It Does SO Apply To Us

Kant’s Categorical Imperative, “Act as if the maxim of your action were, through your will, to become a universal law”, reads like a reformulation of the Golden Rule, “Do as you would be done by”. Unkind things are sometimes said about Teutonic long-windedness. But this is unfair; “Do as you would be done by” does not really explain itself and its reasons; it sounds as if it might be mere instrumental pragmatism, that is, being nice to folks in order to make them be nice to us back. Which is a valid strategy as far as it goes, but not the fish that Kant set out to fry. His formulation invokes universality twice; not only at the end, but also in the phrase “the maxim of your action”. We should not, therefore, think of our own acts in isolation, but as exemplars of a general principle, individual members of a category; and then we should think about that principle and category of action, whether we would want to live in a world in which everyone employed it.

In other words, the Categorical Imperative bars us from everything that we might want to say about our own action because it is our own action; it bars us from everything that we might want to say in order to differentiate our own action from a precisely similar action done by someone else; it bars us from describing an action differently merely because it was done to us instead of by us to somebody else. Unfortunately, there is an awful lot that we would say along these lines, if not restrained. Indeed, some Woody Allen films consist of nothing but people justifying their own mean-spirited actions at atrocious length, on the basis of a baroque interpretation of obscure emotions and traumata. Whoever produces the most impudently original special pleading wins the game.

The last abortion doctor to practise in Texas reported that some of the demonstrators outside his clinic came in to have their own abortion, saying, “It’s different for me”; and that some of these went back on the picket lines afterwards. These were not against abortion per se, therefore only against abortion for other people. Doubtless some therapist would have given them permission to take this stance, in return for sufficient remuneration.

“When I get something into my head I act”, said Saddam Hussein, when asked why he invaded Kuwait; “That’s just the way I am.” There used to be a time when nature and the “ways you were” were considered as something that could be changed, and often should be changed. What the person who says, “That’s just my way” really means is that, rather than it being his way because it is good, his way is good because it is his. I knew someone who misused the Buddhist tag, “It is what it is”, to mean precisely this. Psychobabble teaches us that our own actions are utterly unique, because they arise from our own, utterly unique, complex of motivations and neuroses – the Ethic of Intention gone completely to seed. Only this uniqueness allows us to be equally indignant when someone declines to accept our specious justifications for our action, and when someone plays exactly the same action back at us.

In contrast, Kant is telling us to think about the action itself, the maxim of the action, the naked action, stripped of its irrelevant clothing of just who is doing it to whom and why. The party at whom the Categorical Imperative appears to be aimed is not other schools of moral philosophy, but the man who says, “But – it doesn’t apply to ME!!!” To which Kant is saying, “It bloody well does, sunshine.”

Posted on December 30, 2009 at 12:30 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, Therapists And Other Health Hazards

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