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My Interpretation and Analysis of Kant's Ideas About Ethics
The standard interpretation of Immanuel Kant's moral philosophy makes almost no sense to me either on its own as viable moral principles or as an understanding of what Kant wrote. I want to offer here my interpretation of what he wrote, taken from his Groundwork in the Metaphysics of Morals (called Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals in the version from which I am mainly quoting passages: The Project Gutenberg EBook of Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals by Immanuel Kant. And it is translated as Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals in the other text from which I quote in some cases (given in square brackets, if not otherwise designated), Lewis White Beck's 1949 University of Chicago Press edition of the Critique of Practical Reason and Other Writings in Moral Philosophy, as reprinted in A.I. Meldon's Ethical Theories: a Book of Readings (2nd edition) by Prentice-Hall, 1955).
Some of the most general crucial points in this work are almost impossible to make full, clear sense of because they are very abstract and Kant doesn't explain them so much as he repeats them in somewhat synonymous language and terminology constructed from them; and he doesn't give sufficient examples or different enough explanations to know what he has in mind just from what he wrote in this work. One can guess other ways to explain it that Kant may or may not have accepted, but without being able to have confirming follow up dialogue with him, it is basically impossible to know whether one's explanations of the obscure crucial points are what he meant or not, as long as they are not inconsistent with his text, though it is fairly clear what he meant is not how it is usually portrayed.
Ethics, also called moral philosophy, requires logic, sensitivity, and understanding of human nature, the last of which involves empirical knowledge. Kant is interested in elucidating the underlying fundamental basis of what he considers the purely logical part of moral philosophy, and that is important to keep in mind. He is not trying in this work to give what he would call the practical laws (what we might today call operating principles) of moral philosophy. He is seeking to give the underlying fundamentals of
"... a metaphysic of morals, which must be carefully cleared of everything empirical, so that we may know how much can be accomplished by pure reason ..."The italicized emphasis is mine, to make clear he is discussing one principle, though he gives three formulations of it, which in appearance seem different, and seem to mean different things. The goal here is to try to explain why or how he thinks they are the same principle.
"The three modes of presenting the principle of morality that have been adduced are at bottom only so many formulae of the very same law, and each of itself involves the other two. ... All maxims, in fact, have:
Elsewhere the third formulation of the maxim is: "The
principle of autonomy ... : 'Always choose so that the same volition
shall comprehend the maxims of our choice as a universal law.'" I will discuss that at the end of this paper.
However, Kant seems to me to stray into practical or empirical aspects of morality in the work, and the formulations of his principle are then taken to be moral principles by many readers, rather than underlying logical principles. Plus, he doesn't seem to make or see a distinction between right acts and good people or goodness in people, and that makes some of his points seem false at worst or at best difficult to see how to understand them so they could be true.
So, if we make the distinction between 1) being a good person acting in the most reasonable way and 2) doing right acts, it seems to me that Kant is writing in large part about being a good, reasonable person, a deserving person a person, as below, "worthy of happiness." This means a person of the highest good intentions always who works hard to fulfill those intentions, and who does the most reasonable (i.e., rational) acts in adherence to rational principles. That will make more sense than considering him to be writing about right acts for the most part.
The reason I say this means a rational person always of the highest good intentions and that it makes more sense than considering him to be writing about right acts for the most part is because the following would seem patently false if he were talking about doing right acts.
"A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition....:Kant recognizes that if this were about right acts, it would seem false:
In other words, how can a person acting on good intentions be considered to be of great moral value if he does not do anything of actual use or value itself or that is right?
I would say that would simply make him a good person -- because of his intentions alone -- as long as he is not negligent in his failures to know what is right to do. One can be a good person by having non-negligent good intentions, even if one does things that turn out to be wrong in the sense of being harmful or not helpful. Kant goes on to explain his own answer, however, which will essentially be that doing good things which bring about happiness is overrated. First, he presumes there is a distinction between happiness and true satisfaction and that true satisfaction is a good thing, though not always involving happiness or its rational pursuit, and not always accompanying happiness. Happiness is neither necessary nor sufficient for true satisfaction, is sometimes counter-productive to achieving true satisfaction or conflicting with it, and a rational good will frequently fails to achieve happiness:
"...we find that the more a cultivated reason applies itself with deliberate purpose to the enjoyment of life and happiness, so much the more does the man fail of true satisfaction. And from this circumstance there arises in many, if they are candid enough to confess it, a certain ... hatred of reason, especially in the case of those who are most experienced in the use of it, because after calculating all the advantages they derive, ... they find that they have, in fact, only brought more trouble on their shoulders, rather than gained in happiness; and they end by envying, rather than despising, the more common stamp of men who keep closer to the guidance of mere instinct and do not allow their reason much influence on their conduct."As one example of this, one of my older friends told the story of his staying at a hotel one time when a small fire, or at least smoke, broke out in the night. He and others went throughout the hotel, even to higher floors to bang on doors and make sure everyone was awake and knew to get out. It was the right thing to do, but it was scary, and he was satisfied to be able to do it, but harbored a certain amount of resentment in the process that he was in the predicament of having to do it, particularly if he were to end up being trapped in the fire. He wasn't; no one was; everyone got out okay, however. But that is an example of reason's bringing trouble on one's shoulders, because helping evacuate the hotel was the reasonable, principled thing to do, even with the possible risk. And in life in general, taking a principled stand will often cost one a job or sex with a willing partner one doesn't really want to exploit even though one is lustful, or some other desired end that rational ethical principles would say would not be right to attain in the way they are available no matter how emotionally compelling.
But that does not mean, according to Kant, that we should not have a good will nor use reason. Instead we should take it to mean there is a higher good than happiness:
"And this we must admit, that the judgement of those who would very much lower the lofty eulogies of the advantages which reason gives us in regard to the happiness and satisfaction of life, or who would even reduce them below zero, is by no means morose or ungrateful to the goodness with which the world is governed, but that there lies at the root of these judgements the idea that our existence has a different and far nobler end, for which, and not for happiness, reason is properly intended, and which must, therefore, be regarded as the supreme condition to which the private ends of man must, for the most part, be postponed."
However, Kant seems to fail to realize that though not all happiness is good, noble, or deserved, that does not mean some is not, or that happiness of the right sort (or under certain conditions) can be a worthy pursuit. In contrast, some utilitarians mistakenly equate all happiness with the highest good and fail to see that there can be short term happiness that brings long term dissatisfaction or even despair, or oppositely that some significant short-term happiness can even be worth long-term suffering, and that, perhaps even worse, there can be ignoble, unjust, and undeserved happiness. And they fail to see that some goods and worthy pursuits do not involve happiness, in the normal sense of joy, at all and may even require sacrifice. There are good things that right acts bring about, besides deserved happiness.
I think it would be better and more clear to consider the morality of happiness in terms of what might be called "deserved", "justified", or "rightful" happiness, and to consider that there are other important things (such as justice and fairness, and complying with rights) that a person should seek, and would have to seek in order to be considered to have a good will -- not just seeking happiness or other benefits no matter of what sort or how attained. Kant seems to have some notion of pure rational duty or of a pure sense of duty apart from seeking fairness, justice, good things of various sorts, and deserved or justified happiness; and that seems to me to be the wrong thing to focus on as the single or most important aspect of morality, just as happiness is mistaken to focus on as the single most important goal or end of morality. Moreover, he seems to think rational, pursued good intentions are the hallmark of morality, regardless of the result, whereas I think they (at least non-negligent good intentions) are the hallmark of being a good or deserving person, but not necessarily of right acts. Right acts require achieving or bestowing deserved happiness, justice, fairness, upholding or defending rights, etc., not just seeking to achieve or bestow them.
Because of his own mistake in this matter, Kant then downplays the pursuit of happiness (even of the right sort) and instead fixes too much on the nature and benefits of a pure rational good will.
"We have then to develop the notion of a will which deserves to be highly esteemed for itself and is good without a view to anything further, ... and which in estimating the value of our actions always takes the first place and constitutes the condition of all the rest."It is not that Kant thinks happiness is unimportant, but he thinks it not a pursuit of moral value and not a pursuit of pure reason:
"he should promote his happiness not from inclination but from duty, and by this would his conduct first acquire true moral worth".
And somehow, he then presupposes that a good will stems or follows from, implies, or incorporates a sense of duty which establishes the criteria for what constitutes goodness of will:
"In order to do this, we will take the notion of duty, which includes that of a good will, although implying certain subjective restrictions and hindrances. These, however, far from concealing it, or rendering it unrecognizable, rather bring it out by contrast and make it shine forth so much the brighter."Now there are three allures of the concept of duty. First, it is redundant and tautological to say one should do one's duty or that one has an obligation to pursue duty over self. That is like saying one should do what one should do, or that one has an obligation to pursue one's obligations (if they override, outweigh, conflict with, or do not involve self-interest). Duty is another word for obligation and both presuppose that what is obligatory or one's duty is what is right. While people might disagree about what is right and therefore one's duty, no one would without contradiction be able to say "You have a duty to do that act, even though it is the wrong act to do." When someone argues one should do one's duty, as in obeying an order in the military, even though it will lead to some admittedly bad result, they still think the act is right and that obedience to command of a lawful order is more morally important than preventing harm or doing good. The sense of duty that Kant is talking about is what is one's actual duty and what is actually right, which he thinks can be known. The problem is that saying one should always do one's duty and that duty implies doing the right act, doesn't say which act(s) or option(s) available is (or are) right and constitutes one's duty. One should, of course, always and only do what is right, but that doesn't say what is right. Kant will address that but, I think, unsatisfactorily.
The second allure is that when what is right requires some self-denial or self-sacrifice, it can be psychologically or emotionally difficult, and for most people it is psychologically or emotionally difficult, to do what is right, even when one knows what that is. That is why Aristotle pointed out that one needs to practice and habituate oneself to being virtuous or excellent, not just knowing what moral excellence and virtue are. One needs, as both Aristotle and Kant see, moral character, not just moral knowledge. But what Kant doesn't see, that Aristotle does, is that moral character implies first knowing what is right. Duty derives from what is right; it does not determine it. And character derives from doing or trying to do what is right; it does not determine it. People of impeccable character, willing to always to meet their obligations, do not always do what is right, because they sometimes err in knowing what is right to do. That does not make them bad or less good people; they are still good people, because they have what Kant is calling a good will -- the desire and willingness, character, and capability to do what is right, no matter how difficult or personally unrewarding it might be for them. But it does not make what they do necessarily right or of moral value as an act. But of equal importance, one should not confuse cases of right acts which require a sense of duty or obligation or strong character with all cases of doing right acts. Kant says:
In other words, one should not do wrong acts even if they have some benefit. But he continues:
For example, one might do what is right in order to avoid punishment, not because one feels naturally inclined to do the act based on its intrinsic value. But one can also be inclined to do what is right, but not because it is right:
In the way I see these last two case, the person doing the act only to avoid harm to him/herself and/or only to gain some sort of benefit for him/herself can still be doing the right act, but is not thereby necessarily a good person, with good character. Unfortunately those who profess to follow Kantian ethics seem to confuse blind obedience to what is considered duty and that takes an act of will to do it, with therefore doing the right thing. And too often they confuse doing what is self-beneficial with doing the wrong thing, particularly if it would take an act of will to deny oneself a benefit and be blindly obedient to the denial they mistakenly think is right. Moreover, Kant himself argues an act has no "moral import" if it brings benefit or joy to the agent. This makes possibly some sense in his first example, since we do not normally consider it "moral" that people want to (continue to) live under normal circumstances, but we do if someone is facing a painful, prolonged, debilitating illness or for some other reason lives in total emotional despair and suffering, yet chooses to fight on instead of taking their own life:
"... it is a duty to maintain one's life; and, in addition, everyone has also a direct inclination to do so. But on this account the [often] anxious care which most men take for it has no intrinsic worth, and their maxim has no moral import. They preserve their life as duty requires, no doubt, but not because duty requires. On the other band, if adversity and hopeless sorrow have completely taken away the relish for life; if the unfortunate one, strong in mind, indignant at his fate rather than despond[ent] or dejected, wishes for death, and yet preserves his life without loving it- not from inclination or fear, but from duty- then his maxim has a moral worth."But his further explanation and examples do not make sense, unless one is simply equating or defining "moral worth" or "moral import" with acting out of obligation rather than from an intrinsic desire to do what is clearly right. There is no reason to equate "moral worth" or "moral value" with that or define it that way. Acting solely out of a sense of duty to do what is right when one is not so inclined intrinsically to do what is right does indeed have moral value and moral import, but 1) doing the right thing for any reason also always has moral important, even about one's character, for it says a lot about someone that they instinctively and naturally wish to have other people benefit and thrive, and don't just help others begrudgingly; 2) a person with admirable will power who acts only out of a sense of obligation can still do the wrong thing, in which case the moral value is mixed -- showing character but still being wrong, sometimes even unreasonably wrong; and 3) in general the concepts of moral import, moral value, and moral significance are not just about character, but about doing what is right -- right and wrong, not just character, are concepts of moral import too. So the following is simply wrong unless one is talking only about acting out of a sense of duty and mistaking that for all morality and moral value:
"To be beneficent when we can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth, but is on a level with other inclinations, e.g., the inclination to honour, which, if it is happily directed to that which is in fact of public utility and accordant with duty and consequently honourable, deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem. For the maxim lacks the moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination. Put the case that the mind of that philanthropist were clouded by sorrow of his own, extinguishing all sympathy with the lot of others, and that, while he still has the power to benefit others in distress, he is not touched by their trouble because he is absorbed with his own; and now suppose that he tears himself out of this dead insensibility, and performs the action without any inclination to it, but simply from duty, then first has his action its genuine moral worth. Further still; if nature has put little sympathy in the heart of this or that man; if he, supposed to be an upright man, is by temperament cold and indifferent to the sufferings of others, perhaps because in respect of his own he is provided with the special gift of patience and fortitude and supposes, or even requires, that others should have the same- and such a man would certainly not be the meanest product of nature- but if nature had not specially framed him for a philanthropist, would he not still find in himself a source from whence to give himself a far higher worth than that of a good-natured temperament could be? Unquestionably. It is just in this that the moral worth of the character is brought out which is incomparably the highest of all, namely, that he is beneficent, not from inclination, but from duty.Yes, it is (morally) admirable that someone gives to charity out of a sense of obligation even (or especially) if it requires painful sacrifice on their part. But it is also (morally) admirable that someone gives to charity out of a joy in their heart from helping others. I cannot see that benevolence and charity bestowed out of duty is more morally important, significant, or valuable, nor more right than that bestowed out of a joy of giving and helping. And there are certainly cases where people do not want to receive sacrificial charity, and instead prefer for any help that comes to them be given with joy because they think it wrong for the donor to sacrifice for them but right for her/him to donate if it brings her/him joy or, on Kant's terms, satisfaction.
Moreover, it is often the case that it becomes easy to do something otherwise emotionally difficult, once we see it is intrinsically right to do. That does not make it any less an obligation, just less of an onerous obligation. That is the point of Aristotle's wanting virtue to become second nature through practice. Kant knows that too, and thinks it applies to the rational person with good will, the person who can deduce correctly what is right and whose desires are to do what is right regardless of the content of what is right even (or especially) when the content itself engenders desires that conflict with the general moral desire to do what is right -- in other words to do what goes against one's inclinations, simply because it is right, not because one wants to do the act for any other reason or cause:
"It is in this manner, undoubtedly, that we are to understand those passages of Scripture also in which we are commanded to love our neighbour, even our enemy. For love, as an affection, cannot be commanded, but beneficence for duty's sake may; even though we are not impelled to it by any inclination -- nay, are even repelled by a natural and unconquerable aversion. This is practical love and not pathological -- a love which is seated in the will, and not in the [propensities of feeling] -- in principles of action and not of tender sympathy; and it is this love alone which can be commanded."While it is true that affection is not necessarily granted on command, it can be fostered by seeing that affection for an enemy can still be important in certain kinds of situations and that some enemies have redeeming qualities if one but seek them. Also, even if one must kill an enemy, even one with no redeeming qualities, one need not take satisfaction in doing so, but instead one could be sorrowful that any person had such a nature that made him or her need to be killed, harmed or imprisoned, even if that were right to do. One can theoretically love or respect an enemy as a fellow human being, and have some compassion for him/her, without thereby being self-sacrificing instead of defending himself with all necessary force. That is no different from being regretful one has to put down a rabid dog one does not know. So the command to love one's neighbor or enemy is not necessarily a difficult command to follow -- not for a person with a good will -- if it is taken to mean having respect and compassion for them, as opposed to attraction or spontaneous affection. I think Kant's perfectly rational, absolutely good will is the kind of person that can do that, as well as knowing and doing all other right acts simply because it has a respect for rightness and a love for doing what is right, and the means to determine what is right. The satisfaction of being virtuous can override the unhappiness of not doing what one naturally wants that one knows would be wrong, or of doing what one does not want to do that one knows is right. In that way, for the rational person with the good will, it is not difficult, or at least not onerous, to do what s/he knows is right.
So the following is false, other than in being about one's character in regard to being deserving and being a good person simply because one tries to do what is right, even if one fails and even if one is non-negligently (my qualification here) unaware one is trying to do what is wrong, and non-negligently mistaken about what the right thing is to do:
"...an action done from duty derives its moral worth, not from the purpose which is to be attained by it, but from the maxim by which it is determined, and therefore does not depend on the realization of the object of the action, but merely on the principle of volition by which the action has taken place, without regard to any object of desire."And the following also is false because the fact anyone can become happy or make others happy for motives other than duty does not show that duty is the only moral good, and that wholly voluntarily beneficent acts which make the agent happy to do are not moral goods nor acts with moral worth.
"... the moral worth of an action does not lie in the effect expected from it, nor in any principle of action which requires to borrow its motive from this expected effect. For all these effects- agreeableness of one's condition and even the promotion of the happiness of others- could have been also brought about by other causes, so that for this there would have been no need of the will of a rational being; whereas it is in this alone that the supreme and unconditional good can be found. The pre-eminent good which we call moral can therefore consist in nothing else than the conception of law in itself, which certainly is only possible in a rational being, in so far as this conception, and not the expected effect, determines the will. This is a good which is already present in the person who acts accordingly, and we have not to wait for it to appear first in the result."The third allure of the concept of duty is that when it is clear an agent is doing an act, or arguing for the rightness of an act, out of duty or moral principle, rather than the pursuit of self-benefit, personal reward, or mere desire, it gives his/her argument and character more credence to many people. And in particular, when one argues for an act detrimental to one's own self-interest, it is especially clear that one is acting on principle or out of duty. When I was in graduate school, I was an academic advisor to freshmen and sophomores, and I was able to easily resolve problems they had with teachers or other offices though I was unable to begin to address those same problems for myself with my teachers or some administrator because I knew it would sound self-serving and whining to advocate for an option or exception that would benefit me, even though I thought the principle behind it was right and was not a mere rationalization for my own personal advantage. It was just easier for me psychologically to argue as a counselor on behalf of a student than to give the same kind of argument on behalf of myself. And normally it seems to others more admirable to argue from principle than from personal gain, and it is more compelling to heed and trust someone you know is arguing from, or acting on, principle. Logically, it should not matter to the agent or to the listener or observer, but psychologically it does matter in many cases.
On the other hand, some people are so disposed to think that others are always self-seeking that they don't understand people who argue from a principle that will actually be a detriment to themselves, and often consider such people to have a hidden agenda they cannot figure out and so cannot be trusted. Often, it is ironic, however, and almost ludicrous, if it weren't so serious, that self-serving people with no moral scruples consider those who act from principles to be "loose cannons who cannot be trusted" because their behavior can never be predicted by those who have no sense of moral principles, but know how people will act to seek their own advantage.
Kant then goes on to explain what sort of law or maxim is in fact an actual duty or obligation, and he says:
"But what sort of law can that be, the conception of which must determine the will, even without paying any regard to the effect expected from it, in order that this will may be called good absolutely and without qualification? As I have deprived the will of every impulse which could arise to it from obedience to any law, there remains nothing but the universal conformity of its actions to law in general, which alone is to serve the will as a principle, i.e., I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law." ... "I do not, therefore, need any far-reaching penetration to discern what I have to do in order that my will may be morally good. Inexperienced in the course of the world, incapable of being prepared for all its contingencies, I only ask myself: Canst thou also will that thy maxim should be a universal law? If not, then it must be rejected, and that not because of a disadvantage accruing from it to myself or even to others, but because it cannot enter as a principle into a possible universal legislation, and reason extorts from me immediate respect for such legislation."
He gives the example of whether it could be right to give a false promise in order to extricate oneself from a difficult situation, and concludes tentatively it would not be right because:
"I see clearly indeed that it is not enough to extricate myself from a present difficulty by means of this subterfuge, but it must be well considered whether there may not hereafter spring from this lie much greater inconvenience than that from which I now free myself, and as, with all my supposed cunning, the consequences cannot be so easily foreseen but that credit once lost may be much more injurious to me than any mischief ["misfortune" in the Beck translation] which I seek to avoid at present, it should be considered whether it would not be more prudent to act herein according to a universal maxim and to make it a habit to promise nothing except with the intention of keeping it."While this might be true in some or most ordinary cases -- ones where the difficulty can be characterized as having to suffer inconvenience or mischief, surely 1) the knowledge that some people make false promises or make promises circumstances do not permit them to keep even though honestly made, and that any promise might be one such, does not by itself render the whole activity of making and accepting promises worthless. But more importantly, 2) some circumstances might be so devastating and undeserved that if a false promise will extricate someone from it, and they deserve to be extricated from it, they should be. And for such cases, 3) it is difficult to imagine that in making a false promise "credit once lost may be much more injurious to [the person] than the [result to be avoided] at present." Surely if the only options are to lose one's life (undeservedly) or one's credibility, it would be better and more rational to risk losing the credibility. Similarly if it involves saving one's credibility or an innocent third person's life, it would be better and more rational, again, to risk losing one's credibility.
Yet Kant thinks 2 and 3 are not significant because they fall under avoiding "a disadvantage accruing ... to myself or even to others," and are not sufficient because they are based on specific possibly bad consequences. He thinks the problem denied in 1 is the greater one, for:
"...it is soon clear to me that such a maxim will still only be based on the fear of consequences. Now it is a wholly different thing to be truthful from duty and to be so from apprehension of injurious consequences. In the first case, the very notion of the action already implies a law for me; in the second case, I must first look about elsewhere to see what results may be combined with it which would affect myself. For to deviate from the principle of duty is beyond all doubt wicked; but to be unfaithful to my maxim of prudence may often be very advantageous to me, although to abide by it is certainly safer. The shortest way, however, and an unerring one, to discover the answer to this question whether a lying promise is consistent with duty, is to ask myself, "Should I be content that my maxim (to extricate myself from difficulty by a false promise) should hold good as a universal law, for myself as well as for others?" and should I be able to say to myself, "Every one may make a deceitful promise when he finds himself in a difficulty from which he cannot otherwise extricate himself?" Then I presently become aware that while I can will the lie, I can by no means will that lying should be a universal law. For with such a law there would be no promises at all, since it would be in vain to allege my intention in regard to my future actions to those who would not believe this allegation, or if they over hastily did so would pay me back in my own coin. Hence my maxim, as soon as it should be made a universal law, would necessarily destroy itself."The problems with Kant's maxim explained in this way are 1) the question is not whether one should will lying and the making of false promises in all difficult situations, but whether it might be right in particularly dire, undeserved ones, 2) there are cases of obligations that are not universal and would be absurd to make universal if framed in certain ways, not precluded by asking whether they can be universalized or not -- such as whether it is right to have sex with one's spouse if one cannot universalize that everyone should have sex with him/her or even with their own spouse. Even in marriage, sex is not always right, and so one would not be able to universalize the maxim one should have sex with one's spouse, and 3) the opposite of always telling the truth or making honorable promises is not 'never doing so,' but sometimes not doing so. That one cannot universalize or truthfully say that 'it is always permissible to lie,' does not mean it is never permissible to lie. I, in fact, argue that it is permissible to lie in certain kinds of cases (see "Legitimately Lying") and that there is a universal principle that governs when.
And, as pointed out above, false promises are sometimes made, and yet the "institution" of making, accepting, and relying on promises is not shattered. Moreover, one would have to be a fool not to entertain the idea that a person in undeserved dire straights might make a false promise in order to extricate himself. It would be naive to accept someone's word in such a situation without some strong supporting evidence they are likely to keep it, but that hardly means one should not accept a promise to pay back a minor, legitimate loan, or to meet for coffee at a certain time and convenient place next week. Moreover, we all know that the spirit of any agreement, including a legal contract approved by one's lawyer, can be broken even if the terms themselves are technically upheld. Yet, we daily enter into all kinds of transactions and agreements, and on occasion enter into major ones,and we assume that, without evidence to the contrary, the agreement is made honestly and with both parties' intent to honor it if possible. One doesn't need to know that someone has lied before to know they may be untrustworthy and lying now. And even if the other person has not lied before, circumstances might be too tempting for him not to begin now. So there is nothing in the concept of promise-making itself or even of past promise keeping that makes it rational to trust someone just because he has given his word. Maybe in a world of perfectly rational persons with absolutely good wills, but not in the real world. We normally seek other evidence that the agreement will be kept, including being justly permitted to exact substantial punishment and penalties for breaking it. So even if honest promise-making, and promise-keeping should be a universal principle, that isn't because it needs to be always trustworthy. Not being fully trustworthy has not ruined the institution of promising. Occasional false promises have not, and do not, negate the possibility of promises and they have not rendered promises meaningless.
And when someone is in dire circumstances and promising us something, we need extra verification, not just that he has been honest in the past but, that he will be honest this time. In the movie Django, the eponymous character is being taken back into slavery by particularly harsh owners. He devises a plan to escape that uses evidence to support that he is telling them the truth, though he is not. He tells them truthfully that he was a free man the day before and that he is a bounty hunter who rode freely on horseback (unheard of for a slave) onto the plantation that is selling him as a slave. He also truthfully says that he is carrying in his pocket a wanted dead or alive poster for members of a gang that robbed stage coaches and killed innocent people; the reward is $11,500. All this, his transporters easily confirm, setting the stage for his lies that they then believe -- that the gang members are on the plantation that is selling him, and that he was seeking them and found them, and that if they help him go there and kill or capture the gang members, he will split the reward handsomely with them. The truth is that he (and his late partner) already had killed all the people on that poster and had collected the money, and he was only saving the poster as a souvenir of his first successful bounty hunt. His transporters didn't know the bounty had been collected already and it seemed likely to them he would only be carrying the poster if he was still looking for them, particularly recently, so they freed him and gave him a gun, which he promptly used to kill all of them, thus definitely securing his freedom and obviating Kant's worry about his loss of credibility. That also made it unnecessary for him to rely on their promise to let him go or allow him to keep any of the reward. They didn't have to have lied to him before in order for him to know, or strongly suspect, they were lying about helping him for a share of the money and letting him go once he pointed out the wanted suspects.
Now, it is of course true that correct ethical principles ought to apply, and be believed to apply, in all morally relevant cases. But that does not mean that all principles believed to be universal are actually correct moral principles or even helpful descriptive ones. When I was an undergraduate at a large campus, long before the abundant availability of computers, registration took place at a large gymnasium, with long lines of students waiting to get times sections of courses their counselors had approved. Everything had to be done by hand using lists and keeping track of open sections of courses. Sometimes there were no sections left that didn't conflict with other courses. That meant the student would need to get a counselor to approve a different course. Sometimes counselors were at the gym to take care of such problems, but if not, the student would have to go back to a counseling office and hope to be able to see someone. I was not sure how the process worked if one couldn't get all one's courses and asked the counselor I was seeing what I should do if any of my courses were filled with no slots left. He angrily said "You'll do whatever everyone else does." I said "Well, of course, but what exactly is that? What does everyone else do in that case?" His telling me that I should follow the universal policy and procedure didn't tell me what the universal procedure or policy was. So Kant's principle, while it is true of all right principles, does not necessarily serve to tell which of all possible, non-contradictory options is the best or right one. Being universal is a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for determining whether an act is right or not.
Moreover, it is difficult to properly formulate correct moral principles so that they contain within them the criteria that designates all and only the proper exceptions to them. Seeking simplistic forms of universality is not going to do that, and even though Kant knew that, as shown in the next passage, his maxim is misused frequently by those who do not, and who mistakenly try to use or require wrongly simplistic moral principles to justify acts.
"... a man is not a thing, that is to say, something which can be used merely as means, but must in all his actions be always considered as an end in himself. I cannot, therefore, dispose in any way of a man in my own person so as to mutilate him, to damage or kill him. (It belongs to ethics proper to define this principle more precisely, so as to avoid all misunderstanding, e. g., as to the amputation of the limbs in order to preserve myself, as to exposing my life to danger with a view to preserve it, etc.)"Sometimes his maxim of universality is expressed in the rhetorical question "What if everyone did that?" implying it would be wrong for anyone to do it if it cannot be willed or allowed that everyone do it. But again, there is no reason five people cannot walk on the grass when that won't harm the grass, even though it would be ruinous and there would be no grass if everyone always walked on it. Or it might be that a certain pathway is so significant that it is okay if everyone uses it and wears out the grass in that place. Perhaps sidewalks should be put where the paths are worn, rather than requiring everyone stay off the grass. Or maybe the rule should be not to walk on the grass if it is starting to be pressed down without full resilience.
But a major problem with holding that all and only universal principles ought to be followed is that even a rational person can mistakenly believe that a principle is right even if it would be to his own disadvantage under certain circumstances. Rawls' "veil of ignorance", for example, does not keep people, even rational people, from believing bad principles. For example, many wealthy people (and even those without any wealth) believe that unfettered free market capitalism is fair, best, and right for everyone, and that anyone who deserves to prosper in a free market will, whether or not those who do not deserve to prosper will also. They have the firm belief that if they were born into poverty, no matter what race or circumstances, they would have all the opportunities they need to rise above it and not only succeed, but flourish. Insofar as that might not be true, that does not make them question their believed universality of the principle. Oppositely, devout socialists or communists can believe in the universality of those systems as being best and fairest for everyone, whether they are or not. So it is open to serious doubt that a rational person's believing a principle to be universal thereby makes it a right principle. Kant seems to think that pure rationality determines which principles are universal, but it is not clear to me how to determine which moral beliefs are purely rational. There are sections where he seems to think that can be done, but even there some of his arguments seem to be about what works best for the agent, not what is in some sense purely rational, whatever that might be apart from being simply self-contradictory:
Consider that someone "who is in prosperity, while he sees that others have to contend with great wretchedness and that he could help them, thinks: "What concern is it of mine? Let everyone be as happy as Heaven pleases, or as he can make himself; I will take nothing from him nor even envy him, only I do not wish to contribute anything to his welfare or to his assistance in distress!" Now no doubt if such a mode of thinking were a universal law, the human race might very well subsist and doubtless even better than in a state in which everyone talks of sympathy and good-will, or even takes care occasionally to put it into practice, but, on the other side, also cheats when he can, betrays the rights of men, or otherwise violates them. But although it is possible that a universal law of nature might exist in accordance with that maxim, it is impossible to will that such a principle should have the universal validity of a law of nature. For 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."He tries to make this principle universal without its being based on benevolence or utility of self-interest, the motive for which he has claimed have no moral import, but I think he fails to do that. He distinguishes between self-contradictory principles/laws on the one hand and, on the other hand those principles or proposed laws which cannot be willed to be universal because one could not consistently hold them, as the above. But the reason for not being able to be consistent is that it would lead to bad consequences for oneself if one were in need and desirous of the help of others. A Spartan or merely obstinately independent person could very well deny the universality of a principle of charity or benevolence precisely because he would not want anyone doing him any favors no matter how much his need or how little it would cost them to help him. But most people are not inclined to be Spartan or obstinately independent when in need and help is willingly available. That is out of self-need, or even self-preservation, not pure rationality. Benevolence, benefit, and need are disguised as rational consistency.
There are two other formulations Kant gives of his principle of universality, though they do not seem on the surface to say the same thing. They are frequently, nearly always today, misrepresented. The second formulation, which I think is the most difficult to comprehend or see to be right in the way Kant argues for it and seems to conceive it, is:
"So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only."This does not simply mean in the way Kant is using it that one should not exploit others, take advantage of them, or "use" them. If it meant that, it could not mean the same as "Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature," though it would follow from that if one also could not will that oneself be used only as a means. Kant's explanation of, and reasoning behind, this formulation of his principle is very difficult to comprehend.
First, however, it must be said that there are many circumstances in which we have no objection to being used only as a means. We willingly "pass the bread, butter, salt, carrots, or the turkey" to those who ask us to do so at a dinner table. We are not being exploited in being the means to their obtaining those items. And we willingly divide labor and then trade with each other in a free market to be able to obtain more than we each could have alone if we had to do everything by ourselves. We "use" each others' labor in trade as a means for having more services and products than we can produce by ourselves.
Second, we do universalize such use by willingly reciprocating when someone asks us to pass them something from the other side of the dinner table, but voluntary reciprocal usage of each other is not the same thing as not treating people only as means. And in fact our reciprocity is treating each other as means and allowing ourselves to be treated as a means.
And surely Kant would have known those two things.
What Kant has in mind in this formulation of his principle is something else, something which, for me at least, is really difficult to comprehend from his explanation and reasoning, but which is an argument having nothing to do with exploitation, particularly if the person exploited voluntarily agrees to the act that exploits him or her:
"Suppos[e], however, that there were something whose existence has in itself an absolute worth, something which, being an end in itself, could be a source of definite laws; then in this and this alone would lie the source of a possible categorical imperative, i.e., a practical law."According to Kant, a living person or the rational mind is such a thing of absolute worth, and is thus an end in itself:
"... man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions, whether they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at the same time as an end."While I can see that considering 1) a rational being to be of absolute worth and considering 2) something of absolute worth to be an end in itself, would imply that 3) rational beings would be ends in themselves, I do not see that ends in themselves can not also be means for other ends. Why cannot a person of absolute worth also be someone you use or utilize as a means to obtain the salt shaker at dinner or pay to help build a car on an assembly line, or trade with for something you want?
And while I can see that if one is to regard oneself as rational and therefore an end in itself, one must universalize that to considering all rational beings as ends in themselves, I do not see that it means every person is a rational being or has (or is) an absolutely good will. It may not even mean one is rational oneself, at least not just because one thinks one is. But suppose we could accept that or assume Kant is only talking about those wills which are both perfectly rational and absolutely good, so that it is tautologically or circularly true,
"... the metaphysics of morals has to examine the idea and the principles of a possible pure will, and not the acts and conditions of human volition generally, which for the most part are drawn from psychology."Kant then goes on to say:
"We can now end where we started at the beginning, namely, with the conception of a will unconditionally good. That will is absolutely good which cannot be evil -- in other words, whose maxim, if made a universal law, could never contradict itself. This principle, then, is its supreme law: 'Act always on such a maxim as thou canst at the same time will to be a universal law'; this is the sole condition under which a will can never contradict itself; and such an imperative is categorical. ... the categorical imperative can also be expressed thus: Act on maxims which can at the same time have for their object themselves as universal laws of nature. Such then is the formula of an absolutely good will."That seems to me to mean (but I cannot know for certain it is what Kant means) that the acts and beliefs of a perfectly rational being with a good will, are consistent and identical with universally true principles, and that both are ends in themselves -- the universal principles and the perfectly rational, absolutely good persons. Since rational universal principles are ends we should pursue, we should then treat all perfectly rational, absolutely good people (people who have good wills) as ends in themselves. That would make the two imperatives turn out to be the same thing: 1) "Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature," and 2) "So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only." Again, whatever that might mean, it does not mean that people should not be exploited, even if it is true that people should not be exploited. And because Kant talks about not using people "only as means" or "merely as means," it seems he allows them to be used as means, as long as they are also considered ends, in terms of having absolute value.
There is one other formulation that suggests a possible meaning for the maxim to treat humanity as ends, not means -- that the right moral law or principle is that which commands the proper ends for all persons, considered to have the same ends by virtue of their rational natures and good wills. He says:
"If then there is a supreme practical principle or, in respect of the human will, a categorical imperative, it must be one which, being drawn from the conception of that which is necessarily an end for everyone because it is an end in itself, constitutes an objective principle of will, and can therefore serve as a universal practical law. The foundation of this principle is: rational nature exists as an end in itself."That is to equate rational ends with the proper end of (and to be pursued by) every rational nature. Hence, the proper ends for all people would be universal and would be ends they have in common by virtue of their rational capacity and nature.
"... if we abstract from the personal differences of rational beings and likewise from all the content of their private ends, we shall be able to conceive all ends combined in a systematic whole...."
Now the third formulation of the moral principle is:
"The principle of autonomy...: 'Always choose so that the same volition shall comprehend the maxims of our choice as a universal law.'"
The idea here is that one is acting autonomously when one freely chooses one's actions and that is done when and only when one acts in accordance with a duty one rationally sees applies to oneself and rationally willingly chooses to do, rather than following any natural inclination (or compulsion). Since it applies to one as a rational being, it must therefore be 1) universally applicable to all rational beings and 2) must then also have an end suitable for beings of absolute intrinsic worth and value which rational beings are and how they must be treated. The characteristic of being of, or having, absolute intrinsic value is what he refers to in another passage as also the definition or hallmark of possessing dignity:
"In the kingdom of ends everything has either value or dignity. Whatever has a value can be replaced by something else which is equivalent; whatever, on the other hand, is above all value, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity."Hence, the three formulations of Kant's principle describe the criteria by which any perfectly rational (person of) perfectly good will should, and would, voluntarily choose to act. These are relatively minimal criteria or descriptions and do not show by themselves, which principles proposed to be either general ethical ones or guides for choosing options in any particular cases, are right. They simply limit the range of possibly valid proposed principles by saying they must incorporate proper ends for all rational, people of absolute good will [in the same morally relevant circumstances] to follow consistently and voluntarily by their own choice. That leaves ample room to debate about any particular proposed principles. And it leaves ample room to debate about what constitutes the same morally relevant circumstances and why.
It is not clear, for instance, as explained earlier, that Kant's examples in the Foundations of the the Metaphysics of Morals meet these criteria. And, like the ideas and meanings in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Kant's ideas and their meanings are often today understood in ways he does not use them in the work, to try to justify principles he would not hold. For one thing, Kant's principles neither hold nor imply, as they are usually mistakenly claimed to today, that people should be able to freely decide to choose any act they wish on the basis of autonomy or dignity if that means simply whimsical or emotional license. If a choice would be irrational or guided by physical causes or natural inclinations, it need not be honored and is not autonomous. As they say, "Friends don't let friends drive drunk." And that is the case even if the only person they might possibly hurt would be themselves.
Nor is it the case that universal principles have to be necessarily simplistic, as many people seem to think. Medical ethics places great emphasis on the simplistic precept to "Do no harm." But Kant has already shown that is not the proper precept, for cases of amputation (or almost any surgery, particularly major surgery) does harm, and yet is right in some cases if necessary to save a life.
Nor does Kant argue in the Foundations that man-made laws must always be obeyed, not if they are unfair, unequal, coercive and/or irrational. He seems to be talking only about rational laws that are the products of (people with) good wills, and voluntarily accepted by them as a matter of principle.
And Kant's imperatives do not necessarily recognize all forms of coercion, particularly coercion which is in some sense voluntarily agreed to by the person being coerced. For example, is a poor person's choosing to work for minimum wage, if that is the only work s/he has reasonable access to, a free choice or not. It is not, of course, coerced by the employer offering the work, but it does take advantage of his/her circumstances if the work done has far more value than the employer shares with the worker. Yet wages are determined all the time by negotiations based on circumstances rather than actual monetary value of the work, and people on both sides frequently think that is fair and should be universal, since it is an objective way to determine a fair wage -- one that is accepted by both parties, whereas other notions of fairness are considered too philosophical, subjective, or contentious to serve as a proper criteria. Arguably, however, just being an easy, accepted, objective criteria does not make it the most reasonable or right criteria, particularly if it is easy and accepted because it simply ignores difficult relevant factors that need to be considered in a reasonable way.
In short, Kant's criteria for correct practical principles are quite minimal, as he explains them, are not necessarily right or consistently supported by him, and do not mean what they are too often used today to try to justify. And as pointed out in his opening remarks about the purpose of this work and in the title of the work itself, his principles are not "ethics proper", but are simply the underlying fundamentals of the metaphysics (i.e., the logic) of morals.
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