Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals

Posted by Michael Dickens on November 8, 2009

Immanuel Kant‘s famous book, which you can read here, provides an interesting proposition. It is the foundation of Deontological Ethics, the only real moral philosophy that is opposed to Consequentialism. Hopefully, through reading this, I (as a Consequentialist) will gain new insights into the Deontological perspective.

Kant begins by defining a distinction between branches of philosophy: there is pure philosophy, the philosophy based solely on rationality and logic; and there is empirical philosophy, which is based upon experience. Pure philosophy is then further divided into logic, the purely formal philosophy, and metaphysics, the philosophy of “definite objects of understanding”. “In this way there arises the idea of a two-fold metaphysic – a metaphysic of nature and a metaphysic of morals.”

Kant then argues that “[a]ll crafts, trades and arts have profited from the division of labour; for when each worker sticks to one particular kind of work that needs to be handled differently from all the others, he can do it better and more easily than when one person does everything.” This sort of reasoning works in some cases, but not in others. A craft cannot be subdivided too deeply; the quantity of accomplishment may be increased, but at a point the accomplishment becomes useless because it is so narrow. Additionally, some crafts require knowledge of other things to be truly successful. For instance, knowledge of calculus requires knowledge of algebra. And some crafts, if you grok both, mutually enrich each other. Physics may be fine without calculus, and calculus may be fine without physics, but knowledge of both enriches your entire experience.

According to Kant, pure philosophy and empirical philosophy should not be mixed, and this is what Consequentialists do by basing their moral philosophy on the empirical world. However, I ask, how is it possible to not base a moral philosophy upon the empirical world? Even if we think of ethics on a more abstract plane, we must define certain rules of this abstract plane based on the empirical world. If we do not, then the study of ethics becomes irrelevant to reality.

Kant’s big assertion:

Isn’t it utterly necessary to construct a pure moral philosophy that is completely freed from everything that may be only empirical and thus belong to anthropology?

Only if we accept the premises that: empiricism and purely rational thinking should not be mixed; ethics exist in the realm of “pure philosophy”. Both of these premises are false. I have already discussed the first, so allow me to address the second. Ethics is the philosophy of what we ought to do. Doing is a phenomenon that occurs in the empirical world. Therefore ethics are, if anything, in the realm of empirical philosophy.

Kant argues for a system based on moral rules, which hold as universally true. These moral rules can only apply if they end up bringing good to the world. I hold it as self-evident that we should maximize happiness and minimize suffering in as many people as possible; Kant’s moral rules completely disregard this fact, as no moral rule can universally apply (at least, that I am aware of). But if a moral rule did universally apply, it would be only because it is universally advantageous.

By Kant’s argument, it is difficult to be an expert at both pure and empirical philosophy, therefore a moral philosophy that has a bit of both is not possible. He makes an unwarranted leap from “difficult” to “impossible”.

One thing I like about Kant’s argument is that each person should be treated as an end, and not just a means to an end. I agree, but this does not mean that all ends deserve complete respect. As seen in moral dilemmas, it is impossible to completely respect the wants of every individual, and it is therefore silly to think that it can be done.

We supposedly have a duty not to lie. One situation in which this seems to be false is when a murderer asks you the location of his potential victim. According to the Categorical Imperative, you have a duty not to lie to the murderer, since you should respect him as an end in himself. However, giving away the victim’s location disrespects the potential victim. If you say nothing, the murderer will probably try to torture you to get out the information, and you are thus disrespecting yourself. So no matter what you do, you cannot respect all parties. This duty is therefore not appropriate. From a Consequentialist perspective, however, the clear choice is to lie to the murderer. This preserves the victim’s safety and your own.

So far I have not read very far into the book; these are just my thoughts so far. I may continue a response at some point in the future. Until then, Utilitarianism FTW!!


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