Back-Scratching Values

People expect to be praised for what they do for their families. It is, of course, better that they act well towards their families than act badly, but this is not really altruism but rather self-interest. Most families are mutual-support networks, and most mutual-support networks are families; of the other networks, most are structured as fictitious families, such as mafias, churches and patronage systems. Quite apart from the genetically-programmed drive to Inclusive Fitness, that is, the success of those who share your own genes, one helps family members in the expectation of reciprocity, or in order to bask in their reflected glory when they make it big. If we agree with Kant that to be moral, an act must be free of self-interest, then benefiting one’s family cannot be a moral act.

Posted on February 24, 2010 at 11:45 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, 'Family Values'

5 Responses

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  1. Written by Urban Djin
    on February 24, 2010 at 18:39

    The problem with your last sentence is the first word. Yes, if we agree with Kant, the rest does follow, but how many of us can really agree with Kant? I’ll grant Manny props for being one of the most profound and influential moral thinkers of the Western tradition, but can his rigid approach really work in the gritty, sweaty trenches of day to day life? Of course not! It’s much too abstract.

    Kant wasn’t famous for his sense of humor, but I imagine he had a good belly laugh when he came up with the title for his great ethical treatise, the Critique of Practical Reason. Either that or he had a very different understanding of what the word “practical” means than I do!

    It has not escaped my notice that, among acquaintances who claim that the Categorical Imperative is an essential and complete guide to ethical decision making, their decisions tend to benefit themselves. I suspect that this is irreducible. The human capacity for rationalizing a priori stances knows no limit.

  2. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on February 24, 2010 at 21:15

    I never read Kant as saying that an act that you find congenial to do cannot be a good thing to do; I read him as saying that moral acts are a subclass of good things to do, and interested in them because the congenial good things to do are going to get done anyway. We need some more spadework to get ourselves to do uncongenial good-things-to-do, that is, ethically-motivated acts. With this proviso, which I grant might be my own idiosyncrasy or even brute ignorance — I never read the CPR, only the Grundelegung — I still think this principle of uncongeniality has something going for it.

    BTW, it is expounded separately from and prior to the Categorical Imperative. There’s nothing counter-CI in benefiting your family, if you are willing the maxim “everyone should benefit their families”, but if you find it congenial, then it’s not a specifically moral action.

    I would have thought Utilitarianism or aretic ethics both lent themselves better to the rationalisation of self-interest than deontology; your acquaintances must have been rather good at it…….

  3. Written by Urban Djin
    on February 26, 2010 at 18:20

    “…must have been rather good at it…..”

    On the contrary, Hugo, they were transparently self-serving–to me–but not to themselves. As I’ve said many times, Aristotle was wrong about humans being rational animals. We are rationalizing animals. That this rationalizing process can even accommodate itself to something so hyper-rational, so specifically intended to eliminate this precise problem as Kant’s ethics, is a tribute to that all-too-human skill.

    One need look no further than the Prosperity Gospel to underline my point in red. I once asked a bright and earnest young fundamentalist who believed firmly that god wanted him to be rich so he could financially support god’s work on earth, about Jesus’ advice to “Give everything you have to the poor and follow me”. He immediately answered that Jesus intended that only for one specific man, not everybody.

    “Fine,” I replied, ” What about ‘It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven?'” No problem. According to my young interlocutor there was a well known pass in the area called “eye of a needle” through which three camels could easily walk abreast. Properly understood, that passage actually encourages Christians to accumulate wealth. It increases their chances of getting into heaven since it’s very, very easy to get a camel through the eye of a needle.

    Then why did Jesus say “blessed are the poor”?

    “He didn’t. He said ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

    “Well that’s what he says in Matthew, but Luke quotes Jesus as saying, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours’. Doesn’t your belief in inerrancy compel you to accept that Jesus said both things?”

    We went ’round and ’round. At every turn I had him by the short and curlies but there was simply no shaking his faith that god wanted him to be rich. The verbal and intellectual crab-dance was most impressive. And this guy was a strict literalist. No interpretation whatsoever allowed. As if that were possible! What he meant by ‘literal’ was: the way he understood the text. The way anyone who read it differently understood it was ‘interpretation’.

    He wasn’t a jerk. Indeed, I was his boss and we got along well. Competent and professional. Hard worker too. Very sincere. And in deep, deep, self-serving denial.

  4. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on February 26, 2010 at 23:21

    Agree about Aristotle, also that Kant is all about trying to eliminate special pleading.

    Pass, schmass: the eye of the needle was one of the gates of Jerusalem where heavily laden camels got stuck or had to be unpacked to get through. Fun topical reference.

    Would your loony’s “only meant for one specific hearer” work for other things? For example that “Thou shall not commit adultery meant only that Moses was not to cheat on Mrs. Moses? Then your guy could say, “I’m not Moses, so I can screw whom I like”.

  5. Written by Urban Djin
    on February 27, 2010 at 02:05

    “Would your loony’s “only meant for one specific hearer” work for other things?”

    It’s pretty all-purpose. I think one could use it in countless ways. Brilliant actually.

    And that is my overall beef with Kant, besides that he’s damn near un-readable. Underestimate the human capacity for self-deception, denial, and rationalization backward from a prioriconclusions at your own risk. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

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