Friday, September 9, 2016

The Imperatives Of The President (Trump And Clinton Through The Lenses Of Ethical Theory)

As I noted in the first post in this series, this is an election where the encouragement to ‘vote your conscience’ resonates perhaps more than ever. In the service of bringing clarity to our thoughts about this years' candidates, I am posting a number of articles that look at the candidates through the lenses of various ethical theories. So far, we have covered virtue ethics, deontological ethics and consequentialist ethics; this fourth post will look at Kantian ethics.

I am convinced that no one ethical theory does justice to the complexity of our world; nonetheless, I hope the process of viewing life through several different ethical lenses will bring increasing clarity. I should also note that my summaries offer a a broad overview that will not do justice to the complexities of these theories. I encourage you to read more deeply on your own.

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Immanuel Kant believed ‘good will’ - acting from a good motive to fulfill one's duty -  is at the heart of ethics. Things that might be considered good in themselves (courage, happiness, truth) are always capable of being channeled into bad acts: courageous people do terrible things; destructive things can make you happy; truth can be manipulated deceptively. To avoid this, people must act (or exercise our will) with a rational consistency for the good of others.

Kant would have loved Spock. In his theory, any person that committed to reason and logic could not help but choose well. The moral person is the one in which an autonomous, purposeful, rational, willful, selfless motivation compels him or her to choose for the general good of others.  

While the importance of motivation and will is crucial to Kant's theory, he had some key moral principles that established the purposes for which that will should be used. Enter his famous Categorical Imperatives. By this he meant that some things are absolute and universal ("You should do X") rather than reliant on particular conditions ("If you want Y, then you should do X").

First Categorical Imperative: "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." 


This was not original with Kant. The universality of this concept can be seen throughout history:

  • The Old Testament: "Don't oppress a foreigner, for you well know how it feels to be a foreigner, since you were foreigners yourselves in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 23:9), and "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18).
  • Thales, when asked how to live virtuously: "By never doing ourselves what we blame in others." 
  • Buddha: "There is nothing dearer to man than himself; therefore, as it is the same thing that is dear to you and to others, hurt not others with what pains yourself" (Dhammapada, Northern Canon, 5:18).
  • Confucius: "Don't do to others what you don't want them to do to you." (Analects 15:23)
  • Taoist Laozi: "To those who are good to me, I am good; and to those who are not good to me, I am also good; and thus all get to receive good." 
  • Plato: "I'd have no one touch my property, if I can help it, or disturb it without consent on my part; if I'm a man of reason, I must treat the property of others the same way" (Laws). 
  • Jesus proclaims love (of God and neighbor) and the golden rule to be the basis of how to live. Luke 6:31 gives the golden rule in the context of loving your enemies, later illustrated by the Good Samaritan parable. Matthew 7:12 says: "Treat others as you want to be treated, for this sums up the Law and the prophets."
  • The Qur'an includes the golden-rule like saying: "Woe to those who cheat: they demand a fair measure from others but they do not give it themselves" (83:1-3). Several Hadiths (Bukhari 1:2:12, Muslim 1:72f, and An-Nawawi 13) attribute this golden rule to Muhammad: "None of you is a true believer unless he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself."(excerpted from “Golden Rule Chronology, from Harry Gensler’s Ethics and the Golden Rule.

Second Categorical Imperative: "Act so that you use humanity, whether in your own person of in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means." 


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People are valuable simply by the fact that they are human beings - specifically, rational human beings. They are not mere things that can be objectified or commodified. People are not something we step on to achieve a goal. They are the goal. They should never be used as merely the means to accomplish a selfish utilitarian goal of our own or society's happiness or pleasure.

Kant's theory has a lot going for it. He taps into a universality of human behavior that draws from a long tradition. He places a high value on human life. He challenges the hypocrisy of those who want others to live a particular way while exempting themselves from the same standard. The way in which he honors rationality, autonomy and motivation forces us to reckon with the fact that we are, in fact, rational autonomous and volitional, and are thus morally culpable for what we do.

However, like the other theories we have looked at, there are some frailties.
  • It too easily discounts the importance of virtue. It's not hard  to envision how rational will uncoupled from character could lead us down some very unfortunate paths. The Nazis want racial purity to be universal; they didn't think the Jews were human, so they weren't breaking the second imperative either.
  • It does not offer a clear understanding of when people are being treated as ends rather than used as means to an end. It's tough to see how that's possible without a concept of design or purpose. (I believe Kant's imperatives are most helpful when used in conjunction with Divine Command or Natural Law theory.) 
  • It does not offer easy resolution to conflicts of duty. Kant separate duties into perfect (must always be done) and imperfect (one you should do if possible) but never fully explained how to adjudicate between the two. What if you promise to pick up a friend but come upon an accident where someone needs aid? You should keep your word but you should also help a person in need. Which should you choose?
  • Kantian ethics seems to require a missing consequentialist component. When Nazi soldiers asked Corrie Ten Boom to reveal where her family was hiding Jewish people, she must not lie because lying is not universalizable, but she shouldn’t tell the truth either since protecting the innocent is universalizable. In order to make a rational choice, the consequences must be considered.
  • At the end of the day, the imperatives are only as strong as the people who enact them. This brings us back once again to the importance of virtue as well as a social contract anchored in something that transcends fickle cultures (which, in my opinion, points us toward the importance of Natural Law and Divine Command Theory).

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From both its strengths and weaknesses we can ask some questions that build from our brief overview.
  • Which candidate are you most confident will not try to universalize a principle that is destructive? 
  • Which candidate best blends rationality with virtue?
  • Which candidate values people for their humanity and not their utility, treating them as ends rather than the means to accomplishing an end?
  • Which candidate has the moral and rational fortitude to exercise good will: that is, acting from good motive to fulfill their duties? And which one truly grasps what those duties are?
  • Which candidate is most consistent in establishing rules for others that they themselves follow?
  • Which candidate will treat individuals as if they are autonomous and rational, holding them responsible for their lives?

To summarize where we are so far: Are you voting for a virtuous candidate (virtue ethics) who is committed to using just means (deontological ethics) to accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number (consequentialist/utilitarian ethics), who values the intrinsic worth of people, and who will enact laws and regulations that are universalizable?

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Up next: Natural Law Theory






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