Thursday, October 24, 2013

Why Kant's moral theory takes account of the consequences of actions

This is a sketch of a response to a common misconception about Kant, which I wrote for a discussion elsewhere.
I think it's false that Kant's theory doesn't consider the consequences of an action.What Kant's view doesn't do is make the rightness or wrongness of any act depend upon what consequences it brings about. To make sense of this, we need to ask a series of questions.
  1. Is the only way to take account of consequences be to make the rightness or not of an act depend directly on what its consequences are? Probably not. You can take account of something without letting it have a veto (as it were) over the rightness of an action.
  2. What place could consequences have in Kant's theory? The consequences will come from, amongst other things, the generalisable maxims Kant wants you to evaluate using the categorical imperative. A certain agent adopting a certain maxim will have certain consequences.
  3. Since the maxims are only part of the causes of consequences, what of the other parts? Kant takes pains at various points to argue that there are limits to the things people are responsible for--in particular, they aren't responsible for accidents (neither accidentally good or accidentally bad things). This means that some consequences would be salient for evaluating the maxims (on Kant's view) only if they are non-accidental in some appropriate sense. At the very least, this means the consequences of a maxim has to be regular and predictable, otherwise it wouldn't even be intelligible for someone to accept or discard that maxim with those consequences in mind.
  4. Would any maxim which, if generally accepted, lead to predominantly bad consequences be the maxim agents possessing good will are going to assent to? Probably not, or not often, because good will is supposed to (at least in part) consist of treating individuals as ends, and predominantly bad consequences are predominantly bad for someone, so the maxims leading to those bad consequences would be pretty unlikely to be treating everybody with the appropriate respect.
So, by the time we've answered 4, we see that any maxim which would non-accidentally lead to predominantly bad consequences to some people are unlikely to be adopted by the categorical imperative. There's a lot here to be made precise: what the threshold is where consequences are too bad too endorse the maxim that leads to them; how to measure that threshold within Kant's theory; what exactly we mean with 'would non-accidentally lead'; and so on. But, however you answer those questions, there is going to be some way in which the consequences are considered by the categorical imperative.
This is rough and ready reasoning at the moment, and making it precise is difficult (not least of all because how to understand the categorical imperative is contested), but there's something to it.

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