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The Categorical Imperative is Mistaken

Kant offered us the categorical imperative:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
But all possible actions accord with infinitely many different universal laws.

For example suppose I want to rob someone. That is compatible with the law "rob everyone in sight". It is also compatible with the universal law consisting of "never rob anyone" plus specifying one exception. That law is universal since it covers all cases (that's what universal means).

It's also compatible with, "Commit the robbery. 500 years and N seconds later, if still alive, eat a carrot. Otherwise follow whim." As N ranges from 0 to infinity, we construct infinitely many universal moralities. And we can replace the robbery with anything else we like.

The categorical imperative is, contrary to its intent, compatible with all actions, and with all moral worldviews. Another simple way: take any moral worldview you already have which advocates what you want to do, then add "or if something is not specified, follow your whim" to make it universal.

The primary flaw is that the categorical imperative incorrectly assumes that actions only accord with one universal law each.

Elliot Temple on December 9, 2010

Messages (2)

from WIkipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Categorical_imperative

>Kant asserted that lying, or deception of any kind, would be forbidden under any interpretation and in any circumstance. In Grounding, Kant gives the example of a person who seeks to borrow money without intending to pay it back. This is a contradiction because if it were a universal action, no person would lend money anymore as he knows that he will never be paid back.

There's a lot of detail missing here.

Like, maybe the person is borrowing money without intending to pay it back cuz he has a gambling debt he wants to pay off with a bookie so the bookie doesn't break his legs, and he doesn't care about paying back the debt because he's going to be moving overseas soon anyways, and so the credit score hit he'll take from not paying back a debt in his native country is no longer of concern to him.

And so if you universalized the principle "Pay back your debts, unless you are taking out a loan to prevent physical harm from happening to yourself and are indifferent to the financial consequences of not paying back the loan," then the financial system could carry on, cuz that would actually capture relatively few cases and the risk of that happening could just be priced into the interest rate charged.

Now I think Kant would object at this point that that's not how you should go about universalizing the principle. But I don't know that he gives any sort of good explanation anywhere as to the mechanism you're supposed to use to universalize principles. And I don't find his particular way of universalizing principles from certain fact patterns convincing (based on what I've seen from second-hand sources). Like I immediately think "why'd you universalize it this way and not that way?"

More wiki:

>The maxim of this action, says Kant, results in a contradiction in conceivability (and thus contradicts perfect duty). With lying, it would logically contradict the reliability of language. If it were universally acceptable to lie, then no one would believe anyone and all truths would be assumed to be lies.

Empirically, people lie all the time, but you can still really on people to tell the truth in lots of situations.

For instance, people notoriously lie in trying to find dates, in job stuff, etc. But if a friend says he intends to meet you on Saturday to go to the movies, that's probably not a lie.

So it basically *is* universally acceptable to lie (to a degree, in certain contexts), and yet the horrible stuff that Kant says should follow from that doesn't follow.

Mysterious J at 7:40 AM on March 11, 2017 | #8525 | reply | quote


this is similar to induction. it's taking some finite set of stuff and then saying "generalize".

he doesn't specify clear, exact rules for what counts as a general theory, nor for which general theories are to be rejected.

if we make up our own reasonable rule for what counts as a general theory, and use the rejection rule of contradiction with our premises, we will end up with infinitely many general theories to choose from. so then we face another hallmark problem of induction: paying biased, selective attention to one out of infinity while blinding yourself to the existence (not even merit, but mere existence) of the rest of infinity. or making up a few ad hoc criticisms of some categories within that ignored infinity (small categories given the context, but large given a standard common sense context) and pretending that's adequate.

the examples given like don't lie can be thought of as data points which are compatible with infinitely many different general, universal moralities. there are, as always, infinite patterns and no specification of which patterns to prefer over others, just a naive bias towards whatever patterns the speak and his culture tend to or whichever patterns reach the conclusions he already had in advance.

curi at 1:12 PM on March 11, 2017 | #8526 | reply | quote

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