Wo war das hohe Gericht, bis zu dem er nie gekommen war?

It seems like I have had a discussion with just about every educated person I know about Kant’s categorical imperative at least once. I had another such the other day, and it happened to connect with a couple of other things I was thinking about. I have to say that for some time I have found the idea of a priori ethical systems a little arbitrary. When it comes to Kant, it is easy to be misled by his language into thinking that he is postulating a consequentialist or even quasi-utilitarian view of ethics. But this is not true, and his admonition about it being wrong to lie to a would-be murderer about the whereabouts of the person he is seeking to kill because lying is an unacceptable general moral principle should demonstrate that pretty convincingly. So instead there must be some intrinsic connection between moral imperatives like telling the truth and the good.

But if the goal of ethics is ultimately, as I believe, to try to maximize the happiness of the members of a group, or at least to make their individual desires capable of co-existence as much as possible, the categorical imperative manifestly fails to do so, as evidenced by that very example. The famous criticism of Kant by Schopenhauer that “everything is sacrificed to a rage for symmetry,” or in this case consistency, comes to mind. It seems to me that it is necessary to be flexible in one’s principles of action, and careful in balancing what is at stake, or one could find oneself giving directions to a murderer, so to speak. Even if deeds like telling the truth are on the whole the best policy in most cases, one cannot justify the instances in which they are not by reference to those in which they are.

13 Responses to “Wo war das hohe Gericht, bis zu dem er nie gekommen war?”

  1. Dave Says:

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

    I fail to see how indeviant truth telling satisfies the imperative. Would you want to abide by the maxim that a murderer must be told where you are if asked or any maxim which would necessarily lead to that result. Better to do unto others as you would have them do unto you in any given situation.

    Suppose a murderer comes over to my house and says. “Where is that Curt? I’m gonna kill the SOB.? I just say “I’m not telling.? So then she says “ Well then I’ll kill you.?

    Under the golden rule I both desire to stay alive and desire to prevent the murderer from doing anything foolish. So I say “He’s over at Kant’s place.? This is an obvious lie.

    But Kant says “So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, always as an end, and never as only a means.?

    Thus, if I treat the murderer as an end, I will abstain from treating the her in a way that will act as a means of preserving mine and Curt’s life. Will I either act suicidally and refuse to divulge any information or aid the murderer in killing Curt?

    Nah, I think I will send her over to Kant’s place.

  2. Curt Says:

    The irony is that the two sentences you cite are usually called the first and second formulations of the categorical imperative, but I don’t think they are necessarily even compatible. Applying rigid principles unvaryingly in one’s dealings with others doesn’t seem to me to be treating people as ends or even really as means, more just as inconsequential backdrops to one’s own inflexible rectitude.

  3. shonk Says:

    But if the goal of ethics is ultimately, as I believe, to try to maximize the happiness of the members of a group, or at least to make their individual desires capable of co-existence as much as possible, the categorical imperative manifestly fails to do so, as evidenced by that very example.

    Two points:

    1. That isn’t necessarily the goal of all ethical systems. Many ethical systems I can think of are based on an attempt to get the people who believe in them to conform to a purported natural order or law. I suppose one could try to make an argument that those ethical systems are, at base, claiming that conforming to natural law supercedes all else in making people happy, even though their actions contradict that claim, but that seems somewhat spurious to me. Another example which I would say violates this conception of ethics would be Communist and other revolutionary ethical systems, wherein sustaining the revolution is the primary goal of the ethical system and the happiness of individuals is irrelevant. I suppose one could argue that in this example the people whose happiness is being maximized are those who will live in the post-Revolutionary utopia (even if they haven’t been born yet), but, given that such ideologies never do a good job of explaining why the interests of future people outweigh those of people living in the present, I don’t really buy it.

    2. Many other ethical systems try to maximize the happiness of the members of a group within a perceived broader context. For example, many Christian ethical systems operate within the context of a promised eternal life; even though these systems might prescribe behavior which makes earthly life miserable (or at least less pleasant than it could be), people who abide by the system get a payoff in the long run. Consider an (admittedly concocted) example wherein a rich person offers you a million dollars provided you tell him a demonstrable lie. In a purely materialist context, nobody is hurt by telling the lie, since the rich guy is giving the money of his own volition (assume his money was earned by ethical means, so as not to complicate matters), yet if one believes lying is an offense punishable by damnation, it still wouldn’t be a very wise thing to do.

  4. Curt Says:

    In one sense yes and in one sense no. Obviously I do not mean that all ethical systems consciously make the maximization of happiness their goal, otherwise it would have been a redundant point to make. At the same time, it is hard to think of an ethical system that does not in some way justify itself by reference to its capacity to increase the well-being of those subject to it, even if those benefits be postponed to the afterlife, as in Christianity, or some nebulous utopian terrestrial future, as in Marxism. In any case, by the goal of ethics I mean the ideal goal, what the goal should be and what in my view constitutes the raison d’être for ethical systems in the first place.

  5. shonk Says:

    To what extent are (or ought) ethics divorced from morals, in your opinion?

  6. Curt Says:

    It depends what you mean by ethics and morals.

  7. shonk Says:

    Just assume I’m using them in the sense you intended in the first paragraph of your post. I’m probably not, but that provides a starting point.

  8. Curt Says:

    I was using the term “morals” to indicate a system of rules and directives, and “ethics” as a more generalized conception of right and wrong. Given what I have already said, that pretty much already answers the question. I think moral rules are useful as guidelines for a behavior, since a number of dictates can established which are valid in probably the vast majority of cases, and they should be borne in mind even when they are not, as in Kant’s lying example, to remind one that a trade-off is being made at some level. The problem with Kant is that he makes internal consistency between one’s actions and the rule rather than correspondence between one’s actions and the well-being of those affected the basic standard of value. At the same time, one should not make the mistake, as consequentialist or utilitarian philosophies are prone to, of separating actions and their consequences too neatly. The mere fact of doing something can have significant psychological consequences for those involved, apart from what the material results of it are. Hence the whole notion of making “gestures,” which are not necessarily just emptily symbolic, but can be indications of the disposition or relationship between people.

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