Kant discussion

PHIL 102, Spring 2018

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Question/comment (1):

as a test, universalizability is susceptible to how the maxim is phrased. a maxim like “in order to maximize personal profit, i will charge children more money” IS universalizable. we have tiered pricing on many products and services (eg chuck e cheese charges children and accompanying adults get in free)

Christina’s reply

Very good point! That the universalizability of maxims depends on how they’re phrased is an issue a number of philosophers have brought up about Kantian ethics. With the shopkeeper example, thought Kant doesn’t say why the shopkeeper shouldn’t charge what he calls inexperienced purchasers more than experienced ones, I am thinking it may be because there could be deception involved (suggesting that something just “is” the price when it’s not). This one is kind of difficult because we now have regularized prices fo rmany things so shopkeeprs can’t just charge people what they want on a whim (though actually, big online stores like Amazon do now have the technology to list different prices for different people based on their past spending habits...whether they do or not I’m not sure, but they could). Deception can’t be universalized for the reasons we have discussed.

As for differential pricing at stores and restaurants like Chuck E Cheese, I think this would be okay for a Kantian if it’s advertised as such and not secretly charged without people realizing (though in this day and age of clear, itemized receipts it could be hard to be secretive about this!).

Still, I’m not 100% certain the problem with the shopkeeper is possible deception; Kant doesn’t say clearly why this action can’t be universalized!

-amazon is a great example, and so is airline pricing and uber surge pricing.

Question/comment (2):

What consequences would one have if they didn't follow the moral rules? What is the consequence for unfairly making exceptions for yourself?  - it sounds very ideal because kant says that everyone should act one certain way and follow same rules for morality but I think a lot of people do make exceptions for themselves thus it is a flawed system.

Christina’s reply

We talked about this one in class. The consequences that could come from not following moral rules depend on which moral rules were broken. If they were moral rules that have also been inscribed in law, then there could be legal consequences. Otherwise there may just be social consequences like people not liking you or trusting you.

It’s true that Kantian ethics is idealistic, though this is actually a characteristic shared by many moral theories--they are meant to say what we ought to do morally, not necessarily what everyone always does do. I think it’s pretty clear that not everyone follows moral rules all of the time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean those moral rules are wrong; it could mean they are fine but people just aren’t living up to them. So this is just to say that the fact that people do make exceptions for themselves doesn’t have to mean the moral theory is wrong. What would be a problem for a moral theory is if what it required were impossible for people to do, but I’m not sure that’s the case here.

Question/comment (3):

Earlier, while discussing if there was anything unconditionally good, Kant explained how some of the examples could not be good in some specific cases, which broke the categorical imperative. Then, given that good actions can still have bad consequences, but still be morally good all the time, would the world not be able to fall apart? For example, the idea of selling weapons to someone is morally good in a scenario, but tons of people die. Bad consequences + good intention + usually good result; isn’t this closer to Mill’s subordinate rules?

Christina’s reply

Yes, I do see that if one doesn’t really pay attention to consequences then it could lead to things falling apart. If all that matters is one has good intentions then it seems we could have bad consequences happening a lot from those good intentions! I think Kant would say that you have to do some due diligence in considering whether the action you’re doing is likely to be one of those that falls into the “usually good consequences” category. Of course, there is only so much one can do in this regard, so you’re not required to research every single action...but in the charity example you do need to do a little research to see that the charity you’re contributing to is likely to get the money to the right place (don’t just give money to anyone who comes to your door or calls you on the phone or sends you an email, for example).

Now, this does mean that a Kantian would pay attention to consequences to some extent. As discussed in class on Wednesday, what your maxim actually is depends on what you know of likely consequences in some cases (e.g., if you know giving to a certain organization will lead to innocent people being killed, that changes the maxim from “help those in need” to “enable the killing of innocent people). So the idea that Kantians don’t care about consequences is probably too strong (and I may have been misleading in class in that regard!). What kant does say is that if you truly had a maxim of helping others (for example), and had good reason to think your action would do that, and then, beyond your control, it had bad consequences, then you are not to blame--you still acted with a good will.

Your last point is also a good one--how is this different from Mill’s idea of subordinate rules? One could also say: how is Kantianism different from Rule Utilitarianism? (Mill’s subordinate rules sound to me like Rule Utilitarianism.) The main difference is in how the moral rules, or what counts as morally right, are determined. For Mill/Rule Util, how you determine the subordinate rules is by what rules, were they to be generally followed, would produce the best consequences (measured in terms of happiness/pleasure, for Mill). For Kant, how you determine the rules and so which acts are morally right is by the Categorical Imperative: in the first form, you ask whether the maxim of the act could be universalized: (a) could the action and its goal still be realized in such a world, or (b) would you run into a contradiction if the maxim were universalized (discussed Monday March 5 in class).

During the week of March 5-7 we’ll also talk about another form of the C.I., the formula of humanity as an end in itself. Using this one you ask: in this action are you treating any other rational being as a mere means to your end? If so, the action is not morally permissible. This is quite different than asking whether, if everyone followed a Rule Utilitarian set of rules, more happiness would be produced.

Question/comment (4):

Perhaps this is because I lean closer to utilitarianism, but while I partially understand why Kant distinguishes between moral duty and acting according to duty, I am unclear on why he feels the need to distinguish to such an extent. None of us are mind readers - how are we to determine the degree of goodness? I understand the importance of regularly acting from the motive of duty because it further prompts moral growth and standards within society, but it doesn’t help us tell whether an action is good or bad on the spot.

Christina’s reply

You’re definitely right--we can’t tell on the spot whether others’ actions are done from a motive of duty, in most cases. So why does he emphasize it so much? My sense is that Kant is most concerned with what we ourselves are motivated by, since we can’t always tell what’s going on in others’ heads. I should always have a sense that my own desires and interests should be subordinated to moral duty: I can act on my own desires and interests if doing so also conforms to moral duty. Not violating moral duty has to be a kind of necessary requirement for any action, and then I can consider and do what I want or what furthers my own interests. If everyone thought that way then we’d be good in terms of people acting morally (which isn’t to say we’ll ever get to that ideal situation, but it’s something to aim for).

So I think one important reason for why the requirement of acting from the motive of duty is so crucial is to actually promote moral actions in a society. Another is a bit more abstract and philosophical: as mentioned in class, moral rules, according to Kant, are universal and carry strong obligation. They are “categorical” imperatives, not “hypothetical” ones--they tell everyone what they must do, while hypotheical imperatives just say what you should do if you want some outcome. And while it’s possible to have commands that apply to all that say you must act from the motive of duty (because this is at least possible for everyone), you can’t have commands that say you must like doing your duty (because this depends on our circumstances, our past experiences, our personalities, etc.

Question/comment (5):

I had a question pertaining to Kant’s view on consequentialism, I understand that The consequences of any given circumstance are not all that important to Kant, it’s our intention that is important. My question is about the increase in information we have available to us, and our capacity to educate ourselves. With the information that we have available to us at all times, can we ever really claim ignorance? With the internet, how can we, (assuming the examples outcome is dependent on our knowing something) ever really claim that the consequences of our actions are not our fault? The example given in class was of donations given to a charity, that then went on to do evil with your donations. How can we claim that our actions cannot be linked to the consequences, when there is really no limit(within reason) to what information we can see?

Christina’s reply

Good point! Of course, in Kant’s day people had much less access to information about possible consequences of actions. So if we update Kantian thinking to the 21st century, one might wonder: does this mean we have to be spending a great deal of time doing research on many of our possible actions so that we know enough about the possible consequences to know that our intended action actually does follow a moral duty?

I don’t have a clear answer as to what a Kantian would say to this. I think there would have to be some limit to the amount of research one is required to do (see my response to question/comment (3) above, which is related to this). But if one does have access to a great deal of information (like many of us do with the availability of the internet), I think one would have a duty to at least do some research in a case like giving to charity.

Other cases are easier--you just don’t give lying promises, you don’t kill innocent people, etc. You don’t need to do any research for those!

Question/comment (6)

With regards to the suicide maxim, and this might be a bit of a technicality here, but doesn’t that argument of “using the feeling of self love to destroy the self is contradictory” only work if we view death as a bad thing, and feel that it is morally correct to preserve the self as long as possible? As well, is this not a universalizable maxim?

CH reply:

I’ll answer the second question first--yes, it does seem like it’s universalizable in the sense that Shafer-Landau talks about, namely that the action and its goal could be achieved if everyone did it. Kant also throws in the question of whether you would run into a contradiction of some sort if you universalized the maxim. Usually those two questions yield the same answers but I’m not sure that they do in this case.

On the first question, I think we could still imagine the universalized maxim being contradictory if we don’t necessarily see death as a bad thing. One commentator on Kant I read described it as something like: using your autonomous, free choice to destroy the possibility of autonomous free choice itself. The person goes on to say: “freedom … cannot be used to abolish life, for then it destroys and abolishes itself; then the human being uses life in order to abolish life itself,” and that’s contradictory. (Guyer, Paul. Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Continuum, 2007.) I think one could see a contradiction there even if one didn’t think death was bad. It’s not so much about prolonging life as long as possible, but rather about not using free choice to destroy free choice.

Question/comment (7)

As we go over the second form of the categorical imperative, I can’t help but draw a bit of a connection to Mozi here. If we treat all people as intrinsically good and work towards the advancement of each person’s autonomous capabilities, is it not also increasingly easier for others to also take advantage of you? Similarly to Mozi, I feel like you could follow these ideals to the letter and still live a terrible life :P

CH reply:

Indeed, if you are a person who is always moral and always treats others as ends in themselves and never merely as means to ends, you could end up being one of the few who does that in a world where most people act otherwise. And then you can get taken advantage of, definitely. There are some moral theorists who talk about considering morality in non-ideal circumstances, and how maybe what you should do morally changes in such circumstances. Kant is not one of them! Remember that he isn’t concerned with the consequences for your of acting morally well; if you end up having a bad life becaues of having a good will and doing the morally right thing because it’s right, then that is good in itself and indeed always, unconditionally good. One’s own happiness and even one’s own life itself are not unconditionally good so they are of lesser import, for Kant. Remember that the good will means having a policy that you will always put the moral law first in priority--you won’t act for the sake of what you want, or for your own goals, unless doing so also fits with the moral law. And sometimes doing what’s morally required doesn’t fit with your goals or what’s good for you as a consequence and, well, you’re still doing the morally right thing and that is unconditionally good, for Kant.