Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, October 11, 2010

KANT: First Principles of Morals

Cartoons use to portray ethical dilemmas something like this: on one shoulder there’s a little angel whispering in one ear “don’t do it!” and on the other shoulder there’s a little devil whispering “go ahead, do it!” in the other ear. In the cartoons I’ve seen the little devil usually boots off the little angel and gets his way; which is probably what the cartoon character really wanted to do anyway. Real life isn’t a cartoon but the dilemma is much the same. What if we have competing voices inside our heads telling us what to do? How do we determine which one is the voice of the little angel and which one is the little devil? First Principles of Morals is apparently Kant’s attempt to answer this question. Whether he’s successful or not probably depends on the reader. It’s hard for me to tell if Kant’s ideas are extremely complex and I’m too dumb to understand them or if Kant’s just a bad writer who can’t express his ideas clearly. My understanding of Kant’s principles of morals boils down to this: all our actions are centered in the WILL. If we want to determine if something is good or bad we first have to start by considering our WILL. Is it good or bad? Kant says A good WILL is good not because of its effects or the attainment of some purpose but simply by virtue of the volition (the power of choosing or determining = will). I think this means that it doesn’t matter whether what we did turns out good or bad. The main thing is we meant to do good. We were trying to do good. Even if the results turned out bad, the intention was good. This is a very different concept from the ancient Greek notion of what’s right and wrong. For example, in Oedipus the King we read about Oedipus killing his father and marrying his mother. He certainly didn’t intend to. He even did everything in his power to prevent it. But for the Greek writer (Sophocles) facts are facts. It doesn’t matter what Oedipus intended, what matters is what he actually did; and Oedipus is punished severely by the gods. This seems grossly unfair in Kant’s ethical system and most modern readers would agree. But the ancient Greeks weren’t as much interested in what you thought as in what you actually did. Which is more important, what we THINK or what we DO? Kant does give some guidelines on how to determine right from wrong. First of all he says that to have moral worth an action must be done from DUTY. If you help people because you feel sorry for them or because you’ll get an award then it really doesn’t count. You’re doing good but you’re doing it for the wrong reason. You’re just being selfish (even though in a socially good way). Again, just as above Kant says an action done from DUTY derives its moral worth not from the action itself…but merely on the principle of volition (the power of choosing or determining = will)… by which the action has taken place. This is a clunky way of saying: did you do good for the right reason (out of “duty”)? But this just raises another question: how do we know what our “duty” is? Kant believes DUTY is the necessity of acting out of respect for the LAW. That helps. A little bit. But what if the law itself is bad? This was exactly Thoreau’s complaint in our reading on Civil Disobedience. He thought taxes helped pay for a war (the Mexican War) that was wrong by its very nature. So he refused to pay and went to jail for it. Laws are made by men and men sometimes get it wrong. But there’s a higher power that won’t ever get it wrong. That’s because some laws are universal and are right at all times and in all places. This universal law should direct our moral choices. How can we know what this universal law is? We know it by using our minds; by exercising our reasoning power. Only the rational mind can be objective enough to not lead us astray. A perfectly GOOD WILL would obey OBJECTIVE laws… So Kant believes rational thinking leads us on the right path and to make the right decisions. This sounds fine if you’re a philosopher. But what about ordinary folks who don’t have all day to think about these things? Can we learn what’s good by listening to our hearts instead? Flaubert shows us how in his short story about A Simple Heart.


Anonymous Daniel D said...

Thanks for a great Blog, and for the awesome topic!
Daniel D

10/17/2010 9:14 AM  

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