Daily Archives: February 26, 2015

Kant’s Ethics (Part 3–Conclusion)

(continued from yesterday’s post)

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 12:22 p.m. 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 this 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. We saw in an earlier chapter how moral judgments might be truths of reason. Whether this is true depends upon our understanding of concepts like rationality, interests, and individuality. In the strong conception of rationality, others’ interests give us a reason to act. In the weak conception, others’ interests do not give us a reason. This issue also relates to the earlier discussion of egoism between Kalin and Medlin. 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.

Kant’s basic idea is that morality is grounded in reason. 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 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 . We now turn to a moral theory which emphasizes the good over the right, happiness over duty. That theory is utilitarianism.