Kantianism: Objections and Replies Keith Burgess-Jackson 12 March 2017

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1 Kantianism: Objections and Replies Keith Burgess-Jackson 12 March 2017 Kantianism (K): 1 For all acts x, x is right iff (i) the maxim of x is universalizable (i.e., the agent can will that the maxim of x become a universal law) 2 and (ii) x manifests respect for persons (i.e., the agent, in performing x, uses humanity including the agent always as end and never merely as means). 3 Commentary: Kant formulated the Categorical Imperative his name for the supreme principle of morality in three different ways, claiming that The three ways... are... fundamentally only so many formulas of precisely the same law The problem is that Kant s formulas don t seem to express the same law. Perhaps he meant that the formulas are extensionally equivalent to one another, i.e., that they generate the same results. Another possibility is that one of the formulas the Formula of Universal Law supplies the form of a moral judgment, while another the Formula of Humanity supplies its material. 5 In what follows, we shall assume that K expresses Kant s normative ethical theory. K says two things: first, that there are two individually necessary conditions for rightness, namely, universalizability and respectfulness of persons; and second, that the two conditions (universalizability and respectfulness of persons) are jointly sufficient 1 Also known as Kantian Ethics and the Ethic(s) of Respect for Persons. The theory is named for its originator, Immanuel Kant ( ). 2 As Kant puts it, Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785). This is known as the Universal-Law Formulation of the Categorical Imperative (or the Formula of Universal Law). 3 As Kant puts it, Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as means. Ibid. This is known as the End-in-Itself Formulation of the Categorical Imperative (or the Formula of Humanity). 4 Ibid. (ellipsis added). 5 Kant suggests as much when he writes: All maxims have... (1) a form, which consists in universality, and then the formula of the moral imperative is expressed thus: That the maxims must be chosen as if they are supposed to be valid as universal laws of nature ; (2) a matter, namely an end, and then the formula says: That the rational being, as an end in accordance with its nature, hence as an end in itself, must serve for every maxim as a limiting condition of all merely relative and arbitrary ends ; (3) a complete determination of all maxims through that formula, namely That all maxims ought to harmonize from one s own legislation into a possible realm of ends as a realm of nature. Ibid. (italics in original). 1

2 for rightness. 6 It follows that (1) if the maxim of one s act is not universalizable, then one s act is not right; (2) if one s act does not manifest respect for persons, then one s act is not right; and (3) if (a) the maxim of one s act is universalizable and (b) one s act manifests respect for persons, then (c) one s act is right. There are two ways for a maxim to fail to be universalizable: first, the maxim may be incapable of becoming a universal law; and second, even if the maxim is capable of becoming a universal law, the agent may be unable to will that it become a universal law. Kant gives two examples of maxims that are incapable of becoming universal laws: committing suicide and making a lying promise. He gives two examples of maxims that are capable of becoming universal laws but which cannot be willed (by the agent) to become universal laws: letting one s talents rust and refraining from helping others. Here is how a Kantian reasons: The maxim of act a (e.g., committing suicide or making a lying promise) is incapable of becoming a universal law; therefore, the maxim of a is not universalizable; therefore, according to K, a is not right. The maxim of act a (e.g., letting one s talents rust or refraining from helping others) is capable of becoming a universal law, but the agent is unable to will that it become a universal law; therefore, the maxim of a is not universalizable; therefore, according to K, a is not right. An act manifests respect for persons when no person affected by the act (including the agent) is treated as a mere means to the agent s ends. An act fails to manifest respect for persons when at least one person affected by the act (including the agent) is treated as a mere means to the agent s ends. To treat a person (including oneself) as a mere means to one s ends is to treat the person as a means to one s ends without at the same time treating the person as an end in himself or herself. 6 Suppose Kant is correct that the two conditions (i and ii) are merely different ways of expressing the same moral law. Then K is harmlessly redundant. Now suppose Kant is incorrect, and that the two conditions are not merely different ways of expressing the same moral law. Then presumably an act must satisfy both conditions in order to be right. On either supposition, K can be taken to express Kant s view. 2

3 According to David O. Brink, a Kantian moral theory... attempts to explain our obligations in terms of what a rational being as such would will. David O. Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics, Cambridge Studies in Philosophy, ed. Sydney Shoemaker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 251. The Animals Objection: 1. K implies that there are no direct duties to animals. 2. There are direct duties to animals. accepts premise 1, but rejects premise 2. (This is known as biting the bullet.) According to Kant, while there are no direct duties to animals, there are indirect duties. He writes: Our duties towards animals are merely indirect duties towards humanity. Animal nature has analogies to human nature, and by doing our duties to animals in respect of manifestations which correspond to manifestations of human nature, we indirectly do our duty towards humanity. 7 Commentary: Biting the bullet means sticking with one s theory even when it has implications that one finds it painful to accept. The term biting the bullet may be inapt here, because Kant probably didn t feel any pain in saying that there are no direct duties to animals. Since, in his view, animals are not rational, they have no inherent worth, value, or dignity. The Counterintuitive-Consequences Objection I: 7 Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics, trans. Louis Infield, The Library of Religion and Culture, ed. Benjamin Nelson (New York: Harper & Row, 1963 [first published in 1930]),

4 1. K implies that the investor 8 does not act rightly in withdrawing all his money from the bank. 2. The investor acts rightly in withdrawing all his money from the bank. accepts premises 2 (presumably) and 4, but rejects premise 1. (This is known as grasping the bull by the horn.) It s not clear, however, how the Kantian can reject premise 1. Perhaps the maxim of the investor s act is incorrectly stated. Perhaps the correct statement of the maxim is universalizable. Unfortunately, Kant never told us how to distinguish between correct and incorrect statements of maxims. Fred Feldman, who devised this objection, concludes that there is a very deep problem 9 with Kant s theory. Commentary: The problem here is that an innocent act i.e., an act that is intuitively right turns out to be wrong because its maxim is not universalizable. The fact that its maxim is not universalizable, however, has nothing to do with morality. The Counterintuitive-Consequences Objection II: 1. K implies that the borrower 10 acts rightly in ignoring his debt. 8 The maxim of the investor s act is, When the Stock Market Index reaches 1000, I shall withdraw all my money from the bank. Fred Feldman, Introductory Ethics (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978), Ibid., Suppose a student has borrowed $9.81 from his roommate, and is considering whether he should repay it. He finds it impossible to universalize the maxim, When you have borrowed money, don t repay. But there are somewhat more specific maxims, which he can equally well regard as the maxims of his act. He happens upon this one: Whenever one student in a small coeducational college borrows exactly $9.81 from another student who is his roommate, and on the day of the loan the borrower is exactly years old (corresponding to his own age), and the creditor is exactly years old, and the borrower s weight is exactly and his height exactly -----, and the creditor s weight is exactly and his height exactly -----, and if the borrower finds it very inconvenient to repay, then let him not repay 4

5 2. The borrower does not act rightly in ignoring his debt. accepts premises 2 and 4, but rejects premise 1. (This is known as grasping the bull by the horn.) The Kantian says that K does not imply that the borrower acts rightly in ignoring his debt, because, while the maxim of the act is universalizable, the act does not manifest respect for persons. In other words, the second necessary condition of rightness is not satisfied. the money. The student finds himself heartily in favor of universalizing this maxim. Hence, he concludes it is morally permissible to ignore the debt. Richard B. Brandt, Ethical Theory: The Problems of Normative and Critical Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1959), 34. 5

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