of the priests were involved in such abuse and its cover-up. This is far beyond the norm.

My own experience within Catholic institutions — while perhaps anecdotal — also provides some evidence of the severity of the problem.  Among my decades of background at Catholic institutions, I was a seminarian at a Benedictine monastery for two years in the mid-1980s. There, of the eight clergy who were faculty members there, five had believable allegations of sexual misconduct brought against them. Two were brought to court for pedophilia charges against children under 12. Three had allegations brought against them for misconduct with young seminarians. That’s 62.5%. You’d be hard-pressed to find another organization with similar levels of such problems. Changes have occurred since I was there. But as the Pennsylvania report indicates, the Catholic church is still enormously sick. Unfortunately, it seems to have little capacity for understanding its own sickness, let alone for making the changes needed to appropriately address it.

We can, unfortunately, expect little movement on the issues I’ve mentioned. So the time has come for more external controls. More investigations are needed. Statutes of limitations need to be extended. Some of those involved need to go to prison. Maybe external controls will help move the recalcitrant institution to make needed changes. Let’s hope so — for the good of the children.

A note about the author:

My particular interest in this issue is related to my background having grown up Catholic and having studied philosophy and theology and taught philosophy in Catholic institutions. I attended Catholic grade school and spent some time in a Catholic high school. Besides having studied at the mentioned Benedictine monastery as a Catholic seminarian, I completed my bachelor’s degree at an archdiocesan university and finished my master’s degree in philosophy at a Jesuit university, where I was also briefly enrolled in their master’s program in theology, before going to Germany where I did my doctorate in non-Catholic university. From 2010 until August of 2018 I was a philosophy professor at an archdiocesan university in Florida (where I also served one year as an Interim Dean). I am now in the midst of a transfer to a Florida state college.