Friday, May 3, 2013

Kant’s Deontology—questions regarding contradictions in the Principle of Universalizability

**This is from guest blogger, Danny W.**

Alright, here begins my attempt to say something intelligent about Kant’s Deontology—a tall order indeed. I’ll lay some groundwork first to review what we know. Kant proposed his ethical doctrine, deontology, as a moral guide which suggests doing only those actions in which an individual acts out of intrinsically ‘good will’—or to fulfill some objective duty. Hence, Kant would say that acting with the motivation to exercise good will, and conversely, to have goodness of will be the only end sought, would garner the highest moral praise. In connection with these claims, Kant did not ultimately think the consequence of an action played a role in the moral evaluation of someone’s action—the evaluation would center around the motivation or intention of performing the action. One question that naturally arises surrounding Kant’s ethical system is: How do we know when someone is acting out of good will? As the kind, thoughtful philosopher that he was, Kant made sure to provide several tests. I plan to focus on the Principle of Universalizability—one of Kant’s litmus tests for determining whether actions are moral or immoral.

A quick aside before we continue with the Principle of Universalizability. Another test in his deontology (which roughly means the “study of duty”) is the “Principle of Humanity” test. Despite the potential confusion surrounding which actions are actually done as ‘means’ versus ‘ends’—the definitions of which remain elusive in certain hypothetical scenarios—I think the principle boils down to respecting and caring for fellow human beings. Sure there are flaws, and Kant didn’t state it so abruptly, but that seems to be the gist of his thinking. There may be holes, but I will not focus on this test any further.

The Principle of Univeralizability, on the other hand, is a three step process which allows any person to judge whether an action is moral or immoral. (1) Formulate a maxim, rule, law, or state of things, (2) universalize the maxim (i.e., imagine that everyone in the world is following maxim), and (3) assess whether there is a contradiction in the hypothetical world from part (2). If there is a contradiction, then the action described in the maxim from step (1) would be immoral, and vice versa.

My biggest concern with the PoU arises when we speak about step (3)—deeming hypothetical worlds to be contradictory. It is interesting how Kant uses this word, and confusing what he actually expects when someone is using this test. It is common to think of contradictions in formal logic as statements of the form A&~A (i.e., something, A, is true and false simultaneously). Let’s try out our paradigm case: I want to cheat on my wife; I imagine everyone in the world cheating as well; the result is a world in which monogamous relationships cannot exist and the cheating could thus not logically be called cheating. It seems like the only way you can report this contradiction—in a strict logical sense—would be to assert that “cheating” (as we know it in our real world) cannot exist in our hypothetical world (in which the maxim is that everyone cheats on significant other). However, it does not follow that just because everyone cheats (in our hypothetical world) that the “action of cheating” is made impossible. Significant others will still exist and one will cheat on that partner—the metaphysical circumstances do not change between our real and hypothetical worlds. It is not as if there is “cheating” and “not cheating” taking place in a metaphysical sense. “Cheating” persists but our anthropocentric definition of cheating (sexual interactions with a person A while you are simultaneously engaged in a monogamous relationship with another person B) loses all meaning and descriptive power. The word becomes hollow of meaning, since “monogamous relationships” do not exist and thus our definition of “cheating”—inherently built on the metaphysical status of monogamous relationships— from the real world does not make sense and disintegrates. Thus, an action persists but we no longer have the vocabulary to label the action—vocabulary we obviously do have in the real world. Okay this might be major backtracking, but here goes. I suppose that through the lens of the hypothetical world, we wouldn’t even regard the action as “cheating”. So, Kant achieves his contraction based on a logical contraction across worlds. I guess my previous thoughts had been focused on having the contradiction occur in the same world—which didn’t make sense.

Part of my thinking was that Kant was also using contradiction to generally state that there is a contradiction to our accepted social structure and stability. If everyone is cheating, there is no more social order as we know it in this world. These are just some of my trailing thoughts, but I think I will open it up for comments. I’m interested to know how all of you view the tests that Kant puts forth for his deontology!

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