April 4, 2009

Notes on Kant

Filed under: Uncategorized — alsuren @ 12:55 am

These are a few notes from reading James W. Ellington’s translation of Kant’s “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals”. It’s mostly from stuff I wrote in my copy of the book, so if you want me to post page numbers/context for anything, shout. Most “quotes” are paraphrased either to represent my take on them, or for comic effect.

Intro (by Ellington): “This book is meant to be an introduction to Kant’s ideas. I will now proceed to run over them all in a summary as if you’ve already read his entire collected works.”… in an intro to an intro. Nice work.

Section 1: “From the Ordinary Knowledge of Morality to the Philosophical”

“A will has ‘moral worth’ due its motivations, rather than its actions.” (obviously, it is difficult to analyse this kind of thing externally, so you could probably infer from this a “judge not”-like statement.)

“There is a distinction between instinct and reason.” (which I’m not sure I agree with).

“Any action not explained by anything like self-interest will be explained be ‘duty’ and therefore have ‘moral value’.” (all other actions seem to be considered neutral)

At the end of this section, I have a few notes on the Categorical Imperative.
“You should always be able to desire that your policy should become the policy used by all.” (Kant’s formulation refers to a ‘maxim’ guiding an action, whereas I prefer to think of ‘policy’ guiding actions/choices. )

So when evaluating policy, I would say at this point that there are two approaches:
a) Pick the policy which gives you the highest expected reward if you follow it and everyone else acts normally (This will be morally neutral according to Kant).
b) Pick the policy which gives you the highest expected reward if everyone follows it (This will have ‘moral value’ according to Kant).
Kant seems to be wary of condemning any action to having negative moral value, but I’m not, so I’m going to say “Any policy which gives you really obviously poor expected reward in both of these cases is immoral.”

Section 2 “Transition from Popular Moral Philosophy to a Metaphysics of Morals”

“If it is useful, it can’t be said to have moral worth.”

There are a few examples of moral decision problem, which are evaluated under the categorical imperative. The charity example is the most interesting, as I suspect that you could probably make some extra assumptions so that giving to the poor becomes immoral under my formulation.

Also, it seems to be suggested that “I am not just a means to an end; I am moral so I am an end in myself” + categorical imperative => “I must not treat him as if he is just a means to an end” which I don’t think follows. Luckily, it’s possible to read the rest of the book without agreeing with this conclusion.

He then outlines the concept of a “kingdom of ends”, as in a community of ‘moral’ citizens (ones who follow the Categorical Imperative) The idea is that there is no need to have externally enforced laws, as each citizen legislates for himself by applying the categorical imperative to all of his decisions.
I think it’s an interesting thought experiment, and if anyone fancies running a simulation comparing the evolution of a kingdom of ends against a kingdom of nature (morally neutral, under my formulation) give me a shout.

He says that in the kingdom of ends, everyone acts as a “supreme legislator” (I agree) but he then says that they can’t be motivated by self-interest (I don’t agree: I think that being moral under *my* formulation provides a great simplifying assumption, so a self-interested party without infinite time for logical reasoning might expect greater rewards more quickly by acting morally)

He then goes on to introduce a concept of “reltive values” (“market price” for skills etc, and “affective price” for humour etc) and says that they are completely different from an “intrinsic worth” for morality.
My objection to this is that under his formulation, for a maxim to have moral worth, “it should be desired that it become the universal maxim”. I can only assume that it must be “desired” for a reason, namely that it would increase the availability of the aforementioned relative values. Therefore, “intrinsic” moral worth is still surely dependant on these relative values. I think you can either conclude this, or conclude that someone could desire the end of the world, and therefore be completely moral for going on a murderous rampage.

Somewhere towards the end of the second section, Kant starts punching holes in his own concepts, as I’d been waiting for him to do for half the book already. He mentions that there’s no way to construct a true kingdom of ends, as there is no incentive for people to behave morally.

He also refers to his universal impirtive as “synthetic”, which is philosopher for “I made this shit up. Maybe I’ll justify it some other time”

There is at some point a comparison between the categorical imperative and “do as you would be done by”. It’s essentially a less strict condition for morality, which removes the convicted man’s cry of “You wouldn’t want to be sent to prison. This is immoral.” I quite like that. Shame it’s a bit too woolly, because he’s trying to apply it to every possible situation. It’s also a shame that he he adds loads of questionable assumptions without justification in order to get the formulations of “Treat others as ends in themselves” and “Rational beings must legislate universal law”.

Section 3: Transition from Metaphysics of Morals to Critique of Practical Reason.

I don’t have so many notes in this section as I read it a bit more quickly. Quite a lot of it is just more picking apart and limitations of the Categorical Imperative, which I had already concluded was pretty useless for encouraging moral behaviour in *anyone* in Kant’s form, but might provide the groundwork for a nice simplifying assumption at least.

Also included was “On a right to lie because of Philanthropic concerns”, which I have just realised I haven’t read. Maybe I’ll edit this some other time to add my views on that.


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