PHIL 181: Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

Lecture 13

 - Deontology


Professor Gendler opens with a final criticism of Utilitarianism from Bernard Williams: in some cases, a good person should feel reluctant to do an act which brings about the greatest happiness, even if it is the right thing to do. The second half of the lecture introduces Kant’s deontological moral theory. In contrast to consequentialism, deontology holds that it’s not the outcome of actions that matter for their moral valence, but rather the will of the agent performing such actions. The outlines of Kant’s deontological theory are presented, to be continued in the next lecture.

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Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

PHIL 181 - Lecture 13 - Deontology

Chapter 1. Bernard Williams’ Objection to Utilitarianism [00:00:00]

Professor Tamar Gendler: OK, so what I want to do today is to finish up the lecture that we were engaged with last week about utilitarianism and then to move on to what is perhaps the most dead-guy-on-Tuesday lecture of the semester, that is, an explanation of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. So in order to make up for the fact that the second part of the lecture is fairly dry, we’ll have a couple of clicker questions in the first part of the lecture.

OK, so as you recall from our lecture last class, John Stuart Mill, in the selections from Utilitarianism that we read, says two extraordinarily famous things that serve in some ways as the heart of the utilitarian view. The first thing that he says is that he articulates what’s known as the greatest happiness principle. This is a principle that’s supposed to tell you what it is for an act to be morally right. And what Mill says is, there’s a proportionality between the rightness of the act and something that it produces. In particular, a proportionality between the rightness of the act and the amount of happiness it produces, regardless of how that happiness is distributed. In particular he says “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness,” they’re “wrong as they tend to promote the reverse of happiness,” and the happiness with which we’re concerned is not the agent’s own happiness but “the happiness of all concerned.”

The second extraordinarily famous saying that he says in the opening passages of Utilitarianism is that the motive with which an act is performed is irrelevant to the act’s moral worth. He says the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action. “He who saves another creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty or the hope of being paid for it.”

So we might summarize what these principles say, as saying that the first one tells us that what matters for the morality of an act is the aggregate amount of happiness that it produces. And what we’re concerned with here are aggregates, not individuals. We’re interested in how much good is done overall, not where those pieces of good might happen to fall. And what the second principle tells us is that what the utilitarian, who is after all a consequentialist, is concerned with are consequences. They’re interested in the outcome of the act, not the process by which that outcome was achieved.

So the first reading that we did for last class was a selection from Mill’s Utilitarianism where he articulated these principles. And it’s important to recognize that these get something profoundly right about what we’re thinking about, I think, when we try to articulate what lies behind our moral judgments. It does seem right that what we’re interested in is what the world is like after a particular action is taken, and to the extent that we’re interested in what the world is like, our primary interest is not in how that state of affairs came about, but what that state of affairs is. And our primary concern, if we’re taking a moral stance, is not in how much we ourselves have, but rather in how much good there is in the world overall.

That said, there have been, since utilitarianism was articulated, a classic set of objections which are raised to the view, some of which we’ll talk more about today, and some of which we encountered in the selection from Bernard Williams that we read last class. Now you will all recall that Williams’ discussion begins with a story of a gentleman that he calls Jim, who finds himself in a South American village that’s run by a rather unsavory cowboy. And some of the citizens of that village have been protesting the unsavory cowboy’s leadership. And so what the unsavory cowboy has done is he has rounded up twenty of those villagers, and he’s planning–simply to show the others that he’s in charge–to kill those twenty villagers. When Jim arrives, Pedro the cowboy tells him that, if Jim is willing to shoot one of the villagers, the other nineteen will be set free.

So that’s the Jim case. Jim shows up in a town. The sheriff of the town has selected twenty people at random to be shot, but if Jim is willing to kill one of them the other 19 will be set free, so–clickers out–

Question: In the Jim case, what is Jim morally obliged to do? Is the moral thing for Jim to do in this case to shoot the one man, thereby liberating the other nineteen, or is the right thing for him to do to refuse to shoot the one, thereby letting all twenty die?

OK, so let’s see how the numbers came out. So almost 3/4 of you, actually more than 3/4 of you, think that what the morally right thing for Jim to do in this case is to shoot one man, thereby liberating the other nineteen.

We’ll have a chance next week to talk a lot more about these sorts of questions. Our reading for Thursday is a series of moral dilemmas with this structure. But what I want to ask those 77% of you who answered “yes” to do now is to think about whether you take what Williams says is the natural utilitarian next step. Williams argues that if you are a committed utilitarian, and you think that the morally right thing for Jim to do is to shoot the one and release the other nineteen, then you ought to feel no moral compunction about doing so. There’s a clear right thing to do. The right thing is to kill the one, so it’s to save the nineteen. You may feel moral disapprobation–indeed you should feel moral disapprobation–towards Pedro, who put Jim in this situation. But you ought to feel no moral disapprobation towards Jim, and even more importantly according to Williams, Jim himself ought to feel no moral compunction.

So among the 77% of you who answered that Jim did the right thing in killing the one and saving the nineteen, do you think that in shooting the one man, Jim ought to think of any hesitation that he feels as mere squeamishness, something that ought to be overcome? Or do you think that Jim ought to think of the hesitation that he feels in doing what the utilitarian and what you yourself said was the right thing, do you think he ought to think of his hesitation as being indicative of something morally relevant? So there’s roughly seventy of you who should be answering this. Let’s see how the numbers come out.

OK, so most of you take on only part of the consequentialist picture here, at least in the way that Williams understands it. Most of you think that, although the right thing for Jim to do in that case is to kill the one to save the nineteen, it’s not the case that he ought wholeheartedly to endorse that as the right thing to do.

In a minute, I’m going to present to you Williams’ analogy to the case of residual racism to try to help you see why someone who really has taken on board the consequentialist outlook thinks that the combination of views which most of you present, where you think the right thing to do is to kill the one to save the nineteen, but you also think the right thing to do is to feel bad about that in some way, have not fully appreciated what the utilitarian stance provides you with as a way of understanding morality.

So Williams, as you know, presents us with two cases. The first is the case that I’ve just given you, the case of Jim and the captive Indians. The second is the case in high ‘70’s fashion of a man who is needing to go back to work because it’s difficult to have his wife working outside of the home. I leave that to you as a period piece. But the work which George is provided in Williams’s example is work in a bioweapons lab, something to which George feels moral opposition. But if George doesn’t take the job in the bioweapons lab, a much more gung-ho person, somebody who’s likely to advocate the use of bioweapons in all sorts of contexts, will get the job instead.

So the two cases that Williams presents us with there have a common structure. And a common structure which we’re going to see again and again in moral dilemmas. There’s one act that the person can do that leads to a particular outcome, another act that the person can do that leads to a different outcome, where the first act is worse on its surface than the second.

So Jim has the possibility of shooting one person, or shooting no people. Those are the choices that Jim faces. If Jim does the first act, shooting one person, then nineteen people will go free; if Jim does the second act, which is not to shoot anybody at all, to refuse Pedro’s bargain, then all twenty people will be shot.

Likewise, George faces a choice between doing one thing, taking the job in–sorry, George faces the choice between taking the job in the bio lab and not taking the job in the bio lab. If George takes the job in the bio lab, then the gung-ho biological weapons fellow won’t get the job, and the outcome will be better. If George doesn’t take the job, then the gung-ho biological weapons person won’t [correction: will] get the job and the outcome will be better [correction: worse]. So, in both cases we have an act killing the one versus killing none, taking the job versus not taking the job, which is worse than another, but the outcomes of those acts are inverted.

The consequentialist tells us not to look at the act side of the equation, but to look at the outcome side of the equation. The only things, says the consequentialist, that we need to take into consideration, is how many people are saved or how much bio-weapons research is done. According to the consequentialist, what we do is we look and we see, outcome one is better than outcome two, and then reading back from that, we decide which thing we ought to do. We ought to do act one because it’s the thing that produces the better outcome.

The deontologist or virtue ethicist says, not so fast. Don’t jump straight to the consequence, look also at what it is that is needed to be done by the individual to bring about that consequence. And recognizing that act one is worse than act two, the deontologist or virtue ethicist says, it’s at least important to take seriously as a possibility that the right thing to do in this situation is the second act, even if the outcome that it leads to is worse.

Now what Williams points out is that if one takes seriously the first of these stances, the one where what we’re looking at is the outcome and not the process which gave rise to that outcome, then any hesitation we feel towards bringing about that outcome as the result of the particular act is due to what we might call a certain kind of squeamishness. The utilitarian says, and we started with the quotes from Mill for this reason, that thinking about who does an act is morally irrelevant, just as thinking about who gets the goods is morally irrelevant.

What matters, says the greatest happiness principle, is how much aggregate happiness is produced; what matters not, except in so far as it affects the amount of happiness, is who produces that happiness or where that happiness goes. So there is room on the consequentialist picture for second-order thinking about the distributions of happiness. If gross inequities in the amount of happiness across a society produces itself less happiness, then we can take that into consideration in our calculus. If performing a particular kind of act produces in an individual less happiness, we can take that into consideration in our calculus. But ultimately the only things that go into the equation in determining whether an act is morally right is the amount of happiness and not where that happiness is distributed.

Now, as Epictetus pointed out, some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. And when Jim arrives in Pedro’s village, one of the things that is not up to him is the fact that he faces a forced choice of the structure that Pedro has presented him with. It goes without saying that what Pedro has done is outrageous. But the structure of the situation that Jim confronts is a very simple one. Either Pedro will kill twenty people or Jim will kill one person and the other nineteen will not die. That’s what’s there for Jim to be deciding on. Nonetheless, 75% of the 75% of you who thought that Jim did the right thing in that situation think that Jim ought to feel some squeamishness about carrying out that act.

What Williams points out is that if one takes seriously the consequentialist picture, then perhaps the morally right thing to do is to try to cultivate in oneself moral sentiments that accord with one’s moral judgments. If through rational argumentation and reflection you come to realize of yourself that–although you are committed to racial equality, although you are committed to gender equality, although you are committed to equality regardless of gender identification, you’re committed to not being ageist, you’re committed to not being discriminatory on the basis of physical disability–you might, as a result of having been lived in a society largely structured in ways that encode a kind of residual racism and sexism and homophobia, you might find in yourself certain sentiments that lead you instantaneously to respond in ways that run contrary to what your moral commitments tell you you ought to do. In those cases, I take it you think that there’s some moral mandate upon you to try to get rid of those instinctive responses. If you’re really committed to anti-racism, then you want to the extent possible to have a harmonious soul when engaging in interracial encounters. If your reason tells you that you’re committed to anti-racism, you want your spirit and appetite to be in line in that way. So there are instances where morality on reflection tells us that something is right, and the consequence of that for our behavior towards ourselves is that we ought to try to cultivate in ourselves instincts that correspond to that.

Williams says the utilitarian should say that in cases like the Jim case, Jim is like the residual racist. He knows what the right thing to do is, but he has a residual tendency to be pulled in the morally wrong direction. If you don’t think that it’s true that Jim ought to change his attitudes in that case, and you do think that the residual implicit racist ought to try to change her attitude, it would be useful to try to think about what pulls those two cases apart.

OK, so that’s what I want to say in closing about the utilitarianism and its critics. And we’ll return as I said to those issues twice more, once on Thursday when we read Judy Thomson’s trolley problem paper and once next Tuesday when we look at some empirical work on that question, which suggests a naturalistic explanation for why it is that Jim feels the hesitation that he does.

Chapter 2. Immanuel Kant and Deontology [00:21:17]

What I want to do now is to introduce you to the third of the main moral outlooks that we’re going to consider this semester.

So last lecture we looked very carefully at consequentialist moral theories in the form of John Stuart Mill, and those are theories which locate the moral value of an act in its consequences. In the first part of the class we spent a lot of time looking at Aristotle’s virtue theory, which located the moral worth of an act in the actor. Remember we looked at acts having moral worth only if they’re done as the result of a sort of constancy of character.

What we’re going to look at today is the third piece of this story, of a moral view that says the morality attached to an action is not the result of what the actor is like, it’s not the result of what the consequences are like, rather it is about the act itself. In particular, we’re going to look at the deontological theory of Immanuel Kant.

So, Immanuel Kant was an 18th century German philosopher who, like Plato and Aristotle, provided a comprehensive and systematic philosophical theory that to this day is taken seriously as one of the ways one might make sense of the world as a whole. Kant has theories of metaphysics, that is, what kind of stuff there is. He has theories of epistemology, that is, how we know about what kind of stuff there is. He has theories of ethics, what the right thing to do is. And he has theories of aesthetics, that is, what gives things aesthetic value.

Famously, Kant articulated his views about these three major domains of philosophy three enormous and dense books: the first, The Critique of Pure Reason, which told you about what the world is like and how we know it to be that way, which he wrote first in 1781 and then revised; the second, The Critique of Practical Reason, which is an account of the nature of morality; and the third, The Critique of Judgment, which is an account of the nature of aesthetic value.

But in addition to those dense works, Kant also wrote what he took to be more popular presentations of his view. In the case of metaphysics, he wrote a book called The Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics. And in the case of ethics, he wrote something that he calls the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, which is of course the work from which we read excerpts for today.

So I give you this context because I want you to know that, as hard as the reading that we did from Kant was, I chose for you perhaps the easiest part of the easiest book that he wrote.

So, what should you take home from Kant if you take home nothing else? If you take home nothing else from our reading of Kant, I want you to take home Kant’s idea of the categorical imperative. And my goal in the remainder of lecture today is to bring you, by reading through with you the text of Kant that we had today, to a point where you will be well positioned to understand what Kant means by the categorical imperative. And depending on how the next twenty minutes go, we’ll get to that either right at the end of today’s lecture or right at the beginning of Thursday’s.

OK, so Kant’s text. The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals begins with a very famous passage where Kant says, “nothing can be regarded as good without qualification except the good will.” This claim should be familiar to you, O readers of Book II of Plato’s The Republic. This is the classic distinction between things that have intrinsic value and things that are merely of instrumental worth. And indeed much in the way that Plato’s Socrates does, Kant goes on to enumerate some things which fall into the other category, the category of things that are of mere instrumental utility. Among the things that cannot be regarded as good without qualification, says Kant, are talents of the mind like intelligence and wit, qualities of temperament like courage and perseverance, gifts of fortune like power and riches and honor and health. And he says, taking a direct gibe at Aristotle, and noting as such that he’s so doing, neither can the ancient virtues–(Oh, my goodness, how do I close that email?)–neither can the ancient virtues of moderation and self control be considered as good in themselves. Why? Because though being intelligent, or brave, or rich, or controlled will help you to achieve the goals that you have, they don’t determine what those goals might be. They magnify your effectiveness as an agent, but they don’t determine the valence, the value of your agency.

So, says Kant, a witty, persevering, rich, healthy, moderate thief will be an outstanding thief–but that doesn’t make his thiefdom good. Each of the virtues that has traditionally been extolled as a virtue, says Kant, gains its value only in so far as the good will is part of it.

Now a good will, says Kant, is good not because of what it affects or accomplishes, it’s good in itself. When I say that Kant is a critic of consequentialism I am not exaggerating. Kant doesn’t think that the outcome of the act is what matters. And in an extraordinarily famous passage, famous in part because of the rather shocking translation which has come down to us of it, Kant says, “the good will would remain good, even if by the niggardly provision of step-motherly nature it wholly lacked the power to accomplish its purpose.” By which he means, even if you with your good will were frustrated in all of the goals that you set out to achieve, your actions would still have moral worth. And somewhat more poetically and a bit less vocabulary that is challenging to the modern ear, Kant says, even if it didn’t achieve its outcomes “it would like a jewel still shine by its own light as something which has full value in itself. Its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither augment nor its value.”

Now the question is this: How could anybody come to have this view? How could anybody have a view of morality that says, what matters for an act to be moral is not the outcome that it produces, but rather the description under which the act is done?

What I want to try to do right now is to put you inside the Kantian picture so that you get a sense of what that worldview looks like.

So in the passages that we read for today, Kant makes three particular claims. He says that an action must be done from duty in order to have moral worth. The first notion that I want to try to explicate for you is the Kantian notion of something being done from duty. An action done from duty, says Kant in his second proposition, has its moral worth not in the purpose that is to be attained by it, but in the maxim according to which the action is determined. So the way that an action done from duty has moral worth is not by looking to see what outcome you’re expecting from it, but rather by looking to see under what characterization did you perform the act. And again, I’ll spell out what each of those terms mean.

Finally, says Kant, duty, which lies at the heart of deontological moral theory, “duty is the necessity of an action done out of the respect for the law.” Kant believes that it is only when you subject your will to a law which you have made for yourself–that is, the moral law whose binding force upon you you have recognized–it is only in that circumstance that you are truly free. So Kant says, “duty is the necessity of an action done out of the respect for the law,” and when you perform an action out of respect for the moral law, says Kant, then and only then do you act autonomously.

OK, so three, incredibly complicated, subtle claims from Kant. Let’s try getting to the bottom of what they mean. So let’s start with the first claim, the claim that an act has moral worth only when it is done from duty. So Kant points out that there’s three kinds of motivation that we might have in performing an act. We might do an act out of duty, we might do it out of inclination, or we might do it out of self-interest. Only cases of the first kind, in fact only pure cases of the first kind, have moral worth. Actions that are done merely in keeping with, but not from moral duty, have no moral worth according to Kant. So if you obey the law but you do so only out of self interest, your obedience, says Kant, has no moral worth. If you rescue the drowning child from the pond but you do so only because there’s a sign on the tree that says, “Rescue Drowning Children: $1 Million Reward,” your act has no moral worth.

So we can think about what Kant’s claim amounts to and how it differs from the other ones that we’ve been looking at by thinking of the question space in terms of a flow chart. So we’re trying to decide whether a particular action has moral worth, and the first thing we want to ask ourselves is: Does the action accord with duty? If the answer to that is no, that is, if you’ve done something like lied, or stolen something, or murdered somebody, or allowed something terrible to happen in front of you that you could have easily, at no cost to yourself, prevented, all of the authors that we’ve read, unsurprisingly, say that the act has no moral worth.

Oh so, did that just disappear that was supposed to be in red on black? Is it completely invisible from the back? Oh, that’s a pity–OK, so what that says in red is no lying and stealing–but it’s in red. I can’t change it in the middle of the slides, but I’ll remind you what those things say. OK.

The second question that we ask, having eliminated now from the realm of morally worthy acts those that don’t accord with duty, is: What motive the act was done with? So perhaps you act in a morally worthy way out of self-interest without immediate inclinations. So you pay your taxes because if you don’t pay your taxes you’re going to have to pay more taxes. You obey the speed limit but only because you were afraid you might get caught otherwise. Mill says those acts have moral worth. Kant says no, they don’t–and again, that’s supposed to be in red but it’s now invisible.

Suppose that you do an act in such a way that you have an inclination that’s in keeping with duty. So Kant thinks you have a duty not to commit suicide, and he considers the case where you fail to commit suicide because you’re happy. Kant thinks you need to be loyal to your life partner, but he says that there’s no moral worth to remaining loyal to your life partner while you are in love. There’s no moral worth, says Kant, to acting kindly towards somebody when you feel sympathy towards them. Because in those cases, though your act is in keeping with what morality demands, it’s not done because it is the right thing to do. You are doing it because your inclination happens to line up with what morality demands of you. Now Aristotle, of course, took this situation to be the one in which moral worth is paradigmatically expressed.

But Kant thinks that in such cases you can not tell that an act was done from the moral law. All you can see is that it was done in keeping with the moral law, it corresponds to what the moral law demands, but we can’t see from that that the motive was duty.

It’s only in the third case, the case where you act from duty without any inclination and without any self-interest, that Kant thinks the moral worth of an action can be seen. If you preserve your life when you feel the inclination to do otherwise, if you act kindly in situations where there’s no reward for you and you feel no sympathy, in those cases, says Kant, we can see that the act was done, not merely in keeping with, but from the moral law.

This isn’t to say that Kant doesn’t think a life lived in the way that Aristotle’s suggested life is lived is a badly [well] lived life. Cases where your inclination happens to line up with duty helpfully keep you out of this box of doing the wrong thing, but they don’t allow you to test your character and see of yourself that the motivation that you have for doing the right thing is to conform to what the moral law demands of you.

So with that understanding of what it is to act from duty in mind, we’re now in a position to make sense of Kant’s second claim in our reading for today. Then “an action done from duty has its moral worth not in the purpose that’s to be obtained by it, but in the maxim according to which the action is determined.” So remember we’ve learned that an action done from duty is one that you do in conformity with what morality demands, because that is what morality demands. Not because it’s in your self interest, not because you were inclined to behave in that way, but because that act is what morality demands of you. But in order to determine whether an act is what morality demands of you, that act needs to be described in a particular way to you. And the way that you describe that act to yourself makes use of what Kant calls a maxim–a subjective principle of volition–that is, a description of something that is about you, the subject, that says what your desires towards behavior are in that situation. A subjective principle of volition, that is, a description under which the act is done.

So it takes the form, perhaps: “In all engagings with all who come into my shop, I will provide them with an honest accounting of how much their transaction is worth, regardless of whether I could be discovered cheating in this.” Or: “In all of my encounters with those who are weak and in need of my help, I will provide them with the aid that I can regardless of whether that will be of benefit to me.”

“Only by considering the motive and not by considering the outcome can the action be expressive of the good will itself.” “The good will is the only thing that is good in itself,” says Kant, and it’s only by looking at the description under which an act is done that we can determine whether the good will was implicated in the right way in the choice to perform that action.

Third claim: “Duty is the necessity of an action done out of the respect for the law.” So we know that an act has moral worth only if it’s done from duty. We know that in order to be done from duty it needs to be done under a certain description. And now we’re told what it is that this duty amounts to. In order for an act to have been done from duty, says Kant, it must have been done with explicit recognition that what one is doing at that point is respecting the moral law in so far as it articulates what morality demands of you. Not in so far that it articulates ways that you might have a well-ordered, harmonious, happy soul. Not in so far that it articulates ways in which lots of happiness could be spread around to lots of people. Out of respect rather, says Kant, for the fact that it is what morality demands of you. The moral worth of an act, says Kant, does not lie in its effect, for the effect could have come about in multiple ways. I can set out to release a biological gas in a subway that’s intended to kill thousands of people, and because I’m not very good at chemistry, the result could be that I produce an enormous amount of joy in those thousands of people. The effect can come about in lots of ways. Kant says Mill would have to say that in releasing that gas I have done something with moral worth. Kant says: No–what matters is the description under which the act is done, and in particular that that description be that one have respect for the law itself.

So I told you I was going to get you to the point of the categorical imperative, and I am going to end the lecture today by bringing you right up to that point, and then next class we’ll talk about it in more detail.

So the question is this, right? This is a pressing, exciting question in Kant. All right, I realize that we’re in the in-Kant part of things, but this is really exciting. “What sort of law…?”, says Kant. He even puts a “but” to get you excited. But, he says–cliffhanger… –“what sort of law can that be, the thought of which must determine the will without reference to any ‘intent’ expected effect, so the will can be called absolutely good without qualification?” It’s so exciting! We’re finding something that’s going to make us genuinely autonomous and free and moral! Well, remember: it can’t be anything particular, it can’t be anything specific about the world or its outcomes. What can it be? It can be the will’s universal conformity of its actions to law as such! That is, what makes the law binding is the fact that it is recognized by all rational agents as binding. In particular, it takes the form of what Kant calls the categorical imperative.

And here’s the formulation of the categorical imperative that we got in our reading for today: “Never act except in such a way that I can also will that my act maxim should become a universal law.” Never do anything that you couldn’t will everybody else to do at the same time. And we’ll begin next lecture with the example that Kant uses to illustrate this, namely the lying promise, talk a little bit more about various formulations of the categorical imperative, and then move to Judy Thomson’s trolley problem paper.

[end of transcript]

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