The foundation of a humanist ethic is that it has to start from our best understanding of human nature and the human condition. The “human condition” is somewhat easier to describe than “human nature”, that complex thing which literature, psychology, philosophy and individual experience all struggle to understand. Whereas a study of history and a thoughtful reading of literature together offer abundant insights into the human condition, the sheer diversity in human nature makes the task of understanding it a work that could demand whole lifetimes as we seek to make sense of ourselves and others, especially the others we care about.
But the effort to understand human nature is itself constitutive of what makes a good and worthwhile life. It is easy to prove this: consider the opposite, namely, a life lived in carelessness and indifference towards the question of who we are and how we can best relate to others. What a waste that would be. In attempting to understand humanity we can expect to find that what motivates people is, too often, not very admirable and sometimes downright appalling. But this is not the majority story. In every village, town and city in the world, every minute of each day, there are millions of acts of ordinary co-operation, courtesy and kindness, and they constitute the majority of human interactions.
n two experiments, one conducted in-person and the other online, participants were primed to consider a belief in either moral realism (the notion that morals are like facts) or moral antirealism (the belief that morals reflect people’s preferences) during a solicitation for a charitable donation. In both experiments, those primed with moral realism pledged to give more money to the charity than those primed with antirealism or those not primed at all.
“There is significant debate about whether morals are processed more like objective facts, like mathematical truths, or more like subjective preferences similar to whether vanilla or chocolate tastes better,” said lead researcher Liane Young, assistant professor of psychology at Boston College. “We wanted to explore the impact of these different meta-ethical views on actual behavior.”
One of the aspects of Stoicism that I never quite understood is the idea that when acting contrary to virtue the degree is unimportant, all such things are equally bad. Tonight while reading a very good essay on Socrates and the nature of human evil, I came across the following that clarified…
I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of ‘stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.’ I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus… . The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.
Kantian ethical theory is one of several moral/ethical theories that provide the following: 1) a method for deriving moral rules and guidelines and 2) a justification and criteria for evaluating the moral value of particular human actions.
So like cultural relativism, which was discussed beforehand, the Kantian theory of ethics seeks to establish an organized approach to how morality is formed and how various actions can be judged and analyzed in terms of their moral legitimacy. As we will see, however, there are vast differences between the two methodologies.
Kantian ethical theory is named after its founder, Immanuel Kant, an 18th century German thinker of the Enlightenment Age. It is important to keep in mind the context in which Kant formulated his ethical theory. During this optimistic time period, there emerged a strong belief in the ability of human reason to help understand the world and solve its various problems – including ethical ones.
Thus, Kant sought to establish an approach to morality that would be reason-based. Indeed, Kant believed that to be ethical is to be perfectly rational, and that the most rational behavior is naturally the most ethical one. He also believed that behaving morally was a matter of obligation for which there could be no exception or loophole – hence the emphasis on rules rather than on consequences.
For this reason, the Kantian approach to morality is classified as a type of Deontological ethical theory. Derived from the word deon, which is Greek for duty, this ethical theory holds that there is an innate aspect to a given moral rule that makes it either good or bad. Put another way, it judges the morality of an action not on, say, its consequences or utility, but on said action’s adhere to a rule or set of rules.
Thus, Kantian/Deontological ethical theory is based around established rules and guidelines, and as such, considers morals to be unconditional, obligatory, and universal. So it is best defined as a rules-based or duty-based system of ethics. For a Kantian ethicist, the ends of an action never justify the means; rather, it is the action itself that is intrinsically good or bad. We can’t control consequences anyway, since there is no telling whether a particular action will lead to the intended results.
Categorical and Hypothetical Imperatives
But what does it mean to have a moral system that is obligatory and rules-based? Keep in mind that Kant is not trying to create any moral rules himself. He’s not directly telling us what is good or bad. Rather, he wants to establish a universal method for determining what is moral. Basically, he’s giving a way to test the legitimacy of other moral rules and actions.
The core of this approach is something known as the categorical imperative. This is a command or recommendation of action that is completely absolute. For example, “you should never lie” or “you should always keep your promises.” Kant contrasts this with the hypothetical imperative, which is a dictate that is based around certain conditions or desires. An example of this would be, “you ought to tell the truth if you want people to trust you, or if you want to be a good person.” A hypothetical imperative usually contains keywords such as “ought,” “should,” or “if” in order to connect the command to a particular condition or motive; categorical imperatives have no such considerations: basically, it’s “you ought to do something, period.”
Intuitively, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with believing that you should tell the truth for the sake of winning people’s trust. After all, this appears to be a perfectly rational expectation and motivation, and Kant was all about basing morals on reason. So why does Kantian ethical theory hold that rules must be unconditional in order to be legitimate and rational? What’s so irrational about conditional morals?
The problem is that having one’s actions contingent upon particular conditions builds into them a loophole: if you don’t care about the conditions, you have no reason to follow through with the moral action. If I don’t care whether or not people will trust me or see me as a good person, I have no reason to tell the truth. I’ll only be moral insofar as doing so meets certain relevant desires, circumstances, or environments.
Thus, the categorical imperative obliges us to behave a certain way out of duty, with no other external or ulterior factors in mind. This makes for a more reliable moral system, since it ensures that we do indeed always tell the truth or behave justly no matter what. But what compels us to follow these categorical imperatives? Why should we be good for the sheer sake of it? And how do we determine what should be a categorical imperative?
The Formulations of the Categorical Imperative
Kant’s answer to these questions is based on an appeal to reason: just as hypothetical imperatives ought to be done for certain desires, categorical imperatives ought to be driven by rational considerations. The first formulation, or principle, for determining whether an act is morally permissible is as follows:
Act only according to that maxim by which you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law
In other words, when you’re considering doing something, ask yourself the following:
1) What rule would you be following were you to go through with the act? This would be the “maxim” or guideline for said action.
2) Would you be willing to have this rule become universal law, to be practiced by everyone else around you at all times?
If the action you’re considering meets these requirements, then you’ve devised a categorical imperative – a sound moral rule for which you must oblige yourself to follow absolutely. If not, however, then this action is not moral and therefore not permissible. So if I’m thinking about making a categorical imperative that states “you ought to lie,” I must measure it against the first formulation: would this be a maxim that I’d want to become universal? Would I want to live in a world were everyone has a duty to be dishonest in every circumstance? If I’m a reasonable person, I would most certainly be opposed to this.
The second formulation of the categorical imperative states the following:
Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.
What this basically means is that we should treat people as intrinsically valuable. Indeed, Kant held that human beings are valuable “above all price,” because unlike objects, a person is irreplaceable. Furthermore, objects can only serves as a means: a car is only valuable insofar as it serves its purpose as a form of transportation. People, however, have an inherent value to them that is beyond serving anyone else’s means. Humans have dignity.
But more importantly, they’re autonomous moral agents: they have free will and the ability to guide their actions. Because we humans are rational agents capable of making our decisions and setting our own goals, we are innately valuable. After all, without humans, there would be no conception of either morality or reason.
It is because of this that we should never be used as mere instruments for another’s ends. People must be respected as the rational, independent actors that they are, and must not be reduced to the roles of objects. Thus, a proper moral action must preclude manipulating someone for the sake of self-interest, or forcing them to commit actions against their will. Hiring someone to fix a problem wouldn’t be a problem given that they’re doing so knowingly and willingly; using a slave to do the task, however, would no doubt violate this formulation and make for an unacceptable moral maxim.
It is interesting to see how Kantian ethical theory would apply to the justice system. Kant would be opposed punishing someone to deter criminal behavior because he doesn’t deal in consequences and hypothetical scenarios. Recall that for the Kantian, morality is based solely upon the intent of a particular action and whether it comports with a rule – thus, consequences or other considerations don’t matter.
Instead, Kant would approve of punishment for the sake of retribution; rather then correct a criminal’s behavior, this sort of punishment simply addresses a wrong that has already been committed (albeit proportional to the crime, as Kant was keen to clarify). Furthermore, punishing a criminal treats them as an autonomous moral agent – i.e. ends themselves – and to not punish them would treat them as objects that have no self-guiding morals. In a sense, retributive justice acknowledges the criminal’s human dignity.
Pros and Cons of Kantian Ethical Theory
Kant put a lot of thought into his ethical theory, and he established a rather sophisticated universal methodology for determining proper morality. Even so, like any ethical theory, it has its strengths and weaknesses.
Among the greatest attribute of Kantian ethical theory is its consistency: because this theory is rules-based and absolute, it requires us to be consistent in our morality. Recall that the first formulation of the categorical imperative obliges us to follow rules only if we’d want everyone else to do so too. Similarly, if one accepts considerations as reasons to do (or not do) something in one case, then you must accept those reasons in others. To quote James Rachels, “moral reasons, if they are valid at all, are binding on all people at all times.” All this makes for a moral system that is as stable as it is rational.
On the other hand, this same absolutism is a major weakness as well, for it leads to a possible conflict of rules. What happens when we face a scenario that forces us to choose between two or more obligatory moral rules? Consider the two imperatives “never tell a lie” and “never allow innocents to die if you can help it.” Within the Kantian framework, both these moral rules would be unconditional.
But what happens if, during Nazi-era Germany, you’re secreting harboring Jews and the Gestapo come knocking on your door? In this instance, you’d be forced to choose between lying or letting innocent people die, thereby violating one rule by virtue of choosing another. Absolutism in such circumstances can be very troubling and arguably irrational: shouldn’t a rule be broken if following it would lead to harmful consequences?
Furthermore, Kant underestimates the importance of taking consequences into account when considering an action. He believed that we could never be certain of the results of our actions, whether they’re well-intended or not. But is this realistically applicable to all scenarios? Aren’t there certain cases where we could be pretty sure of the consequences? Moreover, Kant suggests that regardless of the consequences of our actions, what matters is our intention and adherence to an unconditional rule. But could we really be blameless if we commit an act that we’re reasonably sure would lead to more harm than good, even if we were being consistent in our morality?
Ultimately, while Kantian ethical theory provides some crucial moral insights, it also seems ill-suited to deal with the complex reality of many ethical problems.
An NYPD officer buys a homeless man shoes.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes was a Portuguese diplomat who during WWII defied his own government and issued Portuguese visas free of charge to over 30,000 refugees seeking to escape the Nazis (Portugal was officially neutral at the time). For this he was fired, denied a pension, and denounced by his government, friends, and colleagues. He died in disgrace and poverty in 1954, but never regretted his decision.
It always disturbs me when I encounter the rather popular claim that human beings, individually and collectively, cannot be moral without religion.
And what about for those who simply want to die, regardless of disease?
But who prays for Satan? Who in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most, our one fellow and brother who most needed a friend yet had not a single one, the one sinner among us all who had the highest and clearest right to every Christian’s daily and nightly prayers, for the plain and unassailable reason that his was the first and greatest need, he being among sinners the supremest?
- Mark Twain’s Autobiography.
Some of the most tragic biographies I’ve ever read are those of criminals and tyrants. Sometimes, the perpetrators of evil deserve as much sympathy as their victims.
I used to a social experiment in which I’d tell people the story of a nameless figure who often times abused, mistreated, sickly, and in constant suffering throughout their early lives. My listeners would react with sympathy until they found out that such a figure turned out to be Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin.
This isn’t to say these men weren’t monsters. I’m not apologizing for the tremendous horror and agony they wrought upon the world. I’m merely contemplating what sort of factors lead some individuals to become senselessly evil on that level (or any level, for that matter). Evil doesn’t emerge in a vacuum. What sort of things corrupt people in this way?
Usually, the evil-minded are either the product of lifelong trauma – such as poverty, abuse, social oppression, and lack of familial support – or the consequence of genetic and psychological factors that are beyond their control (think of psychopaths).
This leads me to wonder how different history would be if Hitler or Stalin were born into loving families within stable societies, without any mental problems. How many criminals would have been upstanding members of society was it not for an accident of birth placing them in awful conditions.
Indeed, evil actions are rarely intentional in the way most people imagine. That is to say, no one ever believes that what they do is wrong. Humans have a way of rationalizing or self-justifying every action, regardless of how clearly heinous it may seem to everyone else
Some people grew up in a world that was always cruel, so why not behave accordingly? Others never had a chance to understand certain moral and ethical concepts, so how are they to know right from wrong? And many have poorly understood behavioral problems that they cannot help.
In any case, evil for its own sake is a myth, and the few individuals who have ever claimed to do bad things for no good reason are mentally abnormal to begin with.
I sometimes ponder how would’ve turned out if I was born and raised in more negative circumstances. What if I was regularly abused? What if I never knew love, or never received moral and ethical guidance? What if all I ever experienced was hardship, hatred, and apathy? What if I was born with the same neurological abnormalities that lead some people to lack empathy or self-control? Would I have ended up as the person I am now?
It’s highly doubtful; although that’s not to say everyone who experiences these things is guaranteed to be immoral and dysfunctional. We have no choice but to work with the cards we are dealt. We’re mostly shaped by forces beyond our control – the culture, society, time period, and socioeconomic level we are born and raised into at random. All we can do is adapt, and even then, some people are better equipped psychosocially than others.
This leads me to wonder: to what degree can we blame immoral people for their actions? If they never had anyone to guide them properly, or were born with a biologically embedded inability to reason or feel, are they really at fault for what they turn out to be? If their minds were warped by deterministic influences, can they really be said to have any control over their fate?
If so, to what extent – what’s the subsequent solution to the problem of evil, and how do we treat the delinquents of our society? Regardless of evil’s origins, or what solutions (if any) there may be to address it, I think we can agree that the greatest tragedy of evil is that exists in the first place, and that otherwise decent people fall into it for any number of reasons. Will it always be a scourge of the human condition forever? Is it an intractable part of human nature, if there is such a thing.
As always, thoughts and suggestions are welcomed.
Most of our ethical life is about our own flourishing. I think that most of our own flourishing is achieved through actually aiding the flourishing of others since I think that we are at our most powerful when we are empowering other people who then replicate our power and spread it further. In this way, I think that if we tried to truly excel at being powerful, we would be people who empowered others rather than destroyed them for the sake of trinkets like material possessions. In this way, I think it is wise advice to just let people pursue their happiness, to encourage them to maximize their excellences since this is good for them, and to only worry about morality in those cases where it is a matter of turning down short term gains in ways that damage our mutual trust and cooperation with each other, which serve as the preconditions of our prosperity as individuals.
While morality has long been seen as the exclusively purview of human beings - indeed, as one of the defining characteristics of being a human (along with high cognition) - there is mounting evidence that our primate relatives, along with other animals, are also capable of moral reasoning.
This strongly suggests that morality does indeed have a biological origin, being gradually evolved over millions of years. As our brain capacity and sociability grew, so too did the ability (and need) to develop moral and ethical values.
…then read some of this graffiti excavated from the ruins of Pompeii:
- Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!
- Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates.
- I screwed the barmaid.
- Apollinaris, the doctor of the emperor Titus, defecated well here.
- I screwed a lot of girls here.
- Sollemnes, you screw well!
You can read more amusing examples here. Needless to say, even a history buff like me finds it difficult to remember that, in many ways, we humans haven’t changed all that much. Our ancestors thought and behaved very much like we do.
We forget how the average person went about their everyday lives in the ancient world. We focus on the great characters and events of history - on the epic stories, on the glory and might of civilizations, etc - but neglect the humble, mundane, and very familiar qualities of the typical commoner.
There’s a lesson to be learned even from this crass and humorous display. I think it’s captured very well by Cord Jefferson of the The Nation:
Do a simple Google search for “America’s moral decline” and you’ll encounter thousands upon thousands of shrill rants from people convinced that our “sex-crazed” society is rapidly decaying. For decades now, the professional right has made a big business out of pretending that TV, the rise of gay culture, rap music, and dozens of other things have contributed to the fall of a once greatly moral world, all the while seeming to forget that Thomas Jefferson is known to have taken sexual advantage of his slaves and Benjamin Franklin is believed by some to have been part of a drunken orgy club.
It may make you feel nice to pretend that the societies that gave rise to the modern world were ones of pure honor and decency, but that’s not reality. The world isn’t on a moral decline, because there was never a time when the world was particularly morally superior. If we can glean anything from the Pompeiian graffiti, it’s that even citizens of history’s most immaculate and important civilizations liked their sex and poop jokes. And that fact is as humbling as any magnificent and ancient temple.
While it may be sad to think that we haven’t changed much as a species, I think in many ways it’s a good thing. We’ve come a long way, and while we still struggle to meet a higher standard of social justice and morality, we can put our present failings in perspective: we’re nowhere near as bad as we’ve always been. Progress may be a slow and often stagnating path, but we’re certainly not in any serious decline.