April 19, 2010

Kantian Ethics Simplified

It is probably a safe bet that no view which has ever been successfully explained in a blog post can correctly be attributed to Kant. I won't try to falsify that claim in this post. What I will try to do is to present a sketch of a simple (probably too simple) moral theory that shows why I find Kantian ethics attractive.

The fundamental principle of this ethical theory is the following definition:

Wrongness =df. the property an action has iff it is the direct result of a practical judgment whereby the agent is committed to a practical contradiction.

An action is obligatory iff not doing it is wrong, and permissible iff it is neither right nor wrong. (I won't try to make room for supererogation here.)

Now, if this theory is going to get off the ground the concept of a 'practical judgment' is going to have to do most of the work. If you are familiar with Kant, you may have guessed that this is supposed to be the analogue of what he calls a 'maxim.' According to the present theory, an agent makes a practical judgment when she considers a set of circumstances and a possible action in terms of repeatable concepts and judges the action to be appropriate (to-be-done) or inappropriate (not-to-be-done) in the circumstances. By considering the circumstances and the action in terms of repeatable concepts, I mean having a mental representation which does not refer rigidly to any individual (referring rigidly to kinds is ok). An agent is committed to a practical contradiction when the set of practical judgments he accepts implies that a given action is both appropriate and inappropriate in exactly the same circumstances.

The repeatable concepts are what turn the trick here: by requiring that the judgment involve only repeatable concepts, we ensure that the agent herself has made a universal normative claim, and this is sufficient to establish Kant's Formula of Universal Law: if I φ as a result of the judgment that it is appropriate to φ in circumstances C (and I believe that C obtains), then I am committed to the claim that anyone who φ-d in C would act appropriately. If I am also committed to the denial of this claim, then my action is wrong.

It is easy to derive a general prohibition on lying from this line of thought. Suppose I make the judgment 'when it is to one's benefit to lie, it is appropriate to lie.' Now, to lie is to make an assertion one believes to be false. However, the practice of assertion would not exist without a norm requiring us to try to assert only what is true. This is a 'constitutive norm' on assertion, the way the rules of games are constitutive norms for the games. If no one ever tries to follow the rules, the game doesn't exist. So the very possibility of lying presupposes that people usually try to tell the truth. If people lied every time it was to their benefit, the practice of assertion would not exist, and so lying would be impossible. As such, this judgment would commit me to the claim that lying is both appropriate and inappropriate, and so any action stemming from this judgment would be wrong.

It is worth noting that it is far from obvious that the prohibition on lying will be absolute. Consider this analogy: similar reasoning will establish that 'when playing chess, it is appropriate to cheat' commits one to a practical contradiction, because if no one ever tried to follow the rules of chess, there would be no such things as chess. Playing chess commits me to the claim that cheating is generally inappropriate, in contradiction to this judgment. But consider the judgment 'when it is possible to save someone's life by cheating at chess, it is appropriate to cheat.' The circumstances in which it is possible to save someone's life by cheating at chess are so vanishingly rare that you might think chess would still exist even if everyone followed this judgment. On the other hand, you might think that chess wouldn't exist, but a game very like chess (namely, one in which the ordinary rules were suspended when someone's life was on the line) would exist. Another issue is that if we carve out enough little exceptions, we'll be implicitly committed to the 'always cheat' judgment again, or at least to something very close to it. Since the practice of assertion doesn't have official written rules like chess does, it might even have exceptions like this built in. So it is not so easy to tell whether this theory says that prohibitions on lying and cheating are absolutely without exception.

This theory explains why the 'Golden Rule' and similar principles are good heuristics for moral thought. According to this theory, our practical judgments (in those cases where we are morally responsible) are implicitly general. A good way to tell whether our judgments are consistent is to reverse the roles and see if the judgment stands.

The theory also explains moral motivation: according to this theory, it is in the nature of practical reason to make universal judgments. Simply by moving and acting in the world we 'self-legislate' a moral system. However, this very universality constrains our legislation, and these constraints constitute objective morality.

Lastly, on a theological note, the theory gives what I think is the right sort of answer to the Euthyphro dilemma: morality does not consist of arbitrary divine commands, but also is not 'superior to' God. By creating the sorts of beings whose act pursuant to practical judgments, God creates morality. Furthermore, it is open to us to hold that God himself acts pursuant to practical judgments (or, better, one complex practical judgment), in which case a non-trivial sense can be given to the claim that God is perfectly good.


I am fairly well convinced that the definition of 'wrongness' in this account gives a sufficient condition, but I have two main concerns about its necessity. First, while it seems to me that human action often is based on practical judgments of the sort I have indicated, the theory implies that there is no moral responsibility for any action not stemming from such a judgment. Now, we might make such judgments sub-consciously in many cases, and we also might make them indirectly, by adopting a general policy or developing a habit of acting in such-and-such a way in such-and-such circumstances without stopping to deliberate. So we may be able to get moral responsibility in here indirectly. I'm not bothered by the consequence that a being that can't think of circumstances in terms of repeatable consequences is not morally responsible, but what about a being who can, but doesn't? It would be ideal for defending this theory if we had grounds to believe that practical judgments of this sort underlie all deliberate action by humans, but I'm not sure there is reason to believe this. The consequence seems very bad: if someone was able to train herself always to think of situations only in terms of 'I' never in terms of 'a person', she would escape the requirements of morality, because her actions wouldn't result from practical judgments.

The second worry is that I'm not sure that this sort of practical contradiction is the only source of wrongness, even for actions pursuant to practical judgments.

Posted by Kenny at April 19, 2010 9:23 PM
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