[lit-ideas] Re: Malt, Coffee & Chuck Taylor (longisher)

  • From: wokshevs@xxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx, Robert Paul <rpaul@xxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sun, 25 Jun 2006 10:51:51 -0230

RP raises a well-known (Hegelian/Aristotelian) objection to Kant's CI-procedure
(the procedure of using the Categorical Imperative as a test of the moral
permissibility/impermissiblity of one's maxims or willings.) The objection is,
in its most minimal version, that the procedure does not work as Kant intended
it to work. 

Hegel would be happy with RP's example, because Hegel would believe
it reveals why the CI-procedure is really quite vacuous as a moral criterion.
My intention to pick a wild flower from a meadow, RP suggests, would have to be
considered morally impermissible (non-universalizable) because if everybody
picked a wild flower for themselves, there wouldn't be a flowery meadow to pick
flowers from. Hence, the agent's intention is self-contradictory and, as such,
morally impermissible on K's account. 

But, of course, GWFH and RP continue, there is nothing morally wrong about all
of us picking a flower from the meadow, and if it were wrong somehow, the
wrongness would have to be determined with reference to some value or norm
brought in from the outside, i.e., independent of the CI-procedure itself. I
have to care about the preservation of the meadow, believe it to have worth of
some sort before I
could claim that this intention and/or action is wrong. Such values, norms and
beliefs originate within our cultural embeddedness within some framework of
historical meaning. (They originate within Sittlichkeit, or what Chuck refers
to as "moral spaces" or "frameworks".) In other words, I have
to have some ethical conception of the good, some conception of what it means to
lead the good life and be a good person, prior to and independent of moral law
("right") to claim the moral wrongness of that intention and/or action. If
meadowy flowers are not part of my and my tribe's conception of the good, then I
will not find anything morally untoward about picking the flower. And I will
happily universalize my maxim.

What would Kant say to GWFH and RP? Perhaps it would look something like the

We need to be clear on the flower-picker's maxim. "I will pick a flower from
the meadow" is not a well-formed maxim. (Like "Drink scotch.") We need to know
the intention or purpose motivating the agent's willing. (Ultimately we need
consider whether the agent is willing out of respect for the form of
law/personhood, but I'll ignore that latter moment of a maxim for now.) The
possibilities are clearly many: to find a cure for hangovers, to save a
person's life, to help maintain the proper biospheric conditions of the meadow,
to produce a poison that nor even S. Holmes would be able to detect, etc.. But,
for the sake of clarity, say our flower-picker wants to pick the flower simply
because it satisfies her want or need to be surrounded at home by pretty
things. It's in her "rational" interest to pick and bring home the flower(s).
(Maybe she picked two? Maybe a bunch? Two bunches?) 

Is her maxim a universalizable/morally permissible one? I'll bite the bullet
(daisy) here and consider why Kant would say no it ain't. Kant, I believe,
would say no, but not because we all already believe there's something bad or
wrong about that maxim - an assessment whose grounds of value are imported into
the deliberation regarding permissibility. Rather, there seems to be something
conceptually or epistemically self-contradictory about willing to pick the
flower and willing that there be flowers in the meadow, such that the intention
to pick a flower could be realizable. Any rational agent must will the latter
if she wills the former. (Here the terms "must" and "rational" have no
necessary psychological sense or reference.) One seems to be both willing an
action and willing the negation or contradiction of a condition necessary for
the possibility of the success of that action. The picker cannot rationally
will that everybody pick flowers when it suits them for the purpose identified
above since there would be no flowers left to pick. (If this were a magical,
self-reneweing meadow, the status of the maxim would of course be different.)
This irrationality is identifiable independently of
whether it is "good" to have meadows of flowers on some cultural,
biological/environmental, religious or aesthetic criterion.

The reason why so much of this analysis might strike one as just plain silly is
because our very human tendency to think "Oh come on, one (bunch) of flowers
isn't going to harm anyone/anybody." Or: "What a beautiful meadow; I know I
shouldn't really disturb its pristine wonder, but perhaps only this once and
this is such an isolated place that surely there won't be many more people
coming by to pick flowers." That is precisely the structure of the kind of
illegitimate self-exemption Kant's CI-procedure intends to identify. "After
all, there is nobody in the world just like me; I'm special; my interests and
desires are thus privileged. I have a right to be a free-rider. And even if I
don't, who cares?" (This attitude will be part of the "Coming World Crisis.")

Ever have the urge to carve out a small piece of the Acropolis with your handy
Swiss Army knife? ("Come on, get a life! Who's gonna notice fer Chrissake?")

Ever wonder whether there really is a "Beast" who cares about each and every
sparrow? (Sorry, I'm mixing topics, and genres.)

The examples could be multiplied. More to the point, they can be arranged in
such a way as to reveal, gradually, almost imperceptibly, that the difference
between picking a flower you believe won't disturb anything or anybody isn't
really all that far away from burning one small book written by an author you
would really prefer not to have around anymore. 

Gotta run. I parked my car in a handicapped zone.

Walter C. Okshevsky
Memorial University

Quoting Robert Paul <rpaul@xxxxxxxx>:

> Here are some thoughts occasioned by, if not immediately relevant to, a 
> discussion Walter and I seem to be having about Kant, 
> universalizability, and the Coming World Crisis. I had written:
> RP: [T]o ø an x is never the same, I'd have thought, as an x's being 
> ø-able. (The intention to climb a tree isn't the same as?or 'equivalent 
> to'?a tree's being climbable.) So I'm puzzled as to how 'a case of the 
> former [could be] a case of the latter' in any sense, 'moral,' or 
> 'philosophical.'
> WALTER replied: There are two possible replies here. The first is 
> simpler than the second. On the first, I grant RP the conceptual point 
> and reformulate my claim more clearly to read: the universalizability of 
> a maxim is not determined or defined by the intention to act or will on 
> a maxim one deems to be universalizable. Intention has no epistemic 
> authority in establishing the universalizability of a maxim. Although an 
> intention is a structural feature of a well-formed maxim. ?
> ? If, however, a maxim is universalizable, it is universally applicABLE 
> to all rational agents. People who have been instrumental in 
> inaugurating transcendental movements make the latter 
> philosophical/moral claim: all persons OUGHT to abide by precepts or 
> commands x, y, and z. They are clearly not making the empirical claim of 
> universality since they would be out of a job, so to speak. )
> RP: Perhaps our entire discussion on this point is a muddle, accounted 
> for by the metaphysical world?s increasing and irreversible entropy. I 
> think that in the beginning I wanted to distinguish between two things 
> that often are confused: (1) that someone intends a statement (judgment, 
> proposition, rule, command) to apply ?universally,? i.e., always and 
> everywhere, and (2) that some rule or maxim can be universalizable, 
> i.e., formulated without contradiction, and seen as reciprocally 
> binding. Take the last first. It seems trivially true of all genuine 
> judgments that given similar circumstances one should expect similar 
> judgments. This may not always be true in the physical world (one 
> person?s blue green may be another?s turquoise) but it ought to be true 
> in worlds in which we can idealize conditions, e.g. logic, mathematics, 
> and supposedly morality.
> This has a bit to do with consistency. One cannot offer the same grounds 
> in the same circumstances for different judgments. If Molly crosses the 
> finish line before Tom, then, ceteris paribus, Molly wins, not Tom. If 
> Tom crosses the finish line first, in another race, then, ceteris 
> paribus, Tom wins, not Molly. If one of the pans of a balance scale in 
> good working order goes down and the other goes up  then whatever?s  in 
> the pan that goes down weighs more than what?s in the other. These are 
> such simple cases that it hardly seems they could illuminate anything, 
> but I think one could show that more complex cases differ only in their 
> complexity. (None of this rules out our being just lost from time to time.)
> Kant wants out of the application of the Categorical Imperative to 
> maxims, at least this kind of consistency, but he wants more, I think,
> a kind of super-consistency
> What this is is hard to articulate, and that?s because, I think, Kant 
> himself isn?t clear about it. There are, it seems to me, two kinds of 
> untoward results one might discover upon applying the Categorical 
> Imperative to a maxim. One, as in the case of trying (in thought) to 
> will that making lying promises be made a universal law, results in 
> incoherence: in making lying promises, one does more than deceive others 
> (bad in itself), one destroys the very concept one is using to formulate 
> one?s maxim. It is as if one thought one might will that the creation of 
> four-sided triangles become a universal practice. A promise is what one 
> ought to keep and trying to universalize the not-keeping of what one 
> ought to keep makes no sense. I leave it to others to say what kind of 
> sense it does not make.
> But the second kind of untoward result has no such built in incoherence. 
> If I pick a flower from an alpine meadow, I hardly disturb the universe 
> or the meadow. But if everyone did that, the flowers would soon be gone, 
> and that would be a bad thing. It would be a bad thing rhough only if 
> one had independent grounds for believing it would be; that is, there?s 
> no incoherence involved in the notion of everyone?s picking a wild 
> flower from a certain meadow. So the relevant maxim could be 
> universalized just in case one did not care for the preservation of 
> meadows, and the wrongness of everyone?s doing that must be brought in 
> from elsewhere. And so in similar cases. There are other sorts of 
> examples which seem to me instances of wrongdoing (badness, etc.) which 
> are cases of wrongdoing independently of whether they have been tested 
> in light of the Categorical Imperative, but that is a subject for 
> another time.
> On to other matters.
> WALTER says: My second possible reply to RP, the more complex (and 
> admittedly convoluted) one goes something like this. While the intention 
> to climb a tree is not equivalent to the tree's being climbable, the 
> nature of maxims in K's account allows one to say, analogically, that a 
> tree's climbability is (truth functionally) equivalent to the rational 
> coherence of an intention to climb it.
> RP: This is a somewhat strange way of putting it. In saying that the one 
> is ?truth functionally? equivalent to the other, one cannot mean that 
> their truth conditions are the same. It might be simpler to say that if 
> it is false that a certain tree is climbable, then (given that one knows 
> this) one cannot ?rationally? intend to climb it, or that if one?s 
> intention to climb a tree is ?rational? (no macho posturing) the tree 
> must be climbable. However, these seem insufficient, for one can 
> certainly act rationally on the strength of false beliefs. So that the 
> intrusion of epistemological considerations here makes me wonder about 
> their relevance elsewhere. (How much imaginative epistemology must one 
> need to deal with in cases like the picking of wildflowers?)
> WALTER: In other words, the claim that that a tree is climbable is true 
> if and only if a rational intention to climb it is coherent. Or is 
> "possible," as K. likes to say. If a tree is not climbable, then the 
> intention to climb it intends an impossibility.
> RP: There?s nothing qua intention that makes such intentions possible, 
> but I think this is what Walter meant when he alluded to their 
> ?psychological? possibility. Yet to say that this intention ?intends an 
> impossibility? is not the same as saying that one intends to do 
> something one knows to be impossible. (Hobbes, coming to geometry late, 
> believed for a long time that he had a proof that the circle could be 
> squared.)
> WALTER: And conversely. If a maxim is not universalizable, then the
> intention to universalize it is an intention that seeks an impossibility.
> RP: Perhaps. But there?s more epistemology here than a transcendental 
> idealist ought to feel comfortable with.
> Thanks to Walter.
> Robert Paul
> Reed College
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