Home > philosophy > Hypothetical Consequences (in which we discover that Kant is probably full of shit)

Hypothetical Consequences (in which we discover that Kant is probably full of shit)

Any first year philosophy student is going to hear two names, and that battle of the those two names in ethical theory. The first name is John Stuart Mill; Englishman, member of parliament, philosopher, manager of East Indies trading company. The second name is that of Immanuel Kant; philosopher….that’s it. Their names are eponymous of two differing and complete opposites on the spectrum of ethical theory for the former we have consequentialism in which we judge an act by the outcome of the act. For the latter we have that of non-consequentialism, in which the intent of the action, irregarding (see what I did there?) of the actual outcome of the action, determines the moral worth of the action.

Mill’s consequentialism, labelled under “Utilitarianism,” has the appeal of simplicity. Action X makes more people happy or better off than harming them, it’s a good action. It’s not only simple, it has also has the appeal of common sense. How can an action be judged as bad if it helps more people than it harmed? Well that’s where Kant and his non-consequentialism step in. See Kant reasoned that under Utilitarianism, you could accidentally create moral actions. For example we can look at Thomas Edison. During the “Current War” with Nikola Tesla, Edison wanted to promote his own Direct Current as being the electricity of the modern age as opposed to Alternating Current, which the world eventually adopted. AC is superior because it doesn’t require a power plant every couple of blocks. Edison knowing this sought out to discredit AC by recommending that it be used in the new fangled “Electric Chair” for New York. This had the effect of proving that AC worked and was superior to DC thus causing the adoption of AC. Edison accidentally caused the adoption of a modern efficient electrical grid, does that mean he was moral. Of course not, claims Kant, he didn’t intend for this to be the result he just dumbassed his way into it.

Kant’s method of intent is formulated by him as the Categorial Imperative, which states that any action that you do must be done in such a way that it can be conducted as a universal maxim of action. In other words, choosing an action means that you must choose the same way in all cases where it arrives. Obviously, if the action does not apply you cannot be obligated to perform it.

So an action of moral importance must be undertaken. If it is impossible that one can undertake the action when it applies that action is immoral. The best example of this is lying. If a person lies then their maxim of action is that one ought to lie when the option avails itself. Making this universal claim is to say that everyone should lie, which means that no one can tell the truth. When someone lies they are trying to convince the other person that what is false is true. Yet, if everyone is lying and everyone knows that everyone is lying this is impossible. You can’t convince a person that a lie is the truth if they know that you are lying (bullshitting is different, when you bullshit someone you are unconcerned with what they believe). Thus lying is impossible therefore immoral.

But…Mill would reply, what about in cases where lying produces more good than harm, and in fact, the truth produces nothing but harm. Would we not then, be compelled to lie? Kant says no, Kant’s ethics are utterly devoid of circumstance. So if we Godwin the argument, we say that you own a house in 1930s France, and are hiding a Jewish family in the attic. The SS stops at the door and asks if you are hiding Jews, you being the good Kantian that you are say yes, and bid them to enter. Good moral action? I suppose so. Mill would say no, and I think most people operating under any kind of common decency would agree. So the bad Kantian but the good person would say Nope, no Jews here (possibly spitting in feigned disgust that the Nazi could even suggest such a thing).

Kant actually addresses this in a letter. He states that if a guard shows up at your house and wants to arrest someone you should tell the truth. Otherwise when you lie and your friend leaves out the back he could run into the guard and be shot on sight. Thus your lie is repsonsible for his death. Of course, in the Nazi example, the family isn’t leaving but there is a chance the SS is going to sweep the house anyway and you might get shot on your own. However, telling the truth guarantees the family’s arrest. Mill gets favored here, but is there a real difference between Kant and Mill in this example?

I say, no. In both theories consequences are considered as being evaluative of the moral question. The difference is that Mill deals with actual consequences but Kant deals with metaphysical consequences. Even in the latter the metaphysics take a back seat to a hypothetical consequence. Yes the guard might catch the person running out the back, but if the person’s death is what we are trying to avoid in each moral theory, only by lying to the guard can we at least give the person a chance. Even if we ignore the concrete situation, the metaphysical consequence is still a consequence, it still–and this is important–deals with future action. If the future action of the liar is impeded by it no longer being possible to lie based on the universalizable maxim of an initial action, it’s a consequence of the action!

Mill, himself, makes this claim in “On Utilitarianism” yet it has gone largely ignored. This is probably due to the problem in Consequentialism where it apparently justifies the sacrifice of the minority for the benefit of the majority. While this is a large problem, it must also be remembered that Bentham’s object in originally writing the theory (he was the immediate predecessor to Mill and taught him) was to evaluate legal propositions in parliament. The intention was not to give a daily guide to the daily moral problem of the average person. While it is certainly possible I’m missing something, I can’t work out the issue in my head and come to a different conclusion.

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