Columbia Atheists Message Board › A clarification on the catagorical imperative.

A clarification on the catagorical imperative.

A former member
Post #: 29
When I was at skepticon this question came up at the after party with Richard Carrier. Being well read in philosophy he mentioned that after Kant's book was published, he had a correspondence with other philosophers about consequential-ism. Kant was forced to admit that making decisions in the aggregate will no doubt produce better results, however that is not what makes the choice moral.
What does make a choice moral is the actual maxim or rule that's used to reach it. The Individual results are immaterial. As long as the maxim meets both tests, it's a moral choice. (the two tests are expanding it to a universal law, and respect for persons).
What has always struck me negatively about consequential-ism is that it's always seemed a bit too opportunistic. I've been of the opinion that if you only have principles when they work out for you then you don't have principles.
Granted we all have to introduce a bit of pragmatism into our lives, but when discussing normative ethics, it's more about what should be then what is. I know it's better for me to eat a healthy salad then a burger, but I also admit that I'm not perfect and am allowed to make imperfect choices.
In the case of the trolley problem, the maxim would go something like "when presented with a situation where someone has to die regardless, the meritorious duty is to choose the option that uses persons the least" This is not moral because people actually live, but because the rule itself can both be expanded into a universal law, and can be said to use persons as a means to an end the least without treating them as an end in and of themselves. In this situation you are forced to treat the one person as a means to an end, but you are also treating the five people as ends in and of themselves. In this situation, not doing anything is using all six people as a means to realize your own morality. Killing the one minimizes the disrespect for persons. The fact that five people live is immaterial; what matters is that those five were treated as ends in and of themselves.
Greg D.
SquishyWizard
Branson, MO
Post #: 18
*keyboard forehead smash*

And again, I repeat that while a single theory of morality may work in the theoretical realm, the real world is far from theoretical. A nuanced world requires a nuanced morality. I like Kant in many cases, but in many others, I reject Kantian morality as cold and devoid of human considerations. However, it is NOT NECESSARY to only adopt a single theory of morality. It is possible to use the CI where the CI is applicable and reject it in more nuanced situations for a more human(e) decision.

Furthermore, there are many things that are simply NOT WORTH moralizing over... like the salad vs. cheeseburger problem. I know, I know... it was just an example to simplify the idea of imperfection in humanity, but seriously... sometimes a decision is just a decision, and your own example helps me to illustrate that.

Further-furthermore, I think it's fine to say that you can "universalize" a maxim under the categorical imperative, but can you, really? In actuality can anything really be universalized 100%?

As to the opportunistic nature of consequentialist thinking, I would argue that opportunism is not necessarily a negative thing, despite the cultural stigmatization that has taken place around that particular word. Without opportunistic decision making, it's altogether possible that the human race would never have made any significant historical advancement. Opportunism, like EVERY abstract concept, is really morally neutral. Moral judgments of opportunism can only be made based on how the abstract concept is applied in reality. Therefore, the entire nature of the exercise is, at its core, consequentialist.

Now I will admit that I am no great student of philosophy, and much of what I've written above is a touch stream of consciousness, but I do believe that I am a generally talented observer of human behavior, and that cold hard black and white logic can never fully determine the morals of a people who are painted in rich and vibrant colors.

(You green-blooded, pointy-eared bastard...tongue)

((Did I just become this group's Dr. McCoy?!))
Mitchell T.
user 9754040
Columbia, MO
Post #: 17
First, my apologies for missing the Wednesday meeting. I've been both busy and somewhat ill lately, which is not a good combination. I'm feeling better now.

I'm sure this is already known, but just to be forthright, I tend to agree with Greg. However, I think I agree with Chris' points more than previously, since he does seem to be making a more balanced and cautious assessment of Kantian ethics. Still, I definitely can't agree with his closing sentence (among others):

"The fact that five people live is immaterial; what matters is that those five were treated as ends in and of themselves."

If it's your decision whether five people or one person lives, then your choice may be immaterial to you and your sense of morality or duty (which to me is immaterial), but it's the only "material" part of the equation for them. Of course your intentions and why you make a choice does matter, but we should still try to avoid making bad decisions simply because we believe we have some (possibly mistaken) understanding of morality.

I won't reiterate everything Greg (a.k.a. Dr. McCoy) wrote, but I want to stress that there doesn't seem to be any room for nuance with the Categorical Imperative. It's just not clear to me how the CI helps one determine what would be the most moral action in any given situation.

Chris, you're now allowing a certain degree of wiggle-room with the CI (which I think is good), but exactly how should anyone make that kind of decision? Is it that, sometimes, it's okay to use people as a means to an end, so long as there are worse alternatives? That doesn't get us very far. Are there really no other moral considerations every bit as foundational as the CI? I think there may be; but although I put a lot of value in them, I don't think any one could stand alone as its own moral system. I think any such claim is mistaken, at least until we have a much more certain and complete understanding of what morality is and should be.

As an aside, I'm not so sure about this from Greg:

"Opportunism, like EVERY abstract concept, is really morally neutral."

Could we say that as an abstract concept, "moral evil" is really morally neutral?

I don't really know. It's confusing. There might be good reasons to think the concept itself is good, or bad, or neutral... or maybe it's just a meaningless question. If one person's concept of "moral evil" is another's "moral good", do they cancel out or something? ;) More seriously: is it that abstractions have no moral value, or that we don't know how to value them?
Greg D.
SquishyWizard
Branson, MO
Post #: 21
As an aside, I'm not so sure about this from Greg:

"Opportunism, like EVERY abstract concept, is really morally neutral."

Could we say that as an abstract concept, "moral evil" is really morally neutral?

I don't really know. It's confusing. There might be good reasons to think the concept itself is good, or bad, or neutral... or maybe it's just a meaningless question. If one person's concept of "moral evil" is another's "moral good", do they cancel out or something? ;) More seriously: is it that abstractions have no moral value, or that we don't know how to value them?

Dammit, Jim, I was just trying to say that a lot of words in the English language have been imbued with a moral character based on mainstream cultural perceptions.

People see the word "opportunist" and they think first of people taking advantage of situations and others undeservedly, but sometimes opportunism simply means stepping up when the situation calls for it. Without some measure of properly-applied opportunism, we'd still be living in caves.

Likewise, the word "selfless" has been generally acculturated as a positive moral value, and in the case of giving what you can to those who need it, I would agree. However, if you really have nothing that you can give, selflessness does not serve you or others at all.

So the point I was trying to make is that the words themselves are not morally valued. The only thing that can be morally valued is how the words are applied in real life.
Annie
user 9088049
Columbia, MO
Post #: 33
Damn, damn, damn. I obviously missed a good discussion last Wednesday evening, and am likewise missing participating in this follow-up discussion as well, since I have other things on my plate so can't post right now. But somehow I trust Greg and Mitchell to carry the torch on behalf of a more nuanced ethics than Kant's. Chris, though, has to be credited for his willingness to recognize the error of his ways, even if he insists on being carried kicking and screaming... :)

My mother died yesterday morning, and I have had a few bad moments anticipating how I am going to avoid being provoked to anger at the funeral home in St. Louis tomorrow by my lying, cheating, manipulating little sister. (A Christian, obviously.) I would soooo love to take all of you along with me.

But I figure I will celebrate after the funeral home with a movie at my favorite art house cinema. Except that watching Colin Firth play a gay guy is gonna break my heterosexual little heart.

Anyway, here's the real point of this post (Ah, shit, now she's going to get sentimental on us.): I love you guys (all three of you). You add so much richness to my life. :)


A former member
Post #: 421
first, what is skepticon? second, what are you talking about? the trolley problem..? regardless of your exhaustive vocabulary, and taking into account normative ethics and introduced bits of pragmatism, this paragraph strikes me as endemically categorical of the atheist's dogma of egoistic philosophical masturbation. simply put- what has been clarified here? was this intended for anyone's response, or are you starting a message board diary?
Annie
user 9088049
Columbia, MO
Post #: 34
Per Chris: "What has always struck me negatively about consequentialism is that it's always seemed a bit too opportunistic. I've been of the opinion that if you only have principles when they work out for you then you don't have principles."

Okay, we've been here before, but just a couple points of clarification...

1) I have never understood Consequentialism to be about making moral decisions with an eye toward the outcome for oneself. Rather, it's about attempting to attend to outcomes, period, with at least one subset (derived perhaps from a combination of Consequentialism and Virtue Ethics) being attention to the best possible outcomes for everyone BUT the self. (This is why Utilitarianism is but a subset of Consequentialism and not synonymous therefor; it is Utilitarianism that invokes the greatest good for the greatest number of people, while some forms of consequentialism would reject that in favor of ensuring that absolutely everyone is considered and/or provided for, or alternatively, that everyone but the Self is provided for, etc.)

2) I am in agreement with Greg that, for a decision to be truly ethical, the application of principles from more than one school may be imperative. And if you think about it, how could it possibly be otherwise?

3) The main criticism of the CI has always been its sterility, which is why it continues to confound me that anyone who has studied Hare could consider the CI to be a superior ethical system. Cuz, like, isn't it self-evident that empathy can't be ignored in the consideration of ANY ethical decision? I'm not saying empathy must be part of the equation for every ethical decision; rather I'm saying it must be accounted for, even if ultimately rejected as irrelevant or useless in the consideration of a given ethical question.

A former member
Post #: 30
For all of the other member's discussing the faults of the categorical imperative, the one thing that almost nobody argues about is that it clearly and up-front defines "The Good". Most consequentialists feel slightly evasive when defining "The Good". Saying that it's the consequences that make an action moral is all fine and good, but until you tell me by what criteria you judge the consequences, you haven't told me much at all.

"It depends" is not an answer.

Mill was a consequentialist who had no problem defining "The Good". He defined it as pleasure. However, as he tried to prove that you just didn't need to look out for yourself, but for everyone, He forwarded the worst argument of his philosophical career: To make a long story short, he proved egoism ("My good is the only one that matters")
I'll call this mill's problem: Because to mix hedonism and consequentialism, you have to invoke a bit of egoism, exactly NOT what Mill wanted. So Annie, you have to admit that it's a logical leap from your "Good" to the good of everyone.

That's why I say that consequentialism is a bit opportunistic. Even if we completely forget Mill's problem, all you've done is unburden the opportunism to the group rather then the individual. ("We Spartans only fight for our country when we'll win")

I want to clarify something I said to Mitchell: When I say that the lives of the five in the trolly problem are immaterial, I mean to say that their lives are not what make the choice moral. The moral decision will necessarily lead to "favorable" consequences in the aggregate, but what makes the choice moral is the maxim used.
Annie
user 9088049
Columbia, MO
Post #: 35
It's only opportunism when the entity that makes the decision is the entity (or one of the entities) that benefits. Consequentialism doesn't say that Spartans only fight for their country when they'll win. It also says that Spartans sometimes fight for their country when they could very well lose, but know that the battle has to be joined because of potential outcomes other than winning or losing. Consequentialism is about making decisions informed by potential outcomes; it doesn't claim that outcomes can be ensured.

Also, isn't one of the possible subsets of Consequentialism the idea that, for a decision to be ethical, the outcome sought is the least harm to the greatest number of people? (This is perhaps a mix of Consequentialism and Virtue Ethics, but a subset of Consequentialism nonetheless.) Or the least harm to everyone (noone can be sacrificed, including the boiled baby)? And can't "The Good" in this model be defined as the least harm to the greatest number of people? Surely this has been proposed somewhere in the annals of moral philosophy, but if not, I propose it now.



Greg D.
SquishyWizard
Branson, MO
Post #: 23
Also, to argue against the point that Consequentialism is always opportunistic... what about the person who throws him- or herself in front of a bullet to save someone else. It is not a Kantian "good" choice because the person making the sacrifice is using his or her own person as a means to an end, right? And it is based on the consequences of the action, because by sacrificing their (screw it... it's not grammatical, but it's less cumbersome) own life, they preserve the life of another.

Not a self-serving choice because the one who took the bullet is dead. However, it was definitely a Consequentialist choice, yes?
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