Kant I


1. The next commandment is “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”  Taken literally, it forbids lying in a way that detracts from a neighbor’s character.  This has been generalized by much of the Christian tradition into a complete prohibition on lying. (The Gospels identify Satan as the father of lies, and the Book of Revelation places liars in hell.)

·        But what is wrong with lying?  I’d like to suggest that lying is a nice case for us to look at some theories of normative ethics.  Take Kant.

·        For Kant, the most basic fact about us is that we are rational beings.  What does that mean?

·        Animals act simply from inclinations and instincts.  They have an inclination to eat, and so they go and gulp up the food.  But we act rationally, which means that we reason about what we are supposed to do.  For instance, although sometimes we might eat just like the animals do, we might also reason: We should eat when we are hungry so as to gain nutrition because hunger is a sign that we need nutrition.

·        Being rational, we use our rationality to set ourselves goals or purposes or ends, with reasons for them, and then follow them out.  A very simple goal might be: Eat when feeling hungry so as to gain nutrition.  One of the defining features of rationality for Kant is that we set ourselves these kinds of goals or ends.  A goal is expressed in what Kant calls a maxim, which is the imperative that we set ourselves to act on (an imperative is what we should act on—it may be something set by us or by someone else).  A maxim is of the form: When ________, do _________ for the sake of (or, because, or so as to) ____________.   For instance, maybe I came to this lecture on the maxim: When you have promised to give a lecture and are able to do so, give the lecture for the sake of keeping promises.  Maybe some of you came to this lecture on the maxim: When you have a class scheduled at a given time, go to it so as to learn the material.  Again, this is all because we’re rational.  If we weren’t rational, we would just feel a “pull” to go to class and go.

·        It’s not always easy to tell the maxim another person is acting on.  Maybe you came to class just because you want to meet someone else who came to class.  Or maybe I came to teach this class just because I enjoy standing in front of sixty people.  Sometimes it’s not easy for a person to tell exactly why she acted as she did.  Just because someone says she acted for some reason, it doesn’t follow that she in fact has done so, and Kant says we can even be wrong when we evaluate what reasons we ourselves had for acting on.  In fact, he thinks we can never be sure that we didn’t have ulterior motives.

·        Kant believes that what determines whether an action is right or wrong is the maxim the action was done on and not the consequences.  For instance, if I am thirsty and you give me a cup of poison because you think it’s water and because you’re acting on the maxim: When someone is thirsty and you have a cup of water, give it to the thirsty person, then Kant will say you acted rightly because your maxim was right.  But if you knew that it was poison, then you wouldn’t be able to act on this maxim.  Probably you’d be acting on a maxim like: When someone is annoying and you have a cup of poison, give it to the annoying person.  Kant will say that such a maxim is wrong.  Likewise, if I squeeze the trigger of a gun and act on the maxim When someone is annoying, point a gun at him and fire it to kill him then I am guilty, whatever the consequences.  Whether the gun fires or misfires, I am guilty, because my maxim was wrong.

2. How to tell whether a maxim is right or wrong?  Kant reasons like this.  Rationality is objective, i.e., it is supposed to be the same for every rational being.  If something is rational for you—the sort of thing a rational being would do—it’s rational for me.  For Kant, morality is based on rationality and so, because rationality is something that is the same for every rational being, the same moral laws apply to everyone—even to aliens, if there are any, as long as they are rational!

·        Kant now wants to know what the rational thing to do is.  Remember that what he wants to evaluate are not consequences but the maxims from which an action comes.  Kant now reasons very roughly (though this is an oversimplification) like this: If a maxim is rational for me, i.e., something a rational person could act on, then it will be rational for everyone.  Therefore, if a maxim you are to act on is rational, it should be possible for you to have everyone act on it—since if it’s rational for you, it’s rational for everybody:

o       CI-1: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

·        What Kant means by “universal law” is that everyone does what the maxim specifies.  So, to check whether a maxim is one you can act on, you have to check if you could at the same time will that everyone should always act on it.

·        So, to tell if a maxim is OK for acting on, you have to see if you can imagine a world where everybody acts the way the maxim says and ask yourself: Could I will that things should be so?  If the answer is no, then the maxim is irrational and it would be immoral to act on it.

3. There are two ways that a maxim could violate the CI.  First, the very idea that one’s maxim should be a universal law might be contradictory.  This is a contradiction in conception.  What kind of a contradiction is this?

·        A maxim is a contradiction in conception when it would defeat the very purpose for the maxim to make the maxim into a universal law.  In other words, acting on the maxim would just never be successful.

·        A maxim like this is a violation of a perfect duty.

·        Kant’s clearest example of this is the person who needs money and falsely promises to pay it back though he never intends to.  The person’s maxim is: When you need money, borrow it by falsely promising to pay it back.  Imagine that everyone did that.  Then nobody would believe anybody’s promises to pay back money, and so the person’s action would have to be unsuccessful.  By willing that everyone should follow the maxim, one will have nullified the point of the maxim—the maxim would then be quite useless.  The maxim to borrow under false pretences only works if a few people follow it: if everybody does, it no longer succeeds.  That is why Kant thinks that it’s wrong to act on this maxim.

·        As Kant knows, the same thing applies to lying in one’s own interest.  If everyone lied in their own interest, nobody would believe anybody (except when it was not in someone’s interest to lie), and lying would be pointless.  Even to lie to save a life is not acceptable.  For if everyone lied to save a life, then when a life was at stake, nobody would believe anybody.

·        Onora O’Neill gives some more examples of maxims that are not universalizable.  Take the maxim: Become a slaveowner.  Obviously, it would be impossible to conceive of everyone doing that...  Or: Become a slave.  Or: Get everyone else to obey you.  Or: Obey everybody else.

o       Kant has a more complicated example of someone who commits suicide out of self-love because he is suffering.  The contradiction Kant seems to see there is that like Thomas Aquinas he thinks self-love essentially involves a desire for self-preservation and so to commit suicide out of self-love is itself contradictory.

·        A nice example is voting.  Suppose I hold a political goal X, but I refrain from voting on the maxim Refrain from voting so that X will happen anyway and less energy be expended.  If everyone did this, then X would not be voted for.

4. The second way that a maxim might violate the CI would be if it would contradict something (perhaps something else) that you yourself need and will, something you strive for, for you to make that maxim into a universal law.  This is a contradiction in will.

·        A maxim is a contradiction in will when it would defeat some things that you rationally will if you made the maxim into a universal law. 

·        A maxim like this would be a violation of an imperfect duty, i.e., of a duty that doesn’t specify in detail how to act but which can be fulfilled in many different ways.

o       Kant gives two examples.  One is that you neglect to cultivate your talents.  You let yourself be lazy.  Your maxim here is: Not to bother cultivating your talents for the sake of self-indulgence.  The problem is that this maxim contradicts your will.  For on other occasions, you need your talents for things that you will.  You might on another day will to have an intelligent conversation with a friend, and you contradict this will when you do not develop your intelligence.  Note that there is no contradiction in conception here.  You can imagine everybody being lazy, and they could all have a measure of self-indulgence perhaps then, too.

o       The second example is not helping others.  You are doing fine yourself but others are struggling with great hardships.  You live and let live.  “Let everybody be as happy as Heaven wills or as he can make himself; I shall take nothing from him nor even envy him; but I have no desire to contribute anything to his well-being or to his assistance when in need” (p. 32).  The maxim then is: Neither help nor harm others.  There is no contradiction in conception here.  It would be possible to imagine a world where everybody is independent in this way.  But it would contradict your will to will that this be so, because on a number of occasions we need the help of others with projects that we ourselves will.

·        These are violations of an imperfect duty.  The duty to develop your talents or help others does not specify which talents you should develop or how you should help others.  That’s up to you, and because you have this choice, it’s an imperfect duty.  (You don’t have a choice how not to make false promises: there is only one way of not making false promises, namely by not making them.)

5. We can say that a maxim is universalizable if it satisfies the first form of the categorical imperative, i.e., if it involves neither a contradiction in will nor a contradiction in conception.

6. A difficulty that many people find with the first form is that it doesn’t seem to be enough.

·        Suppose I set as my own maxim: Make other people miserable to make myself happy. 

o       Is this universalizable?  (No, because if everybody did it, then other people would be making me miserable, contradicting the very purpose of this action—so this would be a contradiction in conception.)

·        But imagine that I managed to will the maxim: Make everyone, including myself, miserable, for the sake of miserableness, all other things being equal.

·        This seems just as universalizable as: Make everyone, including myself, happy, for the sake of happiness, all other things being equal.

·        One of these two maxims seems right and the other seems wrong.  But they seem to be equally universalizable.  So it seems that the CI in the first form is not enough.

·        How about the second form of the CI?  Does it make a distinction between these two?  Well, yes: One of people’s goals in life is happiness, and so by making people miserable I do not respect that goal.

·        If this is right, Kant has a bit of a problem on his hands, because he thinks the two forms of the CI are equivalent.  Modern Kantians, that is people whose ethics is inspired by Kant’s, may be OK with this, though.  They may say you need both, or they may just take one of them.

·        On the other hand, maybe Kant could insist that when someone makes other people miserable, it is for the sake of our happiness, and so there isn’t a sadist who acts on the described maxim.  But why can’t there be one?

·        Next, imagine that nobody plays tennis Saturday evening because they’re all out doing other things then (the courts are lit!)  Your maxim is: Play tennis on Saturday night because everybody else is doing something else and so the courts will be free then.  But if everybody acted on this maxim, a contradiction (in conception!) would result, since the courts would no longer be free then!  This kind of an example may make one worry that the first form of the CI is not only sometimes not enough, but at other times too much.

o       Perhaps Kant would say that the person who plays tennis Saturday night, though, is simply acting on a more basic maxim: Play tennis when the courts are free on Saturday night if you enjoy tennis above other forms of Saturday night entertainment.  This maxim could be generalized.  If everybody did it, it would still be fine, because obviously many people prefer other forms of entertainment.