Saturday, November 1, 2008

Duties in Kant continued

I talked about Kant's perfect and imperfect duties and the determination of duties based on evaluating the consequences of making a maxim into a universal law in my last post. I want to look more at the determination of duties again. John Stuart Mill's critique of Kant in "Utilitarianism" was simply that Kant's rules couldn't give us any reliable criteria for deciding whether even the most obvious injustices were immoral or not. We could always justify them on the grounds that if we universalized them, it would lead to no conceptual inconsistency. As I said before, the criteria for determining whether something was a duty is to make it universal and see the consequences--namely see what would happen if everyone followed it as a universal rule. I already pointed out an obvious problem case, murder. If I want to evaluate the maxim, "I should kill anyone who interferes with my desires," all I have to do is imagine what would happen if everyone followed this maxim all the time. What would happen is a lot of people would be killing one another, a skyrocketing death rate. People would take greater precautions to avoid death, but nonetheless economic activity would grind to a halt, life would be shorter and far riskier, survival would be tough, and so on. Maybe Kant could say that there would be a conceptual inconsistency between risk and safety, but this doesn't work, since that conceptual inconsistency is inevitable no matter what. I can still die in many accidental ways that would be nobodies fault even if no one every killed anyone, as well as from all the normal diseases and such that kill most people. In short, there's no conceptual inconsistency. Thus, I can't say that there's anything wrong, according to Kant's method, with the maxim, "I should kill anyone who interferes with my desires."

It appears as if the only case in which his method actually works is the lying promise, but, as I suggested in my last post, a lying promise is already conceptually inconsistent. Lying and promise are opposites and thus already conflict. You don't need to universalize it to bring out the inconsistency. And vice versa, if there is no inconsistency with the singular maxim (for example, "I should kill anyone who interferes with my desires"), then there'll be no inconsistency resulting from the consequences of universalizing it as a universal law.

Even looking at the imperfect duties, if I take many obviously immoral acts and try to justify them with Kant's method, I find no problems. Like eugenics for example. If I decide to test the maxim, "I should sterilize all substandard individuals," and then universalize it, I see no problem. It doesn't seem to lead to any empirical inconsistencies. Maybe the criteria of "substandard" is arbitrary, but I could surely use more precise criteria, like IQ, criminal record, BMI, whatever. Heck, if I took it one step further, and made the maxim, "I should eliminate persons of inferior races," then again there is no inconsistency and I could justify this with Kant's ethics.

Which of the Nazi war criminals was it who said he'd always lived according to Kant's Categorical Imperative? I guess Mill was prescient in recognizing that Kant's ethics could be used to justify even the worst injustices. Admittedly, the categorical imperative of "treat others as an end and never simply as a means to an end," actually is useful, but can his method even justify this maxim (he claims it can), and is there anything else useful in his ethics?

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