Monday, November 05, 2007

The Moral Character of Kantians

In response to my recently posted essay on philosophers' generally mediocre opinion of the moral behavior of ethicists. Brian Leiter writes:

More useful would be to know about the differences between Kantians, utilitarians, and virtue ethicists. Based on my utterly non-scientific, anecdotal method, my conclusion is that you're safest with utilitarians and virtue theorists, and in mortal danger around Kantians (it's that combination of dogmatic rectitude and lack of judgment, I guess--or to quote Geuss again, "The Kantian philosophy is no more than at best a half-secularized version of...a theocratic ethics with 'Reason' in the place of God" [Outside Ethics, p. 20]).

Now I myself have no strong opinion about this question. I know too few ethicists who fall neatly into these categories, and their character seems to me too diverse. My sample size is too small, given the variance! However, I have noticed that everyone I've spoken to so far who thinks there are differences in ethical character between Kantians, utilitarians, and virtue ethicists thinks the Kantians are the worst of the lot. I'd be interested to hear readers' thoughts about this.

I note -- though by itself it shows little -- that utilitarian and virtue ethics books are as likely to be missing from academic libraries as Kantian books, maybe even more likely to be missing: See here.

Although Leiter seems to speak tongue-in-cheek at the end of his post when he calls this a "weighty matter", I myself think there is no matter in ethics weightier than the question of what sorts of moral reflection are prone to encourage or suppress actual moral behavior.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Eric --

I suspect that intuitions on this subject should be interpreted, not as judgments on the merits of the particular theories, but as judgments about the proper uses of moral theory tout court.

Sensible utilitarians and virtue-theorists believe that their theories do not provide decision procedures that can be used in practice. Their theories claim only to give (or in Aristotle's case, refuse to give) the standards of correctness for decisions that have to be arrived at by other means, which often boil down to the methods of common sense. (Aristotle says: "Look for the mean between the extremes, and with practice, you'll see to kalon -- the fine thing to do. But I can't give you a rule that will pick out to kalon in each case.")

What distinguishes Kantians is that their standard of correctness for decisions is supposed to be applicable in practice. And that's what can make Kantians dangerous. The problem with Kantianism is that it can tempt its adherents to live by a theory. The problem is not that the theory it tempts them to live by is Kantian: utilitarians who tried to live by their theory would be even worse. But then utilitarians realize that their theory is not one by which a person can live.

Anonymous said...

PS: On the dangers of Kantianism in practice, I highly recommend Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. (Eichmann famously quoted the Categorical Imperative at his trial. Arendt has many good insights into why the moralists in the Third Reich were villains, while the heroes weren't moralists.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

An interesting thought, David! I'm not sure about your claim that Kantianism gives a more theoretical guidance. Singer, for example, seems pretty driven by (broadly) utilitarian considerations to particular moral behaviors (e.g., animal rights, famine relief). And virtue ethicists can see reflection on exemplars such as Confucius and Jesus as guiding.... But *maybe* you're right. I'll have to let it brew a bit....

Arendt is very interesting. I teach Eichmann in Jerusalem yearly in my lower-division course "Evil". However, I think it's more a condemnation of thoughtlessness than of folk Kantianism. (Arendt doesn't think too highly of Eichmann's appeal to Kant, to say the least!) I see Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners as the more consistent condemnation of the idea that moral reflection could allow one to see the evils of Nazism.

Bobcat said...

I agree with Eric that utilitarians are at least as likely as Kantians to operate under a theory -- indeed, in my opinion more so.

I want to correct a misimpression, however: there aren't as many Kantians as there used to be who think that the Formula of Universal Law (FUL) suffices as a reliable decision procedure for thinking about ethics. Not only are the counterexamples too numerous, but textually speaking there's significant evidence against seeing the FUL as intended by Kant to be a decision procedure. I think a lot of Kantians nowadays are more moved by the Formula of Humanity (FH), which states that we ought never to treat people as mere means, but always as ends in themselves. That is, we ought to respect every rational agent. However, philosophers such as Allen Wood and Thomas Hill (I think) see the FH as requiring sophisticated practical judgment, rather than as an easy-to-apply moral algorithm.

It should also be noted that by utilitarians' lights, Kantians are going to end up flouting a lot of important obligations, as many Kantians (not me, though) think we do not need to maximize our carrying out of imperfect obligations (i.e., the obligation to contribute to others' happiness and our own perfection), but instead think we have Spielraum in determining to what extent we satisfy our imperfect obligations (though we have to satisfy them to some extent).

By the same token, though, Kantians are likely to see many utilitarians as being significantly morally worse than the average non-utilitarian, for the simple fact that they're prepared to override lots of people's basic dignity in order to maximize happiness.

Anonymous said...

Bobcat is certainly correct. Hill, Wood, Korsgaard, Herman, O'Neil, and others push the idea that Kant does more than provide us with a moral blueprint.

But the question was whether Kantians are, in fact, dangerous. I take it that BL's quote was somewhat tongue in cheek. But if we are being serious about this, it seems absurd to suggest that Kantians are really dangerous because they are Kantians. Do people really know a lot of Kantians out there in the world doing dangerous stuff that they would not be doing but for their Kantian sensibilities? I don't.

Les Swanson said...

I find the following to be important to living a life that is ethical, even if very imperfect:

1) Sensitivity to the pain and suffering of others and taking pleasure in others' happiness as well as in one's own. (and recognizing that except in the very close-up, data rich cases, calculations based on pleasure, pain, or happiness are usually hopelessly off the mark)

2) Paying attention to basic principles or habits of life that
thoughtful, well-intentioned people have developed over time in one's own culture as well as in other cultures.

3) Paying attention to what well-intentioned, thoughtful, and energetic young people are finding meaningful or meaningless in their lives.

4) Always giving more than the benefit of the doubt to the right of each person and many other living things to live with dignity and to enjoy respect as living creatures that contribute to the interest, beauty and the natural goodness of the world.

I do not find that utilitarianism, virtue ethics, deontology or contractarianism, as isolated ethical theories, can come close to
depicting the ethical life. Moral theory is often instructive, and sometimes fascinating, but any good theory will finally shut out the balance that can only come from some eclectic combinations (like the above 1-4)that recognize the final failure of any rational blueprint for addressing the complexity of life.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks! I regularly find myself delighted by the quality of the comments on this blog.

In response to Les, let me suggest that I think many moral theorists would agree with you, more or less, about the importance of the four dispositions you list. I suspect any of the leading ethical paradigms can be interpreted to include them, and thus start to (as you say) depict the moral life. I suspect contemporary ethicists have tended *not* to focus on such matters because they're not where (in their thinking) the philosophical disputes tend to be.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Okay, here's a thought. If it turns out that Kantians do on average behave worse than other ethicists (and again I don't personally incline to this view, though I'm struck by the fact that others often are), then maybe here's an explanation. To like Kant, one has to have a high tolerance for -- or even enjoyment of -- subtle and convoluted arguments. And those who go in for subtle and convoluted arguments will have more room to rationalize unethical behavior to which they are attracted than those who see things more simply.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with p.e.s. From what I've been reading up on this and the other blogs, I doubt that the claims that Kantians are likely to be worse than utilitarians or virtue theorists are in real earnest.

I kind of want to suggest you offer some of these folks a bet, something along the lines of, "I've done the experiment on which kind of ethicist is most likely to act badly, and I have the results. Would you (who previously claimed that Kantians are likely worse than others) bet even money that you were right?" or, if you want to weaken it, an even money bet that, if any group is worse, it's the Kantians.

Anonymous said...

Let's say that actual ethical behavior is an emotional thing, rather than an intellectual thing. People with weak emotional feelings about right/wrong are would be more likely to be Kantians, which is an extremely cerebral/abstract approach to ethics. But since that's not how moral decisions are actually made, in a cerebral/abstract way, Kantians are less ethical, because they don't have a strong emotional sense of right/wrong.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

You may be right, Ian, that the people who say this are not entirely in earnest. It's hard to know. Yet why make that particular joke? I tend to expect that most of the people who say this have had some memorably bad experiences with Kantians....

Interestingly, Kenf, there's some evidence that Kantian decisions in trolley problems (e.g., the fat man case) involve more activity in parts of the brain associated with emotion than do utilitarian decisions. I'm thinking of the work of Joshua Greene:

Becko said...

If a person does not regard Kantianism as adequately capturing the fundamental features of the moral sphere, we should not be surprised to find that this same person regards Kantians as worse people, morally speaking. In other words, why should it be surprising that Consequentialists and Virtue Ethicists regard their Kantian colleagues as morally deficient? And as for the prevalence of the opinion, perhaps it could be accounted for if it turns out that there are simply fewer Kantians and more Consequentialists and Virtue Ethicists.

Adam Streed said...

In response to Les: Mill's utilitarianism appears to take 1--3 pretty seriously, and maybe also 4.

1) Sensitivity to the pain and suffering of others and taking pleasure in others' happiness as well as in one's own. (and recognizing that except in the very close-up, data rich cases, calculations based on pleasure, pain, or happiness are usually hopelessly off the mark)

Although Mill is perhaps more optimistic about the possibility of calculation than you, it's certainly true that his utilitarianism is concerned with pleasure and pain. Not only is this true of utilitarianism as a criterion of right action, but also as moral psychology: in ch. 3 of Utilitarianism Mill claims that the innate social feelings of human beings not only sanction the utilitarian morality, but reinforce its prescriptions. And this involves not only feeling good about others' good, but being "conscious of [oneself] as a being who of course pays regard to others" (para. 10).

2) Paying attention to basic principles or habits of life that thoughtful, well-intentioned people have developed over time in one's own culture as well as in other cultures.

See Utilitarianism, ch.2 para 24, on the "learning by experience the tendencies of actions" throughout "the whole past duration of the human species." There are well-known difficulties in trying to pin Mill down here, but it's clear that he means to take seriously "basic principles or habits of life that
thoughtful, well-intentioned people have developed over time in one's own culture as well as in other cultures."

3) Paying attention to what well-intentioned, thoughtful, and energetic young people are finding meaningful or meaningless in their lives.

This is the role of the test of the competent judges. Mill describes the test as applying to two "pleasures", but presumably it applies to all sorts of human activity that yields pleasure, pursuits of small and large scale alike.

4) Always giving more than the benefit of the doubt to the right of each person and many other living things to live with dignity and to enjoy respect as living creatures that contribute to the interest, beauty and the natural goodness of the world.

This is less obviously a utilitarian principle. It might be present in the dictum "each to count for one, none to count for more than one." But a better source is On LIberty. Supposing it's consistent with Mill's utilitarianism (not obviously so), then utilitarianism also extends this sort of respect.

Les Swanson said...

Adam Streed, thanks for your references to Mill on the dispositions I suggested (1-4). Mill
is certainly a more protean utilitarian than is Bentham and I
appreciate your tying the dispositions into Mill's writings.
I believe that disposition 1 is utilitarian, but with strong skepticism about the calculus, and the calculus is the most dominant feature of utilitarian theory. I think that disposition 2 is compatible with much of virtue ethics. Disposition 3 is compatible with much of evolutionary bio-ethics. And disposition 4 is compatible with much of Kant, Rawls, Darwall, and many others, and includes living things,in addition to humans, in the circle of respect. I think that I can agree with your comments, and I am strongly inclined to do so, and still accurately make the comments that I have just made.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Becko! It's an interesting point (raised also by Manyul Im over at Experimental Philosophy). My sense is that the kinds of moral failings that people who condemn Kantians have in mind are not matters about which Kantians and utilitarians might be expected to disagree (e.g., the extent of the obligation to donate to famine relief), but rather basic moral behavior about which there's general consensus. (I could be wrong about this, but that's my sense.)

Unknown said...

This is easy:
1. Utilitarians are the nicest by far.
2. Virtue ethicists are mixed (some are very nice, and some are not).
3. Humeans are universally nice-ish, but not as nice as utilitarians or the nice virtue ethicists. Humeans are pleasing to the spectator, but not *too* pleasing.
4. Kantians are generally not-nice, with one or two famously nice exceptions (i.e., if you are not famous for being nice, and you are a Kantian, you need help). They tend to be less helpful at APAs and conferences than the others.

If you are at an APA and need help, find a utilitarian!

Maybe Kantians limit the scope of imperfect duties to helping such a narrow range of people that they find it is permissible to be generally unhelpful to most people.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, David!

Will no one rush to the defense of the Kantians?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Even the Kantians won't rush to the aid of the Kantians on this one. I once was in a conversation with a prominent Kantian ethicist about this very subject. This philosopher said that most every Kantian moral philosopher did NOT consider being generally nice a relevant moral virtue. This philosopher hesitated to add that it showed amongst the Kantians as a group (they were not nearly as nice as they should be). I'm afraid, with one or two exceptions, Kantian moral philosophers tend to be nice only to prominent philosophers.

Here is a limited defense of Kantians. Their unkindness may have little to do with any deficiencies of their moral theory and more to do with the culture of the day. It also might reflect the dominance of Kantianism in moral philosophy today: they have the power (Kantians, such as Rawls' students and their students, are in every major department, and publish more as a group than almost any other in moral philosophy). People in power don't have to be nice to get on in the profession. Utilitarians, virtue ethicists, and Humean moral philosophers are each smaller in number and have less control of major departments and journals.

For an unscientific survey, count the number of Kantian articles in the journal Ethics since 1990. Then count the Utilitarian's articles, and the virtue ethicist's, and the Humean's. You will find that Kantian-leaning ideas are represented far more than any of the others.

I could be wrong, though. Maybe Kantians are not as nice because of their THEORY. For example, Kantians are very individualistic in ways no one else is. Your relationship with others is not the moral focus (it is your relationship with your own moral law). Utilitarians care deeply about their relationship to the global poor (and animals and everyone else too), and this shows in their attitudes towards others. Kantians might think of such utilitarian care as a form of moral sainthood which undermines self-respect. From a utilitarian point of view, this is just selfishness clothed in self-respect.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting reflections, David! I wonder whether it's generally the case that philosophers with more mainstream interests and views are less kind and generous than those in the minority? Hm! Materialists in philosophy of mind, direct reference theorists in philosophy of language,.... I can't say I have much of a sense one way or another on this, but it would be interesting to explore!

Unknown said...


I haven't given any necessary or sufficient conditions for why a group is less nice. I've just hypothesized that certain variables increase the probability of not being nice. One such hypothesis was "power corrupts," and Kantian moral philosophers seem to have the power in many departments and journals (many departments have only one ethicist, and he/she is more likely to be a Kantian than anything else). Power is not a necessary or sufficient condition for corruption, but it sure raises the probability of corruption. Relative impunity makes being not nice easier.

I wonder whether materialists did have this kind of power across departments and journals back in the heyday, and if so whether they used their power to marginalize other views. I recall that substance dualism did not get much of a voice during that time (there are important philosophers who espouse substance dualism today). I'd be interested to hear the stories from the old substance dualists.


chad said...

My two cents (and that may be overestimating the value of things by approximately two pennies):

I think we can all offer anecdotal support for the notion folks compartmentalize theoretical commitments (particularly with regard to ethics). There are plenty of adequate explanations as to how/why one might commit to a particular Kantian (or Utilitarian, Sentimentalist, Virtue...) theory without having that particular theory inform, guide or govern their actions. Soooo, I'm not sure being a jerk has much to do with the content of the theory to which one commits.

Eric, I think you are onto the most plausible sort of explanation for any connection betwixt theoretical commitments and moral practice when you mention consideration of the features of a particular theory which draw folks to that theory, although I think it may be a bit messier business...
To play arm-chair psychologist: What might be the most telling about one's moral character is a consideration of what one found appealing about the theory in the first place.
Most folks encounter ethical theory pretty darned far down the path of moral development. So it seems likely to me that many of their moral commitments have (in large part) been made. Their moral character largely determined. Sooo, in choosing to make a commitment to a particular theory they are likely expressing something about the person they already are (or believe themselves to be) and whatever theory they commit to is less likely to influence much of their action than to validate the actions to which they already commit...

To further complicate things, folks seem to align themselves with particular theoretical commitments for any number of reasons: One might find themselves to "be a Kantian" for some particular aesthetic reason (the complexity and/or elegance of the argument might have drawn one in) or a personal one (One's Kantian Ethics Professor might have been really cool, hip and drank beers with students after class) or any old reason (or lack of a reason) you like. This makes judgments about any correlation between moral character and ethical commitments pretty darned tricky because people can be really horrible at self-reflection and they can be a really stubborn lot.

I think it is entirely possible (if not likely) that one may have originally been drawn to a particular moral theory (let's say Utilitarianism) for a not so philosphically interesting reason (because they really loved their dog Rover). Utilitarianism may have seemed like the only theory to adequately account for animals, consequently they found themselves to "be a Utilitarian" because they liked Rover.
I would be not surprised if any number of folks end up spending a career attempting to justify particular theoretical commitments (for no doubt increasingly philosophically interesting and sophisticated 'reasons') all because they 'loved Rover'.

All of that may have just been a really boring way of saying: it seems as though the particular reasons that someone was drawn to a particular theory are likely to be more reflective of their moral character than the actual content of the theory to which they are committed... If there are generalizations regarding moral character and particular ethical commitments to be made, I think they will have quite a bit to do with the reasons one was originally drawn to them.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Chad! That all sounds very plausible to me. I have some more data in hand right now on the moral behavior of Kantians compared to other philosophers, but it's going to be a bear to analyze, so it may take awhile before I post on it.