Saturday, May 25, 2013

On Kant and Kindness: What's the Point of Ethics, Anyway?

Immanuel Kant
Every so often I encounter an idea that stops me cold and makes me think, “Woah, if that's true I'm going to have to rethink all kinds of things.” These ideas aren't necessarily true, but they do demand to be considered. One that I've encountered recently is the way Kant thought about what makes an action moral or ethical (I use the two words as synonyms). To see how Kant thought about ethics, imagine a doctor who loves her work. What makes her happy is to help other people, and the more she helps them, the happier she is. That's an extremely moral person, right?

Not so fast, says Kant. Kant thought the only actions that can truly be considered moral are those based on a reasoned sense of duty, not on compassion or benevolence. To illustrate this, let's imagine another doctor. This one isn't especially compassionate, and it doesn't make her all that happy to help others. But she's not in it for the money, either. This doctor does her work out of a sense of duty. She believes that helping people is the right thing to do and the best way to spend her life, but she would much rather be a professional surfer. Kant would say it's she's who's acting morally. It's not that the first is being immoral. But she's simply doing what makes her happy, and it's a nice coincidence that what makes her happy helps others. It's the second doctor who's putting her desires aside to act in a way that she thinks is right.

That's an arresting thought. We tend to think of the best people as the ones who are the most selfless and kind, but we also admire people who put aside their desires to do what's right. Are people who do good out of a sense of duty really more ethical than people who do good because it makes them feel good? I don't know. I tend to think that while the doctor who helps people out of a sense of duty is very ethical and admirable, it would be even better if she could somehow cultivate compassion for people, and align her happiness with theirs. It would make her life easier, and probably make her a better doctor.

But the idea of acting according to principle, regardless of how it makes you feel, is pretty important, too. A whole lot of the time, what's obviously right doesn't align with what we want to do. Imagine you've recently been fired from your job, and you're wondering how you're going to pay next month's rent. Then you find a wallet with $2000 in it. Some people would never want to do anything but get the wallet to its owner. But not many, I suspect. Others would take the money and ditch the wallet without a second thought. Alas, there are plenty of those. But in between those two extremes are those who would really, really want to take the money, but don't because they think it would violate an ethical rule. They feel it's their duty is to find the owner of the wallet and give it back to them.

It's good that they feel that way, because their innate kindness toward strangers wouldn't have been enough to make them give the wallet back. Kindness and compassion are great, but they're probably too unreliable to use as the sole bases for ethics in a society. A sense of duty can be a very good thing, even if it isn't accompanied by any particular kindness.

But duty without kindness has serious pitfalls. What if the rules people feel duty bound to follow are bad ones? In Peter Singer's book, How Are We To Live, he mentions that Adolph Eichmann, one of the main architects of the Holocaust, claimed that he had been acting according to a Kantian sense of duty. Apparently Eichmann thought—based in part on his interpretation of Kant--that he shouldn't let sympathy interfere with his duty, which was, he thought, to be faithful to his country by carrying out its horrific Nazi policies. He even talked about how he had occasionally felt sympathy for Jews he saw being killed, but suppressed it on Kantian grounds. At least, that's the story Eichmann told his captors, and maybe himself. But it does seem to be true that many rank and file Nazis who committed atrocities weren't sadistic, just heartlessly dutiful.

Of course, we can't blame Kant for how people misguidedly acted on his philosophy. Still, Kant does seem to have believed that we should never let our sympathy for others get in the way of our ethical duty to act according to universalizable standards. And this did lead him to some chilling conclusions. For example, imagine that a friend comes to your house and says someone is trying to kill them, and asks you to hide them. You do. Then the killer comes to your door and asks if your friend is inside. Should you lie to protect your friend? Kant thought not, because he thought lying was universally wrong, and that our duty to obey this universal law outweighs our feelings for our friend.

And that is clearly crazy. This a case where reason has gone too far, and should have brought compassion along with it. I admit that's not much of a refutation, logically speaking, but I bet you agree, so I'll move on to my main point. That's what the conundrum about the two doctors is really all about, which is: what should ethics be based on? Some people think ethics should be based on consequences—we act ethically because it leads to desirable outcomes. Thinking we should act ethically because it makes life better for conscious beings is an example of such a consequentialist position. Others, like Kant, think ethics should be based on reasoning about what laws should be universal, and then acting with a sense of duty to uphold those laws. This is the deontological (duty-based) theory of ethics. Then there are people, like Aristotle, who believe that ethics is all about having or cultivating certain virtues, or desirable personal traits. Most people would consider the kindness of the first doctor to be that sort of virtue. Of course, probably the majority of people in this country think about ethics in terms of religion. They may think ethics should be based on God's will or God's plan for us. I've talked quite a bit about religion and ethics in other posts, so for now I'm just going to focus on secular ethics.

Whenever you're pondering these questions it seems to me that you have to ask, “What's the ultimate point of acting ethically?” When I ask that, the consequentialist view is the only one that makes any sense to me. What could possibly be the point of either duty or virtue if they don't do any actual good in the world? In a world of robots who don't care what happens to them or anything else, what would be the point of kindness? What would be the point of following ethical laws? Are ethics even conceivable in a world without preferences; without pleasure and pain, or hopes and dreams? Don't get me wrong. Cultivating virtues, and making good ethical rules and following them even when we don't want to, are both good ideas. But at bottom the only reason I can imagine for doing those things is that they make life better for people or other sentient creatures who are capable of being happy and fulfilled in one set of circumstances and miserable in another. In the absence of consciousness and preference, ethics makes very little sense. If someone walked up to you and said, “The problem with Mars is that there are no ethics there,” you would think they were crazy. First, because a person saying such a thing out to a stranger out of the blue probably ain't quite right, and second, because Mars is a planet of rock and wind, with no life or consciousness. What need is there for ethics in a place like that?

In this era, when traditional religious ideas about morality have lost a great deal of their grip, people worry that people without religion will see no reason to act ethically. As the common paraphrase of Tolstoy goes, “If God is dead, all things are permitted.” It's a legitimate worry, because some people will conclude just that. But it's not a rational conclusion for them to make. First of all, if the only thing that is keeping you from murdering and thieving your way through life is the idea that God would disapprove or it, or that he will punish you with hellfire if you do it, then you aren't actually very moral. Second, whether there's a God or not, the world is full of thinking, feeling beings with preferences about what kind of life they want. As soon as you recognize that there are other beings in the world whose desires and dreams are every bit as real to them as yours are to you, you've recognized the need to consider ethics.

So what about the two doctors? Which one is more ethical? Heck, I don't know! The comparison is useful for isolating a philosophical point, but it's not clear that there's an answer. I'd say they're both quite ethical, because they're both doing things would good consequences. Perhaps the second one is explicitly basing her actions on ethical considerations more than the first one, but perhaps the first was just born with a better sense of what is ethical? The first is acting according to the virtue of kindness, and the second is acting according to duty (though dutifulness is a virtue, too, as long as it doesn't run away from compassion). Surely it doesn't make sense to belittle sympathy or similar emotions as engines of good behavior? Would it really make sense to have a world where people ignored their sympathies and acted solely based on duty, because that is somehow a truer display of ethics? If the emotionally indifferent doctor is more ethical than the compassionate one, then would a downright misanthropic doctor (who still does good work) be the most ethical of all? If so, do we want a world full of people like that? Surely not. Why not simply cultivate kindness and make being decent easier for everyone? No easy task, or course, but still.

One thing is clear--if you had to choose which doctor you wanted to be, you would pick the first one, who's simply happy when she is doing good. It would be a better world if we could find a way of cultivating that kind of effortless goodness, both for the people benefiting from the do-gooders, and the do-gooders themselves (and surely their happiness counts, too?) A sense of duty is still necessary too, for times when temptation makes people forget the interests of others. But the idea of rules or duty for their own sake makes no sense, at least not to me. Those are means to other ends, not ends in themselves. In fact, kindness and other virtues, as well as rules and duties, are all just means of making the world a better place to live in. That's the real point, the ultimate end, and whatever gets us closer to it is surely a good thing. Both doctors are good people, taking different paths toward the same goal. I imagine Kant would disagree, and I'm quite sure he was smarter than I am. But, then, I wouldn't hesitate to lie to a murderer to save a life. And I bet Kant wouldn't have, either.


  1. Being honest with yourself will help you become honest with others. Being kind to yourself will help you be kind to others too. So you ask, doctor no.1 or doctor no.2? I say doctor no.1

  2. Assuming they are equally good doctors as far as attending to patients are concerned I say doctor 1.