Monday, June 20, 2011

Kantian Ethics, Part 2: The First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative

In my last post I started to consider Kant's moral philosophy, focusing on Kant's contention--in opposition to Hume--that reason can generate (at least one) "imperative" that is categorically action-guiding. That is, it tells you to act in a certain way regardless of what you happen to subjectively value or desire.

Hume thought reason was a slave to the passions. It can tell you how to achieve a certain aim, producing a principle of the form, "In order to achieve O, do A." But unless you desire or value O, such a principle (what Kant calls a "hypothetical imperative") has no force for you. Kant did not deny that reason can and does operate as a slave to the passions in this way. What he denied was that this was the only thing it could do in the domain of action. Contrary to Hume, Kant thought reason not only can but does impose a requirement on all rational beings that applies regardless of their contingent "inclinations"--a requirement that he called "the Categorical Imperative."

He thought this Categorical Imperative could be formulated in different ways. The first "formulation" runs as follows:

Act only according to that maxim which you can at the same time (consistently) will to be a universal law (of nature).

In the present post, I want to consider what this principle is saying and why Kant thinks that reason requires us to be obedient to it. In the case of the first formulation (or what I'll refer to for short as the 1st CI), these two tasks are most easily pursued together. That is, one really comes to understand what the principle is saying by thinking about what reason (as Kant understood it) demands.

Now let me pause here to say that Kant is a difficult thinker, and not everyone interprets him in precisely the same way. What I am about to provide is my understanding of the 1st CI. It's not a wildly novel or original understanding--I dare say it falls very much into the mainstream of Kant interpretation. But it is, nevertheless, my understanding and my way of formulating this understanding. Other philosophers may disagree with some of the details, or may prefer a different way of explicating things.

In terms of making sense of what Kant is saying in the 1st CI, it sometimes helps to begin with a rough picture before getting more focused--and there is no better place to start than with a little anecdote involving philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser. According to the story, Morgenbesser was leaving the New York subway, an unlit pipe in his mouth, when a police officer informed him there was no smoking on the subway. Morgenbesser pointed out he hadn't yet lit the pipe and was leaving the subway station. After a bit of back-and-forth, the officer said, "If I let you do it, I'd have to let everyone do it"--to which Morgenbesser replied with something along the following lines: "Who do you think you are? Kant?"

He was promptly arrested.

I'm assured he was eventually able to convince the authorities that he was likening the officer to the great 18th Century German enlightenment philosopher, not resorting to a vulgar insult. But the likeness here is apt. The officer was implicitly invoking something like the 1st CI, which asks us to consider the following question: "What if everyone did that?" Or, perhaps better: "What if everyone did that as a rule?"

In very loose but pedagogically helpful terms, the 1st CI is telling us that it is only legitimate for us to act in a certain way if everyone acting in that way as a rule is something we could consistently will. In other words, what we're doing has to be universalizable. But while pedagogically helpful for the sake of getting us to see what the 1st CI calls for, this way of describing the principle isn't precise enough for us to be able to clearly see why Kant thought that reason, by itself, demands obedience to it.

For that purpose, we should probably focus in on the notion of a maxim. What Kant believes must be universalizable is not our action but the maxim of the action. By a “maxim,” Kant means a subjective principle of action.

Here is the first place at which Kant's understanding of what it means to be rational is expressed within the 1st CI. Kant thought that reason is, by its nature, an abstractive faculty: it abstracts from the particular level to the general or universal level. It uncovers patterns, regularities, laws. In the domain of action, this means that to be rational is to behave in a rule-governed way, to act in accord with a rule.

Now, of course, we’re not always intending to follow a rule when we do something. But even then, we can ask ourselves, “What rule would I be following in this case were I conforming my action to a rule?” The answer to that question is the maxim of the act, the principle that your act falls under The maxim of your act is the principle you’d be following were you deliberately seeking to behave in a rule-governed way.

Of course, there are difficulties here, because there are numerous ways to generalize, various degrees of generality, and hence a number of rules that any particular action might conform to. Put more simply, the very same act in the very same circumstances might be called for by a number of different rules. So which one is your maxim?

In fact, much of the difficulty in interpreting Kant turns on this very issue. One neo-Kantian, R.M. Hare, argued that the proper "maxim" for your action is arrived at by removing from the description of your act all particular or individual references while preserving maximal specificity--such that the maxim says, in effect, "Do actions like this (specified in exhaustive detail) under conditions like these (specified exhaustively)." But few think that this is what Kant had in mind, and most neo-Kantians don't follow Hare's lead here.

Despite the importance of this controversy, I won't pursue it here. My aim here is to understand why Kant thought reason required obedience to the 1st CI; and I think we can begin to get a handle on that even if many important problems remain to be solved.

In any event, Kant thought that being rational in one's actions required operating in a rule-governed way, which means following a maxim. But the demands of rationality do not end there, because Kant didn’t think any old maxim is necessarily going to be rational. While operating in a rule-governed way is a condition for rationality, it is not the only condition. One's rule of action has to be a rational rule. And there are certain conditions a rule has to meet in order to be a rational rule. The 1st CI is, in effect, an effort to articulate these conditions. To be rational, you need to act in accord with a rule that passes the test specified in the 1st CI: Can one preserve consistency in one's will if one wills that one's maxim be universalized?

In a nutshell, Kant is supposing that rationality requires consistency of will (to will inconsistent things is to be irrational) and consistency across cases (in the sense that one must treat like cases alike, and hence be governed by rules that are universal in the sense of calling for the same kind of thing in all relevantly similar conditions). A maxim that can't be applied consistently across relevantly similar cases without generating an inconsistency of will is thus doomed to irrationality. To preserve consistency of will (which reason requires), you'll need to refrain from universalizing your maxim (but reason also requires that). To universalize your maxim (which reason requires), you'll need to land your will in a contradiction.

Hence, reason requires that you only act on maxims that you can universalize without generating an inconsistency in your will. This, then, is a categorical imperative of reason, one that reason generates all by itself (apart from the passions), and that is demanded by reason regardless of one's inclinations. If your maxim doesn't meet the test of the 1st CI, then reason precludes acting on it no matter how much you might want to.

But so far this is all expressed in very abstract terms--and as such, certain crucial questions are left unanswered. For example, what, exactly, is a contradiction in one's will? And how could universalizing one's maxim lead to such a contradiction? To answer these questions, it is probably most helpful to look at some concrete cases. And I can think of no better case to start with than one Kant himself makes use of himself.

In fact, Kant offered four examples of how the Categorical Imperative works in practice, but one of them is offered twice (in different sections of his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals), apparently because he thought it was particularly helpful. This is the example of making a false promise. He asks us to imagine someone who desperately needs to borrow money, knows he will be unable to repay the lender, but also knows that no one will lend him the money he needs unless he makes a promise to repay within a certain time frame (a promise which, given his inability to repay, can only be a false one).

Can the making of such a false promise be morally permissible? Kant's answer, based on the 1st CI, is no. Here's how he explains it:

...the maxim of his action would be expressed thus: When I think myself in want of money, I will borrow money and promise to repay it, although I know that I never can do so. Now this principle of self-love or of one's own advantage may perhaps be consistent with my whole future welfare; but the question now is, Is it right? I change then the suggestion of self-love into a universal law, and state the question thus: How would it be if my maxim were a universal law? Then I see at once that it could never hold as a universal law of nature, but would necessarily contradict itself. For supposing it to be a universal law that everyone when he thinks himself in a difficulty should be able to promise whatever he pleases, with the purpose of not keeping his promise, the promise itself would become impossible, as well as the end that one might have in view in it, since no one would consider that anything was promised him, but would ridicule all such statements as vain pretenses.
Kant really makes two points here with respect to the attempt to universalize the "false promise maxim." First, were it universalized the institution of promising would collapse. If everyone made false promises as a matter of universal law, no one would be able to make a false promise because no one would be able to make a promise.

One way to understand this is to think of what a promise is. In terms of its grammar, a promise is a "performative"--one performs a certain kind of act by saying that one does the act. But as with other performatives, there is a social context of mutual understandings which makes it possible to perform the act in question by uttering certain words. A minister who says "I now pronounce you husband and wife" under the proper conditions is able by those words to create a social relationship because of a complex set of social agreements that have been put into place. Take away those social agreements, and the words become empty. The minister is no longer able to marry anyone by saying those words. Likewise, the practice of promising is a social institution that exists only on the condition that certain mutual understandings are in place--and those mutual understandings would not be in place in conditions C were the making of false promises under conditions C a universal law. To will that everyone live by the maxim is impossible, because if everyone lived by the maxim no one could.

And so there is a practical contradiction bound up with willing the maxim to be a universal law: You simultaneously will (a) that everyone act in a certain way and (b) that it be impossible for them to act in that way. This, for Kant, is paradigmatically irrational. But refusing to treat like cases alike--refusing to universalize your maxim--is also paradigmatically irrational. Hence, there is no way to be rational while acting on this maxim. Reason therefore rules it out. There is a categorical prohibition on making false promises, whether the making of such promises is subjectively appealing to you or not.

But few cases are quite as neat as this, where it would be impossible for anyone to act on a maxim were everyone to act on it (arguably, a prohibition on stealing could be justified in these terms since stealing by definition invokes the notion of private property, which would not exist under a universal maxim of theft). But Kant also points out a second way in which the false promise maxim generates a practical contradiction when universalized. It is not just the making of the promise that becomes impossible, but also "the end that one might have in view in it." In making a false promise in this case, one is attempting to achieve thereby a certain objective--getting the loan. But were it a universal law that people make false promises in such cases, no one would loan money on the strength of a promise of repayment. So the end or goal for which one wills the maxim in one's own case is an end or goal that could not be realized if everyone acted on that maxim.

When you will the maxim in your own case, it is for the sake of achieving an end that would be rendered impossible for you to achieve were you also to will that the maxim of your action be a universal law. To will that your maxim be universalized is therefore to will a certain action for the sake of a certain objective, and to at the same time will that conditions prevail such that it be impossible for you to achieve your objective through this course of action. But to will the achievement of O via A, and at the same time to will that it be impossible to achieve O via A, is paradigmatically irrational. It's to will contradictory things. So, in order to be rational you must universalize your maxim--but universalizing this maxim involves a practical contradiction given the end for which you are willing the maxim in your own case. So either you universalize and land yourself in a contradiction, or you avoid contradiction by refusing to universalize (by, in effect, refuse to behave in the law-like, treat-like-cases-alike way that is definitive of rationality for Kant).

This second kind of practical contradiction does not just apply to false promises and a narrow range of similar practices. It clearly applies to lying in general (which only works in a context of honesty), and it also seems to be the same basic kind of contradiction that Kant thinks arises with respect to what we might call the egoist maxim--which is a second of the four examples Kant brings up to illuminate the 1st CI.

The egoist maxim is, in a nutshell, this: Look out exclusively for your own happiness and let others look our for their own. Kant thinks that the world might continue to chug along if this maxim "should have the universal validity of a law of nature," but he doesn't think anyone could consistently will this maxim. On the contrary, "a will which resolved this would contradict itself, inasmuch as many cases might occur in which one would have need of the love and sympathy of others, and in which , by such a law of nature, sprung from his own will, he would deprive himself of all hope of the aid he desires." Put simply, if you will this maxim in your own case it is for the sake of your own happiness--but your happiness is better served in a world where following your maxim is not a universal law. This is not quite as strong a contradiction as you get when it would be impossible to achieve your end were everyone to follow your example. He's not saying that happiness is always impossible to achieve in a world where everyone just looks out for themselves--just that it's much harder to achieve, and that chances are (given the world in which we live) you'll encounter circumstances in which your happiness will depend on the good will of others.

Kant uses a pair of other examples to highlight how the 1st CI works and why he believes reason demands obedience to it--both of which are, in my experience, more controversial to dominant modern sensibilities. The first considers the suicidal maxim: take your own life when the future is likely to hold more misery than joy. The second considers what I'll call the lazy wastrel maxim: let your talents go undeveloped in favor of indulging in empty pleasures. In both cases, there is a bit more emphasis of the language of "nature"--testing whether the maxim could be willed as a law of nature, or as something "implanted in us" as a "natural instinct."

With respect to the suicidal maxim, Kant thinks that a world in which this maxim operates as a natural law "could not exist as a system of nature," because it would involve "the very feeling whose special nature it is to impel to the improvement of life" being directed in a law-like way towards the destruction of life. According to Kant, the life-improvement instinct couldn't be the life-improvement instinct if it consistently dictated self-destruction under certain conditions.

Why not, we might ask? Can't an instinct be a qualified instinct and still be a coherent and consistent one?

With respect to the lazy wastrel maxim, Kant is clear "that a system of nature could indeed subsist with a such a universal law." So he is explicitly contrasting it with the suicidal maxim. It is to the suicidal maxim, if you will, what the egoist maxim is to the lying promise maxim. What Kant argues is that while a system of nature could exist in which everyone neglects the cultivation of their talents and abilities, no rational being could will that this be a driving natural instinct that rules human behavior. Why? Because "as a rational being, he necessarily wills that his faculties be developed, since they serve him, and have been given him, for all sorts of possible purposes." At least it sounds very much as if Kant is saying that reason necessarily wills certain ends--ends which would not be served if the lazy wastrel maxim were universalized. But Kant's defense of this idea is a single sketchy sentence that has left more than one reader scratching their heads.

Some argue that these two examples implicitly invoke elements of the natural law tradition in which Kant was steeped. Some contemporary followers of Kant seem to think that, for this reason, they can simply ignore these examples, setting them aside (as somehow infected with the theoretical baggage of Kant's era) in favor of the examples that more cleanly focus on notions of rational consistency.

But this strikes me as a mistake for several reasons. First of all, Kant chose his examples quite carefully in order to elucidate different ways in which a maxim can fail the test of the 1st CI, and so there may be important lessons to be learned about the scope of the CI that emerges when we investigate these examples--lessons that may be important even if we aren't convinced by the specific examples.

Second, Kant was in the habit of attempting to reframe inherited ideas within the context of his own philosophical system--in effect exploring the possibility that traditional notions might embody an implicit wisdom that Kant's philosophical investigations could reveal. As such, it may be that Kant is trying to "vindicate" (from the standpoint of his own system of thinking) some modified version of natural law theory--showing, in effect, that traditional moral ideas can be justified by appeal to the demands of practical rationality. If so, it is worth exploring the extent to which he succeeds.

Third, Kant may have deliberately embraced important elements of the natural law tradition that preceded him because he recognized something profound and important in them that he wanted to preserve within his own moral philosophy. Perhaps those of his examples that seem to be more tied to this older tradition are so puzzling because he had not yet succeeded in integrating the insights from this older tradition into his account of how morality can be grounded in the demands of reason. But investigating Kant's (presumed) failure here may prove  fruitful--perhaps even as a pathway to revising Kant's theory in beneficial ways.

That said, this post has gotten plenty long already--and there is enough room for critical discussion in relation to the examples that, in my experience, are more compelling to modern sensibilities.

In my next main post in this series, I want to turn to the Second Formulation of the Categorical Imperative--the so-called "formula of humanity" which holds that we must always treat humanity as an end and never as a means only. Here we encounter a fundamental principle which is more substantive in what it requires than is the 1st CI (which, like the Golden Rule to which it has been likened, is a more formal principle in the sense of offering a formula for determining whether something is permitted as opposed to laying down specific substantive requirements). The 2nd CI (as I will call it) is also a principle which establishes an end for the sake of which we are to act--and end which, according to Kant, is given to us by reason.


  1. Hi Eric

    Three questions spring to mind.

    Once we define rational behaviour as lawlike, the maxim follows, but what makes this particular formulation of rationalism itself rational? The importance of behaving in a lawlike way appears at first blush to have a significant cultural component (and makes it less surprising that Kant, in his place and time, might have come up with it).

    You and I, considering a culture with an embedded class system, may find the maxim of different rules for different castes intuitively unappealling, but in what sense is it rationally unappealling, without resorting to the circularity of 'well that's just what it means to me rational'. One might ddefine rational as self-interested, or as interested in the flourishing of the species, or many other things besides, and arrive at a vey different formulation.

    Universalising a rule also contains a prior assumption that all people are equal. Again, what makes this a rational assumption (it has strong intuitive appeal to me). Without this assumption, no rules are universalisable because no two circumstances are the same. We don't, typically, include chimps in our social contracts, although some say we should. Why is making one's species a special case more or less rational than making oneself a special case?

    And finally, where one's starting values differ (so the rate at which we discount the potential pleasure of future generations when considering the environment for example) the application of the maxim will yield conflicting imperatives. How does one get around this?


  2. Hi, Eric-

    For a few moments there, I thought you were commenting on recent economics- liar loans, rating fraud, greed is good, etc.. What would the good philosopher have said?

    Thanks for treating Kant, it is a challenge. Now on to some critique, echoing Bernard.

    I think Kant brings in a lot of assumptions that sort of erase the efficacy of his argument vs Hume. First, why would one ever "want to be rational"? Isn't that a contradiction in terms? A fully rational object is a computer, which has no wants. Hume's position is that we are irrational, and it is our motivations that drive everything, including our reason and morals. If Kant opens his argument by assuming that we want to be rational and goes from there, he has given up the game. Hume is also correct in the fact of the matter.

    Second, if we do want to be rational, the complex argument you make about how that necessitates universalizing maxims & rules still seems questionable. If I grew up in an organized crime family, it would be perfectly rational for me to continue the family business, universal values be damned. The need for universalism assumes some kind of adherence to the general good, or at least to ultra-long-term thinking, which, while admirable from our olympian moral position, is not, in point of fact, necessary. As Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead, so rationality is perfectly compatible with some degree of myopia.

    Third, giving Kant's assumptions above, I still find this imperative lacking. We are each individuals, and each have different imperatives and capabilities. So there is only a small and ambiguous class of moral ideas that are universal- the rest are relative and adjustable. Biology itself makes room for traits that are selectively beneficial, but only at low frequencies... some people are introverts, others extroverts. Some are artistic, others mathematically inclined. If everyone were the same, our species and cultures would be much poorer. Rules about universal pipe smoking or non-smoking, or non-carrying, etc. just don't seem to make that kind of cut. In short, golden rule requires the people applying it to generalize very broadly about its feeling, rather than applying it rigorously in detail, which would make a complete mess of our real affairs, which are shot through with variety and inequality. It is far from an algorithm, more of a sentiment.

  3. Hi Eric,

    This is very clear description of a very strange doctrine.

    Sandel in his section on Kant in “Justice” has another example (p. 132): suppose a friend was hiding in your house, and a murderer came to the door looking for him. Wouldn't it be right to lie to the murderer? Kant says no. The duty to tell the truth holds regardless of the consequences.

    Well, if this is the case (and it's quite difficult to believe), Kant's ethical theory ranks among the coldest, most repulsive and dehumanizing of all time. Of course, there is a plus side: decision making is much simpler if one has only to apply a rule and does not have to dirty his hands by considering the complexities and contradictions of real life situations. A perfect setup for the oldest excuse in the book: I was only obeying orders, it also goes some way explaining away collateral damage: we were doing the right thing – consequences are irrelevant, as old Kant said.

    I am sure there is much to admire in Kant but what transpires from his ethics, while perhaps a robot's dream, is more like a human hell.

  4. Bernard, Burk, and JP:

    You offer, collectively, three of the most pervasive and important criticisms of Kant's moral theory. The first has to do with the adequacy of his account of what it means to be practically rational. The second has to do with the motivation to act on the basis of practical rationality, and the third has to do with certain strongly counterintuitive implications of his theory.

    As you might expect, given the significance of these objections, critics and defenders of Kant through the years have had much to say about all three. The first raises a number of issues about rationality--including the question of whether "reason" names a natural kind (an identifiable kind of thing we can discover in the world, like water), in which case we must determine whether Kant's description of this natural kind is accurate; or whether "reason" is a different kind of term (e.g., an essentially contested one, or a family resemblance term, etc.), in which case the question of accuracy ceases to matter and the real issue becomes whether the thing he CALLS "reason" actually does lay down laws as he thinks it does, and why the laws it generates should matter to us.

    The second objection turns on issues that are very central to Kant--namely, what can motivate the will. Kant was convinced that reason can motivate DIRECTLY, without the intrusion of a corroborating desire/inclination (such as WANTING to do what reason demands). To be rational is to do do what reason demands because reason demands it, not because you WANT to do what reason demands. In the latter case, you are acting on inclination rather than based on reason--it just so happens that you have an inclination to follow reason. To truly be moral, accordin to Kant, you must be motivated by reason directly without inclinations acting as an intermediary in this way. While Kant thought that such direct tethering of the will to reason was possible, he also thought it was extremely rare--and as such thought it was an open question whether anyone ACTUALLY operated from a moral motive. Critics of Kant--including, by the way, Schleiermacher (who, as you know, is an important intellectual inspiration of mine)--have found Kant's assumptions here deeply problematic. In this debate I find myself mostly in an agnostic posture, but with some sympathy towards Kant's critics.

    I should note, however, that the question of what makes it true that something is morally right or wrong, and whether we have any motivation to do what is morally right or wrong, are different questions. The "Why be moral?" question has force for precisely this reason.

    Put more simply, even if Kant is wrong about human moral psychology, that doesn't mean he's wrong about morality's truth-maker. That is, what makes it true that we should not neglect our talents might well be that it is irrational to neglect them, EVEN IF this fact may have no motivating force, no power to inspire action, apart from a DESIRE do what reason demands.

    But the implication here is that if we don't subjectively value reason, then we don't subjectively value morality, and so our subjective values are immoral. And THAT is a far cry from subjectivism, which makes our subjective values the standard of morality in such a way that our subjective values CANNOT be immoral.

  5. The third objection--that Kant's theory has intolerable consequences--is one that I have great sympathy for. Sandel's example, by the way, is actually Kant's own example, which he invokes in a 1797 essay, "On a supposed right to lie from philanthropy." He argues that EVEN in such cases, lying is a grievous wrong.

    One of the most important contemporary Kantians, Christine Korsgaard, argues that in fact Kant was wrong about this--that a maxim of lying to murderers IS universalizable since murderers do not advertise their intent and hence will not suppose that the person they are asking is in the position to knowingly defend an innocent from a murderer by lying. So, even if it were a universal law that people in this position lie, it doesn't follow that the end of the lie would be rendered impossible to achieve, precisely because murderers who inquire about their victims whereabouts presume that the one they are asking is NOT in the position under which lying is universally valid.

    In short, Korsgaard thinks the 1st CI is more in line with our moral intuitions than Kant himself believed. But this approach to answering the objection doesn't hit on the deeper issue, which has to do with the kind of life that Kant appears to be recommending as the moral one--a life in which our sentiments, our feelings of compassion, etc., are incidental at best. But a moral life, one might say, involves certain feelings in an ESSENTIAL way. And this is what Kant ignores.

    Let me say, first of all, the the problem is not as HUGE as it first seems, once one digs into the details of Kant's theory as developed in his later ethical writings. He believes that the cultivation of certain emotional dispositions, or virtues, is part of what duty requires--and he justifies this within the framework of his theory. It's not that we should live without emotions and desires, or that emotions and desires don't matter; rather, the point for Kant is that emotions need to pass a test of rationality before we can legitimately act on them.

    But that still doesn't neutralize the objections altogether, first of all because sometimes we have a powerful intuition that what "reason" in Kant's sense requires is less moral, less admirable, than what our sentiments call for; and second, because we sometimes admire the person who is motivated primarily by compassion over the one who always makes reason the final judge and authority--that is, there seems to be something more praiseworthy about the former.

    What I will say is that this line of objection to Kant presumes the validity of the moral intuitions which are being invoked as the basis for criticism--his theory is wrong because it has implications that conflict sharply with such and such values. If the values being invoked to this purpose are wholly subjective, then so what? I agree with a number of these criticisms of Kant, which is why I am not an unabashed Kantian; but I think the problem goes deeper than that there are features of Kant that aren't to my TASTE.

    I think that Kant was out of touch with certain crucial features of the human condition, and as such his theory is incomplete and, at points, inadequate. To live a good life requires rationality but also a creative, even artistic development of our emotional, feeling selves--a kind of development of who we are that is not achieved by following rules. While Kantian principles might impose constraints on such creative self-development, they cannot serve as the standard according to which we measure the worth of such self-development. But such self-development is, to my mind, part of what it means to live a morally good life.

  6. Eric-

    That is an interesting claim, that morality may remain objective while moral actors rationally pursue their motivations elsewhere. Thus morality is untethered from moral actors and their motivations, and made into a rather theoretical, perhaps even empty, discipline.

    More importantly, the basis of this rationality that Kant adheres to still doesn't seem objective as far as I can tell. The rules he comes up with can be seen as game-theoretic constructs that support the greatest good for the greatest number (e.g. honesty is always good, golden rule, etc.). That is fine, but it is quite contingent on the nature of society- that we are all more or less rational actors with some degree of self control and ability to learn, with similar fundamental interests. Even if all societies at this high level of development share the same imperatives/ideals, (even if they are also shared with more primitive societies like bees, ants, and bacteria), they are contingent on certain properties of the societies at issue. It is great to come up with general rules for social harmony, but they seem more emergent from biology/sociology than imposed from elsewhere.

    And of course the ultimate point of all this rule-making and ideal-pursuing and rational morality remains that subjective dream of happiness- as mentioned above, the truly rational actor doesn't care about morals one whit.

  7. Regarding the following: "...the basis of this rationality that Kant adheres to still doesn't seem objective as far as I can tell. The rules he comes up with can be seen as game-theoretic constructs that support the greatest good for the greatest number (e.g. honesty is always good, golden rule, etc.). That is fine, but it is quite contingent on the nature of society- that we are all more or less rational actors with some degree of self control and ability to learn, with similar fundamental interests."

    Aside from the question of whether what are you are describing here is true to Kant (not sure it is), I find myself wondering what you mean by "objective." Suppose it is true that certain behaviors aren't dictated by reason alone, but are dictated by reason GIVEN certain facts about humans. Assuming that these facts obtain (even if they might not have), then aren't we talking about a rule of behavior that (by hypothesis) follows from certain facts and the demands of reason? Which is it here that isn't objective? Facts? Or reason?

    Maybe I'm misunderstanding what you're saying.

  8. Yes, that is very fair.. I was going somewhat incoherent in my support of subjectivism. So I should buck up and admit that game theory is relatively objective. It describes principles & strategies that are universal among social beings depending on their level of development in sociability, assuming that they are, as all we know are, survival-miximizing machines. The rules of game theory arise from the nature of existence of agents, so their origin arises with the nature of the universe generally, as do the related rules of economics, etc. .. whatever that is.

    So the question is whether this can render morality more generally objective. I guess I would argue that game theory is not all of morality, (simple satisfaction of altruistic & other inborn and learned sentiments come into it as well), and game theory also assumes some fundamental subjectivity, or self-interestedness. The criterion for any game-theory optimal strategy is ... what can it do for me, or, ideally, what can it do towards a society that I'd like to live in? This is quite different from the concept of objective morality handed down by some be-clouded figure, whose criterion is mysterious, and whose directives are absurd rituals and rules.

    Back to Kant, given all the subjective underpinnings and conditions, then maxims like the golden rule that you refer to as the 1st cl are certainly rational, in an abstract and idealistic sense. How much good that does us is a bit hard to understand, since those very underpinnings are frequently absent. Take the Taliban- they operate by quite a different game theory model, given a lust for power that runs over other sentiments, such as the love of universal maxims. (Other than perhaps the maxim that might+religion makes right, which come to think of is is just as good a universal maxim as that of Kant, objectively speaking.) Apparently, we have a disagreement. What then? Who is rational? I think both sides are rational, but come to different conclusions.

  9. Hi Eric

    It does seem that establishing the rationality of the maxim, in the sense that reason demands the maxim, is difficult. By what criteria, for example, does this affection for lawlike operations trump a definition that states reasonable behaviour is the stance necessarily adopted by a person seeking to maximise the likelihood of a personally desired outcome. Of course this is one of many alternative descriptions of reason, and if the method for choosing between them is itself culturally informed then we're back to subjectivity aren't we? (in the sense that if the boiling point of water was affected by the cultural context of the observer, we would no longer claim an objective relationship between temperature and boiling - to use your example).

    But there also seem to be many other points where subjective judgements are required in implementing and interpreting the maxim. Should one eat meat or not, for example, under this rule? Whether one wishes vegetarianism to be a universal rule depends upon the values one brings to the table, doesn't it?


  10. Hi Eric and all,
    Enjoyed your discussion.
    *Is Kant also offering a descriptive theory for traditional morality? Here's the idea: Most people feel motivation and universalizing are important in morality. Perhaps we feel this way because the rational creature is constantly universalizing every desire and maxim at a conscious or subconscious level (which is why I think universal 'table' when I see an individual table). In the promise example, that constant universalizing activity creates a conflict in my will because I both will that people keep promises and not. Assuming I'm nat selected to value universalizability, I will not to make a false promise as well as to make one. There is a sort of cognitive dissonance (as well as one of will) experinced in the form of the pain of conscience and duty. The universalizing activity of reason and the effect of this activity (e.g. conscience duty dissonance) is like the beating of my heart, it's always there whether I draw my attention to it or not. It's always there because I cannot escape my rational universalizing activity (though I can try... even numb my awareness of it). This is traditional morality. The duty to do the universal good is like the beating of my heart, I can ignore it or listen to it.
    *Of course, This does not solve the motivation problem at all. Perhaps, I want to listen to my heart or universalizing reason/conscience because I've been naturally selected to. It's advantageous to want to act on universalizable maxims. In this case, feeling/reason are still sep and I'm only motivated by feeling. Nevertheless, Kant's theory is helpful in understanding morality if I assume I'm nat selected to want to follow the universalizing will. This is a descriptive interpretation of Kant.
    *On the other hand, could one seek to answer the motivation problem by arguing that reason and feeling are not separate. When I feel something, the feeling essentially involves reasoning and vice versa. In that case, it's no longer a mystery how reason motivates since reason is a type of feeling. Some philosophers like Nussbaum argue that the there is not really a divide between reason and emotion. If that's true also for feeling, then reason could motivate because it is a tpe of feeling. Is the reason/feeling divide justified?
    Paul S

  11. Bernard,

    Regarding the following: "It does seem that establishing the rationality of the maxim, in the sense that reason demands the maxim, is difficult. By what criteria, for example, does this affection for lawlike operations trump a definition that states reasonable behaviour is the stance necessarily adopted by a person seeking to maximise the likelihood of a personally desired outcome."

    Kant DOES regard the exercise of the best way to achieve a desired outcome as an exercise of reason--one in which reason is laying down HYPOTHETICAL imperatives. But how does reason do this? For Kant, it cannot do this apart from its universalizing character. Reason "abstracts" generalizations from particulars--and only by virtue of this universalizing function does it establish hypothetical imperatives. (In situations like S, actions like A will be most effective in producing outcomes like O.)

    Of course, in this case we might say that reason is LOOKING FOR the laws, the general patterns, that can be observed across a range of particulars, as opposed to legislating a general pattern or laying down a law.

    But even this may not be quite right from a Kantian view. Kant was in an important sense convinced by Hume's arguments concerning causation. According to Hume, all we observe are constant conjunctions between "causes" of sort C and "effects" of sort E--but no such observed regularity guarantees that C's and E's are ALWAYS conjoined, let alone conjoined by any NECESSITY.

    And so Kant argued that the "necessity" (if you will) comes from us--that experience is constituted by the interface between minds like ours and the external world, and that it is a feature of the human intellect that it organizes experience in terms of the category of causation (one of the "categories of the understanding").

    In any event, it is part of the function of that part of us we call "reason" to see the world in terms of universals. Reason does this when it generates hypothetical imperatives--but, according to Kant (contra Hume) it also does this in a categorical way. And Paul S is exactly right here that Kant thinks he is DESCRIBING and giving an account of morality as we experience it. According to Kant, what we feel as the tug of duty is a product of reason exercising its universalizing propensity in a categorical way. Paul does a nice job of characterizing this.

    This still leaves open, of course, the question of why we should pay any attention to reason when it is operating in this way. Many don't. They happily focus on their inclinations, paying attention to reason only insofar as it lays down hypothetical imperatives, that is, principles for how to most effectively satisfy those inclinations. If inclinations are the only things that motivate, then only hypothetical imperatives will motivate us. And this last point is true even if we have an inclination to follow the categorical dictates of reason. "If you want to be rational, follow the categorical imperatives laid down by reason" is itself a hypothetical imperative.

    With respect to the broader question of how reason and feelings/emotions are related, my friend John read for me an illuminating quote on the matter by the Kant scholar Allen Wood. I've asked him to send the conplete reference, at which point I'll post it here.

  12. We might recast Bernard's worry in the following terms: if reason operating in one way imposes a categorical imperative on action, while reason operating in another way offers hypothetical imperatives for attaining our desires, why think that it is more rational to follow the former than the latter in cases where they conflict? Why say that REASON demands acting only on those maxims we can will to be universal, if reason ALSO tells us that our happiness is best achieved in some cases by acting on maxims that can't be universalized?

    One answer is to say that in its role of laying down hypothetical imperatives, reason is NOT telling us to act in any way whatsoever. It is simply describing how best to achieve an end, should one want it. If one acts on the imperative, one is acting ON desire, not ON reason. Since reason is in service to desire in this case, it is serving like an advisor who is telling you how best to achieve the ends that the king has told you to achieve. Your desires, however, are the king. It is only when reason is laying down laws categorically that IT is requiring anything of you. And so it is only when you attend to its demands as spelled out in the Categorical Imperative that you are doing what REASON demands (treating reason as the king, if you will).

    Another answer gets us into Kant's philosophy of religion. Ronald Green and others argue that Kant recognized two kinds of rationality--pragmatic and moral--and also recognized that in the world of ordinary experience the two conflict. But this means that reason itself is generating contradictory imperatives--which is incompatible with reason. So reason is forced to adopt a perspective, defined in terms of certain postulates, from which the seemingly divergent demands of reason are reconciled--and so Kant's moral argument for God is born. But that is a topic for another time.

  13. Hi Eric

    Thanks for that. Yes, I can certainly see that Kant sees reason in a certain way, and that from this definition or conception of reason, much of his argument flows.

    The problem, as I see it, is that this conception is itself based upon some pretty big leaps of faith (this notion of the interface between mind and external world for instance is one that I would struggle to buy).

    In terms of objectivity then, the question is, can we construct an objective case to defend Kant's particular take on this? I would suggest that ultimately it isn't possible to remove these culturally informed leaps, which means this version of morality is subjectively grounded, because whether we buy Kant's definition of reason in the first place is apparently a matter of personal taste.

    So, for example in your following post, you speak of Kant distinguishing between those inclinations that are the product of our culture, biology and environment, and those which are derived from reason. There is a good case coming out of the physical sciences that all our inclinations are of this first type, it stands I think as the best current scientific model of the way the brain works. So, if one is culturally inclined, as I am, to give science models primacy in the area of the physical workings of the world, then it becomes difficult to buy what Kant is saying here, doesn't it?

    Now, I don't think it's compulsory to take this view of the physical world, but I do think it's at the very least a plausible stance, and temperament will play a big part in pushing the observer one way or the other. So, if temperament does indeed play this subjective role, in what sense is Kant's system objective? It seems to me it is like the judging panel for a literary award deciding in advance on their criteria and then, using a scoring system, producing a putatively objective measure of the books' worth (actually we use this sham in education all the time).