July 8, 2014


Kant confusion : a review of Onora O'Neill's ACTING ON PRINCIPLE : An essay on Kantian ethics  (MICHAEL ROSEN, 7/02/14, TLS)

In Birds of America Mary McCarthy sends her callow hero, Peter Levy, to spend a year as a student in Paris. To take with him on his travels she gives him a copy of Kant's Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals. Yet Peter finds it hard to lead his life on Kantian principles. Too many everyday dilemmas can, it seems, be argued both ways. Staying in a cheap hotel, for example, he wonders about the ethics of tipping:

"I tried asking myself what Kant would do in my position: "Behave as if thy maxim could be a universal law". If my maxim was not to tip because the next guy didn't, that would be pretty hard on the chambermaids of Paris, I decided. So, if he was true to his philosophy, Kant would tip. Of course he didn't have to face the issue, never leaving Königsberg. But you could also argue that tipping made it tough on the nontipper (which I could produce some empirical evidence for), and therefore Kant might be against it. If I understand him, he is saying that an action should be judged by its implications, i.e., if everybody did what you are doing, what would the world be like? Well, a world in which every student gave a five-franc gratuity to the woman who cleaned his room would be OK, but what about a world in which every other student did it?"

In the end, Peter concludes ruefully, "Maybe the categorical imperative is not the best guide for Americans abroad".

Peter is not the first person to have found turning Kant's moral philosophy into practice a frustrating business. In the extended chess tournament of the secondary literature, almost every conceivable analysis of the Groundwork has been tried out over the past two centuries, yet all have been found wanting in some way or other.

The standard opening is well agreed. Having declared that moral commands must be "categorical", Kant tells us that there is only a single categorical imperative. He formulates it first as follows: "act only according to that maxim which you can at the same time will as universal law", then slightly modifies it to read: "act as if the maxim of your action were to become a universal law of nature by your will". Kant next divides duties along two axes: duties that we owe to ourselves against those owed to others, and duties that are, as he terms them, "perfect" ("and admit of no exceptions") in contrast with those that are "imperfect" (ones that are no less obligatory yet may be balanced against other claims).

We had to read him in freshman Philosophy and Religion and my professor did not want to hear that the catehgorical imperative was incoherent and redundant.  Reason simply can't supply an objective standard for behavior.

Posted by at July 8, 2014 6:24 PM

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