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Understanding Kant

 
 
Reply Sun 13 Feb, 2011 05:56 pm
What is Kant's argument against Utilitarianism?
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Type: Question • Score: 7 • Views: 9,816 • Replies: 65
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joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Mon 14 Feb, 2011 09:41 am
@DENALMAR46,
I don't think Kant ever explicitly argued against utilitarianism. His ethical system, however, is directly counter to any system of consequentialist ethics. As such, everything that he ever wrote about ethics was an argument against utilitarianism.
G H
 
  2  
Reply Mon 14 Feb, 2011 12:49 pm
@DENALMAR46,
Quote:
What is Kant's argument against Utilitarianism?


In Kant's time, it was probably more of a yet-to-be offspring or subset of consequentialism, but that's probably enough to garner what he would think of it.

Matt McCormick, Immanuel Kant- Metaphysics: The essence of the objection is that utilitarian theories actually devalue the individuals it is supposed to benefit. If we allow utilitarian calculations to motivate our actions, we are allowing the valuation of one person’s welfare and interests in terms of what good they can be used for. It would be possible, for instance, to justify sacrificing one individual for the benefits of others if the utilitarian calculations promise more benefit. Doing so would be the worst example of treating someone utterly as a means and not as an end in themselves.

Another way to consider his objection is to note that utilitarian theories are driven by the merely contingent inclination in humans for pleasure and happiness, not by the universal moral law dictated by reason ["Act as if the maxim of your action would become a universal law of nature"]. To act in pursuit of happiness is arbitrary and subjective, and is no more moral than acting on the basis of greed, or selfishness. All three emanate from subjective, non-rational grounds. The danger of utilitarianism lies in its embracing of baser instincts, while rejecting the indispensable role of reason and freedom in our actions.
0 Replies
 
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Mon 14 Feb, 2011 11:03 pm
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:
His ethical system, however, is directly counter to any system of consequentialist ethics. As such, everything that he ever wrote about ethics was an argument against utilitarianism.

How so? As I understand Kantian ethics, their foundation is his Categorical Imperative, of which he spelled out several different versions. The one I remember is: "Act as if the maxim on which you're acting was to become, through your will, a universal law". Utilitarians, on the other hand, seek to act such that the consequences of their actions will tend to create the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number. How is that a contradiction in terms? Why can't utility-maximization be a valid maxim for moral agents to plug into Kant's Categorical Imperative?
wandeljw
 
  1  
Reply Tue 15 Feb, 2011 08:52 am
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:

joefromchicago wrote:
His ethical system, however, is directly counter to any system of consequentialist ethics. As such, everything that he ever wrote about ethics was an argument against utilitarianism.

How so? As I understand Kantian ethics, their foundation is his Categorical Imperative, of which he spelled out several different versions. The one I remember is: "Act as if the maxim on which you're acting was to become, through your will, a universal law". Utilitarians, on the other hand, seek to act such that the consequences of their actions will tend to create the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number. How is that a contradiction in terms? Why can't utility-maximization be a valid maxim for moral agents to plug into Kant's Categorical Imperative?


What constitutes the "greatest possible good" is variable and changes often. Kant was looking for moral principles that are universal and permanent.
joefromchicago
 
  2  
Reply Tue 15 Feb, 2011 09:49 am
@Thomas,
As someone who has managed to reconcile Locke's social contract theory with Mill's utilitarianism, I'm not surprised that you think Kant's categorical imperative can be reconciled with Bentham's maxim of the "greatest good for the greatest number." They are, however, irreconcilable. There is no consequentialist component in Kant's ethics.

According to Kant, one must act according to the categorical imperative regardless of the consequences. If someone who wants to kill your friend shows up at your door and asks if your friend is there, you're not entitled to lie in order to save your friend's life, since lying is contrary to the categorical imperative. A utilitarian, in contrast, would probably have no problem in justifying a lie in those circumstances, since it's more utile to save someone's life by lying to a murderer than telling the truth and allowing an innocent person to be killed. And although adherence to the categorical imperative might be considered "utile," in the sense that it's better, overall, for people to adhere to it than not, that's not the justification for the categorical imperative.
InfraBlue
 
  1  
Reply Tue 15 Feb, 2011 11:09 am
@joefromchicago,
Quote:
And although adherence to the categorical imperative might be considered "utile," in the sense that it's better, overall, for people to adhere to it than not, that's not the justification for the categorical imperative.

What is the justification for Kant's categorical imperative?
0 Replies
 
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 15 Feb, 2011 11:37 am
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:
They are, however, irreconcilable. There is no consequentialist component in Kant's ethics.

Perhaps there isn't in Metaphysik der Sitten, but I definitely remember him discussing such components in Kritik der Praktischen Vernunft. But it's been a few decades since I read this book, so I will tentatively accept your allegation as true.

Even so, however, your conclusion does not follow, Kant's Categorical Imperative has a slot into which moral agents can plug any ethical maxim they want. The only constraint on that maxim is that the agent can rationally wish for it to become a universal law. Hence, there can be Kantian Christians who act on the maxim "Ask yourself what Jesus would do, and follow his example." There also could be Kantians boy scouts who act on the maxim, "be prepared, and do a good turn daily". There could be Kantian Kennedy-followers who act on the maxim: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Indeed, as far as the Categorical Imperative is concerned, there could even be KKKKs---Kantian Ku Klux Klansmen---who act on the maxim: "Keep the master race pure and in charge". We may not think we could reasonably wish for that maxim to become a universal law, and I am sure Immanuel Kant would have resented the latter kind. But the Klan does, and hence its members could be consistent Kantians. My point is that the Categorical Imperative is open to a variety of moral maxims. Why can't "maximize pleasure and minimize suffering" be one of them?

joefromchicago wrote:
According to Kant, one must act according to the categorical imperative regardless of the consequences. If someone who wants to kill your friend shows up at your door and asks if your friend is there, you're not entitled to lie in order to save your friend's life, since lying is contrary to the categorical imperative.

Please show me where Kant says that lying, under all circumstances, is incompatible with all variants of the Categorical Imperative.

joefromchcicago wrote:
A utilitarian, in contrast, would probably have no problem in justifying a lie in those circumstances, since it's more utile to save someone's life by lying to a murderer than telling the truth and allowing an innocent person to be killed.

On that part, at least, we agree.
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 15 Feb, 2011 11:51 am
@wandeljw,
wandeljw wrote:
What constitutes the "greatest possible good" is variable and changes often. Kant was looking for moral principles that are universal and permanent.

As I said in my answer to Joe, even permanent principles can contain variables. Einstein's universal principle, "E = m * c^2", contains an independent variable, the mass m. Likewise, Kant's universal principle, the Categorical Imperative, contains an independent, if somewhat constrained, variable: the maxim on which you act. My claim is that nothing in Kantian ethics prevents a consistent Kantian from choosing "utility maximization" as his maxim within the Categorical Imperative.
wandeljw
 
  1  
Reply Tue 15 Feb, 2011 12:45 pm
@Thomas,
You have an interesting point. I usually get lost while reading anything written by Kant. I may know what he was trying to do, but it is difficult for me to understand his final conclusions or even if he ever made a final conclusion.
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Tue 15 Feb, 2011 01:15 pm
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:
My point is that the Categorical Imperative is open to a variety of moral maxims. Why can't "maximize pleasure and minimize suffering" be one of them?

You seem to think that, if someone has a maxim, then that's enough. That's only half of it. In order for a maxim to fit into the Kantian scheme, it has to be universalizable. There can't be any Kantian KKKers, since adopting their maxim of "keep the master race pure and in charge" conflicts with the rights of those who are not members of the master race. The KKK maxim, in other words, is not universalizable, and so it has no place in a Kantian system of ethics.

The problem with "maximize pleasure/minimize suffering," however, is not a problem with universalization, it's a problem with consequentialism. For Kant, morality was based on logic and reason. The categorical imperative wasn't just a good idea because it led to greater happiness (in fact, Kant was probably unconcerned with that), it's that it was true ineluctably. A person can't adhere to the utilitarian maxim of the "greatest good for the greatest number" and claim to be a Kantian, because Kant's system isn't concerned with the greatest good for the greatest number.

Thomas wrote:
Please show me where Kant says that lying, under all circumstances, is incompatible with all variants of the Categorical Imperative.

No problem.
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 15 Feb, 2011 02:01 pm
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:
You seem to think that, if someone has a maxim, then that's enough. That's only half of it. In order for a maxim to fit into the Kantian scheme, it has to be universalizable. There can't be any Kantian KKKers, since adopting their maxim of "keep the master race pure and in charge" conflicts with the rights of those who are not members of the master race. The KKK maxim, in other words, is not universalizable, and so it has no place in a Kantian system of ethics.

That's a fair objection. I retract the KKKK part of that paragraph. Still, what about the Kantian Christians, the Kantian Boy Scouts, and the Kantian Kennedyans? Do you consider their maxims compatible with the Categorical Imperative? (If you worry that "what you can do for your country" might entail undue harrassment of foreign countries, feel free to add proper qualifications about the Kantian Kennedyans.)

joefromchicago wrote:
The problem with "maximize pleasure/minimize suffering," however, is not a problem with universalization, it's a problem with consequentialism. For Kant, morality was based on logic and reason.

So what? Granted, logic and reason can exist without paying attention to real-world consequences. But what rules out that they pay such attention anyway? There's nothing inconsistent about grafting a consequentialist maxim onto a logic-based stem. Especially when the stem explicitly reserves a place to graft maxims onto, and when the only conditions for grafting are that the maxim can be both universalized and reasonably wished for. Utilitarianism---the maxim in question---meets both conditions.

joefromchicago wrote:
Thomas wrote:
Please show me where Kant says that lying, under all circumstances, is incompatible with all variants of the Categorical Imperative.

No problem.

Interesting! It appears that I agree with Kant's categorical imperative while disagreeing with his application of it to practical cases. Because I do not wish for the maxim, "do not lie, ever" to become a universal law, I do sometimes lie. I maintain that this is consistent with the Categorical Imperative taken on its face, even though it's inconsistent with the Categorical Imperative as applied by Kant.
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Tue 15 Feb, 2011 04:10 pm
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:
Still, what about the Kantian Christians, the Kantian Boy Scouts, and the Kantian Kennedyans? Do you consider their maxims compatible with the Categorical Imperative? (If you worry that "what you can do for your country" might entail undue harrassment of foreign countries, feel free to add proper qualifications about the Kantian Kennedyans.)

I doubt that "ask not what you can do for your country..." constitutes an ethical maxim. As for Christians, if they are doing the right thing because god commands them to do the right thing, then they're not being Kantians. As for the Boy Scouts who do a good deed daily, I would need to know more about their motivation for doing good.

Thomas wrote:
So what? Granted, logic and reason can exist without paying attention to real-world consequences. But what rules out that they pay such attention anyway? There's nothing inconsistent about grafting a consequentialist maxim onto a logic-based stem. Especially when the stem explicitly reserves a place to graft maxims onto, and when the only conditions for grafting are that the maxim can be both universalized and reasonably wished for. Utilitarianism---the maxim in question---meets both conditions.

The fact that a Kantian and a utilitarian would end up with different answers to the question "is it ethical to lie to a murderer to protect your friend" is a pretty good indication that utilitarianism is not compatible with Kantianism. As they say, the proof is in the pudding. Just because utilitarians hold to a particular maxim, derived by reason, doesn't mean that they arrive at the same maxim as Kant, and attempting to shoe-horn the hedonic principle of utilitarianism into Kant's categorical imperative ignores the fact that, for Kant, one is supposed to do the right thing because it's the right thing, not because it leads to greater pleasure for the greater number.

Thomas wrote:
Interesting! It appears that I agree with Kant's categorical imperative while disagreeing with his application of it to practical cases. Because I do not wish for the maxim, "do not lie, ever" to become a universal law, I do sometimes lie. I maintain that this is consistent with the Categorical Imperative taken on its face, even though it's inconsistent with the Categorical Imperative as applied by Kant.

Well then you're agreeing with somebody else's categorical imperative.
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 15 Feb, 2011 05:04 pm
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:
Well then you're agreeing with somebody else's categorical imperative.

I disagree---with you, not with the Categorical Imperative.

The Categorical Imperative states: "Act as if the maxim on which you act was to become, through your will, a universal law." Now let's say I have to decide whether to act on the maxim: "Don't lie, ever". At first, my vestigial impulses of Lutheran righteousness urge me heed it, but then I remember to check with the Categorical Imperative. So I ask myself: What if, through my will, "don't ever lie" was to become a universal law? What if it was physically impossible for anyone to lie? To ask this question is to answer it: inflicting such a universal law upon the world would be unconscionable to me, being a reasonable person. So I think better of it and find some other maxim to act on.

At which point in this process am I departing from the instructions of Kant's categorical imperative?
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Tue 15 Feb, 2011 05:59 pm
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:
At which point in this process am I departing from the instructions of Kant's categorical imperative?

The point at which you substitute your own conscience as the arbiter of morality.
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 15 Feb, 2011 07:23 pm
@joefromchicago,
Which arbiter of morality am I expected to use instead?
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Wed 16 Feb, 2011 12:09 am
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:

Which arbiter of morality am I expected to use instead?

Reason.
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Wed 16 Feb, 2011 08:56 am
@joefromchicago,
Whose reason, and how?
wandeljw
 
  2  
Reply Wed 16 Feb, 2011 09:15 am
Kant made a distinction between “hypothetical” imperatives and “categorical” imperatives. It seems that a utilitarian approach would only lead to hypothetical imperatives.

Quote:
If now the action is good only as a means to something else, then the imperative is hypothetical; if it is conceived as good in itself and consequently as being necessarily the principle of a will which of itself conforms to reason, then it is categorical .
-Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Wed 16 Feb, 2011 10:56 am
@wandeljw,
wandeljw wrote:
Kant made a distinction between “hypothetical” imperatives and “categorical” imperatives. It seems that a utilitarian approach would only lead to hypothetical imperatives.

I don't see how that follows from the quote you cite.

Kant wrote:
If now the action is good only as a means to something else, then the imperative is hypothetical;

... so how is it inconsistent with reason to claim that "tell the truth" is a hypothetical imperative, not a categorical imperative?

Kant wrote:
if it is conceived as good in itself and consequently as being necessarily the principle of a will which of itself conforms to reason, then it is categorical .

... so how is it inconsistent with reason to claim that "increase happiness, decrease suffering" is a categorical imperative, not a hypothetical imperative?

One can agree with Kant that there is a categorical imperative involved in the choice to tell the truth, while disagreeing that it's "don't lie, ever."
 

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