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Moral Moments

Kant By Default (Shameless Commerce Division)

by Joel Marks

My favorite topic in ethics is consequentialism, the theory that our actions should be judged according to their consequences. In two previous columns I have tackled it directly (and indirectly in several others). ‘Showdown’ (Issue 52) was my best effort to that date to show that the consequences of our actions do not determine whether we’ve done the right thing. In ‘Rematch’ (Issue 63) I considered a telling rejoinder by the consequentialist. Now I’ve finally sat down to hash out the whole thing once for all, in my mind and in writing. The result is an entire book, Ought Implies Kant: A Reply to the Consequentialist Critique (Lexington Books, 2009). I commend it to the attention of my constant readers, who know that this has been a preoccupation all these years. It is a short book … even shorter if you ignore the notes, which are extensive but to which I confined the scholarly stuff so that the body of the text would be accessible, and I hope engrossing, to the nonspecialist. Unfortunately the price of the book reflects that it is being marketed as a scholarly monograph to a small, specialist audience. (If there is enough demand, it will be brought out in a less expensive paperback edition.) It has a stunning cover – by which you may certainly judge it! – beautifully illustrated by Huibing He, so that it will be sure to impress your friends if you set it on your coffee table.

What I will do in this column is briefly review the case, and also discuss an omission from the book. The central question is whether morality can be understood apart from the outcomes we expect to ensue from our actions. (‘Actions’ is construed broadly to include anything that one might hope to bring about by one’s intentions; for example, a particular instance of picking up a spoon is an action, as is telling a lie or stealing, but so could be the long-term projects of cultivating a virtue, reforming one’s character, or starting a war.) The consequentialist says that whatever results, intended or not, decides the morality of what you did. This is why, for example, theft is morally wrong: the relative net results of theft are usually negative, that is, worse than not stealing. The nonconsequentialist demurs: theft could be wrong even if the relative net results were positive. And why is this? In other words, if not consequences, then what does make something right or wrong? The answer depends on which kind of nonconsequentialist one asks. A Divine Command Theorist would claim that God’s commandments make something right or wrong. A Kantian, such as myself, would claim that the criterion of morality, or ‘categorical imperative’, is whether anyone (including an animal) is treated merely as a means: if they are, then the action is wrong, and otherwise not. But whether it’s God or the categorical imperative that is calling the shots, the actual outcomes don’t affect the moral quality of the action. Thus, if following God’s commandment or avoiding treating someone merely as means led to a catastrophe, it would still be the right thing to do, according to these views.

Laid out in that abstract fashion, one or the other of the opposing positions may strike the reader as compelling. I think that both are compelling for all of us, but at different times and to different degrees. Oddly enough, in my book I probably did a better job of showcasing the appeal of consequentialism than of Kantianism, even though I favor the latter. In part this was so as not to be arguing against a straw man; “give ‘im a fair trial and then hang ‘im.” But it may also have been due simply to my finding Kantianism so strongly intuitive that it seems hardly worth arguing for. That could be a mistake. After all, other people no doubt find consequentialism to be the more intuitive. John Stuart Mill himself committed the analogous error of omission in his classic defense of consequentialism, Utilitarianism, so I am in good company!

My argumentative strategy was to demolish consequentialism as a viable ethics. The title of the book reveals my strategy in a punning way. Firstly it indicates simply that the book is a defense of Kantianism: ‘ought’ or moral rightness ‘implies’ a Kantian explanation. The pun here is a play on the dictum “ought implies can,” which is usually (albeit possibly falsely) attributed to Kant; this expresses the reasonable enough requirement that a person cannot be obligated to do what that person is incapable of doing. It turns out that my chief argument against consequentialism also trades on that notion. I argue that one cannot do what consequentialism says one ought to do because it would involve having practically infinite knowledge. Therefore consequentialism cannot be true. Therefore nonconsequentialism is true by default.

Strictly speaking, however, that last conclusion doesn’t follow since another possibility is that no moral theory is correct. In other words, despite appearances, consequentialism and nonconsequentialism aren’t contradictories (one of which would have to be true) but only contraries (both of which could be false) since both assume that there is such a thing as morality. So I must not only refute consequentialism but also defend nonconsequentialism, and in the process, morality itself. And this I did not explicitly do, other than to point to the intuitive force of the categorical imperative.

Although I don’t defend morality as such in the book, I do consider the value of moral theorizing – sometimes just called ‘ethics’ – even in the case where no definitive resolution appears to be forthcoming. Nevertheless, I do my very best to hammer the last nail into the coffin of consequentialism so that, by the end of the book, the reader will assent to the proposition, “It’s Kant or nothing”!

© Joel Marks 2009

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. His website is moralmoments.com.

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