Monday, November 21, 2011
Can I Reason My Way To Moral Principles? Or Do I Need Some Other Kind of Knowledge?
Preamble (Warning: I haven't proof read this entry yet)
For those of you who haven't been following or have forgotten what I've written about Kant here are some technical terms that will allow you to understand what I've written here. This is a section of my paper that I'm working on. For some reason when I write an essay that I need to turn in, I get writer's block, but if I write on the same topic in my blog, it comes out more easily. So that said, any feedback is welcome, it'll probably help me improve my paper.
Back to the technical stuff. I think all you need to know is that the Formula of Universal Law (FUL) is the law that says what ever action I'm thinking about doing, if I want to know if it's morally correct or not, I test whether it passes this test: "I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law".
Should We and Can We Exclude All Empirical Facts from Our Moral Reasoning?
Kant says we should exclude empirical considerations if we are to come up with a purely rational system of ethics. The thought is we cannot learn anything about what is morally right by appealing to what people actually do. There are 4 main problems with trying to come up with moral principles by referencing empirical facts: First, convention doesn't tell us what is right, it only tells us what convention is. Think of slavery, it was convention at one point in time but few people would argue now that is was right. If moral philosophers had appealed to convention at that time they would have concluded that it was morally right. Second, observing individual actions tells us nothing about the motives for the action--perhaps the motive for the action was self-interest; these are unknowable to the observer, and given humans' capacity for motivated reasoning, probably also unknowable to the agent. Given these facts it would be impossible to abstract any general principle of action by observing behaviour. There is a third kind of empirical moral reasoning Kant wants to exclude, this is moral judgment by appeal to examples. Every example (think of a fable or religious story) that we hold up as "good" action has to be good because of some principle; so it follows, we would do better to discover the principles that allow us to call certain behaviours "good"--a behaviour can't be good just because we say it is. The fourth type of empirical consideration we should ignore are facts particular to the conditions of humanity. The reasoning is that because all moral principles will be rational principles the laws that are derived from reason must apply to all rational creatures. Moral principles would lose their status as absolute if we said that certain ethical laws only apply to humans but not to some other rational being.
That we should derive our moral principles from reason is prima facia appealing, but before we throw our lot in with Kant and divorce empirical facts from our moral reasoning there are two issues we should explore. The first is whether--with the possible of exception of social norms--it is even possible to eliminate empirical content; and second, if it is desirable.
Is it possible to have an ethical system that excludes empirical considerations? To answer this question there are two species of empirical fact I think we should explore: internal and external. By internal I mean facts about human psychology, and by external I mean facts about the world. Although Kant makes not direct reference to human psychology I think he considered it a part of the "contingent conditions of humanity" (p. 408). We also might be able to infer that there is something particular to humans, in respect to their capacity to reason because in several places Kant refers to "human reason" in the context of it being something different than that of a purely rational being (p. 404, 408).
If we accept that there are psychological traits that are particular to humans and these traits distinguish us from "purely rational beings" it seems that we would do well to discover how these psychological traits influence our reasoning. Consider the analogy of a computer. If we want a write an algorithm for a computer we need to know something about its operating system. We need to know what kinds of operations a certain operating system does well and does poorly; if we don't take these things into account and assume that whatever the computer spits out is correct, we might have some problems. It seems that the same goes for humans. We have a law--the FUL--which we want the rational part of the mind to apply to maxims of action. But to assume that whatever the rational mind spits out is correct is to overlook how things can go wrong. Psychology has discovered many ways which we can corrupt our reasoning process: confirmation bias, wishful thinking, confusing cause for effect, motivated reasoning, and so on. If we fail to take into account how our reasoning can go awry, we are likely to come up with incorrect answers and have no way of knowing they are so. In a way there's a sort of chicken and egg problem here; we can't have much confidence in our reasoning unless we understand how it can go wrong but we require reasoning to discover how our reasoning can go wrong. let me explain...
The scientific method is a good example of how our psychological shortcomings are taken into account so we have a better chance of reasoning to the correct conclusion. The use of double-blind, placebo controlled, replicated studies helps to control for our cognitive biases. The more we know about human biases, the better we can control for them in our reasoning. In science, we learned about our cognitive biases in conjunction with doing scientific research; the approach was not binary. I think the same holistic approach will yield comparable benefits in moral reasoning. The more we become aware of our cognitive biases and blind spots, the more effectively we can correct for it in our reasoning. So, given our human proclivity for motivated reasoning, amongst other cognitive shortcomings which Kant repeatedly points out, it does not seem possible that we could have much faith in the correctness of our reasoning without at least a minimal understanding of these phenomena. On this view, an ethics devoid of all empirical considerations might work in purely rational beings without any of our disadvantages, but as humans we require some empirical knowledge of our psychology before we can put any stock in our "rational" conclusions.
External Empirical Facts (I.e., Facts about the World)
Kant wants to deny that empirical conditions can substantially influence the outcome of applying FUL—its prescriptions will hold in all contingencies. But it seems that there may be some cases where facts about the external world influence the acceptance of rejection of a maxim by the FUL.
Suppose there is a plant called the Aleeval plant which for whatever reason cannot be grown commercially, is necessary for the maintaining our global climate in equilibrium, and whose roots are the most delicious food in the world. When human population levels were such that even a steady diet of the root for every man woman and child would have no measurable impact on the plant's population, the decision of whether to eat the Aleeval root did not enter the moral real. Put otherwise, if I asked “should I eat Aleeval root to my heart's content?” the action would have been universalizable. But the empirical facts about the world have changed, and now if everyone eats the root, all life on our planet will die; if I ask “should I eat Aleeval root to my heart's content?” the FUL will reveal the action is not universalizable. Eating the Aleeval root has entered the moral realm. So it seems, contrary to what Kant says, the FUL will not always yield objective answers, some will be contingent upon empirical facts about the world.
There is a reply open to Kant, which is we are applying the wrong maxim to the FUL. As it is now our test maxim is “is it permissible to eat unlimited Aleeval root?”, and given this maxim, changes in the world will yield different outcomes. However, perhaps the correct maxim is “should I consume resources at unsustainable rates (i.e., beyond replacement rates)?” If this is our maxim then empirical facts can vary and this will determine whether the maxim comes into effect, as with any ethical situation, but its standing as a universal moral principle will remain constant. In the context of our example this means if I apply the more general maxim then human and the Aleeval population can perpetually rise and fall and my actions , so long as I follow the general maxim, will always be appropriate. This reply works well but Kant says that the FUL will output the correct answer to any subjective maxim. So, strictly speaking, the generalization reply is not open to him.
OK, that's enough for now. I'll talk about if we should exclude empirical facts from our moral reasoning later...gotta submit my rough draft which was due 4.5 hours ago....