February 24, 2003

categorical narcissus

Emmanuel Kant’s categorical imperative states that moral rules are absolute. While hypothetical imperatives run the form, “If you want to get better at windsurfing you ought to study the mad stylings of Web Pedrick,” or “If you want paint thinner on your car you ought to drink my beer,” categorical imperatives say, “You ought to do such-and-such… period.” “You ought to always tell the truth.” “You ought never to kill.” No explanation. No explanation is needed.



Kant states the categorical imperative as thus: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” If you aren’t willing to let everyone perform your act at every time, you are morally forbidden from performing that act. What’s more, the categorical imperative is based on rational agents, so if your actions are to be rational they are required to follow it.

Fair enough. If lying became a universal you’d never be able to tell when someone was telling the truth, and you would never be able to trust what someone was saying. You could form a group of friends in which you all promised to tell the truth, but look what you did in doing so. You just formed a group that agreed that lying was an undesirable universal. Same thing with murder. A functioning society can’t have every person running around looking for blood, and it is enevitable that people would form sub-societies where people agreed not to murder each other.

But for Kant, these things are never, ever, morally permissable. If a killer shows up on your doorstep and asks if your brother is home, you are required to tell him the truth and avoid lying. If you were to lie (even in this situation) you would acknowledge that you accept lying as a moral universal. However, you can modify the theory to say “Lying in order to save someone’s life is morally permissible,” though Kant was not willing to make such a concession.

Consider this. According to the categorical imperative, I cannot get up during class and blow my nose, because if everyone (at that particular moment or at all possible moments) decided to get up and blow their nose, an absolute chaos of nose-blowing would ensue. You can’t go to the library because, what if everyone went to the library? The streets would be clogged with people in a frenzy to reach the library, but no one would be able to get to the library! It sounds ridiculous, but this is the core of Kant’s theory. Act as though your actions become universals.

Ok, well, what if my situation is different? Can we water Kant down a bit and still have a functioning moral theory? Suppose that any person given my situation (please, visualize) really, really would feel compelled to get up and blow their nose. In this case, blowing my nose would be the moral and rational thing to do. What’s more, it would actually be morally impermissible for me to sit in class sniffling and not get up and blow my nose (a result of the theory that seems quite desirable, eh?). Note: MORALLY IMPERMISSIBLE. Not just a bad choice. There’s no room for gray with moral absolutes.

So. Getting up and blowing my nose is indeed the right thing to do, as anyone given my circumstance would do so. Unfortunately this challeneges the very notion of free will and dissolves rationality. Every person has their own independent perception of reality. This does not imply that there is no such thing as a physical or objective reality (that’s a jump in reasoning reserved only for relativism) but just that… well, it’s pretty damn obvious that we all have our own independent perceptions of reality. The only way our experiences could be exactly similar is if someone shares all of my molecules, all of my sensory perceptions and all my spatial histories. By definition, this person can only be me. Someone could feasibly have piggy-backed on top of all my experiences (birth would have been a nightmare), but then he would have only gotten his own piggy-back experience, not my personal experience.

My entire causal history builds up to this essential point, where I am deciding whether or not to get up and blow my nose, and this becomes a fatal flaw in Kant’s theory. Our first interpretation was, “I cannot get up and blow my nose because my action must be considered a universal, and if it were a universal everyone would get up and chaos would ensue.” Our second, watered down interpretation was, “Anyone given my circumstance would get up and blow their nose, so as a universal my action will work.” The second makes much more sense, but it destroys the idea of moral absolutes and thus the categorical imperative. If I argue that, “Anyone put in my shoes would have done the same thing,” we are reduced to a subjective concept of morality. What’s more is we destroy free will, as everyone is merely being pushed around by their personal categorical imperative. All of your decisions are moral and rational so long as you feel they are moral and rational. Your actions all become the result of inevitable morality. We become morally infallible.

The categorical imperative denies us the ability to make mistakes. Any mistake would end up being the wrong thing to do, and therefore immoral. Because the categorical imperative is a rational proof of morality, whenever I perform an immoral act (as defined by the external categorical imperative, rather than my own subjective interpretation of it) I am not only acting immorally, but irrationally. Whenever I screw something up, misjudge the result of my actions, I am failing at my responsibilities as a creature of reason and morality. I become terminally irrational.

So then, what’s more important? A life ruled by actions and their good or bad consequences, or a life of paralysis due to a overly demanding moral theory?