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I just want to check that I understand perfect duties.

First, formulate a maxim that enshrines your reason for acting as you propose. Second, recast that maxim as a universal law of nature governing all rational agents, and so as holding that all must, by natural law, act as you yourself propose to act in these circumstances. Third, consider whether your maxim is even conceivable in a world governed by this law of nature.

If your maxim fails the third step, you have a ‘perfect’ duty admitting “of no exception in favor of inclination” to refrain from acting on it.

Is it immoral to like something because not many people do, according to Kant?

It seems to me that not everyone can like something before the majority. So that maxim cannot be conceived of universalised (i.e. not everyone can).


Specifically, my question can be phrased as follows:

  • does Kant mean that "all must, by natural law" try to "act as you yourself propose to act"; or actually do as you are proposing to?

I mean, by the latter, that it would be immoral to e.g. play chess because you want to win, as not everyone can do so (someone will lose).

Everyone can act as you propose (play chess), and for the same reasons (to win): but the maxim is not conceivable for everyone if in the "maxim" the reason is enshrined with the act.

  • three votes no comment ? – user6917 Jul 5 '16 at 19:49
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    Your topic line is off-putting. – jobermark Jul 5 '16 at 20:37
  • @jobermark i found it humorous – user6917 Jul 6 '16 at 0:16
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    So did I, once I read the question, but I avoided reading the question four or five times. It was not meant to be a complaint. I was just trying to explain the knee-jerk reaction that I and others were having. – jobermark Jul 6 '16 at 2:52
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    With a different/clearer title maybe this is fine, @jobermark -- it definitely is asking about how Kant's theory applies to some specific case – Joseph Weissman Jul 6 '16 at 3:10
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Let's assume contrary to @shane that you have correctly expressed your real motivations.

If your motivation is to be 'avant-garde' or to be contrarian, then you have a problem. Not everyone can be contrarian, and purposely flout the opinions of the majority for sport. Nor can everyone simultaneously 'push the boundaries' on purpose by constantly undermining popular opinion. We value those actions in a modern competitive society because they keep things evolving. But it seems clear that Kant would not.

To play with expectations, with those motivations, is not universalizable. Knowingly disturbing people only for the sake of your own ego, or to improve some abstract process, is treating them as mere means. Especially because the people you are most likely to disturb are those who will not value the disruption, even if it does, in the end, improve their lives, or at least those of their progeny.

If this is not a chosen motivation, and you like what you like in all honesty, there is no problem with being out of step by simply being yourself. Sentiments are not moral, according to Kant, so you are free to have what sentiments you have, as long as your motives and considerations are right.

--- Here is a whole different framing for this argument, focussed on the questions raised in the comments. It is the same argument, just much, much pickier.

It is called the categorical imperative to rule out arguments tied to contingencies. Theoretically, for Kant, every truly moral argument should be understood by any adequate intelligence, not just other humans, and he tried to analyze out the kinds of bases that an intelligence would have to have. If the intention cannot be put in terms of a certain sort, it is not 'categorical' and cannot describe a worthy maxim because it could not be translated into a usable form for a different kind of intelligence that recognized a different range of contingency.

There are huge holes in his analysis of what is and is not a category, or how exactly categories should be combined into a maxim if other intelligences do not necessarily have languages. It is one of the primary weaknesses of the resulting ethics. But there is an idea that we should be able to develop an intuition for what is and is not adequately general, even if Kant's attempts to do so are either too hard to understand or too incompletely expressed for most of us to use them.

It is clear that sentiments don't qualify, so yearnings, insecurities or other motivations for winning can't be an important part of a moral argument. Neither can natural human desire for a given outcome if it is just an emotional position contingent upon our humanity.

But 'beauty' does qualify. Doing something with others well is a form of beauty, even if that thing is competition. So it is probably universalizable to say that if you join in a communal endeavor, you should intend to do as well as possible. Everyone can apply that to their own behavior. So to the degree that choosing beauty is done competitively, we are all still fine with most forms of competition.

Cultivating and recognizing originality could also be an important aspect of beauty, especially if variety multiplies the opportunities for beauty itself. But in this case, the approach to finding originality stems from rebelling against the status quo. Were it universalized, the status quo against which one is rebelling would cease to exist. Like 'truth' in the classic Kantian argument against lying, defying standards dissolves the opportunity for standards to exist long enough to be defied. So we would lose the ability to follow our maxim if we agreed upon it.

  • what about congratulating yourself post hoc, for doing something before it was cool? what would that be? – user6917 Jul 6 '16 at 0:33
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    I don't think this answer is rightly describing the maxim. Believing things just because others don't doesn't make you immoral (although it might make you an idiot). More generally, something can't be immoral, even for Kant, just because not everybody can get it. Otherwise it would be immoral to play chess, since in chess everybody wants to win, but by definition both players cannot win. But that's not the right way to think about the maxim. The maxim of my action, when contemplating a chess game is "to try to win." And I can will that everybody try to win, even if not everybody does. – shane Jul 6 '16 at 1:20
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    and the annoying hipster music person is competing for knowledge of bands. one can consistently will that everybody can play the game of knowing the most obscure band, even if everybody can't be the winner. – shane Jul 6 '16 at 1:24
  • @shane i'm not sure. doing something because you want "to win" can't be universalised as a way to act. it seems that the SEP author means that: do you have a reference that claims otherwise ? – user6917 Jul 6 '16 at 2:08
  • @shane. Trying to win is not the same as trying to make change. Constantly trying to avoid being in a majority is different from striving to be the best you can be at something. Since a unanimity is a majority, it cannot be universalized. I am assuming, as I said, that the maxim is right as stated. There are a dozen other ways it could be wrong, too. But I am not considering any of those. – jobermark Jul 6 '16 at 2:23
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No. When you're testing your maxims, what you're looking for is the logical or practical possibility of everybody doing what you're doing.

You can't make a false promise, because if everybody made false promises, there would be no practical point to the institution of promise-making. Saying "I promise to repay" wouldn't get people to lend you money, because they would know you are lying.

But there's nothing logically or practically impossible with everybody liking Justin Bieber (I assume that's the kind of thing you have in mind about liking before it is cool). If everybody could like Bieber, then it is permissible for you to do so.

The thing that I think is catching you up here is how to describe the maxim. I think you're thinking something like "the maxim of my action is: like something before it is cool, but it is impossible for everyone to like something before it is cool since everyone liking something makes it cool, therefore it is wrong to like something before it is cool."

But that's the wrong description of your action. You're liking Bieber because you enjoy the music, not because most other people don't. (At least, I hope so, but the heart is desperately wicked above all things, so who knows.)

Now the question you should ask is: "Well, how am I supposed to know which is the right description of the action to run the universalizability test on, according to Kant?"

The answer there is: Kant wasn't himself aware of this problem, and there are a variety of views. Some people like Anscombe think this is a huge problem for Kant and proves his moral theory unworkable, others think its a minor defect. Who is right about that is a separate question (which I am not qualified to answer.)

  • no offence, generally a good answer, but bad form to just assume that anyone doesn't mean what they ask. at least without v good reason – user6917 Jul 6 '16 at 4:56
  • @MATHEMETICIAN I found your original wording "Is it immoral to like something because not many people do, according to Kant?" to be ambiguous between "to like something solely because most people do not" and "to like something even though most people don't". I thought you were after the latter. To be clear, I don't think either fails the universalizability test, but they are clearly distinct. I just thought you meant the other one. – shane Jul 6 '16 at 17:09

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