Friday, October 06, 2006

Kant's Categorical Imperatives and Desire Utilitarianism

I am torn on today's posts by two competing concerns. This is theory weekend, and I have a post on Kantian moral theory that I am ready to post. At the same time, Bush has been at his moral worst this week on the campaign trail, and I want to touch on those issues as well.

Therefore, today, I am going to start with a discussion of Kant's moral theory. Tomorrow, I will discuss the most recent Bushcapades in a post that will focus on an analysis of the concept of 'evil'.

Kant's Moral Theory

In last weekend's postings on value theory I discussed the principle of "Do unto others…" and how it fits with desire-utilitarianism.

This week I want to discuss a very closely related principle taken from Immanuel Kant's moral theory. This principle states, "In all things, act on that principle that you can will to be a universal law."

This posting is going to be difficult to write, because I realize that my readers have a widely diverging background in moral theory. Some know Kant's moral theory in detail. Others have never heard of him. I need to clarify some of the questions that those who know Kant's theory will likely have right off the bat, without boring those who have never heard of him.

Categorical Imperatives

Let me start by saying that there ain't no such thing as a 'categorical imperative.' All imperatives are hypothetical.

For the novice, an imperative is a statement about what ought and ought not to be done. Kant argued that there were two types of imperatives.

Hypothetical imperatives are tied to desires. They say something like, "If you want to get to the movie on time, then you should leave within the hour." The imperative (you should leave within the hour) is hypothetical because it depends on a prior condition (if you want to get to the movie on time). Take away the hypothetical condition (if you want…) and you remove the imperative (you should…)

Categorical imperatives are independent of desires. A categorical imperative says, "you should…" without having any preconditions that might sometimes be false. They are, in short, reasons for action that are independent of desires.

As I have argued in the past, there is no such thing. Value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. Remove all desire, and you remove all value.

Now, this is a very superficial reading of Kant. I want to remind those who will recognize that I missed some nuances in Kant's theory that I only have a little bit of room here - barely room to scratch the surface.

Kant's Expression of "The Categorical Imperative"

Kant argued that there was a 'categorical imperative' and he expressed it in three different ways. Kant claimed that these three ways are identical. I really do not see how that can be defended. Two of his most famous and influential ways of making his claim are:

Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end

Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law

I want to argue that desire-utilitarianism contains hypothetical imperatives that are very near to Kant's categorical imperatives.

Desire utilitarianism says that all value exists in the form of a relationship between states of affairs and desires. Moral value concerns the relationship between desires and other desires. It aims to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. People do this by using social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

Desire utilitarianism has implications that closely match Kant's 'categorical imperatives.'

Specifically, we can change Kant's second phrasing to "Act on that desire that you can will to be a universal desire."

Indeed, this fixes some problems with Kant's formula.

Let's say that you walk into an empty room and you take a chair. Can you will as a universal law that anybody can walk into that room and take that chair? If we did, then we would have a problem. The chair can only hold one person. Therefore, the principle that it is permissible to use that chair cannot be made into a universal law. On Kant's theory, that would imply that sitting in the chair is wrong (immoral).

However, let us look at this in terms of desires. Let us say that, instead of a universal 'principle', we are looking for a universal set of desires. The desire we are looking at as a universal desire is not the desire to sit in that specific chair. If we universalize that desire, it would generate conflict and unpleasantness. What we want is, for those who have a desire to sit (which we have no reason to wish is universal), they also have an aversion to sitting in a chair that is already in use. We can, consistently and sensibly, will this universal aversion to taking chairs that are otherwise in use.

This is not a 'categorical imperative' in the Kantian sense. It is still a hypothetical imperative.

The value of the aversion to taking somebody else's chair depends very much on the fact that this aversion minimizes the thwarting of desires generally. It is very much compatible with Kant's hypothetical imperative. However, instead of being a simple hypothetical such as, "If you want to go to get to the movie on time. . . ," it is a complex hypothetical imperative that takes the form, "If [facts about all desires including those facts about desires that are malleable through social conditioning], then it makes sense to promote an aversion to taking chairs that are already in use."

Also, please note the reference to "all desires", and compare that to the Kantian categorical imperative to treat others as ends and not merely means. In desire utilitarianism, this says that

To treat somebody as a means only - as a tool - is to disregard any desires that the person may have.

A movie producer buys a car. That car has no desires. That means that the car can be used in whatever way fulfills the desires of others, regardless of what happens to the car. If the movie producer wants to use the car by using it in a stunt in which it gets smashed in an automobile accident and blown up, he may do so. The fact that this demolishes the car is irrelevant - the car has no interests. It only has value to the degree (and in whatever role) fulfills the desires of others.

People, on the other hand, have interests (desires). To say that a human is to be treated "as an end and not merely as a means" is to say that he will not be used solely for the fulfillment of desires that are not his own. Instead, his desires will be considered in the moral calculus. When the tendency of a desire to fulfill or thwart other desires is calculated, each of us is a member of the 'others' whose desires are included. That way, none of us are treated as a means only.

In the universe, one of the facts about desires is its tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. Another fact about desires are their susceptibility (if any) to social forces. We do not have to attach the name 'morality' to these properties for these properties to exist. They exist, and they have the properties that they have.

If a desire (D) tends to promote other desires, then those who hold those other desires have reason to promote and strengthen D. If D tends to thwart other desires, then those who hold those other desires have reason to diminish D. Furthermore, if the strength of D is susceptible to social forces, then those others have a reason to employ those social forces to alter the strength of D. We can talk reasonably about what a person who has those desires that people generally have reason to promote, and who lacks those desires that people generally have reason to inhibit, would act under certain circumstances. Those statements are objectively true or false.

All of this is true in the context where all imperatives are hypothetical.

So, desire utilitarianism handles what 'makes sense' about Kantian moral theory.

It handles the idea of treating everybody as an end and not merely as a means. It simply means that we are talking about the relationships between desires and other desires, and what is objectively true about those relationships.

It handles the idea of acting on principles that one wills to be a universal law. It simply translates this into asking how a person would act if he had desires that one could will to be universal desires.

1 comment:

Tony said...

Hello. Chanced across your site. Good to see someone sincere in their efforts to understand this dimension of life. Wanted to offer my perspective, probably for the same reasons you write your blog.

Regarding Kant:

"Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law".

and your application of your understanding of desire-utilitarianism:

"Act on that desire that you can will to be a universal desire".

For clarity, I'll paraphrase his as "act as you want others to act", and yours as "act on desires you want others to have". Kant's says the action is the important thing, yours emphasises the motivation. But, if someone is seeking ethical insight by consulting such advice, they implicitly desire to act ethically, and it is on the assumption of this desire that we derive defensible actions from your guideline. Clearly, when the desire is to act ethically, both versions reduce to the same advice.

Separately, both guidelines give no guidance regarding what characteristics acts or desires should have before we should want them to become universal. By saying "do/feel what you're happy to have others do/feel", we invite anything from anarchy to public sex to enforced racial segregation: all would look at these guidelines and desire that others join them in their desires and acts. These guidelines are therefore dangerously incomplete.

Unless you formulate some categorical imperatives you have no foundation on which to discuss ethics. Guidelines like you discuss are important sanity checks on an ethical framework, but not suitable foundations. For most philosophers, the imperatives revolve around some manner of assumed inherent equality with others (which is arbitrary, but if people don't accept that then their interest in ethics is over, so they won't be writing much and participating in the debate), coupled with a notion of what makes life worthwhile (which is also arbitrary, and much debated).

And, by way of context and introduction, a short "bio" of my own ethical standpoint. My ethical reasoning evolved in ignorance of, but came into alignment with, Buddhist ethics. Now, I believe Buddhist ethical reasoning to be perfectly rational, complete and coherent, and have not encountered an ethical problem in which I felt it suggests a suboptimal outcome. Still, I do question some of the religious context (reincarnation, vegetarianism) from which this reasoning is applied. Summarily, this system identifies causes of suffering in others - longing, lust, expectations held too closely, aversion, hate, and indifference - and simply says all actions should aim to free people from the mindset in which they suffer, and allow them to engage in life in a psychologically "free", guiltless, joyous, and wise way, acting to improve all aspects of life, but understanding and accepting the inevitability of setbacks. Ultimately, people are responsible for attempting to predict and optimise the consequences of their actions against this single categorial imperative of psychological advancement.