Two Common Misconceptions of Kant

I’ve probably talked about these before elsewhere, but today I’m going to make a specific post dealing with two common misconceptions of Kant, which lead to two “cheap” counters that really don’t work against him. I was inspired to do this by reading another ignorant comment by Azkyroth on Kant, when I had proved in other comments that he really doesn’t understand Kant’s view … and he’s not alone.

So, first, let me address Kant’s absolute admonition against lying. Kant says that lying is always morally wrong, which leads many people to take the cheap out of the murderer example: if someone that you know wants to murder someone asks you where they are, why would it be immoral for you to lie to them in that case? The argument, then, is that Kant is building an invalid absolutist moral position, and this is used both against Kant and against absolutist moral systems in general.

The problem is that Kant’s position here doesn’t have to be absolutist at all. Kant’s overriding principle here is that one cannot make something a moral principle that one cannot universalize without it becoming self-contradictory. In the case of lying, if you make is a universal — and universally known — maxim that one ought to lie, then no one will believe anything anyone says. But the whole purpose of lying is to get people to believe what you’re saying. If no one will believe you, then there’s no point in lying in the first place. On the other hand, if you make it a universal maxim to tell the truth, then people will believe what you’re saying, which is what the purpose of telling the truth is. So you can universalize the maxim “Always tell the truth” but can’t universalize the maxim “Always lie”, and thus it is immoral, in general, to lie.

Now, could there be cases where you can, indeed, have exceptions to the rule “Always tell the truth”? In short, can you say “In this case, you ought to lie”? Well, sure, because Kant’s not after universal laws here (really) but is instead after moral maxims that can be universalized. So even though he didn’t make — or, if I recall correctly, attempt to make — exceptions to the lying rule, if we could, in fact, universalize an exception without it becoming self-defeating then it is indeed perfectly consistent with Kant to say that this is a workable exception. Thus, we would have a rule that cannot be, in general, universalized but with some exceptional cases that can be, and that should work out fine in a Kantian framework.

So, can we universalize the murderer case? Well, it turns out that we can’t. Again, if there is a universal maxim to lie to a murderer, then all that will happen there is that the murderer won’t believe what you tell them. But if you are going to lie to the murderer, it’s because you want them to believe you and go to the wrong place. Since they won’t, this exception is still self-defeating. And there’s a perfectly good, universalizable alternative: say nothing. The purpose of saying nothing to the murderer is for them to not find out where the person is, and this is better if universalized because then if they ask you “Are they here? Are they here?” you won’t only be silent when they hit on the right place.

The issue here — and it’s what I had when I first learned about Kant — is that people tend to think that the universalizability constraint is about whether you’d like it if the rule was universalized, when it’s really about whether the rule still makes any logical sense if universalized, meaning that everyone knows about it and practices it. It’s not about whether we’d have a good world if everyone followed it, but whether it would have any purpose at all if everyone followed it.

The second one is about masturbation, which is not something that I’ve followed much in Kant beyond when others complain that it’s a stupid rule, generally on the basis that masturbation can’t be bad based on whatever morality they hold rather than what Kant argued. This one starts from the idea of using yourself merely as a means and not as an end in itself, but we need more unpacking to see what that argument is. So here’s the section:

As one’s love of life is intended by nature for the preservation of his person, so is his sexual love intended for the preservation of his kind, i.e., each is a natural end. … Now, the question arises whether the use of one’s sexual capacity, as far as the person himself who uses it is concerned, stands under a restrictive law of duty; or whether, not having the end of reproduction in view, he be authorized to devote the use of his sexual attributes to mere brute pleasure and not thereby be acting contrary to a duty to himself. …

A lust is called unnatural when a man is stimulated not by an actual object but by imagining it, thus creating it himself unpurposively. For his fancy engenders a desire contrary to an end of nature and indeed contrary to an end more important even than that of the love of life, since it aims only at preserving the individual, while sexual love aims at the preservation of the whole species.

That such an unnatural use (and so misuse) of one’s sexual attributes is a violation of one’s duty to himself and is certainly in the highest degree opposed to morality strikes everyone upon his thinking of it. Furthermore, the thought of it is so revolting that even calling such a vice by its proper name is considered a kind of immorality; such is not the case with suicide, which no one hesitates to opublish to all the world with all its horrors (as a species facti). It is just as if mankind in general felt ashamed of being capable of such treatment, which degrades him even below the beast. Even the allowed bodily union (in itself, to be sure, only animal union) of the two sexes in marriage occasions much delicacy in polite circles, and requires a veil to be drawn over the subject whenever it happens to be mentioned.

However, it is not so easy to produce a rational demonstration of the inadmissability of that unnatural use, and even of the mere unpurposive use, of one’s natural attributes as being a violation of one’s duty to himself (and indeed in the highest degree where the unnatural use is concerned). The ground of proof surely lies in the fact that a man gives up his personality (throws it away) when he uses himself merely as a means for the gratification of an animal drive. But this does not make evident the high degree of violation of the humanity in one’s own person by the unnaturalness of such a vice, which seems in its very form (disposition) to transcened even the vice of self-murder. The obstinate throwing away of one’s life as a burden is at least not a weak surrender to animal pleasure, but requires courage; and where there is courage, there is always respect for the humanity in one’s own person. On the other hand, when one abandons himself entirely to an animal inclination, he makes himself an object of unnatural gratification, i.e., a loathsome thing, and thus deprives himself of all self-respect.

So the essential point here is that sex is primarily for reproduction; that is its proper end. Masturbation, obviously, doesn’t support that end, and so has to be aimed at another end. But the only end it can be aimed at is satisfying animal and imaginary pleasure, and thus that’s always wrong. Thus, masturbation is always morally wrong.

If I had to criticize it, I’d argue that by this he would make seeking pleasure of any kind morally wrong, even in addition to achieving an end. He can argue that in that specific act there is no other end aimed at, and so it would be wrong in that case, but then drinking a soft drink for a momentary pleasure seems equally morally wrong, as it doesn’t really achieve any other end. From the Stoic viewpoint, this seems to be placing too much emphasis on pleasure; as long as it doesn’t stop you from achieving other ends, are you really treating yourself only as a means if you decide to, when it would impact nothing else, seek simple pleasure occasionally? Doing so doesn’t have to mean “abandoning” oneself to the animal inclination, as long as one does so properly, in complete control, and with proper knowledge. If one chooses to masturbate instead of having reproductive sex, or instead of doing the things that they have a duty to do, then that would be immoral, certainly … but masturbation, in general, cannot be.

The only argument left is to hold to a very strict idea of treating yourself as a means and not as an end, because you don’t have a valid end to aim for. To argue for this would require me to dip much deeper into the idea of using someone as a means and not as an end in themselves than I’m willing to do here, but ultimately my view of that is that it has to be a proper, considered, rational choice that preserves the agency of the people involved, which in this case would be myself. This, then, would again lean towards an argument that masturbation as a reaction to any kind of compulsion — ie actually giving in to feelings of lust that overwhelm you instead of deciding to do so with careful consideration of the circumstances — would still be wrong, but general masturbation itself cannot be considered wrong.

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