Back in 2009 I wrote a post (#14) on the “What If everyone Did That” moral argument. I still stand by what I wrote then, but I want to add something important, something I clearly missed then.
The “What If” argument actually conceals some ancient and very false assumptions. These assumptions arguably go back to Plato, but achieved their modern force in the late Enlightenment through the moral writings of Immanuel Kant. Kant is a difficult read, but his foundational false belief is not difficult.
This belief is that human beings as we encounter them are actually composites of parts only one of which is the authentically “human” part, the other parts being, in his term, heteronomous (“external” to the “true self”). The part which is the “true” us is, of course, the rational part. And the rational part, sadly, is frequently overridden by the heteronomous forces within us, e.g. lust, greed, pride, etc.. Thus, when we sin, we are simply losing the battle against external forces.
Kant further argues that reason is independent of personal identity in the sense that any two people faced with the same circumstances and relying only on reason will reach identical conclusions. For Kant, all authentic people (people shorn of heteronomous influences) are in fact identical; their apparent differences reflect nothing of their true selves, but only the varying heteronomous forces at play in them.
Still further, Kant argues that moral action is nothing other than rational action.
Consequently, in an imaginary world in which heteronomous forces were not present, all men would behave morally simply by “being themselves.” There would actually be no such category as “moral” behavior in such a world, since there would be no such thing as “immoral” behavior. There would just be “behavior” (which, of course, we, from our vantage point in the real world, would judge to be “moral.”)
In contemporary culture terms, a Kantian “moral agent” would look like Lieutenant Commander Data of the Starship Enterprise. All other things being equal, Data acts rationally, this is how he has been programmed. He has no lust, no greed, no pride, no pleasure, no pain, no satisfaction, etc.. If other androids of Data’s kind were manufactured, their behaviors would be indistinguishable from his.
And, according to Kant, Data automatically acts morally.
Now, if we want to simulate ordinary human activity in Data, imagine him infected by a computer virus which mimics human vices and frailties. In such a case, Data is faced with the challenge of dominating the virus’ effects in order to remain “himself” and, thereby, to act morally. That’s ostensibly the human condition according to Kant.
But even if one buys this nonsense, one is still left with the crucial question: What is it “to act rationally?” Kant answers that a rational being acts always and only in accordance with a “rule,” a generalization with regard to behavior. But which rule?
Now, one of the ways in which Kant expresses this “rule” governing the behavior of a moral agent is this:
Act only in such a way as you would have the generalization expressing your action be a law of nature.
This is often expressed as the dictum that when one acts, one acts “for all men,” and it is one version of the rule which guides the actions of any rational being. Kant calls this rule the “categorical (unconditional) imperative.”
A thought experiment capturing this notion is this: When you act, imagine yourself a God whose every act becomes a natural law such that all other men cannot help but act the way in which you did.
And there you have it! The “What If…?” argument with which we began.
Kant’s view is that a rational being cannot act in any way that is not generalizable, that is, in any way he would not have all men act. For him, this is not really a moral imperative, it is a logical imperative: acting according to the categorical imperative follows necessarily from being a rational being. So, when we ask ourselves “what if everyone acted this way,” we are asking ourselves whether a rational being would act this way, and thus whether we should act this way.
To be fair to Kant, let me stress that this is not intended to be a prudential argument, namely that “enlightened self-interest” dictates that we act only on universally generalizable rules. For him, we are not reasoning that we should not do X because if everyone did X, we might ourselves eventually be harmed by that. No, rather the universalizability test of the categorical imperative is there to inform us as to how we would act if we were free. Being subject to heteronomous forces is being un-free. So, assuming that all men wish to be free, the universalizability test allows one to know how one would act if one were not subject to external constraints and forces. On the Kantian story, being moral is equivalent to being rational is equivalent to being free. Should we buy into this? No? Why?
Because any close look at this Kantian story reveals it for what it is: a pathetic Enlightenment fantasy featuring the 18th century’s favorite celebrity: Reason!
Are authentically human beings only their “reasoning” parts? Is “being moral” the same as “being rational.” When we act morally, do we act in such a way as we would have all other men act?
Nonsense. Morality is a matter of individual preferences, themselves no more than the result of formative experiences and natural inborn inclinations. For some people who have been conditioned in the Enlightenment mode, a Kantian style “What if …” argument might work; but not because it is sound, merely because they were so conditioned.
Let’s do away with the “What if …” argument and turn our eyes from Kant to Hume, who really knew what he was talking about!