Some readers of this essay will have become impatient by now; because they believe that the problem that perplexes me has been definitively solved by Immanuel Kant. It is certainly true that Kant held strong opinions on this matter. In an often-quoted passage, he reports a personal conversion from elitism: “I am myself a researcher by inclination. I feel the whole thirst for knowledge and the eager unrest to move further on into it, also satisfaction with each acquisition.
There was a time when I thought this alone could constitute the honor of humanity and despised the know nothing rabble.
Rousseau set me straight. This delusory superiority vanishes, I learn to honor men, and I would find myself more useless than a common laborer if I did not believe this observation could give everyone a value which restores the rights of humanity. ”What Kant learned from Rousseau was the proposition that the basis of human equality is the dignity that each human person possesses in virtue of the capacity for autonomy (moral freedom).
This moral freedom has two aspects, the capacity to set ends for oneself according to one’s conception of what is good, and the capacity to regulate one’s choice of ends and of actions to achieve one’s ends by one’s conception of what morality requires. According to Kant’s psychology, brute animals are determined to act as instinct inclines them, but a rational being has the power to interrogate the inclinations it feels, to raise the question what it is reasonable to do in given circumstances, and to choose to do what reason suggests even against all inclinations.
The question arises whether Kant’s psychology is correct, or remotely close to correct. Perhaps something like the conflict between conscience and inclination is experienced by social animals other than humans. Perhaps the freedom that Kant imputes to human on metaphysical grounds can be shown to be either empirically nonexistent or illusory. For our purposes we can set these questions aside and simply presume that the human psychological complexity envisaged by Kant does describe capacity we possess, whether or not it is shared with other animals.
My question is whether Kant’s characterization, if it was correct, would have the normative implication she draws from it. It might seem that the Kantian picture helps to show how moral freedom is arrange concept, which does not significantly admit of degrees. If one has the capacity to set an end for oneself, one does not possess this freedom to a lesser extent just because one cannot set fancy ends, or because other persons can set fancier ends.
If one has the power to regulate choice of ends by one’s sense of what is morally right, one does not possess this freedom to a lesser extent because one cannot understand sophisticated moral considerations, or because other persons can understand more sophisticated moral considerations. Moreover, one might hold that it is having or lacking the freedom which is important, not having or lacking the capacity to exercise the freedom in fancy ways. But the old worries lurk just around the corner.
The Kantian view is that there are indeed capacities that are crucial for the ascription of fundamental moral status that do not vary in degree. One either has the capacity or one does not, and that’s that. If the crucial capacities have this character, then the problem of how to draw a no arbitrary line on a continuum and hold all beings on one side of the line full persons and all beings on the other side of the line lesser beings does not arise. The line separating persons and nonpersons will be non arbitrary, and there will be no basis for further differentiation of moral status.
One is either a person or not, and all persons are equal. Consider the capacity to set an end, to choose a goal and decide on an action to achieve it. One might suppose that all humans have this capacity except for the permanently comatose and the anencephalic. So all humans are entitled to a fundamental equal moral status. This view is strengthened by noting that there are other capacities that do admit of degrees that interact with the no degree capacities. Individuals who equally have the capacity to set an end may well differ in the quality of their end-setting performances.
Some are able to set ends more reasonably than others. But these differences in performance do not gainsay the fundamental equal capacity. It is just that having a high or low level of associated capacities enables or impedes successful performance. So the fact that individuals differ in their abilities to do arithmetic and more complex mathematical operations that affect their ability to make rational choices should have no tendency to obscure the more basic and morally status-conferring equality in the capacity of each person to make choices.
In response: First of all, if several of these no degree capacities were relevant to moral status, one must possess all to be at the top status, and some individuals possess more and others fewer of the relevant capacities, a problem of hierarchy, though perhaps a manageable one, would emerge anew. More important, I doubt there is a plausible no degree capacity that can do the work this argument assigns to it. Take the capacity to set ends and make choices. Consider a being that has little brain power, but over the course of its life can set just a few ends and make just a few choices based on considering two or three simple alternatives.
It sets one end (lunch, now) per decade three times over the course of its life. If there is a capacity to set ends, period, not admitting of degrees, this being possesses it. The point is that it is clearly not merely the capacity to set ends, but something more complex that renders a being a person in our eyes. What matters is whether or not one has the capacity to set sensible ends and to pick among alternative end at a reasonable pace, sorting through complex considerations that bear on the choice of ends and responding in a rational way to these considerations.
But this capacity, along with any similar or related capacity that might be urged as a substitute for it, definitely admits of degrees. The same point would hold if we pointed to free will or moral autonomy as the relevant person-determining capacity. It is not the ability to choose an end on ground of consideration for moral considerations merely, but the ability to do this in a nuanced and fine-grained responsive way, that is plausibly deemed to entitle a being to personhood status.
In general, we single out rationality, the ability to respond appropriately to reasons, as the capacity that is pertinent to personhood, by itself or in conjunction with related abilities, and rationality so understood admits of degrees. Kant may well have held that the uses of reason that are required in order to have a well-functioning conscience that can tell right from wrong are not very sophisticated and are well within the reach of all non crazy non feebleminded humans. Ordinary intelligence suffices. His discussions of applying the categorical imperative test certainly convey this impression.
But commentators tend to agree that there is no simple all-purpose moral test that easily answers all significant moral questions. Thus Christine Korsgaard cautions that the categorical imperative test is not a “Geiger counter” for detecting the presence of moral duties, and Barbara Herman observes that the application of the categorical imperative test to cases cannot be a mechanical procedure but relies on prior moral understanding by the agent and on the agent’s capacity to make relevant moral discriminations and judgments and to characterize her own proposed maxims perspicuously.
These comments confirm what should be clear in any event: Moral problems can be complex and difficult, and there is no discernible upper bound to the complexity of the reasoning required to master and perhaps solve them. But suppose I do the best I can with my limited cognitive resources, I make a judgment as to what is morally right, however misguided, and I am conscientiously resolved to do what I take to be morally right. The capacity to do what is right can be factored into two components, the ability to decide what is right and the ability to dispose oneself to do what one thinks is right.
One might hold the latter capacity to be the true locus of human dignity and worth. Resisting temptation and doing what one thinks is right is noble and admirable even if one’s conscience is a broken thermometer. However, one might doubt that being disposed to follow one’s conscience is unambiguously good when one’s conscience is seriously in error. For one thing, moral flaws such as a lazy indisposition to hard thinking and an obsequious deference toward established power and authority might play a large role in fixing the content of one’s judgments of conscience.
A conceited lack of healthy skepticism about one’s cognitive powers might be a determinant of one’s strong disposition to do whatever one thinks to be right. Even if Kant is correct that the good will, the will directed unfailingly at what is truly right, has an absolute and unconditional worth, it is doubtful that the would-be good will, a will directed toward what it takes to be right on whatever flimsy or solid grounds appeal to it, has such worth. Take an extreme case: Suppose a particular person has a would-be good will that is always in error.
This could be strong or righteous, so that the agent always does what he thinks is right, or weak and corrupt, so that the agent never does what she thinks is right. If the will is always in error, the odds of doing the right thing are increased if the would-be good will is weak and corrupt. Some might value more highly on consequential grounds the weak and corrupt erroneous will, even though the strong and righteous invariably erroneous will always shines like a jewel in its own right.
And some might hold that quite aside from the expected consequences, acting on a seriously erroneous judgment of right is inherently of lesser worth than acting on correct judgment of right. Even if the disposition to do what one thinks morally right is unassailable, its purported value does not provide a sound basis for asserting the equal worth and dignity of human persons. The capacity to act conscientiously itself varies empirically across persons like any other valued capacity.
A favorable genetic endowment and favorable early socialization experiences bestow more of this capacity on some persons and less on others. If we think of an agent’s will as disposed more or less strongly to do what she conscientiously believes to be right, different individuals with the same disposition will experience good and bad luck in facing temptations that exceed their resolve. Even if we assume that agents always have freedom of the will, it will be difficult to different degrees for different persons to exercise their free will as conscience dictates.
Moreover, individuals will vary in their psychological capacities to dispose their will to do what conscience dictates. One might retreat further to the claim that all persons equally can try to dispose their will to do what is right, even if they will succeed in this enterprise to different degrees. But the ability to try is also a psychological capacity that we should expect would vary empirically across persons. At times Kant seems to appeal to epistemic grounds in reasoning from the goodness of the good will to the equal worth and dignity of all human persons.
We don’t know what anyone’s inner motivations are, even our own, so the judgment that anyone is firmly disposed to do what is right can never be confirmed. But surely the main issue is whether humans are so ordered that we ought to accord them fundamental equal moral status, not whether, given our beliefs, it is reasonable for us to act as if they are so ordered. The idea that there is a threshold of rational agency capacity such that any being with a capacity above the threshold is a person equal in fundamental moral status to all other persons prompts a worry about how to identify this threshold non arbitrarily.
It might seem that only the difference between nil capacity and some capacity would preclude the skeptical doubt that the line set at any positive level of capacity could just as well have been set higher or lower. Regarding the proposal to identify any above-zero capacity as qualifying one for personhood, we imagine a being with barely a glimmer of capacity to perceive the good and the right and to dispose its will toward their attainment. The difference between none and some might be infinitesimal, after all.
However, a threshold need not be razor-thin. Perhaps there is a line below which beings with rational capacities in this range are definitely not persons and a higher level such that all beings with capacities above this level are definitely persons. Beings with rational capacities that fall in the middle range or gray area between these levels are near-persons. The levels can be set sufficiently far apart that the difference between scoring at the lower and the higher levels is undeniably of moral significance.
But the difference between the rational capacities of the beings just above the higher line, call them marginal persons, and the beings at the upper end of the scale who have saintly genius capacities, is not thereby shown to be insignificant. At the lower end we might imagine persons like the villains depicted in the Dirty Harry Clint Eastwood movies. These unfortunates are not shown as having moral capacities which they are flouting, but rather as bad by nature, and perhaps not entitled to full human rights.
No doubt this is a crass outlook, but the question remains whether the analysis we can offer of the basis for human equality generates a refutation of it. Suppose someone asserts that the difference between the rational agency capacities of the most perceptive saints and the most unreflective and animalistic villains defines a difference in fundamental moral status that is just as important for morality as the difference between the rational agency capacities of near-persons and marginal persons. What mistake does this claim embody?
COMMENTS ON KANT’S ETHICAL THEORY Because we so commonly take it for granted that moral values are intimately connected with the goal of human well-being or happiness, Kant’s insistence that these two concepts are absolutely independent makes it difficult to grasp his point of view and easy to misunderstand it. The following comments are intended to help the you to avoid the most common misunderstandings and appreciate the sort of outlook that characterizes what Kant takes to be the heart of the ethical life.
Kant’s ethical theory is often cited as the paradigm of a deontological theory. Although the theory certainly can be seriously criticized, it remains probably the finest analysis of the bases of the concepts of moral principle and moral obligation. Kant’s endeavor to ground moral duty in the nature of the human being as essentially a rational being marks him as the last great Enlightenment thinker.
In spite of the fact that his critical philosophy in epistemology and metaphysics brought an end to The Age of Reason, in ethics his attempt to derive the form of any ethical duty from the very nature of a rational being is the philosophical high water mark of the Enlightenment’s vision of humanity as essentially and uniquely rational.
What Kant aims to provide is a “metaphysics of morals” in the sense of an analysis of the grounds of moral obligation in the nature of a rational being. In other words, Kant aims to deduce his ethical theory purely by a priori reasoning from the concept of what it is to be a human person as a rational agent.
The fact that people have the faculty of being able to use reason to decide how to act expresses the fundamental metaphysical principle -the basis or foundation in the nature of reality- on which Kant’s ethical theory is erected. Kant begins his treatise, The Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals with the famous dramatic sentence: “Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a good will. ” 1. What does Kant mean by “good without qualification”?
Obviously people try to seek and avoid many different sorts of things; those things which they seek they call “good,” while those they try to avoid, they call “bad”. These “goods” which people seek may be divided into those which are sought as means to some further end and those which they seek as good as ends in themselves. Obviously some things may be “good” as means to one end and “bad” as means to some other end. Different persons, motivated by different ends, will thus find different things “good” and “bad” (relative to their different ends).
More food is “good” to a starving man, but it is “bad” to one overweight. In order for something to be good “without qualification” it must not be merely “good” as means to one end but “bad” as means to some other end. It must be sought as good totally independently of serving as a means to something else; it must be “good in-itself. ” Furthermore, while one thing may be good as means relative to a particular end, that “end” becomes a “means” relative to some other “end”. So a college diploma may be sought as “good” as a means for the end of a higher-paying job.
And a higher-paying job may be “good” as a means to increased financial security; and increased financial security may be “good” as a means to obtaining the necessities of life as well as a few of its luxuries. However, if we seek A only for the sake of B, and B only for the sake of C, etc. , then there is never a justification for seeking A at the beginning of such a series unless there is something at the end of that series which we seek as a “good in-itself” not merely as means to some further end.
Such an “ultimate” end would then be an “absolute” rather than a “relative” good. Kant means that a good will is “good without qualification” as such an absolute good in-itself, universally good in every instance and never merely as good to some yet further end. 2. Why is a “good will” the only thing which is universally absolutely good? Kant’s point is that to be universally and absolutely good, something must be good in every instance of its occurrence.
He argues that all those things which people call “good” (including intelligence, wit, judgment, courage, resolution, perseverance, power, riches, honor, health, and even happiness itself) can become “extremely bad and mischievous if the will which is to make use of them… is not good. ” In other words, if we imagine a bad person (i. e. one who willed or wanted to do evil), who had all of these so-called “goods” (intelligence, wit, etc. ), these very traits would make only that much worse his will to do what is wrong.
(We would get the “criminal master-mind” of the comic books. ) Even “health” often also cited as a “good in- itself” may serve to make a person insensitive and indifferent to the lack of good health in others. 3. Isn’t “happiness” such a universal, absolute good in-itself? Kant answers clearly, “No. ” However, many philosophers (the ones we call “eudaemonists”) have assumed the obvious answer to be “Yes. ” All ancient eudaemonistic ethical theories as well as modern utilitarian theories virtually define “happiness” as the absolute end of all ethical behavior.
Such eudaemonistic ethical theories are attractive because of the fact that they make it easy to answer the question “Why should I do what is morally right? ” For any eudaemonistic theory the answer will always be “Because the morally right action is always ultimately in the interest of your own happiness. ” Since these theories generally assume that people really are motivated by a desire for their own happiness, their only problem is to show that the morally right action really does serve as the best means to obtain the end of happiness.
Once you are led to see this, so such theories assume, the question “Why should I do what is morally right? ” is automatically answered. Kant totally rejects this eudaemonistic way of ethical theorizing; he calls decisions made according to such a calculation of what produces your own happiness “prudential” decisions and he distinguishes them sharply from ethical decisions. This is not because Kant thinks we are not motivated by a desire for happiness, in fact like the ancient philosophers, he takes it for granted that we are; however, such motivation cannot be that which makes an action ethically right or wrong.
The fact that an action might lead to happiness cannot be the grounds of moral obligation. Kant regards the notion of “happiness” as both too indefinite and too empirical to serve as the grounds for moral obligation – why we ought to do something. In the first place it is “too indefinite” because all people have very different sorts of talents, tastes and enjoyments which mean in effect that one person’s happiness may be another person’s misery. This is because the concept is “empirical” in the sense that the only way you can know whether what you seek will actually serve to bring you happiness is by experience.
As Kant points out, “… it is impossible that the most clear-sighted [man] should frame to himself a definite conception of what he really wills in this…. ” Since we cannot know a priori before an action whether it really will be conducive to our happiness (because the notion is so indefinite that even the most clear-sighted amongst us cannot know everything that must form part of his own happiness) the desire for our own happiness cannot serve as a motive to determine our will to do this or that action. Moreover, Kant observes that even “…
the general well-being and contentment with one’s condition that is called happiness, can inspire pride, and often presumption, if there is not a good will to correct the influence of these on the mind…. ” In other words happiness cannot be good without qualification for if we imagine it occurring in a person totally devoid of the desire to do what is right, it could very well lead to all sorts of immoral actions. 4. What does Kant mean by a “good will”? To act out of a “good will” for Kant means to act out of a sense of moral obligation or “duty”.
In other words, the moral agent does a particular action not because of what it produces (its consequences) in terms of human experience, but because he or she recognizes by reasoning that it is morally the right thing to do and thus regards him or herself as having a moral duty or obligation to do that action. One may of course as an added fact get some pleasure or other gain from doing the right thing, but to act morally, one does not do it for the sake of its desirable consequences, but rather because one understands that it is morally the right thing to do.
In this respect Kant’s view towards morality parallels the Christian’s view concerning obedience to God’s commandments, according to which the Christian obeys God’s commandments simply because God commands them, not for the sake of rewards in heaven after death or from fear of punishment in hell. In a similar way, for Kant the rational being does what is morally right because he recognizes himself as having a moral duty to do so rather than for anything he or she may get out of it. 5. When does one act from a motive of doing one’s duty?
Kant answers that we do our moral duty when our motive is determined by a principle recognized by reason rather than the desire for any expected consequence or emotional feeling which may cause us to act the way we do. The “will” is defined as that which provides the motives for our actions. Obviously many times we are motivated by specific desires or emotions. I may act the way I do from a feeling of friendship for a particular individual, or from desire for a particular consequence. I may also be motivated by particular emotions of fear, or envy, or pity, etc.
When I act in these ways, I am motivated by a desire for a particular end; in Kant’s vocabulary I am said to act out of “inclination. ” Insofar as an action is motivated by inclination, the motive to do it is contingent upon the desire for the particular end which the action is imagined to produce. Thus as different rational agents might have different inclinations, there is no one motive from inclination common to all rational beings. Kant distinguishes acts motivated by inclination from those done on principle.
For example someone may ask why I did a certain thing, and point out that it brought me no gain, or perhaps even made life a bit less pleasant; to which I might reply, “I know I do not stand to gain by this action, but I do it because of the principle of the thing. ” For Kant, this sort of state of mind is the essence of the moral consciousness. When I act on principle the sole factor determining my motive is that this particular action exemplifies a particular case falling under a general law or “maxim. “
For Kant the mental process by which the actor understands that a particular case falls under a certain principle is an exercise in “reasoning,” or to be more precise, what Kant called “practical reason,” reason used as a guide to action. (“Pure Reason” is reason used to attain certainty, or what Kant called “scientific knowledge. “) Since to have moral worth an action must be done on principle, and to see that a certain principle applies to a particular action requires the exercise of reason, only rational beings can be said to behave morally. 6. Why does Kant believe that to have moral worth an action must be done on principle rather than inclination?
Kant’s argument here may seem strange to the contemporary outlook, for it assumes that everything in nature is designed to serve a purpose. Now it is an obvious fact that human beings do have a faculty of “practical reason,” reason applied to the guidance of actions. (Kant is of course fully aware the people often fail to employ this faculty; i. e. they act non-rationally (without reason) or even irrationally (against what reason dictates); but he intends that his ethical theory is normative, prescribing how people ought to behave, rather than descriptive of how they actually do behave.)
If everything in nature serves some purpose then the faculty of practical reason must have some purpose. Kant argues that this purpose cannot be merely the attainment of some specific desired end, or even the attainment of happiness in general, for if it were, it would have been far better for nature simply to have endowed persons with an instinct to achieve this end, as is the case with the non- rational animals. Therefore, the fact that human beings have a faculty of practical reason cannot be explained by claiming that it allows them to attain some particular end.
So the fact that reason can guide our actions, but cannot do so for the sake of achieving some desired end, leads Kant to the conclusion that the function of practical reason must be to allow humans as rational beings to apply general principles to particular instances of action, or in other words to engage in moral reasoning as a way of determining one’s moral obligation: what is the “right” action to do. Thus we act morally only when we act rationally to apply a moral principle to “determine” the motive of our action. 7. Do all persons have the same moral duties? According to Kant only rational beings can be said to act morally.
Reason for Kant (as for all the Enlightenment thinkers) is the same for all persons; in other words there isn’t a poor man’s reason versus a rich man’s reason or a white man’s reason versus a black man’s reason. All persons are equal as potentially rational beings. Therefore, if reason dictates that one person, in a particular situation, has a moral duty to do a particular thing, then any person, in that same situation, would equally well have a duty to do that same thing. In this sense Kant’s reasoning parallels the way in which stoicism led Roman lawyers to the conclusion that all citizens are equal before the law.
Thus Kant is a moral “absolutist” in the sense that all persons have the same moral duties, for all persons are equal as rational beings. But this “absolutism” does not mean that Kant holds that our moral duties are not relative to the situation in which we find ourselves. Thus it is quite possible for Kant to conclude that in one particular situation I may have a duty to keep my promise, but in another situation (in which, for example, keeping a promise conflicts with a higher duty) I may equally well be morally obligated to break a promise. 8.
Why is it that actions done for the sake of some end cannot have moral worth? Since what one’s moral duties are in a particular situation are the same for all persons, one’s moral duties must be independent of the particular likes and dislikes of the moral agent. Now any action which is motivated by the desire for some particular end presupposes that the agent has the desire for that end. However, from the simple concept of a “rational being” it is not possible to deduce that any particular rational being would have any particular desired ends.
Most people, of course, desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain, but there is no logical contradiction involved in the notion of a “rational being who does not desire pleasure” or perhaps who desires pain. Thus reason does not dictate that any particular rational being has any particular end. But if the desire for a particular end gave an action its moral worth, then only those rational beings who happened in fact to desire that end would regard such actions as “good,” while those that desired to avoid such an end, would regard the action as “bad.
” (Thus for example eudaemonistic theories which assume the end of achieving happiness is what gives an action its moral value, would serve to induce only those beings who happened to have the desire for happiness to behave morally. For those rational beings who happened to desire to avoid happiness, there would be no incentive to behave morally and what appears “good” to the happiness-seeker will appear positively “bad” to one who seeks to avoid happiness. ) But, as we have seen above, Kant’s absolutism reaches the conclusion that moral obligation is the same for all persons.
Thus the ground of moral obligation, what makes an action a moral duty, cannot lie in the end which that act produces. 9. What does reason tell us about the principle that determines the morally dutiful motive? Since Kant has ruled out the ends (i. e. the “consequences”) which an act produces as well as any motive but those determined by the application of principle as determining moral duty, he is faced now with the task of deriving the “fundamental principles” of his ethical theory solely from the concept of what it is to be a rational being.
He now argues (in a very obscure manner) that from this notion of what is demanded by being rational, he can deduce that it would be irrational to act on any principle which would not apply equally to any other actor in the same situation. In other words, Kant claims that reason dictates that the act we are morally obligated to do is one which is motivated by adherence to a principle which could, without inconsistency, be held to apply to any (and all) rational agents.
This fundamental ethical principle, which is commonly called “The Categorical Imperative,” Kant summarizes with the statement that “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim become a universal law. ” Kant’s claim that Reason demands the moral agent to act on a universal law thus in many ways parallels Jesus’ dictum that God commands that those who love Him obey “The Golden Rule. ” 10. What is a “categorical imperative”? Any statement of moral obligation which I make the principle of my action (my “maxim” in Kant’s vocabulary), in the context of a specific situation, constitutes an “imperative.
” I might, in such a situation, choose to act on a statement of the form, “If I desire some specific end (e. g. happiness, maximum pleasure, power, etc. ), then I ought to do such and such an action. ” In doing so I would be acting on what Kant calls “a hypothetical imperative. ” However, Kant has already ruled out ends as the grounds for moral obligation; thus hypothetical imperatives cannot serve as the basis for determining my moral duty. However, if I act on a principle which has the form, “In circumstances of such and such a character, I ought to.