Friday, January 29, 2010

Ethics Lecture Jan 29: Kant, Principles and Morals

BCC Ethics
Eric Gerlach

Kant, Principles and Morals

Kant (1724-1804) was the European philosopher who argued for always following morals and laws universally. His position is opposed by Mill, who believed that morals are only in the service of getting good consequences. This is one of the biggest oppositions of perspectives in ethics. Should we create morals and laws and always stick to them, or should we do whatever results in the best consequences?

As Europe rose in the 1600s and 1700s, science had begun discovering many new truths about the world. This created an opposition between rationalists who believed that the world has absolute laws that we can know certainly by reason and empiricists who believed that we can only assume what we know and that the rules our reason finds could be wrong. One of the most famous empiricists was Hume, who argued that one can only assume that one billiard ball causes the other billiard ball to move.

Kant was "awoken from his dogmatic slumbers" by Hume. Kant wanted to balance empiricism with rationalism, but he comes down on the rationalist side. In all knowledge, including ethics, Kant believed we must use our reason to figure out the universal laws of our rational and ordered universe. Notice that Kant, as a rationalist, trusts that the world and the mind are reasonable and that there are universal laws out there for us to grasp.

The central example we will consider is the moral "Do Not Lie". Kant believed that one should never lie, and our reason can show us this with certainty. He argued that one is seeking unconditional and universal laws in ethics (as well as every area of human knowledge), which Kant also calls categorical imperatives, and so one should only act in a way that one could expect everyone to always act everywhere at any time. If everyone lied all the time, then society would collapse. Therefore, Kant argued, it is one's duty to not lie and hold to this moral and law.

Consider the "guy with the butcher knife" thought experiment. Let us say you are at home, and the doorbell rings. You answer it, and your friend runs in looking afraid. A minute later the doorbell rings again, you answer it, and a scary guy with a butcher knife asks you where your friend is. Kant would allow one to shut the door and say nothing, but Kant would argue that it is wrong to lie to the scary guy and say you don't know or that your friend took off down the street the other way. Even though we can assume that if you lie it would improve your friend's chances of living, Kant would argue that this would be wrong. We can contrast this with the position of Mill and utilitarianism, which would argue that in some circumstances the lie is the lesser of two evils and one should behave in accord with the ends of ones actions rather than stick rigidly to morals and laws.

An interesting issue here is that rationalists and positivists like Kant believe that one should anchor ethics in good beginnings while empiricists and skeptics believe one should anchor ethics in good ends. Kant believes that one must start with good intentions and principles no matter the consequences, while Mill believes that one should aim at the best consequences no matter the principles or intentions one has. As usual, both sides agree that one should have good intentions, principles and consequences, but they come down on opposite sides when arguing for what is really the essence or importance of the matter.

We will come to Mill's position in the coming weeks. Another contrary position to both Kant and Mill is Nietzsche, who we will also hear from soon. Nietzsche does not trust human reason, so he trusts neither Kant nor Mill. Nietzsche argues that people who believe they know the true morals and people who say they know what led to the best consequences for everyone are capable of deceiving themselves and thinking they know what is best for everyone.