Wednesday, May 15, 2013

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Dance lessons morph into life lessons for young women
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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Immanuel Kant But Sisyphus Kan

A natural progression exists in ethics regarding the focus of ethical judgments. Virtue theorists hold that morality resides within qualities (virtues) held by agents. Deontologists claim ethical judgment should be reserved for an agent’s actions; consequentialists, for the consequences of actions. The eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant remains the most influential proponent of deontology even today. Unlike Aristotle and other virtue theorists, Kant believed actions alone, and not virtues, may be judged as good or evil. A person may possess many virtues without being good. The most dastardly villain may be as intelligent or brave or strong as the greatest hero, but his actions will pervert these virtues into tools of evil.1 The good person is one who acts in a certain way, namely in steadfast obedience to a moral law.
            Kant offers two main formulations of the moral law. The first relies on the distinction between hypothetical and categorical imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives “represent the practical necessity of a possible action as means to something else that is willed.”2 They follow the general formula “if you want x, you should do y.” For example, if you want to pass your midterm, you should study. Obviously, removing the desire for the end x removes the desire to do y. If I don’t care about my midterm grade I will have no interest in studying.
            In contrast, categorical imperatives “[represent] an action as necessary of itself without reference to another end.”3 These follow the general formula “do y, regardless of all other considerations.” “Thou shalt not kill” is an example of a categorical imperative, whereas “If you don’t want to go to jail, don’t commit murder” is a corresponding hypothetical imperative. Unlike the latter statement, the former imperative suggests something about murder restricts it from ever serving as a legitimate course of action, regardless of a particular agent’s interests.
            Kant argues that for a moral law to have any weight, it must be a categorical imperative. A hypothetical imperative contingent on the desires of each individual agent (“don’t commit rape, unless it suits your desires”) would be morally worthless. So in weighing a possible action against a hypothetical moral law, an agent must decide if that action could successfully function as a categorical imperative, i.e. as a rule that applies regardless of all other considerations. Hence, the first formulation of Kant’s moral law: “act only on that maxim whereby thou canst will that it should become a universal law.”4 For an action to be moral, one must be able to construe it as a possible universal law. As an example, imagine I borrow money from a friend and promise to repay him, though I have no intention of doing so. My action is immoral, not because it harms my friend, but because it could not become a universal law. If everyone were to make such false promises, the act of promising would become useless because no one would continue to believe such oaths. Making false promises violates the moral law because this action cannot be willed to be a universal law.
            While this formulation obviously prohibits physical wrongdoing against others, it also prohibits self-harm and suicide. The person who commits suicide treats himself as a means to an end. He tolerates his existence only as long as it is not painful. He views his existence not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end of non-boredom or non-suffering. And just as no human can treat another as mere means and dispose of her life when the other’s existence becomes intolerable, so too is suicide prohibited by the same reasoning.
... Unless you can will it should become universal  law.6
The second formulation of the moral law makes further use of the distinction between means and ends. Humans are rational beings, and as such, are capable of distinguishing between causes and effects and means and ends. As part of this capability, a rational being recognizes itself as an end in itself and not a means to some other end. As a human, I am not a tool to be used by others to further their own gains. When I encounter other rational beings and recognize their rational nature, I must also recognize that they are ends in themselves for the same reason I am. Thus, the second form of Kant’s moral law states “Act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.”5
            What about other forms of self-harm? Self-mutilation is obviously wrong under the second formulation of the moral law. One can no more inflict physical pain on oneself for some desired psychological effect than one can inflict pain on another. To a lesser extent, the implications are the same for fitness. Kant’s moral law would prohibit consumption of unhealthy food and drink and lazy indolence. I can no more tie myself to a couch and shove Twinkies down my throat than I can do the same to another person. No matter how much I might enjoy this lifestyle, in acting this way I treat myself as a means to the end of physical comfort and pleasure and not as an end in myself.
            In contrast, Kant’s moral law also demands each person develop his own talents as far as possible. A person might feel tempted to rest on his laurels and let his talents and capabilities wane, not having the energy or immediate need to develop them further. But one could not will that such a choice become universal law. If every person shared the same attitude, nothing would be accomplished. No person would strive to design and build dwellings, cultivate food, produce art or make scientific discoveries. If we all sought to maximize our own comfort by neglecting our talents, we would end up less comfortable than before. From a physical standpoint, who would move heavy obstacles, plow fields, avoid oncoming traffic or build skyscrapers if no one sought to develop their strength, endurance, speed and balance? Kant’s moral law impels us to recognize that we are ends in ourselves and to develop all the capabilities we possess as rational, active, empathic beings.
            If Kant’s moral law seems strict, it is. The person who adheres to such a law lives solely for the aim of furthering her existence and the existences of those around her. But is that the life any of us really want to lead? Can’t we still be good people and enjoy dinner at an expensive restaurant, a night on the couch in front of the television or mutually consenting casual sex even if doing so means we give less to charity, our muscles atrophy the tiniest bit and we indulge in physical pleasure with no thought of procreation? Certainly there must be a balance between total Kantian asceticism and wanton immorality. Up to now, I have avoided making prescriptions about what exactly constitutes an ethical state of physical well-being in consideration of the philosophical arguments encountered thus far. I will endeavor to begin a discourse on these subjects in the coming months. For now, as we consider virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism, it is worth asking how much social, intellectual and physical good is necessary to lead an ethical life. What do we expect of our fellow humans? What do we expect of ourselves? While some level of physical aptitude seems ethically necessary, precisely how much remains to be determined.


1 Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott., 2009. p. 13
2 Ibid, p. 32.
3 Ibid, p. 32.
4 Ibid, p. 38.
5 Ibid, p. 45
6 "deontology." Image. Tumblr. pauliorra. Online. 31 Mar. 2013.