Monday, October 05, 2009

Kant, rational ethics, and arguing with a jerk

Kant's Categorical Imperative states: Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a be general natural law. This according to Kant, is a rational ethical truth.

If you were arguing with a thorougly selfish person, could you show him or her that it was somehow irrational to cheat on other people while hoping that others will not cheat on you.

Q: What if everybody did?

A: I'm not everybody! I'm me, and I'm looking out for #1.

You might call such a person a jerk, but could you call him or her irrational?

I did something on this a few months back, to which I link.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps you could give a proper functionalist account of irrationality here? The idea would then be that properly functioning persons, under normal conditions, see such reasons as sufficiently (or at least significantly) motivating for moral action.

The jerk is just "broken".

Eric said...

Isn't Kant's point that some acts are irrational if generalized not because of their consequences, but because they would lead to conceptual contradictions and incoherencies? The usual example is whether we should generalize the notion that promises be broken: in such a case, there could be no such thing as a promise, so the notion becomes incoherent. In this case, if everyone cheated, there could be no such thing as acting honestly (or whatever), so the idea of cheating becomes incoherent. If this is how we are to understand Kant, then I'm very pessimistic about the prospects of persuading jerks, since the jerk is concerned with the consequences of his acts (for him), and doesn't care a whit about whether generalizing his actions would result in muddled concepts.

J said...

Assuming a shyster or carpetbagger had gotten away with bilking someone before, he would have sound reasons for thinking he would succeed again--so he's not acting irrationally assuming he's a successful criminal. He may be if he's a gunsel, or in the pen dreaming of his perfect crime.

Kant seems nearly buddhistic (not really a plus) in his assumption that when one person acts "immorally" that will cause others to act immorally. Yes, in some situations--say the mafia's code of Omerta--that might be the case. But in many if not most cases that is not the case--a victim of ID theft or some finance scheme ala Madoff often doesn't know he's being bilked.

Kant's categorical imperative does not lack consequentialist aspects, anyway, even if he insisted otherwise. He wants "good faith"--ie "do the right thing" being sort of the macro-maxim--. For that should be commended. Yet someone acting in good faith will do wrong, or even immoral things (ie the good but unskilled samaritan who moves an injured person thereby breaking a few other bones, etc).