[lit-ideas] Re: Ye Modern Dialectic

  • From: Robert Paul <robert.paul@xxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 08 Sep 2005 15:02:09 -0700

Walter wrote:

Robert does identify a problem in Kant's ethics, though I do not believe
it is as severe as he renders it. (My reading of Kant is open to
criticism. What an odd thing to say. A case of "one thought too

My reading of Kant, on the other hand, while open to criticism, is, of course, correct.

Briefly, here's where Walter and I may disagree. I can't extract from Kant any such fine-grained parsing of the descriptions of actions as he seems able to. A maxim, for all practical purposes either just is, or has as its essential component, the description of an action. Kant cannot see the difference between the lying-to-save case, and the lying-for-gain case: to him they're just lying. This seems clear from his insistence, which Walter notes, that lying is always 'categorically forbidden.' Yet lying-to-save is different from lying-for-gain, in pretty much the same way that running to catch a bus and running while taking part in a marathon are different. They are different actions; and if someone wants to say that au fond, they both reduce to 'just running,' he have a somewhat mechanical view of the world. Yet if Kant were to rely in such reductionism ('Well, when you get right down to it, they're no different, being in the one case both just lying and in the other both just running,' he would have shot himself in the foot, for he would be unable to say what Walter has pointed out he _does_ say, about the role of motives, intentions, purposes, and the like, in assessing actions, or proposed actions.

As I'm puzzled, in the good sense, about how an action can just be done for (as I'll put it) no reason, except pure duty, I'll stop and try to think about this for awhile.

Robert Paul
Reed College

I think we can safely claim that Kant was very much attuned to the
importance of motive and purpose in assessing the moral worth of actions
and maxims. This is why Kant typically provides these aspects of a maxim
in his discussions of them. His "maxim schema" is more accurately
represented by: "In circumstances C, I will do A for the purpose of P."
The lying promise discussion is the best known of Kant's maxims. It is
through such a structure that any action is defined as the kind of maxim
it is - i.e., prudential, morally permissible, forbidden, etc.. As I see
it, a maxim *expresses* the motive and purpose of the agent and the action
comes to be *defined* as the particular action it is through the
relationship between motive, purpose and act expressed in the maxim.
 I think that an action on its own is not open to moral assessment on
Kant's terms. (It's legal status is a different matter.) This despite his
claim near the  end of his life, that the act of lying is always
categorically forbidden.  (I believe Kant at times errs in applying his
theory to specific circumstances.) In his prime though, Kant recognized
that motive and purpose are indispensible ingredients of moral worth. The
examples in the Groundwork all ride on this recognition. In the case of
duties of wide latitude, judgment is required and, yes, Kant could have
said more about the kind of judgment that interested Aristotle. I think he
simply had other fish to fry.

We have good grounds for attributing to Kant
a perspicuous recognition of the differences involved in performing the
act of C: giving to charity (acting benevolently):
1. Cing from the motive of augmenting (or in W's case, restoring) one's
2. Cing because one wants to help others in need and this from a love of
3. Cing from the motive in 2 where C is morally permissible (promotes the
dignity, moral worth, of agent and recipient and is thus universalizable.)
4. Cing in order to soothe one's conscience (i.e., I murder Paul Stone and
then make a huge donation to the Evangelical Society for the Elimination
of Terror in the World.)

I hope most of this is right.

Cheers, Walter

On Wed, 7 Sep 2005, Robert Paul wrote:

Walter is right: this is a poorly defined (or expressed) maxim: but such
vagueness and generality in the formulation of maxims never seems to
have given Kant much pause. He seems not to have realized that the
specificity of maxims can change the outcome of their tests against the
Procrustean illusion of the CI: given the maxim schema 'do x,' the
generality or specificity of the substitution instances of x obviously
matter. But Kant never distinguishes between the maxim 'tell a lie,' and
the maxim 'tell a lie in order to save the life of an innocent person,'
except to deny that the latter is a different action from the former, as
if 'lying' were all one thing and instances of it all the same 'action.'
What one might propose to do is seldom fine-grained enough in Kant's own
account to allow for such distinctions. It as if he were blind to the
distinction between 'feed a child' and 'feed a starving child.'

Robert Paul
The Reed Institute
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