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On Morality, Part 4

November 4, 2009

Kant contrasted hypothetical imperatives with the categorical imperative. The first had the following form: if you want to get a job, then you should go out and apply for one. The force of the imperative hangs on the “if” part, which is never universal—for those out there who don’t want a job, the “you should” simply won’t apply. By contrast, the categorical imperative has no “if” part; it applies at all places and times and to all subjects, independent of all variables.

There are no categorical imperatives. The best we can have are hypothetical imperatives.

Following what I said about the importance of sympathy in my first “On Morality” post, I propose that it could be useful to think about ethical claims as offering hypothetical imperatives, which are most persuasive when the “if” is connected to existing sympathies, like this:

If you have sympathy for X, then you should do Y to help them.

Remember, if an individual isn’t sympathetic (i.e., if they’re a sociopath), then ethical claims aren’t going to have any traction anyway. That is, dressing up a hypothetical imperative as a categorical one won’t make it any more persuasive if the person just doesn’t care. The most substantial motivations for ethical behavior lie in sympathies, not in meta-ethical trimmings.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2009 1:36 pm

    Are you asserting that there are no categorical imperatives, then, or that there are no categorical imperatives given that the point of articulating moral imperatives is to persuade a particular person to do or not do certain things? It seems that your critique of Kant is tied pretty closely to the idea of persuasion in ethical reasoning, that is.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 4, 2009 2:12 pm

    I’m not sure I understand your question. This here is my meta-ethics in a nutshell: we don’t have absolutes, categorical imperatives, or whatever. Ethical claims (i.e., “you should”) can carry, at best, the authority of a hypothetical imperative. There are no magic bullets we can use to absolutely legitimate our legitimations—the only “truth” to a “should” claim hangs on the sympathies of the audience.

    Does that answer your question? If not, shoot again.

  3. November 4, 2009 10:25 pm

    I guess I’m just trying to process the significance of your last paragraph, after the quote. You talk about an unsympathetic person as someone who is unpersuadable on a certain level, and in your last sentence you speak of certain meta-ethical structures as inadequate as “motivation”.

    I guess what I’m saying is, are you (here, at least) pushing an argument against the truth of ethical absolutes or categorical imperatives? Or does your argument here simply entitle you to say that such meta-ethical commitments are not effective as motivators toward ethical behavior for those who are not already inclined by sympathy. Because it seems that an ethical absolute could possibly be true or advisable without it necessarily moving a particular audience to be guided by it that is not already so inclined by sympathy.

    Also, is sympathy the only possible qualifier? Is it really true that “the only ‘truth’ to a ‘should’ claim hangs on the sympathies of the audience”? Or could we possible replace “sympathy” with “self-interest”, or “righteousness”, or “reasonableness”, etc.

    In asking these questions I’m not necessarily advocating the sort of meta-ethical stance that you find problematic… I’m simply trying to understand how you entitle yourself to the alternative that you present.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 7, 2009 9:40 pm

    Hi Evan, I think I understand what you’re getting at better now.

    If there were absolutes, yes, they could exist without being motivating . That’s a good point. In addition, it is a point consistent with my claim that getting meta-ethics right won’t be a magic bullet to fix immorality.

    However, I am NOT here defending the claim that there are no moral absolutes or categorical imperatives. I take that for granted for reasons that are beyond this conversation.

    Although this is 100% unclear from my post, what I AM trying to get at here is the meta-ethical issue of whether or not there can be any sort of truth to a moral claim without there being moral absolutes.

    This mangles their argument, but some quasi-relativists like Blackburn suggest that moral claims are true, but in a way that “it’s against the law to murder” is true—it can be true because it’s a claim about a social convention. I don’t need some sort of universal absolute to say that it is, in fact, absolutely true that we drive on the right side of the road in the US. (It’s actually much more complicated than that, but that I think is as close to an analogy I can get in this space.)

    I’m suggesting that moral claims don’t even have the “truth” that Blackburn wants them to have. He wants to hang their truth on social convention (again, I’m mangling it), and I want to suggest that their truth (if they have any at all) hangs on the “if” in the “if you give a shit about so and so, you’ll do something about it.”

    Can there be something else in the “if” part? Like “if you are reasonable”? I doubt that one, because I truly agree with Hume that reason devoid of interest, desire, or sympathy has no weight.

    What about something like “if you want to maximize your own profit, you should skim money from your worker’s pay.” This would, in a sense, be true, but obviously in an extremely limited way (but the “if you care” is equally true in an extremely limited way). However, I wouldn’t classify this as an ethical truth because I’d set up a definition that says ethical claims are by definition ones that involve the interests of others, rather than just yourself.

    Of course in doing so I would be saying “this is how I want to use the word ‘ethical'” rather than claiming to be discovering the essence of “ethics,” but that’s a good thing rather than a bad thing.

    I hope to have gotten at the center of your query, but I may not have addressed some of the peripheral issues. Shoot again.

  5. Beelzebub permalink
    November 8, 2009 2:22 am

    Is there no point at which you claim that a person ought to be sympathetic? Your ethics don’t seem to hang on much if all they come down to is “if you care about so and so, then you’ll do such and such” (unless I am missing something). It is difficult to imagine a world with humans (as we know them/ourselves today) that aren’t sympathetic, but people often don’t have sympathy for people who deserve it. If your only point is that you can resort to truth claims without using absolutes, then sure, maybe you can, but I’m not sure how good your ethics actually are without them.

    I’m also not really sure how a hypothetical is any less absolute than a categorical. If you have a categorical where one ought to be truthful at all times, then it is obviously absolute. A hypothetical, where a person should only be truthful in certain circumstances (even if those circumstances happen to be the vast majority of conceivable situations), is still expected to be followed at all times that the conditions apply, meaning that it is, in fact, absolute. I’m not sure why the fact that it applies at one time and not another would cause people to think it is any less absolute (i.e., lying to protect a murderer would be wrong, but lying to protect someone from a murderer would not be wrong and what is required in each situation is 100% absolute even though the proper reaction to the situation depends on the facts of the situation).

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 8, 2009 9:53 am

    Hi Beelzebub! If a human isn’t sympathetic, you can’t make them so just by saying “you should be more sympathetic.” You might convince them to be more sympathetic by showing them how they already have sympathy for X, and X is sort of like Y, so they might want to have sympathy for Y too. But just commanding sympathy wouldn’t have any force. In addition, it is really unclear to me what sort of truth claim that would be. Again, this gets us into meta-ethics, but while it’s clear what sort of truth it is when I say “I’m sitting in a hotel,” it’s unclear to me what sort of truth claims moral statements could have—unless they are if/then statements linked to one’s sympathies.

    On hypotheticals not being categorical: for Kant, categoricals by nature hold at all places, at all times, for all subjects, completely independent of their subjective differences. By suggesting that hypotheticals are different, I’m drawing attention to the last bit in particular: the truth value of such a moral claim holds for subjects who have these sympathies, but can’t for those who don’t. Kant would be horrified by this idea—again, for him categorials hold completely independently of the difference between subjects, subject’s desires, subject’s interests, subject’s sympathies, etc.

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