Here I will not bother to sketch out a complete summary of their moral concepts, though that would be interesting. Nor will I consider them—as I did Hobbes and Kant yesterday—in terms of the "Moral Philosophy in Context" scheme, though no doubt that would lead to some interesting insights too. Instead, I will briefly summarize the main points of their moral philosophies, and focus on a key similarity in their methodology that is revealed in the exercise of drawing some cartoons that are as incisive as they are droll.
There are five main ideas to keep in mind when examining Kant. Here, items 1, 2 & 3 are central to the comparison we will draw up today.
1) The Good Will - People are not animals, and rather than doing "what they want to do", or acting on their feelings, or considering the consequences of various actions, people can exercise the Good Will and instead do their duty. What is our duty? Why, our duty to follow the rules. What are the rules? According to Kant, these rules can be decided upon with reason. The next two concepts describe the methodology philosophers can use for deciding these rules.
2) Universalizability - Rules must be consistent and non-contradictory. They must be applicable in ALL circumstances, and they cannot be inconsistent in application; that is, "true" rules are Universal.
3) The Categorical Imperative - our rules are categorically correct. They transcend "worldly" considerations, they are established by reason, and they are to be followed without exception.4) Reversibility - This is the Golden Rule idea. Treat others as you would have others treat you.
5) The Practical Imperative - People should not be used as a means to an end.
Now, in seeking to understand Kant, let's examine how the concepts of Universalizability and the Categorical Imperative guide the methodology philosophers should (according to Kant) employ to decide what the rules should be.
Consider the following three cases:
Case One: Is it permissible to lie?
I am hiding Jews and Gypsies in my basement, when the Gestapo comes knocking on the door. I open the door and the Gestapo demands to know it there are any Jews and Gypsies in the basement. Is it moral to lie and say that I am not hiding any Jews and Gypsies in the basement? Now, I understand that the Gestapo will take these Jews and Gypsies to the concentration camp, where they will die. I feel very strongly that I should lie to protect the people in the basement, but what is my duty? Is it permissible to lie?
To answer this question, Kant wants us to Universalize the question by elevating it to the realm of pure reason, to a transcendental level beyond the earthly context, and at this transcendental level we can decide, categorically, if it is permissible to lie. Kant would ask us to consider: What if people were lying all the time? What if lying was a universal practice? Clearly, if lying was a universal practice, all sorts of bad things would ensue (and, hmm, it looks like Kant is considering consequences after-all—but maybe that's OK because he is an important philosopher? Ahem.).
In any event, “Nein!” You may not lie to the Gestapo, and therefore you do your duty and tell the Gestapo that the Jews and Gypsies are hiding in the basement.
Case Two: Is it permissible to steal?
You have lost your job, and you cannot afford to buy bread to feed your children. Meanwhile, there is a bread store down the road at the corner, with bread sitting out front. You feel very strongly that you should steal to feed your starving children, but what is your duty? Is it permissible to steal?
To answer this question, Kant wants us to Universalize the question by removing it to a transcendental level beyond the earthly context, and at this transcendental level we can decide, categorically, if it is permissible to steal. Kant would ask us to consider: What if people were stealing all the time? What if stealing was a universal practice? Clearly, if lying was a universal practice, all sorts of bad things would ensue (and, erm, it looks like Kant is considering consequences after-all—but maybe that’s OK because he is an important philosopher?).
In any event, “Nein!” You may not steal bread to feed your children. You exercise the Good Will, do your duty and let your children starve.
Case Three: Is it permissible to use deadly force?
An axe-wielding maniac has invaded your home, and he is chasing your wife and children around the living room. He is a pretty big guy. You don’t want to be judgmental, but he is evidently a madman, and he is clearly about to strike your wife and children with his axe. You are holding a bow and arrow, and you could use it to shoot the intruder and save the lives of your wife and children. But you also cannot be squeamish; he is very big and, clearly, you will have to use deadly force to stop him. You feel very strongly that you should use deadly force to save your family, but what is your duty? Is it permissible to use deadly force?
To answer this question, Kant would have us to Universalize the question by removing it to a transcendental level beyond the earthly context, and at this transcendental level we can decide, categorically, if it is permissible to use deadly force. Kant would ask us to consider: What if people were using deadly force all the time? What if using deadly force was a universal practice? Clearly, if using deadly force was a universal practice, all sorts of bad things would ensue (and, erm, it looks like Kant is considering consequences after-all—but maybe that’s OK because he is an important philosopher?).
In any event, “Nein!” You may not use deadly force. Instead, you exercise the Good Will and do your duty, and you let the maniac continue. The intruder chops up your family, and then he chops up you. Yes, it is a big mess but you have done your duty. Remember, an animal might use deadly force to protect its family, but you are no animal! You have the power to exercise the Good Will! Wunderbar! Hang on! Where is the droll cartoon? So far, this isn’t very funny.Alright, here is a funny cartoon. I call this, “Herr Professor Doktor Kant with his Categorical Imperative Machine.”
Observe how Kant puts the questions into his Categorical Imperative Machine. The machine universalizes the question by raising them to a transcendental level beyond the earthly context, and at this transcendental level he can decide, categorically, if it is permissible to lie, to steal or to use deadly force. Of course, the entire methodology consist of abstractions that are not part of the real world, that are mere abstractions in a cartoon. Here, Kant’s big ideas are abstractions in a cartoon, where the cartoon is a description of things that are indifferent to and removed from what should be a real or relevant description of a moral action. (And recall what Francis Bacon said when he described the Idols of the Theatre.)
Keep this cartoon in mind as we turn to out next moral philosopher.
There are three main ideas to keep in mind when examining Rawls. Here, items 4 & 5 are central to the comparison we will draw up today.1) Justice as Fairness - A political criterion whereby—rather than Natural Law standards of Liberty and Happiness—Justice or Fairness are the basic criterion of morality and state and institutional policy.
2) The Equity Principle - Each person has an equal right to liberty (or freedom, or a reward) comparable with the same amount of liberty for everyone else. Or, there must be Fairness in terms of equality of opportunity for all.
3) The Difference Principle - Any equality (in terms of rewards or punishments) is permissible to the extent that it is to the advantage of everybody, including the people at the bottom of socio-economic status, and that that reward or punishment is distributed under conditions of equal opportunity.
4) The Original Position - This abstraction can be compared to Kant’s transcendental realm of pure reason. Here, the principles of justice can be decided upon from behind a Veil of Ignorance.
5) The Veil of Ignorance - This is the crux of Rawls’ “thought experiment” in which people are asked to consider the question of Fairness and Justice. Here in this hypothetical construct, according to Rawls, “...no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.” In other words, consider a bunch of babies in Peter Pan Land waiting to be born. The babies do not know who they will be as human beings, or what their fortunes will be when the stork carries them to the real world and they become human beings. In this Fairy Land, behind the veil of ignorance, Rawls says they will all agree that they want to live in a Fair world of Equality and Equal Opportunity.
Since these babies are ignorant of the real world, they are in an excellent position to be reasonable and impartial about how the world should be run (yes, at this point Bacon would be reminding us again about the Idols of the Theatre, and also the Idols of the Market-Place). Meanwhile, let’s ask these babies some questions about the real world.
One question will do: “Is it moral to tax people and then decide how to spend that money without elected representatives either writing such tax laws or deciding how the money should be spent?”
Kant would universalize the question by using his Categorical Imperative Machine to elevate the question to the Transcendental Level of Pure Reason. In a similar way, Rawls uses his Veil of Ignorance Machine to move the question behind the Veil of Ignorance. Here, behind the Veil of Ignorance, the Fairy Babies can exercise their inclination for exercising fairness as they decide the question reasonably: “Is it moral to tax people and then decide how to spend that money without elected representatives either writing such tax laws or deciding how the money should be spent?
Alright, time for another funny cartoon. I call this, “Herr Professor Doktor John Rawls with his Original Position Machine.”
The babies ask, “Does it promote Fairness? Does it meet the criterion of Social Justice? Does it adhere to the Equity and Difference Principles? If the answer is “yes” to these criteria, then, Yes, taxation without representation is morally good.
Long ago along these at these Highbrow crossroads I gave John Rawls a mention in connection with Confucian notions of law and morality. At that time, I promised my colleagues in the Highbrow Commonwealth that I wound return to Rawls (and Elizabeth Anscombe) and dilate upon a comparison of Confucian morality and the ideas of John Rawls. I have begun to fulfill that promise here, but no doubt this is just the beginning of a much more involved investigation. To see that post on Confucius, please click HERE.
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