Oh Kant….

Kant in thread

Yes, that’s a Kant finger puppet — yes, that’s thread, yes — my cats tied him up in the thread when I was out of town, yes — I left it that way — don’t judge :). I have to say that Kant is perhaps my favorite philosopher… not because he’s easy, but because I think he’s probably right.  That’s a strong statement for a philosopher.

The thing is, Kant has some basic stuff right in his ethical theory.  To start, I think he’s right about the inherent worth of an individual person.  The basic idea is that each of us has value just because we are human beings.  Every individual person ought to be shown basic respect in that regard.  We ought to be free to make our own choices in life, and we ought to treat others with basic respect as well.

As someone I read in “humans of New York” said, “we shouldn’t make exceptions of ourselves” — what that means is that we ought to treat others with respect, just as we ought to be treated with respect by others.

Also — for Kant — the big thing he’s looking at to determine whether or not something is moral is motive — NOT results… so, if you have a good motive (and the Categorical Imperative is a test for motives), then you’re doing something that is morally permissible —

  • That’s kind of what Kant is saying when he says that the only thing that is inherently GOOD is a good motive — because, there is no way a good motive can be bad.  You may have other skills, and those skills can be used to do good or bad things, but a good motive can’t be used to do a bad thing — kind of by definition…

How that plays out is interesting —

To begin, think about the difference between a hypothetical imperative and a categorical imperative… A hypothetical imperative is an If, then statement — if you want to get good grades, do your homework etc… A categorical imperative is a command without a condition.  So, the equivalent would be “do your homework” — in this example.

So, there are lots and lots of hypothetical imperatives in our world — and few (well, really one) categorical imperative.  Most things you do, if you think about it, are in response to hypothetical imperatives — if you want to cat to come to you, sprinkle catnip etc..

The one categorial imperative is something like:  Only act on motives that you would,  at the same time, will to become universal natural law… (so you can see how this is a test of motives).

Yikes, that’s a lot to unpack — but, overall it’s saying that you shouldn’t do things you wouldn’t want others to do as well…

The Categorial Imperative is a kind of test of motives…. there are two ways a motive can violate the CI —

1) logically — IF, when you do X, AND everyone knows your motives (or hidden agenda or whatever you’re not teling them) you wouldn’t be able to do X — then it fails.

  • so, you couldn’t tell a lie, because, if — when you told that lie — everyone you told the lie to would know you’re lying… it wouldn’t work.

2) practically — IF, when you do X — everyone else does X as well (from the same motive).  So, ask yourself if you’d want folks with the same opportunity you have, to do X for the same reasons — if that’s ok with you, and it’s passed the logical test (#1) then it’s ok…

  • So — visiting your grandma because she has cash and you’re in the will — would you like your own grandchildren to do that?  If so — it’s ok… but, it’s probably not ok by you — so, don’t do that… come up with a good motive, go see her etc..

The other main formulation of the CI is the “means/ends” formulation… that one is pretty much telling you not to use people as a way to get what you want…  it’s something like, treat people, yourself and others, always as an end and never as a means only —

So, what does THAT mean? — more or less, think of the difference between yourself and an object.

Right now I’m sitting in a chair and using a computer to talk to you.  Those things don’t have the ability to reason, make independent choices, have a goal etc… they’re things.  I can use them as a means to communicate with you — as well as play around taking Facebook quizzes etc….

On the other hand, when you “use” a person as a means only — what you’re really doing is failing to acknowledge their inherent worth — you’re saying “do this thing for me, and perform like the chair does”… In order to get that kind of performance out of a person, you have to disregard their ends..

A person’s “ends” is a complicated thing — but, more or less what it means is that each individual person has the ability to make choices for themselves, to create a present and a future that is in line with their own wishes/wants/desires/goals etc… If you disregard those ends, you’re treating them as a means only.

Notice tho — a person is permitted to be treated as both a means AND an ends — for example, I’m a means for you to learn philosophy and — my ends are being considered because I decided to teach this course, I could choose not to (they’d choose not to pay me.. sigh) etc…

Or — when I get a pedicure, I’m using the person who does it as a means to nice feet — and since s/he is doing it voluntarily, (and I’m paying them), it’s their choice whether to do it or not… there is no deception.  If we agreed on a price and I entered into the agreement knowing I wasn’t going to pay them, then I’m violating the Universal formulation of the CI… and if I succeed in not paying them, then I’m also treating them as a means only…

It can get more complicated — think about this scenario…

You know someone who has a nice cabin up north — you don’t necessarily LIKE that person, but you know that they’re generous and invite friends up over the summer.  If you act more friendly than you feel — just to get an invitation for a summer weekend — you’re using that person as a means to access their cabin.  IF you actually told that person the truth — that they bug you and you really don’t like them, but you like their cabin — and they still invited you, then you’re not acting immorally… it’s only cases when, IF the person knew what was in your head and would make a different decision that you’re acting in an immoral fashion.

A couple of things…

1) Be careful with the universal formulation — it’s NOT about everyone having the raw ability to do what you want to do — for example, not everyone has the skill to take great photographs like my husband does — that doesn’t mean that when he goes out to take photos he’s violating the CI — because everyone with similar opportunities and skills could do it when he does it…  Instead, it’s more like — if everyone knows the motive/reason/ what you’re thinking or why you’re doing it — could you still do it?

2) This is and isn’t the “golden rule” — it is, because you shouldn’t do things to others that you wouldn’t want done to you — it isn’t because some formulations of the golden rule end up meaning that your motive for treating others well is that you expect them to treat you well in return — and, that isn’t Kantian… because you’re motive for good treatment is getting good treatment… not doing the right thing.


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