Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Do I Have to Do What I Know Is Right? (Part 1)
Intro Ramble: The Purpose of Philosophy in Morality
It's funny how things work sometimes. After making my last post--"What Philosophy Is and Isn't"--I encountered the following passage in Kant regarding the role of philosophy (in ethics, anyway):
It is here that she [i.e., philosophy] has to show her purity as the authoress of her own laws--not
as the mouthpiece of laws whispered to her by some implanted sense [i.e., intuition] or by who knows what tutelary nature [divine inspiration], all of which laws together, though they may always be better than nothing, can never furnish us with principles dictated by reason.
Now it is quite obvious that everything happens for a reason and god made Kant insert this passage back in the Enlightenment so that one day I would read it at just the right time. There are no coincidences people! Ok, all metaphysics aside, lets take a quick lookie-loo at what this passage is talking about. Hopefully my use of the handy dandy parentheses have already made the meaning clear. Basically, Kant wants to show that morality stems from reason, and reason alone. Morality cannot come from some person claiming to have intuition about what is right. If this were the case we'd quickly descend into a moral relativism of the worst kind. Nor can morality come from someone claiming divine inspiration. If this were the case we would have no rational reason to follow the laws, we'd only follow them out of fear of sanction. Moral laws must come from reason because the fact that they come from reason gives them authority.
Think about it for a second. Suppose you are not sure how you should act in a particular situation. Your faculty of reason--that is, rationality--tells you to act one way but you have inclinations toward a different course of action. Suppose you choose to act on your inclinations: does it make any sense to say you acted in a morally correct way because "it felt right" even though you have a perfectly rational reason to act the other way? Basically you are admitting that, in this case, acting irrationally is the moral thing to do. This is a very tough case to make!
Now if we take your method as a general principle for er'body to make moral decisions willy nilly (this is a technical term) based on how they feel, we're going to get into some trouble. Now decisions are based on feeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeelings but feelings aren't consistent but ephemeral; no universal laws could ever be derived from this method. This method of making moral decisions and rules cannot work...nope. (But I just feel it in my bones, I know I'm right!...I have a really good sense for these things!) Shut up. (No, but my psychic told me I have a gift! I'm speeeeeeeeeeecial!)
I can't help it. I have to share what Kant says about what happens when we appeal to intuition and such, it's way too good not to share:
[...]for human reason in its weariness is fain to rest upon this pillow and in a dream of sweet illusions (which lead it to embrace a cloud in mistake of Juno) to foist into the place of morality some misbegotten mongrel patched up from limbs of very varied ancestry and looking like anything you please, only not like virtue, to him who has once beheld her in her true shape.
Oh! Snap! Wicka! Wicka! Wicka! Wut? I'd give my left testicle to write half as well as that! (Ok, you could argue his sentences are a little long...)
The Relationship Between Duty, Morality, and Reason
So, up until now Kant has focused on showing that we can determine the universal principle of morality by asking whether a particular action we will is universalizable. Whatever passes this test qualifies as a universal moral maxim according to which we ought to act. Now that we know what we ought to do, the next question is, it is a necessary law for all rational beings to act on what we ought to do? In other words if we know what the morally correct action is, are we, as rational agents, obligated to act on it?
Before we answer this problem it might be helpful to quickly review, by example, how we can determine the moral law. Suppose I'm in a tough financial situation and I want to borrow some money. I know that I'm not going to be able to repay the money, but the only way I'm going to get a loan is if I say (falsely) that I will repay the loan. How do I determine if this is morally permissible? Well, we run our maxim (not the magazine!) through the universalization test (AKA the Categorical Imperative). I ask, what would happen if I willed my behaviour to be a universal law for all? If I make it a universal rule that everybody who needs to borrow money can lie about repaying the money what will happen?
What will happen is that people who lend money will cease to lend money based on promises to repay. The notion of a promise will have no meaning. People making promises in this situation will receive only laughter in response to their request. For people to lend money there has to be a norm (standard behaviour) or truth telling in the culture. If you universalized your particular behaviour, no one would be able to borrow money with just a promise to repay. Your behaviour is not universalizable and so we must universalize the opposite maxim, that people who borrow money must keep their promises to repay.
The Will...Vas is Das?
Ok, so now we know what the moral thing to do is. As rational creatures, do we have to do it? Kant says yes, and here's his argument: First we begin with a definition of will. A will is the power/faculty by which we self-determine our actions according to notions of laws. In plain English I think this means the will is my motivation for action; however it should be viewed as distinct from inclinations, instinct, and physiological urges. The will is somehow above all that, not to say it can't sometimes be inline with those other elements that bring about appetite-driven behaviour. The key notion it seems is that through the will we can "self-will" behaviour and overcome instincts, character, etc.... For example, take someone who really wants to eat ice cream. Their inclination is to eat it, but they are not captive to this impulse; they can exercise their will to not eat the ice cream.
Our will is always directed at some end. Our will is not necessarily good, it can be directed at both good and bad actions. However, when the end at which our will is directed comes about through reason, it must be equally valid for all rational things, viz, it has equal moral merit. Hold on a second! Couldn't we argue that I could use my reason to direct my will toward nefarious ends? Would these wicked ends have equal validity too? Kant would say that any nefarious ends did not come about through reason, but inclination and/or self-interest. Of course we can use our reason to achieve evil ends but reason cannot choose evil ends. Reason operates according to the categorical imperative, and evil ends are not universalizable.
Where are we so far? We know that the will gives us the power of self-determination; the will is always directed at some end; and when the will is directed at an end which came about through reason, that end is equally valid for all rational beings. This last point is central to Kant's ethics. We must give equal weight to the rational ends of any rational creature. Simply put, er'body on this planet has an equal right to pursue their personal ends so long as they are universalizable. As we have seen, an end is not universalizable if it prevents others from pursuing their ends.
To illustrate lets quickly revisit the money borrowing scenario. If you lie and say that you will pay the money back but don't and then will this norm to be universalized, nobody else will be able to borrow money (because lenders no longer take people at their word). Your action has interfered with other people whose end might require they borrow money based on a promise, but now they can't. Why do you have to be so selfish? Sheesh! Now look what you've done!
Of course some actions won't have an effect either way on interfering with other people attaining their ends. In cases such as these all we can say is that they are not the subject matter of morality. So, if you're struggling to determine whether you should watch Jersey Shore or Big Brother, this has no bearing on somebody else attaining their ends; you can do whatever you want--Kant doesn't care. The moral content of these actions is as vacuous as the intellectual content of the shows I mentioned.
Humans as Ends in Themselves
The next step in Kants argument is to (pretty much) assert that if we suppose there is an entity whose existence has intrinsic absolute value then from this entity, which is an end in itself we can derive determinate laws. This is a little tricky so let me restate it. Take for example "compassion". Compassion has value in itself. We don't display compassion as means to an end; we don't seek to be compassionate to achieve any further goal. Compassion is an end in itself. Because it is an end itself it has value "built into" it.
From the idea of something having intrinsic value (i.e., it is an end in itself) Kant argues that it can be the ground of a possible categorical imperative--something like, "we should endeavor to be compassionate". We don't endeavor to be compassionate to fulfill some other end, we simply ought to pursue being compassionate because it is a (good) end in itself.
Humans are also ends in themselves. They have intrinsic value. They ought not be used for arbitrary means to achieving someone else's ends (without consent). Anytime my actions affect another person I have to consider them as ends in themselves. This doesn't mean that another person can never help another attain some goal, only that the helper has to have full information and grant consent to helping. I can't use power to force people to do things that I want (my ends) because I am not treating them as ends in themselves but as means to my ends. A significant part of our modern ethical ideas comes from this Kantian notion of treating all people equally as ends in themselves.
Up to hear we've talked about the relationship between morality and reason. We still haven't finished talking about how Kant moves from saying morality springs from reason to it is our duty to do what reason dictates. This seems as good a place as any to take a break. I'll address the other part tomorrow. It's 4am and I should get some rest. Stop using me as a means to your end of philosophical knowledge! Oh, wait. Knowledge is a good in itself and I have a duty to make it available...