Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Immanuel Kant's "Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Chapter 1": A Summary

The only thing in the entire universe that is intrinsically good is a good will. We can abuse literally anything else for evil. Courage? "My heart was racing, and I was afraid, but I summoned my courage and stabbed him anyway. High five!" Intelligence? "Welcome to the grand unveiling of the Quantum Death Ray 2.0! With twice as many sharks!" Health? "I'm in the best shape of my life. I'll definitely be able to hold him under, no matter how much he struggles." Without good will to control shit, anything else has the potential to get out of hand real quick.

Moreover, consequences aren't what make good will good. If you took five minutes out of your day to walk an old lady across the street, no one could be mad at you if a fucking hipster on a runaway fixed-gear ran her over as soon as you got there; that would not diminish the goodness of your act, since good will motivated it. If you tried to save a box of kittens from being sent into space, but didn't get to them before some asshole hit the 'kitten launch' button, you still did the right thing.

Now, some dickheads think that the highest good is happiness or pleasure or some bullshit like that, and we ought to focus on that. If that's true, then Nature or God or whoever the fuck is in charge fucked up royally in giving us reason, since instinct is more than enough to get us pleasure. Do you really think all of Aristotle's hard work made him happier, in any sense of the word, than the Roman emperors who sat around all day eating and drinking? Darwin? He had depression, for fucksake. He didn't think publishing the theory of evolution would make him happy - but if not happiness, what the fuck is reason for? Answer: to produce that good will you've already heard so much about. We must use our reason to do good.

You might be asking, "Kant, how does reason help us develop a good will?" Well, I'm glad you asked, and if you'll step right over here, you'll see this little thing I like to call duty. We all know what duty is. (Heh.) It takes a strong reason to determine one's duty, and a good will to execute it - these are right actions, actions done because we have a duty to do them. After all, if you help that old lady across the street because she offered you five bucks, what's so great about that? Nothing, that's what. We have to ignore our inclinations, even if our inclinations point us in the right direction. It's only truly a worthy action when you do it because you ought to, because you have a duty to help her, even if you (1) don't particularly give a fuck and (2) now don't have time to watch that episode of Fresh Prince before your meeting tonight. That's character, doing the right thing when you don't want to. We're commanded to love our enemy, but that makes little to no fucking sense - how can we be commanded to love? Really, we are commanded to act with love, with good will, toward our enemy, even if we seethe and boil with rage at the sight of his smug fucking grin. 

Only actions done from duty have moral worth. Simple enough. But more than that, they have worth because we will them from duty, never because of some aim we attain or even intend. Do we have a duty to beneficently help old ladies cross streets? You bet your ass, but those actions aren't right because old ladies get helped, they're right because we are correctly motivated. Ultimately, our duty (heh) comes from respect for the law. What law, you might be wondering? British common law? International maritime law? No, idiot - the law must be universal, since it's based in reason and binding on all rational creatures. If birds developed reason tomorrow, they would already know the law I'm talking about. That's how serious this shit is. So we want to always act in a way such that we wish everyone would act that way. And by that I don't mean, we should act for outcomes that everyone would want, since outcomes don't fucking matter, and I don't mean that we should act from desires we think everyone should have, since our desires and inclinations are also irrelevant. I mean that we should be guided by a principle, a maxim, that overrides our desires and the outcomes, such that we want that guiding principle to be a universal guiding principle. This universalization is where our reason comes in, and helps us develop a good will.

Let's say I promised this girl that I would take her out to dinner but my bro has sweet fucking VIP tickets to that thing tonight - should I go? Well, do I want the principle "Keep promises except when convenient" to be universal? Fuck no. Fine, but what if my best friend will fail out of school if I don't help him? "Keep promises except when they have bad consequences" - also bullshit. Sorry bro, but I'm going to be virtuous as fuck tonight, since I really want to help you but have a duty elsewhere.

Look, it's not always easy to abstract away from our inclinations or desires - sure, we have an intuitive notion of right and wrong, but our conflicting desires and expected consequences get in the way. That's why philosophy is so goddamn important - to restore our sense of duty (heh heh) and allow us to make the right choice, whatever may come our way.

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Project Gutenberg has a translation of Metaphysic of Morals online; if you prefer paper, you can get any one of several translations from Amazon: Fundamental Principles Of The Metaphysic Of Morals.

16 comments:

  1. So Kant wants to say: "What is the best way to structure a society? Alright, we've got that shit figured out, now everyone act like that"?

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  2. Awesome, bro. Okay, I've got another request: now you've rocked deontology and utilitarianism, how about virtue ethics? I don't actually know any virtue ethics philosophers aside from Aristotle, so surprise me! :-)

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  3. I'm in a hurry so I only skimmed through this, but doesn't Kant's argument seem kind of weak here? It seems kind of, uhh, almost naive of him here to assume that people are going to act out of "duty" with no regard for their own prediction of personal utility. Now to me that seems like a lame semantic argument. That people act in order to maximize their utility is a law of the universe imo, so acting like you can do something "nobler" outside the realm of your own utility is just, like, silly. Do you agree with this, bro?

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  4. So he has all this talk about having universal laws, but at the same time, he talks about having good intentions.. But he never seems to mention how to enforce this? I mean, I could follow universal laws that I think everyone should follow, and having good intentions, but what about other people out there who are just like "fuck it, i'm going to do whatever is to my advantage. i'll cheat, lie, and steal whenever I can." What's Kant's response to that?

    Also, this may be my utilitarian side kicking in, but Kant believes it's better to keep a small promise of hanging out with a girl, than to help your "BRO" from failing out of college, or even imminent death which only you can save him from?

    Great stuff nonetheless though!!!

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    1. "fuck it, i'm going to do whatever is to my advantage. i'll cheat, lie, and steal whenever I can." What's Kant's response to that?

      That the person reasoning that way is immoral.

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  5. It's important to realise that this is an argument about what constitutes goodness, not about how particular societies should be structured. The Kantian categorical imperative would apply even if you were the only human being left alive - because you possess reason, you should be able to see, and act in accordance with, your duty even if it appears to make no difference.

    To Kant, if you promised your girlfriend that you would make sure her mother's grave had fresh flowers on it, and after making that promise the entire human race apart from yourself was eliminated, leaving you the only bro on Earth, you are STILL obligated to keep your promise, because that's what a promise is.

    Obviously then, asking about enforcement is silly. Say we passed a law saying that if you don't keep your promises, you go to prison. Well, then when you think about breaking your promise, you think "Oh no, then the promise police will come put me in jail. I don't want that."

    Well, in that case you're acting on sentiment - you are responding to your desire to avoid punishment. Even if you do the right thing, you've failed to act morally, because your action was not inspired by duty but by desire.

    So, in short, if enforcement is needed, morality has already failed. You should be good because you are a rational being, and you understand that reason requires action in accordance with duty. Any action guided by sentiment or desire makes you a slave to your biology. Only when acting from duty are we free, because only then do we rise above animals and embrace what makes us human.

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  6. Addendum - As to the outcomes of your moral actions, one should bear in mind that outcomes are never known in advance. Maybe helping your bro stay in college will stop him from moving to a new town where he'll join a rock band and become the world's wealthiest and most successful guitarist, while meanwhile leaving your girlfriend alone to be abducted and tortured to death by serial killers. Probably not, but the point is you don't know, and you have no control. The only thing you can control is your own actions - the outcomes are for the universe to decide.

    Given that, it makes sense that you should seek good actions, not good outcomes. Seeking good outcomes is, at best, arrogant. It assumes power and knowledge that you do not have. Good actions, though, you can manage. You have reason, which gives you the knowledge to determine the right action, and you have free will, which allows you to take the action you determine to be right.

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  7. Thanks Stuart for the clear and apt response. However, this leads me to further question that is acting "good" solely to satisfy our requirement of rising above animals and embracing what makes us human, and not for any other purpose at all? And (stupid question) does Kant believe that animals then are not capable of being good, even for a brief moment? Furthermore, isn't it true that sometimes your sentiment or desire is in line with your duty? Does that still make you a slave to your biology, or does that make you truly free, when they both align?

    This also leads me to think, isn't it a little bit naive for Kant to think that humans can abandon all personal utility to become truly rational beings? Did he follow through with all his duties? Because, in order for the categorical imperatives to work, everyone needs to follow through with them, otherwise, you will be taken advantage of from left and right. And for what? To rise above animals and embrace what makes us human? It seems it would lead to a life full of suffering, despite being "good," which to me seems counter intuitive.

    I really liked your addendum, it definitely has a bit of Humean ideas in it. However, I feel to be more practical, we rely on many cause-effect relationships in our lives, despite it being irrational to think that what occurred before us will happen again in the future. Although we do not know with 100% certainty that us studying hard for a test will ascertain us an A on the test, we know with good probability. And as you said, we have reason, and we should choose the best option (to get our desired consequences), which is the decision decided through our past experience, as that is all we know.

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  8. Thanks Stuart for the clear and apt response. However, this leads me to further question that is acting "good" solely to satisfy our requirement of rising above animals and embracing what makes us human, and not for any other purpose at all? And (stupid question) does Kant believe that animals then are not capable of being good, even for a brief moment? Furthermore, isn't it true that sometimes your sentiment or desire is in line with your duty? Does that still make you a slave to your biology, or does that make you truly free, when they both align?

    This also leads me to think, isn't it a little bit naive for Kant to think that humans can abandon all personal utility to become truly rational beings? Did he follow through with all his duties? Because, in order for the categorical imperatives to work, everyone needs to follow through with them, otherwise, you will be taken advantage of from left and right. And for what? To rise above animals and embrace what makes us human? It seems it would lead to a life full of suffering, despite being "good," which to me seems counter intuitive.

    I really liked your addendum, it definitely has a bit of Humean ideas in it. However, I feel to be more practical, we rely on many cause-effect relationships in our lives, despite it being irrational to think that what occurred before us will happen again in the future. Although we do not know with 100% certainty that us studying hard for a test will ascertain us an A on the test, we know with good probability. And as you said, we have reason, and we should choose the best option (to get our desired consequences), which is the decision decided through our past experience, as that is all we know.

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  9. You seem to be confusing morality with practicality.

    To Kant, what you're saying is equivalent to asking why a soccer player doesn't just pick up the ball and carry it. Certainly it's a much better way to put the ball in the goal.

    You can point to the ref, or the other players, and for some people that's all that's keeping them from cheating. But if the only reason you don't pick up the ball is because you're worried about the ref catching you, no one would call you an honest player. An honest player would still not cheat even if there were no one watching.

    You point out that being good when everyone around you is evil is going to end with you getting screwed. Similarly, if all the other players on the pitch are ignoring the rules, and you're not, you're not likely to score many goals. Does that mean that the rules aren't realy the rules? Surely not? Does it mean that you won't be cheating if you pick up the ball? No, picking up the ball is still cheating. The rules are the rules, and if you don't follow them, you're not playing the game right, even if you win.

    Similarly, Kant would say that if everyone else is ignoring the categorical imperitive, and you are not, then sure, they might get the shiny prizes, but that doesn't change the fact that you are doing what you should do, and they are not. Pragmatically, they might be doing the right thing, but morally, you are.

    Now, whether you should care about being good or not is a completely separate question from what good is. You can agree with Kant completely about what morality is, and then choose to go out and ignore it in favour of making money. Or you can be a nihilist, but act in accordance with other people's ideas of good and evil because you are concerned about your reputation. Neither of these would satisfy Kant as moral, though he would doubtless choose the second man over the first as a neighbor.

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  10. I never really got how "always, always, ALWAYS keep promises no matter what" is supposed to satisfy the categorical imperative. What if you could either keep your promise to take a girl out to dinner or save a million people from dying? Sure you can argue that you have a duty to those million people that overrides your duty to keep promises, but you shouldn't even have to make that move. I don't see what's so fucking controversial about having "keep promises unless keeping a promise will result in something really goddamn bad like a million people dying" be a universal principle. If somebody broke a promise to me to save a million lives I'd be like "fucking fine by me bro, I'd totally will that everybody else follow that maxim." I mean how fucked would that be if I thought he was a dick for doing that?

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  11. What's the point of morality if it is not practical?

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  12. I think that if you're universal maxim/categorical imperative was "bros over hoes" then you could quite easily get out of taking that girl to dinner..

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  13. What sucks about this^ no broad subjectivity. I can't help but love the idea of testing maxims with the categorical imperative though.

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  14. Philosophy bro needs to teach my philosophy class.

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