Episode 10: Kantian Ethics: What Should We Do?

Discussing Fundamental Principles (aka Groundwork) of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785).

We try very hard to make sense of Kant's major ethical principle, the Categorical Imperative, wherein you should only do what you'd will that EVERYONE do, so, for instance, you should not will to eat pie, because then everyone would eat it and there would be none left for you, so too bad.

Also, Kant on free will, "things in themselves," our duties to animals, and prostitution! Plus: Should you go to grad school?

Buy Kant's book or read it online. The Allen Wood article "Kant on Duties Regarding Nonrational Nature" is here.

End song: "Stop" by Madison Lint (2003).


  1. Trevor M says

    Regarding the Anne Frank example in this episode, I was surprised that nobody brought up Kant’s own position on the matter, as he covered it in his paper “On the Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns” (http://philosophy.ucsd.edu/faculty/rarneson/Courses/KANTsupposedRightToLie.pdf). The situation he describes is obviously not identical to the Anne Frank case, but in the example he gives, a murderer at the door asking where his intended victim is, should serve as a serviceable analogue. From this article at least, it looks to be clear that Kant would indeed have sold the Frank family out if the SS came to his door looking for them.

    • Glen says

      This is old but I’ll throw my bit in anyways. The way I learned it was that Kant, at least in some cases would recognize that in certain situations a person who knocks on your door does not necessarily have a right to your knowledge. Only if you give an indication that sets the situation as one in which he or she has that right are you then obligated to tell them. If the Nazis show up, you can tell an “untruth” which supposedly is not the same thing as a lie. Telling someone incorrect information knowingly is only a “lie” insofar as the person you are telling has a right to that information.

      It gets messy and complicated but you can see how you can get around it.

      The reason we went over this is that my professor, who apparently is really in to Kant, is sick of all of the simplistic caricatures of Kant, one of which is the “never EVER lie under any circumstance” in his opinion.

      I am not an expert but it sounds reasonable.

  2. MemeGene says

    Hi guys! New listener to the podcast and a Kant fan.

    I have a suggestion for making Kant’s First Formulation/Universalizability test more usable. He distinguishes between Perfect Duties and Imperfect Duties, where the former means you MUST ALWAYS do/NEVER do and the latter that it is PERMISSIBLE/DESIRABLE but not required to do/not do. If your maxim fails in Step 3 (is your maxim conceivable in the world where your maxim is a law of nature?), then you have a Perfect Duty to NOT act by that maxim. If your maxim fails in Step 4 (could/would you will to act on your maxim in this hypothetical world?), then it is an Imperfect Duty to act, ie: you may do it or it would be nice for you to do it, but you aren’t bound by requirement.

    Also, when I get into a snarl asking whether it’s okay to do a certain action, I invert the question and ask whether I have a duty to NOT do that action or I split it into parts and examine each separately. For example, on the question of what to do when you find a valuable item on the ground consists of two questions: 1) is it okay to take that item? 2) do I have a duty to return the item to the owner? (Working with my students, I came up with perfect duty to not take the item, and an imperfect duty to return the item to the owner.)

    (Reference: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/#ForUniLawNat)

    Regarding lying to the Nazis, I read someplace that at some point Kant revisited the question and suggested that while it’s not okay to lie to the Nazis, you aren’t obligated to say anything. Thus the two questions are: 1) is it okay to lie to the Nazis? (Perfect Duty NOT to) 2) do you have a duty to tell the truth to the Nazis? (Imperfect Duty to DO, not required) So it’s possible to stay consistent with Kant’s requirements while not being forced to aid the Nazis.

    Lastly, have you heard of James Cornman’s Utilitarian Kantian Principle? He blended the two theories to come up with: “Treat as many people as ends in themselves and as few people as means as possible.” It both feels like a cop-out and is sheer genius, depending on how you use it; I’ve found it useful while retaining principles.

    Love the podcast so far, looking forward to hearing more eps (I’m listening mostly in order, though I skipped Wittgenstein to get to Utilitarianism and Kant since I like them and wanted to see how you covered them).

  3. Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

    Thanks, MG. I appreciate the detailed weigh-in. Re. The combo principle, it seems more util. than Kantian, as it still leaves a lot of room for using lots of people w/ a given act. I’ll check it out.

  4. Profile photo of Wes Alwan says

    @MemeGene — thanks very much, glad you’re enjoying the podcast. And I’m not sure why saying nothing to the Nazis never occurred to me! (Of course, they have ways of making you speak).

  5. MemeGene says

    @Wes, that is true, but then they’d be anti-Kantian in using you merely as a means to their end so the joke would be on them…

  6. Richard Austrum says

    I am dropping a line to give what I was taught that Kant was saying about treating people as a ‘means to an end’ vs. ‘an end in themselves’. In the prostitute example a key point would be the situation of the prostitute and of the ‘patron’. If the transaction was done consensually (i.e. the prostitute was pursuing this line of work without being coerced by drugs or other people this line of work) then both sides in the transaction would be using each other as a ‘means-to-an-end’ while recognizing that they are both still ‘ends-in-themselves’. I doubt Kant would have approved of prostitution but his theory would seem to support legalized uncoerced prostitution.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Thanks, Richard. I remain unconvinced, and think this is a real problem for Kant. So should voluntary slavery be OK for him? Clearly he thinks that’s the case if you sign up for the military… you have no right after that to renege on your promise and refuse to give up your life when ordered to do so. Selling your body might on Kantian grounds be disrespecting yourself. His formula just doesn’t provide clear guidance in these cases, I think.

  7. says

    When I took my very first ethics class, there was a point when a student asked the grad. student who was teaching the class something along the lines of, “So, what are your general thoughts on these three differing viewpoints? Which should we choose?”

    The grad. student paused for a moment and then said, rather jokingly, “Well the best consensus we’ve come to in the philosophy department is this: you elect utilitarians, you go into business with Kantians, and you date virtue ethicists.”

    • rinky says

      I like that. To me, it means that any one account is never going to suffice – we need to embody all three, and use each one where it’s needed.

  8. Andrej says

    The Nazi case is quite simple.
    If you take for your maxim to always speak ALL the truth, then you will have told the jews that you are bound by duty to always tell all the truth and that you will have to tell the Nazis that they are hiding in your house, should they ask you. When the Nazis come to your house and ask you, you will not lie to them, but istead tell them all the truth. You are afterall bound by your maxim and duty to do so.

    The real problem everyone has here, is not lying to Nazis, but the fact that you are betraying the jews. Also there is the fact that we all know what happened to the captured jews, and it appears wuite counterituitive to forsaken someone to that fate. And yet nazi soldier performed their military duty, even when some lost their minds after what they’ve seen and done.

    This way you perform the duty, and all the statments: All truth, no lies, no betreyal can according to this coexist in the kingdom of ends.

  9. Patrick Brinich-Langlois says

    Around 1:44 Mark says something like

    If the world were going to end in five minutes, that wouldn’t give me license to go around raping. But from a consequentialist point of view, big fucking difference.

    I’m not sure what to make of this. Here are some possibilities:

    1. Conflating egoism with consequentialism. Egoism could be classified as a form of consequentialism. If a person would get maximal satisfaction from raping somebody and the world were going to end in five minutes, he would be obligated to do so under egoism, since he wouldn’t suffer any repercussions. But I took Mark as saying that impartial consequentialism would condone rape.

    2. Finitude implies nihilism: if we’re all going to die, nothing matters. This is a persistent, pernicious non-sequitur. It is true that nothing would matter if everybody were dead, but that’s not the case: I myself seem to be alive, and I daily observe many other apparently sentient beings. That we are mortal does not diminish the worth of our deeds. Regardless, this argument would seem to be orthogonal to consequentialism.

    3. The very act of rape has maximally positive net consequences. Perhaps rape per se is a net good, and rape is only to be condemned because it causes lasting psychological damage to victims and fear among the general population. If the world were to end in five minutes, these harms wouldn’t have time to materialize. I find this entirely implausible. From what I hear, rape is highly distressing.

    The utilitarian thing to do if the end of the world were imminent would be to chill out, hug your loved ones, and maybe do some coke.

    Sorry about nit-picking a three-year-old podcast episode, but I found the suggestion that consequentialism would condone rape when doom is impending to be bizarre and baseless. But I would say many more such things over the course of a two-hour bull session, so I don’t blame you.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Point taken. Substitute “stealing.” However, just to pick at the point, there’s a question in consequentialism of how one does the calculation of short-term vs. long-term pain. Clearly causing short-term pain is worse than no pain at all, so a painless death is better than a painful death, but you could do the calculation such that the duration of the pain vs. the duration of the death (forever) makes the choice pretty inconsequential. As you point out, though, death is a constant for us all, and that clearly doesn’t make all consequentialist calculations moot. As I think I said in the episode, though, death is a major difficulty for hedonistic utilitarianism, though, as we don’t really know how to fit it into our pain-pleasure calculations… the closest we can come is to say that it’s the absence of both (so far as we know), or to say that we just don’t know; it could be heaven or it could be hell. In either case, that means we don’t count it, or count it only insofar as it robs one of future pains and pleasures, and if you think like a Buddhist that life is more pain than pleasure, then it becomes morally obligatory for us all to kill everyone (painlessly) ASAP.

  10. John Dodge says

    I’ve been making my through, jumping around, trying to catch up with you guys on my long commute. Love every episode so far and this was no exception. However, I feel it’s necessary to point out one major flaw with this episode. I couldn’t help but cringe when you guys kept missing great opportunities to show off your Don Lafontaine impressions. Other than that, great stuff!

  11. Valentina says

    Hi, guys! Just discovered “partially examined..”, at episode 10 now, enjoy it very much.
    I think, there’s a difference between the fact and the truth.
    It is only one truth in a given moment. Yet the truth is not necessary the same in each moment.
    For example when you hiding Jews from Nazi – you conceal the fact. The truth is that you don’t let people die. If you reveal the fact to Nazi, – the truth is that you are f**ing coward, antisemitic, and murder. And you know it in the middle of the night.
    On the other hand, when you conceal the fact that pollution is the reason of climate change, the truth is you sell yourself for profit.
    About imperative: you can indulge yourself with a piece of cake regardless of being 50 lbs overweight. But you CANNOT DO it in front of a hungry child. What you CANNOT DO feels stronger ( imperative) than HAVE TO do, although have to – supposedly is soooo goooood for you.

  12. Valentina says

    Hi, guys! Just discovered “partially examined..”, at episode 10 now, enjoy it very much.
    I think, there’s a difference between the fact and the truth.
    It is only one truth in a given moment. Yet the truth is not necessary the same in each moment.
    For example when you hiding Jews from Nazi – you conceal the fact. The truth is that you don’t let people die. If you reveal the fact to Nazi, – the truth is that you are f**ing coward, antisemit, and murder. And you know it in the middle of the night.
    On the other hand, when you conceal the fact that pollution is the reason of climate change, the truth is you sell yourself for profit.
    About imperative: you can indulge yourself with a piece of cake regardless of being 50 lbs overweight. But you CANNOT DO it in front of a hungry child. What you CANNOT DO feels stronger ( imperative) than HAVE TO do, although have to – supposedly is soooo goooood for you.

  13. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    Discussion of Kant’s philosophy in Russia ends in gunfire

    09-16-2013 06:12 AM PDT

    MOSCOW — An argument in southern Russia over philosopher Immanuel Kant, the author of “Critique of Pure Reason,” devolved into pandemonium when one debater shot the other with an air gun.

    A police spokeswoman in Rostov-on Don, Viktoria Safarova, said two men in their 20s were discussing Kant as they stood in line to buy beer at a small store on Sunday. The discussion deteriorated into a fistfight, and one participant pulled out the small, nonlethal pistol and fired repeatedly.

    The victim was hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening. Neither person was identified.

    Russia’s official RIA Novosti news agency said the shooter could face up to a decade in prison for intentional infliction of serious bodily harm. The agency observed: “That sentence would give him time to more thoroughly study the works of Kant, who contemplated a universal law of morality.”

    Kant was an 18th century German philosopher who was born in what is now the Russian city of Kaliningrad, home to Immanuel Kant Baltic university.

    It was not clear which of Kant’s ideas may have triggered the violence. (Categorical Imperative?)

  14. Alex says

    Not sure if you’ll read this, five years later, but anyway…

    I wanted to give a response to the “specificity of maxims” problem that you raised against the first formulation of the categorical imperative, but which didn’t find an adequate solution for.

    The problem is essentially that the same act can be explained in terms of any number of different maxims, some of which are universalizable and some of which aren’t, such that Kantian ethics gives no consistent answer. For example, if the act is “killing Bob”, the maxim could be “kill someone when you don’t like them” (Maxim 1, which is not universalizable) or “kill someone whenever their name is Bob and you’re a person of such-and-such age at such-and-such place and time…” (Maxim 2, which is universalizable, because the conditions are such that it only ever applies in that one situation anyway).

    Here’s the Kantian response: There’s no way that Maxim 2 is actually the maxim you’re acting upon when you kill Bob. We can’t seriously believe that you came up with Maxim 2 a priori and then happened to end up in the unique situation in which it’s invoked. It’s a bit like defining a programming language where “9” means “print the lyrics to 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” – okay; but where is the information stored? Not in the program, but in the interpretation.

    What you’re really doing in the killing-Bob example is acting according to Maxim 3: “Devise a maxim that applies only in my situation and which justifies killing someone that I don’t like”. This maxim is non-universalizable in the same way that Maxim 1 is – universal adoption of Maxim 3 would undermine the entire endeavor of Kantian ethics as regards killing, which is contradictory in the same way that universal lying undermines language.

    So how do we actually solve the maxim specificity problem? We need to be able to distinguish the real maxim by which we are acting, as opposed to the fake maxims that we may come up with ex post facto to justify our actions. To do this, we must ask: Is it possible for someone to have come up with this maxim a priori, apart from any particular experience? If not, then it is not a genuine maxim.

    Here’s how I think about it: The genuine maxim is what remains once all of the aspects have been discounted in regard to which we differ from our moral interlocutors. Thus, the maxim must necessarily be followed universally if it is followed at all. If I’m playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma against someone who’s exactly identical to me, I’ll always choose to cooperate.

  15. Rlotz says

    Hey guys,

    This was the first of your podcasts I’ve come across, and it was great! I’ll be sure to listen to more. (I’ve been looking for some philosophy discussion to listen to after finishing Bryan Magee’s program–seen it?)

    I actually had an extremely similar conversation with my friend the other day about how specific Kant wanted his moral maxims to me; it’s very comforting to know that you three are confused about that as well. In any case, talk on, my brothas.

  16. Matt Williamson says

    I just discovered these podcasts and have listened to a few. I understand the task is quite large and applaud your work. I also appreciate your irreverent style. You seem like good guys and you are in no hurry to shut each other down. That said, I would prefer if these works were interpreted with a bit more charity. I would like to be filled with a bit more of the wonder that made these ideas last for so long. (Perhaps you do this in later episodes–I’ve only listened to a handful).

    Please take my criticism in light of the fact that I am grateful they are available and that they accomplish my objective of getting the rusty wheels in my head turning a bit. It’s good fun.



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